The Maasai Mara in September ... the reward for enduring numbing hours in airport terminals and pressurized cabins

The Maasai Mara in September ... the reward for enduring numbing hours in airport terminals and pressurized cabins

I complained in a previous post (dated July 29th) about the physical discomfort inherent in the 22 hour commute to East Africa. But I will concede that there are certain experiences within this generally blurred sequence of unpleasantness — parking lots, shuttles, baggage counters, and terminals — that do in fact afford me a small measure of joy.

Once inside the terminal, I particularly love to take a seat near the gate and position my backpack in front of me to use as a footrest. I then lean back, plant my hiking shoes on the pack and watch the parade. It seems that a good 50% of the travelers are talking on cell phones at any given time. My favorites are the pasty-faced men in business suits, pacing nervously, expressions of concern clouding their faces, phones clamped tightly against their heads and speaking far too loudly … advancing the notion that they want all within earshot to be impressed with their corporate importance. And I sit quietly with my photo bag, hiking pants and ticket to Kenya … warm in the conviction that I wouldn’t trade places with them for all the world.

Depending on flight direction and fatigue level, I sometimes enjoy the effects of the rapid changes in time zones. There’s something indefinably peaceful about arriving in Amsterdam just before sunrise and strolling through the endless corridors as the shops begin to open, with sleepy travelers draped over lounge chairs and the first orange glow of the day piercing the terminal glass. I usually find a quiet corner to drink a cup of tea and watch the passageways and waiting areas fill with humanity on the move. I’ll take out my book (which will be Charlotte Bronte’s “Villette” this time) but will likely be too tired to read.

The first leg of all this will be behind me a week from today, when I’ll be on the ground in Nairobi. Eastern and Southern Safaris has helped to coordinate an exceptional itinerary. It is …

30 August until 2 September – Samburu. This will be my first visit to this dusty and arid reserve, rightfully famous for its unique wildlife. It is home to the gorgeous reticulated giraffe, which is the most beautiful of all the sub-species in my opinion. We should see the thin-striped Grevy’s zebra and the homely gerenuk, an antelope with an unusual propensity for standing on its hind legs, stretching to the lower reaches of the trees to eat.

3 to 5 September – Lake Nakuru. This will be my second visit to this lovely reserve, which is actually within just a few kilometers of the city of Nakuru. Flamingoes crowd the lake’s shallows, and the shorelines are dotted with an abundance of waterbirds … including the stately African Fish Eagle and a personal favorite, the oddly shaped Hammerkop. In addition to the wide range of birds, we should see both the black and white rhinoceros. There are few places in Africa with such a heavy concentration of these rare animals. Staying at the Sarova Lion Hill Lodge, I think we may be able to photograph baboons right outside our door.

6 to 15 September – The Maasai Mara … its attractions are discussed exhaustively in earlier posts. This segment, with the wildebeest migration in full swing, will certainly be the highlight of the trip.

After I return I will begin to post notes from my Zambia trip of November 2008 and hope to convert my journal from this year’s Kenya trip into narrative some time before Christmas. I look forward to writing more in late September.

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It was my privilege to catch the Derek Trucks Band concert at the National in Richmond last evening. Those two hours confirmed my opinion that Derek is a once-in-a-generation talent. The Band played several of my favorite tunes, including “I’ll Find My Way,” “Greensleeves,” “Key to the Highway” and the one that far and away gets the most hits on my IPOD, “Mahjoun.” The DTB has great chemistry and many influences … not only American blues and jazz, but there are also strong hints of West Africa and even India from time to time.

Derek’s craftsmanship is impeccable. He seems to play slide about 70% of the time now. It must be difficult for those who’ve never tried it to comprehend how challenging this style can be. Playing the usual way, as long as the finger depresses the string anywhere within the confines of the fret, the note will ring true. This is different than playing with the slide bottle, which must be placed very precisely on the string above the fret to ensure an accurate sound. This is increasingly tough as you work your way up the neck where the frets get progressively closer together. Even more difficult is what I refer to as “string management.” On a Gibson guitar with hot pickups and a cranked amplifier, it’s so easy for miscellaneous string noise to creep through. The bottle is almost always touching strings that the guitarist isn’t actually “playing” with the right hand. The challenge is to deaden those strings to prevent them from getting in the way of the music. Not easy.

Describing Derek Trucks, I once heard a music critic on National Public Radio say that as you listen, “you don’t have to be an expert to know that something striking is happening.” That’s for damn sure. Before I left for the concert I found a youtube interview clip with Dickey Betts (formerly with the Allman Brothers Band) responding to a sacrilegious quote from Butch Trucks (ABB percussionist and uncle of Derek Trucks), who said that “technically, Derek Trucks is a better guitarist than Duane Allman.” Dickey noted that the comparison was “apples and oranges,” because both were great players and innovators … they just come from different eras and origins. And besides, he says, music is not a competition, certainly not in this instance … if it were, everyone would be a well-deserved winner.

I suspect that both Butch and Dickey were correct in their respective analyses. I think Derek spent many hours as a budding musician listening to Duane, who passed away a decade or so before Derek was even born. I further deduce that he is as indebted to Duane as any musician has ever been to a mentor or role model. But Derek Trucks is about as original as a musician can be in this day and time. He is a product of his influences, to be sure, but nobody has ever come close to generating the sounds that Derek extracts from the instrument. The operative word in Butch’s comment was “technically.” By that I think he meant that Derek can physically play notes, chords, etc. that Duane could not play. I think this is irrefutably true … but let’s allow for the fact that Derek had more hours on slide by the time he was 15 years old than Duane had at his death.

Duane’s magic is harder to define. Although he only lived to age 24, he played with great taste, spirit and maturity. He didn’t fall into the trap of self-indulgence that so many young guitarists fall prey to. A few years back, Rolling Stone listed the 100 greatest guitarists of all time (ignoring the jazz greats through history, but including all other genres … typically idiotic Rolling Stone logic), and they placed Jimi Hendrix at the top with Duane Allman in the number two position. This is not unreasonable, but it is arguable … and I’ll argue it right now. Hendrix was a great innovator and a great player, and could have been the premier blues player of all time had he lived and focused. But while he was setting his Stratocaster on fire and waving his feather boa, Duane Allman was making music … with fire, soul and intensity. In my estimation, Duane was the better player. (For perspective, I should mention that the whole Rolling Stone list is absurd … Derek Trucks is ranked 81st behind virtuosos like John Fogerty, Joni Mitchell and Jerry Miller of Moby Grape.)

Duane Allman died in October of 1971 and I ain’t over it yet. I never saw him play live and I’ve always regretted that very deeply. But Derek represents the here and now. I’m thankful for it, and won’t miss a show if it’s within a half-day’s drive.

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Maasai Mara grasslands in the heart of the "dry" season

Maasai Mara grasslands in the heart of the "dry" season

The Serengeti plain touches the Kenyan border along its northernmost edge. From there, it extends southward into Tanzania for many miles, with the Ngorongoro Conservation area to its east and the legendary Lake Victoria to the west. I’m told that the word “Serengeti” is derived from the Maasai language, meaning “endless plain that touches the sky.” If that definition is correct, then this must surely be the most appropriately named place on earth.

The Serengeti is contiguous with the Maasai Mara, which stretches north, well into the heart of Kenya. Despite the similarity of their wildlife and the ubiquity of the Maasai people throughout, these two parcels of terrestrial heaven seem to have their own characters and temperaments. The Serengeti is hauntingly beautiful. Flatter than the Mara, its expansive grasslands are dotted with isolated stacks of boulders called “kopjes” (pronounced much like the word “copy” with a slightly elongated “o”). These odd, eye-catching formations were created when molten material pierced the earth’s surface and cooled as enormous piles of igneous rock. They punctuate the landscape under skies that always impress and frequently overwhelm.

Serengeti in February ... "the endless plain that touches the sky" with kopje in the right side of the frame

Serengeti in February ... "the endless plain that touches the sky" with kopje in the right side of the frame

The Maasai Mara conveys a slightly different mood. To the farthest horizon its hills are speckled with acacia and fig trees, randomly dispersed islands of green on a golden sea. But what makes the Mara transcendently beautiful is the quality of its light. In the heart of the dry season, the Serengeti sky can be almost blinding, and full days and even weeks may pass without even the trace of a cloud. Not so with the Maasai Mara. Its “dry” season is never completely dry … which is why the vast herds of wildebeest continue to turn up each August, just as they have for many centuries. The clouds seem to gather every afternoon … their shadows dapple the low hills and accentuate the pure colors of the African sky.

Typical late afternoon Mara sky ... captured in the month of September

Typical late afternoon Mara sky ... captured in the month of September

After I return from a trip to East Africa, I spend many hours and even days poring over my images, performing a sort of photographic triage. So many times I’ve paused in disbelief over a landscape and silently questioned my cameras, lenses and filters. Was the sky or the grassland really that color? Or could there be some luminous anomaly at work, altering the hues to some fantastic shade that couldn’t possibly be real? The only sure way to validate the quality of light and color is to return for a personal assessment … once a year at a minimum. Research commences again two weeks from today.

Last light of day in the Mara after a tremendous June thunderstorm ... personal favorite of all my photos, I don't think I'll ever see light like this again

Last light of day in the Mara after a tremendous June thunderstorm ... personal favorite of all my photos, I don't think I'll ever see light like this again

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Spotted Hyena

Spotted Hyena

I mentioned in a previous post that I’m often asked which African animal is my favorite. As I explained, it’s actually a tough question because there are so many worthy candidates. I’ve never been asked which animal I like the least, but that would certainly be an easy one to answer.
All animals that manage to survive and thrive in such a demanding environment deserve our respect. But I’ve found the spotted hyena to be the most difficult of all creatures to love. They are physically unappealing, with short rear legs and a sloping back that makes every movement a suspicious looking skulk. Their eyes are warm in color but cold in aspect, with a curious dead quality that reminds one of a shark’s eyes. They hunt on occasion, but prefer to steal their food if the opportunity is presented. The cheetah, because it is light and fragile, stands no chance against the hyena. If the cheetah brings down a gazelle within the sight or hearing of a hyena, then it has labored for nothing. The hyena will ignore the cheetah and move in directly to take the prey. They also steal from lions, but this requires a concentrated team effort by the entire pack. The hyenas swarm around the pride until the lions, annoyed and frustrated beyond their ability to endure, slink away and leave the kill to the pests.
Watching a hyena take a live animal is not a sight for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach. Lions, leopards and cheetahs kill quickly by clamping onto the throat of the victim. Once in the grasp, the prey animal is dispatched in mere minutes (cape buffalo is the exception owing to its size and strength). The hyena is not so merciful. They disable their prey, take it to the ground and begin to eat immediately. The “kill” is often still alive even after it is half devoured.
The cliché is true … the African plain is indeed “unforgiving.” When I see an injured gazelle or wildebeest — and there are many during the migration time — I make a silent wish that the hyena will be the last predator to cross its path. Better to die of dehydration in the sun than to become a meal for my least favorite animal.

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My plane leaves for Kenya three weeks from today. The spare bedroom at my home is currently strewn with cameras, lenses, batteries, chargers, flashlights, pelican cases and backpacks. The hopes are to (a) accurately judge equipment requirements, (b) safely pack all the gear into a very finite amount of space, and (c) minimize the risk with baggage handlers by lugging the most critical items into the passenger compartment. For the first time I’ll take a fully paid for, brand new, Nikon 600mm lens. It will not fit in the carry on, so it must be secured and turned over to the airline. This is a horrifying proposition indeed. Checking that lens will certainly be one of the most traumatic events of my life. But there’s no choice. In my backpack I’ll have a brand new, never used, Nikon 200-400mm lens, which was about half the expense of the 600mm but an extravagant piece of glass nonetheless. It barely fits into my pack, but having it close guarantees that I’ll be able to photograph even if tragedy strikes the checked lens.

On to more pleasant thoughts. As I write this, I’m acutely aware that the wildebeest have already begun to descend on the Maasai Mara in monstrous numbers, and, if they’re on schedule, they’ll still be arriving when I touch down in late August. It’s been eight months since I last set foot on the African continent, which is about as long as I can tolerate being away.

Mara Wildebeest

Mara Wildebeest

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