Monday, March 28, 2011

No Gnus is Bad News

One of the most moving sights on this earth is the great wildebeest (gnu) migration of East Africa. Sitting in an open vehicle on Tanzania's Serengeti I was brought to tears.  Our guide had driven into the midst of the herd - two million animals plodding along, following the smell of the rain, knowing it would lead them to green pastures where they could raise their calves. The vast African sky was a blue dome and the only sound was shuffling hooves and the soft "nooo, nooo" of the animals as they flowed around us like a black river. In the distance was the high, hazy rim of the Ngorongoro Crater. Only here did the clouds linger, adhered to the mountains. I defy anyone to to remain unmoved by such a scene.

Prides of lions lazed nearby, some on their backs, legs pointing at the sky. Their bellies bulged and their muzzles were red with blood. So much food. How they must love it when this great herd passes their way. For a while hunting is relatively easy and they don't have to trek miles through the heat and dust in search of a meal. How fortunate for the human race that a small biting fly has preserved this wilderness for us. If not for the tsetse fly this part of East Africa - the Serengeti and the Masai Mara would be grazing land and the wildlife would be long gone. These little insects, whose bite feels like you're being jabbed with a hot blunt needle killed the domestic cattle which had no immunity to sleeping sickness and eventually the settlers gave up. Sleeping sickness is no longer a problem in either the Mara or the Serengeti but the tsetse flies remain, mostly in the wooded areas where they will swarm around anything large - like a landrover, making life uncomfortable for the occupants. Just remember that if it wasn't for these little flies you probably wouldn't be there in the first place.

The migrating herds are always in the region, so no matter what time of year you visit you will have a good chance of seeing them. Just remember that it is a natural phenomenon and the location of the animals depends on the rain and where good grazing can be found. However, here is a rough guide.  From November to May the animals mass in the plains of the southern and eastern Serengeti and it is here in February and March that they drop their calves. By the end of May the rains finish, the grass starts to die and the great herds head north west in search of better pasture and by July they begin to mass on the southern side of the rivers that form the border with Kenya's Masai Mara.

Then as if by an unheard signal they begin to cross the rivers. This is what you see on those amazing wildlife programmes on television. Wildebeest and zebras struggling through the swirling brown water pursued by enormous Nile crocodiles. Amazing to see, though not for the squeamish. You have to be very lucky too, as obviously there is no set day - it just happens, usually in July. Then between July and September the great herds settle for a while in the Masai Mara, though many always stay behind in the Serengeti.  Then as the rains start to fall once more in Tanzania in October/November the animals once again begin the long trek south, and so the whole cycle begins again.

So, now if you are interested in seeing this incredible spectacle you have an idea of how to time your trip. Remember though, that even if you do miss the great herds, both the Serengeti and the Masai Mara have so much more to offer. Both are a must for any wildlife enthusiast at any time of the year. For further information please call me - Peter Emery at Ucango Travel on 1300 822 646.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Isn't Nature Great?

Have you ever been watching a wildlife programme on TV and thought to yourself "Why don't zebras have better camouflage if nature is so smart?" You'll have noticed that they stand out a mile on the great plains of Africa.  Well, the fact is that their stripes aren't meant to be the usual sort of camouflage that blends in with their surroundings.  A predator, let's say a lioness, will approach a herd of zebra in an attempt to panic them, making them run so that she can pick out a weak individual. The herd will run, but to the lion's eyes the zebras' stripes blend together to form a great amorphous mass, making isolating an individual animal very difficult. Not for nothing is a group of zebras called a "dazzle."

Lions themselves have an interesting adaptation. Examine a close-up photo of a lions face and you will see a distinct white line under it's eyes. Being predominantly nocturnal hunters this gives the big cat an added advantage over it's prey in the pitch black African night. This white line reflects any ambient light from the stars or moon into the lion's eyes enhancing it's night vision.  Prey animals like the impala for example don't have this, so while they can smell danger as the lion approaches in the dark they are unable to see it. imagine how terrifying that must be. The lion of course can see the impala as though it were wearing night-vision goggles.

You will often see prey animals such as impala or wildebeest approach a predator like a lion when they have spotted it.  This isn't as stupid as it might seem.  Many predators use ambush as their primary means of catching prey. The prey animal will be quite relaxed as long as it can see the predator. It knows it can out-run and out-turn a predator in order to escape. Once the predator disappears from view however, the prey animal will become very nervous.  It can be fascinating to watch lions hunting as a pride. It's as if they use telepathy to get into position. You'll see the pride watching a herd of wildebeest, seemingly quite relaxed and uninterested when as if at some unheard signal they suddenly become alert and move into hunting mode. Some of the pride will crouch and begin slinking through the grass, circling around behind the wildebeest herd, where they will hide in the undergrowth, superbly camouflaged by their tawny coats. At another silent signal other lions who have remained behind will charge at the wildebeest herd, panicking them and making them run........straight into the ambush set by the lions crouching in the long grass. It is an incredible thing to watch such a lion hunt develop.

Rhino's too have some interesting behaviour patterns.  White (or wide mouthed) rhinos heads are held much lower than their Black (or hook lipped) cousins. This is because they are grazers, they eat grass. Black rhinos are browsers and eats shrubs and leaves hanging from low trees. You are more likely to encounter white rhinos in open ground and for this reason an alarmed female with a calf will always run away behind it's calf in order to protect it's rear. The black rhino is more often found in scrubby areas and an alarmed mother will run ahead of her calf in order to clear a path through the undergrowth.

I think perhaps my favourite adaptation from the natural world is that of the flat-topped acacia thorn tree of the Masai Mara and the Serengeti. These trees will allow giraffes to feed on them for just so long before sending out chemical messages to other trees in the immediate vicinity warning them that they are under attack. The trees then begin to produce extra tannin which the giraffe's find distasteful and so wander off to find another group of trees to feed on - and so it goes on. The animals get a feed but don't decimate the trees. It's all wonderfully sustainable. I just love nature. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Great Thirst. Part Three - Leaving Timbuktu

The camel ride to the camp took half an hour.  Going up the dunes we had to clamp our legs tightly around the camel to prevent ourselves from toppling off the back, and then on the downward slope we had to lean back as far as we could to stop ourselves tipping over the animals head.  It wasn't a comfortable journey in the searing heat, but we reached the Tuareg camp both uninjured and unmolested.  Rubbing our battered backsides we were ushered towards the nearest tent as the rest of the group arrived.  The camp consisted of half a dozen semi-permanent large goat skin canopy tents.  The sides were pegged up to allow the free flow of air and as we stooped to enter Ahmed shooed away a few goats to make room for us all.

There were several indigo clad men already inside, their dark skin stained blue by the dye.  These were true blue men of the desert. There were no women but Ahmed assured us that they were making themselves useful collecting water. I had thought theirs was a matriarchal society.  Having settled cross legged on the sandy floor, hot, sweet tea was served in small glasses.  Those of us who could speak French chatted politely with the tribesman, while those of us that couldn't just sat patiently and enjoyed the shade and the tea.  Then, pleasantries over, it was down to business. With a nod and a quiet word from Ahmed a blue robed youth left the tent and returned some minutes later with his arms full of souvenirs that we were obviously expected to buy in return for the tribes hospitality.  These items were placed on a rug in front of us.  There were long, curved knives encased in black, camel leather sheaths, silver bracelets, rings, beads and other basically worthless trinkets.  We all purchased something after what seemed like hours of tedious haggling but I still treasure my Tuareg knife.

Back in town, our backside still numb from the return camel ride, we trooped off into the dusty streets to explore.  Shin and I were soon accosted by a group of small boys whom we employed as guides and we didn't regret it.  They gave us a fine tour, showing us the houses where early European explorers had lived including Rene Caille, who in the eighteenth century become the first white man to reach Timbuktu for many years..  His was an especially hazardous voyage for he had travelled disguised as a young Arab studying the Koran with a group of Mohammedan tribesmen who would certainly have murdered him had they discovered his true identity. His house in Timbuktu was no different to any of the others except that it bore a plaque bearing his name.  It was mud built and had carved wooden shutters on the windows.

The boys then showed us the main place of worship - The Mosque de Sankore. Anywhere else it would have been considered tiny and unimportant, tucked away as it was, down an unimpressive side street.  Yet the boys were proud of it and we tried to appear suitably impressed as we took photos of the short, stubby minaret that pointed towards the blue sky like a brown thumb.

And so that was Timbuktu.  There was a hotel without guests and a supermarket without stock where a slow fan stirred the turbid air, cooling the flies that searched in vain for something to eat or lay their eggs on. An attempt had been made in the early eighties to make Timbuktu a destination for French tourists in the same way that Tamanrasset in Algeria had become popular until the troubles started there.  In the early eighties one flight a week flew in from France with tourists and UN staff, but one day the plane crashed on landing, killing everyone on board and nothing had landed at the airport since.  The town was dying a slower death than the poor souls on the plane.

By the time we returned to the truck, preparations were under way for our departure and soon Timbuktu was behind us.  We passed the airport on the way out of town, and there was the blackened wreck of the jet that finished Timbuktu's short stint as a tourist mecca. Then as suddenly as Timbuktu had crept up on us, we were back in the desert, stuck up to our axles in soft sand, cursing as we heaved the sand ladders about and wearily dug the wheels free for the hundredth time.  Timbuktu, I reflected as I sat by the camp fire that night had pretty much lived up to my expectations. It was desperately poor, unlovely and totally forgettable and yet I was excited at the thought that for the rest of my life I could claim to have actually visited this legendary place, and let's face it, there's no doubt that the name Timbuktu still conjures up a certain enigmatic aura.        

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Great Thirst. Part Two - Timbuktu

I awoke to a still dawn.  The wind had died peacefully in the night and the dust had settled, leaving me to admire a clear, crisp, salmon pink sunrise from my sleeping bag.  Carol and Susan were already up and had produced a welcome breakfast of porridge and bananas.  Once we'd consumed that along with buckets of hot, strong coffee we set off once more along the Niger river towards Timbuktu.  The morning proved to be one of delight and frustration in equal measure.  Without the wind the river was glassy smooth and there was plenty of bird-life to keep us entertained.  Pelicans glided along the water in stately procession, yellow billed storks poked about in the shallows and majestic black and white African fish eagles gave voice to their eerie "kyow-kow-kow" call from some of the taller trees.  Best of all were the Abyssinian rollers with their stunning sky blue, navy blue and rich chestnut plumage.  They flew all around the truck, skimming the ground and swooping for insects.  There were carmine bee eaters too, emerging from their nest holes in the river bank.  They too were out for a breakfast of insects.  Flocks of them perched in the trees at the river's edge, their red, orange, yellow and green feathers glowing like exploding fireworks as they caught the sunlight.

The frustration came later that morning when we encountered a series of soft dunes that the truck couldn't cope with.  Every few hundred yards we'd have to unload the heavy steel sand ladders, dig the wheels out of the axle deep sand and shove the four ton truck with all our might while the wheels spun and threw hot sand into our sweating faces.  Seven or eight episodes of this later I was beginning to doubt that we'd reach Timbuktu that day.  We did though.  Actually we didn't so much reach Timbuktu as it seemed to ambush us.  One moment we were struggling through low dunes, the next we were driving along Timbuktu's main street, which funnily enough also consisted mostly of low dunes.  There were a few tawny coloured buildings.  Single story affairs made from mud and straw and corrugated iron.  This was all that remained of a once mighty trading centre.

Deeper into the town we found a modern hotel, built in what I assume was meant to be traditional Dogon style.  The portly French manager told us that we were welcome to set up camp in the hotel grounds and we spent the evening drinking expensive warm beer in the air-conditioned comfort of the lounge.  Two Aussie lads and myself decided we'd get a triple room for the night, thinking that we'd sleep better in a real bed with air-conditioning.  However, half an hour after we'd turned in the generator failed, the air-con gave a death rattle and the room quickly grew suffocatingly hot.  I gave up on the dubious comfort of the bed and went to sleep the rest of the night in the truck with some of the others who hadn't trusted the generator from the start.

Shortly after we'd arrived that afternoon the Frenchman had appointed a tall, indigo clad Tuareg (predictably called Ahmed), to keep inquisitive children away from our camp.  Ahmed was an intimidating character.  Well over six feet tall, wiry, with piercing black eyes and a long hooked nose.  I saw him demonstrate his strength to the kids by picking up a large goat by the throat with one hand and rendering it unconscious but still alive with just the right amount of pressure with his powerful fingers.  The children were suitably impressed and kept away from our camp all night.  In the morning he was still awake and alert and looking much more dignified than anyone who has been awake all night has a right to.  Over breakfast he invited us to his camp a couple of kilometres away.  We accepted and he told us to be ready in one hour and then walked away into the white dunes to the west.  Exactly an hour later he returned and beckoned us to follow him.

In a hollow beyond the first dune five camels were kneeling in the sand.  A small group of Targui tribesmen milled about impatiently - all dressed in the same indigo robes at Ahmed.  It was going to be two to a camel.  Ridiculously, the two heaviest of our group, Shin - a quiet Japanese and I were chosen for the smallest camel and as the poor beast laboriously rocked itself to it's feet with the two of us clinging to it's bony back a fight broke out amongst some of the other Targui.  Apparently it was over who's camel should carry whom.  Punches were thrown, guttural threats were made and all the time our Tuareg was leading us away from the group into the Sahara, under an empty blue sky .  Inevitably I was reminded of the treacherous reputation the Targui of the past had earned themselves.  They'd lied to, cheated and butchered hundreds of infidel explorers and missionaries who'd tried to cross or settle in the Sahara, though it has to be said that many had only themselves to blame for their fate, for they'd tried to exploit the tribesmen.  Occasionally they'd play along with the missionaries, letting them believe they were being converted to Christianity before falling on them and slaughtering them.  A comforting thought for Shin and I as we swayed across the dunes away from Timbuktu towards a Targui camp that was somewhere out there in the desert under a broiling, glaring sun.


Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Great Thirst. Part One

My childhood was overshadowed by my parents' threat of deportation to Timbuktu should my behaviour fail to live up to their expectations.  Of course I had no idea what or where Timbuktu was, other than a vague notion that it might be some sort of far away concentration camp for naughty children who arrived in crates from all over England.  As it happens though I didn't find myself there until I was twenty seven and I arrived in a four ton Bedford truck rather than a crate, although I suspect that the crate option would have been more comfortable.  Myself and about a dozen others from all over the world were participating in an overland adventure holiday - a tough 4 week drive from Lome to to Tunis.

It was mid-May, the hottest time of the year in Mali.  We had reached Mopti and our aim was to drive to Timbuktu, following the Niger River but it was a race against time as the rains were due and if they broke we could find ourselves trapped on the floodplain by the rising river.  We left Mopti in a dust storm.  A hot, abrasive wind whipped up the dead,  powdery earth and threw it in our faces.  The sky turned dirty brown and the glowering sun became a dull orange ball.  Still the heat was unrelenting .  Fifty five degrees centigrade and humid with it.  Just as unrelenting was the dust.  It was everywhere.  In our food, our mouths, our underwear, our cameras.  We reached a point in the river where a ferry operated.  Normally the Niger at this point measures a mile from bank to bank, but now it had shrunk to a couple of hundred yards wide and was as brown and sluggish as molten chocolate.  Twenty minutes later the ferry deposited us and our truck safely on the far bank, although the high sides of the vehicle had acted as a sail and pushed us many yards downstream where it was much more difficult to disembark in the soft sand.  An hour of pushing, shoving, cursing and man-handling our heavy steel sand mats and we were on our way once more at quite a good speed, trailing a huge plume of dust.

We stopped for lunch but in such heat it was impossible to raise an appetite.  Thomas - a young Japanese and myself dug a fire pit to boil water for tea and we all slumped to the ground and guzzled litres of the stuff.  No matter how much we drank we wanted more.  The sweat evaporated from our skin the moment it emerged from our pores, leaving it perfectly dry despite our exertions.  The plain spread out around us as far as the eye could see and was featureless save for a few stunted thorn trees and sandy hillocks.  The only sound as we sat and drank our tea was the cracking of the truck's canvas covering as it flapped savagely in the wind.

Later that afternoon we reached a Peul fishing village.  The low mud dwellings blended perfectly with the landscape so that we didn't see them until the last minute.  Dozens of children, some naked, some dressed in tattered clothes swarmed from the village and we had to stop for fear of running them down as they surrounded the vehicle.  Thomas and Siggy - a young gaunt German woman leapt down to greet the children who initially were frightened and stood back, their stomachs swollen by malnutrition and their mouths set in gleaming white grins.  Soon they overcame their fear and Thomas was dragged away by the hand to see the village by twenty or thirty children.  Siggy was lifted shoulder high and placed on an emaciated donkey which was then bullied into trotting around in circles while the children whooped and cheered.

An elderly, tall, spindly man with white hair and sagging black skin which seemed too big for him pushed his way through the children and approached the truck.  He spoke to David - our driver who was still sitting behind the wheel.  "Bonjour. Ca va?" He said, addressing us all.  His legs were so thin it seemed they could snap under his meagre weight at any moment.  In French he told David that he was a rich man with many cattle and that his village needed nothing except medicine.  All we had had was aspirin and gastro-stop, neither of which would make much of an impression against river-blindness, bilharzia and malaria.  Nevertheless we gave him all we could spare.  He thanked us, turned on his heel and marched with great dignity back to the village.

Ten minutes later Thomas reappeared, still surrounded by children.  They released him and he clambered up into the truck and as we slowly pulled away the children started to run alongside, faster and faster as we picked up speed.  I was astonished by their stamina considering how badly undernourished they were.  But then I couldn't watch as they ran and stumbled dangerously close to our wheels.  finally, one by one they fell back and stood waving and shouting until we were out of sight.

We drove on under an alien orange sky for the rest of the afternoon.  At dusk we set up camp on higher ground under a large baobab tree.  The wind had dropped a little but it was still a struggle to erect the tents and some of us didn't bother, choosing to scoop a hollow in the sand in which to lay our sleeping bags.  Let the scorpions come.  We didn't care, we were too hot and tired and nightfall brought little relief from the heat .  Dinner was the same as it had been for the last five days - vegetable and pasta stew.  There was no meat, and nowhere to keep it cool if we had it.  So we sat around the camp fire, pecking unenthusiastically at our food and swallowing litres of tea.  Tomorrow if all went well we would be in Timbuktu by sunset and there were rumours of a hotel with air conditioning.