stuck, or a brush with death

On safari you experience a near constant reminder of just how small your place in the biosphere really is. That’s part of the bargain, part of the rush. Mostly it comes in gasps of wonder and awe. Yet today’s run in with an unhappy elephant was a heart-pounding example that sometimes the reminder comes hand in hand with a dizzying fear. Watching this beautiful creature devour a thorny Acacia was mesmerizing until we were distracted by the howls of a jackal, whose cries signaled a lurking danger. It turned out to be a pair of male lions on the hunt, and seeing them cross our line of sight we decided to make pursuit.  What the driver failed to notice, however, was the big ditch separating us from them – until we went kerplunk. Thoroughly stuck, we sat there immobile, our rear wheel unable to gain any traction whatsoever.  As the driver gunned the engine, the axle emitted a high-pitched squeal which not only set my teeth on edge but also seemed to rattle the brain of an animal in mid-meal.  Add the howl of the jackal and the smell of the lions and we suddenly had a skittish and visibly unhappy pachyderm not twenty feet away.  With perfect timing a branch feel from the tree, thwacking it on the back. As if we were to blame it reeled on us like a bull, using its muscular trunk to toss branches left and right in a display of displeasure, if not downright aggression. It’s at this point that I became almost hyper-conscious of the animal’s large tusks – and my unfortunate positioning in the car, which puts me at the direct point of impact should we be charged. I flash back to the terrifying drive back from the condor nests in Patagonia last winter: a white-knuckle journey in which we narrowly escaped skidding into a ravine multiple times. My friend told me afterward that from the back seat she was wishing for death because she knew if we went over the edge she would never survive getting out of the gorge on her own. I’m wondering what we would do if this elephant charged the car? Where would we run? Outside are a pair of lions which would quickly pick up our scent. Plus, there’s not a  substantial tree in sight – and even if there were it’d be no match for a rampaging elephant.  It is so silent I can’t hear anything: I feel my heartbeat, however, and what I think is a low guttural rumbling coming from the elephant. If the driver fruitlessly guns the engine one more time, I think I might get hysterical, but he’s reaching for his walkie-talkie and radioing back to camp for reinforcements.  How anyone will find us is beyond me but at this point all we can do is wait – and watch. Time bends. The anticipation is agony. We are rescued, of course, by a pair of laughing Masai who, no doubt, will mercilessly rib and cajole our driver for weeks, if not years, to come. Almost incidentally they scare the elephant off with a machete. Trying to get some traction to the back wheels they attack a fallen log. The metallic ping as the machete hits the wood is enough to freak the elephant out: it whinnies and runs away as expeditiously as if we had pointed a shotgun at its head. I am pretty sure I exhale audibly, while simultaneously realizing that I am ravenous. We’ve spent all this time staring down death and managed to miss breakfast.

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at home with the masai

A large proportion of the Masai live, for the most part, traditionally. Which means despite the middling efforts of the Kenyan government to integrate the Masai, they choose to eschew the trappings of modern culture and its relative proximity. Life revolves around two things: cattle and village life. Cattle are everything to the Masai:  a source of meat, milk, and blood; a system of currency and hierarchy. A man without cattle is a man without position in society – and one who lacks the ability to feed his family. When the Masai come into money, they buy more cattle; when the drought wipes out their herd, they’ll steal another village’s cattle. Culturally, it’s a crippling cycle because it leaves no room for error – there can be no long-range planning when life is lived entirely in the here and now.  To an outsider, like myself, this might be read as poverty but the Masai do not think of themselves as poor, as lacking – it is simply how it has always been and shall be. The community is small and tightly knit – no more than a dozen families inhabit this particular village, which is ringed by a circular twig fence and gated in the traditional style. Simple abodes line the perimeter, reserving the majority of the area in the center for cattle.  (I cannot tell if the ground is soil or dung or a mixture of both.) Francis, above, is the son of the village chief and he invites me into his home, which is a simple two-room hut like all the others: one room for the baby animals and another for the family. In the family’s sleeping area there is a small cooking area, too, with an open hole to the roof, providing some daylight as well as ventilation. It is dark and claustrophobic and it smells to high heaven because the Masai use a mix of twigs and cow dung as their primary building material. There are no sanitary facilities.  There is no running water. By Western standards there is no sign of anything resembling progress – and nobody here seems to mind.

 

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video: jump

Visiting a Masai village today I was greeted by a group of men who couldn’t help but jump for joy.

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experiments in panorama

Without a professional camera it’s well nigh impossible to capture the breadth and scope of Africa’s imposing terrain. So instead I attempted a few experiments in panoramic photography utilizing the Photosynth software for iPhone – free from Microsoft, by the way. Be sure to click each image individually, then click it again for a vastly greater, if somewhat skewed, detail – and enjoy the view.

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csi: fresh kill

Chancing upon this fallen hartebeest became an instructive exercise in deductive reasoning, Masai-style. Broken necks are a hallmark of the big cats, which kill their prey by strangling them, so we can reasonably assume this one met its ultimate demise by a cheetah or a lion. Enlarge the image and you’ll notice fresh blood and scat on the grass near the tail, which points to a very recent kill. Though the abdomen has been opened up, it has yet to be eviscerated, meaning someone or something has likely scared them off, stopping it just short of its feast. In a bit of scrub not too far away we find the killer – and the culprit: a lioness with a pair of cubs, at most a week or two old and still blind. Their noise-some play must have interrupted the kill, sending mother back to the den lest the snackable sound of young attract unwelcome visitors. Paws bloodied, the lioness watched them closely, biding her time while keeping them a safe distance from a corpse that would soon attract all sorts of scavengers.

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bush wipes

When blowing your nose in the bush, there’s really only one good choice for tissues.

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