My welcome to London this time includes fourteen days of “self-isolation.” The “self” part implies that it was of my own choosing. No, but under the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic, I understand the reasons, and I complying.
I rented a small apartment in Covent Garden, on New Compton Street. It’s on the sixth floor. In the back, it has a balcony overlooking Shaftsbury Avenue, which has a respectable view.
In the front, overlooking New Compton Street, is a broader terrace, which is communal among the four apartments on the sixth floor, but everyone seems to have staked out the “turf” in front of their apartment with benches, chairs, and planters. To their credit, they have divided it equitably, and it encourages caretaking, so all in all, it works.
St. Giles-in-the-Fields, known as the Poets’ church, is in the London Borough of Camden in the West End, and is part of the Diocese of London, part of the Church of England. The present building was built between 1731-1733 in the Palladian style, the first Palladian style church in England.
The first recorded church on this site was a chapel attached to a monastery and leper hospital founded by Matilda of Scotland, wife of Henry I, in 1101. At that time, the hospital, monastery, and church were well outside the City of London, along the main road to Tyburn and Oxford.
During its first two hundred years, it was supported by the Crown and administered by the City of London, but this changed in 1299, when Edward I ordered that St. Giles would be administered by the “Military and Hospitaller Order of Saint Lazarus,” one of the chivalric orders that survived the Crusades. By 1539, leprosy had abated, and the monastery ministered to the indigent until closed by Henry VIII. Henry closed all monasteries that year, and took over whatever assets they held.
In 1547, the first rector was appointed, and “in-the-Fields” was added to the name. The church building was in deep disrepair, and the succeeding structure was Gothic in style, built 1623-1630 by the Duchess of Dudley.
Another hundred years, and that building was replaced with the current one, which is 290 years old. Apparently, maintenance has improved. It was a major site of burial for the Great Plague victims of the 17th century. Burials of the first victims were in 1665. By the end of the plague year, the poor parish of St. Giles listed 3,216 deaths from plague out of their 2,000 households. Can you imagine?
As for why it was known as the Poets’ Church, John Milton’s daughter, Mary, was baptized here in 1647. The online history of the church says that the children of Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley were baptized here also. It didn’t give the year.
I was curious about the phrase, “the children of Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley,” so I did some research. It seems that Lord Byron fathered two daughters (no sons,) and the Shelleys had a daughter and a son. Lord Byron was married to Anne Isabella (Annabella) Milbanke. Anne was a highly educated and very religious woman, an English mathematician. Their daughter, Ada, was born in 1815. It was probably this child of Lord Byron that was baptized at St. Giles, although it does not specifically say so.
The church is still active, with, in normal times, a regular schedule of services. The Poetry Society holds their annual meeting in the Vestry House. No doubt, that contributes to the church’s nickname.
Saint Giles, the historical person, was a Greek Christian hermit from Athens, born in 650 AD. He spent most of his life in Provence and Septimania, France. He founded the abbey in Saint-Gilles-du-Gard, presumably named after his death in 710 AD. The tomb became a place of pilgrimage. His feast day is September 1.
I came to Madagascar with a completely open mind, with no expectations except to see lemurs and chameleons. I was intrigued by the idea of new wildlife and a new culture.
Like many, I had watched the animated feature, “Madagascar,” where African animals in a New York City zoo want to go to “the Wild.” They, a hippo, zebra, lion, giraffe, and four delusional penguins, end up in Madagascar. The irony, of course, is that none of those animals exist in Madagascar, nor are there any elephants, rhinoceros, leopards, or antelope, or any other animals that we know from Africa, not even monkeys or apes. The animal life on Madagascar is unique, and so is much of the plant life. The reason lies in the geology of long ago.
Madagascar, like much of the dry land on Earth, was once part of the “supercontinent” of Gondwana. There was another supercontinent called Euroamerica, and they were once part of Pangaea. Geology is a very long story, so I am skipping to the “good parts,” but the rest of the story, at least what we know so far, is easily discoverable through books, videos, or online, if you’re interested.
Gondwana was formed by the collision of smaller land masses millions and millions of years ago. Madagascar, a separate land mass from Africa or India, was sandwiched between them as the African and Indian land masses collided. Africa, part of West Gondwana, began to separate from East Gondwana, which was comprised of Antarctica, Madagascar, India, and Australia, and then East Gondwana began to break up. All of this was unfolding between 165 – 96 million years ago, depending on what one reads, but we can safely say it happened a long, long time ago.
When Africa pulled away, it formed the west coast of Madagascar, and then Madagascar broke away from India about 88 million years ago, forming the east coast. The Seychelles and Reunion were part of the disintegration of East Gondwana. Even though we usually associate Madagascar with Africa, geologically, it is more closely related to India.
Today, most of Madagascar is tropical. A thin strip along the eastern coast is tropical rainforest. The tropical rainforest is bordered on the west by mountains, where the weather is more temperate in temperature and rainfall due to the higher elevation. On the western side of the mountains lies the tropical savannah that takes up about half of the island. In the very south-southwestern portion of Madagascar, it is a steppe area, arid and hot. All of it is beautiful.
I had reserved a room at a guesthouse, Tanana Maeya, in Antananarivo, and Nyhasy, the young man in charge, met me at the airport to bring me there.
I appreciated Nyhasy meeting me. The plane was so late that it was getting dark by the time we landed, plus, I do not enjoy negotiating taxis. I had not been able to get any cash at the airport – the only ATM there was not working – and so my next task for Nyhasy was to help me find an ATM.
But it wasn’t just the airport. None of the ATMs that we visited were working. Ultimately, as it grew later, Nyhasy lent me some money by buying me a pizza (which I thought was pretty decent since he didn’t really know me) before he dropped me at the guesthouse.
The next morning, Nyhasy walked with me around his neighborhood. We continued searching for a working ATM between sightseeing. His aunt, who owned the guesthouse, did not accept credit cards, so I was concerned, not just about eating, but also paying my bill at the guesthouse. No ATMs were working on Sunday, either, and I ended up borrowing cash from Nyhasy so I could eat.
As my experience grew, it became clear that Madagascar runs on cash. This is because the internet infrastructure is so weak that processing is not reliable. In the capital, Antananarivo, I found that hotels could process, and the banks’ ATMs – when I found one that accepted Mastercard – were reliable, but hotels were not reliable outside of the capital, and the banks’ ATMs were not always working. ATMs often ran out of money or the system was down. If I was going to need more cash, it was important to visit an ATM in the morning, and don’t wait until Friday.
I had arrived in Madagascar just a day after Pope Francis arrived. There were banners everywhere, welcoming him to Madagascar, and especially Antananarivo, the capital city, often referred to as “Tana.” I thought I might see him go by in the “Pope-mobile,” or in a secure SUV caravan with heavily tinted windows. I never saw him at all, except on the TV news. They showed scenes of the Pope waving at crowds, but it was all in Malagasy (no English station, not even the BBC,) so I have no idea why he was there or what he did or when he left.
Where we walked is called the Ville-Basse, and it is where some of the region’s administrative offices are. These were built by the French, who had absorbed Madagascar into their colonial empire in 1897. French is still an official language, along with Malagasy, one of the native languages. English is not an official language, but in the cities many people know at least some English. Before the French built the roads and buildings here, the area was reclaimed swamp land, a place used first for growing rice, then drained further and used to garrison soldiers for the kings and queens.
The young men on the outside run along with the minibus, shouting their route (not everyone reads) and looking for customers. Having gotten everyone who is interested, he then jumps on board and the bus speeds up to the next stop. There is a route, but no schedule. Experienced riders know that the bus arrives about every half hour during rush hour (yes, there is one,) and forty-five minutes to an hour in off-peak times. Frequency is dictated by how fast the bus fills up and the amount of vehicle traffic.
Football, as we Americans know it, is played only in the United States. In the rest of the world, soccer, called football by everyone else, is the most popular sport. Madagascar has had a football team since about 1974. They built “Stade Municipal de Mahamasina” in 1986 to house their team, and Madagascar hosted the seventh Ocean Island Games in 2007. In 2019, Madagascar played in the quarter finals of the Africa Cup of Nations, but they haven’t made it into the World Cup playoffs yet. The stadium seats about 22,000 people, and regularly hosts rugby games as well as football, plus the occasional live music event.
Lac Anosy was created in the mid-1800s during the reign of Queen Ranavalona I, no doubt to help drain the land as she had ordered the reclaiming the area to station soldiers. Today, the artificial lake has an island in the middle, with a causeway that connects it to the southern shore. A large stele was raised in 1927, constructed to honor the Malagasy soldiers who died fighting for France during WWI. The angel was added in 1935, designed by a famous French sculptor. The guidebook describes it as a “black-winged angel,” but it looked to me as if the angel and her wings were gold-colored.
Nyhasy was a very nice young man who worked as an accountant and managed his aunt’s guest house. His aunt was a flight attendant and was frequently gone. The guesthouse was on a side road, and had the advantage of being quiet, but it turned out (which was not clear in the listing) that I had rented one of three bedrooms (en-suite) in the lower apartment unit. The kitchenette, dining area, and lounge area were common use areas. While I was there, two couples and a couple of young men traveling together came and went, guests in the other two bedrooms. My room didn’t feel very private, and I wanted to be closer to downtown, so I ended up moving to a hotel called the “Saka Manga.”
The Saka Manga, which means “Blue Cat” in Malagasy, was a boutique hotel, with a variety of differently styled rooms and twisty passages through the hotel area. It had a pool that no one swam in and a pool side cafe, in addition to a full-service restaurant, so living was easier. It was two blocks from a working ATM. And, it was not very much more expensive than the Tanana Maeya.
Saka Manga did not have any immediate contacts for city tours, so they directed me to a public park, sort of a city square, where the tourist office was located. It was a not very long walk along very narrow streets filled with one-way traffic bouncing over cobblestone pavement.
By this time, I had been in Africa for about six months, and had grown accustomed to walking in streets, right next to moving cars, watching both the traffic and where I put my feet. There are occasional accidents, but surprisingly few, considering the tight quarters we all maneuvered through.
At the tourist center, there were maps and brochures about Tana, and they had organized tour itineraries for the city, with fixed prices, although guides always welcome gratuities. I hired a guide to meet me here at the park in the morning. The afternoon was very hot, and I preferred to walk in the morning.
I needed a break from the hot sun before walking back to the hotel. I found a small cafe and sat, drinking a Coke and looking through the brochure for the tour and watching life go on around me. Five streets all came together here, ending at the park. Lacking any clear direction, cars were bumper to bumper, and building security guards made tips by reserving parking spaces in front of hotels, banks, and businesses. Selling parking spaces was a developed cottage industry in Tana.
I had one more task before heading back, I remembered – replacing my phone. I found a promotional offer at the bank with a viable ATM. It wasn’t great, frankly, but it would carry me through Madagascar and it was cheap. Now, re-armed with mobile communication, I set off to relax with a drink and dinner by the pool.
I am one of those people who arrives at the airport about five hours in advance. I like to avoid stress whenever it is possible to do so. Hence, I leave with plenty of time in case of traffic, in case I’ve forgotten something critical, in case the driver takes me to the wrong terminal, in case I can’t get my phone to produce my reservation code, in case the airline can’t find the reservation code, or in case of multiple glitches, even minor ones – all of which have happened to me at one time or another.
I arrived at the Johannesburg airport, O.R. Tambo Airport, at about 5:30 a.m. for my 10:00 a.m. flight to Ivato International Airport, in Antananarivo, Madagascar.
O.R. Tambo Airport is a reasonably nice airport. The Emerald Guesthouse where I was staying is near the airport (but not under the flight path, except for one daily flight) and ran a regular shuttle to drop off and retrieve guests. The airport had restaurants and a decent, small Woolworths grocery store, so it was handy for me to hop on the shuttle and get dinner in the early evening during the few nights I was in Johannesburg. The Guesthouse area was otherwise residential, and, while the people were very nice, their food was not great.
The idea of spending four hours in the airport was fine with me. There were shops and restaurants and a bookstore (always good for an hour or two,) so I arrived early. I took care of changing my extra rand (the South African currency) into U.S. dollars, checking on my flight (on schedule,) and then stopped in the restroom before proceeding to the local coffee shop serving espresso.
It was when I started going through my daypack to find my wallet that I noticed my phone was not there. I looked through it twice more, finally taking everything out and putting it on the table until the bag was visibly empty. I had my wallet, I had my camera, I had everything – except my phone.
I shoved my wallet, camera, etc., back into my pack, grabbed my suitcase, and walked quickly straight to the restroom where I had been. I realized that when I checked my mail on my phone, I set it down on top of the TP holder, and then washed my hands and walked away without it.
I edged through the cluster of housekeeping staff at the entrance to the restroom and checked the stall where I had been. Nothing. I checked all the other stalls, but still nothing. I could hardly believe it. I had had that phone for about five years (I don’t upgrade instantly) and had never left it anyplace before, except one time in Upstate New York. I asked the staff if they had seen my phone, but the people still standing there said they hadn’t seen it.
I spent the next couple of hours reporting the phone lost to the information desk, talking with the airport police, and checking and re-checking the airport’s lost and found. I kept hoping some good person had found it and would turn it in. Everyone I talked with was very nice, but no one turned my phone in.
Eventually, I had to get on the plane to Madagascar. I was coping, but it was hard. It was my iPhone, and it had my contacts list. I used it to check emails and What’s App messages. Sometimes it was a handier camera than my DSLR, so there were photos on it. Because of the unreliability of African internet service, not all of the photos were backed up to iCloud, or even to my iPad.
I still had my iPad. I had gotten into the habit of downloading my camera’s memory card to my iPad each evening, so I had those photos. They had not all backed up to the cloud, either, but I had the iPad and my memory card. The missing photos were the more spontaneous kind, the selfies, the “quick before they disappear” animal shots, photos from museums that didn’t allow DSLR cameras, but allowed mobile phone cameras because how could they stop them, and at least two photos I had promised to email to fellow travelers.
Luck was just not with me that day. The flight I was on had taken off, then about twenty minutes later it had to return to O.R. Tambo because of a problem with the emergency exit door. Apparently the seal around the door was leaking. I was sitting two rows back from it, and I could see the flight attendants looking closely at a gauge on the door. I assume it was a pressure reading of some kind. They moved the people in those first two rows to seats in the back of the plane. Okay, then. If the door blows, will I have time to brace myself?
We landed without incident, however, and it was unknown when we would be taking off again, so no one was allowed to leave the gate area. I sat down with my iPad and realized that I had a “Find My Phone” app. I should have thought of it before, but I’d never had to use it. I entered all of the information, and waited.
It took a few minutes, but it came up with a location! Technology is amazing. In another few minutes, it had the street address. It was close to the airport, too. This made me suspect the housekeeping staff, but, in fairness, who knows? I emailed the information to the policewoman to whom I had reported the missing phone.
She and I stayed in touch by email, even after I arrived in Antananarivo, because I would be returning to Johannesburg after my visit to Madagascar. She said that she did go to the address, and the address belonged to three apartment buildings with twenty units each. It was then that I knew I was never going to get the phone back. I used the “erase” feature in the Find My Phone app, and wiped it clean.
I sent a message thanking her for her efforts, but I understood that it was a dead end, thanks anyway, have a nice life. The police officer then emailed me to see if I was interested in writing about her life story. I allowed as how I was mainly a travel writer, and someone else would be better suited to writing about her adventures. I may have passed up a best-seller, you never know, but I wanted to put the whole episode behind me.
Viewing wildlife was my prime reason to visit Africa. I don’t know how anyone can resist after watching National Geographic nature series, especially those narrated by David Attenborough. So when my last 24 hours of Kruger NP came around, it was with some sadness that I watched the elephants, giraffes, zebras, kudu, lions, hyenas, and all the animals that had become familiar sights during my time in Africa. This would not be the end of wildlife, but this chapter was getting ready to close.
After visiting the rehabilitation center, we returned to Marc’s Treehouse Lodge. Late in the afternoon, we were invited to an evening game drive around their private reserve, one of a couple dozen reserves that give Kruger NP a larger area for animals to roam.
We boarded a game drive vehicle. These are ubiquitous in the parks of Africa – usually a ten-seater with benches or seats arranged in tiers that allowed the people in the rear to see over the heads of people in the front. Once settled, we went off to see who was out for an evening meal.
Photographing animals is challenging. I counted twenty-eight photos of this mother and baby rhinoceros in my photo collection, and that doesn’t even count the ones I had already deleted because of blurry focus or just bad photos. Of the twenty-eight I kept, a lot of them look very much like this one, except the mother is in front of the baby, the mother is behind the baby, the baby is further away, the photo is darker because the sun was sinking, or other variations. I was always driven to keep pressing the shutter because animals move, sometimes suddenly, and I always hoped I would get that “National Geo shot.”
I learned along the way from an actual NG photographer I met in Botswana, that those shots are often staged by crews who locate the animals, can get closer than the average tourist, of course have all the equipment in their vehicle(s), and know from experience how to approach the animals to (generally) get a good setup for a professional photographer or high-paying amateur. Plus, because they are not part of a tour, they can be patient for opportunities.
Still, the photos I have been able to collect give me a lot of pleasure, looking back over the places I have been and things I have seen, and they jog my memory. I am able to play the scene again in my head, and that’s the best part.
Photographing in the dark and around nine other people also trying to photograph the subject was challenging, but I came out with “genuine” photos of a leopard searching through the dark for a meal.
After following the leopard for about twenty minutes, he disappeared into an area where our vehicle couldn’t follow, and we called it a night and returned to the lodge. I never had any trouble sleeping. Riding in the vehicles over rough ground and the excitement of spotting the animals took up a surprising amount of energy, and made for a good night’s rest.
Early the next morning, we were off to a game viewing drive in Kruger NP, the final drive.
HOW DO YOU SPOT A LEOPARD? With difficulty. This was one of my two favorite leopard finds. In my travels, I was lucky (and my guides were good) in seeing a leopard twice in Kenya, and once in Kruger NP in South Africa.
We arrived in Johannesburg where I spent a couple of days before flying away. I was sad to leave South Africa, but I was excited to be going to Madagascar, which was a decision I made in Rwanda.
Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre was on the program. I was leary of this destination because, in my travels, I have been to some “wildlife centers” that were uninteresting and sometimes sad.
Moholoholo was different. We were welcomed by our guide, Moses, into a small classroom building, and given an introduction to the center. It was clear that Moses enjoyed his work – he was organized, knowledgeable, and smiled easily and often. He explained the rehabilitation work provided by the Centre, but told us that we would not see any of the animals that they planned to release back into the wild. Animals that were able to be released were kept away from humans so that they would stay wild.
Moses explained that they had failed with one particular bird who had come to the Centre as a fledgling. He said the ground hornbill had “imprinted” on humans, meaning that the bird thought he was one of the humans rather than a bird. Nonetheless, if he (the bird) thought you might be a suitable mate, he would try to offer you some food as a way of courting you. “Ground hornbills mate for life, so, consider that before you decide whether or not to accept!” he joked.
Africa is filled with wildlife, familiar yet different, and the birds of Africa are no exception. Eagles, hawks, storks, flamingos, and dozens of smaller birds populate the parks. Some tourists come with seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of the varieties, but I am not one of them. The photographs below that are not labeled are the ones “that got away,” meaning I didn’t catch their names. The birds are still interesting, still familiar yet different, and part of the colorful weaving that is Africa.
Southern ground hornbills live throughout southern Africa, are about three feet tall, weigh between five and seven pounds, and have a wing span of about four feet. They can fly up to 18 miles per hour. Males have a wattled neck that is all red; females are red with a patch of violet-blue. Males will inflate their wattle when trying to attract females, and can emit “booming” calls that are often mistaken for a lion’s roar.
These birds are carnivores who live in groups of between two to nine birds. They hunt for food by walking slowly through the grass and brush, eating seeds and fruits, insects, toads, rats, squirrels, and even small monkeys.
Only the dominant male and dominant female breed. They are monogamous and pair for life. In captivity, they can live up to 70 years. The other members of the group are mostly male, and caring for the chicks is their responsibility. The female lays one to three eggs, but usually only one survives.
Southern ground hornbills are, like so many animals, losing habitat, and this threat has classed them as “vulnerable.” They can live in woodlands, grasslands, and savannas, as long as there are trees around to roost in and build their nests in.
Humans are also a threat in other ways. The hornbills attack their reflection in windows of houses and businesses, asserting territory or dominance, and are big enough to break the glass. They can be injured in that way, or simply killed by the people to get rid of the “pests.” Hornbills are used in rituals and traditional medicine, and yet a third human threat comes from land mines. Hornbills are big enough that as they poke the ground looking for rats or squirrels, they detonate land mines left from past rebellions and conflicts.
Africa has eleven species of vultures. Eight of them have declined by about 62% in the last thirty years. Globally, vultures are the most endangered bird species.
Vultures can strip a large carcass in just a few hours, which helps keep the environment clean and disease-free, not to mention recycling nutrients.
Threats to vultures include:
Power lines: Vultures’ large wing span makes it difficult to turn quickly and avoid power lines. Loss of food supply: Humans have encroached on wildlife areas, resulting in a diminished food supply for vultures (and others.) Direct poisoning: Poachers poison vultures to prevent them from alerting rangers to the location of a poaching victim. Indirect poisoning: Farmers poison the predators who prey on their livestock, and vultures die when they consume these carcasses. Traditional medicine: Some believe that some diseases can be cured with vulture body parts, or that consuming vulture body parts will give them paranormal visions.
There are several lions that spend their days at Moholoholo. They don’t seem to mind, and Moses is at ease, but careful, feeding the lions through the fence so we can get a better look. Lions, even these comparatively tame ones, reek of power. Their muscles ripple through their bodies. The male lion’s paws are huge. It’s easy to imagine that a single blow from an angered lion could kill a person.
Marc’s Tree House Lodge, located near Kruger NP, sits along a small river running through their reserve. The lodge has built their breakfast area beside this pond, which attracts a lot of birds and animals to entertain the guests early in the morning.
In particular, there was this African Giant Kingfisher, who fished over the pond. She would swoop over the water, and when she spotted something, she would hover, flapping her wings furiously, until the moment she dove into the water. Several times she came up without anything, but she persisted, and finally nabbed breakfast.
Breakfast was so big, however, that she had a real struggle trying to eat it! The fish looked to be fully half the size of her. She tried several times to fit it into her mouth, but it just wasn’t going to fit down her throat. It looked for a while like she was trying to bite it into pieces, but of course, she doesn’t have real teeth. Then she took to hitting it on the branch. As if just catching it wasn’t hard enough! In the end, the fish finally broke apart and she got a good mouthful. Makes me glad to be a human, though.
A troop of monkeys danced in the tree branches. They were very fast, and one morning, I lost an apple I’d planned to take with me. Someone asked if I had any mosquito repellant. I took things out of my day pack to reach the repellant, one of them was my apple, which I placed on the table where I was sitting. I was sitting, right there! One of the monkeys dashed right down, picked it up, and bounced off to a tree branch by the pond. It was over in seconds! And, of course, he took a couple of minutes to look at me and gloat before he ate it….
Vervet monkeys like these are “Old World” monkeys like the Golden monkeys we saw in Rwanda. It’s a large label as Old World monkeys are found from Africa to Asia, although Vervets were introduced to Florida sometime in recent (500 years) history, so now they are there, too.
Vervets in particular, as nonhuman primate models, are used to study genetic and social behaviors of humans. These monkeys display human-like characteristics such as hypertension, anxiety, and alcohol dependency. And I can add apple-thievery to that list.
Antelopes might be interested in eating apples, but I don’t think apples are on their menu, and they aren’t clever enough, anyway. There are seventy-one species of antelope in Africa. Twenty-one of them live in Kruger NP. Because there are no fences between the NP and the reserves, animals wander into the lodges’ reserves, and sometimes into the lodges’ grounds. Luckily, this rarely includes predatory animals, although one should always pay attention when walking around, especially at night. But less aggressive animals, such as these Nyala, often come by and are welcomed as peaceful visitors. Nyala are part of the antelope family.
Banded mongoose (Mungos mungo) are found from the Sahel (the transitional area between the Sahara Desert and the Sudanese savanna) to South Africa. They live in savannas, open forests, and grasslands, eating mostly beetles and millipedes. However, they are carnivores, so their diet also includes small birds, snakes, and their eggs, rats, and sometimes fallen fruit. Banded mongoose are a very social species, and live in packs of up to twenty animals.
Mongoose are well-known for their ability to kill snakes, but they can also be killed by snakes such as the black mamba or cobras. Those snakes generally kill in self-defense and do not eat mongoose. Larger snakes, such as pythons, can kill and will eat mongoose. Other predators are hawks, marabou storks, leopards, and jackals.
Game-viewing was the order of the day. We were assigned by the lodge to vehicles according to our destination, and today I was going to visit Kruger NP. Africa is all about wildlife for most tourists. During my year in Africa, I have seen a lot of wildlife, but I always get caught up in the excitement of those who are seeing these animals for the first time.
The big cats – lions, leopards, and cheetahs are the most popular animals to spot. You can rely on your driver and guide to put a lot of effort into finding these because it means bigger tips. If they don’t find these, it’s not because they didn’t try!
The unidentified glob hanging from the tree is a leopard’s aging kill that he or she stashed in the tree so other animals wouldn’t steal it. Finding a kill like this often means the leopard is also in the tree. We waited and waited, but no leopard appeared. We went off to search for other animals (including a leopard,) and re-visited this tree twice during the day. Nothing. We discovered later from another driver that the leopard was at the base of the tree, resting against the edge of the small ravine where the tree was. We couldn’t see him or her from the road. I am not sure how he knew this, but our driver believed him.
This is a saddle-billed stork, a bird I was becoming familiar with since first seeing it in Amboseli NP in Kenya. The way they stand in the water and fish reminds me of the blue herons that I would see on Whidbey Island.
Water is a reliable animal magnet. On the other side of the bank, a small herd of zebras crossed paths with a small herd of gazelles. I found the comings and goings of the animals interesting from a social point of view. Predators were always viewed with caution by the animals that they hunted, although, if the predators were not hungry, the others were comparatively safe.
Baboons here, where they have not been fed by tourists, are not the nuisance that they were in the parks near Cape Town. They are still dangerous, however – they are very strong and have big teeth, and they can become very excited if they feel threatened. But, they are fun to watch because of the way they interact. Younger, older, male or female, they aren’t above snatching another’s food or plaything, and sibling-style arguments ensue. Their babies are especially cute and animated.
When we spotted a group of lionesses, things got exciting. It appeared that they were stalking an animal that we couldn’t see, probably an impala, the “fast food for lions,” according to our driver. There were several female lions spread out, but not randomly.
We watched them, along with several other vehicles, for some while, but eventually they stopped stalking. Their posture relaxed, and the pride gathered up together, so we knew it was over.
The photo below was taken with my telephoto lens maxed out. They were too far away to try and capture the whole group. When lion prides hunt, they are successful about forty percent of the time, but this hunt fell into the sixty percent remainder.
Water bucks are another species of antelope, recognizable by their horns and especially by the white ring around their hind ends. They are pretty large, bulls being about 1.4 meters tall, females a little smaller. Water bucks are gregarious, living in herds of about thirty animals, although the herds are fluid – individuals float in and out frequently. They are grazers, but when the ground cover is too thin, they will also browse on the bushes. Water is important to them, they live near permanent water sources, and when danger comes around, they use their strong swimming skills to take refuge in the water. Predators are who you would expect – lions, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas, and wild dogs.
Elephants are always fun to watch, and these were very close by.
It was the end of the day, but we stopped to watch a small drama at this artificial water hole. The zebra, understandably wary of the hyena, is waiting patiently near the water hole, but out of reach for the hyena, who is standing in the water getting a good, long drink.
Finally, the hyena walks away, and the zebra can get a drink in peace. As the hyena gets closer, we were able to see that she is very pregnant.
From my first day in Africa, I had been hearing about Kruger National Park, one of the most famous African parks, renowned for its size – nearly two million hectares (7,700 square miles) of wild area, made larger by an additional two or three dozen privately owned wildlife reserves that border the national park – and the relative ease of wildlife viewing.
Kruger NP began as the Sabi Game Reserve established March 26, 1898, by South African Republic President Paul Kruger, to protect the wildlife of the South African Lowveld. Over time, it morphed into Kruger NP, named for President Kruger who helped create it. The size of the park was made more by the private reserves that grew up around it, and there were no fences between to restrict animal movements.
South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique made big plans in 2000 to join their parks together into the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park. Even though progress has been made, the parks have not yet become one officially, although there is much cooperation and coordination. Hopefully, the project will come to fruition because it would provide one of the largest wildlife preserves.
I joined a group driving up from Johannesburg for a visit to Kruger NP. Tourism has been established for a long, long time at Kruger NP, and it shows in their organization. We spent the first night in a lovely little lodge called “Tremisana,” located on one of the reserves at the edge of Kruger NP.
We had an early evening game drive, and then dinner outside. A hyena came by to see what was going on, and probably to see if she could get anything, but didn’t bother us. The wildlife in Africa, at least where tourists frequent, seems to have adapted to humans, or maybe they behave as they always have, being dangerous only when hungry, scared, or defending their young. Just like humans. The trouble for humans is being able to predict when predators will be hungry, to avoid surprising animals, and resisting baby animals. Even baby crocodiles are “so cute.” It’s why visitors are generally confined to their vehicles.
MoAfrika Tours was the company that I traveled to Kruger NP with, but they subcontracted to other operators. Viva Safaris was the company that coordinated our game drives and other transportation. This morning, we boarded our vehicle to ride to a place where we would go on a game walk. After the game walk, we would transfer to Marc’s Treehouse Lodge for the duration of our trip.
The game drives and the game walks begin very early, just as dawn breaks, a schedule dictated by the wildlife. They feed early in the morning, and late in the afternoon. Our group consisted of eight guests, a guard who carried a rifle and drove, and our guide, who was also armed. On our way to the starting point, animals began to appear.
As I said, visitors have to stay in the vehicles, but even so, everyone was excited when we got this close to a male lion! I noticed that the driver kept the engine slightly revved, just in case.
Elephants travel in groups, the females and their young ones. We never ceased to be fascinated by them, and I often wished I could stay longer, just to watch the interaction among the elephants, and between the elephants and other animals.
We were a lot more excited about being close than she was – she was entirely engrossed in eating the bush – but we managed to stay still. Elephants are pretty smart, and she probably identified us quickly as a group of harmless tourists in our vehicle as opposed to poachers. Full grown elephants aren’t threatened by much else. Luckily, she was browsing slightly away from the others, but after sitting for a few minutes, we drove quietly on, putting some space between us and her anyway.
Eventually, we got out of the vehicle and walked around the reserve. Our guide pointed out some plants that are used in traditional medical care, even today, although modern medicine is making inroads. Modern medicine costs money, however, and that has kept traditional medicine in the mainstream.
I wonder if many people come to Africa, and see only the eyes and ears of hippos, never the whole thing. Hippos rarely come out of the water during daylight. At night, they come up on land and graze. On land, they are remarkably fast over short distances, and it’s best to be attentive if you wander around at night.
Our guide showed us a traditional method of clearing your sinuses if you had a head cold. He chose a piece of dry elephant dung, and set it on fire with a match. It didn’t burn brightly, rather, it put out a good amount of smoke. The trick was to inhale the smoke to clear your sinuses. It works….
I tried it. The smoke is sharp, and traveled right through my sinuses. I can’t say that I would recommend it, but it does perform as advertised.
As we returned, we found this guy warming up in the sun on the road. Lions, and especially male lions because they don’t watch over the cubs, aren’t afraid of much.
There was a male lion, sleeping in the road. He didn’t pay any attention to us at first, but when we didn’t go away, he did finally raise his head.
Back at Tremisana, we gathered up our things and headed to Marc’s Tree House Lodge, a short distance away.
The gorilla trek tour was over. I planned to stay around a little longer in Rwanda to see what Kigali was like from a different perspective, so I ended up being an official “wave-good-bye-er” for the others as they departed for their various destinations.
I walked up the hill to a local grocery store, which turned out to have a little cafe in it. I sat down and a waitress brought a menu. Fortunately, the menu had pictures, because the menu was written in Kenyrwanda. She and I figured out what I wanted to order, and then I sat back to watch the people.
Watching people in Kigali revealed that there are many people in Rwanda’s “middle class.” Rwanda has businesses that are starting up, and businesses that are established. It reminded me of Botswana, which a taxi driver described to me as “a middle income” country. Yes, there are poor people. Many. But there are also many students who can afford to go to university, people who can afford to dress in a “middle income” way, and who can afford a car or a motorbike. Their downtown was growing, not in desperate need of repairs.
I passed the district government offices, and was curious about the “pointy thing” that was on top of their building. I discovered that the thing was a representation of a traditional Rwandan basket. When a woman is married, she carries a basket that looks like this, with a pointed lid, which is supposed to carry the wisdom, traditions, and “secrets” of her family to her new family and home. So, I suppose that the district government had this representation on their building to signify a cultural tradition that they were carrying on.
I visited the memorial built by the Belgians to remember their soldiers that were lost during the 1994 Genocide. It was a sad loss of young men, who were told to surrender their weapons and they would come to no harm, and were then attacked. They defended their place, but were outnumbered and unable to communicate their need for help.
There is a pillar for each man. The lines carved into the granite pillars are one for each year of their life, ranging from 18 to 32. There are further details on each pillar so that their families could identify them each.
I found one of my favorite things – a coffee house, “Beautiful Coffee!” The coffee beans are grown around Lake Kivu, where we had been, and the coffee drinks here were wonderful.
They also had food, served by a co-located but separate business, Kijamii Table. It is a wonderful place, very “Rwandan” – friendly, growing, blooming – and I hope they are doing well. Business is tough to start anywhere. Rwanda is ripe for new business, but fragile as well.
It was time for me to move on soon enough. As always, part of me was anxious to see more, and still sorry to leave where I was.
After we left the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International museum, music drew us across the road, where there was a cultural center.
For centuries, African villages were the center of life. Children grew up learning not just skills for daily living, but music, dancing, and other arts. As modern, city life drew people away from their village lives, people realized that their traditional culture was in danger of fading away, and so these centers were organized to showcase and teach traditional culture. For the rest of us, it simply looked like fun!
Artists displayed their works inside the center, and outside when the materials were weatherproof. I was particularly drawn to this painting.
We stopped at the coffee house after the cultural center, enjoyed a really good espresso drink, and then headed back to the Best View to rendezvous with our cohorts and celebrate Jacob’s birthday! It was a great way to spend the last evening out. In the next morning, we would be heading back to Kigali.
Musanze is a district in the northern half of Rwanda, south of the four national parks, but not so far south as to escape their influence. There is a tourism school here, to help Rwandans learn how to help tourists learn about Rwanda and to ease their travel.
Jacob, our guide, was headed downtown and asked – since I appeared to be at loose ends – if I would like to come along, so I did. It seemed to be a good opportunity to see the Rwandan town and have Jacob handy to ask questions at the same time. He was on a mission on behalf of one of our group to check out the bus schedules.
We started by stopping into a tour agency office where he knew people. There were two women sitting at their desks, who both looked up and smiled when they saw Jacob, and came forward to greet him. Jacob, with his wry sense of humor, introduced me as his new wife, implying more than one. They looked at me with quizzical eyes. Men in Rwanda are, in fact, allowed to have more than one wife, but I was laughing, so they enjoyed the joke, too.
They were friendly and happy people, i.e. typically African, and we had a very nice time visiting for the ten or fifteen minutes we were there, and then we moved on to the bus station. Jacob was able to read the schedule board to find what he needed, and then we began walking back toward the hotel.
I asked Jacob about all of the construction that was going on. Buildings were going up everywhere, and I didn’t see any evidence that there would be demand for apartments, even in Rwanda, which has a reasonable economy growing. He said that people with money liked to invest in apartments or hotels – they believed that Rwanda would grow. The corner of my mind where accounting thoughts still lurk was dubious about a reasonable pay-back period, but then again, my estimate of what it cost to build these places was probably over-stated. Working people in hotels, construction, or domestic occupations are paid very little, and so the actual construction cost may be very low. Most of the buildings are made from concrete and rebar skeletons built on a concrete pad or dug foundation, then finished. In a hotel, one can see where the concrete pillars and beams are underneath the finished walls and trim.
We were staying in the Best View Hotel, which was on a side street in Musanze, and a very pleasant hotel for these last two days of our tour. As we walked along the street, we met Lynda and Patrina, who were on the way to the Dian Fossey Museum, and so I parted with Jacob, and joined Lynda and Patrina. I was very interested in visiting the museum.
The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International actually owns the building that houses the museum. The fund began in 1977 as The Digit Fund, organized by Dian Fossey to provide financial support to protect mountain gorillas, but as the mission of the organization expanded into conservation and fundraising, the name was changed. Today, you can find them online simply as “gorillafund.org.”
The museum is on the main floor. It houses educational displays, such as a comparison of a gorilla skeleton with a human skeleton. Gorillas are much bigger overall than humans, but specifically, their hands are much larger than ours as a proportion of our overall body. Gorillas’ canine teeth are larger and more prominent than ours. They use their teeth in defending their group from outside threats, and males use them to establish dominance within the group. Humans have a larger brain, which is housed in a larger brain case than gorillas have. Their heads and necks are very large and muscular, but their brain is measurably smaller than humans’ brains. And lastly, gorillas’ spines are bow-shaped and their arms are longer than their legs. These features enable them to climb trees and move between tree tops more easily than humans could. Humans have S-shaped spines, which enable them to walk upright more easily.
There was a chart that showed the approximate timelines in the relationships among orangutans, chimpanzees, baboons, gorillas, and humans. Orangutans were the first to diverge from our common ancestor, at almost 13 million years ago. Gorillas were next at 10 million years, followed by chimpanzees at 5 million years. Bonobos developed about 2 million years ago from an ancestor in common with chimpanzees. And then came humans.
Other displays discussed ways that our cell phones and other small electronics, including some advanced medical electronics, endanger gorillas. Coltan, the colloquial name for columbite-tantalum, is mined in the middle of gorilla habitat. In 2006, the main sources (80%) of coltan were Australia, Brazil, and Canada. As of 2018, coltan’s main producers are Rwanda, DRC (Congo,) Nigeria, Brazil, and China. Australia and Canada remain important producers, and Mozambique has some production.
In Africa, coltan is found mainly in the forests of the eastern DRC. It is mined by hand in a manner similar to panning for gold. There are three problems associated with this mining activity. First was the existence of “slave conditions” and child labor in the mining process itself. This caused Apple, in 2016, to suspend buying hand-mined coltan from the DRC. Second is the ongoing destruction of habitat by the mining activity that causes displacement of gorilla groups, including lowland gorillas, Grauer’s gorillas, and mountain gorillas. Third, is hunting of the wildlife – chimpanzees, gorillas, and elephants – for food. The mining locations are remote, so miners hunt animals near their location, which means wildlife. This is a major contributor to the decline of the Grauer’s gorillas in the last few years.
Mountain gorillas, on the other hand, have increased their population, due to cooperative conservation efforts by Rwanda, Uganda, DRC and the Dian Fossey Fund, whose focus is on the mountain gorillas. Between 1989 and 2003, the mountain gorilla population grew by 17%. By 2010, they added another 26%. It is admirable progress, but the population is still fragile. The 26% by 2010 brought the census to about 480, so a new disease could still wipe them out, but there is reason to be hopeful for more progress.
Because of Dian Fossey’s studies, conservationists know much more than before about the biology and living habits of mountain gorillas, which were also subjects of the displays.
Mountain gorillas become sexually mature around eight years old, but most don’t actually produce infants until they are ten years old. From then, they have an infant every four years. Gestation is 255 days, whereas humans gestate for 275 days. The survival rate is about 70%. Mortality is mainly because of accidents (including poaching and snares,) illness (they can catch some human diseases,) and extreme weather, which may cause death by hypothermia. Occasionally, the infants are killed by external males or the new dominant silver back when a female with an infant joins a new group.
Social groups are flexible. Group size is anywhere from two to sixty-some individuals. Males may be solitary their entire lives, may lead a group as the sole dominant silverback (DSB,) or may co-reside with other adult males. Mountain groups usually have a dominant silverback, females, and their offspring. Most groups have only one silverback, but groups with up to seven have been observed.
Dian Fossey always liked animals, but didn’t envision a career like this until she visited Africa in 1963. During this trip through Kenya, Tanzania, Congo, and Zimbabwe (which had different names then,) she visited Dr. Louis Leakey’s archaeological site and learned about Jane Goodall’s study of chimpanzees in Tanzania, which had begun in 1960. Dr. Leakey shared with Fossey his belief in the importance of long-term field studies of the great apes.
In 1966, Fossey traveled back to Congo to study gorillas, stopping on her way to visit Jane Goodall and observe her research methods. By 1967, she had founded the Karisoke Research Center in the Virunga Mountains to protect and study mountain gorillas. It has since grown into a conservation effort for other wildlife and to develop programs for people who live near the gorillas.
Fossey became famous after photographs by Robert Campbell were published in the National Geographic’s January, 1970, issue. These photos forever changed the image of gorillas from “dangerous beasts” to gentle primates, and focused attention on their plight – losing habitat and diminishing numbers.
Fossey, who did not have technical credentials in her field, spent 1970 – 1974 earning a PhD from Darwin College, Cambridge, and commuting to and from Africa while completing her academic work. Armed with credentials, she was able to secure funding to protect the gorillas. She used her funds to provide uniforms, boots, wages, and food for the park wardens, who fought poachers and encroachment by herds of cattle, grazing on park lands.
Digit, so-named because he had a damaged finger, and Fossey met in 1967, and became good friends. He was killed in 1977 by poachers. In his memory, she founded The Digit Fund in 1977, which later became the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, as a not-for-profit to collect donations to support conservation and protection efforts.
In 1980, Fossey moved to Ithaca, NY, as a visiting associate professor for Cornell University. During her stay at Cornell, she wrote “Gorillas in the Mist,” about her years in the rainforest with mountain gorillas, and the need for focused conservation efforts. It was published in 1983.
Fossey returned to Rwanda. Sadly, she was murdered in December, 1985, presumably by poachers, but the case was never resolved. She is buried behind her cabin at Karisoke, next to her beloved Digit.
The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International has offices in Musanze, Rwanda, and Atlanta, Georgia. In 2018, The Ellen Fund, a not-for-profit organized by Ellen Degeneres, provided a lead gift to the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund to help build a 4500 square meter purpose-built, permanent headquarters in Kinigi, Musanze District, Rwanda. The center will provide a research library, training facilities, on-site residential quarters for researchers and others, and an area for visitor educational displays. Plans and architectural drawings are on display at the current headquarters in Musanze.