May 27, 2018

The Holy Grail of Discovery, From Fascination to Seduction

Judge a man by his questions
rather than his answers.

Voltaire

Playing with tires, usually running with them
After two safaris it became obvious that they can be dissimilar even if the animals you are there to admire are mainly the same.  The first safari (Maasai Mara) took place in a reserve, the second (Lake Nakuru) a park.  Simply put, the main difference between a reserve and a park is that human habitation is excluded in a park. 

In reserves, human activities (wood collection, fishing, grazing) are allowed under specific conditions.  In parks, there is complete protection of natural resources and the only activities permissible are tourism and research.  National reserves denote preservation areas ‘where the reasonable needs of the human inhabitants living within the area must take preference’. (National Park Trustee’s Report, 1951)

It is important to note that a lot of Kenya’s wildlife lives outside these parks and reserves since most are not fully fenced, allowing the wildlife to move in and out as needed.  There are also wildlife ranches, conservancies and sanctuaries.  When outside these areas, animals may interact with people causing human-wildlife conflicts, (more on this in a later post) something that urgently needs to be addressed with a human population growing so rapidly.


In the first one (reserve), we met many locals – drivers, guides, artisans, herders, kids, etc.  In the second (park), we only met guards working on location.  In the first one, the Maasais have an incentive to see the reserve succeed as they are ‘partners’ in the operation.  In the second one, locals are not as motivated, seeing the park from the outside.  The people living in the reserve have more at stakes, the ones working in the park are merely employees.

In the first one there was a feeling of being welcomed by the locals, in the second we felt like we were intruding on the guards resting in the shade.  In the first, they are proud to show us around, in the second, we are an inconvenience. 

In the first one, the drivers would not necessarily follow tracks or roads, they had more leeway to make decisions.  If there was something interesting to see they would go towards it if appropriate.  In the second one, we stayed on the tracks or roads no matter what we saw. 

In the first one, the guides/drivers occasionally had generational connections with the animals, sometimes giving them names and knowing their personalities.  In the second, we had to figure that on our own.  Hearing about the peculiarities of each animals made the experience a lot more interesting.

In the first one, there seems to be enough food for everyone, in the second it was clear that there was a lot of overgrazing. 

In the first one, the acacia trees looked healthy, in the second, they showed a lot of scarring.  I asked our guide about the scars thinking they were made by elephants, but he said it was a new disease ravaging these trees.

Overall the first one felt more alive, well-rounded and healthy, the second in need of TLC.  These are just my first impressions, but I would gladly return to the Maasai Mara Reserve and wouldn’t be as inclined to return to the Lake Nakuru Park at this point unless I had someone with a vested interest guiding me with their eyes and knowledge. 

Kenya alone has 34 reserves and 27 parks so there is much more to explore than what I have seen so far in just this one country!

Dressed in his blues, Patrick, our driver/mechanic, making sure everything is in top shape
We stop for lunch near a lake under the shade of trees and we start a conversation with some of the guards who are a bit bored and don’t mind sharing stories for entertainment.  At one point one of them offers to ‘interbreed’ with me!  What an expression, I am taken back a little.  He is less than half my age for one and it is quite blunt for two.  Someone explains that Africans are pretty open about sexuality.  I didn’t feel threatened, just surprised. 

Black and white colobus monkey. 
Their fur was and is highly prized to make coats.
We see black and white colobus monkeys way up in the trees, a black rhino with her baby, and very few flamingos too far away to take pictures.  They are much lighter in color than the pink ones I have seen in Mexico.  A matter of food source or specie?  White butterflies are covering the trees around us, they are so numerous it almost looks like fluttering snowflakes on a windy day.

We head to Eldoret for some shopping before reaching Jinja, in Uganda.  Located by Victoria Lake known as the source of the famed Nile River.

So striking in appearance, once moonlighted in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
As "Golana Melon" from the planet Golana
We have time to walk around town to purchase lunch.  We see an unknown fruit and ask about it.  It is a thorny or jelly melon (Cucumis metuliferus).  We buy some to try.  It is lime-green clear jelly-like inside.  It is supposed to taste like a combo of banana, cucumber and lime but it is quite sour so maybe it wasn’t completely ripe.  The fruit easily grows in this area many think of it as a medicinal food.

It is mid-week near lunch hour.  We pass by two small girls clothed in pure white lacy dresses and sparkly gold shoes.  Their hair immaculately braided.  Strangely overdressed for this modest service town in western Kenya.  They are as intrigued about us as we are about them.  There doesn’t seem to be any special event going on to warrant such fancy garments.  After rushed hellos, we move on, settling on samosas for lunch.  We return to Pluto for the next part of today’s trip.

Eldoret is where many Kenyan long-distance runners come from or train – the high elevation 7,000-9,000 feet (2,100-2,700 m) helping.  Eldoret is not a tourist destination but the surrounding regions have recently grown into sport tourism thanks to its renowned world runners and pleasing weather conditions.

The native runners contribute significantly to the economy of the town.  Culturally, each athlete has a ring of dependents to support.  The higher the ranking, the more money they make, the more people they are expected to support.  In and around town, athletes have built offices, hospitals, clinics, apartment complexes, shopping centers and gas stations. 

Why do they run so fast?
‘We are running away from poverty.’
A great incentive.

Moving on…  to Jinja in Uganda

White Nile, left, Blue Nile, right
Meeting in Khartoum then down to the Med Sea
We have covered 465 of the 8,700 miles (750 of the 14,000 km) of our whole tour… barely 5% yet we have seen so much already.  We are spoiled.

We settle for the night near the location of the Jinja Ripon Falls on the shores of Lake Victoria.  The falls have disappeared under the water held by a dam as far back as 1954 but the place has kept the name.  Water around 25 degrees and a long train of rapids make this place famous for its exciting year-round rafting.  Unfortunately, the new Isimba dam to be completed May 2018 will raise the river some 80 feet (25 meters) and practically wipe out many of the best rapids. Excellent whitewater will remain but mainly for beginners and perhaps intermediate paddlers; experts and top-level freestylers will have to look somewhere else for adventure.  Only half day runs will be offered instead of full days.  The whitewater community will need to be creative to address these drastic changes. 

Even though I was not interested in the rapids, all around me are people in wet suits or wearing life jackets and getting ready to either kayak or float down the rapids in rafts.  A couple come back injured, one is from our group and his knee doesn’t completely heal for the whole 70+ days he is on the trip with us.  The raft hit a rock, his knee hit the same rock.  The rock tore open the raft as well as his knee.  They had to evacuate the raft and go downriver in others.  It is not without danger that you go down the Nile River rapids.

First day some of us visited the village of Jinja with Luke as a guide. 

Before we head out we stop at a small roadside café to buy chapatis for breakfast.  Warm, filling, and delicious.  Men are cooking, a few of the places where you see them at work!  

Brick ovens
Different ovens dot the landscape.  We go from charcoal to brick ovens.  They are found in many areas along the road.  No need for transportation, just make them right where you need them.

Local clothing for women, puffed high sleeve ‘gomesi’
Using anything to carry items on their head
Holding hands is common woman to woman and man to man
Oblivious to our group, cows and goats are busy eating dry cornstalks on each side of the dirt road heading to the village.  As the heat of the day rises, the goats curl up in slight depressions in the dirt, the cows head for shade to stay a bit cooler.  Three donkeys attached in parallel are pulling a cart containing many plastic containers full of water.  The common themes everywhere we look in Africa seem to be water and walking. 

A barefoot woman is taking the bark off a tree trunk with a machete, the smell of fresh wood fills the air.  The soil looks rich and blood-red like in Hawaii.  Jacarandas are in bloom, their giant blue-purple flowers inviting you to look up.  A grownup is shaking empty jugs at kids, signaling the need for yet more water.  

Winnowing
A mother carries a bunch of bananas on her head, her daughter a watermelon.  Young boys, rather than jumping both feet in puddles, jumps both feet in fresh cow dung.  Women are sorting rice using large flat round woven winnowing baskets.  The wind being the ally, taking away the chaff and keeping the nutritious grain.  Rarely do we see girls play, they are the workers in the African world, but a few are following us around and skipping rope.  They are quite reserved however.  Usually solely boys surround us when we walk in villages either with a tour or on our own.  

Shy but present – a rarity to see girls not working
I spot a loom; a man is weaving a hammock.  Kilombera Weaving employs the locals and they also weave kikoys (African sarong), bedspreads, mats, rugs, scarfs, etc.  Colorful and beautiful.  The area used to employ thousands in the craft but now with cheap imports or secondhand clothing from Goodwill, these jobs are long gone.  Rwanda as we will see later during our trip is making illegal the import of Goodwill clothing to help save its own garment workers.

Sewing is being taught on old treadle Singer sewing machines.  The school is too poor to use cloth, so they use cement paper bags for their pattern and to practice sewing before graduating to using fabric.  Nothing gets wasted in Africa.

Yes, boys can play, laugh, goof off… 
With his favorite toy, a toilet seat and borrowed sunglasses from Jonas (left)
Losing the peanut he was playing with
Climbing up to thump on the jack fruits to see if they are ripe
Drying corn and/or cassava or millet
Pounding cassava
Not spelled correctly (should be Marie) but that’s ok.  Natural cassava chalk
Corn and/or cassava is drying on tarps in a courtyard.  Our guide picks up the flour to illustrate the differences.  Showing that it can also be used as chalk, he writes my name on a door with cassava.

Left, corn flour, right millet flour
While mom is in class
Waiting outside of school
Roasting coffee beans
Delicious village lunch spread of green bananas with peanut sauce, sweet potatoes,
cassava chips, beans, spinach, warm spicy coleslaw – jackfruit for dessert (not shown)
We had a great time in the Jinja village.  Of course, I am aware the locals are on display and not all is natural and true, but it still gives you a sense of how they live.  They don’t do monoculture; every space of usable land is used to grow various interconnected crops.  Passionfruit, banana, jackfruit, sweet potato, cassava, corn, coffee, avocado, soybean, lemon grass, peanut, even a bit of pot but they claim it is for medicinal use (they don’t try to hide the plants from us).

A man roasts coffee – they sell it at what looks like a small cooperative.  Kids mill around.  Luke explains that a certain type of tree is planted and used as a boundary tree.  It helps delineate various properties.  They don’t use fence like we do, just trees.  

Sunset on Lake Victoria where the current is quite strong
It has been a great day – now time to watch the river go by before we kayak it tomorrow.

Kayaking to the source of the Nile River

Lake Victoria is bordered by Tanzania (49%), Uganda (45%), and Kenya (6%).  We are on the Uganda side near the theoretical source of the Nile River.  About 85% of the water inflow is caused by rainfall rather than rivers.  Fifteen percent of the outflow is due to evaporation!  The lake’s water is primarily used to generate hydroelectricity.  It is the second largest fresh water lake in the world (behind Lake Superior) in surface area.  In volume, it is only the 9th, being a very shallow lake.

The Source of River Nile
Of course my head is in the way of the name…
The Nile River is so long, it meanders through 11 countries: Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Republic of Sudan, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda.  Quite a trip!

Ankole cow
Their very large horns, full of blood vessels, helps them cool off
Waiting by the river – not looking very happy
Many fossils have been discovered on some of the more than 3,000 islands in the lake.  These primate and reptile fossils are as old as 15 million years.

The Nile was considered the longest river in the world but now the Amazon is thought the longest, measuring about 87 miles (140 km) more.  With the advent of satellite measurements and with more sophisticated explorative techniques these numbers could change again.

It takes about three months for the water from Lake Victoria to reach the Mediterranean Sea.  A journey of about 4,250 miles. 

The source of the Nile has been disputed for a very long time.  We went to see the source of the Nile as it was thought to be in 1858 and for many years thereafter.  Lake Victoria was first believed to be the source but its main feeder, the Kagera River, is now accepted as the true source of the Nile. 

Alexander the Great is said to have asked about the Nile and a proverb grew over the centuries.  Dreamers of the impossible were often told: ‘It would be easier to find the source of the Nile.’

Whomever would discover the source of the Nile would be a hero. The Holy Grail of discovery.
Determining the Source of the Nile could be compared with the quest to put man on the moon in terms of the sheer fascination of the public with this subject during the Victorian era.

‘Whoever would discover the source of the Nile was sure to win for himself fame, wealth and nobility.’

James Burton and John Speke, among others, set off in a joint expedition which was soon fraught with mishaps and calamities and culminated in a bed-ridden Burton being left behind while a virtually (temporarily) blind John Speke proceeded to the southern shores of Lake Victoria. They suffered malaria, spear wounds from the native’s revolt, flesh-eating ulcers and insects. Speke even had to cut an insect out of his own ear resulting in massive infection, ending up deaf on that side. 

The locals told of a vast river at the northern tip of the Lake Nalubaale (of the gods), which Speke renamed Lake Victoria a tribute to his financial benefactors, the British Royal Family. Speke concluded that this had to be the Source of the Nile and returned to proclaim his discovery.

Burton however contended that Speke never actually saw the Nile and suggested instead that Lake Tanganyika was the Source of River Nile.

It was Burton who was believed and knighted with the noble “Sir”.

The day Speke was to present evidence of his claim that it was Lake Victoria rather than Tanganyika that was the Source of the Nile he accidently shot himself while scaling a wall with his hunting rifle hanging at his side.  Burton was quick to say that it was suicide because Speke didn’t want to face embarrassment promoting that Lake Victoria was the source of the Nile. 

Through analysis of his notes, the truth was finally established, and a monument was erected on the western bank of the Nile, which today is in Jinja, Uganda.  Speke was finally recognized as the one finding the Source of the Nile.

Since then many explorers have wanted to travel further upstream to look at the Kagera River’s own feeders claiming that the source of the Nile could be as far back as Rwanda or Burundi.  Should they succeed in having that source recognize, it would go something like this: A stream empties in the Ruvyironza River, which then empties in the bigger Ruvuvu River; the Ruvubu River then meets with the Nyabarongo of Rwanda further north to create the famous or infamous Kagera which goes into Lake Victoria…

‘Since the Aswan High Dam was built in 1973,
the Nile has become something of a grand canal.
It is wide, flat, slow, and so calm it verges on the geriatric.’
Rosemary Mahoney

"Denial ain't just a river in Egypt."
Mark Twain

Side note about the Nile.  The city of Rosetta is located around this famous river.  It was here that the famous Rosetta Stone was found, its inscriptions helping modern people understand Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Even if this is not the ‘true’ source of the Nile, the work involved to find it was courageous and astonishing.  To be here feels like being part of an audacious story…. First you are fascinated by the history, then you are seduced by the beautiful river and its surroundings.  

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