Tuesday, August 9, 2016

July22 Wildebeest, lions, buffalo and everything else...

late night - I am awakened in the night by a distant roar... hopefully distant but nevertheless a roar. At the other end of the camp Pat is awakened by the grazing and shuffling of a 500 pound buffalo a few feet from her front door which is securely zippered shut. There are other sounds in the night which thankfully are unidentifiable by us. The winds pickup around 2am and Ali Raza worries that the creaking and swaying of his tent is going to cause it to come crashing down. That is enough to keep him awake. Noone else complains or reports being scared so it looks like most everyone got sleep... except of course the lion and the buffalo ;-) !
At 4am this morning Susan, Jim and Fern are awakened and whisked away to a Balloon Safari Ride at dawn. The rest of us sleep in and start off into the Serengeti after breakfast. We set out for the Mara river to the north. This river poses a natural barrier to the migrating herds across the plains and one key objective is to photograph a river crossing. As on TV, so it is in real life, when herds of wildebeest, zebra and antelope cross a river that is lined with opportunistic carnivores like the lion and the crocodile, there is much panic, action and fodder for photographers! 




God or nature has final control. This is no more evident than as I wait for an imminent river crossing. Imminent because a herd of wildebeest are lined up on the Kenya shore of the Mara and we lie in wait like carnivores with cameras to chronicle the struggles of their weak and the athleticism of the strong as they cross the river. Our job is to document the beauty of this dynamic act as it evolves. However this crossing or not is entirely out of our control, perhaps out of the control even of the wildebeest. There is some psycho-biological trigger that will eventually drive them off the plateau on their bank and toward the river below. The ensuing momentum and weight of body-on-body will then drive the frenzied masses to leap and bound across the rapids toward the other shore even as cameras and carnivores pick them off. But I am getting ahead of myself again because although this is what I saw on tv Nat-Geo, since I arrived in Tanzania I have been repeatedly reassured that there is ‘no guarantee’!
My friend and Photography coach Ali Khataw is not a patient man. However, he set the expectations right off the bat by saying to us, “In Africa time stands still and we move at the pace of the animals”. Wildebeest, hippos, zebras and the natives of this land are in no rush. The clocks they obey are biological unlike the ones we follow, their goals are driven by instinct and survival rather than logic and achievement and perhaps they know better (than us) that their function and beauty is in their graceful existence as opposed to accomplishment. 

Gabbar singh’s frustration at the crossing as he waits in the jeep for the wildebeest to cross:

kitney wilderbeest the?
hazaar sarkar!
who hazaar hai aur hum panch!
bahut na insafi hai yeh!
kitni daer lagegi ?
pata nai sarkar 
inn hazaar wilderbeest neh hamari izzat puri mitti mein mila diya
iski saza zaroor milegi !!!

 We are done taking turns peeing in the dangerous bushes behind the car, done eating lunch from cardboard boxes and done asking about the life-cycle and decision-making abilities of the wilderbeest. Now its come down to a battle of attrition between the wildebeest outside and the wilder-beasts within. Can we wait till nature takes it course? Will nature out-wait us today? A life lesson is in progress. 
Whatever happens we will be the wiser tomorrow.
Update; the aforementioned wildebeest are now about 5-10 feet further behind on the other bank then where they were at the start of this piece. The temperature on the ground is about 90F. So far wildebeest indecision and human patience is the order of the hour! 
Update #2: Our wildebeest previously arranged in a chaotic looking herd find a way to fall in line and walk single file on their river bank heading away from the river.   


This morning we drove a short way out of the camp for a sunrise lesson in photography. Ali Raza taught us about good light and bad light and how each translates into the quality of our pictures. A few pictures before and after sunrise with different compositions and variations of iso, Fstop and exposure illustrate for us the lesson that Ali had planned. Ali’s photo-sight unveils amazing compositions from a mundane even boring landscape, finds trees and natural shapes to frame animals, uses the Kopi to rejuvenate a landscape and generally turns viewing into artful vision. His words, ‘Stop looking and start seeing”, espouse a lesson in mindfulness and anticipation that is universal in its import.   

Final update: On the question of what happened with our wildebeest crossing…Neither nature nor we waited-out the other to win. Instead, nature outwitted us and even as we idled, unbeknownst to us the crossing had begun and by the time we drove to the site to witness it, it was all but over. To be entirely truthful this was a mini-crossing of a hundred head of cattle as opposed to the larger crossings which we had anticipated.  ...So we hope to get another try at this….but as far as I am concerned it won’t kill me if I don’t see it on this trip. The effort required is enormous: a 6 hour round trip in a jeep on bumpy cross-country terrain with an indeterminate wait for the animals to make up their minds!!!

( the leopard camouflaged in ..you can barely see its head...stalking the lonely antelope under the tree )

Dinner on the range:
After watching the invisible cheetah stalk a gazelle in the (not so) tall grass yesterday on the plains I am now spooked as I walk down the beaten path from the tent to the dinner area, This well worn path has taller grasses to one side and I find myself looking for movement and markings in the waving grass knowing fully well that if I did spot such an animal, my end would be stunningly quick! Nevertheless I cannot but look as I walk back to my tent after dinner. The beds here are comfortable, the bed linen clean and luxurious and the pillows aplenty. So good in fact that when I mentioned to South African tour guide Pierre that these beds might be better than those in our Hiltons and Marriotts, he said “There’s an old saying here: Why limit yourself to 5 stars when you can enjoy 5 million stars”! 
The food at the camps leaves us impressed evening after evening. We start dinner with a soup and hot buttered rolls (seriously!!! soup is the first course on the Serengeti?) followed by a most delicious salad of sliced avocados with onions, tomatoes and lemon dressing. Then comes a parade of dishes served separately followed by dessert. Typically we have a delicious beef or chicken stew with rice, some sautéed vegetables and fried potatoes on the side. I have yet to stop a waiter from serving me seconds…

As I sit inside the tent writing this, no more than three feet from a the door held together by a zipper I hear rustling outside and freeze…not once but over and over. I think…."That animal can smell me and knows I am here while I haven't clue who he is... If its a lion can it rip this military spec tent or will his paws fail… if its a buffalo or wildebeest it can surely run right into this tent and upend the whole thing”…. and on and on and on my mind works overtime. I cant look outside because I have zipped all windows shut and so as they say in electrical engineering ‘the feedback loop is broken’…I can’t know what it is so I can’t be ready for it. I feel my abs tighten…when the going gets scary the scared go to the bathroom. Wait a minute…what if the animal comes back there? Are the flaps on the bathroom secure…even if secure only means zipped up! Oh No. Beam me up God before I get mauled. PLLLLEEEEAAASSSEEEE!!!! I wonder how Pat and the other scardy cats are sleeping in their tents…or not! Please God can we live to exchange stories at breakfast?
Wait... I think i hear a lion rumbling…or
is that a wildebeest making its ridiculous snort-noise…or
is that Fern or Pierre snoring in the next tent over?
Stay tuned…the answer will be posted if yours truly survives the nite in the wild!
(translation:  may you find Peace in Lalaland (sleep)!)

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