Saturday, November 27, 2010

Mount Kenya - Part I

Other Gods

They saw the mound
of black and white plumes
hunched back of a giant ostrich
kirinyaga, said the Kikuyus
kii’nyaa, said the Kambas
two tongues, two tribes, One Faith!

Blending with the skies
veiled from prying eyes
Unmanifest, it stood there
somewhere, above the treeline
at daybreak, when the clouds parted
as sheers peeled by temple priest
marbled Idols were revealed
in a rare darshan to believers – all

The vision:
of snow-clad peaks on dark massif
rising from the Equator floor -
of Day and Night
of Light and Darkness
in that one sight!

The resting place:
Of Creator Ngai, Lord of Nature
Revered and feared…
The houses they built facing the Mount
lore they wove round the slopes
Farms they laid at His feet, crops at the altar
An offering –
without disturbing His creed.

Cedar, oak, bamboo, redwood
Elephant, buffalo, antelope, turaco
Gladioli, violets, orchids, and ferns
Embellishments, they preserved in piety.

Centre of Universe, it was
for the First Man
baptized, bastardized by Outsiders
seeking to conquer, demystify
Mount Kenya – it became
yet another peak to be scaled
that lent their land its foreign name!

Born of the Great Rift
Of juices spewed from Earth’s womb
Rising from the Ashes…
Once tallest of them all
Towering above Kilimanjaro, Everest even
Since then, weathered, eroded
Grand, it stands, nonetheless –
Nemesis of the mountaineer clan

To the subjects, still
the sacred ‘Mountain of Brightness
to be worshipped –
this Abode of God

The Almighty African Himalayas!

When men and mountain meet

During the day, as I looked above the treeline on the opposite edge of the salt lick, from my balcony, I wouldn’t have suspected that the grey-blue sky speckled with clouds could hide a massive secret. But at daybreak, as one rubbed the sleep off ones eyes, dream-like an apparition of snow-draped mountains loomed in the near distance. In a rare gesture, Mount Kenya, the Mountain of God for the local inhabitants – the Kikuyus and Kambas, revealed itself, in benediction. Watching the magnificence moulded of million years, rear its head thus made me size my insignificance, and yet, somewhere, I felt the connection of both of us being Earth’s children, blessed in that moment of meeting of man and mountain. 

Mount Kenya - Part II

Rendezvous at the Equator

Yet another year gone by, yet another ‘birthday’…this day we decided to spend ‘family time’ tucked away  in the foothills of Mount Kenya far from civilization. The journey, itself, was a fantastic curtain-raiser to the weekend ahead…

Lush leafy abundance of coffee plantations punctuated by silver oak, eucalyptus and orchards of mangoes and bananas lining the snaking deserted roads rushed past in a mosaic that might have been from another lifetime. I forgot that I was heading out of Nairobi and felt that I was traveling the Coonoor-Ooty hill-road back in the Nilgiris. Few vignettes like the famed flame trees (African tulip with its red tubular flowers) of Thika (immortalized by Elspeth Huxley in an eponymous book ) nudged me to my true bearings. School children in red, the colour of the peoples of Kenya, would suddenly burst on the scene, waving and chattering, enlivening the still landscape. The drizzle, the nip and the light mist hovering around made me feel that we were leaving the earth and flying, rising to meet the clouds.

Like the Pippa’s Song, I couldn’t but feel that ‘all was well with the world’ and this feeling persisted even as we passed somnolent Karatina, a Mungiki (a criminal sect that terrorizes and holds citizens ransom from time to time) hotbed. Two and a half hours later with Kenny Rogers, “Coward of the county’ ringing in our ears, we crossed the equator line at Nanyuki and turned the bend to meet the mountains. Signposts with the map of Africa showing the equator line bisecting the continent, and even the country, reminded us that we were indeed at the centre of the earth. The sparse population there with children playing around the shanties seemed, to me, privileged for having their home at this enviable address, though nothing about them seemed even remotely to evoke envy!

As we gradually climbed up, the air became cooler, fresher, greener! At the gates of Mount Kenya National Park, the sky opened and poured its heart out. The forest looked dark and dank and with the already existing saturated tropical vegetation I wondered how we could venture out. The Mountain Lodge at the foothills of Mount Kenya was more like an extended tree house that proffered an indulgent view of the watering hole bordering a tropical jungle, discouraging any outings in the first place. Our room, as also the lobby balcony was to be the viewing gallery, a modern-day machaan from where we would unobtrusively spy on the shenanigans of the forest denizens.

The Buffalo in Me

It was a day to laze around, of simply sitting by the gallery overlooking the watering hole - watching and waiting, waiting and watching. Before long, a herd of buffaloes trooped out of the thicket, one by one, with a sense of urgency and made towards the water. There were all kinds -  thickset with tough thickened horns, indicating they were older males, brownish juveniles and of course, the matriarchs. As few males fanned out in different directions, keeping watch, the rest of the herd settled down contentedly chewing cud. In the case of buffaloes, with little action on the part of the players, languor seeps into the atmosphere and the scene becomes static save the hypnotic motion of the jaws, a sole reminder to the observer, of passage of time.

Like the buffaloes, I gave in completely to ruminating, doing nothing. I was just happy to be alive. Gazing at the grazing buffaloes, after a while, I became one among them, letting my mind roam free. I let it glide over the forests and wander among the trees. I listened to murmuring leaves and perked my ears at creaking twigs in anticipation and thrill. Languidly, I watched the interplay between the female and male bushbucks and the waterbucks that came to drink at the hole. I heard the Egyptian goose croak and followed it as it took wing, circling the skies, meeting with its mate before flying off to an unknown destination. I listened to the silence of the forest air and let myself slip into oblivion. The action of the buffaloes’ chewing cud became the breath of my body. The morning segued into somnolent afternoon and eventually, dusk, and all that happened in that space of time was the slow march of the sun and in the play of light and shade, a change in the tableau of trees.

Common waterbuck

Dangerously close... the African Cape Buffalo!

Also read Mount Kenya - Part I

Sunday, October 10, 2010


Wild Life at Maasai Mara

It’s daybreak as we step out of the safe portals of our tented camp into the wide wild grassland. It is a beautiful day and the sun is shining on the red oat grass deepening the golden hue of the sashaying savannahs that stretch to the very periphery of vision. The wildebeest are in good strength, hunched-back, head-down, grazing greedily. From a distance they look like grazing cattle and certainly not anything like antelopes (as we know them – elegant and lithe), which they actually are! With their white beard and dark mane they look shaggy, almost ugly, and the black muzzle rendering their eyes inconspicuous gives them a sinister appearance.

It’s August and it is Christmas time in Mara. This is the season of abundance where nobody goes hungry. Unlike last year, the long rains have been good this time and the grass is plenty. The lure of this sweet manna draws wildebeests from across the border, and this mass migration, in turn, brings prospects of easy food for the resident predators.  For centuries, the wildebeests have followed the scent of the grass and made the pilgrimage from Serengeti to Mara by crossing the swollen waters of Mara River, unfailingly, against all odds, braving starving crocodiles and lurking lions. This river crossing of millions of wildebeests, and along with them, the zebras and gazelles has been touted as one of the natural wonders of the world. Rivalling this exodus, perhaps, is the migration from far corners of the world, of tourists eager to witness the spectacular show on earth!

Today, wildebeest dot the savannahs filling up the horizon, but the buffalo herds of our last visit are conspicuously absent. The influx of the wildebeest has pushed them away to the periphery of the park, the guide tells us. His surmise is that the buffaloes do not like the noisy gnus (wildebeest are also called gnus because of their peculiar, onomatopoeic grunt), but we suspect that it is competition for food that makes them seek their fortune elsewhere. Even the elephants - which are a ubiquitous presence in the African jungles - are relegated to the outskirts with the onslaught of the migrating ungulates. But we did see a picture postcard herd - straddling the savannahs under the blue clear skies - coming alive in an elephant parade.

On our first day, we had come across a pride of lions – three lionesses, few juveniles and few cubs, just across the veldt from the row of gnus. Unlike the elephants and the buffaloes, for the lions, the gnus are a welcome sight. But, yesterday, the cubs were merrily frolicking about as the mothers watched over them languidly, mindless of the herd nearby! On a full stomach, the gnus were not even a blip on their radar. The pride had nestled under a thicket and settled for their siesta. Today, we were headed to the lion territory again, but something had changed. Gone was yesterday’s lazy demeanour, in place now was an on-the-edge alertness, an intent purposeful gait… a wait. Even as we were spotting lionesses and cubs here and there, it dawned on us that the pride had fanned out, a strategy was being played out, and a web of deception was being weaved. The pride was spoiling for a kill.

A lone wildebeest was grazing on the savannah side of the pride - an easy target - away from the rest of the herd which was across the tourist trail. The lioness had marked it out, it was just a matter of seconds, but even as the stage was set, a swarm of tourist vehicles trundled towards the theatre of war, shattering the silence, the driver-guides all vying for a vantage ringside view. The startled target hurried to the safety of the herd; the lioness had lost its chance. The vehicle path neatly bisected the arena with the lions on one side and the wildebeest on the other, becoming a hurdle in the line of fire. Who would have ever thought that a lion hunt could have a new dimension, that of human hindrance!

But the lioness (as a species) is not called the king for no reason. Undeterred, it skirted the vehicles and sneaked from behind, walking slowly, deliberately towards the herd, perpendicular to it, as the wildebeest stood watching, rooted to ground. In front of so many watchful eyes, the lioness crouched in the grass and like a Houdini-trick disappeared from sight! After what seemed like an endless wait, we, and perhaps, the wildebeest, too, lost the lioness’ coordinates, and just then another lioness burst out from the bushes and the wildebeest took off. The second lioness was just a red herring; the first one lunged out of hiding and aimed for the one at the rear end of the fleeing column. In a flash, the lioness had its jugular in a vice-like grip and the poor animal was brought down thrashing piteously.

The world stopped spinning as life ebbed out of the innocent beast. The lioness set about tearing the carcass open as the cubs milled around jostling each other, rolling over one another by the trophy. It was a picture of gaiety - the kids waiting for a piece of chocolate brownie while the mother carved the cake for a family feast. On the other side, the herd stood watching, their tails flicking – no wailing, no grunts, no moaning, and no chest-beating, not even panic anymore. Were they silently, in their own way, mourning the loss of their kin, or simply feeling relieved, “it was not them today”? Can anyone tell? And then they simply moved on unhurried in their everyday manner. We stood witness to a testimony of the “Grand Design” where life cycles of species intertwine in twists of fate, where sustenance and emotions of one dovetail with that of the other as in yin and yang, where creation or regeneration and destruction continues in an endless loop. Never before has one confronted such a scenario of murder where your heart goes out to the victim and yet, you cannot accuse or point fingers at the assassin!

I am not necessarily on the trail of the Big Five (elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard and the rhino) and am perfectly content to take the savannah at its slow pace and watch the vultures and the throbbing birdlife, instead. The lilac-breasted roller bird swoops down in a flash of blue, picks up a worm, and perches itself back on a tree-top. Perched high on an acacia - a recurring motif throughout our safari - the roller bird, too is symbolic of the savannahs, like the browsing giraffes and ‘wading’ (walking in air) ostriches. The sight of a mixed party of vultures scavenging at the remains of a kill offers another significant jigsaw in the ‘grand design’ that maintains the equivalence of matter and energy! Even as I am enjoying the savannahs in their splendour, the son and the guide are on a mission – to track the predators, the cats.  The cheetah holds a special place in my son’s heart as it has all the attractive qualities of a cat – speed, stealth and strength, and yet is a “mild-natured animal, never known to attack humans in wild”. Since Usain Bolt adopted one for a few hundred dollars, at the Nairobi National Park, my son has been nursing the idea of having a cheetah for a pet! Having petted one at city’s park, he was particularly keen to see it in the wild; after all, the open endless savannah is the cheetah’s playground.

The guide had already “tracked down” the duma (Swahili, for cheetah) and we were hurtling down at breakneck (literally!) speed to “catch” it. From a distance, we saw tourist vehicles standing by a tree and we knew what to expect – the joy of serendipity was not to be ours. A Cheetah Mama was guarding a toto (child) in the shade of a thicket, panting heavily. Both watched our every move, warily, waiting for us to depart, unlike the nonchalant lions. Depart, we did, but not before marveling their glistening spotted coats and their elegant stature. Long extinct in India, this was like turning the clock back to the days of Raj when cheetahs roamed the wild, unfettered.

With this lucky bonanza, the guide was even more eager to tote up a leopard and tick it off the list. Leopards are the most elusive of all cats, often cohabiting closely with humans, yet escaping detection; our Indian experience had borne this fact. We experienced the thrill of spotting a leopard, or at least a part of it, when we saw a thick bushy blotched tail dangle through the branches of a tree. But pry as we might, we simply could not see the creature, so well-couched was it in the canopy. But just a little distance and a while later, we were rewarded with a vision of another leopard, on ground, masquerading amid a twiggy tree. Spotting leopards was an object lesson in camouflage – without the guides and their radio gadgets we would have easily missed them, even if we had passed them by whiskers.

The Mara River beckons on the last leg of our safari; we cannot resist the urge to see the “river crossing”, if it happens. The hippopotamuses are there by the bank, basking lazily as usual and so are the giant Nile crocodiles, but no sign of wildebeest waiting to cross over. The river, itself, 200-km long, is at full flow, but all is quiet on the Mara front, today. Last year, when the rains failed, the river was at its lowest ebb, but the wildebeest were there, waiting on the far embankment, standing unsure, and suspense building up: “will they or won’t they cross the river?” 

We have seen this scene being played out, virtually, in wildlife documentaries, time and again. The wildebeest gather at the river waiting to muster courage to take the plunge and even as they stand indecisive the sheer density propels the ranks and before long the first flank finds itself in the swelling waters. Some of the young cannot fight the mighty currents and are washed away or near drowning; it is exactly for this eventuality that predators - lions, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas and crocodiles - are waiting for. It is a feast, free for all. Flailing wildly, the wildebeest focus singularly on avoiding predators and making it to the other side. Many do, many don’t. What vicarious pleasure is to be derived by seeing this spectacle, I wonder. Perhaps, it is just as well that we do not witness the gory orgy, today.

For many of us, it is the sight of the cats or the Big Five, in action or in candid repose, that we truly crave for. But if there is one thing that the jungles or savannahs teach man it is the unpredictable and elusive nature of wildlife. You may go with great expectations but come away with a humble lesson that you have to visit the savannahs again and again to unravel its mysteries; that they may not be revealed to you all at once. Ironically, it also reminds you that wildlife exists not for our voyeuristic viewing, that the animals simply belong here. The savannahs are their land, their home - from prehistoric times - whence their forebears came, long before Man walked the earth.


For more photographs visit the photogallery on the following link:

Saturday, August 28, 2010



Everywhere around me there is rubble, weathered walls and columns of coral rag and coral lime - buildings at various stages of decrepitude. It is like a real-time jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces. I soon get into the game and fill the gaps with imaginary fragments. Thus, an arch opens a doorway into notional rooms, and other remnants such as a fluted pillar, a cistern, wells, and latrine spaces hint at dwellings, mosque, tombs and even a palace. You get the impression of a township razed to ground, and then again, it appears as though it is actually rising from the Earth. Even though it is noon, it feels like twilight, as climbers and lianas vie with tall baobabs and tamarind trees to find roothold.  The muggy coastal air accentuates the stillness of the place and makes us feel hemmed in, in a rather eerie sort of a way. We – I, my son and our girl-guide, Pili – are the only intruders into this lost walled­-town, for the moment. Standing amidst Gede (or Gedi) Ruins, nearly 100 kms North of Mombasa, in Kenya, we are trying to listen to the secrets cradled over four centuries. 


As we enter the Inner Wall, which was the preserve of the privileged, the first structure to greet us is a tombstone bearing an epitaph, faded by passage of time; the inscription at the bottom is still clear, it is a date - 1399 A.D. This “dated tomb” provides vital clue to the calendar of events in Gedi, or Kilimani (Swahili for “on top of a hill”), as it was called then, when it was a bustling settlement hosting traders and artisans. The population of few thousands comprised Arabs from Oman who came here in the 13th century and mingled and assimilated with the Bantu tribe. Incidentally, it was this Arab-African fusion that gave rise to the Swahili people of the East African coast. British historian James Kirkman, who has researched the ruins extensively, has noted that even in its heydays, Gedi seems to have flourished in obscurity nestled as it was in a coastal forest and finds no mention in any historical records! Archaeologists have excavated and painstakingly pieced together Chinese blue porcelain bowls, glazed earthenware and clay pottery indicating that trade flourished and was carried much beyond Gedi’s immediate shores. Some of these finds have been preserved in the Gede Museum, nearby, but a lot of them have been lost too, spirited away by “curio hunters” or simply poor locals with the idea of making a fast buck.

Climbing up the rickety flights of a tree house I have been warned to skip, I make it atop a century-old baobab to take in a bird’s eye-view of the Ruins. Strewn over two acres are dilapidated structures which I try to construct in my mind’s eye in many different ways, but it needs the expertise of Kirkman, as projected through his guidebook, to give me that unbroken picture. Right below is the Palace - where the tribal king (as one written source, says) or the Sultan (as Pili tells me) would have held court - with its reception room, audience courts, apartments and an Annexe doubling as women’s quarter. Behind the Palace is the Great Mosque, chief among the many, nine, to be precise, that dot the two-acre excavated area of the 45-acre township.

From that vantage position, the perspective changes and I am actually taken back in time. I can imagine the Jumma prayers being held and the Imam preaching from the pulpit, the Sultan is holding court as the women prattle about everyday things in their quarter. For nearly four centuries, life must have continued thus, with its unsung individual stories of laughter and sorrow, of meetings and bereavements, until one day, somewhere in the 17th century, the town was inexplicably abandoned. Theories explaining the desertion range from invasion of a cannibalistic tribe to spread of diseases, but other more plausible reasons are also presented. Over a period of time the ocean receded (which it has; while Gedi was on the coast earlier, it is now well inland), subsequently the water table dipped and the water sources dried up. This is evident from the numerous dry wells of Gede, which, sadly and ironically, have accumulated a litter of plastic water bottles discarded by unthinking tourists with no thirst or taste for history or heritage. Another explanation goes that the residents fled from the advancing Galla tribe from Somalia. That Gede or Gedi is a Galla word, meaning “precious” says something for this explanation.

But heritage conservation is not a strong urge on part of the authorities concerned. At many places, the coral blocks are cemented incongruously with concrete giving it a feel of a modern-day substandard construction in progress. Vandalism has taken its toll too. A large swathe of the Ruins still lies waiting to be excavated, especially between the inner and outer wall which housed the middle class population.

The day is wearing on; I thank Pili who accompanied us for more than two hours gamely, despite her Ramdan fast, giving in to our demands of taking detours from the charted path to explore the precincts within the outer wall. As twilight sets in and it is time to depart, we leave the place to its rightful inhabitants – the Sykes monkeys and the elephant shrew.

Note: Msafari is a Kiswahili word for "travel". 

Also read: Mombasa Msafari - Part II, Old Town

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Forest of Small Things

 This time it is a walk on an "Elephant Trail" of a primeval forest inland off Mombasa coast. It is not a planned tour and it is almost by chance that my son and I saunter into Arabuko-Sokoke forest on our way back from Gedi Ruins, what was a four-century old town. 

Peter, the forest ranger is accompanying us with bare essentials of a stick (not a club, forget a rifle) under the darkened canopy of dense woodland. We drive some distance into the jungle, park our car on the deserted path, lock it to keep baboons and monkeys from mischief, and set out on foot to unearth forest life. The car looks vulnerable - abandoned and out of place. I idly wonder what if an African elephant were to get too curious about it. Peter assures us about the safety of the car and herds us on to the dirt track which is getting narrower hemmed in as it is with tall trees and lianas.

Lanky Peter walks with a stoop looking surreptitiously to the left and right, up and down, stops suddenly and moves on. His antennas are working taking in the sweep of the forest - for sounds and sights - which for us is a soundless blur of twigs and leaves. This is a regular route of Arabuko’s resident African elephants. Unlike its Asian counterpart, the African elephant has never been tamed or domesticated adding to its “wildness quotient”. I ask Peter if it is not dangerous to come face to face with one. His reply is an amused, indulgent smile. We simply follow in his wake trusting in him completely; we have no choice now that we have crossed the Rubicon. We desperately try to mute our footfalls crunching dry twigs and leaves so as not to attract unwanted attention.  Suddenly, Peter turns to us dramatically and whispers conspiratorially: "Elephant shh...", much to our consternation.

Peter keeps his gaze to the ground and this “elephant shh…” routine is repeated several times, threatening to make nervous wrecks of us. And yet no elephant emerges from the woodwork. While we do hope that we see an African elephant in flesh and blood, we also pray that none crosses our path. We have heard of freak incidents involving tourists and elephants in Mt. Kenya and elsewhere. Peter insists that elephants are very shy and gentle creatures, but our urban minds fail to comprehend this. An hour into the walk the elephants that Peter senses elude us; we are getting impatient and skittish.

It turns out that, all along, Peter has been pointing out the pint-sized “elephant shrew” scurrying on ground, perhaps into its hole, even before we could set eyes on it!

A word about the “elephant shh…rew”! The Golden-rumped Elephant shrew is a fascinating mousy animal that traces its ancestry back to nearly 100 million years. The name is a bit of a misnomer, though, as this ancient insectivorous mammal is more closely related to an elephant or a hyrax rather than a shrew, as zoologists categorize it. This discrepancy has been sought to be rectified by zoologists by giving it a local Bantu name, sengi. The Golden-rumped sengi is endemic to African scrub forests and is a highly endangered species.

What was happening here was that every time Peter spotted an elephant shrew foraging in leaf litter and indicated it to us we missed it due to our obsession with elephants. By the time we realize our mistake and train our sights on the forest floor, it is too late. The fast-footed sengi, elusive and shy, as well, gives us the slip time and again.

Arabuko-Sokoke’s threatened endemic bird species - Sokoke’s pipit, Sokoke’s Scops owl or Amani sunbird – too seem elusive as we are on an afternoon walk when bird activity is at its lowest. And we are glad that we do not cross paths with a boomslang or a green mamba. But we see few psychedelic fungi and innumerable trees and plant species. Peter shows us Antlions on the sandy stretches of Mida Creek where we end at a tree-top to get a bird’s eye-view of the forest. So though we do not see elephants, elephant shrew or rare birds, we learn about the small five, for the first time. And these are the Elephant shrew, Rhino beetle, Antlion, Leopard tortoise and Buffalo weaver. Can you guess why they are called the small five!

Savannas with their Big Five may be the quintessence of Africa, but coastal forests such as Arabuko are a reminder that the African continent was once covered in tropical forests. Arabuko-Sokoke is rich in biodiversity of endangered flora and fauna. It is a  UNESCO Biosphere Reserve - a status given for its conservation efforts brought through community involvement.
As I step out of the forest and out of the time warp, I find myself repeating this line from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, quite out of context: “And here were forests as ancient as the hills…” 

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Not Just Another Safari

Tsavo National Park

Sometimes, it is not what you see in a place, but what the place has seen that makes it special. Tsavo country is predominantly elephant territory, also notorious for its real-life legend of man-eater lions, but it is possible that tourists on safari may not see either. Tsavo National Park in South Kenya is sprawling, the size of Israel as the entrance sign-board declares. Perhaps, for this reason, it is not very popular with the camera-toting tourists who seek to count their lions and tick off the Big Five.

The convolvulus has swamped the sward, their white bells trailing the shape of the trees, shrubs, bushes that are tucked underneath. And though the tableau is mesmerizing to our touristy eyes, these are invasive ipomeas (better known as morning glory) that have taken over the bush! White petals cleave from the carpet – it seems - as butterflies legion as flowers flit about the low ground. The noon-time hushed bush is soundlessly alive. Not to be outdone, birds – hornbills and spurfowls, weavers and shrikes - fill the airspace and verge, but thankfully, these are of Tsavo nativity.

The trails we follow throw up leopard pugs and elephant hooves, intermittently, but not their owners. Bare boles stripped of leaves and twigs show signs of elephant ravages, but the perpetrators of carnage are nowhere in sight. That is how it is in Tsavo country, the excitement lies more in the suggestion than in the spotting. After hours of following the red dirt tracks through the acacia-commiphora woodlands all we see is a herd of elephants walking into the horizon. Should a small herd of elephants walking away into distance - a pastiche at once of mundanity and mystery - be any less thrilling than an elephant at close quarters posing for a photograph? For me, this is a more intimate impression, almost as if the elephants were leading me into their private domain, if only I exerted my imagination and followed them there. The lions, too, are elusive just as they were, more than a century ago, when the “Uganda Railway” was under construction and when they attacked nearly hundred labourers by the bridge on river Tsavo.

In 1900, this peaceful haven was torn asunder, rivened into two halves – east and west - by the Lunatic Line (as it came to be called by some who did not believe in the project), the blatant transgression bringing the wrath of two lions upon the railway party. Even after being aware and alerted, the spectre of the lions haunted the labourer camp claiming lives, prominent among them Superintendent Charles Ryall who had set up a trap to entice the beasts. This episode of the man-eating lions has been documented by Lt. Col. J.H. Patterson in his classic account “The Man-eaters of Tsavo”. In a riveting tale much like Jim Corbett’s escapade in the Indian jungles, Col. Patterson documents how two maneless lions had held Tsavo in a “state of siege” for nearly 10 months, before he ultimately gunned them down. Incidentally, the movie, “The Ghost and the Darkness” based on the incidents takes cinematic liberty in showing two nomadic lions, perhaps because lions with luxuriant manes can strike fear in the hearts as no hairless feline can.

But it is what Richie, the lodge naturalist, told me later that caught my fancy more. Researchers believe that the ‘man-eating’ genes of that notorious duo still survives having been passed down over the years! Is it any less thrilling to go to bed in the darkness of the cabin and step in the shoes of the labourers in their camp and ‘live’ their experience, even if you have not seen a lion stride by in the bush during the day? Is it any less thrilling to hear the wardens, some of them women, recount their tales of wildlife encounter as they go about their duty of patrolling the woodlands, sometimes even on foot? Listening to them and Richie’s stories of being caught between two rival herds of aggressive elephants or witnessing night hunts is enough to bring Tsavo alive in my mind’s eye.

Subsequently, we do spot more of Tsavo’s famous “red elephants”, particularly in the East. Elephants indulge in mudbath to keep them cool and the soil of Tsavo being ochre, they take on a brick-red hue. A silver-backed jackal comes in a cameo and slinks away into the undergrowth while gazelles – kudus and impalas – make guest appearances, periodically. The hum of life subtly unfolds like the tip of the proverbial iceberg, here.

The lodge we were staying in, Kilaguni, is the first lodge to be established in any of the national parks of Kenya. A bare bones structure of logs, the sit-out allows the luxury of taking in the panoramic sweep of the volcanic Chyulu Hills as though one were out in the open. After dark, we sit, underneath the stars - well almost, watching the impalas by the watering hole. Suddenly, they are alert perking their ears even as the staff alerts us of a leopard heading here. We learn that this is a “resident” leopard that the hotel staff has been feeding to lure it for the tourists. While that took the edge out of the encounter, watching the elusive predator in real form still held awe and shock. Even as the panther was watching us - the gawking tourists, in the instant that he returned my gaze, I averted mine with alacrity not wanting to send wrong vibes. In retrospect, I realized that the brief locking of our eyes mirrored our minds, both revealing fear – of each other!

At the base of the Chyulu Hills is the hardened lava floor, charcoal-black, called Shetani lava flows. Shetani is Kiswahili for “devil”, the guide informs, and it is obvious that the moniker derives from “shaitan”. It is not difficult to imagine that more than 200 years back when fire must have spewed from the belly of the earth, people must have thought it the handiwork of the Devil. At Shetani, we get down and explore the cindered floor which can sustain no plant life, but we have to be wary of fauna that might saunter around. I pick up some lava rocks as souvenir to add to my collection of “precious stones”.

Tsavo habitat hides many a sting. Mzima Springs framed by bamboo and bulrush is certainly one of them. The crystal clear waters of the spring are said to be fed by the melting snows of Kilimanjaro - that seep from underneath the Chyulu Hills -  and which in turn feed the entire city of Mombasa! Once again, we set on foot and the tranquility tricks us into believing that we are at a recreation zone. But the guide is quick to rid us of our false comfort. He narrates an incident where an errant tourist went too close to the pool to take a photograph despite warnings and became the meal of a Nile crocodile that lunged out of the water. Back in the lodge, Richie insisted on showing us the documentary, “Haunt of the Riverhorse” on Mzima Springs; it may well have been some other place, surely not the one we saw! The film takes you under water into a unique ecosystem where thickly populated hippopotami form the pivot, their dung serving as the organic substratum sustaining fish and other submarine life! We did not see the hippos or the crocs at the spring that day like we have, time and again, on various safaris at other parks. Despite that Mzima Springs was certainly special because of what it hid in its bosom, because of what we witnessed virtually, through the film.

We can’t boast of ample game spotting or great wildlife encounters, first hand, in Tsavo, but seeing the place through “expert” eyes and being aware of what is brewing beneath the surface, behind the scenes, makes this safari incomparable. Unlike Maasai Mara, where species outdo each other in “sightings”, Tsavo’s riches scattered that they are throughout its existence, need to be mined like gold.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Island hopping

La Digue and Praslin    (Seychelles  - Part II)

For a moment let’s put the cart before the ox. Let’s imagine the world before man. The oceans waters are sparkling gemstones – turquoise, aquamarine, lapis and sapphire, while the vegetation radiates emerald, jade, rubies and corals. Giant tortoises lumber on the land marking their territory; crocodiles and turtles rule the submarine landscape; and fairy terns or tropic birds ride the air like free spirits. Everywhere, the pristine, primeval glory of the Earth lies untouched, unspoilt. This idyll still persists on many remote islands of the Seychelles archipelago that has been variously proclaimed, albeit in a clichéd manner, as “Paradise on earth” and “Another world”. After exploring Mahe, the principal island of Seychelles, I am now on an island-hopping spree to cruise back into time.

The first hop is the charming island of La Digue; with a dimension of barely five by three kilometers it is an extended coastal town!  Sitting in an ox-cart which is the main mode of mass transport here one is transported into small town India of the olden days. As the cart ambles on I take in the hustle-bustle at the jetty: locals cycling their way to their destination, administrative offices that look more like homes, an old church painted beige and traditional mud houses with thatched roofs. The somnolent island-town has a population of merely two thousand though tourism has ensured that visitors clamber on to this haven in hordes and to pander to their demands the island denizens, in turn, fall in line. Thus, as a prelude we are taken to a coconut oil factory and vanilla plantation.

Though they seem to dominate the skyline, the coconut palms are not native to Seychelles and were introduced – we are told - by the Arabs who first sailed to Seychelles serendipitously during their forays in East African waters. Coconut oil extraction, thus, has come to be a small scale industry here, but the copra (that is what they call it!) factory we visited was more like a manual mill in the backyard. The “show” hit the right notes with the Westerners who ooh-ed and ah-ed at the “exotic” display especially when a nimble-footed Seychellois climbed the palm like an agile ape. With a sense of déjà vu, of having seen these “tricks” as a matter of routine in rural India, I looked forward to my version of “exotica”.

As we headed to the beach away from the artificiality of the jetty, we hit upon deserted roads, the La Digue I was eager to see. I was intrigued by the sight of a bikini-clad young mother on a rickety scooter zipping by with her daughter as a pillion. Their appearance defied racial profiling - not African, nor Asian, nor European, perhaps an amalgamation of the three! I, subsequently, learnt that the early settlers on this virgin island were French - political rebels from Réunion - and today’s population is their direct descendants. Just as I could not put my finger on their ethnicity, I was also unable to slot them in any socio-economic class, an exercise we so idly indulge in everywhere but which seemed so futile here. Are they “rich” or do they belong to the “middle-class”? Do they live in a big mansion with a swimming pool like the filthy rich Europeans settled in Seychelles over the years? Did it really matter? The island is their home and the ocean their pool. They do not have to be dressed to go anywhere; they could afford to be in a perpetual manner of undress to get into the water not unlike a fish taking to its habitat! At La Digue, this truth stared at me crystal clear like its ocean, itself.

 We have the beach, popularly called Bacardi Beach after the advert was filmed here, but formally, Anse Source d’ Argent, all to ourselves. The silver sands contrast artistically with the turquoise waters so glassy that you can see sea weed and small marine life right to the bottom. Grey granite boulders rise out of the waters like miniature mountains, providing props for the seabirds – terns and herons, to land on. At noon, the sun is beating down, but its edge is blunted by the cool waters of the ocean, and it is, at once, soporific and rejuvenating.  In fact, our guide tells us that this beach is one of the most photographed beaches of Seychelles and I can see why! It is indeed postcard perfect. An afternoon in La Digue has a languid air about it and a sense of timelessness envelopes me.

We leave the “timelessness” behind to enter a “before time” zone, if you know what I mean. In the heart of Praslin Island (which is our next hop) lies the Garden of Eden, literally! Vallée de Mai Nature Reserve, the pearl in Praslin’s crown, is the last remnant of prehistoric forest that existed when Seychelles was still a part of Gondwanaland. The subsequent million years of isolation has helped retain its ancient and rare wealth even today. And since this fragile ecosystem has been nursed back to virginity through the commendable efforts of Seychelles government’s environmental housekeepers, the forest has been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We follow the guide on a nature trail through the palm-rich forest enchanted by the symphony of bird calls and the music created by twigs of the trees brushing against one another. There are the pandanus, cycad, and the legendary coco de mer that gives the forest its heritage status.

 Coco de mer is a kind of double coconut and the heaviest palm nut anywhere, weighing anywhere between 20and 40 kg.  The most astounding part of the real-life lore of coco fesse, as it is also called (fesse is a French word which means ‘butt’), is thus: The nut or seed inside the husk is uncannily suggestive of a woman’s pelvis! And if you thought this was a mere coincidence, listen to this: the palm has distinct female and male trees and the latter bears a catkin shaped like a sausage! What do you call this consonance - Nature’s naughtiness, tomfoolery, fortuity or ingenuity? More likely, a chronicle of human reproduction foretold, as the palm predates human evolution! Like Thomas Gray’s poetic flower that blushes unseen and wastes its scent on desert air, gentle wind and green geckos weave magic to the accompaniment of black parrot’s serenade and the coco de mer is born, in utter seclusion. Fortunately, I got to see both the nut and the rare black parrot. Vallée de Mai is world’s best-kept secret that I am now privy to.

Next hop, Aldabra Island, hopefully, in this lifetime!

NOTE: All Photographs in this blog and website are the author's original  work.