Africa

Notes from Karanga Camp, Kilimanjaro

I carry a small notebook in my shirt pocket when I travel. I scribble in it furiously. These notes are the starting point for many of the stories and POTDs that appear in Bible Land Explorer.

The following observations and reflections were made on the afternoon of July 22, 2019. On that day I reached Karanga Camp (elevation 12,992 feet) by foot. The camp rests directly under the peak of the Kilimanjaro.


The afternoon siesta gave me opportunity to recharge (watch and camera and self).

The resupply group arrived from Moshi. We’ll see what dinner holds. Lunch was ugali (corn fufu) and spinach with fruit on the side. I don’t see the appeal of ugali. Starch balls. Ugh!

The porters lounged . . . perched on rocks like lizards soaking up the sun.

White-necked ravens hunted hikers’ crumbs or tidbits from the dishwashing station. When one finds something he gobbles it up or tries to carry it off. The others pursue him, zooming through the tents and rocks of the camp in a mad game of Top-Gun.

It’s not the most comfortable napping spot on the mountain, but the view is without rival. Kibo, the central cauldron of Kilimanjaro, rises in all its fuming glory.

It’s not the most comfortable napping spot on the mountain, but the view is without rival. Kibo, the central cauldron of Kilimanjaro, rises in all its fuming glory.

I reclined on a rock and studied the mountain. It leans over me frosty and blue . . . glaciers creep downslope like icy fingers . . . lines in the talus below suggest watercourses or paths where boulders or ice chunks have tumbled down. From this side it seems unassailable.

Patches of small clouds passed. Their shadow gave momentary relief to the eyes. The sun is so bright up here.

I tried photographing the ravens and the moorland chats flitting about. The chats are drab little birds from the flycatcher family. They are friendly and funny when they puff out their feathers. Look like fuzzy tennis balls. This must be some heat-saving tactic.

I lay on the rocks in the sun and rested a long time.

Chef Julius gives me a dinner preview. All meals are prepared on this propane stove. At night, the dirt-floored mess tent converts to sleeping space for Julius and several of the porters.

Chef Julius gives me a dinner preview. All meals are prepared on this propane stove. At night, the dirt-floored mess tent converts to sleeping space for Julius and several of the porters.

I heard Julius was working in the mess (tent). He was carrying on a fierce conversation with two or three others.

I stopped in to see what was cooking. They seemed happy to see me and show off their work. They invited me into the tent. I thanked kindly but stayed in the door (in part, because there is no room inside and because it must have been 150 degrees in there!). Julius pulled alum foil and a lid from the top of a pot so I could see sizzling veggies inside. The lid was scalding. He juggled it between his fingers. I told him to be careful or he will never play the piano again. Laughter erupted in the tent. We chatted awhile. I eventually excused myself. From my tent I could hear them continuing to chatter in Swahili (or is it Chagga?) occasionally inserting the (English) word “piano.” Each time they said it, the laughter would repeat itself.

Back in my tent, the music of John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” drifted by. In East Africa? Now that’s hilarious.

A blanket of clouds swaddled the mountain. Meru is visible on the horizon to the right. Photograph by Bryan, a member of our Kandoo Adventures team.

A blanket of clouds swaddled the mountain. Meru is visible on the horizon to the right. Photograph by Bryan, a member of our Kandoo Adventures team.

Moshi was not visible below—low clouds swaddled the mountain. Only Meru (the fifth highest peak in Africa at 14,967 feet) had the strength to raise its dark head above this woolly blanket.


Darkness settled over the Karanga Camp. We embraced it. It will likely be our last full night of sleep. Tomorrow we make for Barufu Camp (15,239 feet). We will nap for part of the night there, then begin our summit bid.


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I love Africa but my regular summer work is in Israel-Palestine.

If you are a pastor, church leader, or educator who is interested in leading a trip to the lands of the Bible, let me hear from you. I partner with faith-based groups to craft and deliver outdoor academic experiences. Leaders receive the same perks that other agencies offer, at competitive prices, and without the self-serving interests that often derail pilgrim priorities.

See here for a list of future trips.

High flyer

Everyone knows that birds fly high in the sky. But how high?

A quick check of the internet reveals some astounding observations. Flight heights for some vultures, condors, storks, and swans exceed 20,000 feet.*

The record-holder is Rüppell's griffon vulture (Gyps rueppellii). How do we know? One of these poor things was sucked into the turbine blades of a jet airliner at 36,100 feet. The altitude was noted by the pilot before he shut down the damaged engine and made an emergency landing in West Africa’s Côte d'Ivoire. A smattering of bird parts and feathers (Can you say Kung Pao chicken?) were used to identify the species.** Why this scavenger was fooling around at that height is another question altogether.

A human being in a 37,000 feet atmosphere would black out for lack of oxygen. But not this bird! It was built for such daring feats. Adaptations include keen eyesight, a huge wing to body ratio, contour feathers that insulate and streamline, and a unique form of red protein in its bloodstream that moves oxygen around in ways that would make Lance Armstrong jealous.

While immaterial to their flying abilities, this carrion-eater also has the ability to consume rotten meat. Does that dead gazelle have anthrax? Botulism? Cholera? No problem, This griffon vulture can consume it all; its gut-of-iron can digest all the bad bug-a-boos. Apparently, it can not only fly as high as an airliner; it can eat airline food.

Rüppell's griffon vulture. Image from    https://kidszoo.org/our-animals/ruppells-griffon-vulture/    (accessed 10 Aug 2019).

Rüppell's griffon vulture. Image from https://kidszoo.org/our-animals/ruppells-griffon-vulture/ (accessed 10 Aug 2019).

Rüppell's griffon vulture is an African species. It is native to a band of countries that runs across the center of the continent like a belt: Senegal, Côte d'Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. Habitat loss threatens its future; the IUCN Red List has moved this bird to “critically endangered” status and reports that its world population of 22,000 individuals continues to decrease. Sadly, there is no monitoring scheme or action recovery at present.***

I captured a shot of this squadron on the ground in the Serengeti (Tanzania). They were just cleaning up after dinner. Coloration patterns—particularly on the feathers of the bird on the far right suggest Rüppell's griffon vulture. I’m guessing that the bird on the left is a juvenile. I welcome feedback from a real ornithologist out there who could confirm/deny our identifications.

I captured a shot of this squadron on the ground in the Serengeti (Tanzania). They were just cleaning up after dinner. Coloration patterns—particularly on the feathers of the bird on the far right suggest Rüppell's griffon vulture. I’m guessing that the bird on the left is a juvenile. I welcome feedback from a real ornithologist out there who could confirm/deny our identifications.

The namesake of the species comes from Eduard Rüppell, a German naturalist who was something of a rare bird himself. He was among the first wave of Western explorer/adventurers in the Bible Lands, making several expeditions into northeast Africa.

As early as 1817 he visited Egypt and ascended as far as the first cataract (Aswan). Note that this was a half-century before the better-known Victorian explorers such as Livingstone, Stanley, Burton, and Speke.

In 1821 Rüppell returned to Africa, venturing into the Sinai. He was purportedly the first European to visit the Gulf of Aqaba. He continued up the Nile to the unexplored regions associated with modern Sudan and Ethiopia. All along the way he worked to improve contemporary maps and build impressive zoological and ethnographic collections. The latter included ancient Ethiopian manuscripts.

Specimens sent back to Europe by Rüppell were used to help produce Philippe Jakob Crtzschmar’s Atlas zu der Reise im nordlichen Afrika (“Atlas of Travels in Northern Africa”) published in 1826. Rüppell’s own experiences were published in his own two-volume set, Travels in Abyssinia, published in 1838 (the same year that Edward Robinson, the American explorer and biblical geographer, arrived in Cairo).

“Vegetation below the snow line at Mt. Selki in the Semien Province.” This drawing was made by F. C. Vogel after a sketch by Rüppell himself. See the work by Ib Friis, “Travelling Among Fellow Christians (1768-1833): James Bruce, Henry Salt and Eduard Rüppell in Abyssinia,” pages 161-194 in Scientia Danica, Series H, Humanistica (2013).****

“Vegetation below the snow line at Mt. Selki in the Semien Province.” This drawing was made by F. C. Vogel after a sketch by Rüppell himself. See the work by Ib Friis, “Travelling Among Fellow Christians (1768-1833): James Bruce, Henry Salt and Eduard Rüppell in Abyssinia,” pages 161-194 in Scientia Danica, Series H, Humanistica (2013).****

Back in Frankfurt, Rüppell co-founded and directed the Senckenburg Natural History Society.

In honor of his work, the Royal Geographical Society of London awarded Rüppell its prestigious Gold Medal in 1839. Even more impressively, some 79 different plant and animal species were named after him. Among them was the high flying Rüppell's griffon vulture (Gyps rueppellii).


*See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_birds_by_flight_heights (accessed 10 Aug 2019).

**Laybourne, Roxie C. The Wilson Bulletin, Wilson Ornithological Society 86/4 (Dec 1974): 461–462. Find it online at https://sora.unm.edu/sites/default/files/journals/wilson/v086n04/p0461-p0462.pdf (accessed 10 Aug 2019).

***Check the status of Rüppell's griffon vulture and other endangered species on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List at https://www.iucnredlist.org///www.iucnredlist.org/species/22695207/118595083 (accessed 11 Aug 2019).

****This article is available at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/260070049_Travelling_Among_Fellow_Christians_1768-1833_James_Bruce_Henry_Salt_and_Eduard_Ruppell_in_Abyssinia (accessed 10 Aug 2019).


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I love Africa but my regular summer work is in Israel-Palestine.

If you are a pastor, church leader, or educator who is interested in leading a trip to the lands of the Bible, let me hear from you. I partner with faith-based groups to craft and deliver academic experiences. Leaders receive the same perks that other agencies offer, at competitive prices, and without the self-serving interests that often derail pilgrim priorities.

See here for a list of future trips.

Ants in your pants

Ants in your pants

Look out for the Siafu! This species of carnivorous ant swarms in massive numbers, eats animal protein, and has dedicated soldiers with serious pincer-style mandibles. An unfortunate encounter with the siafu in an East African rainforest made us all a little jumpy.

Rookie mistakes

Rookie mistakes

Two lessons here. The first is this: don’t brush your teeth. The second is akin to the first: don’t ever think you are faster than a black mamba. Follow these two rules in order to get the most from your foreign travel experience.

A good park for beginners

A good park for beginners

The sign at the entrance read “Home of Tree Climbing Lions.”

I thought it best to keep one eye skyward at all times. Having 400 pounds of tooth and claw fall on your head would be terrible surprise. It also would make an end to a lovely safari that Vicki and I and Mr Nixon had planned in the East African country of Tanzania.

Required reading for explorers (part 4)

Out of Africa seemed out of place.

The book jacket is lovely, no?

The book jacket is lovely, no?

I was surprised to find it listed among National Geographic’s top 100 adventure stories of all time.* I thought it was more of a swoony period romance that limped along like a broken cricket. It was certainly not the stuff of extreme adventure.

Of course, my knowledge of Karen Blixen’s (aka Isak Dinesen’s) Out of Africa was derived solely from Sydney Pollack’s 1985 film adaptation of the book. Even after all these years (and I only saw the film once) I could still hear the oddly accented voice of Meryl Streep repeating the phrase: “I had a faahm in Ahfrica.”

So I hesitated to pick up the volume.

But the determination to tackle NatGeo’s list overpowered what may have been the memory of an immature adolescent, so I threw myself into the recliner, tome in hand. Immediately several things became obvious. Let me highlight just two.

The film adaptation of the book cast Robert Redford as big-game hunter Denys Finch Hatton and Meryl Streep as the author Karen Blixen. Image from    here    (accessed 3/14/2019).

The film adaptation of the book cast Robert Redford as big-game hunter Denys Finch Hatton and Meryl Streep as the author Karen Blixen. Image from here (accessed 3/14/2019).

First, Blixen is a captivating storyteller.

Her first-person narrative whisked me away to British East Africa. I found myself confronted by the odd pairing of an unruffled existence and the primitive struggles of life on a 4,000-acre coffee farm. There in the Ngong Hills of Kenya’s yesteryear . . . I slowed down. I raised and released an orphaned fawn. I was introduced to the complexities of Kikuyu and Maasai cultures. I suffered a plague of locusts. Trembling, I squeezed the trigger on my rifle and shot a charging lion.

These stories are rolled out not as one narrative but as many, knitted together loosely in five “books.” All but the fourth is themed: they are vignettes elicited from a “dry and burnt” landscape “the colour of pottery.” Out of Africa is out of time, or at the least, not bound by it. Blixen gathered her experiences between the years 1914-1931 and published them as memoir in 1937. Nearly a century has passed and they are no less vibrant.

Second, Blixen is a bold survivor.

She tells her story without explanation or apology.

One must look elsewhere to find the details of her personal life—quite painful—highlighted in the Pollack film. In the book, she simply appears as colonial-era owner-manager of a 4,000 acre coffee farm. Only hints suggest how she acquired the farm, how painful her marriage was, how she physically suffered from her husband’s infidelity (neurosyphilis, heavy metal poisoning), and later, how her own affair with big-game hunter Denys Finch Hatton developed and was tragically cut short. That is not the stuff of this book.

Karen Blixen and Denys Finch-Hatton. Image from    here.

Karen Blixen and Denys Finch-Hatton. Image from here.

What the reader does find is a person of privilege who struggles with repeated loss. She does so with the kind of ebullient courage that qualifies this book as a story of extreme adventure. She attempts to hold the farm together for her own sake and for the sake of the community of squatters and workers who occupy it. Blixen’s colonial mindset is evident in her choice of language, no doubt, but it is a mindset tempered by respect and affection for the cultures and people who labor around her.

One may be tempted to compare Blixen with Hemingway, but that would be a mistake. While the two moved in similar circles, shared a love for the same region, and clearly read each other (Hemingway praised Blixen’s work following his reception of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954**), they expressed themselves differently. Both dallied with tragedy. Hemingway did it using crisp and sardonic prose. Blixen is efficient as well, but is also fluid and warm and playful.

Blixen and her workers. From her farm, c 1920. Image from    here    (accessed 3/15/2019).

Blixen and her workers. From her farm, c 1920. Image from here (accessed 3/15/2019).

Pardon the long quote, but you must sample this:

“Out on the Safaris, I had seen a herd of Buffalo, one hundred and twenty-nine of them, come out of the morning mist under a copper sky, one by one, as if the dark and massive, iron-like animals with the mighty horizontally swung horns were not approaching, but were being created before my eyes and sent out as they were finished. I had seen a herd of Elephant travelling through dense Native forest, where the sunlight is strewn down between the thick creepers in small spots and patches, pacing along as if they had an appointment at the end of the world. It was, in giant size, the border of a very old, infinitely precious Persian carpet, in the dyes of green, yellow and black-brown. I had time after time watched the progression across the plain of the Giraffe, in their queer, inimitable, vegetative gracefulness, as if it were not a herd of animals but a family of rare, long-stemmed, speckled gigantic flowers slowly advancing. I had followed two Rhinos on their morning promenade, when they were sniffing and snorting in the air of the dawn,—which is so cold that it hurts in the nose,—and looked like two very big angular stones rollicking in the long valley and enjoying life together. I had seen the royal lion, before sunrise, below a waning moon, crossing the grey plain on his way home from the kill, drawing a dark wake in the silvery grass, his face still red up to the ears, or during the midday-siesta, when he reposed contentedly in the midst of his family on the short grass and in the delicate, spring-like shade of the broad Acacia trees of his park of Africa.”***

In the end, I am glad that I picked up this volume. I will proudly place it on my bookshelf of extreme adventure.

And drink some tea.

Karen Blixen pictured on the flap of the book jacket.

Karen Blixen pictured on the flap of the book jacket.


*For the list of 100 extreme classics, see National Geographic Adventure Magazine (May, 2004). http://www.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/0404/adventure_books.html (accessed March 11, 2019).

**Clara Juncker. “After You, Baroness!”: Ernest Hemingway and Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen). The Hemingway Review 35/2 (2016): 87-109. https://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed March 11, 2019).

***From chapter 4.


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I love Africa but my regular summer work is in Israel-Palestine.

If you are a pastor, church leader, or educator who is interested in leading a trip to the lands of the Bible, let me hear from you. I partner with faith-based groups to craft and deliver academic experiences. Leaders receive the same perks that other agencies offer, at competitive prices, and without the self-serving interests that often derail pilgrim priorities.

See here for a list of future trips.

James goes West (part 3)

James goes West (part 3)

I warned you early on. Caution is needed when exploring the legacy of James the Great. From the bunk where I am perched* it is the stuff of national epic. And when it comes to epics, the roar of the anthem can drown the melody of truth.

Stork swarm

Stork swarm

Swarms of giant storks were suddenly everywhere. They were beyond counting. In the hundreds? For sure. Thousands? Maybe. Some circled slowly overhead, great wings outstretched. Many more rested, nested, and clattered their bills from poo-spangled trees. 

Serengeti chicken

Serengeti chicken

Safari operators often speak of the "Big Five." This is a linger-longer from the blood-sport days. The phrase does not identify Africa's largest species, but rather the five most difficult/dangerous animals to hunt on foot.

Noah's ark (sortof)

Noah's ark (sortof)

In the story of Noah's Ark, a portion of the living world finds sanctuary in a pinch. I thought about that as our rig bounced down the steep track into Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania.

Tarangire

Tarangire

Zebras and wildebeests drank the muddy water, flicked their tails, rolled in the dust, and fussed with each other. It may have just been in my head, but somewhere I could hear the soundtrack of "The Lion King" playing.

Taking a safari

Taking a safari

We pitched our duffels and then ourselves into Saidi's knobby-wheeled truck. Saidi found the gear and we lurched forward. Our aim was to encounter the wildness of East Africa, God-willing, in a bloodless way.

Fingerprints on a frosty pane

Fingerprints on a frosty pane

Great sheets of ice flanked our walk on Kibo's rim. Aside from the fact that we were tripping along a corridor that was 19,000 feet in the sky, it could have been someone's gravel driveway. Or one of Jupiter's moons.

Kili's flattop

Kili's flattop

We beat the sun to Stella Point, but not by much.

I found a comfortable rock and sank into it like a sofa. A local appeared out of nowhere and extended a plastic cup my way. I couldn't remember his face. Was he from our group?

Then I let myself believe it

Then I let myself believe it

I caught her in my headlamp. She might have pretty in another place but she was beyond defeat here, maybe even beyond consciousness. She was draped between the wings of two laboring guides. Her head was lolling. Her toes were dragging. That little Piper had stalled.

The big push

The big push

Three other members of the team had walked out of camp an hour earlier. We assumed they were already pressing the envelope on the ridge above us. It was now our turn.

The most interesting man in the world

The most interesting man in the world

Ernest Hemingway dangled a riddle of death at the front end of his short story, "The Snows of Kilimanjaro." But what kind of epigraph is this? A freeze-dried window decoration? A chewy historical tidbit? The most interesting man in the world may have solved the riddle.