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The arid region of northern Kenya experiences frequent drought but even in the “good years” the dry season leads people and animals to go to extraordinary lengths in search of water. The Matthews Range forms a jagged natural amphitheatre, the floor of which is covered with acacia scrub, weathered rock kopjes and sand rivers which seldom flow anymore. In this harsh landscape, the pastoralist Samburu tribe eke out a living herding their cows and goats from one patch of meagre grazing to another. They are semi-nomadic and their simple, smoky shelters of curved saplings plastered with mud and cow dung will be reconstructed in a new spot when the forage becomes too scarce. This is one of the few places left in Africa where people still coexist alongside abundant wildlife without the artificial boundaries of national parks and reserves. This is not to say that there are not frequent incursions by wildlife into human territory or vice versa but somehow they muddle along. This area is home to elephant, wild dog, leopard and hyena in addition to a variety of other herbivores and small mammals. A bushwalk from Sarara Camp in the Matthews Range took us up an old riverbed in the height of the dry season. From some distance away, the sounds of livestock could be heard, their bleating and beaten iron bells echoing from the hills. The herds were milling impatiently with their child-shepherds around a narrow metal trough. From a broad shaft dug roughly down into the sand, perhaps 25 feet deep, came the sound of men singing. The voices belonged to a chain of four or five young warani (warriors), red shukas over lean, muscular torsos, elaborately accessorized with strings of multi-coloured beads looping around their necks, across their ochred foreheads and swinging from their ear-lobes. A series of funky vintage vegetable oil tins filled with water were passed up to the top of the shaft where a particularly statuesque young man tossed it expertly into the trough for the thirsty animals. All the while, the singing reverberated from deep within the sand river, the harmony of deep voices carrying across the heads of lowing cattle to the grey hills in the distance.
There’s something fascinating about objects whose appearance belies their value. The notion of hidden potential is a beguiling concept and one that makes us open our eyes wider to the world around us. Uncut diamonds or amber washed up on the beach spring to my mind; things that the uneducated eye would simply miss altogether. And a piece of firewood may seem like an unlikely place to look for such a quality, but if you’re in the bush, and looking for a really good piece of wood to cook your supper over, then one of the best - that produces a wonderfully slow burning and hot coal - is also one of the more beautiful substances to come out of Africa. Dalbergia Melanoxylon, known locally as Mpingo is Tanzania’s National Tree. It’s often referred to as Ebony, but is actually African Blackwood. If you wander around in places like the Selous Game Reserve, it wont be long before you (probably literally) stumble on a piece of scruffy, dull looking wood. Elongated, but intricately contorted, the heartwood - long stripped of its soft cortex and bark by termites - is weathered a dull and unremarkable grey. But stop and pick up the stick and the first thing you’ll notice is its weight. Take out a pocket knife and make a small cut, and immediately you reveal a hint of the hidden character. For something so hard, it cuts surprisingly easily - the grey outer layer falling away to reveal a deep black richness beneath. It’s so closely grained that it carves almost like dark chocolate. And the cut surface has a luxurious coolness to it. Drop a short length of this wood on a rock and you reveal what must be its most alluring quality. Instead of the knock you’d expect, there is an ever so soft, but distinct ringing note as it strikes. And this is what the makers of musical instruments have known for centuries. Oboes, Clarinets and Picoloes are traditionally made from Blackwood, its tonal qualities make it one of the world’s most sought after sound woods. There are even stories of pipe makers from the North of England taking lengths of Blackwood used as ship’s ballast and turning it into pipes. There cant be many more poetic examples of an object’s potential being unlocked. (Unsurprisingly these very qualities threaten the survival of African Blackwood in many places. If you’d like to read about on going conservation of this an other species, you can do a lot worse that look at Flora and Fauna International’s Global Trees Campaign website)
I have early memories of going to the Masai Mara for picnics. We’d step onto the hot tarmac apron at the bustling Wilson Airport, covering our ears against the roar of small aircraft lifting unsteadily into the dusty air. I remember being lifted up to walk along the narrow roughened “safe bit” that ran along the wing near the body of the little plane and the smell of over-heated plastic in the cramped cabin. In the tail-dragger you were always tilted back in your seat while on the ground, as if ready to be slung like a catapult. As we sat at the end of the runway with the brakes on and the engine straining, Dad would conduct a series of rapid-fire communications with himself (flaps, check...rudder, check...) and then with the tower to request permission to take off. At that point, we’d be thrust back in our seats, hearts in our mouths, while the white lines raced beneath us as we shot down the runway. Wilson borders Nairobi National Park and we would sometimes spot rhino or giraffe as we gained height above the trees. There were always little white scatterings of bones to testify to some lion’s leftovers. Then we’d be heading over the Ngong Hills across the arid floor of the Great Rift Valley towards the Mara’s grassy plains. Since those early picnics, I’ve been privileged to travel many times in small planes across Africa and it is always just the most intense and liberating experience. Admittedly there has been the odd bumpy ride where the pilot gets more entertainment out of the rapidly greening faces behind him than the passengers but for the most part it’s just amazing. Just imagine the Namibian Skeleton Coast from a few hundred feet up. Or the Okavango Delta fanning out green against the sands of the Kalahari. Or the turquoise archipelago off Vilanculos in Mozambique, Victoria Falls from the “Flight of Angels”.... Rather like that eerie picture of the earth taken from space, they take on a rather surreal appearance...like a giant piece of art. The reason I got thinking about this is that I recently met the luckiest man on earth whose job it is to guide and pilot flying safaris across southern Africa – from Namibia to Botswana, Mozambique, Malawi, Zimbabwe and even Angola. With his few lucky travellers, he glides across some of the most spectacular sights on this earth. In between small camps and lodges where you can explore with your feet firmly on the ground, you can get the bird’s eye view of some of the wildest and most breathtaking places in the world. Much is written about the quality of game drives, walks and game viewing by boat but flying adds a whole new dimension to Africa. Click here to know more.