Best Books

The folks at Shepherd.com are developing an extensive new series of book recommendations that you might want to have a look at. I’ve contributed The Best Books about African Adventure.

 

Watch Mt. Nyiragongo

Goma, Congo and Lake Kivu

One night in 1986 heavy rain pounded the land around Lake Nyos in Cameroon. A local health care worker named Emmanuel Ngu Mbi took shelter in the village of Wum and slept. The next morning he hopped onto his bicycle and began pedaling. He saw an antelope lying dead along the path, and then rats, dogs, other animals. At the next village he was astounded to see dead bodies everywhere.

Overnight a cloud of carbon dioxide, which is heavier than air, escaped from a fault, a volcanic vent that ran under the lake. The carbon dioxide displaced the air, crept along the ground and in all, some 1746 people and all their livestock were asphyxiated. This was what geologists call a limnic eruption. 

Mt. Nyiragongo erupted on 22 May and scientists predict a further eruption which could come, as eruptions often do, with earthquakes. Mt. Nyiragongo looms over the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda at 11,385 feet, abutting the Congolese town of Goma and a short distance from the Rwandan border town of Gisenyi. Perhaps 750,000 people live in the area, and around a million more at the other end of the lake, in the DRC’s Bukavu.

Lake Kivu

Both Goma and Gisenyi share a pretty shoreline along Lake Kivu, a deep lake at the bottom of which lie layers of carbon dioxide and methane. Should any kind of disruption sufficiently disturb these lower layers, say, an underwater landslide brought on by seismic activity caused by Nyiragongo, accumulated, released gases could create clouds of CO2, like at Nyos. Mt. Nyiragongo is perhaps a dozen miles north of Lake Kivu.

Should that happen, limnologist Sally MacIntyre of the University of California, Santa Barbara says, “it would be completely catastrophic.” Whereas the Lake Nyos eruption released about a cubic mile of carbon dioxide, scientists reckon Lake Kivu contains 300 cubic kilometres. 

Meanwhile tens of thousands of residents of Goma and Gisenyi are on the move because the military governor of Congo’s North Kivu province, Lt. Gen. Constant Ndima Kongba said Thursday,

“Based on … scientific observations, we cannot currently rule out an eruption on land or under the lake. And this could happen with very little, or no, warning.”

Gisenyi, Rwanda

3QD Column, Southwest Africa

My most recent On the Road column, as it appeared at 3 Quarks Daily:

On The Road: Southwest Africa

by Bill Murray

Former Finnish President and Nobel laureate Martti Ahtisaari once gave a talk in our town and we went to see him. The distinguished gentleman who introduced him at Atlanta’s distinguished Piedmont Driving Club listed among Ahtisaari’s achievements “helping to achieve independence for Nambia.”

We visited Nambia a few years back, and found that the locals actually call it “Namibia.” Its European colonizers called it Southwest Africa. Call it what you like, it’s one of the world’s really remarkable places. Unusual things happen in Namibia.

Most places, rivers flow to the sea. The thousand-mile long Okavango River flows into desert, beginning in the highlands of Angola where it’s called the Cubango. The Cubango becomes the Kavango as it marks the Angola/Namibia border. There it hits a fault line and spills into the Kalahari Desert in Botswana, where it is finally known as the Okavango.

It’s hard to visualize an inland delta, so consider its scientific definition; geographers call it an alluvial fan, depositing some two million tons of sand and silt every year and draining summer rain from a catchment area something like the size of Nepal or Tunisia.

This labyrinth of channels, islands and plains brings forth papyrus swamps, forests and savannah, providing habitats for elephant, lion, crocodile, hyena, leopard, zebra, cheetah, porcupine, monkey, serval, baboon, wild dog, hippo, giraffes, buffalo, wildebeest, kudu, warthog, impala, tsessebe and countless more.

On the way from Angola, the Okavango’s variously-named waters cross a cartophile’s delight, a relic of the Europeans’ Scramble for Africa called the Caprivi Strip. A bit of background:

The Scramble was Europe’s late 19th century wholesale rush to colonize the continent. Germany came late to the Scramble and left early when it was stripped of its colonies after World War One. Its important colonies were only four, roughly today’s Togo, Cameroon and Namibia along the west coast and a region in the east centered around today’s Tanzania.

The whole way through, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s gut told him to hang back from Africa. He put it in plaintive realpolitik terms: “Here is Russian and here is France,” he would declare, “with Germany in the middle. That is my map of Africa.”

Torschlusspanik is one of those German compound words, literally gate-shut-panic, its origin perhaps in medieval fear of being shut outside the city gates overnight. In the Scramble, modern day Torschlusspanik caught fire in Berlin.

As other Europeans madly claimed their bits of African coast, German importers were getting blistered by their British and French rivals. Both sides of the dockyards in Hamburg and Bremen, industrialists and labor alike, prevailed on Bismarck to commission the son of a Lutheran pastor, the explorer Gustav Nachtigal, to establish German protectorates along Africa’s west coast, in Cameroon and Togoland.

Further south, largely off European radar, Berlin granted a Bremen tobacco entrepreneur named Lüderitz protection for an exploratory base along a forbidding stretch of shoreline called the Skeleton Coast. The Skeleton Coast ran the length of today’s Namibia, between the British Cape Colony and Angola.

(Historically, the Portuguese outpaced all Europeans on a wild sprint down the coast a full 400 years before the Germans; mission after Portuguese sailing mission planted plinths, paeans to their king. But this was more exploration than conquest, more of a mad search for a way around the Cape and, for Portuguese purposes, around the trading houses in Venice and Cairo.

A notion had taken root, perhaps nothing more than a folk tale, but it pressed itself into the imagination of generations, and not just in Portugal; there was a river route across the continent, or at least to the Nile. Portuguese King João sailed caravels five hundred miles up the Senegal River; they were halted by rapids. His ships were blocked at the Barrakunda Falls on the River Gambia. These were persistent, painstaking, costly, sustained efforts in search of the presbyter Prester John, whose Christian kingdom was believed, for hundreds of years, to flourish among the Muslims and pagans, just over the horizon.)

But back to the late 19th century. In the early days of the Scramble, claiming territory for Europeans mostly meant collecting treaties with often illiterate local leaders along the coast. Dr. Nachtigal claimed Togoland and Cameroon this way in July 1884, and the German gunboat Wolf claimed Southwest Africa the next month. Down there, they put out wooden noticeboards proclaiming protection of the Reich that presumably no one could read.

Half a continent away in East Africa, meanwhile, another German clergyman’s son named Carl Peters sought to confound British interests. The recently-deposed King Mwanga of Buganda was shopping for allies to help him reclaim his throne and offering treaties first come, first served. Peters did a deal even before he could get his government’s sanction, meaning to insert a Prussian wedge between British East Africa and their territory of Sudan to the north.

For most of the nineteenth century Britain held an island called Heligoland just 25 miles off the German coast that Bismarck coveted for a naval base. And Britain needed the German bits of east Africa that Carl Peters had cobbled together. Here were the seeds of a deal.

Germany got Heligoland by trading Zanzibar (the “Zan” in Tanzania) and renouncing sufficient East African claims for the Brits to build a railway from coastal Mombasa to Lake Victoria, and with that came a general demarcation of borders between Germany and Britain. Borders were settled in the west between Togo and the British Gold Coast, between German Cameroon and British Nigeria, and German areas of interest were recognized in Southwest Africa. And one more thing: Germany pocketed that curious bit of land called the Caprivi Strip.

Perhaps Caprivi felt he was pulling a fast one when he asked the Brits to toss in a tiny little sweetener, an odd, narrow bit of Bechuanaland running 280 miles inland. Most places the strip was hardly twenty miles across, never more than 65, but on Caprivi’s maps in Berlin the region’s waterways all converged there into the Zambezi River, which the Germans saw as a trade route through neighboring (and ill-defined) Zambia, and on across the continent.

As it dreamed of a river route connecting its sand-fly-ridden western territory with its East African holdings, Berlin overlooked just the slightest detail: Mosi-O-Tunya, “the smoke that thunders,” Victoria Falls. It must have warmed generations of colonial Brits’ hearts, knowing the Caprivi Strip was no sweetener at all.

The Strip, bordered by four countries, turned out to be useless for shipping and not even particularly mineral rich. Bismarck, a Caprivi critic, decided Germany had traded its “trousers for a button.” In 2013 Namibia renamed the Caprivi Strip the Zambezi Region, one of fourteen Namibian regions.

•••••

The coastal desert, the Namib, is nicknamed the Skeleton Coast after whale bones and shipwrecks. Inland lies the great Kalahari Desert and between them lie the lands of two indigenous groups, the Herero and the Nama, where there is a little more rainfall, enough to graze cattle. Here between the deserts the Germans settled their capital, Windhoek, and here they met the indigenous population.

Aggressive German pursuit of lebensraum caused predictable tension leading to a general uprising in 1904. Turns out that, reluctant about the colonizing game as Berlin seemed to be, while they were there they meant to give it a good run.

So the German General Lothar von Trotha, fresh from suppressing the Boxer Rebellion, hit local ground running, declaring that indigenous people “must vanish from the face of the earth.” He issued a vernichtungsbefehl (an extermination order). Von Trotha was running a little hot.

He built a perimeter and starved people in the desert, reducing the Herero from some 80,000 to about 15,000 and halving the Nama population to 10,000. “The natives must give way,” von Trotha declared.

The official military history of the affair declared the local people “victim to the nature of their own country,” but the Socialist opposition decried the ‘Hunnish’ character of German imperialism. The Nazis named a street in Munich after von Trotha, and in 2006 the city council changed its name to Herero Straße.

Caprivi’s folly and von Trotha’s brutality stand out as Germany’s most vivid African legacies. Berlin left scant enduring influence in East Africa, but German architecture survives today in the Namibian capital Windhoek, the coastal towns of Lüderitz and Swakopmund and Walvis Bay, and enough German is spoken in Windhoek to support a German-language daily newspaper, the Allgemeine Zeitung Namibia.

•••••

Late in the afternoon a pilot named Lindy, a very, very young woman with blond hair and blazing blue eyes, took three of us up in a Cessna for a trip out over the dunes. She explained that at the coast (55 kilometers away), sometimes they run safaris on the beach, so if we saw any cars we had to let her know immediately!

That was curious. Why?

They could spoil our fun, she grinned. We were required to fly at 3000 feet, but out there she said she would drop us to 500. Where in the world can you flaunt rules like this if not on the desolate coast of bloody Namibia, she wondered. And so we did. I expect everybody does.

They’ve numbered the dunes by kilometers of distance past the town of Sesriem, and Lindy did a pinwheel around Dune 45, somehow an icon. Our Land Rover had stopped for us to see it, too, that morning, and indeed, folks had been already there and climbing it. Now, just before sundown Dune 45, and all of the dunes, stood deserted. Everyone had to be out of the park at night.

We did another long turn around “Big Daddy,” which local pride boasts as the world’s tallest sand dune (dunes in Iran and Algeria are apparently taller), and in the same sweep took in the striking Deadvlei, a former oasis whose water source changed course, starving its camelthorn trees.

The road ends at Deadvlei and beyond nothing but dunes stretch north to south, horizon to horizon. A curious landscape took hold, orange sand exposed inside low green vegetation in what they called fairy circles. They reckon trees died and somehow poisoned the soil. Nothing grows in the circles, defying intuition about the regenerative power of nature. Somehow in my imagination these were akin to those counterintuitive hexagonal basalt “biscuits” in Northern Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway.

The coast gained focus, and we cruised over a fallen-in diamond mine and the fallen-in settlement around it. The entire idea of it, a man-made place, was jarring, its perpendiculars entirely out of sorts with the natural swirls of the desert that resembled nothing more than crumpled bed sheets.

We came down low along the water’s edge over seal colonies, dozens of them that stretched for miles, and over a shipwreck. This was the Eduard Bohlen, now rusted to its remaining rafters, a cargo ship launched from Hamburg some hundred and thirty years ago.

Hamburg’s Woermann Line operated the Bohlen as a mail ship between Germany and West Africa for four years. Then the Bohlen transported Herero prisoners, sold to the Brits in Cape Town as cheap labor. Then it ran aground in fog while supplying equipment to diamond miners.

Though some hundred meters out to sea, the crew could walk to shore at low tide. The ship even remained accessible enough that after a failed attempt to tow it off the sand bar, miners used it as a hotel. The manager claimed the captain’s cabin.

In a hundred twenty years the Bohlen has sailed 400 meters inland. The expansion of the Namib Desert is one more Namibian geographic oddity. The desert is reclaiming the sea.

New Travel Column at 3QD

My monthly travel column, about southwest Africa is live now at 3QuarksDaily. Read it at 3QD now, and I’ll put it up here on CSW in a few days. It’s a consideration of dodgy and disastrous colonialism in Southwest Africa, with a little flying adventure on the side.

Sunrises, Sunsets

The usual scheme at safari camps is, you go on game drives at sunup and sundown, when the animals are active. Last time in Kenya we got into a bit of a competition to see who could frame wildlife in a rising or setting sun. Click ’em to make them bigger.

Not for Everyone

Snake safari, anyone?

Ethiopia Photos

I’ve been reading about the two year old Chinese-built Addis-Djibouti train line lately. It’s a train journey we’d hoped to make this past spring before the virus intervened, and I’m hopeful we can come back and fill in that trip later. 

Although northern Ethiopia is going through a terrible period just now, it’s such a photogenic country, I really recommend it to anyone with a camera and a sense of adventure. Warm people, good food, exotic everywhere you look, what’s not to like?

Here’s Addis Ababa a few years ago. More Addis photos in the Ethiopia Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.

Thoughts to Start the Week

There’s a whole lot going on in the world just now, eh? Here are a few all-over-the-map ideas to start the week. Housekeeping to start: I hope my brand new book, Out There, will go live on all Amazon platforms this week or next. It’s a collection of thirty essays on travel, written from and about disparate locations, Greenland to Vietnam to pandemic-ridden Cincinnati. At 360 pages, your money’s worth.

Elsewhere, one expects a Lukashenka-like, whatever it takes response, but best of luck nevertheless to the people of Uganda and Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, aka Bobbi Wine, in Thursday’s national elections. The pop singer stands against President Yoweri Museveni, who removed Presidential term limits in 2005 and has ruled the country since 1986. Time for a change there.

Kampala, Uganda

Whether the incoming Biden administration can restore a little spit and polish to Donald Trump’s smoldering city on the hill is an open question, but there’s no doubt the transition team has assembled a capable bunch. Today’s announcement of William J. Burns to head CIA is terrific. His memoir, The Back Channel, reads like a template for best diplomatic practices.

Notable that leading foreign policy establishment spokesperson Richard Haas and iconoclast Andrew Bacevich each claim last week’s events definitively bring down the curtain on the post-Cold War era.

Who needs a quick primer on the state of Irish politics?

And finally, I took a spin around the now defunct social media site parler.com over the weekend. I’ll share what I found here shortly. Cheers, don’t get sick, and a good week to you.

Goma Serena Hotel

To start the new year on a positive note, let’s play a game. It’s called, Imagine It’s Still Anytime in the Last Twenty Years and You Can Go Anywhere You Want. For a bold first move I pick Congo.

Once we refueled in Brazzaville, capital of Republic of Congo (separate country) but so far, the closest we’ve made it to the Democratic Republic of Congo is behind the camera in this photo of Goma, North Kivu province, taken from across Lake Kivu, at the Lake Kivu Serena Hotel, Gisenyi, Rwanda (photos). 

Now comes word of a new Serena Hotel in Goma, just across the border. Goma hasn’t had much in the way of non-hostel-type accommodation up to now. Most visitors to Goma seem to be aid workers, UN personnel and journalists. Until now. You could pair your Goma visit with a visit to see the gorillas in the DRC’s Virunga National Park, staying at Mikeno Lodge

I’m ready.

A Good News Story from Kenya

Elephant Friends, Amboseli National Park

I remember a day back around March, when we knew not much more about the virus than fright. On a walk in the park, I heard the return of birdsong and saw the first signs of coming spring. It made me realize that this may be a bad year for humans, but other life goes on without skipping a beat. It made me jealous of the squirrels.

Now today come holiday wishes via newsletter from the Amboseli Trust for Elephants, in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, at the foot on Mt. Kilimanjaro. It’s a reminder that life, indeed, does go on, and it’s uplifting enough to share:

In Amboseli the elephants have been doing exceptionally well. High rainfall in the first part of the year provided a rich habitat for them. The Kenya Wildlife Service, Big Life Foundation and the Olgulului game scouts have secured the ecosystem and as a result there has been no poaching of elephants this year. Life has been good for Amboseli’s elephants and for that reason we are thankful and happy.  Just to make 2020 even better for the elephants, there has been the most amazing baby boom. The last baby boom was in 2012 when 201 calves were born. A more typical year we might see 50-100 births. The unusual number of births in 2012 was the result of a terrible drought in 2009. Many calves died and the females stopped breeding. When good rains came again, many of the females were available to become pregnant. We thought we would never see anything quite like it again, but this year proved us wrong. There was a drought in 2017 and once again many of the adult females became available the following year. Twenty-two months later in 2020 there has been a record-breaking baby boom. So far this year 226 calves have been born, and we are expecting at least a few more this month. We celebrate all these new little elephants in our Christmas issue with a portfolio of photos. Enjoy!

Cynthia Moss, Director, Amboseli Trust for Elephants

You can subscribe to the Amboseli Trust for Elephants newsletter by filling out this form.