Contact Info

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Searching for the Grand Canyon Moose

One of the perks of having a blog is being able to take a peek at my audience. No, I don't have a webcam view into each of your homes, it's more a general outline of the individuals who visit my site, purposely or otherwise.

Blogger gives me a rundown that includes daily hits (number of readers), which posts are being read and the electronic trail they followed to get there. Many of you click a link on Facebook, Twitter or Flipboard; I expect to see that since that's where I post my latest entries. Some of you, bless your souls, punch in the actual blog name to check in on the latest goings on here (I really, REALLY appreciate your dedication!) Blogger even supplies a map of the world with green shaded areas that symbolize where the viewers are located, darker green indicating higher numbers. I always get nervous when Russia—land of the infamous hackers—starts to darken. To be clear, it doesn't tell me who you are, just generalities. Blogger hasn't attained NSA status just yet.

"Anasazi" a sculpture in front of the Visitor's
Center at Mesa Verde National Park.
 The sculptor, Edward J. Fraughton,  contacted me for
 permission to use it in a book about his work.
The most interesting category by far (at least to me) is the "Search Keywords" section. It ranges from the expected (camping in Death Valley) to the bizarre (good things always to copy) WTH? I enable this to some degree; I enter keywords with each post, hoping to catch a reader that's searching for a particular park or trail. The blog photos often pop up on image searches too: In one instance an artist found a photo we took of his sculpture. He liked it so much he asked permission to use it in a book he was publishing. Pretty cool.

A keyword search that popped up a couple years ago made me laugh out loud: "Is there a moose in Grand Canyon?" The idea of an 800 lb bull moose tottering along the edge of the Grand Canyon just struck me as funny (and a dangerous prospect for those rafters down below). But then it happened again. And again. Just yesterday, those words appeared for at least the twentieth time.

Don't get me wrong. I appreciate the hits no matter where they come from and even more, the curiosity about nature it displays. But since the question has been asked so often I thought I'd take the time to answer.

Are there moose in Grand Canyon National Park?

In a word: No. (Unless you count the husky guy that offered to take our picture at the Angel's Landing overlook last time we were there.)

Here's why:

It all has to do with habitat. Moose get overheated when the temperature climbs above 60F; they also like to take long, languorous dips in lakes and streams when they start to feel a case of the vapors coming on. The wintertime temps in the park can get plenty cold on the rim, but all the water is down deep in the canyon. During the summer moose would swoon as the temperatures rise to the 80s on the rim and over 100F at the bottom, where the river runs swiftly and surprisingly cold.

An Alaskan moose enjoys lunch in a beaver pond.
Denali National Park
Moose need to eat a lot of vegetation to keep their moose-like proportions; they browse on high grasses and tree leaves because it's hard for them to lower those giant heads to the ground. Their long gangly legs terminate in broad plate-like hooves that help to keep them from sinking in the mud and snow, two things not normally found in the canyon. Moose are equally at home in water and land; they are good swimmers and  enjoy eating aquatic plants, staying submerged for up to 30 seconds while doing so. Another interesting moose fact I ran across: They can store up to 100 lbs of food in their stomachs. Pretty impressive.

North American moose live throughout Alaska and Canada and in the northern-most states in the lower 48 (Washington, Idaho, Montana, parts of the Rocky Mountain range down to Colorado, Wyoming, North Dakota, Michigan, Minnesota, New England, etc.). They most recently have taken hold as far south as Utah, but only in the cooler northern-most regions there. I don't think they often go down to check out Arches, so don't expect to run into them at the Southwestern Art exhibit in Moab.

Mark displaying the international sign for "No Moose Down There."
North Rim, Grand Canyon National Park

Armed with these facts now, when you visit the Grand Canyon you won't be the least surprised that moose are absent. Both rims have areas with trees and some sparse grassland but it's dry, scrubby pine forest, not ideal if you're a moose. Surrounding the park are vast stretches of barren desert. Water is scarce, so scarce in fact that water rationing is a way of life on the northern Kaibab plains. The most expensive pay shower I ever took was in a campground on the North Rim. Five dollars for three minutes. No cheating and adding quarters once you get started: If you couldn't finish in three minutes you were stuck walking around with soap in your eyes. The toilets were composting, no sense in flushing all that good water away. My point being, moose would be dehydrated wrecks out there, nowhere to drink, nothing to eat and nowhere to cool off. If they managed to survive a hike (or fall) into the canyon, it would be so hot they would just wither away.

The Grand Canyon Rim. Not a good habitat for moose, but a great place for humans to visit.

I have no doubt there will be more inquiries about moose in the Grand Canyon in the future. I picture a school kid, maybe from one of the southern states, about to leave on his first trip west. Hoping to cram in all the sights he's always dreamed about, he punches into the search bar the two things he really wants to see: A moose and the Grand Canyon. I hope this page pops up next time and is helpful to explain why they aren't going to be in the same place.

I hope you're not too disappointed kid. But hey, the Grand Canyon is pretty cool, you'll like it. Just tell your parents the next trip out you need to hit Yellowstone. They've got some mighty big moose up there.

Now I'm off to figure out what those "good things always to copy" could possibly be.

The End.

Here are some great sources for moose facts. In fact, I used some of them for this post:

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Of Veterans and Thanks

Today is Veterans Day.

I confess I have very little interaction with anyone in the military and I myself would never consider joining. I'm a bit of a pacifist and an even bigger baby; the thought of killing anything makes me queasy, and the thought of someone trying to kill me makes me want to curl into a ball in the back of the closet.

I grew up during the Vietnam war, although I wasn't even aware of it at the time. I wasn't yet born when it started and it ended when I was ten. I'm not sure if my parents tried to shield me from it or if I was just oblivious. We only had one television in the house and my only memory of it was watching Gilligan's Island when I got home from school. I never saw those infamous news clips of the fighting over there.

As a kid my family consisted of my parents and brothers, and some older relatives on my father's side. By sheer luck or timing, none of my relatives on that side served in the military. My grandfather was a welder by trade, and he did some ironwork for the war effort during WWII but never actually joined. My great-grandfather was married with children before WWI broke out and owned a sheep ranch; I assume some of the wool went to the war effort there as well.

I didn't really know my Mom's side of the family; she grew up in Seattle and that's where most of them lived. Kids live their lives in such a small radius, anything outside the circle doesn't seem real. I knew I had uncles and cousins but had only met them once or twice. My mom had some pictures, but a kid has things to do, friends to play with, who has the time to look at some old black and white photos?

My crazy uncle turned up in San Francisco at some point during my grade school years. I don't remember exactly the day I met him, but he made quite the impression just the same. He drove an AMC Pacer, the smashed back bumper tied on with brightly colored hair ribbons (probably the first thing he could find at the nearest drug store—he was both poor and not very mechanically inclined). Every now and then he'd show up at our house, roaring up the street in that goldfish bowl car, parking it willy nilly and rushing in the front door in a cloud of cigarette smoke. His mustache was always carefully waxed into a curl like a New Age Snidely Whiplash and he dressed in the latest hippie fashion of the day, all vests and bell bottoms.

He loved everything new. He was the first to buy a laser-disk system (the precursor to DVD as it turned out) and he always had the latest (and biggest) television to go with it. He bought us the best Christmas gifts we could imagine, sometimes things we didn't even know existed. One year a tiny transistor radio, the next a calculator that actually added, subtracted, multiplied AND divided for you! (This was the 70's after all. It's hard to remember that those things were cutting edge and very expensive back then.) When Star Wars came out he took us all to the biggest screen theater in San Francisco where we stood in line for two hours and sat in the front row, starships zooming over our heads as the latest THX sound system rumbled our seats.

He was an artist and always struggled to make a living. He finally got a "real" job as a long distance operator translating for Japanese callers trying to reach relatives in the U.S. I never once wondered how the son of an Italian immigrant who grew up in Seattle learned to speak Japanese. It was just something Uncle Steve knew how to do.

Hindsight is always 20/20, as they say, but it can also slap you in the face and remind you just what an oblivious idiot you can be.

My uncle was a medic in Vietnam. He didn't show up until later in my childhood because he was busy patching his fellow soldiers back together, that is until he contracted malaria and was sent to Japan to recover. He spent six months in a hospital there, learning to speak Japanese for lack of anything else to do. He came home physically weak and mentally scarred, struggling (I'm sure) with how to exist with the memories he carried in his head.

He married then divorced, moving around the country looking for his place in the world. He lived in Atlanta for a while, moving back when the southern way of life started to grate on his bohemian nerves. He tried his hand at being a monk, giving away his worldly possessions and moving into a seminary in Massachusetts. After a few years, he gave that up and moved back to California, getting a manufacturing job nearby so he could be close to his sister.

I only remember one instance of him talking about the war, and that was just a few years ago. He told us he was waiting by the side of a field with his unit, just another day "on the job." A soldier was walking across the field toward them when he stepped on a mine. My uncle said it looked like a cartoon, detached arms and legs flying out from the center, the center of course being a body that was reduced to the red mulch that rained down on their heads. There was nothing really to do but pick up the pieces and stuff them into a body bag.

How do you live with that?

We're told to thank the men and women who have served, and be grateful they have protected our way of life. Of course I am thankful. But it seems like the phrase "Thank you for your service" has been reduced to a greeting—"thankyouforyourservice" "haveaniceday" "how'reyoudoing?"—and has ceased to have any real meaning. Besides, what can a returning soldier, with visions in his head like the one my uncle shared with us, really take from a thank you? Politicians talk about sacrifice and bravery and flags get put out on porches and the mall holds a big sale. I'm sure that makes veterans feel awfully proud.

My uncle's demons never left him. He died alone in a condo filled to the brim with things he had purchased trying to fill a void that couldn't be filled. It was sad and heart wrenching and I'm sure it happens every day which makes it that much more sad and heart wrenching.

So today I will remember my uncle as I knew him: funny, generous, artistic, and genuinely, comically mechanically disinclined. I will be thankful for the people who were willing to spend part (or all) of their lives in the military following orders, doing things no one should ever be asked to do.

How can a civilian like me possibly understand what it's like to be in a situation like those faced by military veterans? I can't. By way of thanks, though, I plan to listen to their stories, pay attention when conflicts around the world arise and most importantly, hope against hope that someday we'll all learn to settle our differences without sacrificing anyone's life or sanity.

And to all the Uncle Steves out there: Thank you for your service. Sincerely.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Tanzania: Lake Natron Stories | Luxury by the Lake

(This is the thirteenth installment in an ongoing series about our self-drive safari to Tanzania. To start at the beginning, click here.)
The lone giraffe we saw while in the
Lake Natron area.

When we arrived at Lake Natron, we checked into the campground with high hopes. The Moivaro Lake Natron Tented Camp was purported to have both a restaurant and a swimming pool, two luxuries that had not been present at any of our other stopovers on this trip. We had learned to lower our expectations when it came to amenity listings, but hope springs eternal: At this point in the trip, crocodile-free water and food that was cooked by someone else would be 5 stars in our book.

Once we finally found the campground (there were at least two other campgrounds that went by the name "Lake Natron Tented Camp" one of which we mistakenly pulled into before realizing our error) we were met by our Maasai host, who hopped onto the running board of the Land Rover and guided us to a spot on the grassy campground, ducking as we drove under the thorny acacia trees. Once parked, we spilled out the doors in what I can only assume was a shocking amount of dust and sweat, exhausted from the eight hour drive from the Serengeti.

Mbiraru, our host, signed us in and gave us the tour. A nice garden area surrounded the luxury tents where the more posh guests were staying. In the middle of the tents (which were in reality closer to cabins, equipped with full bathrooms, running water and king size beds) was a thatch roofed open air restaurant and bar, a heavenly sight. Off to the side, a small natural swimming pool fed by water piped in from the nearby river. One of the guests was swimming laps as Mbiraru walked us by. "The pool comes with hippo." he said with a sly grin.

One of the "tents" of the Lake Natron Tented Camp.

We were the only ones in the campground. Lake Natron is not nearly as popular as the other parks in Tanzania, and camping is not nearly as popular as traveling with an organized resort tour. The attractions there are the flamingos that gather on the lake and climbing Ol Doinyo Lengai, the active volcano on the southern edge of the lake. It's remote country, eight hours of rough road from Serengeti, and seven hours from the nearest town, Mto wa Mbu, to the south. In between is a whole lot of dry plains and rocky mountains, not the romantic big game areas for which Tanzania is better known.

The pool at Lake Natron Tented Camp. Looks a lot more luxurious than it was,
yet felt much more luxurious than it looks. 

(photo credit:

Mark did a quick change and we headed back to the pool. I sat on the edge and stuck my legs in, watching Mark swim laps with the other guest we had seen earlier. We found out he was visiting from China and was here to climb the volcano, having already climbed Kilimanjaro earlier that week. He was here with a group peak bagging in Tanzania and Kenya and, as far as we could figure, completely ignoring the animals and other attractions Africa had to offer. To each his own I guess.

Birds were everywhere in the trees over camp.
A colorful kingfisher looks down at us.

After the swim we walked back to camp and took a shower, more luxury than we had thought possible on this trip. The showers were dark rooms made of rough wood poles with a thatched roof, a small window cut into the back for ventilation. The water came from large black tanks warming in the sun on the roof. There was no temperature adjustment, just on and off, but the weather here was so hot and we were so sweaty and dusty it felt magnificent. I stood under the water much longer than necessary just enjoying the smell of soap; when soap smells so intoxicating, you know you've gone too long without it.

Back at camp we dug through our suitcase looking for something presentable to wear to dinner. We were still the only campers there, but we had plenty of company. A herd of goats grazed all around us, escapees from the Maasai herds that lived in the area. Periodically one of the staff would walk through, shooing them out of the campground.

Mark relaxes before dinner, watching the goats eat theirs.
It seemed to take forever for six o'clock to come. We gussied up as best we could and walked over, trying not to be the first to arrive (but of course we were). Mbiraru met us and sat us down at a table for two, a white tablecloth and actual ceramic plates and silverware. Luxury! He brought us some bottled water and drinks, then returned holding a gigantic leather-bound menu from which he read the evening's fare. "Tonight, we have a four course meal planned for you: Tuna salad, pumpkin soup, beef over potatoes and vegetable, and chocolate almond for dessert." Sounded good to us!

The restaurant. Notice the lights hanging from the rafters: bat heaven!
Other guests started filtering in, mostly in large groups that were obviously traveling together. As it got darker, large orange-colored bats flew in and flitted in between the rafters, attracted by the bugs that were gathering around the lights. We thought they were fascinating, not to mention helpful as they scooped up moths fluttering overhead. A mother and daughter sitting near the bar were not as fascinated. Closer to petrified. Possibly horrified. They kept insisting the staff get rid of the bats, to which the waiters smiled and tried to assure the ladies they were harmless. The two were not satisfied with that answer and insisted on sitting outside the building, where unbeknownst to them the bats were flying even closer to their heads in the darkness, snapping up bugs that were swarming there. We watched this from our table and snickered into our napkins. (We later learned these were Yellow-winged bats, one of five species of false vampire bats, something I'm sure would have driven the two ladies into a full on panic attack.)

It was a pleasant dining experience. The pumpkin soup in particular was excellent, seasoned with unfamiliar and wonderful spices. Every member of the staff was Maasai, dressed in the traditional robes and jewelry, which we thought was a refreshing change from the polo-shirt-and-khakis-wearing lodge workers we had seen in other parks. A boisterous group of Australians (is there any other type of Australian group?) were sitting at a long table behind us, ordering rounds of drinks and shouting about their upcoming hike on the volcano the next morning. The place was filling up.

The bar, with it's hand-carved tree trunk with custom liquor bottle holders, scotch on the far left.
Since there was no electricity in this area, a generator hummed in the distance from over by the kitchen. It supplied power for the lights and the big chest refrigerator that held the beer, water and sodas. As the guests filed in we noticed they each gave their cell phones to the barman, who plugged the phones into an impressive array of power strips that bristled with charger cords and splitters. It reminded me of the scene in Christmas Story where Ralphie's father plugged the tree lights into the wall. I was waiting for giant sparks to fly out and the whole place to go dark (it never did).

All good things must come to an end though, so after Mark finished his glass of scotch (which he had been planning since spying the Glenfiddich bottle behind the bar on arrival) we paid up and walked back to camp, our stomachs ready to burst from the four courses, three more than we had been accustomed to lately. Back at camp the goats had gone home, but the bats were happy to keep us company.
One of the curious Yellow-winged bats hanging out above our camp.
The next day we spoke to Mbiraru while we sat at the bar slurping Cokes. He was the assistant manager there and was doing the books while he doubled as bartender. He told us the camp was built by an Englishman, but later sold to a local Maasai man who employed workers from the surrounding villages and trained them on the job. It was nice to know the locals were profiting from the place; most if not all of the lodges we had seen in the parks were foreign owned. Mbiraru told us he learned English in school, but picked up many more languages while working with the tourists. He said he probably knew fifty ways to say hello and goodbye, using english as a default. We asked him how he knew we were American right off the bat, before we even spoke to him. He said after awhile you just know (although he admitted he thought we might be Canadian at first but went with American at the last minute). As we sat there we noticed he switched effortlessly between languages when other groups approached him. It seemed mind boggling to me, but he said he'd been at the job for several years and it came naturally now.

Ol Doinyo Lengai rises up on the southern edge of Lake Natron, where groups of hardy tourists are guided to the top by groups of patient and long suffering guides.
A group of angry sounding Chinese tourists were sitting in the restaurant behind us, talking with their tour guides through the group's interpreter. We got the scoop in a hushed tone from Mbiraru: Apparently the group had hired a company to take them to the volcano. Halfway up, one of the group decided it was too hard and turned back. That woman was accompanied down the mountain by one of the guides, where the two of them waited at the car until the rest of the group returned, leaving the rest of the group on the mountain with only one guide. The woman had wanted the guide to drive her back to camp—a 10 kilometer drive—then return and hike back up the mountain to help the others on the descent. The guides argued (in the most diplomatic way possible) that it was not part of the contract to drive the route twice. In addition, it was a lot to ask a guide to hike the arduous trail twice, considering the difficult terrain (slippery pumice and ash) and it was not safe to do so alone in the dark. The Chinese interpreter insisted they would not pay the bill, that they were unsatisfied with the tour.

It seemed they were at an impasse. The guides sat with tired looks, swiping the sweat off their foreheads, unsure what else to say to convince the group. This all took place at two in the afternoon. The volcano hiking trip had started at 2:00am to avoid the heat of the day on the black, treeless volcano. Everyone was exhausted, with the exception of the Chinese interpreter. She seemed to revel in the conflict, sure that she would win this round. Finally a driver showed up with a printed copy of the release forms, where it clearly stated the tour guides were in the right.

I felt sorry for the poor guys. The tour company got paid, but I highly doubt the guides themselves were tipped for their services. We wanted to buy them a drink, but they disappeared as soon as they settled up, probably strait to their beds since no doubt they had another group of prickly tourists to ferry up the mountain in the morning. What a way to make a living.

Goats surround us at breakfast, Lake Natron Tented Camp.

I think Lake Natron was my favorite stop of the trip. It was a beautiful place to rest up for a bit before taking on the next round of corrugated roads. Even better, we had time to get to know the local people and get a sense of what it's like to live in Tanzania.

Rattling around in our Land Rover on game drives? Thrilling.

Finding out the Maasai actually have pockets sewn into their robes to hold their cell phones?


Thursday, October 30, 2014

Tanzania: Lake Natron Stories | Parison and the Pink Flamingos

(This is the twelfth installment in an ongoing series about our self-drive safari to Tanzania. To start at the beginning, click here.)

Parison met us at the campground gate, walking stick in hand, to guide us out to the lake. Like most Maasai men he was tall and thin, a shock of bright red robes tied artfully around him. He got in the car with us and we drove down the road, fording the river where women were washing clothes on the rocks, children playing in the water and staring at us as we passed by. Getting caught behind a herd of cattle that weren't in the least interested in moving off the road, Parison reached over and honked the horn telling Mark to keep driving, they'll move when they see you won't stop. The boys that were supposed to be tending the herd stood alongside the road and watched, laughing as we slowly nudged our way through the cows.

Parison and Mark walk ahead along the lake shore.
We parked on the edge of the shoreline far enough away to avoid the sticky mud that lurked closer to the water. Parison took the lead and started walking to the lake's edge, his long legs moving so quickly I had to break into a trot to keep up. The salty crust under our feet made crackling noises as we broke through to the silty mud below. It started to get a bit slippery, forcing us to take smaller steps so we wouldn't slide into an unplanned split.

Footprints make trails across the muddy lakeshore.
The toxic stew that is Lake Natron. The reddish hue is red algae,
the main diet of the Lesser Flamingo.

Lake Natron is a huge alkaline lake. It's situated in a wide desert valley ringed by rocky mountains. The lake has no natural outlet so what little water runs in has only evaporation to take it away. This concentrates the sodium and potassium carbonates (that leach from the ash spewed by the nearby active volcano) into a lethal stew capable of burning human skin. The lake is also shallow—3 meters at its deepest—and in the hot desert sun it reaches temperatures of up to 140 degrees fahrenheit. The water doesn't support much life but for one important exception; the red algae Spirulina, the main food source for the Lesser Flamingos that flock there by the thousands.

Lesser Flamingos hunker down in the strong wind at Lake Natron.
We had come to see flamingos and the lake didn't disappoint. Hundreds of birds stood ankle deep in the water, dipping their bills in and out as they scooped up algae. The wind was screaming across the valley making it hard to keep the camera steady enough to get a good shot. We stood squinting into the wind trying to take it all in, tears streaming down our faces from the salty dust that blew into our eyes.

Parison waits patiently while we take photos of the lake, 
modestly trying to hold his robes in place in the wind.
We climbed onto a rocky outcropping that jutted up from the lake bed. As far as our leaking eyes could see a fuzzy carpet of wind-blown flamingos were spread out across a sheet of rippling water. On the other side of the outcropping was a large marshy area covered with bright green grass. It was a jarring sight, set against the rest of the horizon of dull gray rocks. Parison explained that a small freshwater spring fed this area, and to prove that fact there were a few zebra grazing on the grass below. There was also a fresh zebra corpse, it's stomach torn open and most of its innards missing. Parison told us there weren't any lions in the area, but there was a band of roving hyenas that made life hell for the Maasai herds and the few zebra that made a home here. Good to know.

What was left of a hyena dinner: Zebra carcass on the marshy plain.
We stayed on the rocks taking pictures while Parison made himself comfortable on a big boulder. He was an experienced local guide, not impressed by the scenery he had grown up with. When the wind became too much for us we walked back toward the car, Parison curiously slowing his gait as we got closer to the vehicle.
I'm pretty sure he was texting his sisters
to tell them we were leaving. That's my
theory anyway...

Out of the bushes a line of women emerged and made their way toward our vehicle from the direction of the village. We arrived at the car at the same time they did and were immediately mobbed by enthusiastic saleswomen shoving bracelets, earrings and carvings into our hands.

We had been set up.

An unlucky flamingo's leg is perfectly preserved on the salty crust of the lakeshore.
It's a hard life in the Lake Natron area. There's not much for the Maasai herds to eat, water is scarce and big game doesn't really come into the area much so tourists are few and far between. The locals make their money as guides or by selling handmade jewelry and they work hard for what little they earn. We had already purchased so many bracelets and necklaces at previous stops we had run out of people at home to give them to; besides we had to save what cash we had for diesel and tolls on the road out of here.

The women were all friendly and nice, but insistent. I got the brunt of the sales pitch as the ladies snapped bracelets on my wrists and held earrings up to my head "Pretty? Yes? You buy?" Mark and Parison stood off to the side and watched, amused by my struggle to say no politely. An elder woman had taken a shine to Mark though and offered him a ring, free of charge. It turned out this was Elizabeth, one of Parison's mothers*. Most of the other women were his sisters and cousins. Ah, now it made sense.
*Maasai men take on as many wives as they can support. Elizabeth was one of eleven women that raised Parison and his siblings.

Elizabeth worked on Mark to buy something for "Mama" (me) while I was losing the battle against the rest. Finally one of the younger women got tired of hearing no and said "OK, no bracelet? Then picture! You pay for picture!"

An out! I had an out!

"OK, I will give you 10,000 shillings for a picture. But it has to be all of you. And you have to look pretty for the photo."

They all laughed and lined up enthusiastically on the dry lakebed. I took a few shots and they ran over to see them on the camera (digital cameras are a godsend; it's so wonderful to be able to immediately share a photo with your subjects, especially in places where cameras are few and far between.) I have never been so happy to pay for a picture in my life. We got into the car at last, and the women made their way back to the village, apparently satisfied with our transaction.

This picture, by the way, is one of my favorites out of the hundreds we took on the trip. Totally worth the 10,000 shilling ($7.00) price.
The group photo: Our guide Parison (the tallest and only male), his mom Elizabeth (just to the left of him) and the rest of the clan. The women are holding up strings of bracelets, rings and necklaces they were selling.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Tanzania: The Right Track to Natron

(This is the eleventh installment in a series about our self-drive safari to Tanzania. Click here to start at the beginning.)

The GPS beeped, the screen flickering for a split second before going dark. Mark let the car drift to the side of the road while I frantically jiggled the cord, pushing the 'ON' button over and over in a futile attempt to get the map back up on the screen.

"I think it might be dead."

The morning had started out so well. Within a mile of our campsite we had driven right through part of the great migration, watching huge herds of wildebeest roll across the sweeping green plains. We stopped to admire the views from the top of the kopjes as we made our way towards Klein's Gate, the northern-most exit from the Serengeti in Tanzania.

Huge herd of wildebeest graze near Klein's Gate, Serengeti
We stopped in at the gate to check out of the park and sign the Log Book. Klein's is a lightly used gate, it's far from the more popular parts of the park. Not many people travel through this area; there were only two guards here and both jumped up to greet us. I think they were happy to have someone break up the monotony of the morning. Inside the office, we looked at the map that was tacked up on the wall and asked about the road to Lake Natron.

"How is the road? Are there any problem spots?" Both Shaw and our guide book had described some difficult areas on this stretch. When the road is dry, it's just the usual rutted, corrugated stuff to which we had become accustomed. But after it rains, the "black cotton" soil turns to gluey, tire sucking muck, making the going difficult to impossible. Beyond the muddy areas, the road travels through a rocky desert and descends into the Nguruman Escarpment, a volcanic area sharing a border with Kenya. There is a section of switchbacks nicknamed Seventeen Corners that is notorious for it's narrow, acrophobic drop-offs and puckering two way traffic on what should be a a one way road.

"Roads are fine. They are good. No problems."

We had learned to take what was said about roads here in perspective. Roads that are "good" to natives would have triggered a stack of letters to the city council (and possibly lawsuits) back home. But the fact that they had also mentioned they were mostly dry was a good sign. We could manage the ruts and bumps, but mud would have thrown us a new challenge we weren't sure we were ready to take on.

Our rule when traveling in Africa was always "if there's a restroom, use it" so we wandered over that way. I opened the door to the ladies and found this one was equipped with a squat toilet. All the restrooms we had visited to this point had either the western style toilets or a mixture of squats and western. This, being such a remote outpost, was only equipped with one hole, quite literally.

The green color on this side of the park was a refreshing change from the dry brown of the rest of the Serengeti.
For those unfamiliar with the concept, the squat toilet is a hole in the floor surrounded by a porcelain plate (if it's a fancy one) with two grooved foot pads on the sides. There isn't any toilet paper; for washing purposes a bucket of water is placed in the room with a small bowl meant to dip and pour over your parts and clean up any "excess" on the porcelain. This particular room had a large barrel made by sawing a 55 gallon drum in half. I have to hand it to the guys; the restroom was very clean, unlike most of the others we had visited.
No, I did not take a picture of the toilet
there. This is for illustration purposes

Now, I'm up for anything. We had spent the last few days digging our own holes and hiding behind bushes, so a little squatting wasn't going to be a deal breaker. I have a habit of stuffing my pockets full of tissue before we go anywhere while we're camping, so that wasn't an issue. Besides, I would have just hovered over a western-style toilet anyway, so what's the difference?

I lined myself up, taking care not to let my shorts drag on the floor. Everything was flowing well and I don't mind telling you my aim was spot on. I had a little trouble getting the tissue out of my pocket while still in a squat; should have thought to take it out before I got started. That was when things went a little awry; as I bent over to pull up my shorts, my sunglasses—which were tucked in the neck of my shirt—started to slide out. Immediately I envisioned them falling down the hole, a place I wasn't willing to go no matter how badly I needed them. As I reached up to grab them they slid out, glancing off the back of my hand and catapulting away, splashing down in the water bucket in the corner.

I quickly hobbled over and plunged my hand in the bucket, chasing the glasses as they fluttered down into the water. I caught them before they went too deep; if they had gotten to the bottom I would have been up to my armpit in questionable water. Sunglasses raised victoriously in the air, arm dripping, shirt sleeve wet, shorts around my knees: I was the picture of triumph. Now to figure out how to pull up and button my shorts with only one hand.

Back at the car I stood outside the door, not wanting to touch anything until I got myself cleaned up. The water from the restroom seemed clean, but it certainly wasn't to drinking water standards. I had to ask Mark to get out the wet wipes so I could clean up before climbing into the passenger seat. I had trouble explaining my predicament to him because I was suddenly overcome with a serious case of the giggles. While we had been making our pitstop another tour car had pulled in and it's occupants were standing nearby waiting for their driver. I'm sure I was just confirming what this European safari group already knew; Americans aren't fit for polite company.

A group of giraffe grazing near the road just outside Klein's Gate.
Back on the road, I located the next route on the GPS. I had pre-programmed Klein's to Natron the night before, carefully cross checking the route with the description in the book. I was determined to have a trouble free day, especially important today; we were leaving the park boundaries, with their spotty but occasional road signs, and traversing remote countryside with little cell coverage. It was important not to get lost, both for our well being and possibly our marital harmony. (Nothing is more stressful for an already stressed out driver than having the question "Which way?" be answered by "I'm not sure...")

The countryside in this part of Tanzania is absolutely gorgeous. The late rains had kept the hills green and lush; small villages dotted the valleys around us, the herds of cattle here the fattest we had seen the whole trip. We came across a section thickly lined with trees and were surprised to find a large group of giraffe, munching away. We had been in Africa for over a week now but it never ceased to amaze me that these huge animals were everywhere. Not just relegated to certain areas, but everywhere. It was a thrill to drive, never knowing what might be around the next corner.

We traveled through several small villages making our way towards the town of Wasso, the halfway point to Lake Natron. Our instructions from Shaw said we should stock up on food and fuel there, it being the last stop for the next few days. We puttered along, getting stuck in a few Maasai cattle traffic jams, taking in the beautiful scenery.

Why, oh why, do the cattle always want to walk on the road? This happened over and over on the road to Wasso.
We found our turnoff for Wasso and descended into town. It was not at all like the description in the guide book. Not a surprise really, not much of anything on this trip had been. The town was a dusty road flanked by small wood and mud buildings, much like most of the towns we had visited. We traveled all the way through without being able to locate a gas station or food store, so turned around and headed back. The usual "guys standing around" watched us curiously; this area is not often visited by tour groups, and I assume even more rarely visited by individuals traveling without a guide. We couldn't see any sign of a modern-type gas station, so we pulled over and asked a group of guys gathered in front of a restaurant.

"Fuel? Over there!" they pointed right across the street to a hut surrounded by 55 gallon barrels.

Hmmm. We were told not to get fuel anywhere but a regular pump type station. There wasn't anything like that here. We had about 200 kilometers of road before the next fuel stop and maybe a little extra thrown in for exploration around Lake Natron. We didn't have any choice; we crossed our fingers and hoped this guy was on the up and up.

Fill 'er up! Fuel station in Wasso.
We pulled in front of the hut and the guy asked us how much we needed. (This required running back across the street and asking for a translator.) A guy on a motorcycle volunteered to come over and help us with the transaction. Mark had to do some quick figuring; we had to fill the tank, but since our fuel gauge had been stuck on full the entire trip, we had to not only calculate how much we'd need to get where we were going, but how much we had used so far. Luckily, we'd been tracking our fuel usage since Ngorongoro, and figured we needed about 20L.

The fuel man stuck a piece of hose into the diesel drum and started hand cranking a pump he had clamped onto it, filling a jerry can to the 20L mark. He then put a funnel with a filter attachment into the car fuel filler and emptied the jerry can into our tank. This would have given the California Air Quality Board (not to mention OSHA) fits, but you know what? This is what ingenuity looks like. When you don't have electricity you have to make do. It saved our butts and made him a little cash: everyone was happy.

Off we went down the road through town for the second time, this time on a quest for food. There were little stores here and there, but it was hard to tell who was selling what. We pulled over at what would amount to a mini strip mall in the U.S., a line of shops with crates of empty Coke bottles lined up outside. There were boxes of dusty produce on display outside one of the doors, and as we looked it over a woman walked out to help us. We weren't sure what some of the items were, but picked up a bunch of bananas and a few beat up oranges. "Water?" we asked. "No water. No." We peeked inside the shop and saw three 500ml bottles on the shelf, which wouldn't have been enough for us anyway, and decided to let it go.

We paid for our fruit and got back on the road, stopping briefly to help push start a disabled car (we wanted to leave a good impression for the next hapless white folks who happened to stumble through.) On our way up the hills outside of town the terrain turned from lush and green to dry and gray with the occasional candelabra tree. We were moving into the desert region of the Nguruman Escarpment, the edge of the Lake Natron valley area.

Candelabra trees line the road outside of Wasso
It was hard to tell on these bumpy roads, but we were starting to get a distinct wiggle in the steering. On the sporadic occasion of a smooth stretch of road Mark would accelerate from our normal 25-30 mph to 40-45. The car would be fine up until we hit a bump, at which time the steering wheel would wiggle back and forth until he slowed back down to 20. It could be the alignment was off—God knows we hit enough rocks and corrugation to do it—but to be extra sure it wasn't something more serious we pulled over to check it out.

First we checked the tires to make sure we didn't have a flat, then popped the hood. There was a little leak coming from the power steering box, but it didn't look too major. Mark topped it off and couldn't find anything else that seemed amiss. Just have to keep an eye on it.

When we started the car up again I turned the GPS back on (the GPS unit relied on the car for power.) It booted back up and I was pulling up our route when the unthinkable happened: after letting out a forlorn beeping sound, the screen went black. Ok, not a huge deal. The cigarette lighter power connection had been jiggling around the whole trip so I figured it had come a little loose. I pulled it out then plugged it firmly back in. No go. I did the same with the cord connection to the device. Nothing. I jammed the "ON" button down so hard I had the button imprint on my index finger for half an hour. No dice.

If this had happened anywhere else, it would have been acceptable. Tarangire? No worries, we had a map. Ngorongoro? We had a guide and plenty of other people around to ask. Serengeti? There were signs, and if we were truly lost, someone would be along within the hour.


We had only seen one other vehicle since we left town, we didn't have a road map that covered this area, there was no cell service and to top it off, we were starting to suspect there was something wrong with the steering. So, as one of our favorite instructors at Overland Expo had taught us, when you are presented with a problem that is giving you trouble, stop and make a cup of tea.

Not literally of course. It was 90 sweaty degrees outside with no shade for miles. We sat in the car and mulled our options:

  • Up to this point in our lives we considered ourselves fairly competent;
  • We were on what appeared to be the main road; 
  • The guards at the gate said it was easy; 
  • The truck was still running great, the steering was a bit off but if we kept our speed down it didn't seem to be a problem. 

We decided to push on and try to navigate using the description in the guide book. What could happen?

We traveled for two more hours through terrain that was getting increasingly dry and rocky. Must be getting close to the Nguruman Escarpment! The road had been easy to follow for the most part; there were very few other side roads up here. We descended into a little valley and crossed a dry riverbed, Mark navigating the sandy wash with ease (Serpentine!*) when "BEEP!" a cheerful little sound from our GPS announced it had decided to work again. After pulling up our route on the screen it confirmed we were still on the right track. Hallelujah!
(*There are tricks to keep from getting stuck in sand: keep the car's momentum going at all costs and steer back and forth to keep from getting bogged down in the ruts created by the last guy who went through. Mark loves doing this and likes to shout "Serpentine!" while the car swings back and forth, wheels spraying sand in the air. A little 4WD humor for you, silly I know, but there you have it.)

At the bottom of a hill we came to a fork in the road, both directions looking equally "main." This turnoff wasn't mentioned in the book, nor was it marked on the GPS. Two Maasai women were sitting by the side of the road, one nursing a baby. I rolled down my window and smiled at them "Jambo!" They smiled back and walked over to the car, laughing and nodding at me. I asked them with lots of hand signals and gestures which way to Natron? Puzzled looks and shaking heads. I pulled out a map of Tanzania, pointing to the lake and where I thought we were (approximately.) They looked at the map and smiled, with looks that indicated they probably hadn't seen a map before. I'm not even sure they knew how to read. And I'm pretty certain they didn't know Kiswahili either, based on the way they said hello. The baby gurgled and smiled at me, not sure what to make of this strange looking (and sounding) woman.

Just at that moment two safari vehicles drove around the corner. Mark waved one of them down and yelled "Natron?" The guy nodded and pointed back the way they had come. "Yes, that way. Right turns! All right turns and you will get to Natron!"

It had been confirmed. We were on the right track.
Looking down onto the Lake Natron plain.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Tanzania: The Serengeti (Part II)

(This is the ninth installment in a series about our self-drive safari in Tanzania. Click here to start at the beginning.)
After checking to see if the coast was clear animal-wise, we climbed down the ladder and set up the breakfast table. It was our first morning in the Serengeti and it was nice not to be in such a rush for once. We sat and drank our coffee watching the gazelle graze in the field behind camp, such a stereotypical African experience we had to giggle to ourselves.

Thompson gazelle watch as we eat our cereal.
Our first stop was right across the road; the Grumeti River was over there and we were on a mission to see some crocodiles. We sat and stared at the muddy river for a long time, daring each other to get out and take a closer look. Neither of us would leave the car so, sans bait, the crocs stayed hidden. Damn.

The Grumeti River. Somewhere in there a crocodile waits for one of us to get out of our car.
We traveled up the road, taking every game drive side loop we saw. There were animals everywhere we turned, mostly small herds of gazelle and baboon with a giraffe or two thrown in and some unfamiliar animals we had to look up in our wildlife book. It was fun to putt around with no exact itinerary in mind.

Kirk's Dik-dik
Baboon digs for lunch.
We took a road out onto a broad plain and came across a lone giraffe standing beneath a huge acacia tree. He eyeballed us as we slowly drove closer, obviously leery yet he never budged. It's amazing to realize just how huge these animals are; we couldn't get over the fact that the car was level with his knees. We left him in his patch of shade and continued on our game drive.

A lone giraffe stands stock-still under a huge acacia tree.
A closer look, complete with his bird friends.

We found a promising looking road that skirted a rocky hill; it looked as if not long ago it had been very muddy, judging from the deep ruts in the dried dirt. It meandered along a scrubby route, winding in and out of the trees. We came across the remnants of an old camp and stopped to check it out.

Immediately we were sorry we had done that.

For those who haven't had the pleasure of the acquaintance, here's a description of a tsetse fly: take your common house fly, stretch it out so it's long and skinny and make it a lighter grayish black color. Take away the heavy footedness of that house fly so you can't feel it when it lands on you, and take away it's natural skittish tendency to fly away when you wave a hand over it. Then add in the last, yet most crucial, difference:

It bites.

Not just a "shoot, it bit me" kind of bite, either. More of a "M#$^&r F&#$%*r! GET IT OFF ME!" kind of bite. We were both wearing shorts and t-shirts with long sleeve shirts that were treated with insecticide. We figured during our trip we might have to dab some bug juice on our legs and faces, but we hadn't had any insect trouble up to this point. It was far too late for that now.

The flies were pouring in through our open windows, so we rolled them up. This only served to trap them in so they could dine without the pesky wind to ruffle their wings. These were a hardy bunch; unlike a mosquito, they never seemed to get their fill. Clothing didn't slow them down either; they were able to drill right through two layers of shirt and the heavy canvas material of our shorts. I swear one bit me through the mesh of my shoe and sock. And painful! Each bite was like a tiny bee sting, a hot needle drilling into your skin. To get them off you had to scrape at them; they wouldn't fly away until you touched them.

We ended up using an Alaskan trick helpful when the truck cab would fill with mosquitoes: roll down the windows and drive like hell until the little bastards blow out. This worked for all but the most tenacious ones. Never in my life have I felt as satisfied as when I killed the last two flies in the car with the swatter Shaw had thoughtfully stuck in the dash.

A shy Leopard Tortoise.

After that excitement, we decided to make our way back to camp and enjoy a little quiet time. We looked for our cheetah friends in the creek bed on the way into camp, but they must have found a better hangout because there was no sign of them. We parked in our spot and set up the tent, putting our chairs in it's shade and enjoying a cold coke from the cooler. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, tastes as good as an icy cold coke after driving an un-air conditioned Land Rover on hot dusty roads (with the windows rolled up) all afternoon.

We relaxed, did some reading and caught up on our housekeeping. We did a load of socks and underwear in our washbasin and hung them up on a clothesline in the back of the car. Did we look like hillbillies? You betcha. But we would have some clean undies to wear tomorrow!

Another African sunset. Just beautiful.

That night just after we went to bed we heard some scuffling outside. It was pitch black, so Mark pulled out the high powered flashlight he had purchased just for this trip. Right below us, two huge porcupine were scruffing through the dirt, nosing around for crumbs we had dropped during dinner. I've never seen a porcupine so close, and had no idea they got so big. Judging from the long spines on them (at least a foot and a half long), they didn't have to worry about predators.

Mark was having fun playing with his flashlight and decided to check out the rest of the camp. It was such a warm night we had all the windows open so it made it easy to shine the light, sweeping the camp in a large circle. A hundred sets of eyes glowed back from every direction, some surprisingly close in. He turned it off quickly and pulled the covers up to his neck. Some things are better left in the dark.

The next day we were scheduled to move to another campground, but first we had to get more fuel and try again to find some food and water. We drove back to Seronara, stopping in to get diesel before heading back to the visitor's center. The help desk was unmanned when we got there, so we went over to the little gift store to do some shopping.

We poked around while the owner sat at his desk, counting up huge stacks of cash. It amazed us how nonchalant storekeepers were with their money here; at home, the cash drawers are quickly whisked away to be counted behind a locked door. Here the guy was sorting out both U.S. dollars and Tanzanian shillings, stacking the bills into piles by denomination. The fan was blowing them around his desk, forcing him to put wooden figurines on them to keep them in place. Friends of his would wander in and say hello, distracting him just enough so he kept having to re-count the stacks. There must have been at least 2000 U.S. dollars there. It's hard to estimate how many shillings he had; I never did get used to the immense numbers on the notes so I'm sure it wasn't nearly as much as it appeared.

A young baboon looks into the camera lens.
We liked some of the gift items, but it seemed the prices were hiked up for the fancy safari crowd so we passed. Something we didn't notice the first day, however, was that below all the cokes in the cooler, there was a line of 1 liter bottles of water. Thank goodness! We were down to our last liter and had another day and half until the next town. We bought five more bottles, figuring that would get us through to the next stop. We asked about food, but with some translation difficulty were told we might get prepared food at the lodges (probably a boxed lunch or a sit down dinner.) There didn't seem to be any grocery-type stores in the park. After looking longingly at the chocolate bars, Mark dragged me out of the store with just the water.

Ok, so the food box was getting a bit lighter but there were still quite a few things in there, we'd just have to get more creative.

Back up the same road, we crossed over the river just outside Seronara and out of the corner of my eye I spotted it: a crocodile! Big signs on the road warned drivers it was illegal to stop on the bridge, so Mark had to keep driving. By the time we got turned around and I got the camera out, the croc had submerged. Darn it! At least we got to see one.

A herd of wildebeest on the hazy plains. This is one of my favorite photos, the heat waves and smoke from a recent fire making it look like a watercolor.
We were driving up to Klein's Gate and the Lobo Hills campground, the northern-most area of the park. As we traveled, the countryside subtly changed from dry grassy plains to green rolling, rocky hills. The road got rougher as well; corrugation turned to bumpy embedded boulders, forcing us to slow down even further. Good thing we didn't have as far to travel today. We passed a large flatbed tow truck as it slowly picked it's way through the rocks on the narrow road. Man, wouldn't want to be that guy. Wonder where he's going?

We got our answer soon enough. We pulled into the Lobo Hills campground to find a brand new Mercedes SUV, the body settled down on it's wheels. The owner, a big blustery guy from South Africa, had driven it all the way up to the Serengeti where he had blown out the air suspension on the road. "In all my life, I have never driven such bad roads! I will never come here again! They need to fix these roads! It's ridiculous!"

Mercedes SUV on the back of the tow truck, unhappy owner in the foreground.

We nodded in agreement, but had to turn away before he saw us smile. What was he thinking? Not only was he driving this cushy, city vehicle but he was pulling a huge camping trailer equipped with tent, full kitchen, and all sorts of gear. The poor car had been put through hell. Frankly, we were surprised he got as far as he did.

The big tow truck motored in half an hour later and they quickly got the Mercedes loaded up. Before leaving, the South African told us to be sure to go up north towards Kenya. The migration was in full swing up there. "After all! That's what you came for right?! To see the migration!" (He was the kind of guy that spoke in exclamation points.)

Normally, the great migration would already be well into Kenya at this time of year, but Tanzania had some unusually late rains and the wildebeest had turned around and come back. No wonder it was greener up here. Climate change had done us a favor for once!

Since we had to drive that way the next morning anyway, we decided to hang around camp for the afternoon. The wind was screaming down off the kopjes (pronounced "Cop-yees" it means granite outcroppings) that backed up the camp, and baboons sat staring forlornly at us from the rocks. We were told by another camper that the baboons were horrible pests the night before; they tried to steal the campers' food and everyone was forced to use the enclosed picnic area. Even in the safety of the hut, the baby baboons climbed up the sides and reached in through the mesh windows, screeching at the people inside.

This should be fun.

The view from Lobo Hills campground, still green from the late rains.
We set up camp and kept an eye on the baboons, not wanting to lose what little food we had. Around 3 o'clock they mysteriously disappeared and we never saw them again. I guess our meager options didn't impress them.

After a bit two Land Rovers pulled in and arranged themselves next to us, four people piling out from each. We watched them set up, two rooftop tents per vehicle. Out came an elaborate table (with white tablecloth) and chairs, followed by a cooler that disgorged an impressive spread of cheese and meats, along with bread and of course, wine. It was hard to believe their vehicles, which were the same make and model as ours, could hold all this stuff. We sat in our little camp chairs nibbling on our broken crackers and the last of our nuts, contemplating our dinner; we had two more hot dogs left and some canned peas. We Americans sure know how to live.
Our camp at Lobo Hills.

As we cooked up our hot dogs (boiling them in the pot with the peas to save water) the woman from next door walked over and asked if we had any luck getting our dinner heated. The wind was still at gale force and she was having trouble getting her stove to stay lit. We showed her how to set up the stove using the back door as a shield and she thanked us, laughing that it had taken her an hour to make coffee that morning.

After dinner, the patriarch of the family came over and introduced himself, bringing a "glass" (a dixie cup) of wine for each of us. He and his family were from Switzerland and were doing the same safari tour we were, just in the opposite direction. They had just come from Lake Natron, our next stop, and were headed to the Ngorongoro Crater after camping here for a few days. He warned us about the Maasai kids along the road: they had traveled through a village the day before when some boys came out begging for money. When he refused to give them anything one of the boys threw a rock, smashing his back window. He complained at the next checkpoint ("oh by the way," he told us, "there are three checkpoints and they'll charge anywhere from $10 to $20 per person to go through") and the guards said they would take care of it.

Tanzania depends on tourism—it's their main source of income—and all they need is to have a bad reputation like that. I'm sure those boys were very sorry for their behavior not long after the complaint was lodged.

We enjoyed visiting with them that evening. They spoke excellent English, especially their daughter who had spent some time in college in the U.S. They told us they loved Africa so much they had been doing these self-drive safaris every two years, and they had enjoyed Tanzania the most of any of the countries they had visited so far. It was great to swap stories with one of the few other groups that, like us, were traveling without benefit of a guide.

If anything, the wind picked up that night making it hard to sleep as the rain fly slapped against the sides of the tent. Just as we would drift off to sleep another gust would lift the tent up and the fabric would strain against the stays. It got so bad Mark worried it might rip the grommets out, so he climbed out in the middle of the night and took the stays down, tucking them under the tent for the night. If there were any animals around they must have gotten an eyeful, Mark clambering around in the wind in his boxers.

Wildebeest at one of the temporary watering holes created by the late rains.

The next morning, still battered by the wind, we packed up and headed towards Klein's Gate on our way to Lake Natron. Just a few kilometers from the campground we found what the South African had told us about: great herds of wildebeest were roaming as far as the eye could see. It was an incredible sight, one that couldn't be captured by our camera, but we tried anyway:

The Serengeti had been everything we'd hoped. It had rewarded us with a leopard sighting, cheetahs, a crocodile, some interesting camp mates and the crowning glory, a little piece of the great migration, straight out of the National Geographic specials we had watched as kids. We couldn't have asked for a better experience.

Well, except for those #$&^ing flies.