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If you’re looking to lose something really properly, then dropping it into one of the world’s deepest lakes at night is a good place to start. So, when returning to camp at sunset one day, the irreplaceable brass screw (large, expensive propeller) from a friend’s dhow unwound itself and escaped into the inky depths of Lake Tanganyika, there was never going to be much hope of finding it again. However, the prospect of a morning snorkelling in the crystal clear waters “helping” to look for it was too good an opportunity to forego, no matter how futile an exercise it appeared. So followed 2 sublime hours the next morning. Wearing a mask and snorkel, attached to long ropes, we were gently towed behind a dinghy, up and down the shoreline of this one-mile deep lake. This area of Tanzania is best known for the chimpanzees in the Mahale Mountains and spending time with them is unforgettable, but can be rather like finding yourself stuck on the set of a Marx Brothers film. So if you’re anything like me, it’ll be the lake that really takes your breath away. The contrast provided by an afternoon drifting peacefully amongst the brightly coloured life of the lake couldn’t be more marked. Nowhere have I experienced such benign water as that of Tanganyika. Clear and sweet as bottled water, perfect in temperature and home to a bewildering array of brightly coloured fish that are an evolutionary parallel to tropical reef fish. Almost all the cichlid fish in Lake Tanganyika are endemic, and many are so pernickety that they’ll only deign to live in the mouth of one particular river on the Lake (although ironically many end up living in England as they’re highly prized as aquarium species). Of course eventually, as midday approached, we had to admit defeat. This prop may have been invaluable, but there's only so much snorkelling you can take and you need a really good reason to miss lunch. So, having trawled many hundreds of metres, we hauled our selves back into the boats and sat on the sides drying in the warm sunshine. And in one of those totally bizarre flashes of serendipity that only Africa seems to be able to deliver, there was the screw. Sitting exactly below us, in clear view on a patch of white sand, not 10 feet below the surface. Lunch that day tasted particularly good, I seem to remember it was fish.
This is a stunning, ethereal ocean wanderer and is hardly ever seen on the East Coast of Africa. Ralph was more concerned by the fact that he found it in his soup, because soup isn’t easy to eat when you’re 4. But having a Storm Petrel in it doesn’t make things any easier.
We were staying at Funzi Keys on the south Kenya Coast, on a clear moonless night, having dinner under the stars on the beach. One minute there were only croutons in the soup, the next there were croutons and a stunned Matsudaira’s Storm Petrel.
We could only assume that that the bird must have flown into a pane of glass in the inky darkness. A terrible injustice to be wreaked on a creature that must have crossed many thousands of miles of ocean to reach this point.
However, as a result of the collision, and while my other two sons got over their disgruntlement at not having sea birds in their soup, I was able to pick it up and inspect it as it recovered. I had absolutely no idea that a sea bird could be quite so beautiful and so delicate.
In virtually every respect, this bird had far more in common with a swift than a sea gull. It was miniature, measuring not much more than the length of my hand, with long slender wings. It appeared in the candle light to be soot black all over, with a forked tail, and miniature, black webbed feet on the end of legs no thicker than a matchstick.
It was only after it had recovered and flown away, that I found the bird book, and saw that there were only a couple of sightings of this bird recorded in Kenya. The picture does it no justice, entirely failing to capture its extraordinary other worldy nature.
My first instinct was to wish I’d photographed it. But on reflection I rather like the fact that it disappeared back into the night sky that produced it as if by magic. Unrecorded. Un “ticked”. Maybe the night sky is full of them, but nobody knows they’re there.
Incidentally - if you want to see what they look like, there is a picture of one at www.oceanwanderers.com/WPO.html, but it looks a bit like just another sea bird here. Perhaps it needs to have been in your soup to see its beauty.
The name Aardwolf is a little misleading when you consider the timid nature of its owner. Far from some neo-gothic apparition, this is a highly reserved, not to say timid little animal. No bigger than a jackal, he’s a member of the hyena family, but, unlike his bone crunching, Schwarzenegger-esque cousin, the Spotted Hyena, the Aardwolf is a highly specialised individual who insists on a diet of 90 percent termite. He has two characteristics that are particularly of interest; the first is that his teeth have evolved – or perhaps devolved is a better word – to a set of simple little pegs, which would struggle to draw blood from anything much bigger than a guinea pig. The second is one of the most remarkable hair-dos you are likely to encounter in the bush. When startled (which is much of the time) the Aardwolf has a plan; he turns side-on to his would be attacker and erects a voluminous mane of hair that runs, like a massive permed hackle, down the length of his back. On a good hair day, this can have the effect of increasing his apparent size by a staggering seventy percent. Given the very low number of Aardwolves you do have to ask how effective this tactic is, compared to a more conventional policy of running away. If you’re looking to encounter animals such as the Aardwolf, Porcupine or even the highly elusive Aardvark, there is a happy and unexpected consequence of the green season and the longer grass associated with it. Like people, animals don’t like to get wet if they can avoid it. The way they get around this is to travel down the tracks and roads. Between December and May it’s not uncommon to round a corner at the end of the day on the way back to camp, to find a strange looking animal from the crepuscular world staring back at you.