Vulcanicity ~ Welcome to the hot zone

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I have long had a fearful fascination with volcanoes – probably ever since, as a young child in the 1950s, I saw a newsreel item of Mount Etna erupting. It seemed like a living nightmare. I remember especially the unstoppable flows of boiling lava that rolled over everything in their path.  Even in places where it had cooled I seem to remember people who walked on it found their shoes smouldering. It was perhaps my first apprehension of the fact that the earth could do things that mankind was incapable dealing with. I remember having a dream afterwards where the ground beneath my feet kept cracking open into ever widening fissures: my first anxiety dream perhaps.

With this in mind, you will understand how very deeply impressed I was when I first set eyes on Africa’s Great Rift Valley.

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NASA non-copyright image

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Here, on the surface of the earth, we have a 4,000 mile chain of connected fissures that extends from Lebanon in the Middle East to Mozambique in south east Africa. It comprises the Jordan Rift Valley, Red Sea Rift and the East African Rift, which itself divides into eastern and western arms with Lake Victoria Nyanza in between. The entire system has been described as a world wonder, the biggest rupture in the planet’s land surface, and the only geological feature that can be seen clearly from the moon. The East African Rift of course includes the great ice-topped volcanoes of Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya that are mere remnants of their formerly gargantuan fiery selves.

So however you look at it, moon- or otherwise, the Great Rift is definitely a case of EXTREME geology. All that seismic shunt and shift. And it is still happening and at this very moment. One day the Horn of Africa and littoral East Africa will be an island.

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The East African Rift is thought to have begun to pull apart around 40 million years ago. Scientists surmise that the environmental changes associated with fissuring may have had a significant impact on the evolution of humankind. So far, very many of the earliest fossils of (potential) human ancestors have been found in the Rift – Olduvai Gorge, and in the vicinity of Lakes Baringo, Turkana and Omo. On the other hand, this could simply be a reflection of the  decades of systematic searching in these areas, instigated largely by the Leakey dynasty of palaeontologists. But whether a good case of careful looking or not, I’m still prepared to believe that humans could have evolved here.

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The photograph at the start of this post is of the old volcano, Longonot. It lies in the Rift between Nairobi and Naivasha in Kenya. In the next shot you can see it from Lake Naivasha (hippo added for purposes of scale Smile). Part of this lake is also formed within a submerged crater.

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One key side effects of volcanic activity is highly fertile soil. In Kenya and Tanzania the Rift Valley floor supports the Serengeti grasslands that in turn are home to millions of herbivores, their following of big cat predators, and the whole wonderful species-rich eco-system. These plains also have long been the grazing grounds of the best known nomadic pastoralists on the planet, the Maasai.

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Before the British invaded East Africa in the late nineteenth century (intent on setting up the Imperial British East Africa Company) and concluded that any land not occupied by people at that point in time was EMPTY and thus FREELY AVAILABLE, the Maasai ranged over vast tracts of the Rift grassland system. It is believed that their ancestors moved out from the Horn of Africa about four thousand years ago. 

This means that the Maasai lived a life that suited them and apparently with little cost to the environment for 4,000 years before the British came along and herded them into a reserve where the land is least fertile and watered for human purposes, and otherwise known as the Maasai Mara. Europeans then set about destroying the plains’ wildlife on a breathtakingly ugly scale. The invaders, or their activities also became vectors for deadly disease – rinderpest that decimated native cattle, and smallpox and syphilis that took their toll on the human populations.

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Smallholder farms at Escarpment just north of Nairobi. Mount Longonot beyond.

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Once the British had staked their claim in British East Africa, the Bantu farming communities that inhabited the higher hillside zones of Kenya were also enclosed in Reserves. The occupants could only leave to work for Europeans. The justification for creating reserves with designated boundaries (and they were quite large areas) was to protect tribal land holdings from the incoming white settlers.

African farmers, being the successful cultivators they had been for several millennia, were naturally inhabiting the best and most covetable land. So in this sense, the British administration had a point. The early settlers were British aristocrats like Lord Delamere and  the sons of the Earl of Enniskillen, and thus the kind of men who expected to own vast acreages and begin farming/ranching on an industrial/landed gentry scale.

Meanwhile from 1896-1902, and as a result of military paranoia of epic proportions, the British had built a very expensive 600-mile railway  from Mombasa to Lake Victoria. It was called the Lunatic Line even at the time of its building. But as the strategic objective receded in importance during the early 20th century, so the Colonial Office needed settlers – well-heeled, gentlemen of means who would grow produce for export and so help pay for the railway.

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First page of Lord Cranworth’s A Colony in the Making: Or Sport and Profit in British East Africa, Macmillan 1912. A guidebook and general sales pitch to attract gentleman settlers. (Out of copyright).

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Thus, in the wake of the adventure-aristocrats came retired military men, among them individuals who were variously set on nation-building, knocking the natives into shape and, in the process, getting rich from flax, ostrich feathers and coffee. The country’s fine shooting and fishing were definite lures, and made much of in the publicity brochures sent out from British East Africa. Other attractions included the notion of plentiful cheap farm labour and house servants, and thus the preservation of social status that was already well on the wane for the middle classes back in Blighty.

napier grass on the Rift

But now we come to the rub. Or in fact two rubs. Firstly, when the monsoon winds are blowing in the right direction, Kenya has the most benign climate imaginable,  providing two rainy seasons, and thus two and sometimes three growing seasons for some crops. The elevated plateau of Central Province in particular, and its Aberdares highlands are rarely too hot. The beauty of the great forests suggested Scotland or Wales rather than Africa to the newcomers. They set about building mini-baronial lodges and laying out English lawns and rose beds.

But then comes the other rub. The soil. As I’ve said, volcanic soils are very fertile, but they are also very fragile. Wholesale clearance of trees and bush will quickly create desert. The late, great Kenyan environmentalist, Wangari Maathai, has maintained that felling deeply rooting forest trees ultimately leads to desertification for a whole range of reasons. 

The forests not only attract rain but the trees shelter, stabilize and feed the soil (many tropical species fix nitrogen). Most importantly, she pointed out, the deep roots open up underground aquifers to water the land.

Traditional farmers of course made gardens within the forest rather than large fields. They cleared trees certainly, but they did not clear all trees. Some had sacred meaning, like the wild fig, and were protected. Others were valued for cropping purposes – for animal fodder, medicine, bee forage etc.

When the old colonials set out for Africa on a cash-cropping spree, full of the notions that they knew best how to farm, they singularly failed to understand that indigenous peoples, far from being ‘undeveloped’, had very good reasons for doing things the way they did them. Their objectives were more about living well than getting rich.

Pre-colonial accounts by explorers and missionaries show that the Bantu peoples were very successful farmers. They planned their planting to take into account the possible vagaries of climate. For instance, drought resistant millet might be the mainstay crop, and cultivated on the  drier soils in their territory. Squashes and beans would be grown near stream beds, and water-hungry maize would be the risk crop,  planted on a river bank on the off chance that seasonal floods would be small enough not to wash the crop away, but good enough to provide a bonus to the annual harvest.

Kikuyu farmer and sugar cane

The other important contingency depended on kinship and clan ties. As the Bantu communities moved out across the African continent over many centuries, pioneering into new territories as population growth or failing soil fertility dictated, networks of clan relationships became extended over quite large territories. If drought, disease or invaders struck, people would take their possessions and seek refuge with distant relatives until the threat had passed.

Pastoralists like the Maasai also relied on being able to move over large distances to secure grazing for their herds in times of drought. But once people were confined to reserves, bound by European constructs of land ownership, they could not move. Land in the Native Reserves where people farmed thus became overcrowded, degraded and overgrazed. Under colonial rule Africans were not allowed to acquire fresh land. This was one of the chief reasons for the uprising in 1950s Kenya when the Land and Freedom Army (dubbed Mau Mau) went to war against British rule.

Then there were the colonial agriculture officers trying to dictate the way the people on the Reserves grew their crops, pressing for mono-culture rather than the traditional way of mixing crops which helps to fool insect pests and utilizes advantages of companion planting.

As we left Kenya in 2000 I was interested to learn that some European agricultural aid project was actually advocating that smallholder farmers (which means most Kenyans) should use ‘kitchen-garden’ planting techniques to reduce crop pest damage and/or the need for pesticides. It had only taken a hundred years for outsiders to teach Africans what they had known all along, but doubtless been told to forget in the interim because their methods were considered primitive.

Sometimes the hypocrisy of rich world tinkering is enough to make this particular writer’s blood boil up in seismic fury.  Time to cool down with a view of snow-topped Kilimanjaro. Who’d have thought it: ice on a volcano. When in the 1840s German explorers and missionaries, Johann Ludwig Krapf and Johannes Rebmann, out exploring from their Mombasa mission, claimed to have seen snow-capped mountains at the Equator, no one back home believed them. Thought they were barking. There’s a lot, we outside Africa do not know about this vast, extraordinary continent even though its nations provide us with so many of our essential raw materials, fairly and otherwise; mostly otherwise…

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copyright 2014 Tish Farrell

 

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Misty Mountains of East Africa

 

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Kilimanjaro rising behind the Chyulu Hills, Ukambani, Kenya. Photo taken from the Mombasa Highway during the December short rains.

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Mount Kenya from the plane window, looking over the European-owned wheat farms of Laikipia

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It is one of history’s bizarre anecdotes, that one of these two old volcanoes was once given away as a birthday present. But before I reveal how this happened, please take a look at the map. Head for the centre.

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Here you will see that Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro and Kenya’s Mount Kenya lie pretty much on the same north-south axis, albeit a couple of hundred miles apart. In an earlier post about Denys Finch Hatton’s burial place in the Ngong Hills (to the left of Nairobi on the map) I quoted Karen Blixen’s description of how  one sunset, she and Denys had witnessed a simultaneous sighting of Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya. This must have been something to see, for these mountains can be frustratingly elusive when it comes to showing themselves. One moment you can be looking them full in the face; the next they have dissolved into a clear blue sky as if they were never there. You blink and wonder how this could have possibly happen. It is doubtless a quantum physics thing, but in the absence of more scientific explanations, the phenomenon anyway seems quite mystical. It is not surprising, then, that local people have long regarded these mountains as sacred places that may, from time to time, be visited by the Creator.

But to return to the mountainous birthday gift.

If you look again at the map you will see how the border between Kenya and Tanzania makes a sudden kink to encompass Kilimanjaro.  This daft piece of map-making is testimony of a tussle in colonial expansionism (Britain versus Germany) and the kind of queenly megalomania  that thought it perfectly reasonable to take possession of someone else’s mountain and then make a gift of it to a fellow monarch, a personage whom she rather despised even though he was a close relative.

I’m sure you will have guessed by now that we are talking of Queen Victoria  and Kaiser Wilhelm. One can only presume that someone who also called herself  the Empress of India would think nothing of the sharing out of stolen mountains. I dare say she thought it made up for the fact that she had bagged the territories now known as Kenya and Uganda when Wilhelm had wanted them too. Perhaps she also thought that giving Wilhelm the taller of the two would also help to placate him.  If she had stopped to consider the fact that Kilimanjaro was only a dormant volcano, she might have had second thoughts.  It was altogether too ominous a gift.

In the end the whole land-grabbing deal was  ratified in the Heligoland  Treaty of 1890, and the map-makers  then duly drew a line straight through the middle of Maasai territory coupled with the requisite detour round Kilimanjaro. They called one side British East Africa, and the other German East Africa. Meanwhile the locals, who comprised very many different ethnic communities, were largely unaware how far they had been scrambled, or indeed scrobbled, to borrow a term of dastardly rapine from John Masefield and The Box of Delights. They were soon to find out. On the British side it began with the setting up of forts along the proposed line of rail for the Uganda Railway. This 600-mile line from Mombasa to Lake Victoria would be the means by which the Empress of India would get her troops (mainly Indian ones) swiftly to the source of the Nile. Why she would ever need to do this will have to wait for another post. Suffice it to say that this project was substantially dafter  than the giving of mountains as birthday presents. Even at the time people thought so. In Britain they called it  the Lunatic Line. In East Africa the invaded called it the Iron Snake.

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Glimpse of Kilimanjaro on the flight from Zanzibar to Mombasa

© 2016 Tish Farrell

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The Tsavo Big Game Show: it’s a dangerous pursuit

lone elephant at twilight

Night comes swiftly in the African bush but never quietly. As the sun drops behind the Chyulu Hills, so the pipe and whirr of frog and bug ratchet up a few decibels. It is like a million high tension wires being pinged and twanged. If you listen with both ears it can drive you mad. Likewise, if you allow yourself to succumb to the night’s sticky heat and the hypnotic scents of thorn flowers, then do not be surprised when the sudden scream of a tree hyrax stops your heart.

But we are not going mad. And our hearts are just fine. We think we have cracked this Africa lark. Well sprayed with insect-repellent, all accessible parts covered as can be, anti-malarials ingested, it seems safe to sit out on our veranda at Kilaguni Lodge  and do some night-time big game watching. 

Below our room is a barren stretch of red volcanic earth, and a water-hole lit up by two search lights. The illuminated circle that the lights create is like a stage set. It seems we are seated in a mysterious wildlife theatre waiting for the cast to appear.

The contrast is disturbing. By day, this self-same set is furnace red, littered with volcanic spoil; it is the haunt of the cadaverous-looking marabou storks and the occasional zebra. By night, all is softer, surreal. You feel you might dissolve through the light into perpetual darkness; for out there the night goes on forever, doesn’t it?

And so we go on gazing at the scene. It takes some time to realize that small groups of impala are emerging from the gloom. Their stillness is mesmerizing. Perhaps they are not there at all.

And then…

And then…

The impala are wary. You can almost see the charge of anxiety ripple through the herd. We hold our breath and stare into the dark behind the lights.

And then we see them – black hulks gliding through the thorn trees. Elephants. They have come so silently, walking always on tiptoes, their heels cushions of fat to muffle their footfalls. Slowly they move in from the bush. Even in the dimness beyond the pool, their hides glow red, irradiated by the igneous dirt they have blown over themselves.

In the wings the elephants pause. It is hard to say how many are there. After a few moments two peel away and the rest of the group retreats again into darkness. Two large matriarchs now head for the pool. At the water’s edge they part, and in matched strides stake out the water-hole from opposite directions. There’s an angry trumpeting when an impala fails to withdraw fast enough, and only when the entire bank is clear do the elephants go down and drink. But they have hardly taken a couple of gulps when they move back and take up guard duty, one at each end of the mud bank.

We are transfixed. We cannot fathom the plot, but note that, despite the elephants’ aggressive stance, there has been a concerted gracefulness to their routine. It crosses my mind that the great choreographer, Balanchine, once made a ballet for elephants. Now we see they have dances of their own.

And so we wait.

Slowly the rest of the group reappears, moving as one in the tightest huddle. As they enter the spotlight we understand. Tucked safely between the legs of four large cows are three infants. Like precious celebrities surrounded by an escort of heavies, the youngsters are guided to the water. There, with tiny trunks they cannot quite control, they drink their fill. The whole thing takes only a few minutes. Then, with this life-and-death task accomplished, the sentinels re-join the group, and the small herd leaves as silently as it came, melting into the backdrop.

So: this drama is over; the stage empty. After the thrill there is anti-climax, a strange sense of banishment; depression even. We go to bed, suddenly overcome by the heat and with too many insects on the brain.

Inside, though, the room is hotter still; windows shut fast against malarial mosquitoes. Even so, and despite the rock-like pillows, we sleep for a time. At midnight it is the menacing whine of a mosquito that rouses us to a bleary-eyed seek and destroy mission. At 2 a.m. we are awake again as two waterbuck lock in high-snorting combat below our veranda.

G. huddles back in bed. I press my nose to the window. It’s at times like this that Africa looms largest, that you know you are out of your element. Night stretches ahead like a herculean trial. I stare once more at pale stage in the bush. The impala have drifted back to the pool again, but they barely move. It is like watching a Samuel Becket play where nothing much happens.

And yet…

Suddenly the antelope are on full alert – rigid stance, ears pricked, noses twitching. I stare and stare. At last I spot movement, a sinuous shape pressing through the low scrub. The impala rise on hoof-tips, torn between staying and fleeing, and then the lioness steps out from the grass and pads down to the water.

The impala draw back, still unsure of the big cat’s agenda. The lioness parades around the waterhole, but does not drink. Instead she finds a clump of grass and lies down, head up, still as stone, commanding the pool  – a heraldic lion couchant. Now it is clear. None of the animals can drink. The tension is visible. This is a new kind of drama: feline power play.

But I cannot wait for the denouement. Worn out, I return to my hard pillow and tangled sheet.

The next time I wake it is light enough to know that I can abandon all efforts to sleep. It’s a huge relief. While G. slumbers on, I step out into cool of the veranda. In the dawn light I see that last night’s set has mystically expanded into a vast new backdrop. Now the Chyulu Hills rise above the dry plains, a vision of impossible greenness that belies the violence of their birth. For these hills are new, erupting around the time Sir Francis Drake was bowling off Plymouth Hoe and ignoring news of the advancing Armada. It’s hard to believe.

But this is not all. To the west, the snow-capped crown of Kilimanjaro breaks free of the earth and floats high on a wreath of pink clouds. It makes me want to hoot with laughter. Who does this Africa think she is? Does she really expect me to be taken in by  all her absurd illusions? Poof! The mountain snuffs out and leaves only sky. (Is this possible?) And I, like the victim of some worming parasite, know I am becoming infected. All our defences are useless. This land is creeping under my skin and invading all my senses. More likely than not I will never be the same again.

© 2014 Tish Farrell

Kenya; Chyulu Hills; Campi ya Kanzi - Giraffe in the Chyulu Hills

Chyulu Hills. Photo: Abercrombie & Kent

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