Just photos this time. They speak for themselves.
Just photos this time. They speak for themselves.
It’s not fair.
One shouldn’t have to leave the womb. One shouldn’t have to leave Narnia. One shouldn’t have to leave the Cradle of Creation where the tapestry of stars are a fairy’s fantasy.
But leave one must. Because fairness only exists in books. It is not in the loom from which we are woven. It is not in the tender dirt where dreams learn to crawl, nor in the whispering water where hearts first clap.
Ngizazolibona foot, bangane bami.
(I will see you again, my friends).
Day and Night with Herders – The Stomach That Heals
I spent Saturday day and night with the herders. The head herder, Nduwani, met me at 6:30 AM and we walked 2 kilometers to the kraal through the bush during a spectacular sunrise. How great is this, up with the sun, trailing the lead herder and his two dogs walking through African savanna to the corral of 500 cattle and goats.
Along the way, he stops, thinks, and then leaves the main path, cutting through grass on what appears to be an animal route, if that. He stops again and picks up some dried dung. “Giraffe”, he says, with a smile that reveals many missing teeth and a girth of life appreciation as wide as Africa is ancient – the low orange sunlight dancing on his face.
In a bit we come to a clearing on a high point, and laying before is us Eden, Shangri-la, Valley of the Gods, just a spectacular view of the vlei, the mountains in the background, and the mixture of golden grass and green trees. I can’t see the river, but I can tell where it is. Somewhere out there the cattle are moving in a tight group, churning soil, ruminating on grass, and recycling water and nutrients. They are the controlled facsimile for the abundant wild herds that use to trample through here in profound numbers – always in a pack, always impacting according to rule of co-evolution, and always, always, moving on. Never idling. Never overgrazing. Making soil, and, in the process, grabbing carbon by the handful.
By the time we get to the kraal the animals are already out. We were a bit late, but the herders knew what to do. The release of the animals from the kraal is something of a sacred ritual. It is done in complete silence as the herders are quietly counting every animal…495. There are two herders on the inside and two on the outside. The release takes about 15 minutes, and is done without a word uttered. Of course this counting is done entirely in their heads. There is no hand held clicker.
Slowly the animals channel out, in a natural flow, like new water on warm sand. They are not hurried or impeded. Sometimes they leave through the opening in the booma sheeting two or three at a time. Without interruption the herders silently count. This is a feat of cognitive magic I can’t fathom, akin, perhaps, to card counters in Las Vegas. Do not disturb them.
Herding is hard work. The morass 500 animals is like an acre of jello. It sticks together, but also oozes apart. Individuals will always breakaway to seek fresh grass. There are only four herders at a time, plus Nduwani, to keep this gelatinous assemblage together, and slowly, ever so slowly, moving in the desired direction, and at the desired density. The livestock eat and walk. Eat and walk. Eat and walk. Grabbing the tops of plants with their massive tongues, and moving on. By mid day it is extremely hot, but there is no break for lunch. Nduwani had an apple and and orange only because I gave him mine.
The grazing plan calls for them to be in this area for four days, and not a minute more. They amble through thickets, vleis, and across the riparian areas, trampling seven foot high grass and drinking as they go. The embankments are pristine – because of the planned grazing. Reeds and grass now grow right to the edges. Erosion on this land has been reversed, and the rivers run longer into the dry season. Unlike conventional grazing that is deleterious, this is the stomach that heals.
At one point Nduwani points to a field of grass and says, “This used to be bare. Bare. Bad ground”, waving his hand over an area, the boundaries of which he can discern, but I can’t, while the dogs follow his hand gestures, as if he’s talking to them. Bending down he pushes some grass apart and then grabs dark dirt from the base of the plants. “Now. Good soil”, he says, “Good soil”.
That night I sit with herders around the fire. They are Soccer, Unit and Artwain. Yes, those are their names. Knowledge and Abednicho have left for the night to attend a football (soccer) match. I have also met locals with names like Innocent, Patience, Courage, and January.
Other than the leader, Nduwani, the rest are young men, almost boys (plus one woman – who stayed with the camp). They speak almost no English, but of course, more so than I speak Ndebele (although what I do know is appreciated, if not at least a source of amusement). They have almost no possessions. If I can give them a hat or a long sleeve shirt, it is sincerely accepted. As temperatures plunge, we sit by the fire and attempt conversation, which is good natured and full of both laughter and long pauses of bewilderment. The fire (umlilo) sends out arms of warmth while they eat a typical dinner of sadza and fried fish. Above, the stars blaze and from the woods we hear a distinct call. “What is that”, I inquire. “Wild dogs”, they reply, without hesitation.
Some rituals I trust can be forgiven.
I think of the line from the movie Pi (not to be confused with “Life of Pi”), where the lead character says, and I paraphrase, “I once forced myself to stare into the sun. As my pupils shrunk, everything came into focus”.
I’m sitting now where I always sit at this time, on the Admin veranda, looking into the gleam of Apollo’s chariot as it hastens toward waking lands. I can picture a smirk on Apollo’s face. It says, “My work here is done.”
Farewell friend, I hear myself think. Farewell.
We moved the kraal two days ago. This is a cattle enclosure. It’s an Afrikaans word and probably has the same root as corral. There are lots of Afrikaans terms in use here. One is vlei, pronounced flay, and veldt, pronounced felt. A vlei is a seasonal shallow lake, yet it seems to be used here to refer to flat land near a river. A veldt is open expanse, what we would call a plain.
Moving the kraal is a Quixote-esque expedition – a Gypsy caravan. You see, we aren’t just moving the kraal, which is one hundred fifty meters of canvas sheeting plus metal posts and rope. No. That’s the easy part. There is also the team of herders who camp each night with the kraal. They have a mini village, complete with tents and beds and cooking gear and flashlights (called “torches”), and, um, lest I forget, fire crackers. Yes, fire crackers. These are to scare the lions off, in case they jump the sheeting and kill a goat or cattle, which, for whatever reason, seems to happen when I arrive. A sheep was killed last weekend, and the last time I was here, a cattle was gotten the day before my plane landed. It fed us for several days, but was tough – as happens when an animal is killed in a state of panic. It’s fear releases chemicals that harden the meat.
Allan was wondering whether my first night at the Center, after traveling thirty six hours, should be spent with him and his riffle keeping watch at the kraal, but then he thought the better of it. “It could be dangerous”, he said. Really? I thought later. Defending twelve hundred tons of living meat from hungry lions is dangerous? Come now. But, in fact, I wish he had invited me. What better way to rid jet lag?
There’s a new innovation from an organization called Lion Alert that fashions kraals with solar powered blinking lights. (I think I mentioned this in a previous post). Apparently the blinking perturbs the lions. Hey, it perturbs humans as well. I guess it’s not a coincidence that blinking lights are a sign of warning. There must be something deeply psychological about that. Anyway, the goat corral did not have them. But, that could change. The real concern is that even the smell of lions can cause the cattle to stampede, thus flattening the canvas sheeting like tar paper. Of course, that’s both what the lions want, and similarly, what evolution has concocted to protect the herding grazers. Although domestic, cattle can resort to wild behavior in the presence of predation – just like people.
Moving the kraal is part of “planned grazing” in a “predator friendly” environment. The planned grazing calls for keeping the cattle in a moving herd. As this herd is in a wild savanna with lions and other predators, the cattle must be protected at night, so they need to be in a guarded corral. And as the cattle are always moving to new land (never overgrazing), the kraal, and it’s encampment has to move with them.
This operation, however, contrary to convention, must also be kind-to-predators, i.e. “predator friendly”. There is no shooting of lions or discouraging their well-being. Unfortunately, lions are routinely killed by villagers to protect their cattle and homesteads (just like American’s killed wolves). In some cases that I’ve read about, their watering spots are laced with cyanide, poisoning not just the lions, but other creatures too. It’s a horrible story, but they’re trying to change that here. Being “predator friendly” is just one of many innovations. They are also trying to figure out how to be elephant friendly, and hyena friendly. As Rodney King would say, “Can’t we all just get along?”
So, back to the caravan: Leading the charge is the Africa grade Land Rover truck. These are the real deal. $70 new I understand. Not bad for a 2-seater. Would Hummers suffice? Unlikely. I’m not sure the wheel base in long enough. There are some serious gullies we have to cross. My understanding is that the Land Rover was invented to chauffeur the Queen of England when she visited her African colonies. It wouldn’t do to have her fouling her shoes in buffalo dung or getting lace snagged on thorns. So, no expense was spared building the finest vehicles on the planet, that, I can assure you, handle undulating terrain with the firmness of a British upper lip.
In tow behind the Land Rover truck is the wagon. This contains the kraal sheeting, polls, ropes, tents, beds, gear and sundry items that make the camp. In tow behind the wagon, is the chicken coop. Yes, the chicken coop. This contains the chickens, plus the baby goats that are too small to be herded. They are no bigger than the chickens themselves. Chickens, of course, are for eating. I imagine they are slaughtered and processed right there in the field. The occasional goat no doubt also meets a similar demise. Last time I saw a slaughtered and skinned goat hanging from a tree next to the kraal. Was it drying to make biltong (meat strips, like jerky)? “What is this”, I asked. “Goat”, was the reply.
Topping off this caravan are the people – maybe ten in total, but on this trip we had four with us already. So, let’s say fourteen people. Five, perhaps, were in the wagon. Six, or so, were in the back of the Land Rover truck, and three were in the front seat. Oh, did I forget the dogs? Of course, there are dogs. Maybe two or three. These are the original lion warning system. They’re small, cute, and expert at sounding the alert. I understand, that on one rare occasion, a couple of these darling canines were taken tragically by a leopard. It was a stormy night, and the theory is that they didn’t catch the scent. “That story ended in grief”, said the ranch manger, “but dogs are replaceable”. Apparently so. They’re common. When traveling and camping in the bush, they’re your best companion. Don’t leave home without one.
So, add two or three dogs to the mixture of people, chicken, goats, Land Rover, wagon, all the camp supplies, and a chicken coop. Now add the roughest terrain on earth, plus river crossings. Get the picture? Can you say “clang”? This happens once a week, every week. It’s part of life on a ranch with planned “predator friendly” grazing, where cattle, people, and lions, are living together, whiling building soil and restoring ecosystems. No one said it was glamorous, but it works.
Don Quixote would be proud. As am I.
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Some rivers you want to dry.
Like the river of Internet chatter – the sooner into the season that turns to dirt, the better.
I’m writing by the light of two candles in cut wine glasses with sand in the bottoms, holding the wax beacons firmly in place, while the torches flicker by the cool breeze of ajar windows and a poor moth meets his unglamorous end, as I suppose all moths do. Oops! There goes another.
Twice now I’ve been to Africa, and I can probably count all the mosquitoes encountered on one hand. I understand that in the rainy season they are like tiny hyenas that force you to run for cover. Now, I can’t even summon them if I try. I mean, really, two lit candles with a an open window and not even a buzzzz, just a few moths. But, then, that tells you something about the seasons. Life lives in abundance during the rains and then quite quickly dissipates. The rainy season lasts three to four months and even that, by the way, is intermittent. It’s not like it rains every day. During the height, it might rain three times a week. So, twice now I’ve missed the mosquitoes and twice now I’ve missed rains. Last time I left just before rains started, and this time I arrived just after they ended. I tell myself I want to see the rainy season, but my record is 0-2. I need to practice my swing.
Life goes on, however, below the surface. That’s where deep roots reach moisture in healthy soil, and that’s what this is all about, of course, carbon rich, water holding soil, kept that way by perennial grass that is properly grazed. That this is a mystery to people in the climate movement is a mystery to me, but then, the universe is full of surprises, and breakthroughs are a glorious thing.
Elephants and Waypoints
I just recently heard a sound I’ll never forget – wild elephants – rumbling, tumultuous, cumulus clouds of the forest – not more than 130 yards away, grunting, snorting, occasionally shrieking, and snapping branches and trees like pretzels. Imagine being a football’s field distance from a creature you could hear breathing like it was standing behind your neck? Weza, the guard / scout says there were about a dozen animals, some probably bigger than a hut and weighing ten thousand pounds. We know the path they take. Like many animals, they have their routine. The path they take is exactly the one I walk through on the way to the chalets above the watering hole (which is where the elephants are now). The scout, Weza, says if I meet him at 6 AM, he’ll show me what they did during the previous evening (tonight).
Yes, we’re not in Kansas anymore. Of course, there used to be elephants in Kansas, but that’s a story for another day.
At dinner I found myself eating with my hands. The practice here is beginning to take hold. I eat lunch with the staff and this is how they eat. The meals are almost always the same, "soup" with sadza. Let me explain. By "soup", they mean meat stew. The meat is usually cattle, but sometimes wild game – kudu, impala, sable. It is always lean, to say the least, and often tough, although not always. Sometimes it’s remarkably tender. There is also a good dosage of chicken, what they call "inkukhu", and a cafeteria cat, named Kinki, won’t leave you alone on those occasions.
Sadza is like massed potatoes made from maize. For vegetables there is sometimes greens, and sometimes grilled tomatoes and onions. Anyway, eating involves rolling the sadza into balls and dipping it into the stew. It’s actually a quite natural way to eat and I guess I’m not surprised to find that I was doing it on my own unconsciously, even when the staff wasn’t around. I do tend to eat dinners alone quite a bit, which I have absolutely no problem with. I’m happy to have this place to myself. There are also plenty of times when it’s fully packed with visitors, so I relish the nights when I’m one of the few.
By-the-way, a few nights ago I had a bit of a fight with a centipede, and although I won, I wasn’t happy with my tactics. I should have displayed a bit more composure, but the damn thing caught me by surprise (when don’t they) and was scurrying so quickly (it’s legs like little soldiers) and didn’t budge the first time I tried to brush him out. That’s when I realized we were in for a fight and his menacing stingers got in the air. I also understand they have scorpions here, but I haven’t seen any, although I did get acquainted today with the furry spider by the sink. I am actually acquiring a sense of endearment for the spindle-like cohabitants of my bungalow. This was particularly true last time when I felt that every shower (in the remote chalet) was a trip into an arachnid locker room. They kindly made space for me, but mostly, it seemed, were wondering what I was doing there. Mostly, however, this is a birders paradise – so many colors and shapes and sounds and sizes. all unknown to me. I guess I’m glad I’m not a birder, because it could be overload and I might not get anything done. To me, they’re just colorful background noise. A few, like the hornbill, demand attention.
So, what have I been doing? Well, a lot more of the boundary marking, GPS readings, and in harder to get to locations, including up some damn steep hills, apparently protected by thorn bushes the Devil would be proud of. I practically left a pound of flesh on some of those hills. Who needs predators when the trees can skin you alive? Anyway, I am starting to love working with GPS and Google Earth. It’s wonderful to see these places on the map. I’ve found now that in addition to taking the waypoint reading, I also keep the tracking on the whole time, and when I come to a beacon I walk a circle around it. This then shows up on the track / path that I import. You can see the precise circle where I walked. This becomes a second way to verify where I actually was.
Some of the hilltop views by the spot of these beacons where I take the waypoint readings are extraordinary. You can see the great safari laid out bare – endless expanses of grass with distant hills. I can only imagine what it used to look like when herds of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of animals came by, and all the grass was high and rivers were plentiful. Those days will return, and that’s why I’m here.
Now I’m writing from inside the mosquito net, looking out to the sunrise through this gossamer mesh. It creates a dream quality. The netting really isn’t necessary this time of year. The mosquitoes have frozen their hinnies off, but given the few crawling things still about, it doesn’t hurt, but mostly, I just think I’ve come to desire it, like a little womb, a quasi tent, holding me safe.
The other night I turned off the exterior light but didn’t notice any change, as far as I could tell the exterior around the tent was still lit up. Flicking the switch made no difference. Then I realized. It’s the light of the moon (two-days past full), barreling into the chalet as if it belongs here. In deed, it does. That’s the African way.