The Rufiji River in front at Kiba Point in the Selous Game Reserve. Even with my rather shaky iphone filming not a view to tire of quickly. This river is stiff with life of all kinds, from tens of thousands of hippos and crocs, to countless species of fish; tigers and cats and even the odd bull shark, despite the fact that this is more than 100 miles from the sea.
Sat at this point during el nino in '98 when the entire river rose by 20ft despite being a mile wide here.
Cracking place to flycamp too...
The Victorians didn’t believe in Gorillas. This is a fact and it’s just one of the many amusing facts about a group of people whose hubris apparently knew few bounds. At one point they also famously decided that there was nothing left to invent, so closed the patent office (although it soon needed re-opening when someone invented yet another device for covering the sexually provocative legs of pianos.)
Anyway, back to Gorillas because ridiculous as it seems to us now, it is of course a default position for most of us to at least question the existence of something that isn’t there for us to see. Put another way, there’s a chance we only find what we look for.
A story caught my eye this week on the BBC website showcasing a study conducted on Rock Hyraxes, the thrust of which was to question whether all the extensive snorting and whistling noises that they make add up to anything more than..well, snorts and whistles. At first glance, the conclusion, like most scientific papers seemed to lie somewhere between “definitely’ and “probably not.”
But one of the things that caught my eye was the suggestion that “The hyrax is one of only a few mammals which have syntax.” And this is where I’m reminded Victorians and Gorillas. Because I wonder which is more likely – that God singled out a few animals (people, dolphins, hyraxes and the odd parrot) to be able to talk, then got bored and left the rest out, saying “Let Them Make Only Meaningless Squeaks All the Days of Their Lives”? Or that those are some of the few animals we’ve got round to paying attention to? I think it’s also known as observer bias.
Most of the many mammals that I’ve spent time watching in Africa, whether elephant, lion, or the countless smaller species (including the hyrax) or the Gerbils, Hamster (RIP) or Guinea pigs that my sons now keep, seem to make pretty significant use of vocal communication (roughly on a par with that of my sons). I wouldn’t mind betting that the overwhelming majority are pretty good conversationalists…if only someone will listen.
Of course none of this would really add up to a hill of beans if it didn’t illustrate quite so clearly the contrast between our collective position as custodians of the planet and our total lack of qualification for the job. The Victorian refusal to believe in Gorillas is pure comedy, but today’s misunderstandings – from climate change to how to stop rhino poaching (another thought provoking article) - are far less funny.
While working in a Maasai area in Southern Kenya in the late 90s, we witnessed another conjunction of Venus and Jupiter rather like the one that's been in the news and our skies this past few weeks. It was March 1998 and Venus passed within 2.2 degrees of Jupiter. It happened at a time when that part of Kenya was in a state of serious drought – the Maasai cattle were dropping like flies and overgrazing was causing severe damage to the fragile volcanic soil. Dust hung permanently in the air. At the time, despite the seriousness of the drought, I remember the Maasai seemed to have confidence in two things – the first was that the rains would be good that year, the second, that no rain would come until the two planets actually crossed. As it turned out they were correct on both counts.
So I find myself wondering – in a rather unscientific way – if perhaps there’s a connection between the heat wave we’ve just enjoyed in the UK, the fact that Jupiter and Venus recently crossed, and the fact that our heat wave has since been replaced by winter storms. Not enough for a thesis perhaps - or to avert a hosepipe ban, but enough to make me wonder what else the Maasai know that we don’t.
I took this photo through the window of my cessna 206 (hence the misty quality of the shot) a few years ago while flying between Katavi and Mahale - the image isnt great, but it does tell a story; each year as the dry season sets in, water in Katavi's seasonal rivers dwindles, until many years by the end of September, there's almost no water. Life gets tough for most, but my sympathy lies mainly with the hippopotami who huddle together in groups of several hundred with little or no respite from the relentless heat. The little white specs that look like maggots are actually several thousand tonnes of not very gruntled hippo.
Interested in seeing it for yourself? Read more about Katavi