This is some stuff I wrote about my trip to East Africa, last summer.
It's taken me a year to get it to this point, writing in two bursts: one in October, and one last week.
Photos from this trip are on-line at http://www.callanbentley.com/africa/africa.htm (Click Here)
East African Safari
KENYA and TANZANIA
On the shore of Lake Nakuru, in Kenya, there dwell millions of flamingoes. The species is officially the "lesser flamingo," but the sight of all those pink feathers, all those skinny necks and pipe-cleaner legs, can hardly be described with the word "less" at all. It was the most amazing concentration of bird life I have ever witnessed. Gabbling and shuffling incessantly, the birds created such a blur with their collective mass that it became difficult to keep any specific one of them in view for any length of time. Mixed with the flamingoes at the north end of the lake were pelicans with yellow snouts and ceres, and the macabre birds known as Marabou storks, which resemble the Addams Family's butler Lurch. Two of these scavengers were battling over a flamingo carcass. The shaking of the corpse was exaggerated by the length of dead bird's neck, which flopped about like a writhing worm.
Among the birds were a family of Defassa waterbuck, a noble beast like a super-deer. Though actually an antelope, like all the hoofed mammals in Africa, the waterbuck has a much hairier appearance than its lithe kin, as though it has evolved in Yellowstone winters rather than in the Rift Valley. It resembles a stocky elk, but with unbranched antlers. The male waterbuck, with his three-foot horns, sat on the ground with his knees folded up underneath, in a pose evoking a housecat. The female and a young calf were grazing in the sparse grass a few meters and a dozen birds away from him.
A white rhinoceros slowly walked out of the acacia scrub, and out towards the open water. The white rhino (not actually white at all, but gray) is the second-largest land animal on Earth, after the African elephant. Yet it must rarely be in conflict with these birds, for they paid no attention to its progress. To make progress, the rhino kept its head down low; the flock cleaved by the stout horn like earth opening before a plow.
Elsewhere in the Nakuru park, we encountered our first rock hyrax. This charming mammal of talus slopes and rocky cliffs resembles a large sleek guinea pig, but a closer inspection of its anatomy demonstrates an affinity with a different group of mammals. Stubby toes with hemispherical round fingernails and a wiggling (but not quite prehensile) nose reveal it to be distant kin to the elephant. One smooth hyrax ignored the alarm chirps of his fellows, and came directly for us. He gladly accepted a banana peel offered to him by our guide, and as he gobbled it, I could see the blunt tusklike teeth in his mouth.
I was touring East Africa with my friend Seth Factor. We had been in Tanzania for most of the past month, and now we were in Kenya's Nakuru National Park, being wowed by animal life in its finest profusion. Seth and I met years ago when we were both doing ornithology research one summer, and a common love of birds persists to the present day.
We stopped the van so that Seth could identify some weavers which were building a nest in a dense acacia tree. Weavers are about the size of a robin, with a great number of similar looking species in Africa: most are variations on the theme of yellow-and-black. They are often colonial birds, and a dozen or more mated pairs will build their nests in the same tree. Though it was the dry season when we visited East Africa, and most birds were finished with nesting, these weavers were busy collecting grass and weaving it together in several different nests. As Seth was scrutinizing the little birds through his binoculars, a massive flier landed atop the same tree. The long pink legs, extended tail, and sharp hooked bill revealed it to be the secretary bird, a unique relative of the eagle that patrols the savannah on foot. Second only to the ostrich in height among African birds, the secretary bird stands four to five feet tall. They are named for the quill-like plumes that hang off the back of the back of the bird's head. This one coughed up a long rope of shiny meat, and bent down. Up from the interior of the acacia came the head of a baby secretary bird. The chick has been invisible to us until called up by its parent. Mother fed child, and inches away the shrieking weavers all hung upside down from the thorny branches, their wings a fantastic golden blur of agitation.
In Hell's Gate, a massive gorge south of Lake Naivasha in Kenya, I rode a mountain bike through one of the few national parks that do not strictly require their visitors to be in cars at all times. It is one of the great frustrations of safari travel for the active tourist that physical exercise on safari is limited to walking from the Land Rover to the tent. It was a divine pleasure, then, to be free and alone and pedaling a rickety two-wheeler on the dirt roads with nothing between me and Africa. My heavy-treaded tires passed over the fresh tracks of leopard in the dust of the track. Impala moved through the dry woodland as I labored uphill on the bike. I rode among herds of zebra, set into stampede by my presence. These striped wild horses were far more skittish when approached by a bicycle than by a car.
Elsewhere in Hell's Gate, browsing giraffe eyed me warily as they finessed leaves from the thorny tree-tops. When a giraffe runs, as a few did when I got too close, they seem to run in slow motion. Though serene when browsing, their exceptionally long legs and neck give them an ungainly appearance when in flight. Like a rickety robot constructed of stovepipes, its looks in danger of falling completely apart if it runs too hard.
We stayed several days in Naivasha, taking turns at being incapacitated with diarrhea and fever. When I was sick, Seth patrolled the escarpments and lakeshore for birds. When Seth was sick, I read David Copperfield in a chair under a tree. A hadada ibis with a deformed bill patrolled the mossy roof of the hotel, squaring off with the resident cats for choice rooftop territory. Across the street were a series of kiosks selling tilapia, the most common of the three species of fish that live in Lake Naivasha. These merchants proudly proclaimed their wares on signs painted in many languages. One used the archaic term "fishmonger" and a blocky rendering of a tilapia; with this Dickinsonian combination, hoped to attract pescivorous clients.
In everything but name, Dar Es Salaam ("Haven of Peace") is capital of Tanzania. A small burg called Dodoma officially is the seat of the federal government, but Dar is definitely where the action is. Dar is cleaner than many third-world cities I've seen, and pleasant enough. Like Windhoek, Namibia, it seems rather bland. A museum and nightlife were the main entertainments to be had. Dar is more run-down than Windhoek, by virtue of its seaside location, and the deleterious effects of salt air and storms from the Indian Ocean.
There is a heavy Arab Muslim influence on the coastal cultures of East Africa, and in fact the lingua franca of the region is a blend of Arabic and native African tribal languages, whose name itself - Swahili - means "coasts." Five times each day there would come a wailing call from the turrets of the city's mosques, the Muslim muezzin making the call to prayer. Some of the callers had beautiful voices, singing Allah's praises in the most graceful and mellifluous way. Others were rough and crass-sounding, and the difference was particularly jarring if the muezzin with the unrefined voice came on duty for the pre-dawn call, when I was usually still asleep.
Perusing markets is one of my favorite pastimes when visiting a new country. I appreciate the opportunity to see what items people want to buy and sell and the style in which the transaction is accomplished. To compare a Thai fruit market with a Mongolian butchery with and American strip mall certainly gives a perspective on some of the inherent differences between these countries. However, I was not able to find a locus of informal commerce in mainland Tanzania. The closest I came was by blundering into the fabric district of Dar Es Salaam. For several square city blocks, the storefronts and the streetside merchants sold only one item, in ten thousand variations: cloth.
Mikumi National Park in Tanzania is the closest protected area to Dar Es Salaam, and hence the most visited "wilderness" by weekend warriors and families. Brushfires, set by the rangers, were burning as we approached. Not far from the grassy blaze, there was a lion sleeping in a roadside ditch. These ditches call to mind the arroyos and miniature canyons of the arid American southwest. They are a favorite haunt of the lions, according to our guide. The narrow defiles provide tunnel-like passages across the savannah, allowing the lion to pop up unexpected in new locations, like a whale surfacing from a dive.
As the first national park that we visited in East Africa, Mikumi gave us our first sightings of many species that would later become common to our experience. We saw elephant for the first time here, a gentle family herd plodding across the savannah. Appearing on low trees at frequent intervals was a gorgeous bird the size of a small crow, but colored in light purples and turquoises, with a sharp eye and a long split tail. The lilac-breasted roller is that rare combination in a bird: both gorgeous and common. Though I would see them again and again over the rest of the summer, they would continue to impress me from every perch.
We saw impala in Mikumi, in scattered small herds. These graceful antelope have a nonchalant manner and delicate markings on tawny skin. Our guide misidentified them as Thompson's gazelles, and scowled when I contradicted him with a definitive photograph in my field guide. This same guide told me that a crocodile laid an egg that hatched into the first bird - somewhat accurate as a metaphor for the evolution of birds, but in no way literally true.
We also met our first yellow baboons, hippos, zebra and wildebeest. The wildebeest are also called gnus, and they are indeed "wild" looking "beasts." Hairy and ungainly, with a lowering forehead and crescent horns and extra fur dangling down towards the brown grass, the wildebeest appears to be an animal constructed of spare parts left over from the creation of more graceful mammals. We saw them in herds that varied in size between a few individuals and a few dozen.
Returning to our hotel from the park after sunset, we slowed to pass among a herd of forty Cape buffalo. The tapetum reflected from their eyes, showed green from the bush. (It was by counting the pairs of green dots that we were able to estimate the number of individuals in the herd.)
From Mikumi, we took a public bus south to the town of Mang'ula, administrative seat for the Udzungwa Mountains National Park. The Udzungwa range is an abrupt series of peaks that are part of a larger system known as the Eastern Arc. (The similarly named Usamabara Mountains, which we would visit in a few weeks in the northern part of Tanzania, are also part of the Eastern Arc.) We stayed for five days in Mang'ula, experiencing the slow pace of village life interspersed with strenuous hikes in the mountains. Along the roads were dozens of new species of birds and two new species of monkey. A fuzzy brown-headed kingfisher maintained a constant position on a telephone wire in the forest across from our hotel.
Our hikes in the forest brought us up into the mountains, which are thickly forested, unlike most regions of East Africa. Silvery-cheeked hornbills graced the canopy, and called with nasal abandon. There were black-and-white colubus monkeys here, too, which are richly maned in (surprise) black and white. Their massive mustaches and leglike tails gave them a heavyset appearance that must have served them well in showdowns with smaller primates, like the common red-capped colubus. The big black-and-whites tried to pee on the hikers below. When that didn't deter us, pebbly turds came raining down. Seth and I were hiking with two Danish women, one of whom gleefully exclaimed, "Look! They're shitting on us!" She sould not have sounded more delighted. We hiked to the lovely Sanje Falls, a cataract that launches a small river right off the edge of the Udzungwas, with a white cascade reaching 300 meters down to the base of the mountains.
Mang'ula the town doesn't have much going for it. There were two phones in the village, and only one of them worked when I was there. Bicycles and dogs and people trod over tarpaulins of drying rice on either side of the main street. There was a small market of used clothing and shoes, and another of vegetables. The stationmaster of the small railway station was absent when we arrived. His underlings told us that he was at lunch, at four in the afternoon. When he showed up an hour later, it was evident that his lunch had mainly consisted of beer. He made out some sloppy tickets for us, and slurred instructions to be there at 4am the next morning for the 5am train.
In the predawn darkness the next day, the Danes, entertained us with birthday songs and Disney tunes. Though we left the hotel at 3:30am, the train didn't come until 8:30, and we boarded together. Tanzania has two train tracks: one runs west from Dar Es Salaam to the "official" capital Dodoma, and from there northwest to Lake Victoria. The line that we rode on, however, came from the Zambian border in the southwest, and angled diagonally northeast to Dar. It passed through the northern part of the Selous Game Reserve, the largest area of protected natural land in Tanzania. Taking a train through the Selous was a safari in itself: visible from our second-class compartment were impala, warthogs, giraffe, wildebeest, and zebra. As we chugged across a bridge over the Rufiji River, I looked down to see twenty-some hippos rafted together in the muddy water. Another watercourse, not so full as the Rufiji, was choked in vegetation. As we slowed to pass through it, partially obscured elephants trumpeted at us from a few meters away.
Zanzibar is an island in the Indian Ocean, offshore from Tanzania, and now the two are one country. Formerly, when the mainland portion was still known as Tanganyika, Zanzibar was an independent nation, comprised of a small archipelago of islands, including Mafia and Pemba islands. All the islands are ringed with pristine beaches and prime fishing, but urbanity and commerce find their focus at the ancient city of Stonetown Zanzibar.
Stonetown is accessible by several ferry lines from Dar Es Salaam, including the incredibly slow one that we took because it was so cheap. Upon arrival, the Zanzibari sense of independence asserts itself in an immigration station, despite the fact that passengers haven't actually crossed any national borders. The Zanzibari touts assert themselves as well, offering to guide new arrivals to their chosen accommodation. Meandering Stonetown was a delight once my valuables were dropped off safely in my room at the hotel. The narrow alleyways wind and twist and diverge and recombine, creating a labyrinth of dusty yellow Arabic-style buildings. Several of the buildings are decrepit and fallen into disrepair, inhabited only by feral cats. A few have trees growing horizontally out of the mortar, a story or more above the street. Many have exquisite carved doors three meters in height, depicting interwoven flowers and vines.
Wandering alone through this maze brought me some fine experiences. Bypassing food vendors brought delicious smells of fried food to my nose. Men in dhotis were hunched over plates of falafal and lentils. Suave young men demonstrated their more Western affinities by strolling around (decidedly un-westernly holding hands with their male friends), often dressed identically in sunglasses and open-necked white shirts, shiny silver belt-buckles at their waists. Amid the chaos of the Creek Street Market, I saw men washing octopus as if it were laundry, on ancient stone tables that may have been there since the days when the market did more business in slaves than fish. Butchers reclined in bloodspattered tee-shirts on the very chopping blocks where they dismembered their meats. Yes, even the spices which have remained Zanzibar's prime export for hundreds of years were arrayed for sale in the market area.
I bypassed a Muslim school where the beautiful sound of hundreds of young voices singing verses from the Qu'ran came drifting out of latticed windows. An old woman swept the cobblestone street with a typical inefficient and back-bending East African "broom." A motorbike rounded a corner with a precautionary blast from the horn to alert pedestrians that it would momentarily appear; a warning to get the hell out of the way. On the beach, fishermen sorted out silvery bait fish in a tray. Dhows sailed by like massive white shark fins, blue sky above and blue water beneath.
In the evening, there is a lively night market at Forodhani Gardens, centrally located on the oceanfront on one of Stonetown's westernmost points. The merchants at the night market have a selection of grilled items available, from which I would make my selection. The food was then regrilled (to kill germs) and served over shaved cabbage and chips (French fries), and drizzled in a tangy chili sauce. The choices were numerous, and included staples like falafel and chapatti as well as seafood. In general, the food in East Africa was pretty uninspiring to my palate, but the Forodhani night market on Zanzibar was the exception to the rule. I feasted on tuna kebabs, kingfish, octopus, prawns, and snails (called "shells"). After the uninspiring fare in Mang'ula, I went ballistic on Zanzibar, and stuffed myself each evening. To Seth's naysaying about the potential to get sick off of such street food, I replied that it was so tasty as to be utterly worth it.
The Usambara mountains are in the northeastern corner of Tanzania, with sheer cliffs and forested tops giving them a reputation for excellent hiking. Like all the hiking in Tanzania, tourists must be accompanied by a guide - for reasons of both navigation and safety. The Usambaras are no strangers to tourists, but the mountain towns are remote enough to have been spared the full onslaught of tourism that perils places such as, say, Ngorongoro. We took a bus as far as the roadside town of Mombo, where a branch road climbed rapidly into the mountains. We rode up in a decrepit van which belched its exhaust up through the back door into the interior. Seth and I sat in the back seat, wedged in firmly and without escape by the presence of 26 other people crammed into the same car. We coughed and sputtered our way to the top. I shifted my weight by the few inches possible every ten minutes to keep my legs from falling asleep. It was easily the most uncomfortable vehicle ride I have ever been exposed to (beating out even an hour stuffed with 16 others in a Mongolian jeep, where at least the only fumes I had to breath were the Vodka-laced breaths of my companions).
Once to the town of Lushoto, we registered at the cheapest hotel we could find, a pit with the improbable name "The New Sarafina Teacher's Club." $1.50 a night bought us dank beds with dirty blankets in a concrete cell. All night long people charged up and down the hallway, shouting drunken accusations at each other. Seth became sick after staying here for the two nights that we spent in Lushoto. In retrospect, it seems incredibly cheap that we would opt for a hovel like the Teacher's Club when a few dollars more would have gotten us a very comfortable room in an adjacent lodging.
Our first Lushoto hike went to a densely forested area where the sharp eyes of our guide picked out chameleons by the bushel from the surrounding foliage. The lizards whose most famed attribute is the ability to change colors have a distinctive visage. Two serrated tabs project forward from the reptilian face, earning them the designation "two-horned chameleon." Their eyes are tiny, but set in a massive bulging ball of orbiting flesh. These "eyeballs" may rotate independent of one another - one can look forward while the other looks backwards, or up, or down, or forward also. It's an oddly endearing look for the lizards, diminishing any draconian menace they may once have exhibited.
On the next morning, we took a daybreak hike out to the Irente Viewpoint, a scarp of rock projecting from the edge of the mountain range granting the observer a wide vista over the Maasai Plain. As we arrived, a stratum of cloud cloaked the landscape thousands of feet below. It parted in places to reveal the scrubby acacia trees and tiny baobabs that, two days previously, we had been driving through on our way to the Usambaras from Dar. From my uplifted vantage, I looked down on the back of a augur buzzard, gliding above the clouds, many hundreds of feet lower than me.
In our time in Dar Es Salaam, Seth and I were introduced to many people. One of these social introductions was to a German woman who represented Teutonic chicken farming interests in Tanzania. We talked over dinner our second evening on the continent, and she gave us the telephone number of some people who she described as "very passionate birdwatchers." This tip, this minor conveyance of information in the course of polite dinner conversation would affect our trip vastly. It turned out that by calling that number, we found ourselves in the enviable position of being invited to Kifufu Estate.
Neil and Liz Baker grow coffee on Kifufu, an agricultural ranch located on the western slope of Mount Kilimanjaro's Shira Plateau. The property is one of the most amazing spots one could ever hope to see, much less live on. It provides a transition between the arid Maasai Plain below and the forested slopes further up the great mountain. The blend of forest, coffee plantation, and open fields make the estate an ideal home for birds. It is because the property is so attractive to birds that Neil and Liz bought it. They are the premier birders in Tanzania, so enraptured by the activity that it has far surpassed being a hobby and become more a way of life. Together, Neil and Liz publish an annual census of Tanzania's birds, called a Bird Atlas. It requires an incredible amount of effort, but is an essential task for conservation.
One part of their effort is the methodical keeping of a "garden list," a list of birds species they have personally seen on their property. Many birders keep such lists; in American parlance, they're referred to as "yard lists." Most American birders would be pleased to count 40 or 50 species on their yard lists. It will serve as some indication of the extraordinary bird habitat at Kifufu to point out that their garden list comprises some 430 species.
Another element of birding at Kifufu is a banding program that they have initiated. Bird-banding (or "ringing," as those of British extraction - like Liz and Neil - refer to it) is the practice of harmlessly catching birds, measuring them, and then fitting them with a tiny identifying ankle-band. When the bird dies, the band may be recovered, and sent in to a central station, where data will be compiled. Essentially only two data are provided by this technique - where the bird was when it was banded, and where the bird was when it died. But these two pieces of information, when multiplied by thousands and thousands of birds, have yielded valid and essential scientific information that has helped ornithologists to understand how birds migrate. Birds banded in Alaska could easily show up in Costa Rica a month later. Likewise, a migratory bird banded at Kifufu in December could be nesting in Scotland by April. Bird migration is one of the most fascinating large-scale phenomena yet to be fully explained by biology. A bird-banding ornithologist captured a hawk in Patagonia, Argentina, that he himself had banded in Michigan two years previously!
Neil and Liz had invited us to stay with them, and they fed us extraordinarily well on vegetarian food of the healthiest sort: lots of beans and grains, pumpkin soup, fresh mango and banana, and of course their own delicious coffee to drink.
Our first morning at Kifufu, Seth and I went down to join the "lads" at the bird-banding station. The lads are the male youth of a local Tanzanian family that the Bakers have supported over many years. The boys get free lodging in the banding station exchange for their skilled labor each morning and evening - setting the nets, extracting the birds, measuring their weight, wing length, body fat, etc., banding them, and releasing them. It seemed an idyllic life to me, to live in ornithological Eden, and have first-hand contact with the birds many times a day. To boot, they are receiving a valuable scientific education that may serve them well if they choose to pursue studies in biology someday. Neil and Liz have already helped to send two of the family's eldest to college, and several of the lads seem eager to follow suit.
We were delayed in arriving at the banding station because of all the new species of birds to see along the way. Neil and Liz's house lies a good kilometer distant from the small cabin that is the banding station. Seth spotted a turaco in a tall tree, a maroon crested bird like a parrot stretched out vertically. It was a lifetime bird for someone like me, but here it was as routine as a blue jay.
Later that day, I took some of the Baker's dogs for a walk, attempting to get a good view of Kilimanjaro, but the mountain is so tall it creates its own weather. Perpetually, it is swaddled in cloud. The dogs and I had a good time, though, and I climbed a tree just to prove to myself that I still could. However, from the front yard at Kifufu, there was a tremendous view of Tanzania's second-highest peak, Mt. Meru. For the moment, I marveled at this lesser peak, and was content.
That afternoon, Liz piled some kids in the Land Rover, and gave a shout for Seth and I to join her. We went to a small alkaline lake where we first saw flamingos. Poking up from the whitish lake were black boulders of vesicular basalt, presumably from Meru's most recent eruption. Above the lake's high-water mark were several classic Maasai bomas: round thatch huts that have developed in the western mind to be emblematic of tribal housing.
"The kids" who had joined us for this jaunt in the countryside were younger than "the lads" running the banding station back at Kifufu. They were amazing young naturalists - after we Americans had given up trying to identify a given bird, they would obligingly name it for us, pronouncing each syllable carefully in English.
On the vast expanse of West Kili Ranch we saw a solo ostrich, sprinting like a velociraptor in the distance. Thompson's and Grant's gazelles were also in evidence, and black-faced vervet monkeys in the trees. There was a phantasmagoric landscape of whistling-thorn acacias: plants with three-inch spikes and bulbous galls in which defensive ants dwell. When the wind blows through such an area, it creates whistling noises as it passes over the ants' entrance holes. I stood on top of the Land Rover and was stunned at the beauty: 76,000 acres of public land, with Mt. Meru blotting out the sunset on one side, and Mt. Kilimanjaro hidden in its cumulus garments on the other side.
As the savannah darkened, we drove back to Kifufu. The Land Rover flushed a half-dozen nightjars with glowing red eyes from the road as we climbed uphill.
While that trip was truly incredible, the next day was even better. Again, the Land Rover was our vehicle. Neil was at the helm today. We brought along Furaha, the master birder. Though only twelve years old, this diminutive Tanzanian kid in a South Park tee-shirt could identify and name in English and Swahili almost every bird that we would encounter over the course of the day's peregrinations. As it would turn out, we saw more than 100 species of bird that day, and Furaha nailed all but one of them.
On our way out of Kifufu, we were a vehicle full of birders black and white, young and old. We passed a dozen locals dressed in their Sunday best, on their way to services. Liz make a crack about whether we might not rather spend our day in church, instead of going birding. I replied that such a change of plan would be the worst form of blasphemy I could think of.
It was a gorgeous day of rolling through the open country, paying no park fees, subject to no one's rules but our own conservation ethics. We searched for cheetah, found elephant, found secretary birds, ostriches, and dozens of smaller species in the trees, grasses, air, and ponds. The two giant mountains framed our motions all day. Such a sublime day in itself made the entire trip worthwhile: I am indebted to the Bakers for shepherding us to such a wonderful area, so far off the beaten track.
We stayed a few days in the town of Arusha. Arusha is the de facto jumping-off point for most safaris in the region. It's also the site of the UN's Tribunal for the Rwandan Genocide. The genocide tribunal is housed in a massive building on the fringe of downtown Arusha, and the UN lawyers and staff were frequent supporters of the CafÈ Bamboo and the local pizzeria. Neil had recommended a tour guide to us, who was already booked and therefore referred us to a friend of his. We arranged with this new tour guide to make a safari trip of five nights, six days.
Lake Manyara is in the crack between a horst and a graben. A graben is a block of the Earth's crust that has dropped down relative to another piece (the horst). These relative motions are by the spreading of the Great Rift Valley: East Africa is slowly being ripped asunder by upwelling currents in the mantle. The lake has formed where rainwater has pooled up against the cliff escarpment. It has no outflow, and has grown increasingly soda and salty with the passage of time and continued influx of minerals. Where there is water, there is life, and it was here we saw our first massive accumulations of water birds. The pelicans in particular seemed to enjoy the lake. Manyara is also home to tree-climbing lions, but of these we saw not a trace. We did however, get terrific looks at ten other mammal species - elephants and giraffes and the usual menagerie of stunning African megafauna. I was most enraptured, though, by a huge bird - the southern ground hornbill, which is black-feathered and red-skinned. It has a turkey-like wattle and eyes like a novelist who has been up all night hacking at a typewriter. In total, the bird resembled a cadaverous parrot, but it had a noble dignity as it strolled through the tall grass, hunting lizards and mice.
The following morning at sunrise I was eagerly perched on the lip of the Rift escarpment. I relished my position: to be at a site of such geologic significance. The dawn broke: purples and pinks spilled out of the night, swelled, depleted, and became morning. Someday, a final earthquake will open up the mouth of the whole rift valley, and seawater will flood in, past Olduvai Gorge and over Lake Manyara. My position at sunrise will be the shore of a new Africa: smaller than before, but by far the larger piece of the continent. A few miles offshore will be a massive new island. Abbysinia might be a good name for it: it will consist of Ethiopia, Eritrea, part of the Sudan, most of Kenya, and the better part of Tanzania. Between the two landmasses, in this valley which was just being lit by the sun's first rays, would be a straight, similar in form and geological history to the narrow bights to the north: the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. Tuna will swim where marabou storks once nested.
"Serengeti" is a word charged with imagination in my mind. For a lifetime, the word had symbolized the unattainable wilds to me. Now, after 27 years, I was actually visiting. As we descended from the forested rim of Ngorongoro Crater, the land became drier and sparer. Ungulates were evident: petite Thompson's gazelle, bulky Grant's gazelle, giraffe, and the diminutive dik-dik.
We crossed Olduvai Gorge, a ditch full of the stiff-leafed plant known in the US as "mother-in-law's tongue." The Swahili word for this plant is oldupai, which has been mutated into "olduvai" as it passed from one language to the next. Olduvai Gorge is the site of some of the more important fossil finds in human history: our most distant ancestors walked here, and their bones preserve their visit immemorial. Near Olduvai were adolescent Maasai on their transition to manhood. Once Maasai boys reach a certain age, they are circumcised and sent off to live two months in the bush. When they return, they will be full-fledged morani (warriors). As such, they will be permitted to wear the red garment that distinguishes morani from normal men. In the meantime, though, they look positively creepy. Dressed entirely in black, with faces painted white like a skull, and two long antennae-like ostrich plumes undulating atop their scalps, these circumcised adolescents stood by the side of the dirt road. They jumped up and down and sang a wailing song: perhaps about the death of their boyish selves on the road to manhood.
This macabre image was fresh in my mind when we rolled out into the open Serengeti Plain. Vast herds of antelope appeared, neared, disappeared behind. Seth said, "No wonder there's so many big predators out here." The landscape was incredibly open, flat as a pancake, studded with rock outcroppings called kopjes.
We saw a leopard in a tree, hyenas, topi, and hartebeest. There were fat flatulent hippos floating in a pond. In the morning, another game drive netted our first pride of Serengeti lions. More importantly, the morning was sublime for just the act of being out in the matinal Serengeti, cool breeze in the air, Africa waking up all around.
We headed north in search of the big wildebeest migration. The hilly country up in the northern part of the Tanzanian Serengeti is called Lobo, and we stayed a night there. It was hilly country, much more convoluted than the southern Serengeti. With all its nooks and crannies, the land was rich with animals. We encountered elephants, lions, gigantic lappet-faced vultures, zebra, and wildebeest. We found the tail-end of the great migration: thousands of wildebeest and zebras moving north in search of greener pasture. It was an incredible sight to be there at dawn, with the huge clots of wildebeest snorting and chuffing, stirring up the dust with their hooves. In strings they would head north to the Kenyan border, up to Maasai Mara, where some of them would certainly be eaten by crocodiles in their attempts to ford the Mara River.
A day later, we were back on the lip of Ngorongoro Crater. This volcanic caldera forms a natural fence of mountains, 30 miles in circumference - the largest unbroken and unflooded caldera in the world. It is a circular Garden of Eden containing the full menagerie of East African wildlife. In a day of driving around there, we saw three rhinoceros, two cheetah, several novel birds, and copious numbers of wildebeest, jackals, buffalo, zebra, elephant, gazelles of both stripes, Coke's hartebeest, topi, and spotted hyena. Every pond was clogged with muddy hippopotami. Camping on the rim of the crater, we slept to the tune of bush-pigs and Cape buffalo grazing a few feet away, separated from us by a thin nylon tent-wall.
Back in Arusha, I slept poorly: plagued by feelings of fever, and hearing a thousand sounds. In my ears entered the buzz of mosquitoes, the yowling of territorial alley cats, the gurgling of Seth's stomach convulsing with its latest ailment, the crowing of a rooster, the bellowing muezzin of the mosque, and then it was daylight, and I got up and took a hot shower.
We went north to Kenya from there, crossing at a sketchy border-town that was only loosely controlled. In Nairobi, we were taken in by relatives of friends. They fed us and housed us and let us play with their smart children.
The city itself was an utter hell-hole: the worst city by far that I have ever been to, and I don't say that lightly. It's true that I haven't visited India's legendary slums, but I have visited more third-world countries than most Americans. For instance, I have been to Manila, and Nairobi is at least twice as far down the Scale of Wretchedness as the capital of the Philippines. The omnipresent garbage in the streets was swept into heaps and set ablaze: smoldering piles of plastic, shit, paper, leaves, bones that created dense cumuli of noxious smoke. Shacks were set among the piles of waste: people's homes. Children grow up in Nairobi surrounded by this stinking material blight. The waterways were likewise profaned with effluent and detritus. Millions of people walked barefoot through this nasty scene, screeching at each other, battling vehicles for space. The cars and trucks pumped out seething bundles of unfiltered diesel fumes. To be stuck in a Nairobi traffic jam is to take a year off your life expectancy. Staring out the windows of a matatu in just such a clot of traffic, I saw some desperate people. I was glad to be behind glass, but still didn't feel safe: It is not for nothing that the city is nicknamed "Nai-robbery."
It is no wonder whatsoever that people living in conditions as squalid as those would feel resentment at comfortable Americans, and seek to even the score when possible. Al Qaeda detonated a bomb in Nairobi in 1998 that destroyed the US embassy and killed 200 people. Living conditions like those will continue to serve as a "have-nots" breeding ground of hatred against the Western "haves." So long as people are forced to live like this, I'm sure explosive terrorism of the Al Qaeda variety will happen there again.
Quickly enough, we left Nairobi, and headed north to Naivasha and Nakuru. The solace of the quiet Rift Valley Lakes more than made up for the melee of Nairobi. There were still crowds, but the crowds on the shore of Lake Nakuru were a new sort: not shabby, poor, black, and angry, but pink and leggy and gabbling through crooked beaks. While the urban nightmare of the capital is a recent permutation of social circumstance, the flamingo multitudes have been filtering these shallow waters for millions of years. Seeing something so natural and so bizarre is a balm for the mind bruised by its encounter with demeaning urban squalor. Leaning back against our pop-top van, I was astounded by the millions of skinny birds. Surreal, I thought. No, not surreal; real.