Monday, September 27, 2010

Final shot

Poor Noemie, the thing she most wanted to see was a Leopard but she was shut away in camp, deftly touching up my shocking farmer's tan that threatened to ruin so many great photos, when I spotted my own favorite African animal.  Lounging on a broad branch of a baobab, a pretty-boy leopard surveyed his surroundings.

I'll end my discussion of the photo shoot with, finally, an actual photo, courtesy of Jo.  But it is probably worth noting that the consensus between her and Noemie was "eh, it's just a picture of a leopard in a baobab.  Nothing really special about it."  Works for me if I get to keep the picture.

Thanks Jo and Noemie, it was a real pleasure, can't wait to see all the pictures on the new website.

Friday, September 24, 2010

It's more about the feeling, really

The photo shoot is over and unfortunately, I no longer have my excuse for going out on walks and game drives every day.  It ended well when we went in search of good photos of pristine sand in the the dry riverbed.  Jo quickly found the scene she wanted but kumbe, the lions had beaten us to it.  14 Lions from our main sand rivers pride were laying about in the sand not far from a baby elephant on which they spent the morning gorging themselves.  There was nothing left for us to do but spend an hour with the lions, how tiresome that was!, and then continue on in search of a different scene to photograph.
For Richard and myself, the photo shoot was a lesson in, shall we say, perceptions of reality.  A few days ago, we peacefully watched the sun setting from Lizzie’s hill with Mike and Carol, the managers at Sand Rivers Selous, while Jo took pictures in the background.  All of a sudden, she stood up straight and said “this isn’t working.  It’s all too real.  These colors are just too realistic, I don’t do realistic.”  Apparently the image of friends chatting in the foreground, wine glasses in hand, with a gorgeous sunset in the background was just too much.  Eventually, the sun dipped below a cloud and cast more illumination on the scene, so Jo crouched back down and her lens started clicking away like mad, but the whole experience is causing me considerable concern about the world I live in and whether, perhaps, it is just a bit too surreal. 
Shortly before that, we paused the vehicle for Jo to take pictures of a small herd of wildebeest.  Our jaws dropped when she asked if one of us could be so kind as to remove the white piece of rubbish from in front of the herd.  That white piece of rubbish was in fact a beautiful cattle egret whose pure white feathers reflected back the harsh afternoon sun.
Another shoe dropped that night when Richard and I started excitedly talking about our plans for the next couple of days.  We couldn’t wait to go fly camping on Lake Tagalala and then turn around, head upriver by boat, and spend the next evening on the banks of the Rufiji at a place called Kogota.  Jo really dampened our spirits when she jumped in to say it didn’t make sense to do two fly camps because, obviously, “once you take the picture you can’t really tell if it’s a lake or a river.  And it doesn’t really matter cause it’s more about the feeling.”  For Richard and me, it’s all about the places, the animals, the little details and subjects of the drama that is the Selous ecosystem.  For us, the only feelings are the surge of adrenaline as you make the final approach to a herd of elephants from behind a bush, or catch the brilliant red underside of a Purple-crested Turaco’s wing out of the corner of your eye.  For the Wordsworthian Jo, a sunset is just a sunset, but it’s so much more when you can capture the pleasure, the surge of powerful emotions it invokes in, say, a group of safari managers who chase these moments across a continent.     

Monday, September 20, 2010

Caught between an elephant and Jo

The photoshoot has continued, and as fun as sunsets, pools and booze are, it wasn’t until yesterday evening that we got to what it’s all about.  Noemie's hair got an evening off as Jo and I were joined on a walk by the indomitable Richard Knocker, head of guide training for Nomad, he showcased the (almost) textbook way to get close to elephants on foot.   We approached from downwind under the cover of dense thickets to within twenty meters, where we crouched down behind a bush.  The elephants never even knew we were there until we started to pull back and even then, they never saw us or identified us as humans.  In fact, they were so oblivious that the only reason we withdrew was because as they calmly fed on grasses at the edge of the garden, they were aimlessly wandering closer and closer to our position.
I will give a great deal of credit to Jo for capturing a wonderful picture of Richard and me crouched behind the bush with the elephants just beyond, but no way does a photograph fully capture the whole experience, beginning with spotting the herd from afar and culminating in moving away with only nominal disturbance to the elephants.  Though I have to say there was one particularly odd aspect to the moment.  If I thought modelling in a pool while drinking a beer was tough, you should have seen Jo trying to position us behind the bush so that she could properly capture it all.  Hands jabbing left and right, lips hissing indecipherable commands, eyes narrowed, Jo was a frightening enough site that Richard and I began to think that safety lay towards the elephants rather than back towards her.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Meet the new face of the Selous

The last few days I’ve had the pleasure of touring the Selous with Jo, a photographer helping Nomad launch its new website, and her assistant, Noemie.  Inevitably, this has put a bit of a strain on my modelling acumen, not to mention my physical attributes, but Jo hasn’t complained too much about my fashion senselessness so it will hopefully turn out just fine.  I’m pretty sure that when you’re looking for me in the pictures, I’ll generally be the big blurry blob in the foreground of the stunning shot of sunset from Lizzie’s hill or the dawn light breaking over the rooms at Kiba Point.   
The first evening Jo arrived, I escorted her around the camp, and she demanded that I be her model the whole time.  I must say that it was rather hard work.  That evening I had to swim in the pool, drink a beer, and watch the sunset.  Can you imagine doing all of that?  I practically crawled to dinner I was so worn out.
I shouldn’t really complain, as Noemie has it far worse.  She has to model for three weeks as she accompanies Jo to all of Nomad's camps and she appears in so many photos with her gorgeous blond hair that Jo has resorted to masking it with an absolutely criminal black wig.  As tough as taking a swim and drinking beer can be, I have to hand it to Noemie for even donning said wig while taking a dip in the hottest of the natural hot springs.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

And the dry season continues...

Elephants are starting to get grumpy.  Although there is still plenty of delicious water in the Rufiji and just beneath the surface of the dry river beds, the elephants resent the food rationing that accompanies the end of the dry season.   Even the fig tree in camp, which has been supplying more food than a McDonald’s the last few months, has stopped fruiting.   The elephants seem to be taking their frustration out on the vegetation as they have yanked off branches, shorn off bark, and even toppled a few trees around camp.  

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Fair Fortune

We have been experiencing incredible fortune here in the Selous. For three consecutive days, wild dogs have graced us with their presence. KP guide Godlisten won the honors the second day as he was the first to spot them on an impala kill. It’s times like this that I wish I could just be a guest.

I did find considerable consolation this morning, however, when I went out on a brief game drive to watch some lions on a buffalo carcass. It was the large Sand Rivers pride and they greeted me with a surround-sound chorus of roars that seemed to be a response to some other lions we were hearing off in the distance. The females opened, some adolescent males joined the melody, and then one of the territorial males came in with a terrifying crescendo. It’s one thing to be just a few meters away from a roaring lion, it’s quite another to have lions roaring a few meters away in all directions.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Government-orchestrated mosquito swarms

An interesting rumor is floating around the streets of Dar Es Salaam this week.  Apparently, if one is a believer, 'the government' has released millions of mosquitoes to outcompete, outbreed, or out-whatever the more dangerous malaria-carrying species.  Supposedly it all began at a hospital and spread from there.  Perhaps the mosquito outbreak is the result of recent rains, or other ecological factors, but ingenious government plans are a far more interesting topic of conversation.

Though breeding mosquitoes to outcompete dangerous species is an intriguing idea, it doesn't quite compare to the innovative method heralded in The Economist last year--a laser defense system that rings villages and literally zaps mosquitoes out of the air.

Monday, September 6, 2010

On Ants

I think ants are the most underrated animal in East Africa. Think about all the characteristics that draw us to the great mammals of Africa; you will find many of them in ants.  They are highly gregarious, immensely strong, active throughout the day, seen in larger groups than wildebeest, more efficient hunters than wild dogs, and hunt animals larger to their relative size than even lions. And above all, they are very easy to find.

When I first read Henry David Thoreau’s account of battling ants in Walden, I fell asleep. Eight years later, I too find myself endlessly watching the behaviour of ants, even when they seem to be doing nothing. I find the sight of a single ant struggling to drag an immense load back to its nest often worth a laugh. Not too long ago, I witnessed a group of soldier and warrior ants work together to bring down a spider at least ten times their individual size. For a moment I thought the ants couldn’t possibly overcome the spider’s eight massive (by ant standards anyway) legs, but within about 15 seconds, it was clear who the winner would be.

We have a lot to admire in ants. They work together, they stay in line and wait their turn, they work hard, and they are truly courageous; they always risk their own safety for the greater good. More than that, they are useful to humans. Most visitors to the East Africa savannah learn how the Maasai use certain types of ants as stitches by allowing the ants to bite the skin over the wound and then pinching the ants' heads off. But fewer visitors are familiar with the East African Cleaning Service. A 100% free-of-charge service to homeowners and renters alike, the EACS will come periodically and unexpectedly to clean out your home. Upon arrival, residents need only vacate the premises for a couple of days and when they return, their home will be spotlessly clean. What's not to love about house cleaning ants?

Friday, September 3, 2010

Clever Animals

The wildlife knows the difference between a full camp and a quiet one. As a private camp, Kiba Point often has a few days between groups of guests, and some of the animals take full advantage, while others seem to lose interest in Kiba altogether. The monkeys move out of camp, perhaps no longer attracted to lavish lunch buffets and three-course dinners that they eye greedily. For a mama elephant and her calf, however, an empty camp is a perfect home. The pathways and vehicle track offer nice thoroughfares and the two of them experience minimal competition or danger from other animals. The question, however, is how do they know when it’s time to stay away?

During the last gap between guests, this elephant and her calf appeared in camp every evening. As Mother elephants with young can be aggressive, I was apprehensive about possible encounters between guests and two-ton (she’s pretty small by elephant standards) overprotective mothers. But the guests arrived and the elephants were nowhere to be found. The guests take off three days later...and the next evening the elephants are back with mama flapping her ears at us, but generally acting well-behaved. What tipped her off? The best explanation is that when we have guests, we line the pathways with lanterns, and the unfamiliar lights are a warning to stay away. But normally the elephants appear in camp before sundown. Is it the lack of vehicles that lets her know the camp is safe and quiet? I, for one, am generally happy with this system, though I didn’t feel that way at 1:00 in the morning last night when the two of them started knocking over trees and breaking branches close enough to my room that I could clearly see them in the moonlight.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Arrival in paradise

I've had a wonderful first three weeks here at Kiba Point. The Selous is such a magical place, with excitement around every corner.

To read in detail about life at Kiba Point, check out my diary at