Dispatches for October 2004:
Click on a date (below) to read expedition reports.
October 1, 2004: Antananarivo
|1. October 1, 2004
2. October 2, 2004
3. October 3, 2004
4. October 4, 2004
5. October 5, 2004
|6. October 6, 2004
7. October 10-12, 2004
8. October 16, 2004
9. October 19, 2004
|10. October 20, 2004|
11. October 24, 2004
12. October 25, 2004
13. October 31, 2004
As we were pulling out of Nosy Be, we could hear little from the controller's radio other than crackle and pop. The controller's English was minimal, but we gathered enough to make out that although we had already filed our flight plan we were now required to fly directly to our destination instead of taking the more leisurely scenic route along the coast. In addition, we heard from a French pilot, "Pour votre information, il est interdit de prendre les photos de l'avion (For your information, it is forbidden to take pictures by plane).
So, they were telling us to route direct to Tana (Antananarivo) and not to take photos. Obviously, here in Madagascar, we were now suspect. At this point, we were quite paranoid about the video camera mounted on our wing strut that says "Danger Radar" on it. Peter called up the closest airstrips on the GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) and a place called Ananalava popped up. We decided to make a quick, stealth stop in Ananalava to detach our camera lest we get arrested and put in jail in the capital.
It took us about four hours to get to the capital, Antananarivo. For the entire way, the landscape was human-dominated. When we reached the central plateau, I looked at my moving map for the name of the ecoregion here and it said: "Madagascar sub-humid forest." Looking down at the vegetation, I saw nothing but grass cover and a little bit of gallery forest along the numerous rivers that flowed down precipitous cascades. But this wasn't like what you hear about in Malaysia—mass deforestation by a wave of humanity doing slashing and burning. Below me was a landscape that had been impacted by humans for at least a couple of hundred years, if not much longer. It showed signs of severe erosion. I wondered when in history humans had destroyed this forest and what had become of them. Today, the landscape contains only the occasional settlement and well-worn cattle trails. The folks who changed this vegetation from forest to eroded clear-cut are long gone. Now, this place can support only a small human population.
The interesting thing to me was that humans are still using this land, rivers still flow, and vegetation still tries to regain its place. Man is ingenious and rice paddies, I realized, may be a system that develops after the wasteful practices of human colonization have passed. Once the forest is cut and the soil has slipped away, humans fashion that soil to retain water and engage in a highly intensive and productive agriculture that allows them to survive in a place that normally would no longer support much human life. I thought about most of the places where rural rice culture is the mainstay. Usually, human densities are high, and the ability of the land to produce extensively for its population is long since gone. This central plateau was dotted with rice paddies at all elevations. Anywhere water could be manipulated to fill a terrace, there was rice.
Tananarivo (Antananarivo) looked like what I imagine medieval England would have looked like from the air if we could have seen it. Masses of humanity covering hillsides in substantial brick houses that are multi-storied. There is an enormous floodplain here that is covered in rice. I could imagine these people making their way to this plain a thousand years ago and beginning to grow rice as a means of survival. I need to know more about the history of this island. There were strange circles of land that had enormous motes around them. This vision of medieval Europe started to feel real. I could see the draw bridges and wooden forts that protected the little villages from their warring neighbors. I started to think that ecological disaster here may have caused this defensive stance and maybe the demise of those cultures that had destroyed this land.
When we landed I could see Helen, the representative of WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society), lined up with officials with white military caps, some cops, and other guys in suits with ominous brief cases. Oh, well, I thought, "The Assistant Secretary of State for Africa had jokingly said before we left that he would spring us from jail four times. Maybe, we'll use our first 'get-out-of-jail card' here."
October 2, 2004: To Have Your Cake and Eat It, Too
It was a miracle! Yesterday morning, we were ready to abort the mission for lack of permissions. Today, we are leaving with authorizations to do aerial photography over all of Madagascar from the Ministry of Environment, the Ministry of Defense, the National Parks Authority, the Civil Aviation Authority, and Air Traffic Control—all with a prepaid TOTALCARD for gasoline and a smile to boot.
Taking off out of Tana, as the capital Antananarivo is called, we got an aerial view of Madagascar. What struck me as we traveled south for hours over land that is completely human-dominated and which probably contains millions of rice paddies is that this earth, even now, is far from reaching its human carrying capacity. Look at India with its billion strong population; it's only five times bigger than Madagascar. It is scary to imagine, but the more I travel, the more I think the world population could reach 15 billion. I doubt that such a population would be sustainable in the long run, given earth's resources, but I'm afraid that as long as economies grow, population numbers will also continue to grow.
I thought back to Mozambique, which is similar in appearance to Madagascar, with vast, well-watered plains. I checked out the population densities of the two countries. In 1998, the latest year for which I had figures, the ratio was similar—about 21 persons per square kilometer. Yet, flying over Mozambique I had the impression of empty quarters. Madagascar seems carpeted with people, rice paddies, and environmental degradation. Here it is difficult to go a minute without seeing extensive land use. There is something wrong. If Madagascar concentrated its rice production and managed the rest of the land so that natural ecosystems could reestablish themselves, I venture to say that they could feed themselves and have a country that looked like a tropical paradise, with all the economic benefits and long-term human benefits that that entails. It's called having your cake and eating it, too.
If, however, mismanagement of natural resources is allowed to dominate, then bringing back natural ecosystems is very difficult, as we have seen in the United States. For instance, in the Plains states, where at the turn of the 20th century we slaughtered about 90 percent of the buffalo, we have found it hard to reestablish the grassy ecosystems that used to prevail there.
The weather kept us on edge. The ceiling was probably only about 1,000 feet (300 meters) above the mountains in most places. In other places, the clouds hid mountain tops. We were aiming for Midongy du Sud (Midongy-South) National Park, which lies on the southern end of the central mountain range. Once we reached the park, we couldn't enter because it was shrouded in a dense cover of clouds. We were able to skirt the western flank all the way down, where we witnessed remnants of the original tall closed canopy tropical forest that covered this land until recently. From the satellite pictures I've seen, Madagascar continues to loose forest cover. This park had a few incursions of slash and burn, but only a few—a testament to the idea that management can work?
After going through a maze of cloud we were able to make our way to Fort-Dauphin, AKA Tôlanaro. We are finally on our third-last foray to the southern Indian Ocean..
October 3, 2004: Zebu Graves and Charlie Bravo
Taking off from Fort Dauphin was problematic. Clouds shrouded the mountain top, rain was intermittent and a thick mist hung in the air. To the west, the climate dries out, so we decided to head out to sea and hope for the best.
After flying about five minutes to the west, we found that the air, almost miraculously, cleared. The landscape below us changed from what should have been tall, closed canopy forest to dry scrub forest. The land was poor and humans were few
Our first destination today was Tanjona Vohimena (Cap Sainte Marie), the very southern tip of the subcontinent. As we flew west, the land got progressively drier, turning into what is called Madagascar spiny thicket, with vegetation twisted into the kinds of shapes that you might expect in Madagascar—where almost everything here exists no where else in the world. Madagascar is considered a hot spot for conservation because its unique flora and fauna are found nowhere else and there are tremendous population and resource pressures on the land.
People lived on this parched landscape. In this dry climate, their lives must be very difficult. I noticed that they were primarily cattle owners, as people often are when agriculture doesn't work. The houses that these folks lived in were tiny shacks, about six by eight feet (two by two meters), made of vegetation gleaned from the surroundings. It took me a while to decipher the human patterns. About a tenth of the landscape was cut out in cookie-cutter shapes. The borders were planted in prickly pear, an import from America and a terrible weed. Sometimes there would be a small crop of mais. Then it appeared that these plots were completely planted in prickly pear. The prickly pear was being cultivated as cattle fodder! Once a stand grew to a certain level the people cut it, burned it, and set the zebu on it. I don't know how nutritious it is, but apparently it is more nutritious than the native vegetation. Again, humans have discovered a way to extract a living from a stressed landscape, but in a way that further degrades the land. And then what?
I noticed what looked to be very large foundations of buildings from another civilization. These things were huge, sometimes 50 by 50 feet (15 by 15 meters), tens of times bigger than the houses and built of the calcareous stone that formed a hardpan everywhere here just under the surface. Then it dawned on me—these structures were graves, enormous graves.
I zoomed in on one picture of these white monuments and counted the racks of 57 zebu cows. I had heard stories about how the dead were honored, and now I was seeing the evidence for myself. A taxi driver in Antanarivo had told us that if a man has even a thousand cattle, when he dies those cows are rounded up and slaughtered for an enormous party. All the dead man's friends and relatives partake in the feast. The taxi driver said he was against this, that it was just an excuse to consume someone's wealth. The grave I was looking at had ornate walls that stood 8 feet high (three meters) and 50 feet (15 meters) long. This was the burial site of a man of wealth.
It was sad to imagine the future here. Judging from the way people are using up the land, in the next couple of decades there will be little here other than patches of cactus and emaciated herds of cows. This placed took millions of years to evolve and in a geologic microsecond, because of the impact of humans, evolution is halted in its tracks.
We reached Tanjona Vohimena (Cap Sainte Marie) and flew right out over the ocean. It is scary when that wind from the tip of the continent hits you and you suddenly realize that there is nothing between you and Antarctica except water. We skedaddled out of there and headed for Toliara, back on the west coast.
En route, we encountered our first Charlie Bravo of the trip, a thunderstorm. This one was probably up to at least 30,000 feet (9,000 meters) and black as night. We steered clear to the east and slipped into Toliara. This wouldn't be the last we'd see of Charlie Bravo on our trip.
October 4, 2004: Burning Baobob Trees
I was in a dark, black mood. We had spent the night at a fancy hotel called Le Paradisier on the beach, where the first thing the desk clerks had told us was "non," we couldn't take one room for two but had to take two rooms, at 67 Euros each. And, of course, this didn't include the bland French institutional cuisine for dinner nor the "breakfast"—for an addition 6 Euros each—of cold toast and burnt coffee, nor the airport "pick-up" in a smelling Peugeot for 14 Euros a piece. I felt like killing the French matron who gave a sigh of indignation without so much as a "bonjour" when I protested we were being ripped off. Total bill for two: $275. Decision: last time old Mikey, after 25 years of it, will allow himself to be treated like a sub-human by a French person. Advice: if you go to Madagascar, and you should, make sure your hotel, restaurant, cab, whatever, is owned and operated by Malgache (Malsgasy). You will be much happier.
The previous night we had stayed at a little local hotel, with very pleasant Malgache ladies looking after us, serving up tasty shrimp with ginger, coconut, chili pepper, fresh greens, and plenty of cold beer and fun conversation. That bill: $13 for two. I called Tana (Antananarivo) on my sat phone from the smelly Peugeot and cancelled all the hotel reservations that were made for us. We would fend for ourselves.
We were headed to Isalo National Park, almost right back to the eastern highlands, right up the Onilahy River, the largest river in the southwest. The river didn't have nearly the human population I would have expected, but the floodplain did have lots of towns and rice paddies wherever the flooding wasn't too great.
One settlement didn't look like most of the others. It was a shantytown, with hundreds and hundreds of houses packed on to one hillside near the river. We circled back and, sure enough, just behind the town we could see lots of little holes on the ground. The people down below were looking for gemstones. Strange, how the places where people are trying to make a living from precious things like diamonds, gold, and emeralds are usually some of the poorest places on Earth. I always flash to that couple in love strolling along Madison Avenue who buy a ring with one of these stones in it. That jewelry should be sold with a photograph of the way people live who mine the gems.
We cut off the river and headed north to Isalo National Park. The landscape started to climb and pretty quickly we felt like we were back in the Drakensberg Range in South Africa. Isalo is an enormous eroded sedimentary plateau with deep canyons and grassy hills. I tried to imagine walking around down there. It would be impossible, with hundreds of little side canyons and steep cliffs everywhere leading off the plateau.
We decided to head back to the coast, to Morondava, to save us meeting weather going into Tana. As it was, we were going to be in the air for over four hours the next day. We left the plateau and were now flying over what is called Madagascar succulent woodland. Mostly, it was yet another human-dominated barren landscape of scrub and rice paddies scattered here and there along the major watercourses.
It wasn't until we were about 40 nautical miles (74 kilometers) south that we realized what this vegetation was about. It was about baobob trees. There are something like eight species of baobobs on Earth and Madagascar has six of them that are found nowhere else on the planet. I was impressed to see a group of fifteen or so baobabs together on a grassy savanna. As we went on a bit more the real picture, a scary picture, started to emerge.
As we neared the boundary of Kirindy-Mitea National Park, we suddenly realized that for the past hour we had been flying over an exquisite forest with an entire upper canopy cover of baobobs. To the east of the boundary of the park, as far as the eye could see, there was recent slash and burn. The ground was covered with carcasses of gigantic baobobs. Others, still standing, were scorched and dying. As we went further north, the slash and burn was inside the park. This is happening on a large scale. Perhaps tens of thousands of hectares a year of ancient cathedral trees two meters in diameter along with an entire, rare ecosystem are going up in flames, for the sake of a little rice and corn, grown once or twice. There has to be a way to save a much larger chunk of this forest. It's unimaginable that these extraordinary forests could disappear in such a stupid way.
In Morondava we found a little Malgache hotel, tidy, roomy, right on the beach with a meal of these delicious morsels from the ocean they were calling "cicadas of the sea" and plenty of cold beer. Total bill for two: $23.
October 5, 2004: Karst Canyons and Other Massive Erosive Patterns
Hard to believe that after just three nights out we were on our way back to Tana (Antananarivo). We had pretty much covered the length of Madagascar, and Mozambique seemed a decade ago. It has been less than a week! And in another week, we'd be flying over the largest wildlife park in Africa, the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania.
We hit more baobab forest north of Morondava. There are plenty of spots here that transition down to beautiful salt pans and mangroves along the coast that would be good for protected areas. Same pattern exists here, though—slash and burn and cattle and human domination of the landscape. I would say that the time is now to protect the remaining areas. Time is running out. These ecosystems will soon disappear. The sooner parks are created, the better the chance that nature will survive the next decade.
First aerial destination today is the Tsingy de Bemaraha Nature Reserve. "Tsingy," from what I gather, means rocky outcrop. There are tsingys all over Madagascar, and many of them are in national parks. What we didn't expect to see was a landscape of razor-sharp karst pinnacles in parallel patterns that looked like row after row of teeth from a gargantuan dinosaur. What was really cool was when you flew straight over the karst, you could look right down about 200 feet (90 meters) to the sandy bottoms of these ten-foot-wide (three meter) alleyways that went in parallel patterns over a huge area. There was dense forest vegetation and creeks in every little canyon. You could certainly get lost forever in that maze.
We continued north to the wildest point in the Madagascar dry deciduous forests ecoregion. We had seen a bit of this on our way in from Nosy Be on the first day. Of all the ecoregions in this country, this is the one that humans have most abused. The rivers here are almost apricot with silt, and the hills are not just eroded, most of them are gullied so deeply that you can see just about down to the basement rock, through layers of orange, red, and white. There is almost no cultivation, only a bit of rice and cattle. It looks like Mars. Farther to the east we traversed the Kasijy Special Reserve. There was a forest down there, one little patch of about 20,000 hectares (50,000 acres) in a few million that still have forest cover.
We were glad to hit Tana again. We realized that these circular fortresses are all over the area surrounding this city. I could only think again of the humans who worked this hard to provide themselves with protection. Protection from what? The moat is at least ten meters (30 feet) wide and 20 meters (70 feet) or so deep and completely encircles the village. The people who live on this landscape are the ones who build large, multistory brick houses and have the most sophisticated rice culture that I have seen in this country. I can only think that they were once rulers of this vast place we call Madagascar.
Gave another talk in Tana (Antananarivo) and met up with Russ Mittermeier for the evening. We were supposed to be flying around the country together, but the schedules didn't quite come together. Russ is a moving target, that is for sure. It was fun to partake of his enthusiasm for a few hours. Then I stayed up until around 2 a.m. transferring about 50 gigabytes of photos. I think I have a terabyte of images by now.
October 6, 2004: Madagascar Lowland Forests—Going Fast
Into the wild blue again today. It felt good to be heading out of Tana. We were only there for only about 12 hours but that's all we need of city life. Peter was skeptical about the weather. The "meteo" guys had told him that VFR (Visual Flight Rules) was not possible up to Nosy Mangabe, our island destination in the northeast. Peter told them that we would make a stab at crossing the mountains through the soup and if we struck out we would be back.
As soon as we cleared the first set of hills and could see deep to the east our opinion shifted somewhat, like 180 degrees. But if you're a pilot of small aircraft you kind of probe and see if you can make it pancaked between white cloud and black mountains. If you can't, you just need to make sure that your escape hatch has not closed behind you. We let Tana know we were diverting to the north a bit. They always seem a bit confused when you want to change a routing, but we were cleared north. We got to the point where the pancake got down to about the thickness of sliced ham but we could see clear skies ahead, so we slipped through.
Less than an hour out of Tana we flew over a forest that was not in any protected area yet it looked pristine. It was maybe 10 or 15 kilometers (6 or 9 miles) wide and seemed to be at least twice as long, and there was no human activity. Now we were talking. But my eye caught a tiny patch of red in the distance. In central Africa that would mean a logging road up ahead. In two minutes, we could see roads clearly, and five minutes later I felt like I was back in Gabon with its exploited forests.
Cut into beautiful hillsides covered with closed canopy tropical forest were these fresh red-soil roads running right up all the ridge crests. The bulldozer tracks were still fresh, and we flew over a camp. It was just a temporary camp down in one of the little valleys made of blue tarps. I just couldn't believe that in a country where there is so much effort to save the last of the forest there would be this kind of exploitation. How is it that this forest is not being looked at as the last of the last and being protected completely and forever now?
As we flew north, I imagined I could hear the loggers defending their actions, saying, "It isn't us destroying the forest. It is the farmers who slash and burn for rice who are taking out the trees." That argument was manifest as we continued our flight. We passed whole mountains of forest that had recently been cut for rice. Farther to the north, the landscape was one of slash and burn, with maybe 20 percent of the original cover remaining
We crossed through two parks on the way, and there was evidence of slash and burn inside the parks. These parks are seriously under siege. I kept thinking that a plane like ours is the perfect tool for monitoring the state of the landscape. What's happening on the ground is obvious from the air. Those charged with conservation of the land should fly in the air. They would then know how the forests in their care needed help. There is no doubt in my mind that the decisions being made in the next year or two could save hundreds of thousands of hectares of this forest from slash and burn. These parks need to monitored on an almost on a daily basis to make sure that they stay intact. This can be done from the air.
We reached the coast and flew over Nosy Mangabe, an island where WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) researchers do whale research in season. I thought, man, what a hardship post. This is a little green island in the middle of the turquoise sea that is filled with dolphins and whales. We landed and met James, the WCS guy, and told him about what we had seen farther to the south. He is in charge of a project that manages the biggest intact forest left in Madagascar—Masoala National Park. He said since they started aerial monitoring a few years ago, slash and burn incursions into the parks have decreased to just about zero. He was hopeful that more of these forests would find real protection soon. I say it can't be fast enough.
For the next 48 hours, we are checking out Paradise Island.
October 16, 2004: Moyer's Place
On our way out of Dar we neared what they call Stiegler's Gorge. This is where the next hydro-electric scheme will undoubtedly go in Tanzania if push comes to shove. Electricity is a political hot potato and it's becoming more of a problem. Dave Moyer said a hydro scheme here would flood something like 400 square kilometers (150 square miles) of this great valley. This place is vast, but a dam would take away its wildness forever.
Dave has his own little place in the world here in Iringa. He's a missionary kid, born and raised in this part of Africa. Dave's mother was born in the Congo and his parents actually put George Schaller up in their house along the border of Rwanda when he first came to study gorillas in the1950s. Dave found and married another missionary kid, as they often do, and they set up their home here in Tanzania, had three kids, and decided to preach conservation instead of God. His girls learned Danish from school, English from him and his wife, and Swahili from the local kids. Dave's kids have no TV and drink water instead of soda pop. They curtsy when they meet you and are some of the nicest kids you'll ever meet.
Joyce, Dave's wife, makes her own jerky, runs a business, and grows and roasts her own Arabica coffee, the best I've ever tasted. Her only extravagance seems to be the blue jeans and visiting with friends in town. The Moyers also have a piece of land that they protect from wood cutters, charcoal burners, cattle grazers, agriculturalists, and hunters. They have seen lots of species germinate and gestate on this bit of land since they moved in, and now the forest and wildlife is fast coming back. Like missionaries they try to practice what they preach, and their voice is certainly heard on a local level.
October 10-12, 2004: Mayotte Petite Île Étrange
After about two hours at 4,500 feet (1,400 meters) above the Indian Ocean, Peter, who was in the plane ahead of us, called "Dzaoudzi, this is Golf November Yankee Zulu Sierra." A guy with a perfect Parisian accent came on and said, "Golf November Yankee Zulu Sierra, go ahead." We were landing in a little piece of Europe way out in this lost corner of the Indian Ocean between Madagascar, the Comores, and Mozambique. We lined up on runway 34. It was enormous, built for Boeing 747s. We experienced some trouble with the man in the tower since he was giving us bad parking instructions and in true French fashion treating both Peter and us as complete idiots.
Hannelore, Peter's wife, was taking pictures, and I joked to Mario that the gendarmes were going to come running out any second. Literally about a second later there were two guys dressed in classic tropical French gendarmes uniforms—blue Lacoste shirts with gendarme written on them and even sky-blue French military Patogasse high-top sneakers to match. I've never seen those before. They first chastised Hannelore and then after she sweet-talked them, true to form, they escorted her back to the spot to take a few more photos. She told them I spoke French, and they came over and struck up a conversation with me. They were here for just three months, straight out of Paris. These guys were extremely clean-cut and very disciplined, but kids really. They wanted to talk about our adventures but had to keep the tone official
We arrived at the police desk. A woman in a dark blue uniform with a very large police patch on her button-down shirt looked at my passport and asked for my visa. Before I had time to speak, Hannelore said pilot. The woman asked for my pilot's license. I went back to the plane to fetch it and when I came back I asked if Americans now needed a visa to enter Europe. I thought maybe things had changed since we Americans started fingerprinting and photographing everybody entering the U.S. She said no she was mistaken, that actually I could stay one month without a visa. She said you know we have DOM (Overseas Departments) and TOM and this is TOM and the rules are different here. TOM stands for Territoire Outre Mer, overseas territories. So, I guess they aren't really part of France, more like Puerto Rico in relation to the United States.
I decided that I would play Joe Backpacker here to get the local flavor. I began walking. Funny thing, the first guy I spoke to seemed not to speak French. I walked up the road and found a store. I asked the guy in there, also a local, if he had cheese and other fresh stuff. He again didn't speak much French. I was in a neighborhood of black Muslims with a hint of the Malgashe fine features. The women had colorful veils and flowing silky gowns and the men wore rigid skull caps. Many of the women also had their faces painted yellow, as in Mozambique, Madagascar, and Mayotte. There were mosques and Arabic writing on the shop signs. So it seemed that while France was in control of administration, at least at the airport, this island was not entirely French.
I finally got to the supermarket that the gendarmes had told me to go to. It was called Shopi, and there was no difference between this shop and any one that you would walk into in Paris. There were cheeses and charcuterie, fresh baguettes, a large selection of French wines, and any other food you could ever think of buying including Kellogg's Corn Flakes. Of course, the checkout was in Euros. I could have paid with my credit card, if I had wanted to.
Back outside, I looked for a place to sleep. I followed the signs that sent me to the plage (beach). Finally, after climbing the summit of the island and back down again I found my plage. I saw a gendarme truck coming back up from there so thought maybe there had been trouble.
It was how I feared it would be. The parking lot was full of trash, plastic bags, water bottles, Coke cans, and Castle Beer cans. A shoddy staircase built of pine, probably imported from France, led down to the beach. A sign announced that this was a protected area. The beach was beautiful, with an enormous piece of calcareous mountain at the point. At least, it would have been beautiful if not for a group of about 15 local teenagers, all native Mayotte, with an electric generator and a boom box playing some kind of obnoxious Euro pop. They were dancing and making noise and there was a group of French walking up the beach who were looking rather indignant but not protesting. I thought, man, this is a strange island.
I found a very nice spot. Nobody bothered me except an exceptionally huge city rat. This was trash city down here, and I suspected that I would be getting rodent visitors. They wasted no time eating the quiche that I had purchased at the local boulangerie for two Euros.
The next day I was up early. The sea looked inviting, but I didn't want to hang out all day here. I decided to go to the big island, after all. It was Sunday morning, and I thought soon the maddening crowd would catch up to me. As I walked away, the beach disco from the night before was still going strong. It looked like they had been at it all night, and their grill was still blazing away. That chicken sure smelled good. The trash was a bit overwhelming.
I skedaddled out of there as fast as I could. I went up to the top of the island for a view and discovered there a seedy little park with picnic benches and an old coral and cement building. I read the explanation that was posted. Turns out, the building was used by the English in World War II as a lookout for the whole island. The historical marker explained how the Vichy government was in control of the Mayotte until the Brits showed up and liberated it. It is amazing the places that the British and Americans went to during this war, right down to little islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It's a bit confusing to me today how we use up so much of our military in a place like Iraq when you think back to the magnitude of Second World War and the technology for travel and communications that was available in those days.
I met a guy coming up a trail leading down the other side. I tried to communicate in French, and he said, "Prenez seulement cet chemin." Just take that trail. I was starting to wonder if these people didn't speak French or if they just didn't like French people. I could only wonder how the French had failed to bring their language to these people here when anywhere in west or central Africa, in countries that are now independent, the level of French is very high. This place has many flights a week to Paris. The entire government is French. How is it possible?
After stopping at the airport to pick up my computer, I continued on to the big island. A ferry plies back and forth regularly. I don't know if you're supposed to pay. I just walked on, and nobody stopped me. Maybe it's free on Sunday.
It's just a short hop to the other island, and on arrival I decided that the big island was just like the small island, inhabited mostly by natives of Mayotte, run down, and full of trash. I needed to get out of here fast. I walked south, thinking I could reach the edge of town quickly and get to a nice beach somewhere. I hit a neighborhood of low-income housing with a big fence around it and mercury vapor lamps. It looked pretty scary.
I literally couldn't see the ground through the trash, tires, refrigerators, thousands of cans, water bottles, and what seemed like millions of plastic bags. I bought half a chicken from a roadside stand. They only wanted to sell me a whole one, but I got the half for 3 Euros. I walked for about another two kilometers (one mile), and there was nothing but nasty little towns along the way, punctuated by trash, trash, and more trash. Coca Cola and Castle Beer are the obvious favorites on this island, with Castle Beer being the winner by a long shot.
I decided a taxi was in order when I didn't see the end of humanity anytime soon. Finally, a taxi appeared and I asked the driver to take me to a nice beach. His French was limited. He said ten Euros, I thought 12 bucks, that should get me a way out of town. He brought me just beyond the next village where there was a nasty beach. We had gone maybe two clicks of his meter. I thought this guy needs a reality check. I pushed him along as far as I could get for my ten Euros, but even ten kilometers (six miles) south it was still Peopleville.
I started walking on the highway. They have lots of little cars here. The Renault Clio seems to be a real favorite. They drive like bats out of hell, and there was a weekend rush back into the city now. Where do all these people work, I wondered. What does Mayotte produce? It surely doesn't seem to be equipped for the tourist trade. Welfare and government must be the two big industries here.
I found a place where I could climbed down a steep path to the sea. Folks were down there, doing their washing, and the beach was, predictably, covered with trash. A huge baobab tree was scarred with graffiti. I ate my chicken and pushed on. I found another access to a beach, but it was mangrove. I continued on until I saw a man and woman at a well in a field. I went over to talk to them. They spoke almost no French. They were growing manioc, which seems to be, along with coconuts and mangos, just about all that is grown on this island. The well was just a hole dug into the dirt. The water was murky and probably brackish. These two could have been living in the smallest, poorest village in the poorest country on the mainland. It is a real stretch to think that this is really part of France.
They pointed me toward the beach, and I skirted around the mangroves to where I could see a rocky point. Suddenly, I heard cackling noise and sensed movement. I looked up and into the eyes of a lemurs, similar to the brown lemurs we had seen on the east side of Madagascar in Nosy Mangabe. I had no idea there were lemurs on this island. They were probably introduced, but they looked fat, dumb, and happy here. I saw four, and one was a male with the white face. They just stared back at me.
Finally, I found what I was looking for—a beautiful rocky point overlooking the end of the island. The water was light greenish blue, and I could see the break on the reef about two miles out. During the night I saw fishermen in small outrigger dugouts with lamps fishing. I saw shore birds on the rocks and no other souls about. The Western world when it's not managed can be a horrible thing.
The next morning, I walked farther down the highway to the very tip of the farthest point I could find. The feeling now was more like what a tropical island should be. I found a beautiful tiny little cove with crystal clear, green-blue water with bits of white coral that made up the sand. The cove was surrounded by black basalt rock. I ate some soup with a chili pepper that I bought in a market. It almost knocked my socks off. At least they have good chili pepper here. I had a cup of tea and then did what I rarely do—I took a nap.
I woke up only 45 minutes later. It felt really cool under the basalt, and no wonder—the tide had come in extremely fast and I was now stuck in my little cove. I looked to the north and looked to the south. There was no way out except through the crash of waves on rock in water about a meter (just over 3 feet) deep. I couldn't believe how fast the tide came in. In less than an hour, this place had gone from a beautiful beach to a dangerous situation. I checked out the cliffs surrounding me. There were a few places where I could get up where there was grass, but beyond that the rock was very crumbly. I didn't much feel like crashing down where nobody had any idea where I was. I climbed to the highest safe point and waited out the tide for about four hours. I made my break in the dark as the tide receded. I would be glad to get off this strange island.
October 19, 2004: Fresh Water
We left the hot, dry empty lake bed at Katavi and about 30 minutes later we saw Lake Tanganyika. I was excited to be back at the second largest reservoir of fresh water on Earth. As we neared the lake's edge, I saw an abrupt slope of gorgeous miombo woodland that went right down to the water's edge. The water was like the isolated reefs of the Indian Ocean with the same turquoise blue grading onto the dark rocky shores. As I looked across the lake, I could feel the Congo Basin and the freedom that comes with the ability to travel.
October 20, 2004: Mahale Chimpanzees — Watch Video
We left the white sands of crystal blue Lake Tanganyika for the steamy mountain forests to see the Mahale chimpanzees. We met our guide and started hiking when we passed another group of folks who were on their way down. They said the chimps were high up and making their way even higher, and that it would take about an hour to reach them. Mohamed, the guide who started working with Japanese researchers from Kyoto in the 1960s was in that group and he passed by us with hardly a glance. But about 10 minutes later he caught up to us. Mohamed had delivered the others and wanted to accompany us. Apparently he was 18 when he started with the Japanese as a trail blazer, so he's about 60 now. Mohamed's hair is graying, but he still has the starry eyes of youth, combined with the dignity of being an elder. We walked for 45 minutes, just about straight up and it seemed like it just got steeper and the chimpanzee vocalizations were getting farther away. The research paths gave way to bush and Mohamed was now guiding our guide up the hill from the rear, giving him calm instructions about the approach. Turns out that our guide is actually Mohamed's son.
By the time we got close everybody was covered in sweat. And then there they were, two or three females up in some waterberry trees. They ignored our presence, but like gorillas you could sense that they knew our every movement. Most of these chimpanzees have been in the presence of humans since birth. All of these chimpanzees would be old friends to Mohamed. He stood in the background watching chimpanzees and watching man. What is this fascination with seeing a chimpanzee in the wild? I think it sends both species back to our origins.
October 24, 2004: Petrified Hippos
In Tanzania you can't walk in a park without a guard with a gun. The authorities worry that visitors would get lost, eaten by lions or crocodiles, or charged and trampled by buffalo or elephants. In most places you would say, "Yeah, overkill," but here you say, "Yeah, you're right." One out of three visitors would probably never come back from a walk in the woods. Knowing this, though, I still felt like a hamster in a cage with no spinning wheel to play on. I needed to break out.
We were in Katavi National Park for a couple of nights because we were doing some of our corridor flying there. Luckily we were at headquarters, and if you walk north you exit the park. So we headed for the Katuma River. My friend Jane and I set off from the headquarters, crossed the public road that traverses the park, and reached a closed canopy miombo woodland full of pinks and reds and yellows and greens from the flush of fresh leaves. We were suddenly under the cool, diffuse shade of stands of a mix of msasa and munondo trees (Brachystegia spiciformis and Julbernardia globiflora) with a smattering of sausage trees (Kigelia africana), African star-chestnut (Sterculia africana), wooden banana (Entandrophragma caudatum), and tamarind (Tamarindus indica). The ground here was black from a late burn and the understory was clear, which made walking easy. We were surrounded by the cackling of helmeted guinea fowl and the deafening screech of cicadas. We had passed from a human world of safari vehicles and armed guards into a place where it was just us and nature.
Ten yards off the road we spied a female bushbuck. They are pretty small here and similar to the ones in central Africa, chestnut brown with white stripes like the fawn of a white-tailed deer. She spooked from the base of a tree and sprinted to a safe distance, but it was obvious that she knew that humans on foot are not a threat. Dense trails were marked with the dung of waterbuck, hippos, giraffes, kudu, impalas, and hyenas. A few steps on we saw a male giraffe, with big dark irregular spots. This species is called Giraffa camelopardalis tippelskirchi. Out of the corner of my eye, I spied movement and caught sight of another of these tall dark gentlemen, then another, and another. Giraffes are that way, living in dispersed herds of between a few and as many as a hundred animals. Katavi National Park is home to large numbers of giraffes. Flying into the park a few days ago, we saw a herd of more than fifty giraffes lower down on the Katuma River. The park also shelters guinea fowl, and red-necked spur fowl. It was so nice to be walking in this miombo forest, to be responsible for our own welfare in this beautiful wild place.
We followed a well-used hippo trail down to the river. To call the Katuma a river at this time is generous. It is more like a meandering band of sand with the occasional moist spot. But if you are a large mammal at the end of the dry season, water is king and here is where you'll want to spend most of your time. We looked over the ledge and there below us, embedded in the bank, were seven motionless, dry, gray forms—hippos that looked like they were sculpted in mud. I couldn't tell, at first, whether they were dead or alive, but quickly these forms sensed our presence. They budged from the mud and began slowly to make their way up into the miombo. They looked exhausted. There was no standing water where they had been, just clay-like soil. Up "stream" was where the main herd was located. About 500 were packed into the last of the last water in this part of the river. They were bunched together like aphids on the stem of a plant. Each hippo only gets enough space to keep the bottom half of his body wet. Kids pop out of the pod and have to struggle to get back in. Every once in a while, one hippo will decide to move, and this causes a domino effect through the whole group. They all moan and try to resettle like puppies in a basket. Sometimes one hippo will seem to be taking too much room. There is a spat and pandemonium breaks out, but it is quickly suppressed because none of these animals has the energy to fight. Their spinal bones are visible. These creatures are as stressed as any mammal can get. Yet only two carcasses are visible, and the babies seem to be hanging on.
We left the pod of petrified hippos and began walking down toward where the Katuma dumps into the Katavi River. We could see Sitalike Village less than a kilometer away. It was strange to think that we had been to a Pentecostal church service in this village in the morning where people were singing and dancing, all dressed up, well fed, happy and getting their water from a borehole in the ground. Now, just down the street, basically, neighboring hippos were becoming hollow carcasses one by one. Was there a connection, I had to wonder, between human demands and animal needs?
After the church service we had gone to the Hippo Pool Lodge, which is where a guy from the park service built a hotel at a once-frequented hippo pool. Folks in the village had said that the Katuma never used to dry like this. Some conservationists think that the lack of water here is due to the cultivation of rice in Mpanda, some 30 kilometers to the north, in what used to be the big swamp at the Katuma headwaters. Intrigued at the possible connection, we flew over Mpanda, where there are several hundred hectares of rice right smack dab in the middle of this drainage. My uninformed guess would be that indeed this is a major problem for the Katuma River.
As it happened, the night before our flight we were served rice at the national park rest house. Samuel the cook said that it came from the Katavi area and that it cost 600 shillings a kilo. It was beautiful long-grained rice, much better than the imported Pakistani rice that we were getting in Madagascar. What will it cost Tanzania to save the hippo in the Katavi? How many people will have to be displaced to solve yet another conflict between humans and nature? These are hard decisions, and Tanzania, more than most countries its size, has provided a lot of space for nature.
Maybe it is possible to give more. I sure hope so. Just about every hippo we've seen in the Ruaha and Rukwa Basins has been parched. If this trend keeps up, we could very well come back to Sitalike in a few years and find the name of the local hotel changed.
TopOctober 25, 2004: Refugees
We left Katavi National Park and made our way north. Dave Moyer was in his plane and radioed us with the coordinates of a refugee camp to the northwest that he said we needed to see. We flew over the camp, but all we saw was a large concentration of people living in a series of villages north of the game reserves. There were no blue tarps, just thatch houses, and no white United Nations vehicles. This is because these people came here as long ago as the 1960s in the aftermath of the big Tutsi-Hutu war that sent hundreds of thousands of Burundi into Tanzania. Since then there have been more waves of people coming in from Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
These so-called refugees in Tanzania are just doing what humans have always done. They have adapted to the modern constructs of movement and have been successful not only in surviving, but in repopulating their tribes and integrating themselves into the fabric of a new land. I am confident that humans will continue to flourish on Earth for some time to come. One thing is sure—humans will continue to seek land that is habitable and colonize those lands and either coexist or conflict with those they find there.
October 30, 2004: Daudi
We headed to Dar es Saalam and spent the night in Arusha, which is the major hub of tourism in Tanzania. In the past 15 years I have seen Arusha go from a dusty kind of farm town to a city of massive proportions with suburbs, traffic jams, and a place where you keep your windows rolled up in your car for fear of someone lifting something from you.
We were to stay with a guy named Daudi. He's no older than I and has a well weathered face and wears sporting shoes made of old motorcycle tires. Turns out he is the offspring of a American missionaries, and Daudi is Swahili for David. His business is tourism and he brings clients to isolated places all over Tanzania, showing them what getting close and deep into an ecosystem is all about. It pains Daudi greatly to think that very shortly the world is going to lose its hunters and gatherers. They have no physical stake on the land unlike an agriculturalist who can show you a mango tree he planted. Hunters and gatherers are universally losing their space to those who have more aggressive tendancies, much greater numbers, and superior physical and technical capacity.
||These dispatches are edited versions of e-mail reports sent from the field. They have not been researched and represent the viewpoints of individual expedition members.