Over the Edge: Landscapes or Seascapes?

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Looking down on the small holder farms of Escarpment in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley

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And on Shropshire farm fields from Wenlock Edge

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It’s an interesting thought that in time the Great Rift Valley could become a seascape, for even now the earth’s crust is pulling apart along its 6,000 kilometre length.  The Horn of Africa, Somalia and the eastern half of Kenya would then become an island. Meanwhile these views of Shropshire show a landscape that was once covered in a shallow tropical sea. Also Wenlock Edge, on which I am standing to take this photograph, was once the bed of that sea before geological forces shunted it upwards. It makes you think, doesn’t it – the relentless forces of change?

And for the story that connects these vistas: First Post Revisited: By the Silurian Sea

Cee’s Fun Foto Challenge: Landscapes or Seascapes

Xanthophloea ~ Acacia, that is

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Fever trees, Acacia xanthophloea, and waterbuck at Elmenteita, Kenya

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For those of you who follow Frizztext’s alphabet prompts, the tail end is always a challenge. What the devil begins with ‘X’? So here, yet again, I am cheating a bit, but at the same time introducing you to a tree I fell in love with while we lived in Kenya. It is well worth getting to know. It has a velvety golden bark, and feathery foliage, and it smells of…I don’t know what it smells of…perhaps something warm and faintly spicy, and a bit like gorse.

It  acquired its English name ‘fever tree’ from early explorers who thought it actually caused malaria, rather than the mosquitos that infested the water sources near which it was often found growing. It is also known as the Naivasha Thorn because the shores of this Kenyan lake (still much occupied by the descendants of white settler families) are characteristically populated by these graceful trees.

Its botanical name comes from xanthos  meaning yellow, and phloios  meaning bark or skin. A golden skinned acacia: I think that sums it up. I read somewhere, too, that it is one of the few trees where photosynthesis takes place in the bark as well as in the leaves.

One New Year we had a hangi pit roast party in our front garden in Nairobi. This involved heating up rocks in a big hole in the lawn, and then wrapping food in banana leaves and burying it until it was cooked. It was a good party, and later we filled in the hole and planted a fever tree sapling. It grew wonderfully in the ashy soil. We called it the Party Tree. 

Looking back, it seems like a good name. The fever trees in these photos do look as if they might break into a  dance given half a chance; a waltz perhaps; something gently wafting anyway.

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Nakuru National Park, Kenya. Giraffes like fever tree browse too. They steer their tongues around the thorns.

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Traditionally, the timber is used for charcoal making, firewood and building poles. The foliage and the pods make good animal fodder. The trees can also be cultivated as a living fence, thus providing for many household needs all in one go. The roots are also nitrogen fixing, and the delicately scented pompom flowers are good bee forage. They are also elephants’ food of choice when they are not eating grass, although a Zambian zoologist once told me that they target fever trees for destruction because they are trying to stop them encroaching on their grassland reserves. In Australia, where it is an introduced species, the fever tree is regarded as a major and costly pest of pasture, so the elephants clearly have the measure of their tree.

In South Africa the tree is called Mukanya Kude by the Zulu people who revere it for its medicinal properties. They also use the bark to promote lucid dreaming and provide spiritual insight. Scientific analysis has shown that the tree’s parts comprise many active ingredients, and it is used throughout Africa to treat both physical and mental illness.  Paul Kabochi, the ethno-botanist whom I used to meet at Delamere Camp at Elmenteita, told me he had once successfully treated a local typhoid epidemic with decoctions of the bark.

Personally, I always find it heartening to remember that there is something bigger than Big Pharma – the still surviving natural world that harbours all manner of life-enhancing creation. We might also remember not to destroy it before we have learned of its many useful properties, or indeed learned to value other living things simply because they are there, and are in every sense magnificent.

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Meeting elephants in a fever tree thicket at Lewa Downs, Kenya

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copyright 2014 Tish Farrell

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From My Window in Wenlock: Trucks…

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The other day I was astonished to look out of my kitchen window and behold this perplexing vision on the side of a carpet truck. It was a bit like spotting a unicorn. Well, what do you think this image is saying carpet-wise? Hey, come unravel me? Anyway, it made me laugh. And some days you do need a sense of humour to live where we live.

Trucks are a daily feature of Sheinton Street, a town lane that somehow in the 1980s was upgraded to an ‘A’ road. This means it is designated as a “through road”, and that there should thus be nothing on it to impede the flow of traffic.

Anyone who has read my previous post (By the Silurian Sea) will know that while the back of our cottage mostly overlooks farm fields and woods, the front is very close to this road. Along it come all manner of large vehicles – many so big that they get jammed together trying to pass one another. This includes school buses, and combine harvesters, garden fencing lorries and clay trucks. Sometimes they block the road completely. Not good news if you are trying to get to hospital in an ambulance. There truly is no other way to go without a huge detour.

Over the years I have captured a few of these HGV encounters. I call the phenomenon Truck Stuckage. Most of the photos are taken from my upstairs office window. See what I get up to when I’m supposed to be writing. (I know: it’s hard to say what is more oddball – the photos or the person who took them). And not only do I snap stills, I also from time to time put short video clips on You Tube so I can forward the links to Shropshire Council’s chief highways engineer. She’s called Alice. I think we are on first name terms. She doesn’t know what to do about this road, but a team of consultants has recently been employed to think about what might be done. Or not.

In the meantime, if the trucks get any larger, we will need the local fire brigade on permanent standby to unravel the stuckage. They will have to do this before they can answer any emergency calls north of Sheinton Street. One can see where the “through road” designation begins to fall down somewhat:

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Cee’s Odd Ball Photo Challenge

First Post Re-visited: By the Silurian Sea

All is peripheral in the place where I live – our house beside the path, beside the field, whose name on the 1847 tithe map, Townsend Meadow, marks the old town boundary of Much Wenlock. The town, itself, is very ancient, and only in recent times has it outgrown the frontier along Sytche Brook. It anyway has a more remarkable periphery than this – the edge of Wenlock Edge under which it lies.

I cannot quite see the Edge from my house, but I see the big sky above it: the dramatic false horizon that the wooded scarp creates, and thus the endless movement of weather along it. Hours can be wasted sky watching: the breezy march of clouds across our roof lights, the flush of hundreds of rooks from Sytche Lane wood, peppering the skyscape at dusk; their raucous cries, their enigmatic feats of aerial choreography.

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That you cannot see the Edge from the town is something of a paradox given that its massive presence has shaped the place in so many ways, and not least in the fabric of its cottages, parish church and ancient priory. To get a proper glimpse you need to leave Wenlock – take the steep hairpin-cutting down to Shrewsbury, or the tree-lined road that strikes across the Edge top to Church Stretton, or else meander along the labyrinth of lanes beneath it. The villages down there have old world names – Church Preen, Hughley, Rushbury, Longville. Above them the wooded ridge bristles like a giant hog’s back – a long, dark spine nearly twenty miles in length. It is all unavoidably mysterious.

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Photo: National Trust

Rushbury beneath Wenlock Edge

Photo: Rushbury Village below the Edge

The limestone flanks have been dug into for centuries, creating vast gaping wounds. As you take the road over the top, there are dizzying glimpses through verge-side trees where the ground shears away. All the quarries are unworked now, but in earlier times, for a millennium and more they were the source of most of the area’s building stone.

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Then there was the burning of limestone to make fertilizer – another important local industry. Lime is an essential additive to unlock the nutrients of the sticky clay soils that lie below the Edge. Today, you can still come upon the remains of many kilns on Much Wenlock’s outskirts. Once their fumes must have hung like an ill-smelling fog above the town.

But perhaps the most important use of Wenlock limestone – at least as far as the history of world technology is concerned – was the crucial part it played in the production of iron at nearby Coalbrookdale. This small Shropshire settlement, just across the River Severn from Wenlock, has been called “the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution”. It was here, in 1709, that the Quaker brass founder, Abraham Darby I, first smelted cast iron using coke instead of charcoal. Into his blast furnace went iron ore, coke and limestone, the stone to act as a flux and remove impurities that would compromise the quality of the smelted pig iron.

And this was only the start. It was in Coalbrookdale too, in 1779, that Abraham Darby III pulled off a monumental PR stunt to promote the family trade. He built the world’s first cast iron bridge across the River Severn at a place now called Ironbridge, and thereby spurred on huge innovation in construction techniques that spread around the globe – from cast iron garden seats and cannon to iron ships, railways and skyscrapers.

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So it was that Wenlock limestone (from this now sleepy part of Shropshire) played its part in the great march to industrialisation.

In more recent times, only the quarry spoil has been used – crushed to produce aggregates for road building. It has been many years since Much Wenlock’s homes shuddered in a pall of white dust whenever the quarrymen were blasting, or the streets vibrated to the endless rattle of passing stone trucks.

Of course there are other sources of disturbance on our mediaeval thoroughfares – over-sized farm vehicles and garden fencing trucks. They pass by on the other side of my house, which is not so scenic, although interesting in other ways.

For instance when I’m standing in the kitchen eating toast, I might look up to meet the serially startled gazes of a tour bus party as their coach nudges past our windows, brushing hard through our privet hedge in order to wheedle a way past another HGV. It is the only way to do it on a road too narrow for two large vehicles to pass.

We locals amuse ourselves by taking photos of the trucks and buses that several times a day get jammed outside our homes. We send ‘the evidence’ to officers at Shropshire Council who shrug helplessly, quite unable to say what their predecessors were thinking when they upgraded a bottle-neck lane into an ‘A’ road. There’s nothing to be done, they say. It is hard to believe. One day, I tell them, a European mega-truck will drive down from nearby Telford and block the road forever. Then what will you do?

But for all the present day shove and shunt, there is still a sense of romance about the town and Wenlock Edge. Spirits from the past make their presence felt in all sorts of ways. Housman set the Edge in verse; Vaughan Williams rendered it in song; the explorer, Stanley, sat upon it, his dark heart brooding on his time in Africa as he surveyed the more benign Shropshire landscape below. Even Henry James and Thomas Hardy came visiting, James more than once, and it is said he worked on The Turn of the Screw while staying as guest of the Milnes Gaskells in the old Prior’s House. (When Henry James Came to Wenlock).

Then there is the Shropshire writer-poet, Mary Webb who spent her adolescent years living on the Edge at The Grange, and was well known about the town. When in 1949 her novel, Gone to Earth, was turned into a film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, some of the scenes were shot locally. In fact my neighbour tells me that one of the film’s extras used to live in our house, and that he was also the town’s projectionist. He would thus have shown Gone to Earth in the little town cinema that is now the museum, thrilled to bits as the scenes flickered on the screen: seeing himself and other townsfolk alongside Hollywood star, Jennifer Jones. (Jennifer Jones Comes to Wenlock).

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But the Edge itself has far older stories than these. Back in the Silurian Age, some 430 million years ago, it was a tropic seabed, and in rare moments when my mind can embrace such vast temporal constructs, I imagine my house on the shore of the Silurian Sea. (A Solaris moment perhaps). Of course back then the ground on which my house stands was not even in the Northern Hemisphere.

No. Back then the earth’s landmasses were still on the move, shifting up the globe from the South Pole. The English Midlands and Welsh borderlands, that I think I know so well, lay 15 degrees south of the Equator in what is now the Indian Ocean. They were part of the micro-continent of Eastern Avalonia that in turn bordered the Iapetus Ocean.

And so while Shropshire lay somewhere off Mozambique, the world warmed and the Ordovician ice caps melted, the low-lying lands filled to become the Silurian Sea. I like to imagine that, after living in East Africa for seven years, returning to settle in Much Wenlock is, in some convoluted sense, a return to the place where I was. It has a feeling of alchemy about it, and time travel, that lessens the loss of Africa.

Our much travelled escarpment is understandably a fossil hunter’s paradise and, as such, is the most famous Silurian site in the world. In its seaside days, warm, shallow waters were home to sea lilies, corals, multi-radiate starfish, trilobites, gastropods, brachiopods and fish. Indeed, somewhere over my garden hedge, there may have been some reef lagoon that hosted ammonites, squid and, horrifically, water scorpions five feet long.

My house is of course composed of these Silurian deposits, dug from those vast quarries along the Edge. I thus inhabit a re-purposed fossil seabed. There are crinoid stems and corals in the chimney-breast, all belonging to an age before the birth of amphibians or dinosaurs, or before there were mammals and birds in the world.

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While I can easily picture my house on a flat, gravelly shore beside a teeming shallow sea, it is hard to conjure the great absence of earth-life. We might easily imagine that the terrestrial world would have been a very quiet, still place, but this, I gather, would be a grave misconception. The land may have been lacking in life forms, but there was instead a perpetual wind. And because the paucity of land life meant there was little with which to bind the earth’s surface, the Silurian seashore would have been a dreadful place of roaring sandstorms and lashing gravel.

Not so now. Today, the farmland that surrounds the town is lush and homely. It has sheep and cattle, arable crops and pasture, woods and thickets, the old quarries and sundry ruins, remnant green lanes and farm cottages. There are deer and rabbits, foxes and rodents and also, as far as the town’s allotment owners are concerned, far too many birds. That said, though, it is good to hoe and dig to the mewing of buzzards, and cawing of rooks.

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Most of the land within the town boundary, and this includes Townsend Meadow behind our house, is still feudally owned and tenanted. It is within these little bounds of landowner imposition that the small market centre has grown up and been continuously lived and worked in for the last thousand years.

It is probable, though, that the first human settlement took place a few millennia earlier than this. Perhaps the first Wenlockians were Bronze Age Celts who, as venerators of water, would have been drawn to the many springs that rise below the limestone escarpment. The Celts were also skilled metal workers, and Wenlock Edge would have provided a natural, upland byway for itinerant smiths and metal traders going to and from the mineral-rich hills of Wales. Certainly Bronze Age hoards have been found in and around the nearby River Severn which, through many ages, was one of the country’s busiest inland trade routes.

There is certainly evidence for Roman settlement in the town – a large villa on the site of the Priory, and one which apparently had its own Romano-Christian chapel.

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Water, and sacred water at that, is another of the themes that runs through Much Wenlock’s settlement history. The town has many holy wells, including ones dedicated to St. Milburga and St. Owain. Milburga was a Saxon princess, who in 680 AD became abbess of a monastery for both monks and nuns, founded here by her father, King Merewald of Mercia. The monastery was built near the site of the Roman villa, perhaps chosen because of its already Christian associations. The invading Saxons established their authority by building chapels and monasteries. Later, the invading Normans did the same, but on a grander scale.

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The Benedictine priory that succeeded the Saxon abbey in 1079  (and whose remains you see here) was part and parcel of the Norman master plan to control all aspects of Saxon life. Much Wenlock’s age-old reputation for holiness guaranteed that the local Norman earl, Roger de Montgomery, would choose the town for a big demonstration of power and piety. He invested heavily in the priory that was to become one of the most imposing religious houses in Europe. To ensure its future prosperity, all that remained was to annexe St.Milburga’s reputation for miracles, in particular her ability to strike holy springs from the ground. A new shrine was built to honour her sanctity, so ensuring a steady influx of  pilgrims and traders throughout the Middle Ages.

Roll forwards a few centuries and the town has another claim to fame, one that has significance to all of us today. In 1850 the town’s physician and apothecary, Dr William Penny Brookes (1809-1895) founded the Wenlock Olympian games that were to become the driving force behind the modern Olympic movement. Brookes fervently believed that exercise brought moral, physical and intellectual  improvement to all who took part in it. He was a campaigner of national standing, and responsible for the introduction of physical education into British schools.

His ideas spread, and in 1890 when Baron Pierre de Coubertin came to see the Wenlock Games for himself, Brookes shared with the young man not only his visions for everyone’s health and welfare, but also his wealth of experience from running the Games. He even designed and had made at his own expense wonderful medals for the winning competitors. Sadly, he did not live to see the first modern international Olympics in Athens in 1896, although De Coubertin did give him due credit as the inspiration behind the modern Olympic Games. Tribute was also paid to his home town in the 2012 Olympics when ‘Wenlock’ was the name chosen for one of the mascots. I hasten to say that this strange, one-eyed being bore little resemblance to any living Wenlock resident.

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The Linden Field ,where Brook’s Olympian Games first took place, is now a public park, bequeathed by a former feudal worthy for the pleasure and recreation of the people of Much Wenlock. Every July the Games are still held here, and with competitors from all over the world.

The field is only a step from my house, and I sometimes toy with idea of running down the avenue of lime trees that Dr. Brookes planted there 150 years ago. Musing on his notions that exercise breeds mental and physical improvement, I think the activity might relieve the creative doldrums, spur on the story-telling process, help me escape the peripheries, and finally get some work done.

Of course one of the hazards of being a writer, apart from devising ever new means of diversion and prevarication, is the hoarding of story ideas. Like the Silurian seabed, they go on accreting: stuff and more stuff, piles of notes and scribble and memory sticks slowly compacting on every surface in my office. Hopefully they do  not enfolding anything as alarming as a five foot water scorpion. And now that I’ve conjured this monster, I rather wish I hadn’t, although you never know: there’s maybe a story in it.

© Tish Farrell 2014

 

Afterthought:

I wrote the first version of this blog’s first post as the means of showing what ‘Writer on the Edge’ was about, namely the importance of evoking place (at least in some sense) in all creative writing. It is also a portrait of the place where I live and think; it is the edge on which I reside both physically and metaphysically. For although I lived in Africa for some years, Shropshire is where my roots are. At least I think this is the case. Once you have lived in foreign places for a time, it is often hard to know where home is.

 

*Historical source: Vivien Bellamy A History of Much Wenlock, Shropshire Books, 2001

 

Related:

When Henry James Came to Wenlock

Jennifer Jones Comes to Wenlock

Songs from and Inland Sea: “On Wenlock Edge”

Old Stones of Wenlock: Repurposing the Silurian Sea

 

#WenlockEdge #Shropshire #TishFarrellWriter #HenryJames

Winter Harvest

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At twilight these crab apples glow like tiny lanterns against the darkening sky. And that’s when the blackbird comes to feed. Or at least this is the time when I most often spot her silhouette bobbing amongst the fruit. You will have to imagine her. It is a piece of English winter magic.  A gift.

 

Flickr Comments for more bloggers’ stories and photos

Shadowland: in Wenlock Churchyard

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I took these photos today  in a burst of winter sunlight on the wall of our parish church, Holy Trinity in Much Wenlock.  The sequence of shadows has a gothic feel despite the brightness of the light on the limestone wall. My overwhelming feeling was of spirits of the past remembered, the cycle of life and death. This church is very old, possibly with its roots in the 7th century when a Mercian princess, St Milburga was Abbess of Wenlock. A lot of humanity, then, has walked over this ground. It is good to think of them.

 

DP Photo Challenge; Gone, but not forgotten

International Cheetah Day

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Three cheers for the cheetah. We need to protect their habitat if we want to keep them. Take a look at the Cheetah Conservation Fund site if you would like to help. This organisation, based in Namibia, tries to improve habitat for both animals and humans. You can visit, or go work as a volunteer. Check them out.

 

Also please visit International Cheetah Day  for wildlife photographer, Paul Goldstein’s gallery of stunning cheetah photos

 

#PaulGoldstein #InternationalCheetahDay

A Long Road from Makindu

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This long dirt road leads from Kenya’s Nairobi-Mombasa Highway to the National Range Research Station at Kiboko, about 100 miles south of Nairobi. The Range Station is a colonial relic, which (if I remember correctly) took over the land of a failed white settler sisal plantation. In more recent times, Kenyan scientists, both at the Range Station and the nearby Kenya Agricultural Research Institute field station, have been continuing the work begun there by British agricultural officers in the early 20th century. The emphasis, as then, has been on trialling crop varieties and developing livestock husbandry techniques to improve the lot of the people who live in this drought-prone region  – the Maasai pastoralists to the west, and the Akamba agro-pastoralists to the east and north.

The Range Station has been monitoring rainfall patterns for over 90 years. When it does rain, it occurs in two seasons – the long rains from March to May, and the short rains from October to December. But the fact is Kenya’s climate is  becoming drier, and it is  marginal regions such as these that are hardest hit. In the ‘90s when we were living in Kenya and Graham was regularly working in this area, it hardly seemed to rain at all. One Christmas I remember driving past roadside stands of maize that were blowing away to dust.

In pre-colonial times, and for several hundred years before the British arrived in East Africa, the indigenous peoples had their own methods of dealing with disaster: they simply moved somewhere else. This was usually to other quarters in their large clan territories, or to places where they extended kinship ties. They would then stay with better off relatives until the hazard had passed. Those who had been ‘taken in’ would be expected to reciprocate should the need arise. This was how things worked. It was pragmatic, and flexible. The migrants would then return to their own homes when they could.

The colonising British,  indoctrinated as they were with feudal-capitalist notions of land ownership, could not cope with such fluid community practices. Once the colonial administration had begun to encourage large-scale farming by European settlers, they felt obliged to establish fixed boundaries around tribal territories so that native land could not be sold to, or settled by the European incomers. It was seen as protecting “native interests.” The only problem was these officially designated boundaries did not take into account local emergency refuge strategies, or indeed many other traditional coping measures that involved moving somewhere else.

Today, and this is perhaps surprising to many outsiders, much of Kenya’s rural population still lives on ancestral land within these former tribal reserves. With little hope of acquiring new land, people’s clan and family holdings have been sub-divided, fathers to sons, down the generations,  often leaving the ground depleted, eroded, and/or wholly insufficient to support family needs.

This in turn has created a situation of migrant labour, where village men travel to the city to work. They rent a room in one of the slums, and live away from home for most of the year while their wives remain in their homeland, cultivating the farm plot as best they can, and rearing the children. The social issues that arise from this kind of fragmented family living do not need to be spelled out.

Now, on top of everything else, there are the effects of climate change to deal with, both globally and locally created. Competition for fertile land and water sources is critical in many places. In this context, then, the British system of land ownership remains one of the toxic legacies of colonialism.  At independence Crown Land became State Land, and so nothing much changed in the title deed/ownership department, apart from much grabbing of state-owned land by officials. It is hard to know how to unpick it all. We have all heard about Robert Mugabe’s attempts to do so in Zimbabwe.

As for the ordinary small holder farmer, they might not be physically confined to their reserves as they were under British rule, but if their land there can no longer support their families, then there is little choice but to trek up the highway to Nairobi and join the swelling millions of slum dwellers who eke out a living there.

However you look at it, this is a long, hard road .

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The Nairobi-Mombasa Highway, Makindu District, in the 1990s, looking north towards Nairobi. It has been much improved since our day, but plans to turn this  major trans-African route into a dual carriageway appear to have stalled.

copyright 2014 Tish Farrell

 

You can read more about what we were doing in Kenya here:

Looking for Smut on Kenya’s Highland Farms

 

For more long and winding roads travel over to Ed’s place at Sunday Stills.

Medina of Marrakesh

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Medina of Marrakesh, Morocco a UNESCO world heritage site

This is one of my favourite photographs from the Team Leader’s, aka Graham’s long ago Africa overland trip. Even the clouds are conspiring to draw the viewer’s eye to the gateway. Click the link underneath the photo to find out more about this fascinating place.

DP Photo Challenge: converge

“Photos are visual spaces where shapes and lines, objects, and people come together.”

 Ailsa’s Travel Challenge: above

Thursday’s Special ~ Take Two Elephants

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This week at Paula’s Thursday’s Special/Photo 101 the theme is ‘double’. I could have chosen several more striking close-ups of elephants and lions, but this shot is a double-take on double. I like that silhouette in the still pool. Also it is perhaps a more realistic view of how one most often sees wildlife on an East African safari: i.e. it’s usually too far away for a good photo, or else there’s a bush in the way. You can also drive round game parks for many hours and spot absolutely nothing – not even a bird.

This shot was taken from the terrace at the safari lodge in Kenya’s Tsavo East National Park, and such places can offer the best sightings, especially at dawn and sundown. Here you also get a good eyeful of Tsavo’s famously red earth. You can see, too, the web of game trails leading to the pool, and at the very top of the photo, part of the Yatta Plateau. This is a 180 mile long, single finger of lava that runs south east across Kenya from Thika near Nairobi.

Tsavo East  is a vast game reserve (4,500 square miles), mostly thorn scrub and much of it closed to visitors due to incursions by Somali bandits and poachers. Its elephant herds, however, are famous, though frequently under threat. For some truly fantastic images of them, accompanied by expert commentary please fly over to wildlife filmmaker, Mark Deeble’s blog. You will not be disappointed.