08 Jul 1996 - Serengeti, Tanzania
All across this land remain the names of places that the Maasai have given
them. Ngorongoro means the place with mountains and gorges.
This place is not so different from his map. It is simple. There is a sea of yellow, and a sky of blue. Perhaps, it is because the colors are complimentary to each other that makes them so powerful together; the one magnifies the other in a surreal way that makes me feel like I am floating between heaven and earth. Amidst the endless tawny yellow below are the distinctive island kopjies of the Serengeti. These little rock islands are mini ecosystems with birds, lizards, hyraxes, and sometimes, a resident leopard. There are no trees, and you can see the wind flowing like waves across the grass.
I land at lake Ndutu to visit Baron Hugo van Lawick. I first met Hugo when I was working on a film called "Serengeti Dairy" for National Geographic. The film was a celebration of his 25th year living and filming wildlife in the Serengeti, and I was part of the crew that tried to capture this place from the air. I park the plane in an empty cage designed to keep the hyenas and lions from chewing the tires, and soon a vehicle arrives to collect me. When I arrive in camp, Hugo comes out to greet me. He is in a wheelchair, and we sit by his tent looking out over the lake and drinking tea.
The nice thing about this part of the world is that traveling is so difficult that one does not usually get a lot of visitors. A visitor brings news from the outside world, and this is something that one can yearn for. Hugo first came to Africa in 1959, because he wanted to film animals. He came for two years, and he never left. He made lecture films for Louis Leakey and at age 24 shot the photographs for the articles on the Leakey's work in Africa. He was married to Jane Goodall for 10 years, and he has spent most of his life observing and recording wildlife through a lens. He is having trouble breathing with his emphysema now, but he wastes no time in filling me in on what has been happening. It seems all the wild dogs have all been exterminated by rabies brought in by the Maasai dogs; the lion numbers are down due to feline distemper, and so the cheetah numbers are up. The bat-eared foxes have been hit by rabies, and the poaching is still bad on the western boundary. According to Hugo, some people there have never tasted cow meat, only wild game meat. There are snares everywhere along that boundary, and the park used to feel very big when there weren't so many tourists. Hugo relays all this news as one might talk about the traffic jams on the way to work, and I have to quietly smile as I listen. He then tells me about the pilot Bill Stedman who crashed his motor glider while coming in to land here last year. He was working on Hugo's film "The Leopard Sun"; the plane just dropped out of the sky, and Bill was dead. We both pause and looked out across the lake. I ask Hugo if he remembers when we landed on that lake and built a fire on the edge as part of our "camping scene" for the film. He remembers and chuckles about this. I was arrested shortly after that back in Seronera by armed scouts. They took me to the park warden's office, but I had no idea why. I was asked what I had done the previous day, and I explained that we had been filming by the lake and had landed on its edge. A little man confirmed that I had landed on the edge of the lake, and then I was released because I had told the truth. I was still a little confused by all this. I was told that they were going to "compound" me and the plane, but that since I had told the truth, I would now only have to pay a fine. I shuddered to think what this fine would be, but it was only 1,500 Tanzanian Shillings (about $3).
I ask Hugo what he has learned out here. He tells me that he is calmer and more self-assured now, but this is probably due to age. "You are alive thanks to luck in many ways," he tells me. "How fragile life is." He explains to me that if you are out here full time, it is not good. "You get tunnel vision and you lose your perspective." Hugo has seen a lot of scientists and researchers pass through here. When they arrive they have a lot of fear of Africa for about six months, then they go completely the other way and become fearless. It is the same with pilots, he says, and that is the most dangerous time - when they become fearless. Hugo spent many years observing Chimpanzees when he was with his former wife Jane Goodall. He tells me the good Chimp mothers would discipline their young with a hit or a bite on the hand, followed by a hug afterwards. This is how you should treat human children, he explains. Hugo and Jane have a son named Grob, and he tells me that they never ignored his crying. If you ignore their crying, they will become insecure. I am always interested when anyone has advice on how to be a good parent. Silently, perhaps, I must be longing for this.
Chimps, to Hugo, aren't animals; they are so close to humans. He tells me about the tame Chimpanzee named Washoe in USA. It was asked to sort different photographs into humans and animals. He put the photos of himself with the humans, and he put the photo of his mother, who he didn't know, with the animals. Hugo asks me, "If Neanderthal man were alive today, would we call him human?" In captivity, Chimps that haven't been brought up in a group don't know how to mate. Robondo is an island in Lake Victoria west of here. It is the only successful complete rehabilitation in the world of domestic Chimpanzees back into nature. Domestic Chimps know your strength; they will attack you. Wild Chimps think you are stronger, so they will run. Robondo was set up as a refuge for certain endangered species by Bernard Grzimek in the 60's. The Chimps were just dumped there. All the original adults are now gone, but when Markus Borner went there and pointed a camera lens at a female with a baby, she attacked and injured him, so perhaps they haven't forgotten everything.
The mention of Robondo reminds me of a pilot friend that I had met in the Serengeti. Tim Ward was one of those friendly people who would take the time to help you. I only knew him briefly, but he helped me find my way around the Serengeti during the film. I was shocked when I later learned that he had crashed taking off from the 900 meter airstrip on Robondo. Everyone one board was killed. I had filed this somewhere in the back of my head and was very surprised to meet his widow some years later in South Africa. I got to know him better by listening to her, and she said to me, "God takes young, those he loves the most."
I leave Hugo and fly north to Seronera. This is the location of the park headquarters and the research camp. Everyone in the research camp seems to have a nickname relating to what they are researching or doing. There is "John wildebeest", "Jane of the Serengeti", "Tracy balloon", "Sarah cheetah", "Sarah rabies", "Sarah simba", and "the hyenas".
Sarah Durant has been here for five years researching cheetahs. Her project is a long range one which involves tracking known individuals by spots and markings. The mortality, birth rate, and different aspects of cheetah behavior are recorded to predict how the population will behave and how the cheetahs fit into the ecosystem. Sarah uses a sound system to play back lion and hyena sounds to cheetahs in order to record their reaction. Sarah has observed that the most successful cheetah mothers are the ones who move the farthest from the lion calls. We travel out into the plains and set up the equipment near some cheetahs. When the lion sound is played, the female cheetah looks up and analyzes the sound. It then usually takes her about 15 minutes to then get up and move from 500 meters to one kilometer away. Sarah takes a lot of time recording the smallest details of behavior in her notebook and the times that they occur. It almost seems to be over-analyzing their behavior to me until she explains that only 5% of young cheetah cubs reach maturity due to predation by lion and hyena, so the little details matter. Sarah plays hyena "whooping" sounds through her speaker. This is a contact call which they make as they are moving around. The "giggling sound" they make only when they are on a kill. However, neither of these sounds seem to disturb the cheetahs as much as the lion calls. The furthest distance that Sarah has been able to locate a cheetah is 7.5 kilometers. She has to find them with binoculars first, then she can follow and observe them. 90% of the cheetah's diet is Thompson's Gazelle, so most often, you will find them perched up on an old termite mound surveying the horizon. Sarah tells me that she wants to find out what is best for the cheetah in the long term. "You don't want to encourage them being pets. This is what wiped them out in Asia; the Maharajas used them for hunting."
Sarah tells me that the Tanzanians have no concept that tourists should get something for their money when they come here. "Just look at the menu and how much you have to pay to stay in the lodges here," she says with a smile, and yet, this is also what Sarah likes the most about this place - that it just doesn't matter. "I think people need something beautiful in their lives and wilderness is beautiful - like art and culture. This is why this place is important," she says. When you sit out in the wilderness all day looking at nature all around you, you begin to realize this. She tells me that Coco Chanel once said, 'Nature gives you the face you have at 20, but it is up to you to merit the face you have at 50.' We all earn our face.
Long before the sun rises, Tracy Robb and I have left camp to prepare her balloon. The clients arrive and we are airborne drifting across the Serengeti. From up here, the Serengeti comes alive. It is covered with animals. On the ground, the wind is from the south, and as we increase in altitude the wind comes from the east. The higher we go the more we turn to the left. This is how she steers. In the northern hemisphere it is the opposite; you will turn to the right with height. Tracy is from South Africa, and ballooning is her passion. I find my eyes are fixed to the ground as we drift along. The wildlife below is looking up at us, not knowing whether to watch or run as we pass.
Back on the ground, I am starting to notice that there are more female researchers than male researchers here. I feel a little bit like a Thompson's gazelle surrounded by cheetahs, and I am not sure that I am very comfortable about it. This surprises me, because I would have imagined that I wouldn't mind the attention, but this is different. I think males naturally like to hunt their prey or their mates, but they aren't so keen to have it the other way around. I find myself trying to avoid places and situations where I might be hunted. This is certainly a new experience for me, and I soon find security with John wildebeest.
John tells me that before the drought of 1993, there were 1.6 million wildebeest. Now, there are .9 million. There are a quarter million zebra and a half million Thompson's gazelle. John conducts his research by putting grass on a one meter square platform sled and dragging it up to a group of gazelle. He doesn't stop his vehicle, so as not to frighten the gazelle, but he releases the sled. The idea is that the gazelle will then come up and feed off the sled. He can then compare the weight of the grass before and after they have fed. So far this hasn't worked, because the gazelle haven't fed of the platform, but John remains optimistic.
Late in the afternoon, I sit east of Seronera and watch the sun set over the horizon. After the sun goes down, the sky turns a brilliant red as the sun shines up on the base of the clouds. Normally, the sun sets quite quickly along the equator, but this red glow continues for a full 15 minutes as the surrounding darkness envelopes me. This is taking far too long. I study this until I become convinced that I have made a great discovery. The sun must surely be reflecting off of Lake Victoria like a mirror and bouncing back up into the sky. I cannot imagine any other explanation for what I am seeing, but unfortunately no one thinks this is possible.
Markus Borner is preparing
his plane to go and track lions. He tells me that last night an elephant wanted
to sit on my plane. The askaris had to fire shots into the air. It was the same
elephant that had wrecked the boats and the land rover. The boats were wooden
canoes confiscated from poachers all lined up in a row. The elephant walked down
the whole row and crushed them. The land rover it turned over with its tusks. He
is a solitary bull, and he is a bit mischievous. Markus works for Frankfurt
Zoological Society here, and during the "Serengeti Diary" film, we flew together
in formation across the wildebeest migration. I could only see him half the time
as he was beneath my nose, and I had to watch him on a small television screen
through the camera as we were flying. He called these film runs the "National
Geographic Air Force maneuvers", and we would whiz past kopjies and trees and
wildebeest like feathers in the wind. Markus is old fashioned. He believes there
should be places on earth where man is not. He also thinks that conservation or
a national heritage is a sounder base than just revenue. "It should be pride,
not money," he says. Markus knew Professor Bernard Grzimek, and he says that
Grzimek trusted the Africans and believed in them; it was not just money for
them. At the time of independence, there was just one national park in Tanzania.
Now, there are 12 national parks and 1 Ngorongoro conservation area. Markus
says, "I learned through Grzimek to listen to older people. It is worthwhile to
listen. Wilderness is an emotional thing, and emotion is important for us. We
always try to find a rational reason for things; emotion is more important." He
refers to Grzimek's chapter heading - "listening to a lion roar". "We have had a
wave of rationalizing since then, but now emotion is coming back."