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Yesterday evening as we ventured out for a walk, we came across the remains of an unfortunate eastern green snake. There you are, minding your own business as you wind your way along the white sand of the riverbed, glinting turquoise in the sun, when an elephant treads on you. There in the footprint of the elephant was the unluckiest snake in Zambia. To add insult to injury, last night it was eaten by a honey badger. C’est la vie.
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.
While browsing your safari itinerary, you may come across the odd reference to “sundowners” in scenic locations. The sundowner is as much part of your African experience as your game-drive and really should be elevated in status accordingly, one of the main events, rather than tagged on the end like a party bag. Last week, on noticing the beautiful evening that the day and become, we spontaneously hauled out our cool-boxes and biltong (sundried yummy meat snacks), piled into the truck and headed for the hills. North of Harare lies a beautiful rock rising out of the ground in a big smooth hump. It looks over the sleepy villages and provides an ideal vantage point for the vast night sky. The best sundowner points always involve a bit of a clamber which somehow justifies that gin and tonic. So, seated bare foot and relaxed on the sun-warmed rock, we watched a huge red ball of a sun make a lazy descent and the stars light up one by one along with the kerosene lamps in the houses. The last of the day’s bird calls mixed with the sounds of evening chores from the villages below and the smell of wood-smoke. One friend had come from London and this was an entirely new experience; just sitting quietly on top of a rock, with a cold drink, smelling, hearing and feeling Africa as night crept up the sky. As a veteran of the sundowner, I remember evening game drives interrupted for a cold beer on top of the landcruiser out on the grassy plains of the Mara with the sound of the crickets loud in my ears and hyena whooping. There have been lovely times watching the light fade over Mt Kenya, as viewed from Samburu, and early evenings, feet and drinks cooling in a river, nightjars swooping overhead. The air is somehow softer at that time of day and it is as good as meditation for putting things in perspective, just sitting quietly and not thinking about very much at all. So, instead of rushing around after the big game as the ultimate safari objective, consider when you will next have the opportunity to sit somewhere so wild at the end of a day (far away from other people, cars, towns, noise and light) and feel so content. I'll raise a glass to that... Image courtesy of Wilderness Safaris, Selinda, Botswana
As a biology undergraduate drifting in and out of consciousness in my lectures, I have memories of the word “equilibrium” cropping up rather a lot. As I remember, it described the way in which two or more groups of things coexist in some kind of a balance. It all sounded nicely logical. Harmonious even. And it possibly is if you’re describing plants or things living in rock pools. But how is anything approaching a balance achieved if you take 3000 crocodiles, a thousand odd hippos, and millions of fish and pop them all in to a lake a couple of miles wide? What is there to prevent only one extremely fat animal remaining after a couple of weeks? This was the thought that occurred to me a couple of weeks ago as, on a walking safari in the Selous, I spent the night out under a star-filled sky on the edge of the stunning Lake Tagalala. The density of large cantankerous animals in this place defies belief. The relatively small patch of water is literally stiff with life. It supports everything from the aforementioned crocs, hippos and fish, to endless species of bird that have evolved ingeniously different ways of making life for anything that lives in the lake intolerable. So sitting on the shore and watching life go by, I couldn’t help thinking that any notion of equilibrium here must be anything but calm and harmonious. Quite the opposite, it must be the net result of a horrendous cycle of violence balanced by what, given a distinctly unromantic atmosphere, is an impressive level of procreation. And while it seems that crocs and hippos exist in their own little armed truce, with the occasional mutual indiscretion (“I’m sorry I sat on you / bit you in half /by mistake ate your grandmother” etc) the same really doesn’t seem to be the case for fish. For them life seems to involve a lot more "give" than "take". As I sat having breakfast by the lake shore, everything seemed to be casually snacking on fish. Pied and malachite kingfishers used dead trees in the shallows as perches from which to catch small fry. A grey heron used the back of hippo as a fishing pontoon, fish eagles casually cruised in every couple of minutes on long slow glides to effortlessly pluck a writhing fish from the water. A pair of ospreys methodically quartered the lake, plunging time after time into the water, only to emerge – albeit often fishless - and shake themselves in flight, exactly as a dog does after a bath. And every few minutes, the long snout of a croc would break the surface with yet another poor fish doing its bit to sustain the equilibrium… In the 20 minutes or so it took me to drink my coffee before breakfast, I must have witnessed the demise of at least as many fish. That’s just in the very small area where I was sitting and in only 20 minutes. A fish a minute biting the dust? How on earth do they sustain this hour by hour, day in day out? I’m sure if I’d paid more attention during lectures I’d be able to explain concisely why what I was seeing is simply the manifestation of some kind of equilibrium – that broadly speaking births equal deaths and things perpetuate. But when you think about it, it’s pretty amazing that nature works in such an elegant way. And extraordinary that the net result of all this random activity is not, as you might expect, just the big greedy animals left, but spectacular diversity. An unimaginable array of different species of different sizes and ages, living their complex lives together, hugger-mugger. Now that’s what I call a balancing act.
Over the last couple of months, I’ve started to get acquainted with my Zimbabwean neighbours, both in Harare and out in the rural areas. Since people-watching is endlessly fascinating and a very useful way to spend a morning, I’ve had the opportunity to observe some interesting, yet trivial things. Firstly, Zimbabweans are incredibly animated in conversation, which is generally conducted at a pretty impressive volume, usually accompanied by energetic, evocative gestures that extend to the face and body – a great deal of laughter, arm waving and eyebrow raising. I often wish my comprehension of Shona was a great deal more advanced, since the stories that are being related look like they’d be up there with Kipling’s Just So Stories for sheer entertainment value. The second notable aspect is the names that many Zimbabweans sport. Consequently, I am on a mission now to find out how the parental deliberations are conducted prior to the naming of a child. Just by way of example, here are a few of the people that I have come across so far: Hardlife (Gardener), Godknows (Waiter), Blessing, Thankyou, Exorbitant (Doctor), Talent, Precious, Credence (Retail Marketing Exec), Persuade (Sales Executive), Lovemore (Credit Manager), Nearest (Operations Manager), Loveness. In a web-site detailing the top 100 Zimbabwean names, Perseverance, Learnmore, Copyright and Passmore all feature. I do wonder when I am introduced to someone with an intriguing name, whether the handle is intended to convey something of the parent’s hopes for the child or whether it just sounded good at the time.
"God invented the giraffe, the elephant, the cat...he has no real style, He just keeps on trying things." So said Pablo Picasso, no doubt with his mind on painting rather than the animal kingdom. But I cant help feeling slightly irked by the thought that Picasso of all people really could have tried a bit harder to find animals that provided better examples of interesting stylistic variations by the Almighty. I can quickly think of a number of creatures that look strikingly like Picasso’s own drawings – from the wildebeest to the elephant shrew, but I ask you, can there be a better example than the naked mole rat? On my first trip to Africa, I was very serious about seeing the world’s most unlikely animal. As soon as I got there, dazzled, I forgot all about it. Then one slow, sun-dazed afternoon, dozing in the back of a truck in the middle of nowhere, a series of little ankle-level puffs of dirt gradually caught my attention, and peering over the tailgate, I saw the unmistakable dusty chiminified spoor of the naked mole rat. Of course, I didn’t really see the animal itself. They look, according to pictures, like uncooked sausages with claws. Without a shovel and a complete absence of shame, seeing one was never going to happen. But I got as close as you can. And it was a blessing.
Zimbabweans are well regarded as artists and the range and scope of their talent is reflected in colourful wax-resist batiks, soft wool rugs and sinuous stone sculptures, among others. In recent years, the market for such art has dwindled as tourism dried up but there are still an impressive number of craft markets, art exhibitions and casual traders selling their wares around town. In one of the local shopping centres, a reformed street-boy is selling baobab trees beautifully crafted in wire, complete with small wooden painted birds. In another area of town, the more utilitarian artisans are crafting an impressive array of dog kennels, wendy houses and wicker furniture. However, the artist to whom this blog is dedicated takes the biscuit. At a crossroads on my way home yesterday, I spotted a baboon, on its hind legs, apparently clutching a gourd. Intrigued, I pulled over and on closer inspection realised that it was indeed an inanimate and pretty impressive replica. The artist’s brother was trying to sell this masterpiece to passersby. When I asked him about it, he told me his brother was a very talented and original artist. He drew my attention to the leafy shrub at its feet and told me he called the piece “Baboon on Orchid”. It was on sale for the (possibly slightly ambitious) price of $450. I have to say that in all my travels, it is quite the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen for sale on the side of the road. But, ten out of ten for originality, I say. Damien Hurst may have met his match.
One of the pleasures of living in Harare, I’ve recently discovered, is that there are miles and miles of bush tracks and footpaths to explore on bikes. This has been a major occupation for the last couple of weekends. The TTL (or Tribal Trust Lands) occupy any space that isn’t urban, agricultural or national park. Neatly thatched rondavels are scattered in the hilly scrubland, divided by undeniably picturesque copses and rocky kopjes. Over the course of a 50km bike ride every villager we encountered was effusive and friendly without exception. About a 30 minute drive out of town to the north of Harare there is a great slab of rock, rising out of the surrounding countryside like a hump-backed whale (although, Zim being a land-locked country, this is probably not an apt analogy). Dombashawa (meaning red rock) is a beautiful piece of natural architecture that made me want re-visit my childhood habit of climbing everything in sight. Covered with rust and lemon-yellow lichen, the rock has spiritual significance for the local people. Paintings depicting hunting scenes decorate the walls of a small cave, and the small pool fed by rainwater run-off used to yield wild rice to be ritually harvested. The rice has gone now: apparently the gods were not suitably appeased and turned off the taps on this little perk. The view over the surrounding rural countryside is stunning, and on a Sunday morning the sound of drums and church singing carry incongruously up to the top. On the road to Dombashawa there are a number of local artisans hoping to coax a sale of aesthetic stone treasures or pottery. The most unique artist, though, is a man who has learned the art of growing bonsai trees. In hollow logs or around boulders, he has carefully nurtured figs, jacarandas and baobabs into their miniature adult forms. Many of the trees are over 6 or 8 years old, showing true tenacity and patience. There’s something quite appealing about owning a portable baobab tree...