To say I am a little stressed right now is an understatement. They say moving is one of the most stressful life events there is, up there with death and divorce in terms of sheer ability to induce cortisol production. Combined with a bunch of other incredibly time consuming commitments I have no business doing without the advantage of a time machine that can give me an additional 10 hours each day, I’ve devolved into a mess who had a handful of Trader Joe Jo Jos and a glass of wine for dinner last night simply because it was all I could find at 10 pm when it finally occurred to me I should eat something.
Point is, I apologize for not writing as frequently as I normally do. It will get better, but not in the next couple of weeks. Unless you want to see posts entitled “Today I sat with my face buried in Brody’s neck and rocked back and forth for three hours” I don’t have a lot to say, because the only thing worse that packing is reading a post about packing.
So instead, I’m going to take a deep breath and rewind to one year ago today, when I posted one of my favorite posts of all times. Oh, to be a carefree vetpanzee once again. Enjoy.
On a quiet afternoon on the shore of Lake Tanganyika, the vetpanzee colony takes a siesta, safely hidden from hungry leopards in their thatch caves.
All, that is, but one. A female, alone, restlessly paging through a vetpanzee favorite, In the Shadow of Man by Jane Goodall.
Note the concentration she devotes to her task. Vetpanzees are single minded in their pursuit of knowledge, at least sometimes. If they are not distracted by chocolate or puppies.
Unfortunately the click of the shutter annoys the vetpanzee, and with a hoot and a grunt she takes off down the beach. Vetpanzees are solitary creatures and do not like to be disturbed in their repose.
The photographer gives her a moment, then gives chase down a vetpanzee trail. Where did the she run off to?
The watering hole? Empty, at least until the evening congregation hour.
Gone for a swim? Unlikely. Vetpanzees are terrified of crocodiles.
Napping in an old nest? No, vetpanzees prefer new nests every night.
Ah. There, in the distance. A vetpanzee feeding ground. Perhaps she is there.
The other vetpanzees have awoken and are actively searching out food. Our photographer must be careful as he skirts the edges of the feeding ground not to disturb them as it appears the alpha male has made an appearance.
Our photographer spots fresh size 8 flip flop prints leading up into the cave. Upstairs, an alcove has been carved away and filled with the young vetpanzee’s favorite treat: words.
There is also pen and paper. This is promising. Has he found the fleeing vetpanzee?
He has. She is exhibiting classic happy vetpanzee behavior as she cradles another book.
Cornered, the vetpanzee stiffens. What are you reading, vetpanzee? Just let us look.
With a dangerous baring of teeth, the vetpanzee complies:
“Best Practices Guidelines for the Prevention and Mitigation of Conflict Between Humans and Great Apes.” (Vetpanzees are often nerdy.)
One tenet of such conflict prevention, by the way, is do not stalk and photograph the vetpanzee when she is trying to relax.
Your guide knows more than you. Yes, he does.
I think you all know that the volcano series ends with me at the bottom, alive. I just wanted to get that out of the way, though, in case you were worried. For a bit, I was worried too.
When we last checked in on this story, I was gasping for air at 14,960 feet, marveling at the majesty before me and a little delirious with excitement that I had actually made it to the summit of Meru. Margareta, having expended the last of her reserves getting to the top, took a few pictures then quickly started her descent. Few by few, the remaining summiteers, all of whom had reached the top before us, took their leave. Teri and I lingered, along with a group of freshly minted medical school graduates from the UK. Hey, if you’re going to collapse at altitude in Africa, best to do it with a vet and 4 doctors, right?
The adrenaline soon dissipated, we decided in fairly short order that it was time to descend. My brain, having spent the previous six hours focused on sound and the two feet in front of me, was rapidly overwhelmed with the visual input of OMG WHAT THE HECK DID I JUST CLIMB. No one told me we had made it to Mars. (more…)
On the second day of our Mt. Meru ascent, we were set to continue our climb through the rainforest from Miriakamba Hut (8250 feet) to Saddle Hut (11712 feet). Other than the fact that I was probably not drinking enough water and had the teensiest, tiniest headache, I was feeling awfully good.
We started with a group photo with our amazing support staff from Maasai Wanderings. All of that group there was to support just the three of us getting up the mountain in one piece, guides, porters, cooks. You are allowed to climb this particular mountain without climb staff support, but I wouldn’t want to do it. The guy with the rifle and the beret was Shake the awesome ranger, and right next to him, the tall, spindly figure of Julius the super tall head guide.
The route from Miriakamba to Saddle Hut involved an increase in our angle of ascent, as in, lots and lots and lotsandlots of steps cut into the side of the mountain.
Before the steps were put in there, you just had to slip and slide up and down the mud and hope that if you fell, it wasn’t into a pile of fire ants.
It was nuts to me that even up here, you could run into cape buffalo. Our ranger Shake had his rifle at the ready all the way up to Saddle Hut, the upper limit of buffalo range. We didn’t see any buffalo but we did see lots of bushbuck, and a few colobus monkeys frolicking in the trees.
Did I mention there were a lot of steps?
Steep but gorgeous, with massive strangler figs straddling the edge of the trail as we snaked our way up the lower slopes.
Our guide Julius was in a good mood, as always. Note: You can see how far he had to swing his legs to get his feet off the ground here. I couldn’t catch that branch if I jumped. That man is TALL.
Right around lunchtime, we popped out of the lush rainforest into the semi-alpine heath zone. We were about an hour from the saddle at this point, at a place called Mgongo Wa Tembo (Elephant’s Back), an arch of exposed hump of mountain spine linking the lower slopes to the main mountain saddle. Even here, we were starting to feel the altitude above the cloud cover.
And as we passed over the elephant’s back, we could start to see the saddle itself, in a protected depression between the main volcanic crater of Meru and the smaller, creatively named “Little Meru.” There in that little saddle was Saddle Hut, our next stop.
This is where things really started to feel Lord of the Rings, with us scrabbling over the rocks between strange low brush, eyeing the towering peaks above us.
Those two massive green things you see are the backpacks of the couple from Vancouver who were travelling the world. They carried all their own stuff up Meru and were majorly hardcore, and I really didn’t envy them that climb with those packs.
We were very happy to pull into Saddle Hut around 1.
We were even more jazzed when we realized the clouds had parted enough for us to get a glimpse of Kilimanjaro 50 miles east, our first view of the trip.
After lunch, we were given the option of staying at Saddle Hut or taking an additional hour and a half hike up another 1000 feet to the summit of Little Meru. Half of use decided to take the trip in the hope of ekeing out the additional bit of acclimatization, and the other half decided to rest in advance of our midnight wake up call for the summit push.
I decided to go up Little Meru.
From halfway up we had a great view of Saddle Hut with a glimpse of Big Meru in the background.
At the summit of Little Meru, we had a gorgeous 360 view of what it’s like to be above the clouds.
I felt like Gandalf looking for an eagle to come and pluck me off the peak.
Charged and a little nervous about the summit push that night, I was ambivalent about eating at dinner. I guess when you are at altitude that’s not an uncommon thing, but when you have an eleven hour hike ahead of you, it’s not the time to count calories. I wasn’t thinking straight anyway. Julian, after over a decade leading people up Kilimanjaro and Meru, made it a point to eye our plates and pile on more food if he felt we were being too dainty.
He piled some potatoes on my plate.
“I’m full,” I said.
“You should eat more,” he said.
“I’m fine,” I assured him.
“Ai,” he said, pouring more food in turn onto everyone’s plate. “I have tension.”
Teri cackled. “Are we stressing you out, Julius?”
So we ate a little more, then tried with varying degrees of success to fall asleep early. At midnight, our guides would come and wake us up, and we’d have an hour to drink tea, choke down a cookie, shrug into our mountain gear, and tackle the summit I’ve been planning for and dreaming of for months.
This post is part of a series documenting a trip undertaken by a team of volunteers with World Vets who traveled to Arusha, Tanzania in June 2012 to provide veterinary care for the under (or should be say un-) served donkey population. For the full series of posts covering World Vets, please click here.
I think genuine smiles are much more interesting than canned ones. You can tell. You can always tell. And as much as posed photos work in certain circumstances, I tried to avoid overly directing picture opportunities because I wanted the snapshots you all saw to reflect something real. Over the course of the week, as I learned my teammates and what makes them tick, it became easier to spot scenarios when I’d be able to catch someone smiling or laughing or just looking happy, a universal emotion across culture and language that speaks volumes. These are my favorite pictures to take.
Teri: Just add people
Dr W working her magic: She learned his fascinating life story in about 5 minutes.
It’s impossible to catch Teri not smiling, really. Usually she was either laughing or in the process of making someone else laugh, usually with a story involving putrid milky products in Mongolia, purple bordellos of ill repute in Africa, or asking a wizened old porter how to say “crazy white lady” in Swahili (mzungu kichaa, by the way) while pointing to herself, all while doing a jig.
Janet: Just add animals
Janet is sort of how I view the archetypal veterinarian: calm, understated, sharp, and efficient. Even in a team of animal lovers who as a whole are quick to swoop in on something cute and furry, she was always the first one on her knee to greet a nervous dog or calm a skittish donkey.
Toccoa: Just add camera
Toccoa is such a poser. I had to try and sneak around her because every single time she saw the lens, she posed. And posed again. And I can’t complain, because it was hysterical every time, but my protests that I wanted genuine emotional reactions were quickly rebuffed as she went back to making silly faces with giggling kids. But you know, that is Toccoa being Toccoa, so it works.
Alana: Just add kids
No matter where we went, Alana was surrounded by kids like a Pied Piper of peanuts. They can sense a mum when they see one. If kids are anything like dogs, if they can tell you’ve been around other kids while you were away, Alana’s in trouble because she was cuddled by no less than 4,356 children over the course of the four days. Or was it 4,357.
Kyle: Just add Vetericyn
"If you spray Vetericyn on a pile of lead chunks..."
You don't even want to know what he just said.
I normally consider myself somewhat of an arbiter of funny things, but this team put me to shame. Kyle had an inspired running bit over the course of the trip about the myriad things Vetericyn could do, from solving morning breath to turning water into wine, and EVERY SINGLE TIME I turned the video camera off he popped off another one. And I’d be laughing too hard to get the camera back on in time.
Rachel: Just add Kyle
These two are so stinkin’ cute together, two fast moving peas in a pod, running hither and fro all around the world. And that’s all it took for Rachel: one glimpse at her hubby and she would break into a grin, every time.
Rudy: Just add….well, I’ll get back to this.
This guy was a tough nut to crack. I think it’s a British thing. I know he can laugh, I saw it more than one time, but every time I tried to catch him doing it- boom, he’d bust out this stoic stern mug. He called it his “concentrating face”, but I called it a sourpuss.
I was beginning to think it was never going to happen, that catching Rudy smiling would be like seeing the big 5 on your first safari- an elusive and difficult task. (But hey, I managed to pull that off too, so never give up hope.) But then, then we had this conversation on the last day. You have to imagine him saying this in the right tone too, kind of like Snape when he catches Harry hiding under the Cloak of Invisibility.
Rudy: Why have you been sitting in the pickup for the last 45 minutes?
And he was right, I hadn’t left the truck for close to an hour by that point. I spent the second half of the last day in the pickup bed or climbing up on top of the cab. From my eyrie on the roof, I had a perfect eagle’s eye view of the vast market spreading before us.
In addition, I could shoot away somewhat removed from the distrustful eyes of those who didn’t care for my big camera lens.
Which you can see if you zoom in, didn’t always work. Busted.
But that wasn’t the sole reason I was there. I was also hiding. From this guy.
Earlier in the day, he made a beeline over to us under some pretense of offering friendly advice, and immediately after that asked if could purchase Janet to be his wife. Janet said, politely, hapana, asante. No, thank you. Undeterred, he found his way over to Alana, intuiting that they were close, and tried to barter with her for Janet’s hand.
“I have many cows,” he said, hopefully.
“Hapana,” Alana replied. No. ”She’s married.”
Nice try: Alana refuses to sell Janet to this guy.
He looked around and raised his eyebrow. I don’t see any husband. So Alana dragged Rudy over from his punda station and made him pretend that Janet was his wife and tell the guy to please stop harassing her. Her jilted suitor sighed. “She is very tall,” he said wistfully.
He wandered off, much to everyone’s relief. A local woman came by and snorted in disgust. “He’s always drunk,” she said conspiratorially. “She wouldn’t want him.” She angled her head. “But he is also very wealthy. He has many, many cows.” She peered at me sharply, motioning for me to take off my buff, which had been keeping my hair out of my face all week. Confused, I did. Then she pulled my ponytail out of the elastic, arranging my hair around my shoulders. She nodded, satisfied, and walked off.
I stood there with my elastic band and my buff in hand, confused as to why she would do that. Then I heard a hiss behind me, a sharp intake of air, and turned to find HIM back again, leering at me this time, sticking his fingers out like the witch in the gingerbread house when she was assessing Hansel’s arms for fat content. I guess he got over his heartbreak pretty quickly and decided that, although inferior, the blond would do.
“Come to my hut,” he said.
“Hapana,” I said, hurriedly pulling my hair back into a ponytail.
He pressed his lips together and wandered off to find my keeper. A minute later, I head Toccoa saying, “Hapana.” I found myself grateful I got along with my roommate. He was offering a good number of cows, I was told. At least 20.
“The price is 10,000 cows,” she said, leaning over to whisper into my horrified ear, “Don’t worry, he only has 800.”
“Shillinges?” he asked hopefully, rubbing his thumb against his fingers in the universal sign for cold hard cash.
“She’s married,” Toccoa said. He looked around and shook his head. I don’t see any husband. Well, Kyle’s wife was right there with him and we had already married Rudy off to Janet, so I was stuck.
“In America,” I said. “He’s in America.” My would-be suitor shrugged, a what happens in Arusha stays in Arusha sort of shrug, then went back to haggling with Toccoa. I guess being married only counts if the husband is right there to object. It was at this point that I jumped into the relative safety of the pickup bed, and tried to bury myself in a duffle bag of syringes. Although not enclosed like the pope-mobile or anything, it would be much harder to separate me from the group in that thing, and besides, I knew where the truck key was if I needed to make a speedy exit. Soon enough I discovered it was also a good vantage point for photography, and this is how Rudy found me, an hour later.
So I told him all of this, and apparently the image of me getting dragged off kicking and screaming by some alcoholic 6 foot bowler hat wearing pimped out Maasai to live the Real Housewives of Arusha dream while Toccoa divvied up the shillings was enough to make even Rudy the Stoic crack a smile.
Rudy: Just add schadenfreude. But this time, I was ready. CLICK.
Just like last time in Tarangire. I always get my shot. Even if it’s at my expense.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering about me…. just add Africa. Works every time.
Doctor, Doctor: The dynamic duo on our last day.
As I alluded to in a post last week, I’m planning on travelling back to Tanzania in June for a project with World Vets. As you all know, or I think you mostly know, that was pretty much the most amazing experience of my life. And this is going to be different- it’s a working trip, not an anniversary trip I planned for two decades straight. I get that, and in a lot of ways it’s a relief- the pressure is off. I saw the chimps. I saw the Big Five. This time I get to just relax, do some good work alongside good people, and let Africa sink into my pores.
A friend once said to me, Africa is a place you either love or hate. You either get home and shrug with a confused “what was that?” look on your face, or you start planning your next trip. Well, making it back to a country in less than twelve months is a new record for me, so you tell me where you think I fall on that spectrum. I’ve had Africa on the mind since my feet touched ground back in October. (more…)
I often wonder what wild animals who spend a lot of time around humans must think of us. Those in zoos, for example, or those in big national parks. I thought about this a lot when I was in Africa- specifically in the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, which is filled to the brim with Land Cruisers full of camera toting primates every day.
To most of those people, seeing these animals is just this incredible, awe-inspiring once in a lifetime experience. But to them, well, it’s just another boatload of humanoids. It’s certainly a different experience in some of the wilder parts of the continent, but in the tourist-heavy areas, the animals showed a complete and utter ambivalence to human presence. Ho hum.
It struck me particularly strongly when we stopped for lunch in the Ngorongoro Crater at the watering hole. Humans swarmed the grassy area like a hooting herd of baboons, herded into the safe areas under the watchful eye of bemused rangers who were keeping an eye out for the errant fool who wanted to take a dip in the water.
Because no, you dopey human, those are NOT rocks and we do not under any circumstances recommend you try swimming over to them.
They will bite your leg off.
While most tourists attempt the traditional “Safari Bob” look, complete with neat khakis and hats from REI, some go the other direction and attempt to emulate some of the more colorful African birds. Camouflage of a different sort, I suppose. Good for attracting some of those massive African wasps.
Though only the most hardcore go Out Of Africa enough to bring their very own pipe and tobacco all the way to Africa, down into the crater, and then pull it out and smoke it.
These guys read the planning book, and apparently all went shopping together too. Drab colors, long pants, shiny binoculars. I will state now for the record that not a single Tanzanian resident dresses this way, but this is the Official Tourist Uniform described in all the safari books so this is what we all show up with, for the most part. I’ve come to the conclusion that this is the easiest way to differentiate the tourists from the ex-pats.
A trio of tourists.
A trio of birds.
In nature, like attracts like. This trio of Tourist Sapiens looked to a trio of birds, gravitating towards one another with the inexorable pull of mutual interest. The birds know by now what they are expected to do. Or maybe they just wanted to investigate the people as much as the people wanted to investigate them.
Note the symmetry of posture as they engage in that most homo sapien of activities, staring. The guy on the right has a little hip action flair going on too, just to be fancy. That is Advanced Tourist Posture. Bam.
“All those humans look alike, Hal. I can’t tell them apart even after all these years.” “I know, Bob.”
I tried for an entire week to get my ranger to tell me some of the strange stories you know he has to tell about the tourists he has met over 20 years of guiding, but alas for me, he wouldn’t spill the dirt. You KNOW he has some.
“And then that one in the buff kept pulling out her iphone and saying-”
“Oh! Hello Jessica! Ah ha ha, just talking about rhino preservation and all. Ready to go?”
He was SUCH an amazing guide though that I had to forgive him his utter professionalism. If only the animals could talk.
Do you have a favorite place you dream of? A memory that, when you close your eyes at the end of of a long week, you dig up from the recesses of your white matter and relive in a brief but joyous fantasy of wishing yourself back into the past? I do.
I know I have a bunch of things I was going to write about this week. This is what happens when I don’t write things down. I’m sure there is something I should be writing or that I thought to myself I would write this week, but when I actually sit down to do it I draw a blank and all I can do is think about chocolate, or Africa, or other such things.
I’m sure some of this has to do with the chaos of the holidays now being behind me, and the looming horror of all the work I need to do on the house looming ahead. Plus the fact that our cash strapped school district dealt with their budget issues by adding on an extra week of vacation- surprise!- and the fact that despite several goes with the saddle soap my favorite shoes still smell like a dog pooped on them, which of course he did. All of these things combined kind of make me look wistfully at my old photos and think to myself, surely someone in Tanzania could use the services of a veterinarian for six months or so, right? Just for a wee bit?
And I still haven’t told you my favorite story from Africa, about Graeme the Disenchanted Disillusioned Disgruntled Imprisoned Scottish Balloon Pilot, but that is a whole-day sort of post so I guess I will add that to my New Year’s Resolutions.
In the meantime, just enjoy some pictures my husband finally got around to editing this week. They are from Tarangire National Park, our last stop on safari. (more…)
Many, many years ago, in college, a group of classmates went on a group trip to Africa to see wildlife and go on safari. As a biology major, this was pretty much the penultimate experience of a lifetime. As they all took off excitedly for the airport, I sat in my dorm room and sulked because I was a typical college student, and as such, had no extra funds for gallivanting across the globe.
I grew up idolizing Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey, dreaming those typical romanticized dreams of the Out of Africa experience, and have been nursing a desire to go on a safari pretty much non-stop ever since. Other people’s bucket lists may have things like going to Lake Como or standing on top of the Eiffel Tower, but for me, this is and has always been top on my list of Things I Want To Do Before It’s All Over.
After thirty-somethingcoughcough- years of wishing, hinting, and gazing enthralled at the Nat Geo Channel, I finally get to go. It’s not a working trip (though with my luck I will probably end up treating something for something, and that’s fine by me). It is a vacation, and one I’ve been saving for and planning out in excruciating detail for about a year. I’ve been planning it my entire life, of course, but from an executable standpoint, one year. We are going to Tanzania, because that’s where the chimps live.
I’m going to Lake Tanganyika, to the Mahale Mountains just south of Gombe where Jane Goodall lived for so many years. You get to track chimps there. Despite my best attempts to convince my husband to also go fly camping in the middle of the Katavi Wilderness with an armed guard to watch for lions, he kind of didn’t really care for that portion of my suggested itinerary so we are finishing the trip with a more traditional safari in Tarangire Park where you view the large carnivores from the safety of a moving vehicle. (The Serengeti is also in Tanzania and would have been my first choice, but the timing is wrong for the big migration.)
I tell you all of this because, well, I’ll be blogging about it of course though I have a suspicion the wifi situation might be iffy out in the middle of Africa, and two, because we are leaving on September 23. Two days before the rescheduled Surf Dog a Thon. So I will tell you what I told Mike Arms when he asked me what could possibly be more important than surf dog, and the answer is, “NUMBER ONE ON MY BUCKET LIST AIEEEE I AM SO EXCITED I CAN’T EVEN TYPE PROPERLY!!!!” Which, by the way, he totally understood.
My front yard is currently in a tremendous state of disrepair, due to a nasty trio of invasive ficus trees, an endangered water main and a threatening note from the homeowners association about the one brick that was out of place. It looked a bit like an archaeologic dig once the landscaper went after it with a mini excavator. Hey, that almost reminds me of something…..
da da da da, da da dum…. (more…)
It takes all kinds of creatures to maintain homeostasis in a stable ecosystem. On the savannah, the laboceros and the goldenbeast have achieved an uneasy tolerance.
Despite limited resources, the denizens of the plains have managed to carve out their own niche, and peace is maintained.
It’s springtime on the savannah, and our Goldenbeast is growing up.
With his first birthday rapidly approaching, the Goldenbeast is reveling in his newfound authority, standing on the precipice of adulthood just as springtime waits to ascend into summer.
He has, for example, taken ownership of prime savannah real estate.
No single person has a more challenging job at the reserve than the game warden.
His role is to maintain healthy populations that remain diverse. Every so often, this includes the introduction of a new species into daily life on the savannah.