Rufous-tailed weaver eating bread out of my hand at Ngorongoro Crater.

Rufous-tailed weaver eating bread out of my hand at Ngorongoro Crater.

Sorting photographs after a trip is always a time consuming process. I spent most of February in Kenya and Tanzania and captured just over 22,000 images. I started going through them in earnest this morning and have reviewed about a folder and a half of pictures so far … only 73 folders to go. Just looking at this initial batch made me realize that I may really be a “birder” at heart.

 

Please, sir ... may I have some more?

Please, sir ... may I have some more?

A longer post on this later … just wanted to include a few samples while it’s on my mind. These photographs were all captured between 6 am and noon on the last day of January of 2010 … all from Ngorongoro Crater.

 

Kori Bustard, inflated and in full mating display.  Ngorongoro Crater, January 2010.

Kori Bustard, inflated and in full mating display. Ngorongoro Crater, January 2010.

Ngorongoro Crater is also a great location for photographing water birds, although it doesn’t have the reputation that Lake Manyara has.

Black-crowned night heron at Ngorongoro Crater

Black-crowned night heron at Ngorongoro Crater

Black kites are are very common in Ngorongoro Crater.  They’ve been known to swoop and steal food from the hands of tourists around the hippo pool.

Black Kite on the floor of Ngorongoro Crater.

Black Kite on the floor of Ngorongoro Crater.

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Vera Brittain as a V. A. D. nurse

Vera Brittain as a V. A. D. nurse

 

 

Winston Churchill once wrote that the American Civil War was perhaps the least avoidable of all human conflicts.  World War I most certainly lies at the opposite end of the necessity spectrum.  Over the years I’ve made repeated attempts to define and comprehend the precise basis for that mindless four year exercise in human misery.  Despite several visits to the library and an extended mining expedition through my own stacks, I’d be hard pressed to offer a viable explanation for it all.  I further suspect that the most accomplished student of that era would be similarly challenged. 

 

Vera Brittain’s 1933 memoir “Testament of Youth” chronicles the war’s spiritual and emotional toll on an actively engaged member of the Lost Generation.  Raised in a comfortable home in the north of England, VB aspired to academic and literary accomplishment throughout her peaceful and near idyllic youth.  When the guns of August began to roar, she’d just completed her first year at University and was recently engaged to a close friend of her brother’s.  Her fiancé was a sensitive and thoughtful young man … a thinker and writer of poetry who appeared to be VB’s kindred spirit in almost every way.  As the months rolled past, her fiancé, brother, and the other two dearest members of their circle of friends volunteered for military service.  In a selfless gesture of solidarity and personal sacrifice, VB gave up Oxford and offered her services to the V. A. D. (Voluntary Aid Detachment) as a nurse.  Writing about her fiancé, Roland Leighton, who was in the trenches in northern France at the time …

 

“I have been trying to picture to myself what I should feel if I heard he was dead.  It would be impossible to realize; life would seem so utterly empty and purposeless without him that it is almost inconceivable … I only know that such an anguish could never be conquered in a life of scholastic endeavour … never among those indifferent, unperceiving college women for the majority of whom war and love and grief might not exist.”

 

She was initially assigned to care for the wounded in a London hospital, then to Malta and finally near the front in northern France.  The horrors of her occupation and the hideous wounds inflicted by “modern,” mechanized instruments of war were cruel beyond her experience and imagination.  But like most who work in that trying environment, she adapted and made the mental adjustments that enabled her to persevere.

 

Vera's fiance, Roland Leighton, died on 23 December 1915

Vera's fiance, Roland Leighton, died on 23 December 1915

 

 

VB’s fiancé died at a casualty clearing station just before Christmas in 1915.  On the first of July following, in the initial assault of the Somme offensive (a dark day for the British Army – 60,000 casualties in a 24 hour period) her brother sustained a serious, but not life-threatening wound that earned him an extended convalescence in England.  In 1917, another of her brother’s inner circle was killed in France and yet another – the last of her brother’s dearest friends – sustained a severe head wound that permanently blinded him.  Serving her Malta stint at the time, she returned to England to his bedside with the full intention of becoming his wife and permanent caregiver.  Within days of her return, however, this friend died as well.

 

VB had already begun to question the sanity, if not the morality, of the war that had consumed so much of her youth and innocence.  As her blinded, would-be husband passed from this world to the next, she rendered a searingly accurate judgment on the collective head of humankind:

 

“… the orderly lifted the sheet from the motionless figure, so familiar, but in its silent unfamiliarity so terrible an indictment of the inept humanity which condemned its own noblest types to such a fate.”

 

Edward Brittain, supremely gifted violinist and brother of Vera Brittain

Edward Brittain, supremely gifted violinist and brother of Vera Brittain

 

 

Her beloved brother Edward, the gifted musician and lover of poetry, was the last to fall.  Returned to service after his recovery, he died on the Asiago Plateau in Italy in the summer of 1918, just a few months before the end of the war.  Back in England when the Armistice was signed, VB could feel no exultation when the bells tolled the “victory” and the celebrations spilled into the streets.

 

“Already this was a different world from the one that I had known during four life-long years, a world in which people would be light-hearted and forgetful, in which themselves and their careers and their amusements would blot out political ideals and great national issues.  And in that brightly lit, alien world I should have no part.”

 

VB’s post-war existence was focused on her development as a novelist, her dedication to the advancement of women’s rights and her commitment to pacifism.  She also served as a lecturer for the newly established League of Nations.  In the interest of self-enlightenment, she toured the defeated countries and witnessed firsthand the irrational, needless suffering inflicted by the Treaty of Versailles.  With passion and precision, she described the misery and resentment that played so critical a role in condemning yet another generation to the unspeakable horrors of global conflict.  Ironically, her memoir was published in 1933, the year that Adolf Hitler began to seize power by force to begin the creation of a National Socialist Germany.

 

Few people in history have made a more viable and personal case for pacifism than Vera Brittain.  The 10 years or so immediately following World War I were inordinately trying for her.  She was haunted by demons that at times very nearly overwhelmed her and rendered her unable to function in “normal” society.  Her Testament is one of the most powerful books I’ve read in recent years, which is why I’ve spent so much time on it and filled so much space with this post.  It should be mandatory reading for those in positions of national leadership who hold the power to send our youth in harm’s way.

 

A final note on Testament of Youth …

 

In the spring of 1917 Vera Brittain was again serving as a V. A. D. at a field hospital in northern France, not far from the front.  Czarist Russia had capitulated, and the steadily advancing German Army had been heavily reinforced with tens of thousands of troops from the east.  The danger was grave and the outcome of the war was, for the first time since 1914, in serious doubt.  I hope the reader will forgive the insertion of the lengthy passage below … it is, in many ways, gratuitous.  I include it because I want to incorporate some words of hope and optimism in this segment, and I’ll admit that as a career military officer I do take some pride in VB’s heartfelt and moving observations.  And I’ll further concede that I lack the sophistication to loathe my own country.

 

“Only a day or two afterwards I was leaving quarters to go back to my ward, when I had to wait to let a large contingent of troops march past me along the main road that ran through our camp.  They were swinging rapidly towards Camiers, and though the sight of soldiers marching was too familiar to arouse curiosity, an unusual quality of bold vigour in their swift stride caused me to stare at them with puzzled interest.

 

They looked larger than ordinary men; their tall, straight figures were in vivid contrast to the under-sized armies of pale recruits to which we had grown accustomed.  At first I thought their spruce, clean uniforms were those of officers, yet obviously they could not be officers, for there were too many of them; they seemed, as it were, Tommies in heaven.  Had yet another regiment been conjured from our depleted Dominions?  I wondered, watching them move with such rhythm, such dignity, such serene consciousness of self-respect.  But I knew the colonial troops so well, and these were different; they were assured where the Australians were aggressive, self-possessed where the New Zealanders were turbulent.

 

Then I heard an excited exclamation from a group of Sisters behind me.

 

‘Look! Look!  Here are the Americans.!’

 

I pressed forward with the others to watch the United States physically entering the war, so God-like, so magnificent, so splendidly unimpaired in comparison with the tired, nerve-racked men of the British Army.  So these were our deliverers at last, marching up the road to Camiers in the spring sunshine!  There seemed to be hundreds of them, and in the fearless swagger of their proud strength they looked a formidable bulwark against the peril looming from Amiens.

 

Somehow the necessity of packing up in a hurry, the ignominious flight to the coast so long imagined, seemed to move further away.  An uncontrollable emotion seized me – as such emotions often seized us in those days of insufficient sleep; my eyeballs pricked, my throat ached, and a mist swam over the confident Americans going to the front.  The coming of relief made me realise all at once how long and how intolerable had been the tension, and with the knowledge that we were not, after all, defeated, I found myself beginning to cry.”

 

— From Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth

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Mating lion pair in the central Maasai Mara.  This shot captures the PCS.

Mating lion pair in the central Maasai Mara. This shot captures the PCS.

We depart from the Sarova Lodge (the glories of which are discussed in an earlier post) at 0830 on September 10th. It’s about 40 miles to the Mara River and the Serena Lodge, and the transit is fascinating, as always. Just a few kilometers from our destination we stop to observe another mating lion pair sprawled in the grass by the roadside. Photographing lions in this mode is not difficult, but some patience is required. They average 2 to 3 “events” per hour (24/7) for an extended period … sometimes 5 or 6 days. The “events” are brief … 10 seconds or so, and generally only minimally interesting. The key to a good photo is capturing what I refer to as the Post-Coital Snarl, or PCS. Unfortunately for the female, the male appendage is actually barbed and its withdrawal is always painful for her. At the conclusion of each “event” she predictably turns on the male and growls her displeasure via the PCS. The male, not to be intimidated, usually responds with a much deeper and more frightening PCS.

The migration in the late afternoon ... Maasai Mara September 2009.

The migration in the late afternoon ... Maasai Mara September 2009.

The guides are correct about the location of the wildebeest … the migration is here in astronomical numbers. On our first afternoon in the central part of the reserve we visit the banks of the Mara River and observe a column of wildebeest queuing to cross. They carefully survey the river, the rocks and the crocodiles and then very prudently change their minds. As the day winds to a close, a gorgeous sunset illuminates the hills, accentuating the beauty of the migration in the red glow of late afternoon. I tell Kevin that there’s no place on earth I’d rather be at this moment. The beauty of the Maasai Mara at this time of year, and in this light, completely defies all descriptive powers.

Part of a 2 male coalition ... just finished feeding on a wildebeest.

Part of a 2 male coalition ... just finished feeding on a wildebeest.

Early the following morning we find two lions ripping up a wildebeest carcass. This is a coalition of older males … apparently well past their prime. Their manes are dark and the coloration of their noses indicates that they are in their later years. They were probably pride males at one time, but were supplanted by an even more powerful coalition. Long gone are the days when these lions sprawled in the grass while their lionesses worked to kill. But they are physically imposing nonetheless, and based on their round stomachs and the size of the wildebeest carcass, it’s fair to say that they are still very effective hunters.

Wildebeest running the crocodile gauntlet in the Mara River.

Wildebeest running the crocodile gauntlet in the Mara River.

At about 10 a.m. on a bright morning David places us high on the banks of the Mara River. Sure enough, a dark line of wildebeest forms on the horizon and works its way to the water’s edge. As always, the animals take the time to assess the danger and make a few false starts, but eventually they take the plunge (see my blog post dated 29 July 2009 for more on the crossing procedure). The river is very low this year because of the extended drought, and at no point do the animals have to swim. This actually gives them greater mobility and facilitates their ability to evade the river’s most dangerous predator. Within a few seconds, however, a large crocodile glides to within just a few feet of the splashing wildebeest, and then actually invades the column. It makes repeated lunges at the wildebeest, but never manages to take one. Finally, a yearling attempts to leap over the croc and is captured in mid-air. The croc turns downstream, the prey clamped firmly in its jaws … the confused wildebeest struggling to keep its head above water. It bawls pitifully until more crocodiles converge and end its torment. About twenty minutes after the last animal struggles up the bank on our side of the river, a single female wildebeest re-appears at the river’s edge, looking back at the opposite bank. She stares upriver, then down … and then safely re-crosses back to the open plain where she stood with her lost calf about half an hour ago.

Wildebeest in motion.

Wildebeest in motion.

Wildebeest graze and loiter without form or design. But when they move from point A to point B, it’s always done in a column … and at times that column can extend for many miles. Their instincts are admirable if not incredible. As they coalesce into a long line it’s difficult not to wonder what’s happening behind those flat faces and dull eyes. One of the tens of thousands must assume a leadership role, the others must unspeakingly acknowledge the leader and fall in behind, and then the whole column must magically move in the direction of more nutritious grasses. And season after season, year after year, decade after decade, millennium upon millenium … it all seems to miraculously work according to plan.

David Muteti and me at the Mara Serena Lodge.  Photo courtesy of Kevin Woisard.

David Muteti and me at the Mara Serena Lodge. Photo courtesy of Kevin Woisard.

A friend of mine – a photographer — recently told me that the Maasai Mara is his favorite place on earth. I think I agree with him … and I will be a repeat visitor for as long as I have the time, resources and health to do so.

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My first ever photo of a Purple (or Rufous-Crowned) Roller captured in the Eastern Maasai Mara in September 2009.   This bird is a cousin of the more common Lilac-Breasted Roller.

My first ever photo of a Purple (or Rufous-Crowned) Roller captured in the Eastern Maasai Mara in September 2009. This bird is a cousin of the more common Lilac-Breasted Roller.

The grass in the eastern Maasai Mara is usually tall, healthy and golden in the month of September, with the slightest traces of green near the roots. But the drought this year has been severe, and the effects of it are much more pronounced in this part of Kenya than any place we’ve visited to date. The rolling grasslands, usually so rich and vibrant, look more like a midwestern American wheat field just after the combine cuts through … yellow stubble emerging from loose gray dust, stretching for miles over the rolling hills. Because of the unseasonable dry spell, this is poor grazing land for the ungulates, and it’s no surprise that there are relatively few wildebeest and zebra here. But there is no shortage of predators, and the lions appear to be present in their usual strong numbers.

Very young lion cubs nursing in the Maasai Mara.

Very young lion cubs nursing in the Maasai Mara.

On our first afternoon game drive we find fifteen … including a mating couple and two lionesses with cubs so young that their walk is mostly a stagger. David positions us so that we’re able to capture close up shots of the little guys enthusiastically nursing. We are also fortunate to get a glimpse of a leopard within the first few hours of arriving in the Mara. Perched in a tree near a dry streambed, she peers through the branches long enough to allow us a few reasonably good shots. The leopard is by far the most elusive of the great cats, and seeing this one may be a good omen for us.

Leopard surveying the horizon for a potential meal.

Leopard surveying the horizon for a potential meal.

Late on our second day in the eastern Mara we are favored with a sublimely ridiculous sight … one that I’ve never seen before and sort of hope I never see again … a pair of mating hyenas. Mating lions are a common sight on the African plain, and they usually execute the procedure with the same speed and aggressiveness they employ when they hunt. The hyena approach is much more deliberate. The male is slightly smaller than the female, and, like a cook stretching for a bowl on the top shelf, he very nearly has to tiptoe to reach the target. The immobile female gazes disinterestedly at the ground throughout the process while the unenthusiastic male stares goofily into space. This is one of the most inelegant copulations you’ll ever see. I’ve embedded a photograph here, but it is severely cropped in order to maintain our PG rating.

Sweet love on the African plains.  Strategically cropped to maintain the site's PG rating.  Converted to black and white to enhance the artistic power of the shot.

Sweet love on the African plains. Strategically cropped to maintain the site's PG rating. Converted to black and white to enhance the artistic power of the shot.

The hyena event is not the only rarity we witness during this visit to the eastern Mara. On two separate occasions we see one of Africa’s most reticent predators, the serval cat. The first serval is in the hunting mode, creeping stealthily around a stand of tall grass in pursuit of a francolin. Through the bush we see the bird launch, the cat leap in hot pursuit and the feathers fly. Most of the action is obscured through the scrub, so photographs of the attack really are impossible. The second cat is very cooperative. Hunting, he eases warily through the grass and edges close enough to allow us some acceptable portraits. This is indeed a gift … the serval close-ups are tight and clear … much more so than we could have reasonably hoped for. As the old chief in the movie Little Big Man once said … “sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn’t.” This time it did.

Serval Cat on the hunt ... and looking remarkably like a common housecat.

Serval Cat on the hunt ... and looking remarkably like a common housecat.

Perhaps the most impressive thing I witness on this segment of the trip is my friend Kevin’s commitment to quality photography. We are fortunate to find a leopard in deep brush on a stream bank on a bright morning. Muteti positions the vehicle as best he can, but the least obstructed view is still from the driver’s window. Kevin works his way between the narrow bars that separate the passenger section from the driver and very nearly lands in Muteti’s lap. He positions the camera across David’s chest and takes his best shot at the leopard resting in the shade. I’ve yet to see the image, but suspect that it is wonderful indeed. Hats off to him for his skill and perseverance.

Zebras populating a hillside in the eastern Mara.

Zebras populating a hillside in the eastern Mara.

The first real signs of a break in the drought coincide with our presence in the eastern Mara. The clouds build in the late afternoon and on two separate occasions we’re caught in heavy rains at about sunset. Along with the showers come the grazers … the hillsides begin to fill with zebra and wildebeest although not in last year’s numbers. Muteti and the other guides tell us that the central Maasai Mara is host to the most of the migratory animals this year. That’s our next stop.

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