Friday, March 20, 2009

The DUSTBOWL

   called
                                   AMBOSELI
                 

The volume of zebra and wildebeest traffic and the sight of lions sleeping soundly lost to the world of gawking tourists are among the numerous firsts I witnessed in the Amboseli National Park, but the scene that will stay with me forever is something else: a long-shot of lumbering herd of elephants with young ones in tow cutting through the simmering heat of the dustbowl in search of water. These elephants would have to walk for miles to get to the receding water sources and they would have to do it as fast as the pace of the youngest calf. We, who simply reach out for bottled water to soothe our parched throats or a can of coke to wet our lips in the middle of nowhere, cannot even begin to imagine the elephants’ predicament. The poignancy of the scene lay in the realization of that harsh reality of life in the wild.

As the herd approached our vehicle the calf buckled under sheer exhaustion and lay down to rest: the clan simply stayed put in some sort of protective formation. They stood still and we waited with bated breath (our cameras whirring), for what seemed like an eternity, to see what would happen next. As my son interpreted the scenario, the calf that was resting was the unlikely king, and the family of adults, the servile subjects who had to wait it out. It felt as though the earth had stopped spinning and that instant was IT… for the elephants there was no past, no future; the essence of existence was the present pregnant moment.

The elephant herd would pause for as long as it would take the calf to regain its energy before resuming their long march. We, however, had to move on so as not to overstay safari propriety and had no way of knowing the fate of the calf or of the herd. But, possibly, the entire family would have had to go without water longer than their tolerance threshold, or perhaps I am underestimating their patience and endurance. 


The sight of an imposing lone tusker is worth more than a pride of lions and we were lucky to see one at a distance near the Olokenya swamp. The hulk, his tusks tending to ground, emerged out of a thicket like a chimera. Surprised or simply gauging our mood as we were trying to sense his, he stood there looking directly at us. Even from that distance we could feel his brute presence, a colossus striding the earth like royalty. Suddenly, contrary to its nature, it darted into nearby bushes and simply vanished before our eyes. It was as though the mask had been ripped off his face and the blinkers off mine as I realized how vulnerable that lone ranger was. No companion, no family, no herd – a persona non grata eking it out in an unfriendly world.

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Despite the underpinning action of the predator and the prey, the savanna, paradoxically, is a quiet place. At the very outset, as you enter any park or the outskirts, you see little action or even little life making you impatient that you may not see any game at all. All you are greeted with is the dusty track, dry wispy grass, stones and bones littered about, the latter suggesting furtive and furious activity, but no sign of life – and no sound or sounds, whatsoever. ‘The dry savanna of summer resembling a desert is deserted’, you may be forgiven for thinking. And then… you see some game, a few zebras here, a few wildebeests there, and as your eyes get trained to pick up the tangible shapes you find them in ever-increasing density and in profusion as far as eye can reach. The savanna is a camouflage canvas where species blend in seamlessly as in a page of child’s puzzle of ‘spot the animals’ hidden in a painting.

As the afternoon sun winds down towards day close you come face to face with a legion of wildlife stretched end to end of the sprawling landscape. There are elephant herds mingling with browsing zebras and wild buffaloes with the hitch-hiking oxpeckers and cattle egrets. It is a mela without an accompanying background score. That is the thing that hits you hard about the savannas. Though bursting with life there is no murmur or a whisper. Two juvenile Thomson’s gazelles indulge in play fighting, locking horns, in silent mode. Elsewhere, a wildebeest baby is ambling along trying to keep pace with the mother without a whine or whimper. Even when alarmed the animals simply tend to buck and run but no frightened noises; there is dignity in every action and emotion.











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Something brownish-grey moves in the grass of similar hue; someone says it’s a lion and everyone hopes that it is. Binoculars come out and even the telephoto of the camera is tweaked to ascertain the identity of the animal. As the tourist van pulls up closer three plump warthogs take to heels with their tiny tails upright in air! The scene provides comic relief and humbles all tourists whose single most aspiration is to spot the lions. You may see hyenas and an odd fox or jackal but it is the ‘biggest’ of the big five that everybody craves for.

Our first two trips, one to Tsavo, the biggest park in the whole of Africa, and the second one to Nakuru drew a blank where lions were concerned, but luck favoured us at Amboseli, most unexpectedly. After a morning’s safari of spotting all sorts of animals and birds wildlife fatigue was setting in. To add to the plight we were lulled into lethargy as there was no sign of life for a stretch and if it were not for a friend’s keen eye we would have missed the two supine figures camouflaged completely in the dry grass. Napping by the side of the tour track lay two full-bodied male lions dead to the world. We waited willing them to wake up and raise their head to get that perfect portrait, but they did not budge. The only movement was the gentle heaving of their breathing bodies and twitching of noses. The driver-guide got onto his walkie-talkie to convey the coordinates of the lion to others of his ilk as was the procedure in the parks and soon traffic began to build up and our turn was up.

Of the Big five we have seen four by now: the lions, buffaloes, elephants, rhinos (in our earlier trip to Nakuru) but the cheetahs or even the leopards were as elusive as ever. Leopards are the trickiest to spot for they camouflage very well and are quite shy. Of the five, the African wild buffalo is the easiest to spot as these animals roam in herds and mixed groups or singly. I found myself willy nilly comparing the wildlife here with that in India, as it is perhaps the only other country that can boast of such rich and varied wildlife, and a curious thought struck me. In India, over a century now, the elephant and the wild buffalo have been tamed and domesticated; not so in Africa. I am told that unlike the Asian water buffalo, the African variety is not docile, and is often unpredictable. It is, therefore, one of the most dangerous animals of the savanna.

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At Amboseli, for the first time I saw birds the size of small mammals walking tall on the ground, even as we saw the usual arboreal ones such as the starlings, eagles and water fowls. From afar, the ostrich presents itself as a surreal vision of a charcoal black chunk wading in mid-air. The Maasai ostrich, called thus for its tall lean-mean look, is truly gigantic and can be spotted from a distance. The muscular legs of the ostrich that can carry it really far and fast are proof enough of its lethal kick; even a lion would not want to mess with them! The lifer moment came when we spotted the Secretary bird (Sagittarius serpentarius). I learnt that this grey-black bird is named curiously (according to the guidebook) due to its unique head plumes, which look like “quill pens behind a secretary’s ear”. But the wag of a husband surmised that the tiny black number (more like bicycle shorts) it sports might have something to do with its nom de plume!

My day was made when I got the perfect photo opportunity as a crane couple (the Grey-crowned one) walking in step suddenly halted, faced each other and gave a beak-to-beak peck. I had heard of the crane's monogamous nature, but here I got to see a “couple very much in love”. One of the most striking birds of savannas, the grey-crowned crane is the national bird of Uganda and finds itself gracing the Ugandan flag.


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The icing on the cake, literally and figuratively, of this visit was the view of Mt. Kilimanjaro with its famed snow-capped mantle. For the large part of the year, the peak remains mysteriously hidden behind a shroud of clouds and you have to be really lucky to get your eyeful of it. On the second day of our visit, as we set out of the lodge to embark on our safari, we saw the Kili with its flat-topped crater dripping rivulets of snow much like the creamy icing on a cake. Ernest Hemingway enshrined the legendary mountain through his work, the anthology of stories titled: “The snows of Kilimanjaro”. Much before that the early explorers were ridiculed when they simply suggested of snow on mountains in the African country straddling the equator! It is fascinating to note that Johann Rebmann, the first European missionary and explorer who saw Kilimanjaro with its snow cap and documented it, found himself scorned by scholars and scientists of the day! A hot air balloon scouring the topographic etchings and terrestrial life off Kilimanjaro would be an ideal safari indeed! Some day…










Spotted hyena
Wildebeest




Heron
Egyptian Geese




Saturday, January 24, 2009

A Tale of Two Towns




Explorer Johann Ludwig Krapf first documented the presence of Mt. Kenya (in East Africa) straddling the Equator: “…two large horns or pillars rising over an enormous mountain to the north west of Kilimanjaro, covered with a white substance.”  There was disbelief then to the point of heaping ridicule on the explorers that snow and equator could co-exist geographically. This was in 1849. For the Wakamba people at its foot, though, this “discovery” was a foregone reality.  Something similar happened in 1859 when explorer Richard Burton who set his eyes on the Blue Mountain range in South India commented: “Such a climate within the tropics was considered so great an anomaly that few could believe its existence.” He was spying the range of Neilgherry that had already been “introduced” and “authenticated” in 1819 by John Sullivan, then Collector of Coimbatore, as a “discovery” to the world at large, no matter it was home to Toda tribe for centuries. But that is digressing.

Kodanad Nilgiris
Mt. Kenya 










Can two places, continents apart - one to the north of equator and the other just south of it, have any common ground? Probably not, one is forgiven for presuming. But if I said that not only can two places have commonalities but bear uncanny similarities, wouldn’t it sound incredulous? Central Highlands in Kenya and Blue Mountains in India, both places where I spent three unforgettable years of my life, count up to the idea.  Nairobi town, just one degree south of equator in the continent of Africa, answers perfectly to the clich├ęd phrase, “salubrious climes”, that describes Wellington (or Coonoor and Ooty, for that matter) in Nilgiris best. And that is where the analogies just about begin.

Cut to the 21st century. Dandy dahlias, crisp white chrysanthemums, cannas and purple-burst agapanthus or African lily border the well-trimmed lawns, the lines of which are broken intermittently by frangipani and bougainvillea bushes. The peach tree is laden with fruits and so is the guava. Kites trill and encircle the garden as the sparrows pick at the bird feeder. Across the boundary wall, in a glen, masses of pine and eucalyptus jostle with the cypresses and the cool breeze intoxicates the senses. Sitting on the patio of my duplex I am taking in the scenes of the day. For a minute, I lose my bearings and think I am in Gulistan of Wellington Cantonment, but that is not the case. This is the DAK (Defence Adviser, Kenya) Bungla (as I like to call it) in Nairobi where we are currently situated. If photographs of the two houses, with the gardens, were to be juxtaposed as in a child’s puzzle of Spot the Difference, it would be hard to tell them apart.

The bird wealth of Nairobi too rivals that of Wellington-Coonoor. If Nilgiris has its endemic and eponymous thrush, Nairobi has the African Olive Thrush whose fluting call can bridge time and space. I could be walking along the pine forests of Wellington Gymkhana Club while actually I am at the Windsor Club in Nairobi’s kosher locality on a birdwatching trail. Like Nilgiris, Central Highlands is a land of tea, thrushes and tribes.


Tea garden Nilgiris
Maramba Tea Estate Tigoni Nairobi
It feels like yesterday it was with a heavy heart that I left Wellington (but actually ten months back). In the two plus years that I was in Wellington, I felt as though I belonged there like nowhere else. Funny how, after years of living in an urban climate, you come to a strange unknown place and feel that you have come home. The open landscape of the blue mountain range with the ubiquitous eucalyptus and the song of the Malabar whistling thrush have made home in my mind permanently. So you can imagine how heart wrenching it must have been to leave the place when it was time. But who could have imagined that a place, oceans apart, could resonate with a similar rhythm – where places and people, at every instance, bring back memories from the Wellington–past as in a motion picture flashback?

Take the Mboga experience, for instance (Mboga means vegetables in KiSwahili, the national language of Kenya). In the heart of the city, by the arterial road with its zipping cars, lies the Mboga market which stocks all manners of vegetables – from cucumber and carrots to greens and gourds. Luscious apples and midget paw paws beckon from any number of ramshackle stalls. Here, you can shop for the apple mangoes (which are mangoes and not apples) all the year round and golden apples (which are apples though not golden) that look like green apples from outside but are mushy like custard apples inside. The sheer variety and quality of the vegetables and fruits leaves one gasping. Few misinformed travelers and friends had given us to understand that we may have to give up vegetarianism to partake of bush meat, the staple of the locals. They couldn’t have been farther from truth.

This wholesale market is a microcosm of Kenya’s mwananchi (public), but if you simply blot out the people, you could be standing in Coonoor’s sabzi mandi where we used to go for our weekly fix. Come to think of it, even the skin colour of the vegetable mama or bwana is not much different from the dark-skinned Tamilians down South India! Across the oceans and continents as worlds change it is funny how some things still remain the same. My visit to the Mboga market often ends with relishing the butta or corn-on-the-cob roasted on slow charcoal fire on a makeshift grill. In typically desi style, this is spiced with salt-chili combo daubed by means of lemon wedges. It is complete enigma how two countries globe apart come to share such culinary fare and practices. Roadside eateries - not of Indian origin but of local flavor, mind you - announcing staple of chai, chapatti and even samosas make you wonder if you ever left the Indian shores.

One of the obvious reasons for these similarities is the “legacy” of the British that bonds India and Kenya as both have been British colonies. Just as the British eliminated natural forests in Nilgiris or Assam, the landscape in Kenya too was transformed to pave way for tea plantations, and therefore, the chai. Nairobi, at an altitude of 5500 ft like Coonoor, has a climate congenial to tea and tea plantations veiled in mist greet you on the outskirts of Nairobi, in Tigoni and Limuru. The picture postcard images of camellia bushes on rolling hillsides can be interchanged without anything being amiss. Is it Coonoor or Nairobi - who can tell?

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Indian indentured labour was sought to build the Uganda Railway to connect the Kenyan coast of Mombasa to Lake Victoria in Uganda. This set into motion the second wave of Indian diaspora which became a torrent subsequently. But even before that, way back in the first century, traders from Kutch in Gujarat – intrepid and unsung explorers in their own way – left home shore to seek fortune in a strange land. The Indian merchants came in dhows ‘harnessing trade winds’, as it were, to encash on the vibrant trade in the Indian Ocean countries and settled in with their dukas (KiSwahili for shops. A lot of Hindi words find place in Kiswahili - yet another instance of consonance among the two countries). Like the ubiquitous China towns over the world, there is an India town in the heart of the city which gives us a sense of home away from home. The shopping complex of Diamond Plaza is the hub of Indian culture and cuisine. From idli-dosai joints to chaat corners and kirana stores to mithaai dukas, India is available on a platter here. Indians may have fanned out across the globe but the Indian connection in Kenya is unique. For instance, Nairobi city was built around an Indian township to begin with. Today, Nairobi boasts of nearly a lakh Indians, many of them third and fourth generation descendants who have altered the demographic and cultural landscape of Nairobi.

The Uganda Railway was aimed to cut across the hinterland of Africa but was actually a lifeline through the heartland of Kenya. The Blue Mountain Railway (now Nilgiri Mountain Railway), on the other hand, the history of whose construction is alien to me, was built to enable access from the plains of Coimbatore to the hills of Ootacamund. The journey I made on this meter gauge line in a toy train from Wellington to Ooty was unlike any experience I have ever had. The misty vistas of hills and dales, the unending tea gardens dotted with silver oak, sleepy hamlets amidst winding streams, and the biting inviting cold will haunt me forever.

Coming back to my Wellington home of Gulistan, I indulged in gardening and planted many seasonals such as dahlias and gazanias, but water scarcity and absence of a steady gardener stymied my ambitions of nurturing it to perfection. Great gardening ideas of breathing life into begonias and carnations were put on the backburner as the aforesaid constraints nixed its viability. And towards the end, I even had to contend with the misfortune of the gardener leaving and the garden falling into disarray and decay as we got busy with packing and moving.

In Nairobi, I have a dedicated gardener, and the soil is incredibly fertile such that one can see seedlings and saplings grow tall by inches overnight. I have planted sunflowers and hollyhocks with a vengeance and am tending a vegetable patch in the backyard. In less than a month, the modest harvest of kale, carrots, lettuce, eggplants, tomatoes and radish has been meeting a quarter of my weekly needs. I seem to have simply taken off from where I had left in the past.

The chasm that Wellington left in my heart will never be filled, but it has been bridged somewhat by the magic of its soul city, Nairobi. The Kenyan Highlands have replaced the Blue Mountains of my desire, for the time being.


Lily of Peru (Alstroemeria) in Gulistan, Wellington
Lily of Peru in DAK Bungla, Nairobi


















Nairobi
Wellington













Gulistan Wellington Nilgiris



DAK Bungla Nairobi Kenya