On The Road: Inside Papua New Guinea

Here is my monthly column as it appeared Monday on 3QuarksDaily.

by Bill Murray

John Allen Chau, the missionary killed in the Andaman Islands in November, reopened the ‘uncontacted people’ debate. An advocacy group called Survival believes “Uncontacted peoples make a judgment that they are better off remaining uncontacted and independent, fending for themselves.” Most everybody else wants in, missionaries on their missions, doctors preventing disease, linguists to study imperiled languages.

Outside the Amazon basin most of the world’s uncontacted people live in New Guinea. The world’s second largest island is divided between Indonesia in the west where – as far as we know – all remaining uncontacted people live, and Papua New Guinea in the east.

My wife and I took a peek into the interior of Papua New Guinea twenty years ago. To be clear, we sailed up the Sepik River, in the north of the country, a region that has had contact with Europeans since their ships scouted the coast in the late 18th century. European settlers pressed indigenous labor into plantation work on the north coast from the late 19th and then, in the 1930s Australian gold prospectors trekked into the interior highlands and climbed out with eyes big as saucers, having made contact with nearly a million previously unknown highlanders. (Here is a remarkable video.)

Apprehensive but with faith in the civilizing force of the five or six intervening decades, our upper lips stiffened by the hotel minibar, we flew into the highland town of Mt. Hagen, gateway to the interior. Mt. Hagen comprised a single downtown street, a rugby field, airstrip, unkempt housing and not much more.

No tour groups clustered around leaders with flags; no backpackers struck poses of studied indifference. The police lived in barracks, prefab units half the length of a single-wide, where wives and children spilled onto verandas. I expect they’d have preferred thatch.

We shared a ride with a trader from Osaka to the Hotel Highlander, hidden behind a six-foot barricade. Men in yellow hard hats rolled back the high gate, color of a battleship. A fence surrounded the compound and more men in hard hats walked snarling black dogs around the inside perimeter.

The kitchen served dinner and stubbies, which is Aussie for short bottles of beer. Bony chicken is bony chicken, but they curled the tops of spring onions as garnish. A stab at flair.

•••••

A small plane carried us to the Sepik River. The pilot, already sweaty early in the morning in a tight short-sleeved shirt with epaulets, wielded a bathroom scale, weighed up his passengers (just my wife and me) and our gear, pulled a pencil from behind his ear and made the figures work on his clipboard.

He flew us to the river at Timbunke, worthy of a jot on the map but as far as I could tell, nothing more than a grass landing strip and six buildings. With road access north to Wewak on the Bismarck Sea, Timbunke was the last town with a road out the rest of the way upriver.

The entire Sepik River cruiser, the Sepik Spirit, was ours. Nobody but us, a crew of nine and captain Graeme, for three days. We climbed onto the third observation deck to view the daily thunderstorm over a savannah menaced by gathering nimbus and churned by sheets of shower.

The Sepik Spirit jammed up onto a sandy spit off Tambanum village and we clambered onto its stand-in shallow-draft landing craft, the proper one having gone clear to Karawari for repair. Every day they had fits trying to start its outboard motor.

The old beast juddered to a stop beside canoes carved from single trees, dragged onshore and parked perpendicular to the waterline. The son of Namba, the village elder, invited us into his father’s home.

Typical Sepik River Village

All these houses of trees and vines stood higher than a person off the ground against animals, flooding and nat nats, or mosquitoes. The littlest baby, just three weeks old, slept under a mosquito net, one of not many concessions to the modern age. Seven poles lashed to two longer ones comprised the ladder to the door. Clay fire-pots allowed cooking inside. Drums, pots and baskets dangled from the rafters.

Tambanum was Catholic, having been converted by a missionary from down toward the mouth of the Sepik. A painting of Jesus hung at the top of Namba’s stairs. Below it was a traditional Sepik carving, in the shape of virgin and Son.

The elder Namba didn’t know how old he was. He had lived on the same patch of ground all his life. He said his father was bombed in this same place – just right there – by Japan. Namba’s son translated. His house, identical, stood directly behind Namba’s.

With a ceremonial fuss Namba brought out the family’s most prized possession, a bridal veil made of thousands of tiny nassa shells. I tried it on, too flippantly. We handed it around. Lawrence, our guide, went full reverential.

“It is byoo-tee-ful!” he murmured.

I suggested it took weeks to weave.

“Months.”

Namba walked us down to his front step and bid us farewell leaning heavily on his cane, wearing a tattered orange Brisbane Broncos T-shirt, ear lobes elongated by tribal tradition, smiling a broad smile ravaged by scarlet betel nut stains.

Ancient pipe-smoking women sat cross-legged along the path from Namba’s house, weaving baskets. A knot of men advised two others with Swiss-made metal tools and hand-carved mallets how to carve a table into the shape of a crocodile.

Two dugout canoes glided down the russet-colored Sepik as if on fire. When river folk caught a fish they smoked it in a clay pot right on the boat. The smoke kept away the nat nats.

Family in a dugout canoe on the Sepik River

•••••

Elsewhere by ritual you must come in, sit down, drink Pepsi, make small talk before negotiating can begin. Impecunious Tambanum got right down to business. When a boat tied up they produced a practiced mise en scène of artifacts. And came too quickly with their fallback position.

“How much?”

“Fifteen kina.”

“Second price twelve kina.”

They had no jobs for there were no jobs, 3000 people with no power, ice or medical care. They built their own houses and taught the arts of weaving and carving to their kids. Their food lived in the river and the trees.

We gave them their first price. That would be the village’s currency income for the day, maybe the week. It took a lot of hand-carved tourist masks for a village to save up for something useful like an outboard motor.

•••••

At twilight we’d sit on mats up front with Benny the pilot, watching cooking fires kick up lambent shorelight. Creatures of the night emerged from the forests; the sky darkened with no light from shore to chase it back. Inky sapphire settled over creation, and the deck would be thick as black snowfall with bugs in the morning. They’d sweep it clean.

At sunup, river glassy smooth, we crawled onto the landing craft, destination Angriman village. As soon as they were freed from the ship, the deck hands broke out the betel nut and turned full-animated.

The people of Angriman were the best crocodile hunters on the river. They raised them for their skin. When maybe four years old, a medium sized croc fourteen inches around might bring 200 kina from the Japanese agent who sailed in every three or four months. The biggest would bring 300. Fifteen or 20 three-footers lay about in a wooden stockade.

The croc stockade at Angriman

Each Sepik village selected a councilman. The Sepik Council met every other month or so, sometimes at Karawari, sometimes at Timbunke, and elected a representative to send to parliament.

Peter Mai, the Angriman councilman, greeted us. We gave him a postcard from where we lived, a place with skyscrapers. Four teenaged girls sang The Wonder of It All from a Seven Day Adventist hymnal, and then we stood in a receiving line as the congregants each shook our hands.

The Seventh Day Adventists got here first. Just sailed right up the Sepik winning converts. Now they were losing ground to the Catholics because they’d tried to banish traditional beliefs. They wouldn’t allow traditional dress.

Angriman produced watermelon, Malay apple trees, yams, mulberry bushes and a surplus of smoked fish. With more fruit and vegetables than it needed, crocodiles for sale for currency and fish in exportable quantity, Angriman prospered. But Angriman wasn’t served by a road and unfortunately, it was no longer on the river.

The Sepik changed course some years back leaving Angriman a literal backwater, off the main channel. Still, the crocodile trade yielded wealth: Evinrude outboard motors attached to longboats.

•••••

Upstream that night, anchored offshore, we peered into meager adumbrations of an unknown village. Some of the villagers owned kerosene lamps, but kerosene wasn’t to be used lightly. In the new day that village, Mindimbit, came to life as positively mercenary.

Mindimbit Village

One man had brought an immature cassowary, a blue-necked flightless, four-foot bird named Betty from Karawari. He charged a kina a camera for pictures. With the Sepik Spirit a sometimes visitor, Mindimbit was relatively grizzled at the artifact trade. Prices were higher.

Beside three Evinrudes and a Yamaha outboard in a shed of thatch, a frame of two-by-fours and four-by-fours stood unfinished. “They run out of money,” Lawrence explained. Planed wood is just not as practical as traditional houses lashed together with palms. With factory wood there was more to buy. Like nails.

A man named Wesley invited us into his house.

Up the stairs (watch your head!), three women cooked lunch and minded the kids, everybody on the floor. With a shower dancing on the roof, Miss Julie smoked a spatchcocked fish on a little round metal stove. Grandma minded a little boy, several cooking pots and plates of greens, and Wesley’s wife made sago pancakes.

To make the staple food you cut down a sago palm, drag it to the village, skin its bark, chop it into hunks, then smaller hunks, then pummel and pulverize it to pulp, and finally sluice it through banana leaves into a paste and dry to a powder.

Grinning a toothy grin, Wesley’s wife scooped the powder into a clay pot. A fire crackled underneath. With her cup she pressed it into pancakes. She’d press each into a foot-long oval and fold it in half. When it cooled we all tore edges off and popped them in our mouths. Captain Graeme said his wife added powdered coconut for a little flavor.

•••••

The sun would set in an hour and the river had smoothed for sunset. Benny smoked his hand-rolled faggots down to burn his fingers while steering through swamp and short grass. The forest rolled back to reveal mountains under cumulus. 

We eased up along the north bank of the Sepik. Thatch imbricated a basic provisioning center where we sought curry, matches, tobacco and a Sydney Morning Herald dated March 28th. It was September. But this newspaper wasn’t for reading. It was rolling paper for the tobacco. Three broadsheets sold for fifteen toea.

Outside, imposing, voluble men loitered, but offered only friendly chews of betel nut, gesturing amused instructions. We split ‘em open and popped the nuts into our mouths. You chew, generating saliva, and spit the juice through your teeth, retaining the meat.

The juice is white. You dip a bit of mustard stalk into “lime,” pounded from mussel shell, and chomp it. It turns the juice bright red. Chew, spit, chew. It’s a little bitter and it gets your heart moving a bit, a little blood rushes to your head, everything’s a notch more intense, and then it fades. Think kava, Indonesian kratom or your first deep drag of nicotine.

Going for a swim from the old landing craft

After darkness spread full and complete, Mirja, Lawrence and I sat on rattan and cushions in the center of the Sepik Spirit. Insects threw up a wall of sound while canoes glided alongside silently. Adolescent boys peered in, cupping their faces to the windows.

Lawrence had a story to tell.

“Now I will tell you how our elders taught us the secrets of the spirits.

“I was fourteen. I was working since I was twelve, with westerners. I ate western food. I did not believe there were spirits.”

Still, at fourteen, there was room for doubt.

“It was frightening. We would start at six p.m. and they kept us awake until six in the morning. For days.

“They built a wall in front of the spirit house with a door too small to walk through. They lit the palm fronds over the door into a fire and told us to run as fast as we could and squeeze through that little door, and not to get burned by the falling ashes.

“My grandfather was the village leader so I had to go first. Five boys were behind me. I was scared but I ran fast as I could and I squeezed through that door and up the steps into the spirit house.”

The squeeze symbolized the return to the mother’s womb, because you must reunite with your mother’s spirit as a rite of passage before your father can teach you the spiritual secrets.

“Inside the spirit house, bad news! The men from the village were there and they were whipping us with canes to show us the power of each spirit.  Ohhh, and it hurt!”

Lawrence grimaced and held his forehead. His eyes widened so that white showed clear around his pupils. He chewed a knuckle.

“And now it was late, about five in the morning. They gave each boy a betel nut. My grandfather told me the one he gave me was a special one. They told us to chew them, it would be good for us. We spit out the juice and kept the meat inside our mouths.

“They gave us pieces of ginger and told us to chew them. They played drums and these flutes at the same time. I felt like maybe I had a gin and tonic!

“I was dizzy and then I started seeing skeletons dancing and then I had these incredible dreams. And I believe in Jesus and Mary but since that night I have also known that spirits are real, too.

“We believe the father gives us the knowledge but the blood comes from the mother and so it must return to her. So my mother’s brother came from another village.

“The night of the skin cutting we stayed up all night. When it was very late the men made us go into the water and stay for one hour so our skin would get soft. Ohhh, it was so cold!”

Lawrence was sweaty as a bayou preacher. He massaged his temples and pulled his legs up on the sofa.

“When it was time I laid down on top of my mother’s brother. So the blood would fall on him. And they cut me.”

With a flourish he raised his right sleeve to show the results.

“Sometimes they cut your back but I asked they only cut my arms because I had to go back to work.”

He had to have time to heal.

But he didn’t heal. He was infected.

“I asked for medicine but my grandfather refused. He asked me, ‘What have you done wrong?’ I said nothing, nothing over and over but he kept asking me until finally I admitted I had stayed with my girlfriend the night before.

“Before they would use sharp bamboo leaves but now they use razors. I asked my grandfather if the razor was old but he said no it was bought new for this purpose. My infection was punishment for this bad act.”

His grandfather, who Lawrence called, “A famous headhunter,” told him at the end of his weeks of spiritual training that he would have unbelievable opportunities in the future. One of the people he had led on a cruise like this recently offered him a trip to the U.S., and to Lawrence, that was proof positive it was so.

More photos from Papua New Guinea at EarthPhotos.com.

On the Road: In a Tough Neighborhood

My column at 3QuarksDaily as it ran on Monday:

On The Road: In A Tough Neighborhood

In the middle of the night of March 24, 1992, a pressure seal failed in the number three unit of the Leningradskaya Nuclear Power Plant at Sosnoviy Bor, Russia, releasing radioactive gases. With a friend, I had train tickets from Tallinn, in newly independent Estonia, to St. Petersburg the next day. That would take us within twenty kilometers of the plant. The legacy of Soviet management at Chernobyl a few years before set up a fraught decision whether or not to take the train.

Monitoring stations in Finland detected higher than normal readings. The level of iodine-131 at Lovisa, Finland, just across the gulf, was 1,000 times higher than before the accident, according to the German Institute for Applied Ecology.

Russian authorities reported the accident in the media, and I think they felt self-satisfied for doing it, but Russian credibility had burned down with Chernobyl’s reactor 4. Any more, people thought the Soviets, as Seymour Hersh said about Henry Kissinger, lied like other people breathe. And as usual, solid information was hard to come by.

A news agency in St. Petersburg reported increased radiation, and the Swedish news reported panic in St. Petersburg. A lady in Tallinn that day told me her mother had called from St. Petersburg and they were closing the schools and sending children home to stay indoors. The Finnish Prime Minister fussed that seven hours passed before the Russians told him. It was frightening.

No one believed the plant spokesman when he said on TV, hey (big Soviet smile), no problem. No one trusted the Russians.

•••••

In the same way that provincial Balkan towns had never thought of themselves as national capitals (like Podgorica, which became the capital of Montenegro, and Ljubljana, the completely delightful capital of Slovenia), Tallinn was, had been since Soviet occupation in 1940, an outpost, a modest administrative hub, though far more architecturally charming than Soviet in its medieval center, with round stone guard towers and ancient walls all around.

Back then, in 1992, there just wasn’t that much of it. Tallinn was far smaller than its close neighbor Helsinki, itself only half a million. As usual when Soviet Communism got hold of a place, the difference between Soviet Tallinn and free Helsinki was night and day – in that order – even though they are unidentical twins, only 50 miles apart across the Baltic.

The Finnish-built Viru hotel where I stayed (“Viro” is “Estonia” in Finnish) is the tall building in the background of this photo. It was just about the only place foreigners stayed, and something of a mild Estonian legend. The Viru opened in 1972 and adventurous Finns (whose language is similar enough to Estonian that they can understand one another) crept over to have a look at the Soviet way of life.

Naturally, for the Viru’s first twenty years the KGB spied on guests.

Continue reading

On the Road: Wildebeest Crossing

My column at 3QuarksDaily as it ran on Monday:

On the Road: Wildebeest Crossing

The crocodiles know. They form pincers on either side of the crossing point. Richard says they feel the vibration of all those hooves along the riverbank above them.

Waves of animals surge toward the river then fall away. If they all go we’ll witness a frightful, deadly crush of beasts in motion, mad energy, herd hysteria, dust and confusion, the cries of mortally wounded beasts rising to the heavens, birds of prey gaggling and swooping and squawking, kinetic intensity unbound.

We have come to see the sprawling, real life spectacle of wildebeests crossing the Mara River. It is the largest overland migration in the world.

•••••

Before dawn odd factory sounds waft across the river from behind a stand of trees. The explanation rises as a fire-breathing, tourist-wielding hot air balloon.

Stiff northerly winds will make for a short flight because the pilot must put down before the Tanzanian border, and you can see Tanzania from here. Wherever they land, champagne breakfast will be served on a folding table covered by a Maasai blanket, delivered by Land Rovers even now in mad pursuit.

“Are you strong?”

It is our driver/guide Richard’s pre-dawn battle cry, out by the Land Rover.

We are.

You begin every safari getting to know the back of your driver/guide’s head, your little team finding its groove for twelve-hour days spent in close quarters. Richard wears an oversized green jacket and a standard issue ball cap with the camp logo, and he parcels out his words with care.

We ask questions ripe for elaboration:

“Do you drive around film crews sometimes?”

Richard replies, “Yes.”

“Odd tree there. Is it a type of baobab?”

“It’s a fig tree or something.”

Richard doesn’t care much about the botany that’s required knowledge for today’s tourism college graduates. His strength is twenty five years on home ground, ten thousand days driving these plains.

•••••

The Mara River flows fast and muddy brown, fed from the Mau escarpment that runs as high as 10,000 feet from Nakuru town in Kenya all the way down to Tanzania. Sometimes its banks slope up in sandy transition zones, but more often downcutting has created serrated edges. Grass along the cliffs is grazed tight, testimony to the herds’ frequent presence and repeated dalliances with crossing.

The gamut of plains antelopes falls in for morning inspection. Topi stand as topi do on termite mounds, itchy but seizing a meter’s worth of improved view, with plum flanks and black snouts, kin to the handsome Sassebees down south.

While the eland species found in Kenya is called the common eland, it is anything but, a huge thing, a sight to behold, its majestic horns spiraling over a dewlap, a bulge of skin under the jaw akin to the vocal sac of a bullfrog or the pelican’s fish-stash pouch. The eland’s stripes suggest white paint dropped from above and drizzled down its flanks.

Each dawn reveals the previous night’s kills. The plains brim with food just now, and after the principal predator has its fill – a lion, a pack of hyenas – avian beak and claw devour the remains. The corpse is beset by a horde of vultures, maribous and bustards. Among them, every prospective bite involves mortal combat.

A martial eagle protects its own kill, neck thick and pulsing, straddling raw meat. Not your most handsome bird, this one, more workmanlike than noble, with obvious physical prowess. Burly, rippling with muscle. And a cannibal. Even those huge storks that nest atop phone poles in the northern part of Europe “are recorded to have fallen prey to the martial eagle. Poor little guinea fowl are just snacks.

An impala calf? That’s a banquet. 

We drive and we drive from the river to hills and back, and we are forever in the midst of wildebeests. Richard stops the Land Rover and shakes his head. “One year we had the big number. But to me I think this is the biggest. This must be a million.” We are among so many bearded beests that there must be no more anywhere on earth. They are all here.

•••••

Yellow is the color of the savannah from here north to the Sahel. The classic plains vista, yellow under blue, lacks only the umbrella acacias found farther north. This time of year the grass across the Mara River really is greener on the other side, as the wildebeest migration follows the rains.

Showers play over the Tanzania end of the escarpment. Called the Maasai Mara in Kenya and the Serengeti in Tanzania, this ecosystem is all the same place, and the escarpment is its western marker.

Storms throw the herd into confusion as auditory cues go missing. A tempest brews out of forbidding darkness, a furious squall, and the wildebeests move toward the rain. Before long it is hard to tell if the tracks on which Richard drives are roads or rivers.

The rain is the reason the herds are here. It brings the grasses back to life. A biologist named Richard Bell determined the process: zebras lead and the wildebeests follow, trailed by gazelles.

Zebras strip away the tops of tall, coarse grasses which those who follow find hard to digest. Wildebeests ruminate on the shorter, revealed grasses, their broad muzzle and loose lips adapted to bulk feeding. Gazelles follow to eat the most protein-rich shoots and sprouts. A rather more scientific explanation, “Grazing Succession of Ungulates in Western Serengeti,” won Bell his PhD in the 1960s.

•••••

Watch the herd’s behavior. If it moves toward the river, Richard says follow, but stay back. To approach the water’s edge too soon is hubris. You don’t know where they will cross, they don’t know, and a noisy machine on the cliff might put them off entirely.

Look for the beests to form up into a line. It doesn’t presage a crossing but it is a first indication. Zebras, even just a pair, will start the move toward water. Again and again queues will form, swaying one way and then the other, farragos of tentative intent drawn to the precipice.

Knots of animals gather and disperse a dozen times, but it is scarcely eight o’clock in the morning. Warmth hasn’t taken full hold; the beests won’t yet be thirsty, won’t be inclined to come down to the water for a drink.

A crossing will take a while. Patience.

•••••

The other day a train drove 60 miles across Australia with no one aboard, and it’s not clear if anyone is engineering this river crossing either. Whenever the beests cross, some will wind up crushed between the jaws of crocodiles. Does the herd know that crossing a river seeded with predators is mortal business?

Bees wouldn’t. Ants wouldn’t. Their tiny brains don’t do complex decision-making, but individual bees and ants, genetically predisposed to carry out duties associated with a few jobs – ‘guards,’ ‘workers,’ ‘scouts’ – collaborate to create colonies. Termites form mounds the same way. Collectively, they get things done.

After the space shuttle Challenger’s explosion “(t)he stock market did not pause to mourn.” Stocks of four contractors suffered losses but Morton Thiokol’s was the hardest hit, down four times as much as the others’. There was no immediate evidence Thiokol was to blame but six months later a presidential commission fingered the O-rings made by Thiokol. The market had it right in the first half hour.

Will the herd make the most efficient choice? Once an individual jumps into the water the rest will follow. All it takes is one. A single match will start a conflagration, and the instigator can be anybody, even a youngster. One act begets the next. Like the wave performed at ball games, a determined few can incite the crowd.

Could it be that the general movement of a herd (or a school of fish or a murmuration of starlings) is comparable to the way a brain thinks? An individual neuron doesn’t generate an opinion, but the collection of neurons called the brain, eventually does.

•••••

The sun is back by mid-morning. A group of beests congregates near the edge. Ours and other vehicles draw back from the crossing point called Double Cross where a tributary debouches into the Mara.

The pace quickens; animals bunch up. A thousand wildebeests pull away and the herd is diminished by half. Some vehicles leave but Richard won’t budge and he is right. After a time the animals (trailed by the vehicles) come back to stand on high ground at the precipice.

One zebra climbs down. More. The herd grows frantic and … pandemonium, dashing, mad splashing, and in the end we reckon 2000 animals cross, and it is all over fifteen minutes past noon.

We’ve seen a crossing our first morning. There’s nothing to this.

Self-satisfied, we break out a cooler full of Tuskers, but before the first beer is open a bit of a challenge raises its hooded head over the cliff and commands our rapt attention. A spitting cobra moves onto the ground along the Land Rover’s passenger side. This evil thing is longer than I am tall. Truth be told, other than its considerable length it looks about like the next snake.

It is not.

“Aggressive and poisonous,” Richard, our man of clipped vocabulary, remarks.

These cobras track their prey’s head movement, predicting where its eyes will be 200 milliseconds ahead of time and rotate their heads prior to ejecting venom “to cover a plane of probability.”

This particular cobra has immediate command over the humans in the Land Rover. As it makes its way over the bank ahead of us, along the side of the vehicle and into a hole in the dirt behind us, we scrunch over in the middle of the Land Rover away from the doors. As soon as the thing disappears head first into its lair, Richard starts the Land Rover and we flee.

•••••

The infantry soldier in the Great War’s trenches spent “months of boredom punctuated by moments of terror.” The terror side of the analogy works with the cobra, but the boredom part breaks down, for it is impossible to be bored watching tens of thousands of animals on an African plain.

During the afternoon, while we wait, Richard talks about life. Friends of his have been attacked by hippo or buffalo, some killed. He just lost his father two months ago and at this we stiffen and wince; he is still grieving and we had no idea. Richard’s father was only sick a few weeks and they don’t know why he died. So many African tragedies.

•••••

An hour before sunset the hunt is on again. A distant line of wildebeests is on the move, covering ground, driving, attracting adherents, surging to become a single feral statement. Vehicles move parallel until the herd stampedes itself into precarity, storming a peninsula, thundering to an abrupt halt.

Crocodiles wait below, unmoving, dinosaurs poised for dinner.

The to and fro, the collective heartbeat, resumes. Richard fancies they are seeking consensus. If the caprice of one callow gnu can set off mass death, might wizened elders be conjuring undetectable hindering tricks? Perhaps the wisdom of crowds manifests too in mass group restraint.

Thousands of wildebeests paw the soil, driven to the edge, nervous, twitching. In fast-fading light the beests’ faces take on spectral shadow, the whole heaving mass willing itself, just one of itself, to hurl its body into the water, for all the rest to follow.

Not one of them does. The herd plays with fire but no one lights the match.

•••••

Gray light and a chill morning wind yield to midday sun. Richard raises his field glasses and sees a “huge group” ahead. “Thousands and thousands,” he says, and steers us toward a hilltop, seeking enough distance to discern direction of movement.

Far back along the savannah, an endless queue moves in mostly orderly pilgrimage. The vanguard collects into a grazing mass at the riverbank. A camp called Serena looks like haphazard prefab houses along the opposite ridge.

This herd is assertive from the start, muscular, not tentative like before, determined to cross, with strength in its numbers. Congregations merge and the entire mass moves toward a spot with easy-sloping banks, but all these beests spread well wide of the chosen point. 

We are surrounded, swallowed up. The spearhead turns the riverbank to a seething, febrile froth, and in an instant, mayhem! Thundering and diving and rending noises, splashing and motion, bedlam you have never seen. Waves of beests hurl themselves over cliffs up and down the river. They press ahead. A half hour, a herd in motion, and then still more, no rear guard, ranks replenished over and over and then again.

The biggest crossing of the season.

On the far bank the herd emerges at a sprint. Individuals do not reconstitute into a group until far up onto the plain. A few emerge hobbled, limbs broken by the jump from the cliff or the crush of bodies. Some wildebeests are taken by crocodiles.

The aftermath continues an hour, and more. Mothers and offspring separated by the frenzy search for one another. Some mothers come to the far bank and look this way, imploring their young to appear. Will they cross back this way?

A few do. Most do not.

In time, zebras venture back to the far bank to drink. They were the cocky ones in the first place; they still have the swagger. Crocodiles lay at the water’s edge and do not attack. Are they sated from yesterday or rattled by what just happened, the movement and tumult and noise? A pair of giraffes approach the water but do not drink.

What do you think, was it five thousand, six?

More, Richard replies. Many more.

•••••

My other 3QuarksDaily columns are here.

New Monday Magazine Column at 3QD

This month’s column is up at 3QuarksDaily. It’s about the largest overland migration in the world, wildebeests and zebras crossing the Mara River in Kenya. Read it here on 3QD today, and I’ll publish it on CS&W later this week.

And there are many more photos like this one in the Animals and Wildlife Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.

Europe’s Invisible Corner

Here is my column this month for 3 Quarks Daily, as it ran there on Monday. Please visit 3QD and poke around a little bit, spend some time. It’s the smartest site out there.

EUROPE’S INVISIBLE CORNER

Hyvä asiakkaamme,
Ethän käytä huoneiston takkaa.
Se on tällä hetkellä epäkunnossa
Ja savuttaa sisään.

Dear customer,
Please don’t use the fireplace. It is for the moment out of order and the smoke comes into the apartment.

•••••

Now wait a minute. We might need that fireplace in Lapland in December. Just now it’s three degrees (-16C) outside. The nice lady couldn’t be more sympathetic, but they just manage the place. Fixing the fireplace requires funding that can’t be organized until we are gone.

She promises we’ll stay warm thanks to a magnificent heater, a sauna and the eteinen, one of those icebox-sized northern anterooms that separate the outside from the living area. I have fun with the translation, though. I imagine that fool Ethän has busted the damned fireplace again.

• • •

Welcome to Saariselkä, Finland, where it’s dark in the morning, briefly dusk, then dark again for the rest of the day. The sun never aspires to the horizon. Fifty miles up the road Finland, Norway and Russia meet at the top of Europe.

But look around. It’s entirely possible to live inside the Arctic Circle. It takes a little more bundling up and all, and you need a plan before you go outside. No idle standing around out there.

There are even advantages. Trailing your groceries after you on a sled, a pulkka, is easier than carrying them. There’s a word for the way you walk: köpöttää. It means taking tiny steps the way you do to keep your balance on an icy sidewalk.

Plus, other humans live here, too, and they seem to get along just fine. Infrastructure’s good, transport in big, heavy, late model SUVs, a community of 2600 people, all of them attractive, all of whom look just like each other.

I imagined “selling time shares in Lapland” was a punch line, but it’s an actual thing. A jammed-full Airbus delivered us from Helsinki, one of three flights every day to Rovaniemi.

Down the stairs, across the tarmac and into the dark. The highway spools out with no end, a monochrome tunnel of mist and snow. Finns counter with a flourishing roadhouse culture. Oases appear, of people and movement and light, fast food, a cafeteria and a grill, newsstands, groceries and gasoline.

At floating markets in the Mekong Delta, boats hoist fruit on bamboo poles to advertise they’re selling coconuts, say, or star fruit. Here, totems rise at exits, fog swirling around neon: Pizza! Market! Gas! 24H! Credit Cards!

Seventy kilometers up the road is Inari, Finland’s largest town by area. At 17,321 square kilometers it’s about half the size of Belgium, yet your fridge is likely to be dorm-sized and the biggest carton of milk you’ll find is a liter. Finns are a conserving lot, even with room to spread out.

And the loft in this little apartment, sure it’s for kids (please let it be for kids), but not only can you not walk in it, you can’t crawl in it. A bloody death trap if there were ever a fire. Not that there would be, because the fireplace doesn’t work.

There is a grocery you can walk to, Kuukkeli, down on the highway into town, where you can buy mean and defiant ruisleipä, Finnish rye bread. I know a Lithuanian man who claims they have the same loaves in Vilnius. There are sausages and heat-and-serve casseroles made of beets or mushrooms or potatoes and ham. And tins of moose, bear, elk and reindeer.

If you eat meat you will do best just to capitulate on the reindeer thing. Here in Kuukkeli you can buy reindeer burgers, cold smoked reindeer, reindeer steak, reindeer sausages, reindeer meat pie, smoked reindeer flatbread (this is a hit: in high season Kuukkeli sells 250 a day), reindeer pizza (chopped smoked reindeer, blue cheese and pineapple), reindeer quiche, reindeer soup, smoked reindeer roll, croissants with chopped cold smoked reindeer, reindeer paninis and warm reindeer sandwiches.

•••••

Mark Twain wrote “If the thermometer had been an inch longer we’d have frozen to death” and I feel that way this morning. The hardest thing is getting out of bed. That can be unfortunate if you mean to make something of the day, since it’s night again by 3:00. The last bus runs at 3:40. There is no more light.

But maybe everybody sleeps in, because come midnight, the lambent auroral sky-dance teases out a parade of the awestruck from a dozen lands. We group together up and down the hills, all of us bundled and round Michelin men, teeth chattering like dice, bouncing and rolling and reveling in how utterly odd is this world.

Continue reading