03 Jul 1996 - Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania
When Kaiser Wilhelm said to Queen Victoria that it was unfair that she had two mountains, she gave him one. If you look at the border between Tanzania and Kenya on a map, you will see how the line was redrawn to give Kilimanjaro to the German King. The missionary John Rebmann first saw the snows of Kilimanjaro on the 11th of May 1848. He said it was called the "mountain of the caravans" by the Arab slave traders who used the mountain as a landmark while crossing the interior. The local Wachagga people call it Kibo (snow) and in Swahili, mwalima is mountain and ngara means to shine.
I depart from Mkomazi and head West towards the tiny town of Moshi. I fly right up to the mountain, but I can't see it. She is like a shy lady with her clouds wrapped around her. I land at the deserted little airstrip near her base and push the plane off into the grass. I pull out my chair and sit alone beneath the wing. In the late afternoon light, the mountain begins to take off her clothes. The clouds disappear, and I look upon one of the loveliest sights in Africa - the white crested summit of Kilimanjaro.
The Swiss airman Mittelholzer flew over and photographed this mountain in 1930. I think the difference in elevation from Moshi at 2,800 feet to the summit at 19,340 feet must make this one of the highest free-standing mountains in the world. It is beautiful to look at. In the hazy air around it's base, you can almost forget that it is a mountain. Instead, you look only above the haze and see a shining white dome high in the sky. It could be mistaken for a cloud it is so far off and aloof. The Wachagga have a story about this mountain. They say that the two peaks Mawenzi and Kibo are brothers. Kibo is the bigger, but younger brother. One day, while smoking their pipes, Mawenzi's fire went out. He asked his brother, Kibo, if he could borrow some fire. He then fell asleep, and his fire went out again. Kibo became angry with him and beat him so badly that even today, one can see his battered and torn face. Mawenzi is ashamed of his appearance, so now he covers himself with clouds. It is rare to see Mawenzi without clouds.
The following morning I awake from beneath the plane. The firemen at Moshi airport have brought me tea. They have befriended me, and there can be no warmer host than an African who has almost nothing. I am invited over to visit their fire station. There is an old land rover painted red; that is the fire engine. One of the men has brought a young boy who was caught stealing corn from someone's field. He is screaming a bit hysterically as everyone pitches in to beat him and kick him. The firemen are all smiling at this, and they invite me to beat him. I politely decline. There is an instant form of justice in this part of the world. If someone is caught stealing, they are called mwizi (thief) then they are apprehended by all available hands, and summarily beaten before being taken to the police, where they are usually beaten again. It may sound harsh, but it isn't, and it usually humiliates the thief enough that he won't soon repeat the crime.
I take off and fly along the slopes of Kilimanjaro before the clouds appear. Beneath me is the mine where all the Tanzanite comes from. If I ever find a wife, I will design her a ring with Tanzanite. I don't think there is a more beautiful stone in the world. It is sometimes referred to as a "blue diamond" and the liquid blue stone reflects three different colors - purple, blue, and gray - as the light passes through it. It is much brighter than a sapphire, and it is only found here.
I descend low and follow the lush green forests past Kilimanjaro International Airport. This is one of the places where they could get me. I remember when the wildlife filmmaker, Alan Root, sent me to Kilimanjaro to pick up his plane some years ago. He handed me a fist-full of $100 bills and said in his normal understated way, "Here, you may need these." I was deposited at Kilimanjaro Airport and walked over to collect his recently repaired Cessna 180. The men in the office laughed at me. It appeared, I was about $400 short of what was owed. I spent a very long night inside of the plane being eaten by large mosquitoes. When that became too unbearable, I crawled out and lay on the tarmac beneath the plane. Then large rhinoceros shaped beetles would hit me full force in the face as they tried to fly in ground effect towards the bright lights illuminating the apron. The next morning, I was a wreck. It was time for my captors and me to make a deal. I suggested that if we reduced the number of days that the plane had been parked here on the receipt, there would be several hundred dollars left over that would not be accounted for. I think a proposal like this can raise some interest in a land where $2 a day is a good salary. I was soon on my way.
Ahead of me now is what some people consider to be the 8th Wonder of the World - the Ngorongoro Crater. The volcanic crater is a perfectly shaped bowl 19 kilometers across and it is teeming with wildlife. This crater used to be a mountain even higher than Kilimanjaro. When it erupted, it distributed its porphyritic ash far to the West. This is now the Serengeti - a treeless sea of grass with the largest ungulate (hoofed animal) migration on earth. I juggle my film cameras and follow the crater's rim around as my little plane struggles in the thin air. The crater is too big to fit into my lens. There seems to be no way to capture such a vast and enveloping place. I turn on my video camera mounted on the wing and start to dance along the edge. I play with the drama of trees moving swiftly beneath me, and then the sudden chilling emptiness as we spring from the edge and seem suspended above the crater floor. I am loving this moment, and for a while, I can imagine no better way to appreciate the grandness nor beauty of such a place.
On the southern edge or the crater rim sits the Ngorongoro airstrip. Landing here feels like coming in to land on an aircraft carrier. The wind currents flow up the inside face of the crater rim and push you up just when you want to come down. I touch down with my eyes peeled for any wildlife that might dart out in front of me at the last second. I am given a lift to Rian Labuschagne's house on the crater rim. Rian's address is Box 1, Ngorongoro, and he shares this with about 40,000 Maasai. The postcard that I sent him from Malawi said that I was coming "anytime from now," so he and his family are pleased to see me.
Rian and his wife Lorna are from South Africa. They live with their two young children here on the crater rim in a house called baridi (because it's cold). Previously, South Africans were not allowed in Tanzania, but now the Tanzanians are pleased to learn from their wildlife expertise. The first thing that struck Rian when he came here is that there are no fences. In South Africa, wildlife is over-managed. Here, there isn't much money, but there are wide open spaces. The Ngorongoro Conservation Area is 8,300 square kilometers, and the Serengeti Park is 14,760 square kilometers. Rian is working as an advisor for the Ngorongoro Rhino Conservation Project.
When Rian first arrived here, he felt a little ignored and frustrated. No one really spoke English, and no rhino had been poached here for the last ten years; he felt that nothing was wrong. Then in April 1995, a rhino with a nine month old calf was poached. Its horn was cut off, and the carcass was cut open so the lions and hyenas could eat the evidence faster. Rian and his two children take me to a steep path over the edge of the crater rim. A few meters down the path, Rian is nearly finished constructing a blind. This structure is for watching the foot patrols and vehicles at night during their rounds on the crater floor. "They can't get away with hacking around now," Rian tells me. I recall some of the smart anti-poaching operations that I had worked on in Namibia which were run by South Africans, and I can't help but smile. Rian tells me that he has organized different group leaders who are only in for a week at a time. They draw coins with different numbers stamped on them to determine what duties they will have. This may seem extreme, but I also have come to learn that the rhino's biggest enemy in Africa has always been his askari (guard). In North Yemen, Rhino horns sold for $35 a kilo in 1970; nine years later, they were selling for $500 a kilo. The rhino population in the crater dropped from 78 in 1976 to 26 in 1978. The number of black rhino remaining today is kept secret. There were also a number of spearings by the Maasai. Between July 1959 and December 1960, the Maasai killed or wounded 31 rhino with spears; 8 of these were in the crater. This was primarily due to their resentment of being removed from the Serengeti Park. They knew this was a good way to get back at the government. Rian explains all sorts of population statistics to me from over the years, and I can see clearly how valuable all these statistics become through the course of time in trying to determine the best strategies for saving the rhino.
We drive down nearly 2,000 feet to the crater floor below. I feel like I am on a journey to the center of the earth. I have never been down here before. Rian explains that foot patrols are the most important defense to poaching. He says that a horse is good, like they use in Etosha Park (Namibia), but then you need backup. He says motorcycles are also good, like they use in Kruger Park (South Africa), but they give you away and you have to watch the road. "There is no such thing as a bad field ranger," Rian tells me, "but they are only as good as their leader." We arrive at the anti-poaching camp, and group leader Corporal Mbelwa assembles his men for me to inspect. There is a map of the area on the wall, and bunking quarters for the scouts. I like the scouts. These are the guys who make their living by trying to save rhinos. They are formal and disciplined on the outside, but behind all the guns and camouflage uniforms are the warm smiles of Africa. The thing Rian has learned the most since his arrival in Tanzania has been patience. It can cost up to $50 to send a one page fax or up to $100 to telephone his parents on a bad line, so communications are difficult. He also reminds me that he is just an advisor here, so all of his ideas and thoughts have taken time.
What I enjoy the most about Rian, is that he has been interested to learn the ways of the Maasai. He tells me that they are very proud people, but they are useless for manual work. The Maasai warrior has five different age groups, and the weapons carried by the different age groups are all different. They will also have two different leaders - a diplomatic leader and a war leader. Today, there is a certain amount of racism towards the Maasai. They are considered to be underdeveloped by other Africans. In the past, the Maasai used to raid cattle. They can't now; the times are changing. I find it interesting to see how a previously superior race is now becoming inferior to a modern day system. Now, when you steal a cow, you go to jail. Clement is a traditional Maasai, and he speaks English with an American accent. He spent some time assisting an American researcher studying baboons in the crater, and now he is Rian's advisor on traditions and practices here. He is 50 years old, and he explains to me that when he was 13 and the Maasai were living inside the crater, they used to play a children's game. One child would place something on a sleeping rhino, then the next child would have to take it off. The Maasai are fearless in the field; they have no problem with walking from here to Serengeti with just a blanket, even at night, and this is learned at an early age. Each day about 70 Maasai are permitted down into the crater with up to 1,000 cattle. They must have a permit to go down, and they must be out at night. There are 3 water holes down there, and it looks good to see the Maasai living as they must have for so very long - surrounded by wildlife. Time are changing though. In September 1992, the Maasai were allowed to cultivate inside the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. This was an emergency measure due to the drought, but the Maasai are now demanding cultivation so that they can continue to grow their corn and potatoes to sell outside.
It was the German Veterinarian, Bernard Grzimek, who said, "Must everything be turned into deserts, farmland, big cities, native settlements and dry bush? One small part of the continent at least should retain its original splendor so that the black and white men who follow us will be able to see it in its awe-filled past glory." His battle cry was, "Serengeti, at least, shall not die."
Bernard and his son, Michael, landed in Serengeti after flying 4,000 miles from Frankfurt in their Dornier 27 bush aircraft. There was no mistaking their aircraft; it looked like a gigantic zebra with black and white stripes across its entire length. I have flown this type of aircraft before and it is perfect for landing anywhere in the middle of nowhere. I remember looking at pictures of this famous plane surrounded by thousands of game is a vast open treeless plain. Bernard and Michael had come out to study migration patterns in the Serengeti and demonstrate that the proposed excisions would be disastrous for the Serengeti ecosystem. In Bernard's book, Serengeti Shall Not Die, he stressed that it can be easier to work with a dictatorship on matters of conservation than it is to work with a democracy, because you don't have to deal with parliaments, and you can get on with the job.
Rian stops the land rover on the crater rim, and we walk a short way through lush forest. The early morning mist is hanging in the trees. Rian pulls back some tall grass, and there is Bernard Grzimek's plane. I find it hard to speak. There is a moment when a story that one has only read or heard becomes a sudden reality. You can touch it. It is true. Michael Grzimek was flying in the Olkarien gorge northwest of here, near the Gol mountains. The Ruppell's vulture nest there. He hit a vulture in flight, and it went straight through the window and killed him. I can't recall how many times I have stared at a vulture in the air. They must think it strange that such large birds can fly. The trick is to pull up and go over them. Perhaps, they can't judge distance well, but it is always at the last moment that they fold their wings in panic and drop down right in front of you. Michael and his father are buried on the Ngorongoro crater rim.
The askari tells Rian that four hyenas were spotted around my plane last night. I go out to inspect, and I can see all the tracks. One of the great dangers for an airplane in the wilds of Africa can be lions and hyenas chewing your tires. Normally, I can cut thorn brush and pile it around my wheels. This is usually enough of a deterrent to keep the tires full of air. I didn't want to cut thorn brush here, so I took out my can of pyrethrum mosquito repellent and sprayed it all over the wheels. I followed the tracks of the hyenas as they came and smelled the tires, but fortunately it worked. It is also not a good idea to leave any food in the plane. A thin aluminum airplane would be little match for the powerful jaws of a hungry hyena. Sometimes, when I write these stories, I can imagine that they may seem very strange to people who live in other parts of the world.
Rian tells me about Rajabu the rhino who decided one day to climb up the steep crater rim and walk to Lake Ndutu and then on to Moru kopjies. There are some wonderful names here: mto-wa-mbu means place of the mosquitoes, and koitoktok is a spring which means bubbling water. I get a brief tour of Rian's workshop behind his house. This is where Octa works. Octa is an Mbulu from the Ngorongoro plateau, and he is a mechanic who has never had any mechanical training. Rian shakes his head as he tells me how one day Octa can have a gearbox on the floor in hundreds of pieces, and a few days later it will be back together in one piece; and it will work. Rian writes me a letter to present to a conservation officer in Ndutu who can sometimes be difficult. Rian smiles and tells me that he and Octa keep his land rover running, so he shouldn't give me any trouble.
I have loved my time spent with Rian and his family in this place. Rian is a
man of passion. When he was in Kruger park, Fritz Rohr showed him how to make
knives. There is a secret balance between the chromium and carbon in the steel
which is important. If you have too much chromium, the knife won't hold the
edge; if you have too much carbon, the blade will be too brittle and not
"stainless". Rian has made about four or five hundred knives now. He enjoys
making things and the organization and creation process involved. He calls his
knives Bhejan which is the Shangaan name for black rhino. I met many
Shangaan trackers when I was in South Africa, so I know he respects their
knowledge of the bush. As I load my kit up into the plane, Rian hands me one of
his knives. I have never seen this design before. It has a beautiful ebony
handle and perfectly shaped blade designed for skinning animals. The case has
Bhejan stamped on it. He looks at me and says, "Maybe this will help you
get home safely?"