Jun 23, 2018

From the Land of a Thousand Hills to the Land of Endless Space

Partir c’est mourir un peu

Edmond Haraucourt

Boys herding goats
With endless lush mountains and natural beauty, it is easy to forget that the atrocities of ‘The Genocide against the Tutsi’ happened in Rwanda less than 25 years ago.

Blue doors in a sea of red and green
This too-big-for-me bike won’t stop him from biking
Just stay on one side of the bike
Nearly everything in Rwanda is new, history almost wiped clean in 1994.  In some ways making its environment feels a bit sterile, no eminent ruins on hilltops, very few meaningful historical landmarks to visit, sadly but understandably only genocide memorials.  Most animals, wild or domesticated, were killed during the famine that ensued, few dogs or cats walk the streets of this convalescing country. 

Wheelbarrow lined up – ready and waiting to work
School entrance
We travel from dense rainforest to bamboo bosquets followed by tamed swampy land into more rice fields and steadily flattening and expanding grassland.  

Oh that powerful ‘rungu’ stick
From Rwanda to Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park we drive through farms of sunflower, lemongrass, tobacco, sisal, amaranth, millet, soybeans, peanuts, popcorn, and many others.  Several cornstalks are covered with various color bags needed for hand pollination.  Dragonflies are in season, flying everywhere, accenting the sky with their translucent gleaming wings.  

Outdoor dishwashing
Next to the long road ahead, more quick glimpses caught from the bus windows.  At times I feel like a grandmother sitting in her rocking chair on a covered porch watching the world go by.

We begin to see people hitchhiking in a way I have never seen before.  Instead of holding up a thumb or an index finger (where a thumb up means something akin to up-yours!), they hold up paper currency.  Since each denomination comes in assorted colors, it is easy for a driver to tell from a distance what is offered.  500 shillings are green and worth $0.22, 1,000 shillings are blue, 2,000 shillings are orange… I never saw anyone with higher bills looking for a ride, none having more than $0.88 to offer!

Typical gathering of men just hanging out
Swimming, washing, playing – only boys… some laundry drying
Bananas and bags of veggies
At our first stop in Tanzania, we stay in a tiny village at a hotel near a mosque.  There is little power and hot water comes from a huge wood heated cauldron.  You dip a bucket for water and quickly return to your room with the precious commodity.  The restrooms are tiled so you ‘bucket shower’ near a drain in the floor without damaging the floor or walls.  Afterward, we settle in while our hosts prepare dinner.  

Smile? Bikes are used for everything
Beer caps checkers
A couple of men play checkers on a board they designed and use two types of beer caps as pieces (similar types for each side).  Dinner is scrumptious and made from local ingredients.  Taking the time to let them know how delicious the food is, our cooks beam with broad smiles.  They do not seem used to compliments.  Kids play in the yard as we eat but keep a curious eye on our every move, adding to the sensation that we are staying at a family business.  Mom issues the bedrooms, son gives out keys, daughters and mom cook meal, son keeps water hot and an eye on the entrance should more guests arrive.  I do not see a possible ‘dad’.   

Smiling boys
Non-smiling girls
Handmade ‘soccer’ ball
They use plastic, paper, twine, whatever they find
I head to bed early, ready for the next long drive before reaching the Serengeti.  As darkness settles in, the night guard shows up with bow and arrow as well as a ‘rungu’ stick.  I didn’t expect guards to be equipped that way today.  It feels like we are going way back in time. 

In the room, a four-post bed awaits, mosquito net hanging from its posts.  The star and crescent at the top of the mosque’s cupola is silhouetted against a pale rising moon in the window at the foot of the bed.  Their chants will be the first sounds we hear in the morning as we make early preparations for another long day on the road.

Booking office
Watching in front of the ‘Diluxe Hotel’
It seems like fewer animals are being herded and more kept close to homes.  We see many small enclosures with goats, calves, donkeys and even cows.  They have little room to move but are fed by hand.  Not sure if this is a function of lack of land or cultural habit?  Chicken coops are built high on stilts or over home’s doorways just under the eaves – safe places to spend their nights.  The first Maasai Mara village we visited had two special rooms attached to their home, one for a calf and one for wood. The room for the calf smelled heavily of ammonia and I couldn’t see attaching this type of room to a place where I lived, cooked and slept; the smell quite overpowering. 

Inyambo (or ankole) cows
Amazing animals with large horns designed for cooling off
Carrying inyambo cows, tying their heads up to frame of truck
Watch those horns under your butts
Many homes have tin roofs rather than thatch.  They probably feel this is an improvement but to me it is sad they are going in that direction.  These roofs can hold insects and small critters but are much noisier during rain and wind storms.  They do not insulate as well from cold or heat.  Lastly, people here do not have the funds or suitable materials to install them properly, so they usually just hold them down with rocks or bricks – not a fool-proof way of keeping a roof over your head.  A few have incompatible looking satellite dishes, not sure if just for display or if they can afford it.  We have seen many people wearing watches or carrying cell phones that do not work but they proudly brandish them just for show.   

Tomatoes – expecting pickup
Waiting for pick-up of produce
Men are sitting at the side of the road sewing what appears to be old woven plastic flour bags into tarps, others are washing the best coal bags for reuse.  Next to them are younger men washing bikes or cars in any size puddles along the road, a small boy in an incongruous three-piece suit too large for him is watching it all.  

Aimless with bikes
We pass by many quarries and each is filled with people breaking down rocks in smaller and smaller chunks with hand tools or other rocks.  Women, men, and some children working side by side.  Each small group under the shade of a few branches still covered in green leaves they picked that morning to help diffuse the heat of that day.  They pick new branches, serving the same purpose, each following day. 

French fries and eggs – quick fix
We take a ferry crossing the southern end of Lake Victoria.  We eat some French fries cooked in eggs (their version of fast food, the fries are precooked, they only need to cook the eggs, toss and voilà) while we waited for its departure.  I watch many people who, by the way they look around and hold onto the seats and handrails have probably never been on a boat.  Good thing it is a calm day.  On the way off the ferry I was behind an 8-10-year-old kid who had never been on a stairway and did not know how to climb down.  His mom had to coax him gently.  It is rather strange to think of a kid that age never having been on stairs before.  As soon as he was on terra-firma, he was acting like a normal kid again.

Rocky islands at the south end of Lake Victoria
Some people on our tour had bought sodas.  Upon disembarking, the vendors came running after them, so they could get the glass bottles back.  They make money returning them, so they keep a keen eye on every single one of them.  We saw the same scenario at border crossings, gas stations, or small side of the road food stalls.  Even to the extent of running after Pluto (our bus) yelling for the return of the bottles.  

We enter a part of tsetse fly country and are forewarned not to wear dark colors, especially blues and blacks.  Several do not heed this advice and they constantly swap at real, but much more often, imaginary tsetse flies.  Their stings are about as strong as a bee’s or wasp’s.  Locals say you need to be stung more than 100 times to get the African sleeping sickness.  Our guide has been stung at least 70 times and didn’t have it yet.  Not all tsetse flies carry it so it’s a bit like Russian roulette.  Treated in time easily leads to successful recovery.  There are blue and black tarps hung in many fields, they supposedly help trap the stinging critters.  Tsetse flies only live at the edge of grassy land, needing the low bushes to hide from predators.  Once in open spaces we are no longer at their mercy.  Unfortunately, woodland is advancing since there are fewer fires and fewer elephants, enlarging the area where tsetse flies like to hangout. 

Milk jug on colorful bike

Around young banana trees are baskets woven at their base, they are there I presume, to stop animals from chewing on them.  That is a lot of work to weave these baskets in-situ as they wouldn’t fit over the top of the tree they are protecting.  Incredibly beautiful protection system. 

Near a roadside bus stop, I watch a truly elderly woman being picked up by a man and carried from one bus to the next.  From someone’s good heart to help not wanting anything in return. 

We spend one night by the beach and stay a little longer than intended.  Our Pluto needs a little mechanical attention and it is Sunday.  We get to stay at the beach an extra 7 hours!  But that means driving much later into the night to make our target date for our first day of the Serengeti safari in the morning.

Donkey power
Under the mango tree
Fence made of old metal railway ties
Houses built in the rocks
We finally near the Serengeti or Land of Endless Space which is how I had envisioned all what Africa would be.  As I said in my first post about Africa, I was uneducated and naive about this fascinating and fabulous continent but happy to discover its many wonderful aspects. As we enter the park, we pass by a sign on the side of the road that reads: ‘Please stop when plane is landing’.  The runway crosses the road we are on. 

Line of tent acting like a ‘wall’ against wildlife in Serengeti
That night, we only hear nearby hyenas
A Serengeti safari wouldn’t be complete without seeing a famous migration (the only land animal migration of great distance left in the world beside caribous), but it is hard to time it exactly right.  Mother nature dictates the beginning of the migration.  We lucked out even though we were there in February, three months prior to the normal time of the Great Migration.  During our second day in the Serengeti, we saw what looked like the very beginning of the migration where wildebeests, zebras, and gazelles go up to the Maasai Mara for food and water that has now become scarce here.  As the locals say, North to Breed, South to Feed.  Wherever we looked there were more and more animals appearing.  So many indeed that they created their own dust devils.  This map explains the broad migration pattern.  

Umbrella acacia
Many types of kopjes
To describe the Serengeti only as open grassland is a bit misleading.  The Serengeti is dotted with gnarled acacia bushes and jagged ‘kopjes’ (little heads in Dutch), great granite masses that look like ancient islands in a sea of grass.  They are some of the oldest rocks on earth, 2.5 – 4.5 billion years old.  They are refuges of life because over time these outcrops gather wind-blown soil suitable for grasses, shrubs, and trees which start growing in and around them.  The hollows in the rock surfaces provide catchment for rainwater and soon a variety of creatures adapted to use these life friendly features invade them.



Volcanic ashes coated these ancient plains.  Rain-soaked ashes formed a hard cement-like layer called hardpan.  With time the hardpan softened to form a shallow but nutrient rich alkaline soil ideal for short grasses but too hard and not deep enough to support trees.  Grasses with specialized shallow-matted root systems hold moisture from even the slightest rains and can thrive here. 

Some called wildebeest Robert de Niro meets Picasso
Those awkward faces are interesting
I read that it could take up to 15 minutes for baby to move after birth
This one took about 9-10 minutes – we were holding our breath
Mother kept pushing little one with her snout to keep walking
We witnessed, in awe, one calf being born while in the Ngorongoro crater (a part of the Serengeti plains, more on that later) joining the many newborns already here.  When plants dry out (usually May), it is time for the migration.  Half a million baby wildebeests are born before the start of the migration and they must keep moving to find the grass they need.  Wildebeests evolved a noticeably short, synchronized calving period.  Ninety percent are born within three weeks in February at a rate of about 8,000/day!

Young wildebeests grow twenty times faster than humans.  Breastfeeding mothers need three times more food to support this exponential growth.  After one hour of being born, they can run at full speed.  By migration time, the calves are usually three months old and can keep up with the herd.  Wildebeests spend 18 hours/day grazing and chewing cud, drinking about every two-three days when on the move.  Mothers know they need grasses high in phosphorus to raise healthy calves and regularly follow different routes than males or females without babies in tow.  

Our first sighting, a lone giraffe in the Serengeti plain
Mom and baby
Several million trampling hooves of wildebeests, zebras, and Thomson gazelles keep competing plants out, and the short-cropped grass lowers the risk of fire.  Giving the landscape a surreal moon-like denuded look.  Thankfully wildebeests and zebras have different food preferences.  Wildebeests, like cows, ruminate high quality grasses.  Zebras, like horses, can eat lower quality grasses but need twice as much to survive.

During their migration they deposit the equivalent of 125 water-truck loads of urine and 500 truckloads of dung per day!  Great fertilization cycle! 

Myriads of flies, termites, worms, moths, and dung beetles scour the landscape to consume what the migrants leave behind.  They help rapidly return essential nutrients to the soil for the next feeding season.  They break down coarse material enabling it to be readily dissolved by rain.  In the Serengeti alone, there are 100 types of dung beetles, some specializing in one type of poop only.

Hippos (middle left) and Nile crocodile (lower right)
Muddy happiness
In the scheme of things however, studies have shown that grasshoppers, caterpillars, beetles, and rodents probably eat more grass than these herbivores.

Mom and baby after mud bath
If baby still fits under mother's belly it is a year old or less
It takes two years to reach full use of their 50,000 muscle trunk
Three moms surrounding three babies  
Elephants are the largest land mammal
Many mothers and kids
Two year gestation, they are bigger than the Indian elephants
Mature males live alone, only showing up during mating season
Elephants usually die of starvation, they only get 6 sets of teeth
Once their last set wears down, they can no longer eat
They live to be about 60-70
In 1981, the Serengeti became a World Heritage Site thanks to the 1,000-1,200-mile (1,600-1,900 km) odyssey that 1+ millions of wildebeests accompanied by 500,000 Thomson’s gazelles and 250,000 zebras undertake each year.  The Great Migration is an endless journey of chasing the seasonal rains, the rise and fall of river waters and the growth of grasses in a race for life.  It covers 150,000 square miles (390,000 square km) that includes much more than the Serengeti.  It has been billed as one of The Natural Wonders of the World.  

Baboon family – how many can you count?
Five on tree, five in the field
Animals begin to gather
More gathering
From all directions
Mixing it up – zebras and gnus (wildebeests)
Migration is led by a female wildebeest which is odd considering they are very skittish and difficult to describe but I read this introduction by David Lansing and it seemed to perfectly reflect how I see these animals:

“The ones you had to worry about spooking were the wildebeest. Because they are senseless creatures. If you believe in reincarnation and think that it is possible you might come back as an animal, pray that it is not as a wildebeest for they are the Paris Hiltons of the plains. It is as if they all have mad cow disease or are manic-depressive. They’ll swing their hips around and chase their tails, bucking crazily like an untamed horse and scatter to the four winds for no reason other than they momentarily felt giddy or perhaps a fly was on their shoulder.

The next minute, they’ll look dumbly on, staying stock still, as a pride of lions slouches towards them. They have powerful hind legs that, with a kick, could easily kill just about any beast, and curled horns sharper than knives that could shred raw flesh like a sushi chef yet it’s not unusual for them to stand idly by, looking almost bored, while a lion or some other beast eviscerates them, their guts and life spilling out from them with no fight at all until they simply fall over, already dead. It’s like they are the walking buffet meal of the African plains and they know it. Their primary defensive strategy, when being stalked, is to move to the center of the herd. But, of course, not everyone can move to the center of the herd. Or there would be no center. But they haven’t quite figured that out yet. Maybe in another three million years.”

Seven Maasai giraffes crossing ditch – keenly aware we are there
Yellow weaver bird
Not much is usually said of the accompanying zebras. They are fewer in numbers but necessary to the success of the Great Migration.  Locals believe the zebra is the true leader of the migration, they are more intelligent and see better while the wildebeests have a better sense of smell, a mutually beneficial relationship.  

Silhouette against a blue sky
Elephants kill most trees
Mobility keeps the number of predators low and makes the gnus (wildebeests) the most successful large herbivore in the ecosystem even though nearly 1/3 of the calves die during the migration.  Not all migrate, three resident gnu groups stay in the Serengeti area.  

Remember the tree in the movie “The Gods must be crazy”?
Euphorbia Candelabrum with poisonous white sap
Common in Africa
Some facts:
  • 16% gnus die due to accidents (broken legs, falls, drownings)
  • 37% gnus killed by predators
  • 47% gnus die of diseases
  • 95% gnu cows give birth annually (only 50-60% in the case of domestic cattle)
  • Gnu cows give birth to 10 calves during lifespan
  • Gnu herd grows by 10% annually as 15-50% of the calves are killed by predators
  • Gnus make 47% of lion's diet (a lion eats 36 wildebeests annually).
  • 90% gnus are killed by the 3,000 lions in the area. There are migrant lion bands that follow the gnus in their migrations, while the resident lions starve until the return of the local gnus.
  • Cheetahs can kill gnu calves younger than 2 months and on rare occasions, an adult, if they form a group.
  • An African wild dog can kill a wildebeest in 8 minutes.
  • Not counting the famously large Nile crocodiles waiting for them to fall in the Maasai River.
Leopard turtle crossing dirt road
Herbivore – will sometimes eat hyena feces to obtain calcium
Termites build their cool fortresses in many parts of Africa; the Serengeti is no exception.  Their tall towers work as ducts to cool the deep inner chambers.  The mounds provide lookouts for cheetahs, burrows for warthogs and territory markers for topis.  Mongooses, bat eared foxes, aardwolves and a host of birds feed on the tasty termites.  Their queen is busy pumping 1,000 eggs/hour for up to 20 years, each born with a predetermined task; nurse, soldier, cleaner, forager, builder or they will sprout wings enabling them to fly off to start new colonies.

Banded mongoose family in inactive termite mound
They all have babies at same time, taking care of each other’s kids
There is even a special type of catfish found here that can walk to get some air when the puddle they live in gets too muddy from drying up!  On the fauna side a tree called the sandpaper tree has leaves tough enough to smooth carvings and clean dishes and pots. 

Only certain carnivores are mobile enough to follow the full cycle of the migration.  By air, vultures soaring superbly, they need only 5% of the energy to cover the same distance as a land-based animal of the same size.  They casually cover 60 miles (100km) a day.  Vultures and Marabou storks clean out more kilos of dead meat than any other animals. 

Spotted hyenas are the most numerous carnivore in the Serengeti ecosystem.  To care for their 1-2 cubs, mothers travel up to three times the distance of the yearly migration since they are the only provider of food for their offspring.  They are the most feared since they have the strongest jaws of all animals!  We camp where there are no fences and hear them near our tents during the night.  Thankfully they assume our tent canvas are like walls and do not disturb us.  

Lone male lion at base of dead tree
Lions and leopards are territorial, not much on the move.  Their favorite food is wildebeest or zebra, so the migration is a time of feasting that doesn’t last long as they catch only what passes by their territory.  Thicker woodland vegetation provides cover for predators to ambush migratory herds.  Kopjes are great higher places for lions to see their prey in the distance.  Cheetahs are more migratory at the cost of a higher cub death rate, only 5% of them surviving!  A sad statistic I came across showed that 64% of leopards died of starvation. 

Final windy look at the Serengeti from Naabi Hill, a kopje
Lizards, one colorful, the other, blending in well
Although the Great Migration is a sight to behold, what is going on in the background, ensuring success year after year, is even more amazing!

Camping at the edge of the Ngorongoro Crater
After a chilly night – nice sunrise overlooking the crater
The Serengeti Plains are shared by the Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.  The Maasai people can live in the Conservation Area but not in the Park.  On our way to Ngorongoro Crater we saw many Maasai villages surrounded by fields of wild flowers enveloped in more and more mist as we climbed up.  What surprised me the most was to see Maasai giraffes at this altitude and up mountainsides.  I always assumed they were desert, flat-land animals, wrong again!  Four Maasai tribes share the Serengeti area.  We see many of them herding sheep on the steep crater’s edge. 

Maasai walking road hedged with sisal used for making cordage
Maasai village in the green hills near the crater
Shepherd and his flock – almost look like Ireland or NZ
The Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater are considered two of the seven Natural Wonders of Africa.  During our safari, we will also get to see the Nile and the Okavango Delta, two added African Natural Wonders.  

Can you make out the six giraffe silhouettes up on the rim
Above the cattle?
Ngorongoro is the largest unfilled and unbroken caldera on Earth—the center of a massive ancient volcano that scientists believe may have been larger than Mount Kilimanjaro, estimate puts it at between 15,000 and 19,000 feet prior to eruption. The base of the crater is at 5,900 feet (1,800 meters) so staying at the edge of the caldera makes for one of the coldest nights we will feel on this trip.  About 2,000 feet (610 meters) deep and spanning 12 miles (19 km) across, the crater is home to nearly 30,000 animals that live inside its walls. Because of the crater's permanent supply of fresh water (springs, rivers, lake), it sustains the largest established concentration of wildlife in Africa. 

Between the Serengeti Park and the crater, the earliest human skull was found in the Olduvai Gorge. A female thought to be 1.8 million years old, the oldest evidence of mankind’s evolution. 

Creating a lot of dust
Backscratching mom – baby waiting
Of the possible 30,000 animals we could see, we were lucky enough to meet baboons, black-belly bastards, blue lizards, blue-black hummingbirds, buzzards, cape buffaloes, crown cranes, dik-diks (small antelopes), eagles (steppe and martial), Egyptian geese, elephants, giraffes, guinea fowls, hamerkop birds, hartebeests, hippos, hornbills (grey and yellow), hyenas, jackals, leopard, tortoises, lilac breasted rollers, lions, Mongooses, ostriches, pale goshawks with orange feet, rhinos (white and black, some introduced, all microchipped for tracking), sacred ibises, superb starlings, Thomson gazelles, warthogs, wildebeests, yellow-beak storks, and zebras.  I love seeing distinct animals comingling.  Lions here are treated against bovine tuberculosis they catch from the buffaloes which catch it from domesticated cattle.  

Lionesses under tree make the cape buffalo walk a very wide circle
away from them on its way to the water hole
Lions, buffaloes, gnus, and zebras taking turns to the water hole
There are no old elephants.  Our guide says the president’s son had them killed for ivory trade.  Corruption in government still a big problem in many parts of Africa.

Lion pair, not in the shade on a sweltering day?
Although full of animals, I did not enjoy the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater as much as the Maasai Mara.  There were too many visitors rudely vying for space to see these beautiful creatures ever closer, disturbing their lives at time.  In the confinement of the crater especially it seemed much more like a zoo.  I felt claustrophobic.

Overall, Tanzania has the largest concentration of wild animals in the world but with that comes many tourists.  I believe it is especially important to see the connections between all of the animals from the smallest to the largest, but most tourists only see the big fives or the migration, not caring to study the people, the land, the ecosystem that keeps it alive.

From the Land of a Thousand Hills to the Land of Endless Space we should appreciate the Land of Endless Connections

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