Massawa and the Escarpment – across the desert

The road was flattening out now as we approached the largest town en route, Ghinda.  The entrance to Ghinda was guarded by a large white church on a small hill, then a long main street marked the centre of town.  The town is not especially large, but acts as a major centre for the surrounding region.  And on a Saturday morning in 32 degrees of heat, people were bustling around getting their chores done before the heat became unbearable.  Our progress was quite slow here, but eventually we were through, and the landscape started to change for good.  For one thing, for the first time on the trip since Asmara, we went uphill.  Beyond there was lumpy landscape of foothills.  We darted in amongst these (the temperature crawling up 33…34…35), and the landscape became more like open desert.  Interspersed between large areas of open rock were wide wadis, where during rain up in the hills, water floods off the foothills in great quantities and into the searing heat of the desert.  The road crossed several of these by grand concrete arch bridges, and as we swept by, we got a glance at the small plots of land cultivated in these wadis.  Some of these wadis had water in from the recent rains up in the mountains.  I was told later that some of these wadis are the reservoirs for the water supply in Massawa.  Dams have been built into these valleys, but rather than constructing them above ground, so that the collecting water would either evaporate immediately or sink into the ground, they themselves are sunk into the sandy wadi bottom. Water is protected from evaporation below the surface and is drawn of from sub-surface pipes.  The natural filtration from these underground reservoirs through the fine grains of alluvium makes the water in Massawa some of the purest in Africa.

 In the middle of nowhere, a goods yard appeared.  The railway, which up until now had been a narrow gauge ghost line had rails on it, and there was an old station with a number of trucks on it.  The line, abandoned from before the war, was gradually being re-laid with the hope of taking some of the traffic off the precarious road.  Many are sceptical about the project, the tunnels and viaducts are not built for heavy containers that come off the ships at Massawa, but the new railway was being actively pursued and stretched some, er, twenty kilometres from the coast.  And apparently goods trains were being run.  Unfortunately of course, everything had to be retranshipped when they reached this inland railhead, which was expensive and of course, more or less defeated the object.

 On we went, now almost on the flat, the temperature now above 35 degrees.  The landscape became more Spartan, the wadis wider and drier.  Then at one, the bridge was out, and the smooth tarmac road gave way. The only way across was to drop off the road across a rubbly track, ease the taxi into the river bed and bounce across the wadi.  I hoped that this wasn’t the moment for one of the flash floods which overtake these river beds.  I looked upstream, nothing, I looked downstream (just in case I suppose) and could only see a man swathed in white cloth riding a camel, as you would).

 Back on the main road and the last few kilometres into Massawa were plain sailing.  The temperature was 39 now.  We passed by the site of the airport, currently under reconstruction, then a group of modern housing estates with brand new concrete houses lining the new roads.  Then an older section and a rather messy market area and then Massawa proper.

 Massawa is built on two islands linked to the mainland by two causeways.  The gentle waves of the Red Sea allow the boats to moor on the sheltered side of the islands without further protection.  We passed a cinema and drew alongside the railway track.  Both road and rail crossed the first half-mile causeway together. At the roundabout at the end, instead of taking the main road to the old town on the further island, we swung right onto the dirt road, and bounced our way along to the compound where Chris and his family lived and worked.

Entering Massawa

Entering Massawa

Massawa and the Escarpment – Down the hill

The journey down to Massawa was one of the most fantastic drives you can ever imagine but like many epic trips, it starts in a very ordinary way.  We traversed the southern suburbs of Asmara, through the palm fringed streets up to the lorry park and market place, then turned right up by the Coptic Cathedral and headed up a long steady rise to the edge of the city.  We burst out into a semi-countryside of industrial units, the occasional high-status house and pine woods.  The road wound gently through this rocky, wooded landscape, like a dry version of the West Coast of Scotland.  The driver never changed gear, he swung around the corners freely as if he had done it many times before.  I hoped he had and knew where all the bends were in the journey that followed.

 On the front dashboard was a small digital display that had the temperature.  Despite being at 15 degrees north, the temperature read 16 degrees C when we left Asmara.  It was still early in the morning, and because of the height, the temperature in the city rarely rose above 26.

 We reached the edge of the escarpment.  Here a small restaurant hung precariously off the side of the road, and I saw the most stunning view.  The mist rose out of several ridged mountains, the valley bottoms shrouded from view.  Out to the east, somewhere, lay the Red Sea.  Not only out to the east, but also down, down, down.

Sunrise at the edge of the escarpment

Sunrise at the edge of the escarpment

 We did not pause, but the driver started the long descent, the road hugging tight revetments.  Little villages occasionally clung to the edges of the roadside, barely room for a small two roomed hut before a sheer scree dropped a thousand feet into the abyss.  The road started by hugging the south side of one of these mountainous revetments, the disused bed of the railway track from Asmara to the coast also clung at a height above us,. Occasionally, the towers of the third form of transport between the two towns was visible.  This was the aerial ropeway that was the easiest way for goods to be transported up from the port city to the capital.  It had been built by the Italians during their occupation and it was disabled during World War II but the stone pillars still mark the route of this ingenious transportation.

 The three routes crossed each several times, the railway, often called the steel snake for obvious reasons, leaping overhead on a yellow stone viaduct before plunging deep into a rock tunnel, emerging a hundred feet lower in the next valley.

 The road swung left and right almost rhythmically down, rarely changing its gradient.  It has obviously been a deceptive creature at times, the swings of the steering wheel sometimes not enough when the road takes an unexpected turn, the trail of rubber, some burnt vegetation and the wreck of a lorry or bus half way down the mountainside proved that point.  Going down, the taxi passed several buses, timing his overtaking just at the most unnerving part of a corner, occasionally nearly missing his timing and swerving back behind the bus as a car powered up the hill in the other direction.

The Winding Road

The Winding Road

 Large numbers of lorries plough their way up the hill towards Asmara, some of them reaching the dizzy speeds of 10 miles an hour.  Great plumes of black smoke betray the energy that is put into hauling these huge lorries up to the top of the hill.

 On we went downwards.  I got an impression of how precariously we clung to this arrete that we were going down, when we came to a knife edge where the railway and road share the same thin piece of land.  A few houses clustered on this edge, and then suddenly we crossed from one valley to the other, and now the mountain was on the right and we were descending into a slightly more lush area.  From this viewpoint we could trace the course of both the old railway and the road down the valley a further twenty kilometres.  A couple of camels were munching the acacia bushes next to the roadside.  I had to stop to take a photograph – these were the first “wild” camels I had ever seen.  I got back in the car and looked at the thermometer gauge on the dashboard, it now read 28 degrees C.

Camels by the road

Camels by the road

 We dropped down to the town of Nefasit where we took a left turn to the north and followed the road that we’d seen from the top of the arrete.  The land became slightly less spectacular, there were still high hills above us but we were over half way down and the drops below were less severe.  The land was a mixture of rocky outcrops and loose stones with a thin green veneer.  This region is quite well known for its relative lushness.  The tops of the clouds I had seen in Asmara covered this region regularly and gave it much more moisture than the rest of the country.  I had seen this green patch on a satellite image I had of the region; the only green spot on a sea of brown.

 Every five to ten minutes, I noticed that the thermometer had risen by another degree, it was now over 30. I realised that the taxi driver was quite uncomfortable.  I suppose wearing a black leather jacket and black trousers was absorbing much of this energy.  He shifted uncomfortably in his seat.  Eventually, he eased himself half out of his jacket, it resting below his shoulders.  To me this was even more uncomfortable, but he was not sacrificing his stylish garb completely.

Massawa and the Escarpment – Arranging Travel

It was an ambition to drop down the escarpment and call in on a friend and colleague who lived in Massawa on the Red Sea coast; Chris Hillman and his family.  I had the honour of meeting him in Chatham many years before and gave him a brief introduction to my craft, GIS, that he took up with vigour and tried to introduce to his co-workers in the Ministry of Marine Resources on the coast.  I thought I could see for myself what is going on down there, as well as see Massawa, which I had heard so much about.  In fact, I had been training some of Chris’s staff in Chatham a week or so before I went to Asmara.

Agriculture Ministry

Agriculture Ministry

 So I had to arrange some transport down there.

 The bus was out of the question – I only had the Saturday and Sunday to get down and back.  Since the bus took 6 hours on a good day, I needed something faster.  There was no-one heading in that direction, so my only options was to hire a taxi. .  I rang up a contact and was told to meet this guy at the Amba Soira hotel.  I went a couple of times and didn’t find him.  Then one of the guys I was training, Waldo, a large, kind and funny gentleman, probably in his late fifties, with a very distinguished head of grey hair, offered to go to the hotel and meet this guy.  He drove a light blue Volkswagen Beetle, which he had had for twenty years.  He offered to help me get in touch with a taxi driver who would give me a good deal down to Massawa.  We went to the main hotel in the city, the Amba Soira.  Here was the usual standard of International Hotel that you find in Africa, big wide open spaces with 1960’s wood panelling.  It had some things which worked, others which could work if you tried hard, some things which don’t look like they should work but do, things which look like they haven’t been used in 30 years and haven’t, things which look like they haven’t been used in 30 years, but you find are routinely used.  An air that initial investment was made, but no-one bothered to keep up the maintenance.

 Waldo took me over to a coffee bar in a corner of the lobby and we supped a couple of espressos.  He told me of his days in the States.  We waited for over half an hour for this guy to arrive, and just when we were on the verge of giving up, a small wiry man in denims came up and shook hands with Waldo.  He didn’t say much, but somehow we agreed a price and a time, he would meet me outside my hotel at 7:30.

 When the Saturday came, I didn’t sleep the night before, as I often don’t when I have travel commitments to keep, and especially if it is into somewhere new.  Despite having an insatiable appetite to discover new places, and go over the horizon, I often get extremely nervous when the actual time for me to DO it comes.

 I went down to the bar at the front of the hotel.  There was no-one around, the stools were up on the tables and the floor was still covered in yesterday’s stains.  I looked out of the window.  About twenty minutes after the agreed time, the taxi driver turned up.  I got in to the taxi beside him, he said something I didn’t quite understand, something about waiting for a colleague of his.  I realised he probably wanted to talk to him before setting off.  My weekend bag was in the back of the taxi, I was in the front, camera and water bottle on the floor.  We sat for another twenty minutes or so. The rest of Asmara gradually woke up, and the traffic along the dual carriageway outside the hotel increased.  Eventually, a second yellow taxi turned up.  The taxi driver got out and went to speak on the phone.  I looked through the passenger mirror.  I saw the boot lid raised and the taxi driver was getting my bag out.  I thought, eh up, what’s going on.  When I got out, I was introduced to the new man, and it suddenly dawned on me that I was not going with the guy I had agreed the price with. He was just the broker.  I got into the cab.  The new taxi driver was a much younger man, probably around 25, quite tall and wearing black trousers and a black leather jacket.  He had little English, but that didn’t matter.  I was there for the ride.

Massawa and The Escarpment – Asmara

It shocks me now to think how Eritrea and Ethiopia have descended back into a bloody war over the last few years again or a struggling and distrustful peace, over a small piece of disputed territory, which some claim holds oil and rich pastures, and others say is little more than a pile of rubble and rocks.

 My visit to Eritrea was in late 1997, when the country was still at peace. The mood amongst the people there was one of “we fought the Ethiopians to reclaim our nation, once we had achieved that, we had no quarrel with them”.  And that was a pragmatic view – Eritrea’s 3 million inhabitants are dwarfed by the 60 million of Ethiopia.  However, Ethiopia need be careful in any assault on Eritrea, since it depends heavily on access to its two main ports, Aseb in the SE and Massawa in the centre of the country, for many of its supplies.  There seemed to be an easy peace, but deep down the same hatreds that had stirred the revolutionaries to bomb were beginning to seethe once more.

 It is such a tragedy.  Eritreans are among the most pleasant people in the world, and their cities, towns and villages, although poor, are incredibly civilised.  The streets of Asmara, the capital, are friendly places.  Visitors are treated with curiosity but no malice.  There is little of the begging that inhabits so many cities of the world, and what there is, is low key. No intrusion, no rudeness, no forcefulness; it makes people more willing to support these people.  For those with homes and jobs, although badly paid, there was a sense of great pride.  They were rebuilding the streets of Asmara. They had remained remarkably intact after the civil war with Addis, mainly because the Ethiopians had kept their administration of this NE territory of their country here, and had left in a hurry when the Eritrean Freedom Fighters broke into the city.

Asmara Traffic

Asmara Traffic

There had been some damage done, but the Eritreans are carefully reconstructing the city – new electricity schemes, roads are gradually being tarred, pavements carefully reconstructed with gleaming white tiles, sewage systems installed, the parks and buildings gradually spruced up.  None of the rush reconstruction that has occurred in so many other cities.  Out by the airport, there were new developments, but again they were relatively well built.

 Asmara is worth preserving. Although quite small, there are probably only about 350 000 inhabitants, it has a very grand central boulevard, palm fringed with wide pavements sporting Italian style cafes and restaurants.  Dominating the scene is the modern campanile of the Catholic Cathedral.  Most of the rest of the city is low lying; only the two other main religions pierce the sky; the mosque and the Coptic Cathedral.

Catholic Cathedral

Catholic Cathedral

 My job in Asmara was to install and train some locust experts to use a new computerised database that makes maps of where locusts are seen during particular month.  It also allowed them to show environmental data, things such as rainfall statistics and vegetation greenness alongside.  From this they are meant to be able to determine whether the locusts are a threat to crops in Eritrea or further afield.  They themselves are experts in finding locusts, assessing the damage they do and forecasting where they might go or how they may develop next.

 I was there for a week on my own, staying in a strange hotel opposite the Ministry of Agriculture,

Asmara Star Hotel

Asmara Star Hotel

where I worked.  It had a modern frontage, and my room was upstairs in a dark corner immediately below the huge fans of the air conditioning system, which meant that there was a loud hum and slight vibration nearly twenty four hours a day.

Post Office

Post Office

Additionally, the electricity in Asmara is one of the most variable I have ever come across.  The lights would waver between almost complete darkness and incredible brightness in a few seconds, the voltage probably varying between 30 and 330 volts.

Coptic Cathedral

Coptic Cathedral

My week there was routine.  I often ate in a little Italian restaurant, Castello’s, on a hill about a mile from the hotel, to get variation from the local food in the hotel.  Injera is the staple base of Eritrea, a flat pancake made of tef.  The tef grain ferments so the injera has a rather bitter taste; as if it is sprinkled with vinegar, which sticks on the teeth.  Various dishes would be spooned out on a large circle of injera and the whole table would piece of bits of the injera to scoop up the meal, of course using only the right hand.  The westernised version of injera using a wheat base was better for my taste than the tef but I still found the spicy dishes not to my taste.  The only one I warmed to was Zil-zil, a dryish sort of stew.  The hotel restaurant was a curious building; a traditional style hut squashed into the narrow courtyard surrounded by the drab concrete slabs of the hotel proper.  It was neatly decorated with Eritrean crafts, thick carpets on the floor and small low tables.  In essence a nice atmosphere but so few people ever visited made it feel more like a monastery than a restaurant.  Castello’s by comparison was very pleasant, a wide gravel area surrounded by trellises covered in leafy climbers.  It was high above the surrounding suburbs, and a large army camp to the east.  The air in Asmara is quite rarefied, the city being 7000 ft above sea level.  The clouds look closer than usual, because they are.  Large fluffy cumulus clouds would drift across only a few hundred feet above you.

Cumulus clouds at eye level

Cumulus clouds at eye level

And to the east storm clouds would drift over the hill and envelop the woods on the city’s edge.  You realise that in fact you were looking half way up the cloud, because beyond those hills the land dropped steeply away to the coast, down 7000 ft in barely 40 miles. The brewing storms that abutted the escarpment evaporated as soon as they reached the plateau of Asmara.

South Africa – everything is all right

Click here you want to see the first post  in this chapter

Kirsty had taught me the need for patience and lack of speed in safariing.  There is no way you will ever see anything more than a large herd of escaping antelope and a termite hill if you dash around at the rate those guys were going.  And yet many of the cars I was seeing, plenty of them South Africans from whom I would have expected more, were driving as if on the motorway.  Now I had got my eye in and the binoculars were helping, I picked out more and more.  As well as the larger antelope, I saw a tiny Suni, treading meticulously over the scrubby ground layer.

 At one point I was surrounded by water buffalo.



  I had stopped to gaze at a couple of these bulky creatures on one side of the road when I heard a crash on my right side, and out of the tall grass came another three.  They jostled each other and rubbed up against the side of the car.  Very easily they could have bent a bumper or crumpled a plate, but fortunately they were more interested in moving off to the water below me.

 The sun was setting again and I thought I had seen enough for the day so headed along the main road towards the Lower Sabie Camp, my booking for the night.  Just before I reached with the sky already a deep red, the most magnificent sight materialized.  Ever since I saw my first Masai giraffe in Nairobi, I thought they were the true emperors of the bush.  Their grandeur and stateliness, their costume, their mannerisms all show royal breeding.  Four giraffe were standing in various poses across the road, like an exercise in perspective.  The largest was furthest away, straight across the road and looking back at me.  The others were slightly to one side, but their enormous necks reached high into the sky and the suns dying rays hit them smack on.  I sat and watched these creatures for five minutes before they deigned to give me the road back.

 Satisfied that I had seen most of what I set out to do, I spent a quiet night in Lower Sabie.  My accommodation second night was not quite as luxurious as at Olifant’s the night before but when I fell asleep within five minutes of hitting the pillow, it really did not matter.

 After another early start I set off for the last thirty miles of so to Crocodile Bridge, at the southern end of the park close to the Mozambique border.  I saw lots again, vervet monkey, fish eagle, another steenbok.  Then over to my right, in an area regenerating from a recent fire, two large grey lumps were moving northwards.  White rhino grazing in amongst the new shoots of grass appearing after the fire.  To me this completed the set; I had never thought I would see the leopard, so when I left the park a couple of hours later, I felt that despite the rush tour, I had accomplished a good safari.



 It was a long drive back up to Pretoria, first down almost to the border at Komatipoort to meet the main road, then along through the bush (littered with private safari camps and touristic shops), and on to the Drakensburg Escarpment.  The weather closed in around me again as I started the ascent, and the part industrial landscape of cement works and electricity plants mixed ominously with the dark pine forests and craggy outcrops.  The road could be seen winding up the wide valley for miles in front of me, occasionally darting into tunnels to avoid the worst of the incline.  Once atop, I went through the regional capital of Nelspruit; compared to other cities in South Africa it was tiny and fairly relaxed.  Then on retracing my steps through the orange groves to the west of the escarpment, and finally back along that long tedious road over the veldt.  I stopped off for fast food near Belfast, where the roadworks duelling the main road from Gauteng to Maputo was causing so much havoc, and realised this was the first lunchtime I had stopped for several days.  Good job too as the remains of the Biltong looked pretty unappetising.

 After a few days in the bush it seemed strange to be back at Kirsty’s , eating out in chic restaurants, heading into Pretoria to see a film, and to be back in the highly charged atmosphere of Gauteng.  The visit to the east gave me yet another angle on this amazingly diverse country.  I was now quite disappointed that I would not get anywhere near the huge Cape, especially the Fynbos, the Karoo and the Cape area itself.  But holidays are never long enough, and wherever I go, there is always another horizon I will not be able to cross.  But even by spending most of my time in Kwazulu Natal and the old Transvaal districts, I had seen a great diversity of landscapes, a rich land for farming and industry.  I had seen diverse people’s, most of them friendly.  The rainbow state concept was being kept in the hearts of most people, it had always been there but not allowed to flourish.  People of different backgrounds genuinely wanted to get along, to be given equal opportunity.  But many of the tensions which had been suppressed during the Apartheid years were also being given their freedoms, and I had seen a lot of that.  The dreadful urban poverty and the continuing distinctions between the rich, mainly white, suburbs of Sandton and Verwoerdburg and the still impoverished black townships of Alexandria and SoWeTo.  And out in rural areas, where the whites were still major land owners the social policies of the ANC could scarcely begin to improve the conditions of Africans – the huge floodlights that drench townships in artificial day are hardly a human method of dealing with darkness.

 And seething away was this tension that erupted in riots, in carjackings, in muggings.  I also saw the reaction to it, the military style quick reaction vigilante groups in the white suburbs, the excessive security around every house – inner and outer gates and fences.  I had had first hand experience of that, caught in a crossfire perhaps, or targeted because I displayed too many traits.  In Natal in particular, the tension is not just racial but tribal too.  South Africa in 1996 was walking a tricky line between freedom and anarchy.

 Although I enjoyed this trip immensely and saw some amazing things and met some incredible people, the tensions of the country were always throbbing close by, and I think I hardly relaxed at all in three weeks, even before I was mugged.  This tension continued right the way up to that evening when Kirsty dropped me off at a crowded departure area in Jan Smut’s Airport.  I hugged my luggage closely till I got through the line; I eyed suspiciously everyone who walked past me as I checked myself in, and only when I went through to the departure lounge did I feel that I had won some battle.  But even now, this raging country filtered back to me.

 As I was driven roughly out to the Al Italia plane standing at Jo’burg airport, crammed in with many other tourists or visitors, a stewardess was speaking dispassionately into her walkie-talkie.  “Yes, we’re missing one passenger; he has just turned up at the check in desk – he was robbed on the way to the airport.  They took everything, his bag, his money, his passport.  He’s bruised but OK.  We’ll have to leave him here to sort it out”.  I looked at her as she said this, her face not cracking with any emotion.  Just another routine day in Jo’burg.  I tried hard again to remember, the guys at Pilgrim’s Rest, the combination of proud Boer, historic Swazi and Zulu, the British tradition, the stunning scenery, the expanse of nothing, the hope.

 “Is everything still all right sir?

 Yes it is, but only just…….

South Africa -how to keep a giraffe to yourself

Further down the road another rogue male elephant went storming past me a hundred feet from the road, then it quietened somewhat.  I did see more antelope, including the massive eland, but generally, apart from a few squirrels it all went quiet.  I was thinking the time of day was wrong, but I was soon proved different as in the space of a few miles I saw giraffe, hippo, a crocodile in a swampy river with some terrapins, herons and circling vultures.  The chance occurrences of Safari still amazed me.

 I zigzagged my way around the roads near Satara for an hour or more, soaking up the atmosphere all the way.  As the heat rose and the glare increased, I was treated to fewer large game.  They were all beginning to find some shelter.  One hyena, a large brown hyena, was sheltering under a tree, but the shade came across the road and he had settled himself right in my way.  I stopped the engine and watched this huge beast.  He was tired, his great shoulders heaving up and down as he panted in the heat.  It was almost like he had just finished scavenging a big meal and was trying to find somewhere to recover.  He acknowledged my presence a couple of times, and wondered why I was just sitting there looking at him.  I was reluctant to invade his privacy by passing him but I really did not want to retrace the fifteen miles of road I had come along.  So eventually I started the engine and inched my way around him.  As I passed within two feet of his paws, he looked straight at me, but either his exhaustion or fat belly overcame the fear of the Bucky  and he continued to lie there.

Tired Hyena

Tired Hyena

 The afternoon was a quiet one, a waterbuck here, some more impala here.  It was getting closer to sunset when more animals came back out.  I moved down a small cul de sac to a waterhole to see if anything was sheltering there.  In amongst some dark green foliage, I spied a tiny steenbock, in springing mode, legs coiled up ready to jump at any wrong move I made.  Its ears twitched the flies away as it stared at me.  It eventually thought I was too much of a risk, but rather than flee, it stealthily treaded behind a bush.  I drove once around the small car park and started to head out when I was aware of movement high in the trees.  I looked up and saw the head of a huge giraffe peering down at the vehicle.  Only a couple of feet of neck was visible before it disappeared below some branches.  I looked up at him, he looked down at me, for some moments.  The noise of another approaching vehicle made him start and withdraw a little.  A large RV came into the car park at high speed and sped around in a tight circle kicking up all sorts of dust.  A large fat South African couple looked over at me and said “Not seeing much round here, man.  We must have driven twenty miles without a single animal.  You seeing much in here?”  I glanced up at the giraffe who was now examining this new vehicle from a lofty distance.  I looked back at the couple.

 “No, not much around here”.

 “Oh well good luck” and they skidded off into the bush.

 I looked up once more at the giraffe; did he wink at me, perhaps it was only my imagination, and I too drove off, but at a more steady pace.

South Africa – Sunrise Safari

Next morning after a surprisingly easy sleep, I awoke to a five o’clock alarm, and gathered my pieces together to head for the Bucky .  I thought I would try and beat the rush but first rays of the new day were already reflecting on the vegetation around the camp.  The air was cool, dew filled my windscreen and my breathe was visible as I loaded the car.  I drove out of the little driveway next to the rondavel I had slept in and found myself in a queue of thirty cars, all waiting for the gate to be open.  Many of them revved their engines and it was more like being in a traffic jam in the centre of Johannesburg than out in the wildest African Bush.  The sun was almost visible when the guards put down their coffees and sauntered out of their shed.  They pulled back the big wooden gates and cars, camper vans and 4×4’s charged out onto the open road.

 For about a mile there was only one turn off and the majority of the cars headed west.  As more and more turns arrived, the line of vehicles gradually broke apart but all the way along, any advantage in getting out while the animals were active was ruined by the noise and fumes from the traffic jam.  I sought the path with least cars on it and drove westwards.  The first animals I saw were a small herd of wildebeest  along the roadside.  I turned south and noticed a whole bunch of vehicles dashing at twice the speed limit in my direction.  One passenger leant over as they drove past and said in a strong boerish accent “Lion – just got it on the radio”.  It seems many spotters were using CB or walkie talkie radios to communicate with each other, and if they saw something, would broadcast around.  Half because I had yet to see a lion on this trip and half for curiosity at how this was going to play out, I set off in the direction of the speeding cars.  I needed no guide to pinpoint where the lion was; about a hundred cars were parked up along the roadside, many still with their engines running smogging up the landscape.  Looking south east into the sun, I could make out the large form of a female, padding gently through the acacia.  Clearly somewhat disturbed by the attention she was attracting she was trying her best to disappear into the scrub, but several people were offroading and following her movements, almost cutting off any escape routes.  I managed to take a very poor photo but then realised this was not what I had come to see – it was no better than a safari park or zoo.  I turned the Bucky  around and headed away from this ghastly scene.

Lion escaping the hoards

Lion escaping the hoards

 Although the traffic was still heavy, it was more spread out and easy going on the next stretch and I saw some of the most wonderful sights in the next hour.  To one side was one of my favourite antelope, the kudu.  Tall and erect they stand, their dark brown bodies contrasting with a series of stripes from the top of their backs; their long white socks standing out against the tall grass.  The males have fantastic horns and their manes look neatly manicured.  I saw more wildebeest – a large herd trooping across the grass.  Zebra grazing in amongst them, impala everywhere.  I stopped abruptly a I saw the head of an enormous bird peer above the grass on the right.  It stalked deliberately through the grass, its top bobbing up and down.  Cautiously, I stood up in the Bucky and leant out of the window, hoping no leopard was sitting at my feet ready to lunge at my throat.  This curious bird was the a cross between an eagle and a heron, but much larger than both.  It had a mottled brown back.  I could just make out a white underbelly and some black markings on the wing.  Its neck was the most amazing thing though, it was a black and white pattern that extended the full length and was so thick, nearly half the girth of the bird’s body.  Its head sat atop the neck with no junction, the long pointed beak reaching out in front as far as a feathery crest stood out backwards.  I had never seen the like of it before and could not find it in my field guide.  Only when I got back to Irene did I discover what I had seen was a Kori Bustard, the largest of all bustards.  At almost three feet high it is an imposing bird and kind of reminds you where the dinosaurs ended up.

 My safariing maturing all the time, I felt less of a need to rush around finding the big five.  When I reached the next waterhole a mile or two on, I was treated to some interesting theatre.  First I noticed a family or two of wildebeest hanging around, neither eating or drinking.  I was surprised they just seemed to be standing there but I eventually worked out that a family of jackal were ambushing them from behind a grassless knoll.  Two or three would come running out and try to get to a small calf in the middle of the huddle.  The older wildebeest would charge back at the jackals, fighting off their teasing and snapping while others would ensure the calf was never left unprotected.  The jackals would then retreat, regroup and recharge.  I watched this for about twenty minutes, the jackals trying all manner of tricks to distract the older beasts, but unlike many of the Natural History TV programmes, it was the prey that got the upper hand on this occasion, the oldest male in particular showing a lot of bravery in charging a pack of jackals in one go; once he managed to flit a jackal, causing the dog to scuttle over backwards and leap out of the way of further injury.

 Eventually, the main huddle of wildebeest managed to remove themselves from the harassing jackals and only the old male, invincible, was left to see that the dogs did not follow further.  I moved on too. The morning was already advancing, the sun was high in the sky and I was less than twenty kilometres from Olifant’s .  This little road close to the Mozambique border had many secrets to let up.  There were ostrich out in the scrub.  Just beyond the landscape opened up to a wide plain of tall grass.  In the little Bucky I could see nothing.  A camper van was stopped up ahead and the occupants were looking through the roof into the grass.  Out of curiosity I stopped the car and leant out of the window.  The van driver looked over at me and hoarsely whispered “cheetah”.  I drew myself steadily up through the window, ensuring I had a firm purchase on my door and looked down in to the grass.  About three feet away, a pair of cheetah were nonchalantly walking through the grass, taking no notice whatsoever of me.  The most elegant of all the big cats, the super sleek bodies were magnificent, their intelligent wily faces concentrating on where they were headed.  Almost within an instant they had merged back into the grass.  They were the first cheetah I had ever seen in the wild and I was amazed at how close I had come to not seeing them at all.  I was also proud that I had shared this experience with only one other vehicle, the memory of how the lion meeting went that morning and how I have heard of vans taunting cheetahs in the Kenyan parks haunted me.  Cheetah are daytime hunters and having hundreds of spectators trailing them across the Masai Mara all day means they do not get a chance to stalk and can go hungry day after day.  Here at least there was enough cover to escape the humans and stalk their prey.

Passing Elephant

Passing Elephant

South Africa – Sunset Safari

 I got checked into Olifant’s, and took a rather nice Rondavel style room, air con and mosquito nets included; how to camp in the bush, eh?  And headed for the shop.  I had intended for weeks to buy binoculars and had not been able to get Kirsty’s pair to bring on the trip.  Today had been difficult, I had seen lots of animals and was able to identify them but was unable to get a really close view.  So I wandered into the shop and asked what they had on offer.  A young gangly Boer took me round the types and said the best way to test them out was to go to the nearby look out point and see what you could see.  So we took three pairs down a few steps at the front of the shop and looked out at an amazing site.

 Olifant’s camp is set on a low cliff above a wide sweep of the river of the same name.  Neither the bubbling mountain stream above the escarpment or the fresh bounding river as it came out from the hills, it had now settled and spread, was much less powerful as so much of its force had evaporated or been soaked up in the sandy scrubby soil.  Still a significant flow, yet it could not force its way through the landscape.  Instead it weaves and splits around obstacles in its way; boulders and bluffs, and could not overcome the layers deposited during storm flows, so left a hundred sandbanks every mile as it trickles past, many clogged with detritus carried down during peak periods, or left high and dry so that thick vegetation had flourished.

 On the far side a thin line of fever trees swayed in the light wind, their green bark highlighted by the setting sun and their feathery branches forming a light mist.  Beyond again the scrub took over remorselessly and to the horizon mopane and acacias carpeted the flat terrain.  Somewhere over in the distance was Mozambique.

 If the setting was spectacular, what happened next was miraculous.  The warden started to point out the range of animals there.  A few tall branches of trees swayed more purposefully next to the river, ruby red as they were caught in the sun’s rays.  Their purposeful movement revealed them to be a small herd of giraffe, in the distance I could see more – perhaps a dozen in total; their long necks breaking through the trees.  Down in the river bed a fish eagle swooped low over the water, the white of its neck feathers giving it away.  Other birds were stealthily treading through the undergrowth; herons, egrets and something similar to a gull.  In the water, the deep throated “gur-gur-gur” of a hippo echoed over to us, a number of them were stirring from the water ready for an evening’s grazing on the banks.  In the water, a number of logs floated downstream, one or two looked too controlled to be inanimate, although it was difficult to see whether they truly were crocodiles.  Finally, stage west, a small herd of elephants uncovered themselves from the scrub.  Almost in slow motion they revolved around each other in a social whirl, watering themselves, touching each other, amusing themselves with bits of branch, or rubbing themselves against the odd fever tree.  Right in front of the hide, bats and birds were picking up the rising night insects.  The ballet that performed itself in front of me continued for half an hour or so, the colours resonating from the land changing from a rich orange to a glowing red, then softening to maroon and purple.  At the same time, the hazy air moistened and a dew rose from the river that eventually shrouded all but the larger features in the valley.  The final rays of sun struck a low ridge well off in the east and the night closed in around Olifant’s .

 I bought a pair of binoculars from the gangly warden. While he was wrapping them I reported the injured hyena that I had seen a few miles back.  I pinpointed it on a map for him.  He suggested that it was probably because it had been hit by a car.  One of the biggest threats to the animals in the National Park, despite the air of protection, is still Homo sapiens.  More animals get injured by cars than by anything else.  Although they do not kill them, the injured animal is put into such distress and disablement that it is unlikely they will last more than a few more days.  If it is prey, its means of escape has been irreparably damaged.  If it is a predator, its means of catching its food has been debilitated.  Either way, if it does not die of shock, the harsh web of life in the bush will get it soon.

South Africa – The young gun

But it was still not true safari – it was a hike.  So one night we clocked off early and with a couple of Robin’s friends who had just survived two long haul flights from the States via London, we set off for the park.  It was already close to dusk when we arrived but it helped in that many of the animals were roaming around in the cooler air.  We saw Masai giraffe, we saw ostrich and zebra, antelope and warthog.  I saw my first lions in Nairobi, two young males still without their manes and with spotty legs like a leopard.  All the while aircraft from the nearby airport were taking off and the edge of the park was marked by low and high rise flats.  Down in the bottom of the park we came across a mother and her baby rhino; again a first for me.  The mother took offence at our stopping and mock charged us a couple of times.  I was so enthralled by the whole scene; all these animals who had been exhibits in zoos or characters on the TV screens were now playing out their parts live.  I did not realise that I was boring my hosts silly.  The two American visitors had fallen asleep in the back of the van – their bodies still here but their spirits having been dumped over the Sahara desert some hours beforehand.  Robin and Russ were fed up of looking at these mammals as a tourist is tired by European churches.  Then they started spotting the birds, a stinky looking Maribou stork, gold crowned cranes, a couple of ground hornbills.  These were quite interesting to me, large ground loving birds with vivid colours.  But Robin and Russ were also much more interested by the tiny birds dashing in and out of the tall grass.  I didn’t get it that time. Now in South Africa where I was tired of the number of Impala I had stopped at, I could start appreciating how you looked at the detail.

 Back in Kruger, after an hour or so I reached Letaba, one of the major camps on the main south-north road.  With the heat now too oppressive for me to continue, I took refuge in the Elephant museum, basically two rooms, one a massive treasure trove of ivory, the other educational boards of how they deal with the huge populations in the park.  Because they are protected, the breeding has been very successful.  It has caused some problems, especially at the interface with tourists.  Rogue young male elephants, chucked out by the matriarch and beaten out of mating by older males, go round testing their strength on anything they come in contact with, and camper vans seem a good target.  The park are castrating some of these males to remove some of this dangerous libido, and several of the females have been sterilised through contraceptives to better control the populations without resorting to culling.  In  a well organised park like Kruger, the prize piece of the South African Parks Service, there is enough money and skilled staff to see it through,; I wondered whether it would make it to the countries further north where similar pressure problems have been found.

 Instead of taking the main tarmac road south I went along by the Letaba river towards Olifant’s  camp.  As if to underlie the problem with rogue elephant, I came across one under a baobab tree.  Another vehicle was in front of me.  Now I am not a complete coward, but I know not to get too close to elephants of any sort and the young males, of which this was clearly and example, should not be trusted as far as you could throw them.  When he saw the activity in the road and stopped bashing the bark of the baobab tree, I knew it was time to retreat, so I put the Bucky  in reverse and rode back to the top of a brow about a hundred yards back.  Under my breath I advised that the other vehicle do the same, but the family inside were leaning out through the windows getting some great photos from about twenty yards.  The young male was even flapping those great ears of his for effect.  I knew better, and was not surprised that when these warning signals were not taking seriously that the elephant charged the car.  All of a sudden, with a spurt of dust and spinning wheels, the other car joined me on the ridge.  The elephant only charged twenty yards, saw he had won and went off into the bush.

 The activity picked up as the sun started to drop and I approached a look out point across the Olifant’s River.  On its banks, amongst a bunch of rounded boulders were two hippos, their pink underbellies the only things belying their camouflage.  As I headed closer to the park, I came across a rather distressed hyena, limping badly.  It could hardly be bothered by me, it stared rather forlornly at the car and staggered off into the bush.

South Africa – Picnic in the Rift Valley

 It was all a good wheeze but I saw little outside the compound and the restaurants at night.  Fortunately my host, Russ, decided to get me out a couple of times.  I had met up with a scientist from the adjoining International Potato Center (did you know one existed?) and she was organising a picnic on Mount Longonot, a volcano in the rift valley about 30 miles from Nairobi.

 Russ picked me up from the institute and we headed to his house in Langata.  Unlike the huge heavily guarded villas of the surrounding suburb, Russ lived quietly and unassumingly in a small house surrounded by trees.  His prized possession in the house was his home brewery ( he was a connoisseur of beer and whenever you met him you had to bring a bottle of bitter along).  Russ Kruska was a man I respected a great deal in the field of GIS.  He had been working out there several years and was probably the best example of someone who could make GIS work in developing countries.  He never compromised standards in his work just because he was in an underdeveloped country, and was a great thinker about information.  He was well ahead of most GIS academics and software providers in talking of metadata years before most people were in the game.  He saw the importance of metadata; recording the sources and derivations of your datasets inside the dataset itself because he was giving data to all and sundry across the continent and he did not want it misused or him misquoted.  He also had a quiet determination.  Very much at ease with himself, he was quiet but not shy, preferring to hear others before pontificating.  I saw him very angry once at one of his bosses, but even through the gritted teeth he kept most of his external composure.  Despite the high standards he set for himself and his work, he also understood the limitations of working with computers in Africa, especially in the early 1990’s.  Instead of trying to get his staff to reach unobtainable goals in one go, he pieced his work programme together in such a way that his staff, while understanding something of the bigger picture, had achievable goals and standards to hit at.  It is something which I have taken to heart in a lot of the work I have done since, and despair at so many projects, consultants, department managers and politicians who expect a country with little institutional and technical capacity to leap to a US or European system in one step.

 We met up with the gang heading out to Longonot and drove along the well made highway NW towards Nakuru.  One of the best roads in the country, it was because it allowed President Moi to have a smooth trip from his country residence into town.  We passed through the pine forest on top of the ridge and then over the lip.  The huge East African Ridge splitting Africa apart was in front.  As the two plates which make up Africa divide, two huge rifts are cracking the continent up; the western one containing deep lakes like Tanganyika, the right hand one largely dry, but the forceful opening has caused conic volcanoes to sprout up along its route.  Longonot is one of the most perfect of these, rising at a uniform angle and covered in a light green carpet of Acacia, at least that is how it appears at a distance.  Up close the acacia is full of vicious thorns guarded by equally vicious ants who if the bush is tapped even lightly, will emerge spraying their formic acid at the unseen attacker.

 We had to climb with an armed guard, unfortunately there are too many robberies in Kenyan parks to allow complete safety, but it was a privilege to be able to walk through the Kenyan countryside without being surrounded by a vehicle.  Giraffe are the worst threat from the bigger animals, although that does not stop the possibility of scorpion, snake or other insect from causing a lot of discomfort.  The view from the rim was spectacular, the inside of the cone is also heavily vegetated but in a few places there were rock faces and here and there a vent in the rock was betrayed by hot steam rising up.  To the outsider, a perfect African scene.  The ridge to the right with its pine forests was just visible in the haze, to the west more jagged mountains (towards the infamous Devil’s Gate National Park) blocked our view, and to the north and south a string of other volcanoes, different eruptions shown by blobs of hardened lava, each a different shade, one on top of another.  To our north a vivid blue lake; Naivasha, had a couple of small motor boats buzzing around.  We weren’t sure we could see any of the flamingos in the water but the area of pink we did see was from one of the many flower farms in the valley, the blooms being cut, frozen and shipped overnight by air to markets in Europe; all cheaper than if done back home.  In the dry heat we basked and ate fresh potato salad and ice cold drinks, biscuits and cake, fruit of all sorts.  The perfect picnic.