What determines whether we eat? Well, in the western world, we rely on a steady flow of cash to determine whether we are able to shop at M&S or Tesco. Often if it happens to be raining, it will be downright inconvenient and we’ll have to take the car to the shops but we won’t often need to personally consider how that same rain may affect the contents of the fridge. Likewise, the news reports of drought-stricken states are happily distant from our daily lives. Don’t worry, this isn’t going to become a guilt-inducing spiel on the plight of sub-Saharan Africa. It has struck me, though, how contradictory the seasons are in Africa. Did you know, for example, that the rainy season is typically when many rural families are at their hungriest? Think about it – the harvest from the previous year is dwindling and the seeds sown early at the onset of the rain are yet to mature. The larder’s empty. To add insult to injury, the pesky rain brings mosquitoes bearing malaria, and a myriad of other illnesses that affect both people and cattle (which are vital for ploughing and carting stuff around). AND to make matters worse, this is the time when the whole family really need to be at their physical peak as the daily chores ratchet up considerably. But, even with all that hardship and misery, everyone prays for the rain, dances to the rain gods, observe fasts and ceremonies in order to coax that rain to come. Because it is indeed a lifeline. Now, on the other side of the coin, rain is the most incredible party livener in some of Africa’s wildest places. Take the Okavango Delta, the largest inland delta in the world. Every year between December and late March, the banks of the Kavango River are swollen by the drenching storms in Angola. No one tells nature’s intricate tales better than David Attenborough and in his recent series Earth’s Great Events, he catalogues the awakening of the Delta in all its magic. It’s impossible not to be reluctantly heart-warmed by images of elephant calves experiencing such a water-fest for the first time. The slick catfish emerging from months of hibernation encased in the earth are slightly less cute, but no less extraordinary. After the rains in June – July, the deserts of Namaqualand (northwest corner of South Africa) wild plants lying dormant under the sands explode into a dazzling floral display that your grandmother’s curtains would be proud of. I still vividly remember witnessing a rich grassy pasture spring up overnight in the red rock mountain desert of Damaraland, Namibia and how extremely out of place it looked. I guess what I am pontificating on is that when you visit a continent like Africa, nothing can be taken for granted. It’s really very cool to let your curiosity wander further than the “postcard” image of the continent because there really are some very surprising things to be found. And by the way, don’t forget the milk.
Well, okay, not just a digging stick. The San (also impolitely known as the Bushmen) are additionally equipped with the most incredible mental agility. Alright, alright. They also habitually carry a bow and arrow but really very little else. Diminutive in stature and with distinctive narrow eyes and open friendly faces, the San have perfected the art of being at home in the bush. Seriously, Bear Grylls need not apply. Although their ancient way of life is perpetually under siege by encroaching “civilisation”, there is much to be learned from their approach to the environment. For one, the San do not traditionally have possessions. They use natural resources if they need them for food, clothing and housing but not for profit. Don’t get me wrong, they are not bunny-hugging vegetarians and like their rare steak, but they are profoundly grateful to any animal that gives up its life so that they can eat and are careful to give thanks to the ancestors if they are lucky enough to score. They are nomadic; they never stay very long in one place thus reducing the impact on their locale and always moving where there is food aplenty. In the course of moving they will often get a tad thirsty (remember that they live in a pretty hostile desert where there is not so much as a cold coke in sight). So they habitually bury ostrich eggs filled with water so they can be sure of a quick sip on the fly. Fortunately, not only do they know the indistinguishable landscape like the back of their hands, but they possess memories like elephants and will always recognise that tell-tale stick marker poking out of the ground. Those who have had the privilege to track an animal with the San hunters tell how they can lope at a steady pace for hours and hours, beating a rhythm with their sticks. Their understanding of the animal enables them to anticipate its movements and follow footprints over rocky ground even when none are visible. Impressive endurance athletes, they have the capacity to run their prey to exhaustion, whereupon they employ a well-aimed poison-tipped arrow to swiftly finish the job. The San are still seeking to pursue their peaceful existence in the eastern part of Namibia and the Kalahari in Botswana.
The Zimbabwean police force may have had significant bad press of late, but that hasn’t dulled their singing voices. Yes indeedy, my morning stint fighting with the connection at the local internet cafe is cheered up no end by the sound of cohorts of male voices in full syncopated harmony. The police training ground lies next door and throughout the morning I am treated, in succession, to the sound of a traditional marching band (which would not be shown up at the Edinburgh Tattoo) and an impressive variety of marching songs delivered at full belt. In actual fact, this is the most evident the police have been in my short stint in Harare. The beautiful wide, tree-lined avenues that make up a great deal of the spread of the town are notably quiet. One or two vendors take their lives into their own hands at the neurotic traffic lights selling airtime vouchers or the bright pink “Fingaz” as the Financial Gazette is dubbed. The roads in Harare are generally in good nick although with the onset of the rains, pot-holes are becoming more common. Most mornings, we run around the quiet lanes in areas where both black and white reside as neighbours, and most folk we pass call a friendly greeting. While there are stories of the odd opportunistic burglary (to be expected in a country where there is 80% unemployment), there is no tangible hostility or threat. It seems that people are just getting on with the business of living and trying to provide for their families. Despite his unfortunate name, my friend Hardlife tells me that although things are still tough, this year has been a great deal better than the last few. Fingers crossed that things are looking up.
Now, before you jump to conclusions, this is not Alistair Cooke back from the grave... but wait! Before you immediately banish any hope of insightful and sparkly commentary (the kind that makes you mark the weekly slot on your calendar and cease your household chores to listen), I do hope to provide some small entertainment at the very least. By way of brief introduction, I have recently joined the Natural High team as their little outpost in southern Africa. Brought up in Kenya and having spent a good amount of time evading my parents in pursuit of adventure in east and southern Africa, I have spent the last decade working in the travel industry. I am delighted to be back under the big skies after two years studying and working in London. From Harare, Zimbabwe, I will be seeking out those amazing experiences that give Natural High its name and will be providing firsthand information about the whys and wherefores of Botswana, Namibia, Zambia Mozambique and Zimbabwe. So, for those of you who may be thinking of venturing south in search of the diversity, spectacular scenery, culture and wildlife peculiar to this part of the world; I look forward to helping you plan your trip. Right...back to business. We thought that since pretty much everything that you have heard about Zimbabwe is likely to make you run in the opposite direction, this is a great opportunity to give you a regular snippet of observation and insight about the country itself which may make you think again. I only arrived yesterday after travelling so far, but the amazing thing is that in some ways I am not very far from London at all. For example, I am currently living on Oxford Road which runs perpendicular to Cambridge Road. Not far away is King George Road which leads to Kensington shopping centre. On the other side of the ridge the roads take their names from the Irish and round the corner many hail from north of the border. While many of the streets in the centre of town now bear the names of heroes of the independence struggle, there remains a little piece of England in Zimbabwe. Watch this space for more titbits as life in Harare unfolds.
I've been reading Clive Spinage's excellent book "Elephants" this week (and highly recommend it). Strangely the book fell open at the chapter that describes - in detail - the lavatorial habits of the animal. During the course of my reading I calculated that an adult bull elephant can reasonably be expected to produce over 300 pounds of dung every day. Let's just be clear about this. That is as much as the giant Russian boxer Nikolai Valuev weighs. In turds. Every day.
Another way of looking at this is that each bolus is roughly the size of a small loaf of bread and there may be anywhere between 5 and 10 loaves weighing in at about 20 pounds total per movement. So with 15 – 20 movements per day that's an awful lot of loaves. More than enough, in fact, to fill several baskets. Bearing in mind that a population of about 35,000 elephants, such as you might expect to find in a park such as Tsavo, would be depositing several thousand tones of dung on the land every day (AND that so far we've only considered the elephant's contribution - let's not forget all the other species) it becomes evident that the task to clear all this up is nothing short of eye-watering. Being a dog owner myself, and knowing that one is kept quite busy cleaning up after a Jack Russell, two questions spring to mind.
Of course the answer to this question shines a light on a process that is at the heart of the life of any African park. And it's an impressive one when you consider the impact, largely unseen, that it has on the entire ecosystem. Consider any tranquil view of the African bush. Calm, serene, unchanging? Not a bit of it. Zoom in just a little and you'll see a frenzied hotbed of activity as one mammoth and un-ending poop-scoop operation goes on. Day in, day out. The agents of this activity are, predominantly, two types of insect. First are the dung beetles, of which there are numerous species, but of which most have just one goal in life: to spend as much time as possible up to their ankles in dung, head down. The second is the termites who live in astonishing concentrations below ground, but swarm to the surface each night to harvest food for their underground fungus gardens. Between them, dung beetles and termites move a truly staggering amount of matter from the surface, to below ground - Spinage reckons that each year, termites alone carry 9 tonnes of elephant dung below ground, in EVERY square kilometre. And in one of those fantastically elegant moves that Mother Nature seems so adept at, many objectives are satisfied at one time; insects are fed, the soil is fertilised and, perhaps most importantly, millions of seeds, held in their own little package of manure, are planted each year. Shouldn't we be looking to dung beetles and termites to solve some of the problems associated with climate change and overpopulation? Or at the very least introducing them into Hyde Park?
As a visitor to Africa, there are many fascinating sights beside the wildlife and one's own family members sporting starched safari gear worth capturing on film. On my way from Nairobi to my new home of Harare, Zimbabwe yesterday, our plane landed briefly at Lumbumbashi (in the Democratic Republic of Congo). I witnessed a fellow passenger wander up the aisle towards the exit to take a breath of Congolese air and stretch his legs. Halfway down the stairway he raised his camera to snap the jaunty blue and yellow facade of the airport building. His innocent curiosity however initiated a mad scrabble by the crew to get him back inside the aircraft and a great deal of shouting and angry gesticulations by the ground staff on the hard-baked tarmac outside. Suddenly realising that his stay in Congo was in danger of becoming less voluntary and more lengthy than originally expected, he retreated backwards up the gangway with impressive speed looking slightly sheepish. Some countries are more accepting of foreigners and their compulsion to frame anything in sight for posterity; however, many official buildings, government offices, airports and border posts are considered off-limits and you should be wary about reaching for your camera in case you are mistaken for something more sinister than an innocent traveller.