Plants & Animals

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.

Canyon Critters

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The sun was directly overhead when we arrived at the trailhead. The asphalt was gummy.

“Bring everything you need to survive for an hour and half,” I chirped. “Maybe two hours. Hat, sunglasses, sunscreen and an extra bottle of water.”

Our crew didn’t need my reminders. On the previous day we had hiked from Nazareth to Sepphoris, an accomplishment in any season. It is a notable one at the end of June with the temperatures scraping three digits.

We entered the canyon below Nabi Shu’ayb.

We entered the canyon below Nabi Shu’ayb.

Even in this season of scarcity I hoped to spot some wildlife on the trail. Today we aimed to follow a stream that trickled through the canyon (Arab. wadi) from the plain near Nabi Shuʿayb (the traditional burial place of Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses) to the moment where the canyon released its travelers on the edge of the Sea of Galilee.

The canyon is called Wadi Hamam or “Valley of the Doves.” It forms one leg of the ancient highway connecting the Sea of Galilee to the Mediterranean Sea. Jesus likely walked this path in Eastern Lower Galilee.

I don’t know what wildlife encounters an ancient traveler would have had, but five kinds of critters surprised us.

The trail runs through the tangle of brush at the edge of the stream.

The trail runs through the tangle of brush at the edge of the stream.

Our first critter appeared out of nowhere. I stepped through the thicket and almost ran into a cow. It was standing in the water, blocking our path. She raised her head. Menacing horns protruded from her brow.

City-boy Mike confessed: “I said ‘Holy _____! Look at those horns. It’s a bull. We’re all gonna die.’ Later I asked for forgiveness.”

“Yah! Git!” I coaxed. The cow moseyed on, yielding the road.

A few minutes later Thunder Bobby hollered, “What’s that?” Our second critter of the day, a pudgy hyrax, looked down from his overhead perch. Like everyone else under this sun, he was slow to move. He watched us carefully with beady black eyes. Finally he barked a warning to his hyraxian homies (see our previous post on these “Wise wee folk” of the Wadi Hamam here) and crawled out of sight.

Back in 2014 I spotted this hyrax in about the same place. He may have been a grandpa to our friend today.

Back in 2014 I spotted this hyrax in about the same place. He may have been a grandpa to our friend today.

Our third critter encounter came as a result of Lightning Seth’s keen eye. High above us, he spotted the movement of a Palestinian mountain gazelle. We all watched in amazement as the gazelle (unlike the cow and hyrax) sprinted and leaped with vigor across the steep slope. By the time I finally got my camera unholstered it was already gone.

This particular species is iconic to the region. For more on its endangered status, see here.

Lightning Seth was quick. He caught the gazelle on his phone. Watch the video below.

Later, we spotted two more on the opposite side of the canyon.

Our fourth critter encounter was also on the slope above us.

I turned back to see if the group had successfully crossed the stream. Movement caught my eye. It was a wild boar. A pumba. A big pig.

And he was not running downslope into the Sea of Galilee (!) but upslope and away from it. I caught the still image. City-boy Mike caught the video that follows.

The celebration of bacon was a part of our conversation for the rest of the day.

The only thing I managed to capture was his twitching tail disappearing into the brush.

The only thing I managed to capture was his twitching tail disappearing into the brush.

Caves appeared in the ancient limestone above our head as we approached the opening of the canyon. Here was our fifth critter sighting.

At first I thought it was school children. City-boy Mike saw the bit of color as well and hollered, “Hello!” “Hello!”

A couple of goats appeared at the mouth of one of the caves.

I’ll bet there was a shepherd dozing inside.

The goats came out to have a look.

The goats came out to have a look.

During our walk in Eastern Lower Galilee, I had hoped for some animal encounters. Cows from the nearby village were a given. Maybe goats. The other critters were a pleasant surprise.

Far from being a“valley of the shadow of death,” the Wadi Hamam with its stream and thicket turned out to be a veritable “valley of life.”


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Our current group of Bible Land Explorers are from Roanoke, Virginia. They are not content to “do” the usual tourist tour, but have specifically requested special engagements like hiking portions of the Jesus Trail.

If you are interested in experiencing the land of the Bible in a fresh way, consider joining one of our future trips. Our 2020 and 2021 tour schedule may be found here.

Required reading for explorers (part 3)

One week from now, God willing, I’ll be winging it back across the Big Pond. I’ll have a day to get my business in order before meeting a group of ministry residents at the Tel Aviv airport. We’ll take them on the loop-de-loop in the Heartland, cruising up the Mediterranean coast, across Galilee, down the Jordan Valley, and concluding in the highlands around Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Hopefully I can wear them down before they wear me out.

The only reason I bother you with such details is because it was on this exact trip one year ago that I had my little “animal encounter.” Should you have a strong constitution and care to read about it, you can find the story in a series titled “Rabies is not the way to go” beginning here.

The good news is that while I do gnash my teeth and foam at the mouth from time to time, it seems to be more related to my work as college administrator than something prompted by a stray Lyssavirus (the “fury” virus from the Greek λύσσα).

Nonetheless, to prepare for the journey, I thought it might be useful to study a book that my kids got me for Christmas. Aren’t they stinkin’ hilarious? Here’s the cover.

The book has been hanging around my table since Christmas. I’m reading it now with a chuckle.

The book has been hanging around my table since Christmas. I’m reading it now with a chuckle.

Rachel Levin’s first book, Look Big and Other Tips for Surviving Animal Encounters of All Kinds (New York: Ten Speed Press, 2018), offers an interesting take on our North American friends from the wild side. The author chooses 50 animal species and devotes a page or two to each of them. Some of her choices are expected: bears, jellyfish, rats, and ticks. Others are surprising: cockroaches, bison, whales, and woodpeckers.

In the case of each Levin offers tidbits on where these critters can be found, what size or shape they come in (black bears are “as big as a sofa” and rabbits are “the size of a pineapple, but softer”), sounds they make (the elephant seal “snorts and grunts, like a long and epic burp”), why they are dangerous (owls can “stab your head,” geese squeeze “out two to three pounds of poop every day,” donkeys “will bite your butt with their big-ass donkey teeth”) and what one could possibly do to avoid or survive an encounter.

All illustrations in the book come from the hand of Jeff Östberg. Even in the case of rats (p. 103), his art is mellow and creamy and delightful.

All illustrations in the book come from the hand of Jeff Östberg. Even in the case of rats (p. 103), his art is mellow and creamy and delightful.

It is this last category that sells the book. Levin wryly pitches it as a guide, but the volume is more entertainment and less reference. In the case of a black widow spider bite, don’t try to suck out the wound. Call the poison center. Attacked by a swarm of bees? Run! Tackled by a grizzly? Fight for your life. Confronted by a wild hog? Do what you must but don’t get knocked down.

For reasons already described, I took great interest in the section devoted to dogs. I found it surprising that “man’s best friend” kills more people than sharks, alligators, snakes, and bears put together (p. 55).

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Levin’s advice to “avoid eye contact or smiling” when encountering a stray seems reasonable. The same is true with her “don’t run” command. It is a “total trigger.” I do take issue with her wisdom that if you are bitten, “curl into a ball, wait for it to be over, and admit you might be more of a cat person” (p. 55). This tip is ludicrous for one clear reason: cats are of the devil.

If you haven’t figured it out already, the book is front-loaded with humor. Some of it hinges on the author’s neuroses about all things wild (Levin is a food critic in her other life); other bits of it are suspended from the stupidity of humanity “like the dad who smeared peanut butter on his toddler’s nose, then waited for bear to lick it off (p. 18).

Between the lines is a moralistic edge. Dangerous animal encounters seem to be more frequent today because the human population is increasing, animal habitats are shrinking, and social media rewards asininity.

The Florida turnpike. Looking big is of little help in these parts. You become a yummier target.

The Florida turnpike. Looking big is of little help in these parts. You become a yummier target.

Even if these trends are true, I suspect that the chances of being killed by one of your human neighbors is astronomically higher than the possibility of being killed by some foraging critter. This is especially true if you have lots of wind chimes, cats, or are the president of your HOA.

By the way, can you guess which wild animal is responsible for 200 deaths annually and is hands-down the most deadly in North America?

Big-eyed Bambi. Those dang deers.

Our greyhound, (Turbo High) Dutch, is fawn-colored, has big eyes, and at times resembles a deer. He may even contemplate danger between naps and meals.

Our greyhound, (Turbo High) Dutch, is fawn-colored, has big eyes, and at times resembles a deer. He may even contemplate danger between naps and meals.


Look Big lists for $14.99 in the U.S. You can find your copy on Amazon.com right here. You need to have it on your bookshelf for smile-value reasons.


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I’ll keep you posted on how our upcoming trip pans out. While I offer stories on this website irregularly, I try to post a picture-of-the-day almost daily. See the tab marked POTD at the top of our home page here.

For a complete list of upcoming travel opportunities in the Lands of the Bible in 2019, see our schedule here. Some seats are still available. Contact me at markziese@gmail.com if interested.

The grape farmer's story

The grape farmer's story

The grape farmer asked if we were pilgrims bound for Nájera. We affirmed the obvious.

"Do you know the story of the Camino?" His English was stained but it was clear enough.

Bob and I had notions, but we welcomed his company. We also welcomed the conversation that his question set in motion.

“No. Tell us.”

Rabies is not the way to go (part 6)

Rabies is not the way to go (part 6)

The treatment for rabies is not what it used to be. 

Not so long ago it consisted of twenty or more painful shots into the abdomen delivered by a needle the size of a fencepost. This treatment is now obsolete, as I have (thankfully) discovered.

Rabies is not the way to go (part 3)

Rabies is not the way to go (part 3)

I rinsed with water from a hose. The clear imprint of teeth on my thigh would have made a dentist proud. But the wounds were also deep so they took a while to stop bleeding. Red streaks mixed with the water and dribbled down my leg and forearms.

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.