Monday, September 27, 2010

Fantasy versus Reality in the Pare Mountains

When I awoke on Sunday morning, the world had disappeared, which was really quite a shame. The previous evening, I had perched upon a deeply weathered boulder just below the summit of Kindoroko peak in the Pare Mountains.  African rhythms had drifted up from the valley far below.  Close by, a precipitously steep ridge rose towards the velvety green contours of an adjacent peak.  Deep fissures running down its sides formed dense wrinkly shadows as it caught the last of the afternoon sunlight.

The Massai Steppe stretched away into the middle distance where Nyumba ya Mungu Reservoir shimmered sleepily.  Far, far away, peeking over the horizon through its own orange haze, sprawled a seductively rugged-looking mountain range.  And beside me, an ornate, horned spider bided its time at the centre of a web strung between the bracken fronds.

But overnight, a chilly mist erased everything.  Our tents clung limply to the rough grass of an uneven clearing.  It was just before dawn and the hope of catching the sunrise had coaxed me from warm dreams and an even warmer sleeping bag.  I had imagined the first light of dawn cutting through the crisp morning air to highlight the distant pyramidal peaks of the Hanang range, but those hopes now lay in sodden tatters on the dew soaked turf.

What's more, it was cold in the high altitude mist and the porridge wasn’t ready yet so I retreated into my fantasy world where a crisply dressed waiter stood with a towel over his arm seducing me with the breakfast menu.  In my fantasy world, I had already enjoyed a warm shower in a bathroom sparkling with white porcelain; the newspaper lay half read on the table and the slightest nod was enough to summon fresh coffee…

As the waiter’s brisk footsteps receded, I indulged myself with a slideshow of memories from the previous day.  The truck had taken us up and over the Pare range on a road that gripped the hillsides like a twist of celestial spaghetti flung carelessly across the landscape.

Our drop off was Lomwe village, close to the birthplace of David Msuya.  It comprised an assortment of buildings scattered across a wide valley floor and lay confined beneath a ring of soaring peaks.  It took all afternoon to climb the calf-wrenching red-soil paths that led us through tiny farm plots until we reached the almost untouched woodland that thrives above 1800 metres.

An hour before sunset, we had reached the highest point in the North Pare Mountains: the tiny, table-top summit of Kindoroko, 2113 metres above sea level.  Bracken and small trees lay scattered across the peak and tiny paths led to secluded and spectacular view points.  The air was fresh and clear as I gazed out over a mosaic of banana, sugar cane and vegetable terraces crammed together on the steep valley walls.

But there was nothing to linger for the following morning.  With the tents struck and the porridge eaten, or rather drunk (memo required regarding oats to water ratio), we slithered off the edge of Kindoroko onto a treacherously steep path.  Damp leaves and perilous roots littered the knee-jarringly precipitous trail and the world was lost in an eerie, mist muffled silence.  But that was okay because in my fantasy world birds twittered and an escalator whisked me sedately down through a centrally heated, virtual mountain experience.

Then suddenly, the cloud lifted and the real world took centre stage.  I dropped back from the herd and as the thundering hooves of twenty trekkers faded into the distance, real birds started to tweet.  If I knew my birds, I may have been able to identify the call of an Olive Woodpecker, Moustached Green-tinkerbird or perhaps an African Hill Babbler – just a few of the exotic sounding species common in the North Pare.  But I happily skipped the twitcher’s checklist in favour of a rainbow of unidentified, colourful flashes flitting through lichen laden branches.

For the remainder of the hike, my fantasy world lay largely unexplored as our descent meandered through isolated small-holdings; chickens scurried off the path ahead of us, clucking their reproach and mud bricks lay baking in the sun or piled high waiting to be fired.  Eventually the trail levelled off and I tramped a dusty track flanked by the vicious spikes of katani (sisel) succulents, whose tough fibres are spun into course rope.

Finally we wandered the eroded dirt streets of Lembeni, a dusty hamlet straddling the Dar road.  A tiny grocery store bore the name ‘Simple Store’.  I wondered if the name referred to the stock or the merchant.  Or maybe only simple clients are served.  I didn't stop, just in case.  Parked nearby was a lorry with ‘Man to Man Truck’ emblazoned across the top of its windscreen.  Perhaps 'Man' is a place and the lorry plies a circular route.  Or maybe the driver offers more than just haulage.  I quickened my step, just in case.

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The Birds of East Africa: Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi (Princeton Field Guides)   Birds of East Africa (Field Guide)   Common Birds of East Africa (Collins Safari Guides)

Breakfast image sourced from Wikipedia and reproduced under the terms of the Creative Commons Licence.
All other images (c) Jon Bigg

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A body blow for consumerism?

As our 16 year-old Landcruiser bounced along the corrugated dirt track, an altogether more decrepit vehicle was being pushed enthusiastically in the opposite direction. The young boy may well have made it himself: a piece of wood formed the chassis; four cans had been crushed into crude wheels and a stick provided propulsion.

Catching sight of the boy, our own children sniggered from the jump seats in the back. It was an entirely understandable reaction. All their lives, we had surrounded them with first-world greed. They had been bombarded by advertisements precipitating the capitalist mantra of buy-to-be-happy and had grown up amidst the sickening wastefulness of planned and perceived obsolescence. A child with a junk-yard toy was fair game as an object of ridicule.

But understandable does not equate to acceptable. And so their relative wealth was put into perspective and the boy’s ingenuity and uncluttered happiness earned their respect.

Which brings me to the sad story of a small bear:

A week before we came to Tanzania, Fraser lost Pooky. It was the second time he had lost Pooky. The first fist-sized incarnation of Garfield’s teddy bear had disappeared a year or so before. A replacement Pooky was eventually sourced and was treasured with equal gusto. Pooky the 2nd went everywhere with Fraser and it was this devotion that brought their relationship to a premature end. Inevitably, Pooky was left behind somewhere, never to be seen again.

Fraser missed Pooky terribly and often asked if we could get a new Pooky (third incarnations are not uncommon in teddy-bear karma). But one night Fraser told me that, although he still missed Pooky, every time he thought about it he remembered the boy with the toy car… Life in Africa has given my six year old something many adults never attain.

Not a body-blow for consumerism – Fraser is just one of the millions of capitalistically inclined children carelessly scuffing the delicate shell of our fragile Earth. But if you’re going to change the world, start at home with your own kids’ perceptions, right?

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Friday, September 10, 2010

A month in Tanzania

It’s been a tough month, filled with frustrations that I never anticipated. A single, all-pervading frustration, really. The largest free-standing frustration in the world, in fact.  Every day I see Mount Kilimanjaro towering above me, its summit less than 25km away. And every day I cannot climb it, at least not yet…

We’re living 900 metres above sea-level on Kili’s verdant lower slopes – volcanic soil and regular high-altitude precipitation preserve a fertile micro-region with abundant greenery.

My orientation week, which kicked off the morning after we arrived, was a chaotic whirlwind of information. But it culminated with what has proved to be one of the highlights so far: a staff camping trip to Lake Chala, an ancient flooded caldera straddling the Kenyan border. School organized and paid for the trip and families came too, although Nina opted to stay home with Marcus.

Now, four weeks into term, we’re beginning to settle into a routine. Each morning, Nina walks to school with Annie and Fraser, who often cycle the ½ mile trip, which follows a quiet dirt road. I usually leave a little earlier but often see the children during the school day.

We’ve bought a 16 year old, eight-seater Toyota Landcruiser Prado and hired Palina, a lovely Tanzanian nanny / maid who speaks only Swahili, which is providing a little more incentive for us, particularly Nina, to learn the native language!

ISM has an excellent OP (Outdoor Pursuits) programme and in a couple of weeks, I’m heading to the Pares Mountains on a two day trip before tackling a four day Kilimanjaro trek at the end of November – not to the summit; that will have to wait…

There is a fortnightly Hash here, which we were introduced to recently. It couldn’t have been better! We spent an hour or so meandering through banana groves, across streams and in and out of remote communities. Annie and Fraser forged ahead with a dozen other excited youngsters while Nina, Marcus and I brought up the rear. For large sections, we were followed by a crowd of chattering Chagga* children, excited by the sudden appearance of a herd of Wazungu*.

And then there are the bike rides and walks. Just behind our house, a river courses through a deep gully littered with boulders for the children to jump between. Beyond the river, the track slopes steadily upwards through coffee, corn, maize and banana fields. This is where I ride each weekend, with Kilimanjaro as the constant backdrop.

There’s a week long break coming up and we hope to finish unpacking, visit a nearby wildlife park and go back to Lake Chala for the day. There are also some hot-springs not far away which we may try. So much to see and do and all so close to home!

Each morning I walk 10 minutes to work along a tree lined track. I watch the fiery red African sun rise as I walk and when I arrive I glance up towards the majestic roof of Africa before settling down to work. The people are cool, our kids are really happy and the school believes in children as well as grades... all good, except when it's really good.
* Chagga are the predominant indigenous tribe in the Kilimanjaro region of Tanzania
* Wazungu is the plural of Mzungu, the Swahili word for a white person

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