Africa Vignette 3: Germany Enters the Scramble

Tanzania generally comprises the former German East Africa. Germany came late to the Scramble for Africa, as the Europeans’ colonizing land grabs came to be known, and left early, because it was stripped of its colonies after the Great War. Its important colonies were only four – today’s Togo, Cameroon and Namibia along the west coast and today’s Tanzania, in the east.

For a while, German Chancellor Bismarck hung back from colonizing Africa with plaintive realpolitik: “Here is Russia and here is France,” he said, “with Germany in the middle. That is my map of Africa.”

Bismarck was no cosmopolitan, hardly a product of the European salon. A provincial, a scion of Prussia, he declared “The only healthy basis of a large state which differentiates it essentially from a petty state, is state egoism and not romanticism.” And by 1884, as Britain and France were madly laying their African stakes, a sense the Germans called Torschlusspanik, or “door-closing-panic,” took hold in Germany, a fear that it might be left out. Traders felt mercantile pressure from their British and French rivals, and let the government know it.

Maybe it was best to get while the getting was still good. Bismarck reexamined, applied a dose of egoism and with the support and urging of business interests from Hamburg and Bremen, Bismarck instructed the German explorer Dr. Gustav Nachtigal to seize Cameroon, Togoland and Southwest Africa, which is now Namibia.

Climbing sand dunes in Sossusvlei, Namibia.

See more photos from Namibia in the Namibia Gallery at Earthphotos.com.

What About Giraffes!?

They’re fascinating animals, that’s what.

Consider:

You may not be able to talk while breathing through your nose, but a poor giraffe cannot even have a drink of water without putting itself in mortal peril. Watch giraffes before they drink. They survey the waterhole at length and in great detail before they commit, because once they do it takes effort, and precious seconds, to splay themselves into their ungainly, legs-spread stance, and just as much time to clamber back upright.

Valves in giraffes’ necks close when they put their heads down to drink, to keep all their blood from flowing to their heads. That’s why they spread their legs wide apart because they’re apt to get a little light-headed. And that is when the big cats might strike.

Rumbling along a safari track once upon a time, B. (short for Bonnetswe, our guide in the Okavango Delta) told us the single most dramatic thing he had ever seen; it was the time he watched a giraffe kill about ten lions before finally going down to the final five.

If a horse’s kick can seriously injure a man, he grinned, “Imagine the giraffe,” whose foot is as wide as a dinner plate. And so lions usually leave giraffes alone. Except when they’re drinking.

As it happens, and thankfully (if you’re the giraffe) they needn’t drink more than every second or third day. To minimize the time they have to spend in that vulnerable stance they manage to get most of the moisture they require from the leaves they eat (For this same reason they need not migrate).

Consider the browsing life of a giraffe. While other animals compete for food on the ground, up in the trees, up there, if you’re a giraffe, it’s mine, all mine. Which means giraffes can afford to be discerning eaters.

Using half meter long prehensile black tongues, they take branches in their mouths and pull their heads away, leaves along with them. Their preferred leaves are thorny acacia. They grind the thorns between their molars (In the Okavango the acacia is known as the toothpick tree. They also use their thorns as sewing needles.)

Now, every bit of explanatory science I have ever seen notes the giraffe’s tongue is prehensile, and then goes on as if everybody knows what that means. What prehensile means is “adapted for holding,” from the Latin prehendere, “to grasp.” Unlike a giraffe’s hoof or a dog’s paw, our hands are prehensile, in the sense that we have opposable thumbs.

The giraffe uses his up to eighteen-inch tongue to slide up a branch and grab a bunch of twigs and leaves (They prefer acacia, which are important sources of calcium and protein. Plus, tender acacia twigs may contain 74 percent water.). Nobody except maybe the largest elephant can reach twenty feet from the ground to eat, and you can see this at work in areas rife with giraffes, as they create a “browse line” along the trees.

But if eating is a walk in the wildlife park, with the pick of only the very best leaves in the tree, it takes a lot of leaves – and a lot of time – for a giraffe to get his fill. A 3000-pound bull needs around 75 pounds of food a day, and it may take him three-quarters of the day to get it.

•••••

Charles Darwin developed a theory of natural selection but he didn’t claim it was efficient. To the contrary, he called it clumsy, wasteful and blundering.

Clumsy or not, evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology David P. Barash points out that natural selection has to work with what it has got.

In the giraffe, he writes, “natural selection has produced a creature that on the one hand is spectacularly adapted to its peculiar ecological niche” and on the other is a poster child for Darwin’s clumsy, wasteful and blundering.

Barash points out that to pump blood to the head, seven feet over its heart, giraffes require “exceptionally high” blood pressure. To keep blood from remaining in their feet they have “evolved the equivalent of compression stockings” (which would also be useful for visiting Americans on the long plane ride to Africa to see them).

Barash notes “giraffes are fully six feet taller than other competing browsers, which would seem to argue that competitive foraging as such hasn’t been the main driving pressure behind their altitudinal evolution.” And thus he coyly presents a peculiar practice of male giraffes that he suggests could have furthered positive evolutionary selection for those long necks.

During the rut, male giraffes will stand shoulder to shoulder, parallel with one another and use their necks, as Barash puts it, “roughly like a medieval ball-and-chain weapon, or flail.”

And this can hurt. Giraffe horns, called “ossicones,” are harder than the keratin of cattle horns. They are skin-covered cartilage, actually fused to the animal’s skull, that over time hardens into bone. Only the giraffe and okapi [which deserves its own article] have ossicones.

Giraffes hammer each other with their heads until one of the opponents gives up and cedes dominance. Barash speculates that since the longer the neck, the more force behind each blow, females may prefer long-necked giraffes, and this preference may be passed along genetically. This is the “necks for sex” hypothesis.

At least that is one idea. Cynthia Moss’s 1973 Portraits in the Wild precedes Barash’s work, and back then she was having none of it. To Moss, “A necking match is a lovely sight.” She calls it “gentle sparring,” punctuated by pauses to stare into the distance for some time, affecting “a slight air of superiority.”

Moss notes too that giraffes are different in different places. She cites different researchers’ variable findings.

Giraffes may be found “singly, in twos and threes, and in herds of up to fifty.” One of the researchers she cites, Carlos Mejia, says “They are gregarious but they don’t interact.” Mejia, she says, can’t figure out why they come together at all.

She found researchers agreed that giraffes’ social structures are loose, open, “with giraffes coming and going as they please.”

On the one hand, in Mejia’s study in Tanzania herds may be made up of “males, females, and young, all males or all females, or any combination….” and a “herd rarely comprises the same individuals for more than a few consecutive days.”

On the other, “the sexes in Nairobi park show distinct preferences for different areas. The females and young stay on the plains, whereas the males tend to stay in the forested area.”

•••••

In the Thula Thula Royal Zulu Game Reserve in Kwa-Zulu Natal, we once saw a very baby calf, so newborn that it only just reached its mother’s knees, far below her body. She kept her calf tight to her side and remained most attentive to us, but that after-the-fact tenderness doesn’t cover up for the brutality of birth.

The giraffe calf receives a jarring first wake up call, being dropped head first some 5-1/2 feet from the womb to the ground, but it is soon standing, close to six feet tall and weighing 150 pounds.

And they grow so fast! In their first year some four feet, and Cynthia Moss cites reports that they can grow nine inches in a single week.

•••••

As a ruminant, the giraffe swallows its food, which must then be rechewed. Ruminants have a four-chambered stomach. Received by the reticulum, the vegetation forms into fist-sized balls and is regurgitated, chewed, swallowed and then passed into the other chambers, the rumen, omasum and abomasum, all in the process of digestion.

This is a three, four, five hour a day process that we call “chewing the cud” in the farm animals back home. All the ruminant are mammals, including yaks and goats and sheep, deer and antelopes and cows.

All that eating takes up most of a giraffes’ day. Moss tells us that in a giraffe’s day no more than five to thirty minutes at a time are spent sleeping. And even then, giraffes, especially moms with young babies, may sleep with one eye open, a practice they share with flying things like bats, ducks and chickens and, it is said, dolphins too.

•••••

If giraffes ran like most other hoofstock, their extra-long legs would be liable to get tangled up, so they move both their legs on one side and then the other, alternating sides. This is called “pacing” and has the effect of making the giraffe seem to run in slow motion when in fact those long legs cover prodigious ground. The giraffe can flee a pursuer at 55 kilometers per hour, though not for sustained periods.

In fact, the word giraffe comes from “zafarah,” for “one who walks swiftly.” Zafarah is Arabic, from the land of camels, and the camel runs like the giraffe; it also “paces.” Perhaps that similarity half accounts for the giraffes’ Latin species name, camelopardalis. The “leopardalis” part? There was an archaic belief that the giraffe was part leopard – because of those spots.

•••••

As with other animals on the African plain in general, Moss writes that “It is rare for a giraffe to die of old age; when it becomes very old and weak, it is usually taken by a predator.” Back in the 90’s, when I was very new at this, I remember a visit to Ngorongoro Crater, when a wildlife guide named Godfrey showed us a zebra with a broken leg on the edge of a herd, and said it wouldn’t make it until morning. This horrified me, and I lay in the dark and thought about it that night.

The system in the African wild is efficient, and it is surely ruthless, too. If we humans (some of us) have the good fortune to die in bed, pain-mitigated, that surely is not true on the African plains.

•••••

Got a minute to buy me a cup of coffee?

Africa Vignette Series

t3

At the end of the month we’re heading to the Maasai Mara for the annual wildebeest migration. Between now and then, here is a blizzard of little African vignettes. They are just short little bits, not in any particular order, not particularly edited. Maybe they’ll entice you to visit too one day. Hope you enjoy them. All the photos in this series are from EarthPhotos.com.

15 Tanzania

The Ngorongoro microclimate is remarkable. Dust devils kick up on the other side of the plain. They’re mini-tornados of swirling sand and dust, evoking the desert. At the same time, thunder crackles across the crater and a storm looms up on the rim, even as we’re topping off our sunburns down on the crater floor.

We’re about to turn and begin the climb up to the rim when Mirja spots something way in the distance, off toward the west, over around the pond. This usually means a rhino, zebra, wildebeest or lion, since these are the animals big enough to appear as little dots across the plain. But this is different, curiously shaped. It’s taller than the pack animals. But there are no giraffes in Ngorongoro.

Godfrey grabs the binoculars and all at once all three of us gasp, “It’s a man!”

Two other jeeps make the same discovery and all three of us hustle over to save this fool daredevil. Lions, even hyenas could’ve attacked, but he makes it to the first arriving jeep. Turns out his jeep was stuck and, getting on in the afternoon as it was, he was afraid his passengers would have to spend the night there if no one else happened by, so he decided to chance it.

There’s a lot of relieved joking and laughter. He points to the tiny distant speck that is his jeep. Must’ve walked a couple of kilometers barehanded through lions in the grass.

This entire series of vignettes will reside here, in the Africa section. If you enjoy them please have a look at my two travel books, Common Sense and Whiskey and Visiting Chernobyl.

Africa Vignette Series

t2

At the end of the month we’re heading to the Maasai Mara for the annual wildebeest migration. Between now and then, here is a blizzard of little African vignettes. They are just short little bits, not in any particular order, not particularly edited. Maybe they’ll entice you to visit too one day. Hope you enjoy them. All the photos in this series are from EarthPhotos.com.

10 Tanzania

Godfrey’s Land Rover is solid as a rock with two seats, then two more seats, then a bench, then storage behind. Bars extend top to bottom at several strategic locations, for passengers to grab while lurching along bad roads. A panel pops out above the roof and pivots on four legs. That allows you to stand clear of impediments to viewing (unless you’re a basketball player) and gives shade from sun and rain, too.

So we stand up in the pop-top and survey 60 or 80 wildebeests, each looking like an ungainly mix of ox, antelope and horse. Godfrey reckons this herd (which passes through and doesn’t live exclusively in the crater) at about 1.6 million strong, but he says fully a quarter, some 400,000 may die in their annual migration. Looks like they replenish themselves fast, though. There are more moms and kids in this herd than anyone else.

They sound like sheep on testosterone.

One side of the hill asks a question, “Mmmmmm?”

The other side answers, “Mmmmmm.”

Up and down. Tonal. Godfrey suggests they’re introducing themselves by their other name, “Gnuuuu. Gnu. Gnuuuuu.”

There are always zebra around wildebeests. Here they stand, shaking and twitching like neurotics. They get the Day One Most Dispirited-Looking Beast Award. The little ones, and even some of the bigger ones, have an unfledged, unbecoming brown fuzz.

Two ostriches, a male (black) and a female, (brown) cut solitary profiles way out in the field by themselves as the silliest bird in creation comes close by, the crown crane. With a fanned out bright yellow  and red wattle, they’re entirely preposterous.

Suddenly, up from the brush beside the creek, a Coke’s hartebeest bolts right in front of us, dramatically and nakedly all by himself, straight across our path and out onto the plain. These antelopes weigh around 300 pounds but this one bounds light as a gazelle half his weight. Indeed, the Coke’s is one of the fastest antelopes, and an endurance runner. The hartebeest is sort of a white collar wildebeest, presentable and cleaned up, without the straggly mane. A wildebeest with a clean shave.

This entire series of vignettes will reside here, in the Africa section. If you enjoy them please have a look at my two travel books, Common Sense and Whiskey and Visiting Chernobyl.

Africa Vignette Series

t1

At the end of the month we’re heading to the Maasai Mara for the annual wildebeest migration. Between now and then, here is a blizzard of little African vignettes. They are just short little bits, not in any particular order, not particularly edited. Maybe they’ll entice you to visit too one day. Hope you enjoy them. All the photos in this series are from EarthPhotos.com.

6 Tanzania

The Ngorongoro Crater is a result of faulting, the remnants of a volcano probably larger than Africa’s tallest peak, Kilimanjaro, created a couple or a few million years ago. At some point long ago, further rifting caused the fast withdrawal of lava from beneath the volcano, resulting in its collapse.

Today it’s the largest unbroken and unflooded volcanic caldera in the world; it is huge, with an area of 92 square miles (259 square kilometers). It’s 610 meters (2001 feet) from rim to floor and a massive 192 miles (310 kilometers) in circumference. A drive around the rim is the distance from Boston to New York. Imagine.

Just as the sun sets and colors instantly fade, the road crawls around the edge of the escarpment, and Lake Manyara spreads before us. Then, over the north side of the hill, we bear down in a dive for the crater rim.

All of the lodges sit along the rim – none on the floor. There are five: the one where we’ll stay and three others, which host visitors from various tour operators, and one private lodge for Abercrombie and Kent safaris. I’ll take the opportunity to perpetuate a good story, even though I can’t say for sure if it’s true:

When Geoffrey Kent and his parents founded their tour company in Kenya in 1962 they knew Kent Tours lacked that certain magic. But Abercrombie, now, there’s a name that speaks of aristocracy, so Mr. Kent’s tour company became Abercrombie and Kent. They say there never was an Abercrombie.

This entire series of vignettes will reside here, in the Africa section. If you enjoy them please have a look at my two travel books, Common Sense and Whiskey and Visiting Chernobyl.

Africa Vignette Series

t43

At the end of the month we’re heading to the Maasai Mara for the annual wildebeest migration. Between now and then, here is a blizzard of little African vignettes. They are just short little bits, not in any particular order, not particularly edited. Maybe they’ll entice you to visit too one day. Hope you enjoy them. All the photos in this series are from EarthPhotos.com.

3 Tanzania

Tanzania generally comprises the former German East Africa. Germany came late to the Scramble for Africa, as the Europeans’ colonizing land grabs came to be known, and left early, because it was stripped of its colonies after the Great War. Its important colonies were only four – today’s Togo, Cameroon and Namibia along the west coast and today’s Tanzania, in the east.

For a while, German Chancellor Bismarck hung back from colonizing Africa with plaintive realpolitik: “Here is Russian and here is France,” he said, “with Germany in the middle. That is my map of Africa.”

Bismarck was no cosmopolitan, hardly a product of the European salon. A provincial, a scion of Prussia, he declared “The only healthy basis of a large state which differentiates it essentially from a petty state, is state egoism and not romanticism.” And by 1884, as Britain and France were madly laying their African stakes, a sense the Germans called Torschlusspanik, or “door-closing-panic,” took hold in Germany, a fear that it might be left out. Traders felt mercantile pressure from their British and French rivals, and let the government know it.

Maybe it was best to get while the getting was still good. Bismarck reexamined, applied a dose of egoism and with the support and urging of business interests from Hamburg and Bremen, Bismarck instructed the German explorer Dr Gustav Nachtigal to seize Cameroon, Togoland and Southwest Africa, which is now Namibia.

This entire series of vignettes will reside here, in the Africa section. If you enjoy them please have a look at my two travel books, Common Sense and Whiskey and Visiting Chernobyl.

Vignettes from Africa I – Driving to Nairobi

Here's a short series to be posted over several days, random short experiences in Africa. Not necessarily in any order, just observations collected over time.

Two hours 25 minutes beyond the lip of the Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania, we found a tarmac road. Open-backed, full-polluting Tatas tore across the flats outside town.

The run-up to Arusha was shady, tree lined, graceful. Then after the coffee plantations, ramshackle stalls like "Lucky Feed M ill." "Lucky Family General Store." "Moona Pharmacy." ("Moona is an obscenity in Finnish) "Beuty Saloon."

We got a driver in Arusha named Moses, and he said we'd make Nairobi by 4:00. Arusha called itself the halfway point between Cairo and the Cape. Maybe so, but I wondered, so what?

A few years ago a United Nations conference was postponed here because a snake fried the wiring of the Arusha International Conference Center. Made it too hot to use.

Over at the Mount Meru Hotel they’d be happy to arrange tickets for you on Air Burundi or Sudan Airways – whichever you’d like.

Moses stopped in at a little bar he knew for us to change the rest of our Tanzanian shillings into four Tusker premiums, and we sure did roll into Nairobi right at 4:00.

•••••

The most delicious thing in Nairobi was a three-day-old newspaper. It was nine days since we'd seen one. Walking back from the newsstand, a fight broke out right in the middle of Kenyatta Avenue. We stepped around the pile of people and settled into the ex-pat bar at the New Stanley Hotel, called the Thorn Tree.

Several cold Premium beers later, Maurice, a man from United Touring Company, came stridin’ in like the guy in those Keep On Truckin’ cartoons to settle a debt, clutching a one hundred dollar bill and a five.

Caught up, Premium braced and a hundred bucks richer, we felt like stepping out. They tell you not to brave the Nairobi streets at night. But the cabs wanted five bucks for two blocks’ walk, so we said screw 'em, and we walked to a place called Trattoria for Italian dinner, and then walked back. Most of the people on the streets were security men with clubs.

Next: Flying to Zimbabwe