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

Adding Insult to Injury (from Crocodiles)

This photo, from the Rwandan border town of Gisenyi, is as close as we got to the UN/NGO-dominated town of Goma, Dem. Rep. Congo. U.N. charters flew in almost constantly. Click the photo for a larger version you can actually see.

 

Goma

To and from Gisenyi, long haul trucks from the Indian Ocean ports of Mombasa and Dar es-Salaam brought goods to supply eastern Congo. Congo itself, mind you, fronts the Atlantic Ocean. But the state of its infrastructure is so dismal as to require the eastern half of the country to be supplied from the other side of the continent.

So it’s no real surprise to see this article from the AP: Wildebeest roadblock? Highway planned in Serengeti. Along with the crocodiles in the Mara River, it’s one more obstacle the wildebeests really don’t need.

*****

Right now the annual wildebeest migration across the Masai Mara is in full swing. Here are a couple of sites tracking wildebeest movement:

Annual Wildebeest Migration
The Great Migration


Ngorongoro Crater Wildlife: From the Eventual Book

Zebras

Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater is the caldera of an ancient volcano, 610 meters from rim to floor and a massive 310 kilometers in circumference. Safari lodges perch on the rim, and at the time of our visit there were five, the one where we stayed and three others, plus one for the private use of Abercrombie and Kent safaris.

The story is told that when Kent set out to found his tour company he knew Kent Tours lacked that certain magic. But Abercrombie, now, there's a name that spoke of aristocracy, so Mr. Kent's tour company became Abercrombie and Kent. There never was an Abercrombie.

At 8:00 at night, at the entrance to the crater – a pole pulled across a rutted track – there's 20 minutes of inane paperwork to be done by Very Important Clerks. I guess it was impossible to put those papers in order beforehand, or handle them more quickly.

Driving in, and traveling to the right along the rim, Mirja bolted upright. A leopard! Lying right there in the road! It was gone in a flash but it took good eyes to spy one at all, stealthy and rare as they are. That was thrilling.

Continue reading