And so the extraordinary year of 2020 has finally drawn to a close. I have never been so happy to see the end of one year, and so full of hope for the year to come. So much has happened, and so much has not happened.
Somewhere on the other side of our world, a hungry person took a bite out of a Bat dumpling, with unimaginable consequences. In one way or another, every single human on the face of this planet has been faced with how hard life can be, up close and personal. Our ability to earn a living, to be amongst friends and family and to walk freely on this earth has been seriously eroded. And north and south, rich or poor, white or black, powerful or insignificant, countless millions have had to face the reality of that empty seat at the table.
But the year 2020 has changed the way we work, interact and behave to an extent where we may never fully go back to where we were. Only time will tell whether these changes will affect us for the better or the worse.
For the Emakoko, the restrictions on free travel have obviously affected us greatly, and like most of the hospitality industry throughout the world, we have had to cut down on staff and follow all the precautions which ensure that our visitors can stay with us safely. Although we have had few of our international friends, our Kenyan compatriots have been coming to the lodge in normal numbers, which has been a huge support through the year, unfazed by restrictions they have always been amazing!
For us living in Africa, we had expected to suffer casualties from the pandemic much worse than the more developed countries, and have been astonished, so far, at the low number of cases and deaths Kenya has suffered. Many theories exist as to why: inaccurate reporting, a much younger age profile, a higher level of natural resistance to disease, and many others. I think it is true to say that more people are dying from Malaria in Africa, from dysentry in lower income countries and from heart disease in the 1st world than from Covid 19, but yet this will never make the news.
Living in the middle of a large, natural ecosystem our focus has tended to be on the larger mammals that live around us, and obviously, being immune to Covd 19, the only change for the wild-life is the reduction in the number of vehicles in the Park. We have no feedback as to whether this is a good or bad thing from their point of view, but it has given the Authorities time to improve greatly the quality of the roads within the park, for which we are very grateful. Asante sana to the Kenya Wildlife Service!
We live in the heart of nature, surrounded by flora and fauna both great and small. For most visitors the focus has always been on the larger mammals of our unique ecosystem.
However, there are myriads of smaller mammals and insects.
One such species are the “Siafu” or as we know them here ‘Safari Ants’.
Growing up in Kenya I can recall many occasions when we have stumbled across these incredible fierce and persistent creatures. Often it has been pure comedy.
Not so long ago, we escaped with a few friends to the beautiful Aberdares to enjoy the forest environment. After a long drive, we decided to stop the cars and get out at a viewpoint to stretch our legs and enjoy a spectacular view.
Without noticing, we had entered a ‘motorway’ of Safari ants passing over, under and through everything in their way. If you have never seen them, a Siafu train is a brown river, anything from an inch to six inches wide, a solid procession of ants escorted by outriders who tend to be larger and far more aggressive than the main body. These outriders attack anything they come across. So numerous is a Siafu train when on the move that their passage often leaves a trench through a lawn where they have passed. All of my family have at some point in our lives found ourselves disturbing these ants and have had to deal with it in many different ways.
The standard operating procedure given to any ant it seems, is to refrain from biting you until a large number of the team are ‘on board’, and then a secret signal goes out and every individual bites whatever portion of the body they are on. From a human point of view, the only way to deal with them, after leaping about three feet in the air and screaming, is to remove your clothes and pick them off one by one, and they are so tenacious they will often leave their had and pincers imbedded in you.
William, our son, happened to be standing next to another mother in our group, who was suddenly under attack…….
Frozen with horror as clothes rained around him, he tried to look away, but eventually had to get involved as our dear friend screamed, jumped and ripped off her outer clothing and, now down to brassiere and underpants, was begging us all ‘get them off’. It was hysterically funny, we were also trying to avoid the ants, so anyone who had been watching from a distance would have thought we were doing one of the more esoteric Scottish reels.
This season we seem to have been under attack in the lodge more than once from these regimental columns of ants. I have always felt that as long as the pathway of ants is not going into a room that has a living creature in it, then they are best left alone as they will move on. Unfortunately, many people fear them so much they do not agree with this “laissez faire” attitude, and rather than ignore these formidable armies, prefer the practice of pouring petrol or emptying cans of doom on them.
One night, a few weeks ago Anthony woke up and switched on the lights telling me to get up “As we were under attack” and the ants were now in the bed! I looked around and thought he was being a little overdramatic, I could only see one or two. Man up, Anton!
I promptly stepped out of bed and into an enormous ant highway going from one end of the room to the other. They were still in regimental formation and were on a mission – one or two of the outriders had broken off to become scouts to investigate my foot and other areas of interest but other than that, the discipline remained and the march, which was only about 3 inches wide and goodness knows how long, was carrying on regardless unaffected by lights and general commotion. The train appeared to be coming in through our bedroom windows, crossing the floor and going out through the bathroom.
I opened the door and went outside where we have an enormous creeper which covers one entire wall of the house. This creeper was alive with the ants and they were hunting whatever was in the tree. One by one victims fell from the creeper to my feet writhing as the ants attacked. In the short time I stood there the leaves shook as though they were being sprinkled with rain, three Geckos and a Skink abandoned ship and leapt over me to the ground. A baby bat was a victim and countless other poor creatures had already perished and were being carried away.
As it was only our room which was affected we decided to open the room up to the outdoors and close it off to the rest of the house. We would block the ants from coming in.
My idea had been a towel lined across the bottom of the door, but according to my resident expert, apparently this was ridiculous and the only remedy was to pour a thick layer of salt along the door entrance.
“Nothing will get through that” pronounced my trusty super Alpha male, my knowledgeable guide of a husband told me as he retired to bed in one of the kids rooms. I was not convinced and decided to test this theory. I grabbed a small handful of ants and dumped them next to the barrier to see what they would do. Without hesitation, they charged through the salt as though it were a sand dune and carried on into the house.
It turns out my husband, as I suspected, really knows nothing about the habits of ants….Amongst other things! So I reverted to my common sense approach and put down my trusty towel to stop the ‘calvary’.
In the morning I was up first and went into our abandoned bedroom, picking up the towel as I walked in – not an ant in sight. Anthony came in behind me and was very pleased with his work – he wandered off muttering to himself about how brilliant he was and how he had told me so…..blah blah blah. I did not at the time have the heart to tell him how his old wives tale trick was a load of rubbish, so decided to let him know in this blog….If he ever reads it!
So there you have it the wildlife in Kenya is very diverse and in some cases is best controlled, not by a qualified guide, but a very practical housewife. (I think that’s what we are still called.)
So the first year of the ‘20’s has not been a happy one. Certainly the Emakoko is coming out the other side, battered but unbowed, and we desperately hope that 2021 will allow us to gather our loyal team back together. But we do believe there will be a plus to the new year with renewed friendship, a more generous attitude towards our fellow man, and a greater faith in the human race.
But oh what a year it has been, and it is a year I will never forget. The repercussions of this pandemic will be felt for many years to come and I can only hope that when we do find a new normal, it is a normal that is not only socially more equal but also a normal where making our planet and all it’s wonderful flora and fauna safer becomes a priority.
Finally on a happier note, for those of you who miss the Emakoko and want to keep in touch. My mother has finally written a book! It is a romantic novel set in Kenya and more particularly around a lodge called Mbinguni (which means ‘heaven’) and which bears more than a striking resemblance to the Emakoko. So to get you in the mood before you come to us or simply to remind you of (I hope) a happy time in Kenya read it…. Its called “”Yesterday today and tomorrow” her name is Jacqueline Hunt, and it is available at Amazon Kindle, Smashwords and Apple books.
Unfortunately and unbelievably I am not the heroine, although she says Anton and I are in it…….Soo while we wait for a brave new world to emerge from this catastrophe, we would like to wish you all a very Happy New Year and hope that you are, and will remain, safe and well – we look forward to welcoming you to “Mbinguni” (sorry Emakoko) soon.
Happy New Year!
PS – All our images are by the AMAZING Rihaz Sidi!!!!!