A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about tribes

Ngorongoro - Oldupai - Ndutu

Education, education, education!


View The Gowler African Adventure - Kenya & Tanzania 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

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Seeing the clear skies from our balcony this morning, I really wish I’d got up in the night to take some pictures of the stars. I shall just have to photograph the sunrise instead.

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Our room has an amazing view over the Ngorongoro Crater from its balcony. The hotel is rustic to the extreme, having been built from rough local stone with the rooms all set on the ridge, facing the crater.

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There’s an even more spectacular view from the bar!

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Walking Safari

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This morning we leave Malisa and the car behind and set out to explore the area on foot with a ranger called Yohana, in order to get a deeper understanding of the bush and up close and personal with nature.

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The first wildlife we see is a Cape Robin-Chat, right outside the front door of the lodge.

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We amble at a slow pace, along the Ngorongoro Crater Rim and upwards into the hillside as Yohana teaches us the language of the bush.

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These signs always amuse me – do the wild animals read them and refuse to venture past that point (in the other direction) too?

This is not so much a safari in that we are not really seeking out wild animals; we are here to learn what native peoples have known for millennia – how wild plants are used as medicine and food. I am hoping to find something for the back ache I have been suffering with since we left home.

Sodom’s Apple
Although this fruit belongs to the tomato family, you won’t find it in any salads. Known as Sodom’s Apple as it is said to be the first plant to grow again after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; the small, yellow fruit is used as a medicine for stomach ache, diarrhoea and to treat external wounds.

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Plant with unripe fruit

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The flower of the Sodom Apple

Wild Marijuana
This plant, which is in the same family as the common marijuana plant, is used to produce pesticide, as insects do not like the smell of it. Neither does Lyn by the looks of it.

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Leaves are soaked in water, which is then used to spray the fields to keep insects from eating the crop.

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Enkang oo-nkiri Maasai Ceremony
We encounter a Maasai who is in the bush for the Engkang oo-nkiri, or meat-eating ceremony – one the many stages of initiation into warriorhood for the young men of the tribe. A dozen or so men take a bull into the bush and slaughter it, staying there to eat the meat for two weeks. This is said to help them remain strong.

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Devil’s Snare
The fact that this invasive species is poisonous has not stopped the Mexicans from making drugs from it apparently.

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Stingy Nettle
Like we do in the West, the locals make soup “and wot not” (Yohana’s favourite expression) from this.

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Being full of sugar sap, nectar eating birds love this plant, whose name I don't catch.

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Beautiful Sunbird

Natural Insect Repellent

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Wild Tobacco
Yohana warns us that it is “not very good”.

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Old Man’s Beard
The presence of this lichen on trees is an indication of the air quality – it will only grow where the air is pure and clean!

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Augur Buzzard

Altitude
We have been climbing gently but steadily upwards from the lodge, and here at 2400 metres above sea level I can certainly feel the altitude.

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“I can see your house from here!” - Ngorongoro Serena Lodge

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Elephants
Yohana tells us elephants came by here in the night, eating the tops of the plants.

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Elephant Dung

Here we learn to read the jungle as a ‘daily newspaper’, by identifying trails, inspecting bushes and trees, studying spoor marks and animal tracks to deduce what animals have passed by recently, which way they were going, how long ago, how fast they were going, what they have eaten and so on. In fact there seems to be a story to be told in virtually every track and dropping that we come across. A bit like opening up Facebook first thing in the morning.

There’s a great view over the crater from up here.

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Eucalyptus

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It’s well know for being beneficial for clearing a blocked nose.

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Chris puts it to the test.

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Juvenile Common Fiscal Shrike

This is where we part company with the guys – Lyn and I head for the road where Malisa is waiting with the car; David and Chris continue their walk with a hike to the top of the hill.

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While we wait for the boys to do their daily workout, we chat to a group of school children on the road. One by one, as they pass, they shout out “Shikamo” – the greeting reserved for respected elders. That’ll be me then, I guess. In reply, I shout back: “Marahaba” (the traditional reply), much to their surprise and delight.
The kids explain to Malisa that their bus has broken down, so they have to walk the 40 minutes to their school.

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The guys come back bearing gifts.

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Mushroom – you can't get much fresher than this. And very good it is too.

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Khat – the drug of choice from Somalia to Yemen and beyond (and is also available – although illegal – in our home town of Bristol). It does nothing for me – it’s a bit like chewing grass.

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Quinine – this one might be useful for treating malaria.

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It’s time to move on to the next item on today’s itinerary – but first we have to get there, and we never know what we might see on the way.

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Malanja Depression with Mount Lemakarot in the distance

Emuratare - Circumcision ceremony

A couple of young Maasai lads have their faces painted to indicate that they have just undergone the circumcision ceremony. This is the most vital initiation of all rites of passages in the Maasai society and is performed shortly after puberty.

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Cow Bells

We stop to listen to the sound of the cowbells as Malisa explains that this is how the area got its name. Ngoro ngoro ngoro ngoro. A lot of goodwill and some poetic licence is required methinks.

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Kaki Weed

Today is an educational sort of day for sure, as Malisa hands us this plant which some people do smoke.

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Cooke's Hartebeest

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Maasai Warriors

Ahead a number of Maasai Warriors are walking along the road, and we are warned by Malisa not to take photos. The scene is surreal, like we are driving through a film set.

A Tower of Giraffes

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At Endoldol we spot a few giraffe on the ridge, in the distance.

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Then a few more.

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Soon we have a whole forest of giraffe.

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We count 53 animals – which beats Malisa’s previous record of 48 - but it's impossible to put an accurate number down as more and more keep coming from the back.

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I have never seen anything like this incredible spectacle.

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When a Maasai warrior appears in the distance, the whole scenario goes from being fantastical to becoming completely absurd as 50+ giraffe start running.

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Giraffe are awkward runners, and with their long necks arching and bending as they go, they look like a wave. Totally, utterly unbelievable!

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There is just one word that will do: WOW!

Elerai Maasai Boma

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We are introduced to David, the son of the chief, who explains – in very good English – about the village and the dances we are about to see. The name Elerai refers to the yellow barked acacia trees that grow around here.

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First of all, the men and women perform a ‘welcome dance’ for us.

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The dance is accompanied by a single musical wind instrument (traditionally a kudu horn), an olaranyani (song leader) singing the melody and a chorus chanting harmonies, combined into a sort of screeching syncopation.

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This is followed by a display of the Maasai men's famous ‘jumping’ dance, known as adumu. This dance is traditionally performed during the eunoto, the coming of age ceremony of a Maasai warrior.

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Chris decides he would like to join in

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So he studies the style and technique carefully.

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His approach is a little strained initially.

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But he soon gets the hang of it.

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Elerai is what is known as a ‘cultural boma’. The Tanzanian government restricts visits to Maasai homesteads to just a small selection of villages in a bid to limit the damaging effect it has on their culture.

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The beauty of visiting one of the official villages is that not only are we shown around the village, we can also freely take photos of the people who have ‘dressed up’ for the occasion. Taking photos of the Maasai walking along the road is considered very bad and is strongly discouraged, as mentioned in the RULES AND REGULATIONS at the entry gate.

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Here at Elerai, however, I can snap away to my heart’s content. And I do.

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The women have been hanging around while the men have been jumping, but now it is their turn to dance.

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Over the years we have visited a few Maasai villages, as well as other East African ethnic groups, and never before have we been treated to a display of women jumping.

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They may not jump quite as high as the men, but they make a brave attempt.

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While David (the chief’s son, not my husband) takes Lyn and Chris around the village, Kaki, his brother, leads us into one of the other huts.

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To us, the village doesn’t look all that big, but this collection of straw-and-mud huts is home to around 120 people.

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The work of constructing the huts falls on the women, who build a frame from wooden sticks, make the walls and roof from acacia grass, they then cover the whole lot with cow dung. During the rainy season the houses have to be re-covered with new dung every night.

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Standing around or walking very slowly, as we have been doing while watching the dancing, has a terrible effect on my troubled back, it is now hurting so much I am struggling to walk. I therefore decline the invitation to see what the hut looks like on the inside, instead I send David in with strict instructions to take photos using his video camera.

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The heigh of luxury it ain't, but I guess they don't spend much time inside.

Eventually curiosity gets the better of me, and I carefully put my head around the corner to take a peek.

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Although the older children go to school in a nearby small town, the younger ones attend the on-site kindergarten.

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The children beautifully recite the alphabet and numbers in English for us.

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The occasional grubby exterior fails to hide the beauty and innocence of these charming kids.

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The Maasai – as well as most other ethnic tribes in this region – build their homes in a circular pattern, with a ‘fence’ made from thorny acacia bushes to keep any wild animals out.

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At night, the domestic animals are herded into a coral for safety.

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Exit through the shop.
A Maasai ‘market’ has been set up in the centre of the village where we are ‘encouraged’ to buy something from the stall belonging to the householder whose home we just visited.

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This stuff always looks so good - and tempting - when you see it like this in its appropriate surroundings, but usually becomes horribly out of place if you take it back home.

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We choose a ‘talking stick’ and a small calabash to go on our wall next to the necklace we bought in Kenya last year.

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The talking stick is a communication tool used by the Maasai elders during their community gatherings as a symbol of authority and a right to speak. Everyone present must listen respectfully to the person holding the stick, and only that person is allowed to speak. When he has finished talking, the stick is passed on to someone else, ensuring everyone present has a chance to be heard.

Not sure how it would work in the Howard Household…

We are only partially successful in getting a mutually satisfactory price, and walk away with a feeling of having been ripped off.

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Moving on to our next educational stop, with a few interesting (or not) sights along the way.

Camels

Tanzania has become a lot more commercialised in just the 20 months since we were here last – these camels are brought to the road side by the Maasai who charge tourists to have their photo taken with them.

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Dust

This may be the green season, but the only rain we have seen so far is a mere five minutes just as we left Kilimanjaro Airport. Any vehicles, especially large trucks, throw up great amounts of dust from the tracks.

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As we slow down for the junction, a group of teenagers shout and wave their arms. One young lad lifts his gown to reveal nothing underneath except a hard-on. I am left in a state of incredulity: “Did I really just see that?” You’ll be pleased to know that there is no photographic evidence.

Eland

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Dark Chanting Goshawk

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Thomson's gazelle

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Rough track

The vibration caused by the incredibly rough rutted track results in Lyn’s lens filter becoming unscrewed and me shouting: “Can you keep the noise down please!”

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Beetle

A stowaway flies in through the window, hoping to catch a ride. One of my ambitions for this trip is to see a dung beetle, but this one is sadly dung-less. I know, I know, there is no pleasing some people.

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Oldupai Gorge – Where human life began

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The thirty-mile long and 300 feet deep ravine is part of the Great Rift Valley that stretches through East Africa. The original paleoanthropologists who excavated this area over 50 years ago, wrongly named it Olduvai after mishearing the Maa word for the wild sisal plant which grows in the vicinity. The Tanzanian government renamed it (correctly) Oldupai Gorge in 2005.

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It is thought that millions of years ago, the site was that of a large lake, the shores of which were covered with successive deposits of volcanic ash. Around 500,000 years ago seismic activity diverted a nearby stream which began to cut down into the sediments, revealing seven main layers in the walls of the gorge. Just one small pinnacle remains standing.

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This is another place I hardly recognise from last time we came – which admittedly was nine years ago in 2007 – there is so much building work and a completely new Orientation Centre.

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Scenic as the gorge may be, it is by no means on the same scale as the Grand Canyon, or even Cheddar Gorge; but then again it is not the gorge itself that is the star attraction here; it is all about the secrets this deep-sided the ravine concealed.

Cradle of Mankind Museum

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Oldupai Gorge is considered to be one of the most important pre-historic sites in the world. In the 1930s Mary and Louis Leakey discovered fossils of early humanoid dating back some 5 million years (give or take a few hundred thousand years); which has been hugely instrumental in furthering our understanding of early human evolution.

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Realistic replicas of some of their most important discoveries are on display in the modest museum, including the ‘Laetoli Footprints’ – perfectly preserved marks in the rock showing two upright bipedal hominids, out for a stroll more than 3.5 million years ago. If that doesn’t make you feel humble and small, nothing will.

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Other exhibits include fossils, tools, artefacts and display boards with old photos from the Leakey’s time.

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Part of the exhibition is dedicated to Dr Yoshiharo Sekino, who set out on a remarkable journey following the routes of ancient civilisations.

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Dr Sekino's bike

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His route on the map within the exhibition

We have our picnic lunch overlooking the gorge, next to the group of American college students we saw on the flight from Nairobi as well in Tarangire National Park. They are incredibly noisy, but I am more concerned about the fact that this girl thinks it is perfectly acceptable to eat her lunch in public with her great big walking boot on the table!

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History comes to life with a short presentation on how the various layers of rock strata have formed over the past 5 million or so years.

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We can clearly see three of the five layers here:

1. Basalt from 2 million years ago
2. Volcanic ash from 1.75 million years ago
3. Iron oxide from 1.2 million years ago.

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The top two layers (ash and mud – 800,000 and 150,000 years ago respectively) have eroded over the years.

Different types of humanoids inhabited the different time epochs. With my tongue firmly in my cheek, I have my own slant on evolution…

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We are also given the low-down on the sisal plant – which the gorge is named after – and its many uses: rope and mats, painkillers from the roots and animals will chew on it for water.

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After our educational break, we head down into the gorge itself, on some pretty basic tracks.

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What I want to know is how we can be sure we are not actually driving on top of some hitherto undiscovered important archaeological remains.

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The Mysterious Shifting Sands

Having come across articles about this phenomenon while researching our trip, I asked Malisa if we could make a detour to try and find these elusive dunes.

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These fascinating crescent-shaped mounds are a remarkable occurrence known as barkan. Dunes are formed when ground dust blown by unidirectional wind collects around a stone and continues to accumulate until a small dune is formed. As more sand is added, the process continues and the dune moves, in this case around ten metres a year.

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Shifting sands is not a new experience for us; but this one is different in that it is not only made up of very fine black sand, but it is also highly magnetised due to its high iron content.

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Despite its very fine texture, when you throw a handful of the stuff in the air, it doesn’t blow away on the wind, it falls almost straight down. The whole thing is eerie and ethereal, like an alien world.

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The volcanic sand that makes up the 9-metre high and 100-metre long dune originates from the Maasai’s most holy of places, Ol Doinyo Lengai - meaning ‘Mountain of God’ - which erupts with frequent intervals sending plumes of steam and ash over the surrounding countryside.

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Erm... why Chris?

The sands have moved around 500 metres since people started to take notice of it – there are markers on the road to indicate its route – the first recorded resting place was over by those trees in the background some time in the 1950s.

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Lemuta

Instead of taking the direct route west from Oldupai to Ndutu, Malisa heads off towards Lemuta, “to see what we can find”.

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Giraffes

The first thing we see is four giraffes lying down – a most unusual sight. In this position giraffes are very vulnerable to predators because of the time and effort it takes them to get up.

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Beetle

Another dungless beetle flies in through the window and lands on Chris. “Throw him out” I shout, and with that Chris gets out of the car! Doh!

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We make sure he is not on his back on the ground (the beetle, not Chris), before we drive off.

Thomson's Gazelles

A large herd of gazelles start running as we approach. One little baby gets separated from the rest and instead of running across; he sprints along the track as fast as his little legs will carry him.

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Malisa slows down so as not to cause him any more stress, and soon mum comes in from the left to collect him. Phew. Another disaster averted.

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A few gazelles refuse to run – instead they stand and stare eerily at us as we pass. David waves out of the window, but they don’t wave back. Ignorant so-and-sos.

(Ex) Wildebeest

It was the end of the road for this wildebeest as he died of natural causes.

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Vultures

Something obviously didn’t make it here either – Malisa explains that it is an old cheetah kill which the vultures are now finishing off.

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Endless Plains

Seeing the Short Grass Plains at Lemuta, I can understand how Serengeti got its name – it means “Endless Plains” in the local Maa language. As far as the eye can see in every direction there is nothing but grass, dotted with a few animals. It is quite overwhelming, and none of my photographs do it justice.

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The panorama below – joined together from nine different images, shows a 180° view, to give you some idea.

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Secretary Bird

This large bird - standing at 125 cm - gets its name from the crest of long quill-like feathers which gives it the appearance of an old-style secretary with quill pens tucked behind their ear. Although it has the ability to fly (I have never seen one in flight), the secretary birds is largely terrestrial, hunting its prey on foot

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Lappet Faced Vulture

A lappet Faced Vulture surveys the plains, looking for food.

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Vultures and Jackal

Another old cheetah kill attracts a number of vultures (White Backed, Woolly Necked, and Rueppell’s Griffon) as well as a Golden Jackal.

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Squabbles are almost constant, with everyone looking for an opportunity to grab a piece of meat for themselves.

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The jackal is definitely at the top of the pecking order, while the vultures fight amongst themselves.

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A couple of Lappet Faced Vultures arrive to join in the party

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More fighting, and even the jackal joins in with a growl.

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It looks like the jackal has his fill as he licks his chops and walks off.

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Then, and only then, do the vultures get a look-in.

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They tuck into what's left of the once cute little Thomson's Gazelle.

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Having access to the meat doesn't stop them feuding, however.

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We continue across the short grass plains, looking for cheetah at every kopje. No luck. Not one.

Hyenas

We do, however, spot a cackle of female hyenas. They lie down in puddles and streams to cool down while digesting their food. Unhappy at being woken up from her afternoon nap, this one takes flight when she sees us.

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Female hyenas have a false penis (which you can just about make out in the photo below) and are the pack leaders.

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For a while they circle a Tommy family (Thomson’s Gazelle), but eventually decide it’s too much like hard work and call it a day.

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Yellow Throated Sandgrouse

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Kori Bustard

Another tall bird at almost one metre in height.

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Capped Wheatear

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Crowned Plover

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Golden Jackal

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Eland

As a result of hunting (eland meat is highly prized), these animals have become very skittish, so it is good to get some photos that are not ‘bum shots’ for a change.

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Dung Beetle

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Each time I go on a safari, I have a wish list of animals I would like to see. This year the dung beetle is one of my top requests for Malisa to try and locate. As always, he comes up trumps, and much excitement ensues when he stops the car to introduce us our new little friend.

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Aren’t dung beetles just the coolest, most fascinating little animals? OK, maybe you think I am very sad for getting excited about a small shit-eating insect, but just hear me out first before you poo-poo my statement.

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These tiny bugs (about twice the size of my thumbnail) prefer excrement from herbivores rather than carnivores, as the former is largely undigested vegetable matter. OK, so now we have a vegetarian poo-eating insect. Although, the veggie poo is not so easy for them to locate as it gives off less of an odour than the meat waste. So, it has now become a vegetarian poo-eating insect with a sensitive nose.

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Most dung beetles are fussy eaters, so they won’t just eat any old shit; it has to be waste from a particular animal. They also like their poo to be fresh – don’t we all – the fresher the better. I think I am beginning to understand this; these are finicky sensitive-nosed vegetarian poo-eaters. A new patty can be descended on by up to 4000 dung beetles within 15 minutes of being dropped, and as many as 15,000 have been observed on one pile of dung at the same time. A real sociable, finicky sensitive-nosed vegetarian, poo-eater it seems.

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All I wanted was one single beetle carefully rolling away his prized poo!

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You could say he is on a roll... actually, they move surprisingly fast!

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Dung beetles can eat their own weight in less than 24 hours, and are probably the most industrious resident on the savannah, clearing up the mess left behind by other animals. The original recyclers! We can now add another string to his bow, making him a sociable, finicky sensitive-nosed vegetarian, poo-eating eco-warrior.

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So how does a dung beetle know which way he should be rolling his poo? He navigates using the Milky Way of course. Now this is starting to get serious: he is a sociable, finicky sensitive-nosed vegetarian, poo-eating environmentally friendly astronomer.

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This image is all mine, although the pictures of the sky and the beetle were not taken at the same time.

Although not all dung beetles roll their dung away, those that do, do so to feed their young. There is nothing like passing poo to your babies eh? Those beetles that don’t move the poo, make their home in the pile of dung. You could say they are happy as a pig in shit – or it that beetle?

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As well as food and housing, that pile of manure is also great for cooling off your feet (or rather for the beetle’s feet) – a bit like us trying to get off the hot sand on a sunny beach. Dung is considerably cooler than the parched African soil, mainly due to its moisture contents. So, how is that little insect doing now? He can now be described as a sociable, finicky sensitive-nosed vegetarian poo-eating, hot footing environmentally friendly astronomer.

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The last point I want to make is about their strength (I’m am not going to mention about his horn) – imagine yourself pushing a giant ball (just try not to think about what it is made from) which is over a thousand times your body weight, which is equal to an average gym-goer pushing 80 tons!
Now our little friend has become a sociable, finicky sensitive-nosed vegetarian poo-eating, hot footing, athletic, environmentally friendly astronomer. He sure is my hero!

And you thought he was just another beetle!

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You think I am talking a lot of crap? Check it out for yourself.

Dung Beetles guided by Milky Way

Wikipedia

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Safari Vehicle

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This is what our ‘home’ for the eleven days in Tanzania looks like. Based on a Toyota Landcruiser, it has been especially converted for safari use, with plenty of room in the back (six seats plus luggage compartment), an elevating roof means we can stand up for a better view to take photos, and it is easy to move around on a flat floor. There are charging points for camera batteries, and a beanbag for photography, plus we can attach a clamp with a tripod head to the rails too. All mods cons (including a fridge full of cold drinks), and comfortable seats - it has everything we need for long days on the African savannah.

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Pregnant Hyena

This pregnant hyena is very close to giving birth, and all she wants to do is sleep. Instead she has to pose for these horrid tourists. It’s a hard life isn’t it?

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A congress of Jackals

Five or six Golden Jackals turn up.

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A couple of Ostriches

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Female

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Male

And some Zebra

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Spotting another vehicle makes us realise that the last time we saw one was actually four hours ago. I like this low season safari lark.

Wildebeest Migration

Because the rains arrived later than normal this year, the wildebeest seem confused and appear to have split up. You can see from the map below where they normally are during May, and where we spot large herds of them today.

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Grant’s Gazelle

The wildebeest are accompanied by Grant’s Gazelle.

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And a Tawny Eagle

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Lion Pride

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Not far from our lodge, and with the light fading fast, we come across a pride of nine lions spread out over a swampy area between Lakes Ndutu and Masek.

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The females and young males lie in the late sun, stroll around or play fight.

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By reason of a strict pecking order, these guys are waiting their turn to have dinner – once the two alpha males have had their fill.

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And for those of you who are wondering exactly how close we are to the lions – THIS is how close!

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When one of the boys has had enough and gets up and walks away, the others look at the kill expectantly.

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But it seems his brother is still not finished.

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Has he had enough?

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Has he?

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It seems that way…

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Has he heck!

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The youngsters resign themselves to having to wait a little longer for supper.

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One of the braver ones decides he is going to risk it.

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Finally!

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Seeing the look on this guy’s face as he struggles to bit off a slice of the fresh rib, I am instantly grateful for steak knives.

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And after all that, all he ends up with is a mouthful of bones. Don’t you hate it when that happens?

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Maybe, just maybe… he is trying to bite off more than he can chew…?

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He looks forlorn: “There’s got to be an easier way than this.”

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“I’ll try a different approach”

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“Or maybe I’ll just lick the plate”

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Malisa points out that meanwhile, behind us, a glorious sunset is painting the sky orange over the lake, signalling the end of another extraordinary day and time for us to say goodbye to our lions and head to camp.

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Ndutu Lodge

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As with our previous visit, it is dark by the time we arrive at Ndutu Lodge. Despite several other safari vehicles arriving at the same time, the check in is impressively swift and efficient. After a quick shower and change, we meet up dinner.

Good food, Savanna Cider, Genets in the Rafters, coffee in the lounge and Dik Diks on the lawn – a perfect end to a perfect day!

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Chicken and rice

Small Spotted Genet

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Cat-like in appearance, the genets are wild but encouraged to hang around the rafters of the lodge by staff who occasionally slip them tidbits of food in exchange for keeping the rodent population down. They are also obviously very popular with the guests.

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Apparently the roof of the dining room / bar area was originally supported by huge wooden beams which the genets used a climbing frame. When the rafters were removed during the refurbishment, one of the beams was retained purely for the pleasure of the genets

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Dik Diks

Normally extremely shy, these tiny antelopes have become accustomed to people and feed happily in the grounds of the lodge.

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Yet again Calabash Adventures and their wonderful guide Malisa have given us a day in the bush to remember.

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Posted by Grete Howard 03:04 Archived in Tanzania Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises animals birds sunset road_trip view travel vacation views shopping village adventure roads kids scenery museum sunrise africa safari tanzania lodge zebra lunch beetle unesco birding chicken souvenirs lions maasai giraffe roadtrip lion_cubs ngorongoro dust hyena kill tribes anthropology wildebeest olduvai jackal ngorongoro_crater rip_off bird_watching game_drive road-trip eland african_food dung_beetle safari_vehicle great_rift_valley night_photography canon_eos_5d_iii school_kids qat calabash calabash_adventures the_best_safari_operators which_safari_company best_safari_company nature_trail maasai_cattle ngrongoro_serena ngorongoro_conservation_area tower_of_giraffe maasai_boma kindegarten shifting_sands oldupai lamuta lion_kill Comments (0)

Lake Turkana

People of the lake

sunny 40 °C
View The Journey to the Jade Sea - Northern Kenya 2015 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Day six of our Journey to the Jade Sea with Undiscovered Destinations.

The wind certainly kept us awake in the night, rustling through the palms, banging tree branches against each other, sending the wind generator mental, knocking over chairs and making our mosquito nets billow out away from the beds. But it definitely helped keep the temperature down: I even had to cover my legs with the blanket at one stage!

Travelling overland down through Africa in a Land Rover has always been my dream, but one that I have never been brave enough to set into action, nor have the circumstances been right. I am now beginning to feel we are getting too old for it – I am therefore quite surprised when I meet Andrea, an Italian photographer and the occupant of the overland truck, this morning: he has at least ten years on us, maybe even fifteen! They have driven all down through Africa from Italy and are now on their way back home again. In broken English he asks John for directions to Sibiloi as his Sat Nav is “kaput”. We get our map out and explain as best as we can: 20 kilometres north, turn left, then left and left again. Seems simple enough, but his English is extremely limited. I cannot help to wonder how much his lack of English is a hindrance in his travels – not many people speak Italian in this part of the world! They scoff at the offer of taking a local chap as a guide and confidently set off on their own.

We are off to the lakeside this morning, starting early to avoid the heat of the day. Seducing and mesmerising in its simple beauty, the conflict between the abrupt and severe surroundings against the dazzling and dreamy water of the lake makes it all the more beguiling.

The Jade Sea

Originally named Lake Rudolph in 1888 by two Austrian explorers, in 1975 the lake was renamed Turkana after the local tribe who inhabit this area. It is also known as the Jade Sea because of the colourful, ever-changing reflections that decorate its surface – which you can't always appreciate fully from ground level.

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I would have loved to have been able to take a sightseeing flight over it for photography, but as that is not an option, you'll have to make do with some images from google:

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The colour comes from algae that rise to the surface in calm weather.

El Molo Tribe

The lake is a source of life for some of Kenya’s most remote tribes, including the El Molo people who live in just two small villages on the south-eastern shores of Lake Turkana. We are visiting one of them this morning.

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I am guessing our escort and facilitator Abdi is some sort of 'royalty' or high caste within the local society, as after speaking with the village chief, it was agreed that Abdi should be called Number One, while the local chief would be referred to as Number Two.

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Number Two shows us around his village and explains about their culture.

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The name El Molo comes from the Samburu expression loo molo onsikirri which means 'the people who eat fish'. Also known as gurapau, 'people of the lake', they are the smallest indigenous tribe in Kenya – in numbers, not stature - with around 10 true members left (only one in the village we visit) out of approximately 1000 inhabitants; the rest being of combined Samburu and Turkana bloodlines though intermarriage.

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As a result of their almost constant suffering from other tribes over the years, they prefer to remain cut-off from much of the world, maintaining a very traditional life eking out an existence from fishing.

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Hunting/Fishing and Diet
When the El Molo originally migrated down into this area from Ethiopia around 1000 BC, they found the land to be too arid to sustain their livestock, so they abandoned agriculture in favour of fishing.

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The El Molo have no access to fresh water, and as they do not engage in agriculture; they survive on fish alone, turning to the alkaline lake for their drinking water. According to Wikipedia, the water is “potable, but not palatable”, yet later in the same article it is claimed that it “is more alkaline than seawater”. Either way. I fail to understand how people can survive on a constant diet of fish and salty water.

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When fishing, the El Molo use number of different implements depending on the circumstances: spears; harpoons; fishing rods made from the roots of an acacia with doum-palm fibre and a forged iron point or hook; or nets made from doum-palm fibre.

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The fishermen brave the waves, winds and swells of Lake Turkana in traditional boats crudely made from doum-palm logs held together with rope. Modern boats would be too difficult to maintain and are rarely available anyway, due to their expense. Imagine the skill required to ride this into the waves of the lake and chase after crocodile or hippo - then kill them with a hand held harpoon! These days, however, they mostly fish for catfish, Nile perch, tilapia or Solomon fish.

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The catch is either roasted immediately or preserved for eating later by sun-drying it on mats on the ground or the roofs of the huts.

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Every part of the fish is utilised, including all the innards.

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Housing
The El Molo live in lakeside homes made from the little vegetation this volcanic wasteland has to offer – straw and palm leaves are woven together by the women to create little igloo-shaped huts.

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People
It is thought that the singular and exclusive diet (high in protein but lacking in fruit, vegetables and carbohydrates), along with drinking the salty lake water, is to blame for the high incidence of ill health and genetic defects amongst this group – blindness, bow legs, and early death. I also guess with so few members of a tribe, inbreeding is inevitable, adding to the genetic deterioration. In addition, every few years cholera outbreaks run rampant through the village causing the demise of the very old and the very young. In a society where reaching the age of 40 is considered 'old', their spartan lifestyle has taken a toll on their appearance way beyond their years.

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Seats
Men often carry stools, known as ekicholong, which are used as simple chairs. They also double as headrests or pillows, keeping the head elevated from the sand, and protecting ceremonial head decorations from being damaged when they lie down. I remember seeing these in a museum in Ghana some years ago and thinking how uncomfortable they look but it's the first time I have actually seen one in use.

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Journey to extinction
There are calls from human rights groups and environmentalists for the government to step in to provide much needed medical and sanitary facilities, secure funding for a fresh water drinking source and save the community from the impacts of climate change, as they fear the ethnic group is on a journey to extinction if nothing is done.

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Thirty years ago an anthropologist who visited the El Molo wrote, "I felt as if I'd stumbled on a race that had survived simply because time had forgotten to finish them off." Very little has changed since then.

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Counting my lucky stars
Spending time amongst these people and seeing how they barely eke a living in such a hostile and inhospitable environment, I am overwhelmed by a feeling of appreciation for the privileged life I was born into, and gratitude for the hardships I have not had to face. I humbly admire their resilience in the constant uphill battle against adversity and the mercilessly grim terrain as they cling steadfastly to their somewhat tenuous existence. Having adapted to their surrounding environment, their simple code of life is built on survival: eating, sleeping and reproducing.

We are One
Being with these indigenous tribes with their seemingly naïve purity and primordial lifestyles, I feel like I have been transported to a bygone era, the Africa of long ago. Despite enormous disparities between our lifestyles and prosperity, I sense a strong connection – we may have lives that are poles apart, but we are still the same - and I find myself wondering: "What are their dreams for the future?" Not the all-encompassing future popularly written about by environmentalists and social reformers, but the more tangible, everyday, personal circumstances of tomorrow or this evening. Fun, laughter, love, appreciation, family, friendship, food... we surely share the same emotions and desires?

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Island of Ghosts
El Molo practice a traditional religion centred on the worship of Waaq, with shrines known as gantes. The shrines are located on an island known as the 'Island of Ghosts' or 'Island of No Return'. Legend tells the story of how the tribes people would retreat to this island when being attacked and use huge piles of catfish to barricade themselves in. The spiny fish bones would ensure raiders were unable to reach the villagers.

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We take a boat out to the island – thankfully a much bigger, motorised boat than the ones the locals use when fishing.

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There are four shrines (which look curiously like the huts the people live in on the mainland) on the island, each with a different function:

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The first hut is a shrine where barren women spend time with a village elder to receive blessings in order to conceive. Today there are baby goats inside...

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Next is the place where sacrifices are made and ceremonies are held to ensure good luck while hunting hippos, although following Kenya's anti-poaching laws, hippos are now officially off the menu. The El Molo's hunting prowess, especially with regard to the ferocious and murderous hippo (hippos kill more people in Africa than any other animal – apart from the mosquito), have earned them a reputation for bravery among other Kenyan tribes. During the ceremony – known as ngwere – songs and dances pay tribute to ancestors and the young warriors have their bodies whipped and slashed before being sent out on the hippo hunt!

The third hut is reserved for female circumcision. The practice is outlawed in Kenya, and the hut appears dilapidated. While in the west we have an absolute abhorrence towards what we call Female Genital Mutilation, the general feeling on the subject here is much more ambivalent and complex. Although ingrained in their culture, some girls feel it is an outdated and barbaric practice and they are glad it is now outlawed; while others are more philosophical. As one girl we spoke to said: “the circumcision is all the girls here have, that is purely for them. Everything else in society is about the men - women are rated somewhere below the goats - and this ceremony is the only time in their lives they are the main and most important character.” While I can see the rationale behind this theory, I can think of way better ways of making a young girl feel special and valued!

The last shrine is dedicated to the sick, used as an isolation unit or a place to make requests for protection against diseases.

Birding
While David and Number Two go hiking to the top of the hill on the island, I do some birdwatching with Abdi.

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Crested Lark

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Little Egret

During March and April, Lake Turkana is a major stopover point on the flight routes of migratory birds on the journey back north to their European summer homes. The area also has many local residents, with up to 350 species recorded, including pink backed pelicans and flamingoes who thrive in the brackish water, supported by plankton masses in the lake.

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Slender Billed Gull

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Pink Backed Pelican

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Egyptian Goose

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Grey Headed Gull

While not a true twitcher, more of a dude; I am a lister and am happy to announce 103 trip ticks so far, of which 27 are lifers.

Roughly translated from 'bird watching speak' to plain English, this means that “I am a keen birder but a novice and more into the photography aspect rather than serious study. I do, however, like to keep a list of birds seen in the wild, and I have identified 103 different species so far on this trip, 27 of which are new to me”.

See more English twitcher vocabulary here.

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Spur Winged Lapwing

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Long Tailed Cormorant

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Kittlitz' Plover

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Ringed Plover

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Common Sandpiper

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Long Tailed Cormorant

From the island we spot the Landrover carrying the two Italians driving along the shore of the lake, which is somewhat strange as they left Loiyangalani long before us!

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As we say goodbye to the El Molo village, we give a lift back to town to three girls. One of them is nine months pregnant. She was intending to walk to Loiyangalani, some 20 kilometres away (in this 40 °C heat), in order to try and find a truck which would hopefully be able to take her the six hour drive to Maralal to the maternity hospital. It's a hard life.

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When she gets out of the car in town, I slip her some money “for the baby”, which reduces her to tears. Through Abdi she thanks me and asks my name – she is so grateful she wants to name her baby after me! I feel very humbled and honoured so I cry too. To me it is not a huge amount of money, but I am later told that it is probably the largest sum of cash she is ever likely to have and is equivalent to a week's wage of a skilled worker. I guess that would be the same in relative terms as a stranger giving me £500.

Back at the lodge we are told the Italians got very lost this morning, having not listened to – or understood – the bit about driving 20 kilometres north before turning left. They effectively drove around in a circle and ended up back at Palm Shade Camp where they changed their mind and sheepishly hired a local guide to show them the way.

It is at times like this that I am grateful we have our trusty driver John.

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John bought some some fresh fish in the El Molo village this morning, which the lodge chef cooked up for him and served it with ugali, the staple starch in East Africa. Made into a porridge-like consistency, using millet, maize of sorghum flour, ugali is eaten by rolling a small amount into a ball with your hand, creating an indent for scooping up the sauce. We have come across this in various guises throughout Africa. It is bland but filling. For someone (that someone being me) who has such a low boredom level that I dislike having the same meal two days running, I cannot imagine this being my complete diet. Every. Day. Day in. Day out. Breakfast. Lunch. Dinner. Only intersperced with some salty water. My heart sinks and my tastebuds go on strike at the mere thought of it!

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Turkana Tribe

After lunch John suggests we visit the local Turkana tribe to see if we can negotiate for the women to don their 'skins' and dance for us. David is somewhat taken aback by Abdi's question while he is conferring with the ladies: “How many women do you want?”

Well....

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While Abdi puts the finishing touches on the deal, the children crowd around the car: shaking our hands, touching our skin and practising their English: “How are you?” “What's your name?”

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Goat or cow skins are tanned, carefully sewn together and adorned with beads and ostrich egg shells. The skins are worn by both men and women on special occasions such as the annual Turkana Cultural Festival where many different tribes from the region come together to show off their outfits and traditional dances. Today these ladies are putting on a private performance just for us.

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Livestock is the core of Turkana culture with goats, camels, donkeys and zebu being the primary herd stock. Livestock functions not only as a milk and meat producers, but also as form of currency used for bride-price negotiations and dowries. A large herd is a sign of wealth, so it is not surprising that the songs and dances of the Turkana culture are a means of boasting about their prized cattle reflecting the economic life of the tribe.

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Dances are held during a variety of special occasions such as giving thanks after the rains or a successful cattle raid; the birth of a child or a marriage and so on. As well as when the Howards visit of course.

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Love this woman's earrings: key-rings and beer-can ring-pulls seem to feature heavily.

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The women seem to be having a lot of fun; and even John joins in the festivities.

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The audience too are enjoying themselves.

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No, this is not the result of some bloody sacrifice thankfully, just a custom to smear oil followed by ochre on your body for decorative purposes.

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Time is moving on, shadows are becoming long, the sun is getting low, and we are getting thirsty. It's time to go for a sundowner. And what better place than by the shores of Lake Turkana.

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The three boys that made my journey special: David, John and Abdi

As we wait for the sun to make its daily journey behind the mountains, I play around with my cameras, my 'models', different lenses, white balance and aperture/shutter speed settings.

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It is not until this evening, with the background being a single, plain colour, that I realise just what a curse dust is for a photographer and what a toll it has taken on my camera! The amount of dirt that has managed to get in to it and settled on the sensor is quite phenomenal! Thank goodness for in-camera sensor cleaning!

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Purely for medicinal reasons: to relieve a nagging headache (believe that and you believe anything), I pour myself a Captain and Coke before bed. Cheers and welcome to Lake Turkana.

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Posted by Grete Howard 05:41 Archived in Kenya Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises lakes people children birds boats desert travel village holiday africa hot kenya roadtrip dust tribes turkana undiscovered_destinations northern_kenya laketurkana loiyangalani el_molo Comments (2)

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