Wednesday, 9 January 2013

The Snows Of Kilimanjaro

The evening safari started with a gift like no other – the snows of Kilimanjaro! As we went out of the lodge gate, there it was – the summit of Africa - "a great snow mountain at a latitude of unspeakable heat”, as Ptolemy, the ancient Greek geographer had described it – a mountain formed, shaped, eroded and scarred by the twin forces of fire and ice. The base of the mountain stretches more than 50 miles over Tanzania, just about touching Kenya. It is also the tallest free-standing mountain in the world, rising in breathtaking isolation at a distance of 270 km from the shores of the Indian Ocean (where elevation is just 900 metres) to its triple crowns, with its highest point being at 5,895 metres or 19,341 feet. Strange as it seems, the icy summit of the stratovolcano that had served as a landmark to Zanzibar traders and slave caravans was dismissed by the Royal Geographical Society in London as a ridiculous rumour until 1849! We got down for the not to be missed photo shoot opportunity with the overseer of the continent overlooking us - Adi kept frowning at the glaring sun that had disrupted his siesta, while we rejoiced at the clear skies.
I am trying to sleep here
Kibo on the right and Mawenzi on the left

Towering in front of us was Kibo - very square, very much creased - whose white cap over the shiny black solidified lava (called obsidian) concealed its three concentric craters. The volcano is not yet extinct - most recent activity was recorded just 200 years ago. Mountaineers climbing it can still smell the strong sulphur fumes from its innermost crater, where the earth is hot to touch, preventing ice from forming. Scientists concluded in 2003 that molten magma is just 400 m (1,310 ft) below the summit crater. On Kibo’s left was the smaller, now extinct volcano - Mawenzi, the one with the “broken top” with much less snow to boast; whereas the caldera of Shira, the third peak was nowhere to be seen. Kilimanjaro is in reality one of the biggest volcanoes on Earth, covering an area of approximately 388,500 hectares. And a young one in geological terms, as it started forming only about three-quarters of a million years ago, when lava spilled over from the Rift Valley zone. Very soon we had our classic photographs – grazing animals in the backdrop of Kilimanjaro – one of the visuals associated most widely with Amboseli.
A great snow mountain at a latitude of unspeakable heat
The summit of Africa

Looking at Kili (the mountain has a short name too); I wondered how the glaciers can exist in the intensely strong equatorial sun. In fact it is the brilliant heat-reflecting white colour of the ice that allows it to survive. Alas contemporaneous with widespread glacier retreat in mid-to-low latitudes across the globe, the current ice cover on Kili is a somewhat diminished version of what Ernest Hemingway and his protagonist Harry in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” would have seen - what they described as “unbelievably white in the sun”. The dull black lava rock on which the glacier rests does absorb heat; so while the glacier’s surface is unaffected by the sun’s rays, the heat generated by the sun-baked rocks underneath leads to glacial melting. The glaciers lose their ‘grip’ on the mountain, leading to ice fractures, in turn exposing more of the rock to the heat, which leads to further melting of the ice. That leads to the question as to how do the glaciers which first formed 11,700 years ago manage to survive till now. The answer lies in the fact that the melting process has not been continuous. There were prolonged ‘cold snaps’, or ice ages, that have occurred down the centuries, allowing the glaciers to regroup and reappear on the mountain. At the other extreme, before 9700BC there have been periods when Kilimanjaro was completely free of ice, perhaps for up to twenty thousand years. At the current rate, it is expected to become completely ice-free again in another ten to twenty years – guess it is time for the mountain to be black again, but who knows the white may return some day.

The mountain and its glaciers are the giver and supporter of life for many – especially the local Bantu speaking Chagga people, the third largest ethnic group in Tanzania and one of East Africa’s wealthiest and most highly educated people. Watered by year round snow and ice melt, the volcanic soils of Kilimanjaro’s lower slopes are extremely fertile and are exploited by the Chagga using a sophisticated system of intensive irrigation methods and continuous fertilisation with animal manure, practised for thousands of years, which permits year round cultivation (of Arabica coffee, maize and bananas among others) and supports one of Tanzania’s highest human population densities.
The snows of Kilimanjaro

We headed towards Noomotio table top observation hill overlooking Enkongu Narok swamp, the agenda for the evening safari. It was not long before the parched earth turned to wetlands; and the plovers, Egyptian geese and pelicans kept showing us the way. We stopped at the base of the hill to find a wire-tailed swallow, again a bird partial to water, waiting to greet us – its unmistakable two tail wires projecting out. 
Spur-wing plover or spur-wing lapwing
Two wires of wire-tailed swallow projecting out

On our way up the hill, we were slowed down by glossy superb starlings darting across; completely unafraid of humans, generating a constant background trill and chatter, “chirr” and “skrrrri”. Yes they would be here – near this insect-breeding bug-sustaining swamp. The colourful birds have been a common sighting, right from our first safari; hence it never crossed my mind that these omnipresent East Africa residents would have so many secrets up their wings that continue to baffle ornithologists. Their social structure is in fact one of the most complicated in the avian realm. They live in large communal groups and cooperate with one another to raise offspring, but not without some conflict, competition, and varying amounts of cheating, from rare to rampant. Superb starlings are “plural cooperative breeders,” with several breeding pairs sharing a large pool of helpers that don’t breed themselves. The patrilineal family groups, often with related males, which include parents, stepparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews, can swell to upwards of thirty individuals, more than almost any other group-living avian species. Surprisingly the cooperative spirit of the birds is not found in forest dwellers, but only in the species that call savannah their home – where they have to constantly battle the unpredictability of rainfall. When the rains fail to come or when they are scant, it may be impossible for many of the non-cooperatively breeding starlings to successfully raise their young. But for the cooperative species, with helpers to share the burden of feeding their offspring, life is easier during the bad times. It is thus no coincidence that cooperative breeding is common in numerous other groups of birds that live in savannahs, as well as in a variety of savannah-dwelling mammals such as lions, hyaenas, wild dogs, and elephants, and perhaps even early human ancestors - it is very much a case of circumstantial compulsions calling out for collaboration!
Superb starling at Amboseli observation hill
Superb starling at Naivasha

The hill is actually a small extinct volcanic vent breaking the flatness of the land, a signboard stated it was formed during Pleistocene period through volcanic activity of Kilimanjaro. Once at the top, we were swept away by a delirious and extremely vocal breeze. My hands went up instinctively as if to feel all of it – the body imagined an ascent while the spirit was uplifted for sure. The vista was magnificent - at the foot of the hill was the sparkling blue swamp with the south end rising steadily toward Kibo and Mawenzi. The swamp and its lush green flanks invited flocks of pelicans, egrets, Egyptian geese and even a hippo; though the brownness of the land and its sprouting acacias could not be suppressed all together. Adi has never enjoyed the blown-away feeling; and he was the happiest when we were inside the roof-covered shelter, where the wind could somewhat be tamed. A photograph taken of all three of us with the automatic timer clearly shows, apart from his water bottle right in front of Kili that we forgot to remove, the distressed look on Adi’s face with hair standing out. For us however every moment spent on the observation hill was one of fulfilment - enjoying the panorama of the land in its various moods – scorched soils, seasoned savannahs, submerged swamplands and soaring spikes.
View atop observation hill

Yikes - forgot the bottle!
Egrets, geese and pelicans flocking near the swamp
Hippo near the swamp

On our journey back to the lodge, I spotted some action in black and white and asked Andrew to stop. It turned out to be two fish eagles enjoying a meal on the ground - two majestic birds with brown bodies; black wings; snow-white heads and chests; and yellow hook-shaped beaks ending in black tips. We had seen fish eagles before, but this was the first time we were seeing a pair and that too on the ground. They sensed our presence, looked at us and ignoring, went back to the unfinished business lying at their feet. As monogamous mates, they evenly share the kills and steals (the bird is also a skilled kleptomaniac) made by either between the two of them. The African fish eagle is a large bird, and the female, at 3.2-3.6 kg (7-8 lbs) is larger than the male, at 2-2.5 kg (4.4-5.5 lbs). Males usually have a wingspan of about 2 m (6 feet), while females have wingspans of 2.4 m (8 feet). Well the females over-weigh males amongst birds of prey - it is the female who is very much in the pilot seat here, dominating her smaller mate. On the banks of Lake Naivasha, African fish eagles can always be spotted perched on a high tree branch, where they have an excellent view of the water around - an activity that takes up 85 to 95% of their daytime. Like we had seen one diving for (and successfully catching) the dead fish thrown by our boatman while boating in Naivasha; fish eagles start a soft downwards glide once they spot a prey, kick out their claws, stoop at fish, and catch it with their feet, usually within 15 cm of the water surface. The feet have rough soles and are equipped with powerful claws to grasp slippery aquatic prey. Should the bird catch a fish over 1.8 kg (4 pounds) it will be too heavy to allow the eagle to get lift; so it will instead drag the fish across the surface of the water until it reaches the shore. If it catches a fish that is too heavy to even allow the eagle to sustain flight, it will drop into the water and paddle to the nearest shore with its wings! Though I have heard it only on You Tube, it is very difficult to forget the bird’s evocative cry - weee-ah, hyo-hyo or a heee-ah, heeah-heeah. The male is, as a matter of fact, noisier than the female - well the bird seems to be bucking the trend for all commonly held perceptions.
A pair of fish eagles enjoying a meal
Fish eagle at Naivasha
Immature fish eagle at Nakuru

The last animal sighted on the safari was a spotted hyaena lurking in the fading light – it was the time of the day when it had to find a meal for itself. We were about to wind up and restock ourselves, when we saw a gathering of humans on foot, a very rare occurrence in wildlife areas. The men informed us there had been a car accident. It was caused by an over-speeding driver, a practically unheard of thing inside parks; and to top it all the driver did not have a valid driving licence. After the accident, which did injure some passengers who had already been taken for treatment, the driver escaped into the jungle – certainly not a very wise move with wildlife officials chasing him and the jungle abounding with prowling creatures, not least the likes of hyaenas. All through the narration, Andrew kept shaking his head in disbelief and uttering clicks - it was a while before he could move on. Back at the lodge gate, the last scene that we captured for the day was that of a Maasai in front of his "Ngaje Ngai", the House of God. There was to be no more of Kilimanjaro the next day - the cloaks were tightly wrapped, not even a peep was allowed.
Maasai in front of Ngaje Ngai

Come morning and Andrew advised us against going to the bed of Amboseli Lake, as was planned initially - he said it would be very dry and dusty. Aamir was only too keen to jump at the prospect of going back straight to Nairobi – it seemed his 2012 business had already started piling up in the one day (incidentally a Sunday) that had elapsed in the year. I had no choice but to agree to the plan, though my head was full of the fabled false mirages that I had read about the lake. Amboseli Lake is a dried-up Pleistocene lake formed when lava flows from an erupting Kilimanjaro blocked off the course of Pangani River. The dry, arid plains covered by dust form heat wave mirages in the dry season. Endless herds of animals seem to waver in the distance, interrupted only by the real herds of zebra and wildebeest hovering in front. For the moment though, I had to be content with leaving this piece of puzzle of the enigmatic land to be deciphered at a future date.


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