Crack! As I bite down on some tough meat, I feel an expensive crunch and something hard rattles against my teeth. Damn, there goes that front crown! It’s the eve of a new safari and I must go to the airport to meet a new group. I only get this one chance to make a good first impression. “Hi, I’m Zavid your zure-leazer. Welcome to Zanzania!” – Wanna come with this gap-toothed lisping troll into darkest Africa? No, I need a quick fix. The crown is intact and hollow. It fits over a peg anchored in the tooth’s root. I just need some dental cement, but I won’t find it in Arusha on a Sunday night, and tomorrow I have to brief the group after breakfast, then we hit the road to adventure. So, what have I got that’s sticky and indestructible and kind to the mouth? Chewing gum! Well, it won’t set hard, but its stickiness is legendary, and I have plenty. I start chewing and pack the crown with gum and push it into place. It sits well and feels good. This can work – as long as I don’t bite hard on it.
And it does work. For almost a week, I confidently grin and eat, and begin to take my flexible tooth for granted. Mistake. Nibbling some meat off a bone, I feel the loose crown roll to the back of my throat, then it’s GONE. I could bolt out of the dining-tent into the Serengeti night and throw up – but why waste such a good dinner? There’s another alternative, but it’s not pleasant. It involves some waiting, a can of water, a stick, a flat rock, and a hole in the ground.
24 hours later, preparing to “go through the motions” for the third time, I step out of my tent into the moonlight. By my outside lamp, a giant emperor moth flutters. So does my heart, as I sense a large presence.
Buffalo. He stands on my path, ruminating. Two more chomp at grass ten yards from the tent. To hell with buffalos – I have a mission. I stay close to the tent, and they don’t care. This time, I hit pay-dirt, a little white tooth amid the brown. I boil and disinfect it, then chew up some gum and presto! I have my smile again. Maybe next week, I’ll get some dental cement.
The phrase “sh*t-eating grin” has a totally new meaning for me now.
Here in Tanzania I am reminded of peoples’ different tolerance of noise. Back in Tucson, our close neighborhood has firm rules about noise pollution. No power tools or loud music between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m. One new resident complained angrily to the community about a loud rattly power tool being used on a metal roof at dawn – the culprit was a Gila woodpecker, who had found this to be a much more effective territorial display than drumming on a dead tree!
In our gardens, leafblowers are banned. However, we dispose of our tree prunings on site with a rather noisy chipper that converts them into mulch. Recently I was running it late in the evening and next day we received a complaint from a neighbor about 300 yards away. We worked it out amicably, that I wouldn’t chip after dark. So there are layers of noise prevention – mutually accepted constraints, policing by neighbors, and if that fails, policing by the police.
In the suburb of Arusha where we’ve been staying (picture), it’s a different story. Moshono Juu is about as densely populated as our Tucson suburb, but people are either more tolerant, less organized or both. A lot of the noise is due to religion, particularly evangelical preachers. They get behind a powerful amplifier and pour hellfire on the whole neighborhood. Last night it woke us up about 2:30 a.m. An insane bellowing in Kiswahili, the same phrases repeated over and over, definitely channeling a god of hate and vengeance rather than love. I wondered what sleepless cult attended this harangue. Would they be stoked on drugs or booze to endure such cacophony? And would our PC friend Dave call it “entitlement” if I, a mzungu (paleface), were to walk into an African village and demand a good night’s sleep? But then, what if other neighbors also wanted to sleep, yet didn’t dare make a fuss? This must be a powerful cult indeed. Would a wild-eyed enraged congregation fall on me with rocks and cudgels for interrupting their religious ecstasy?
Eventually, insomnia and curiosity won. I took a big maglite that could double as a club, and slipped out into the moonlight into unscripted territory. The gravel road down the hill was treacherous, like walking on ball bearings. The demonic sound grew ever louder. Half a mile away, its source was a low barn of poles and tarps with a tin roof. A simple church. Easy to burn down – but I had no matches. A long white power cable connected it to a nearby hut – easy to cut, if only I had a panga. OK, I get cranky when sleep-deprived; those are last resorts. Let’s first assess the strength of the enemy and try a polite request. The doors were shut so I peered through a window opening and was amazed. The benches were empty! There was a makeshift altar and a table full of sound equipment. Taped hymns were playing, and a lone young man in a shabby Tshirt was pacing to and fro, yelling into his microphone. I leaned in through the window and he turned down the sound and came over. He looked sheepish.
“Please can you make less noise?” I asked. “It’s 4 a.m. and we can’t sleep!”
“Where you from?”he asked.
“Up the hill. It doesn’t matter. Can’t you let us sleep?”
I wished him goodnight and left him leaning on the sill, his head bowed, perhaps seeking divine inspiration. All was quiet as I trudged up the hill. Then a short final outburst, slightly less loud, barely enough to blister paint or singe nearby trees, and he was done for the night. It was nearly 5 a.m.
We have been privileged to share years of our lives with both baobabs and saguaros, giant plants that dominate their dry landscapes. The baobab tree (Adansonia digitata) is one of the icons of Africa, with its vast swollen trunk and smooth bark. To St-Exupery’s Little Prince, baobabs were a metaphor for something bad which must be nipped in the bud before it takes over your little planet. In reality, they are magnificent beings which offer bountiful gifts. Their trunks, often hollow, can house bees, barn owls or even people. Their tender leaves are good to eat. Their fleshy white flowers bloom at dusk and offer rich nectar to the bats that pollinate them. Their fruits are useful woody gourds containing nutritious nuts wrapped in a frothy packing rich in Vitamin C, a popular snack for people and wild animals. Their fibrous juicy trunks are used to make string, but are useless as timber. More useful alive than dead, over much of their range they are the only native trees left standing, and they may live for over a thousand years. They are respected and revered; the Tanzanians say “Kila shetani ana mbuyu yake” – every spirit has its own baobab tree.
Half a world away, in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona and northern Mexico, tall saguaro cacti (Carnegiea gigantea) raise massive spiny arms to the sky. A mature saguaro may stand 40-60ft tall with more than 25 arms, and may weigh more than two tons, somehow supported on a base only a foot wide. Inside each stem or arm, a cylinder of vertical woody ribs provides support. The desert people, Tohono O’odham, venerate saguaros and see them as partly human. In spring the saguaros wear beautiful crowns of white flowers, also pollinated by bats. Just before the summer rains, the O’odham and the desert birds harvest their fruits, filled with tiny black seeds in sweet crimson pulp. When we moved to Arizona, one of our O’odham neighbors showed us how to make a long pole from the ribs of a dead saguaro, and knock down the abundant fruits from 30 feet above our heads.
Saguaros grow slowly, usually germinating in the shade of a paloverde or other ‘nurse tree’ where a bird dropped the seed. They may take 10 years to grow 1.5″ high, and can live for up to 200 years. Baobab seeds must be brutalized by passage through an elephant’s jaws and gut in order to germinate. Their seedlings seem to grow best amid dense thickets of other species, where browsing animals can’t reach their tender leaves.
Both saguaros and baobabs have extensive shallow roots, spreading sideways at least as far as the plant is high, and may have a deep tap-root too. When it rains, both plants can rapidly absorb water, then store it for a long time. To conserve water, their leaves are reduced. Saguaros have no leaves at all, photosynthesizing with their waxy green pleated stems. Baobabs produce leaves only during the rains, standing bare for much of the year – but if you scratch that gray or pinkish bark, you will find bright green chlorophyll just beneath it, proving that the “upside-down tree” is not as dead as it looks.
Hug a baobab’s vast trunk – it may take 20 of you to encircle it – and you may feel or hear the wind thrumming through its bare branches. But don’t try hugging the saguaro, just admire it from a distance.
This is a fun extension to Safarizona territory – prompted by our November visit to Kaua’i Island in Hawaii. Chickens weren’t on my to-see list but as we drove out of the airport, there they were, freely roaming the roadsides. During the next week, we met handsome, colourful, confident chickens everywhere – from beach to mountaintops, from suburbs to national parks. Why so many? Who owns them? Who eats them? Their story led us into the much bigger picture of island colonization.
The Hawaiian archipelago was born of fire. As the great Pacific tectonic plate drifted northwest over a ‘hot spot’ or convection plume in Earth’s molten magma, successive volcanoes erupted out of the sea and formed a long chain of islands. The oldest ones, up to 60 million years old, have eroded away and mostly disappeared under the sea. The youngest island, Hawai’i, is currently over the hot spot and still has active volcanoes. Further northwest, Kaua’i is 5 million years old.
The cooling volcanoes were colonized by wandering birds and insects, by seeds borne on wind or ocean currents or in birds’ bellies, and by small animals clinging to rafts of floating vegetation. Lush vegetation grew up, but who would eat it? On islands worldwide, this has played out in different ways. In Galapagos and Aldabra tortoises became the herbivores. Mauritius had giant pigeons, the dodo. Madagascar had lemurs, and New Zealand had 11 giant flightless birds called ‘moa‘, a Polynesian word for any fowl.
The largest herbivores to reach the Hawaiian islands were ducks, 3.6 million years ago. Lacking predators, they evolved into several flightless forms, some as big as domestic geese. Later, ancestors of today’s nene goose joined them. They became abundant, eating ferns and grass and tree seedlings. At Makauwahi archaeological site, which preserves 10,000 years of remains, we learned that in 300-800 CE, the first Polynesians encountered 7 species of these “moa-nalo” (lost fowls). Unafraid of man, they were soon exterminated. The people brought pigs, which also ate moa-nalo, and chickens, which quickly filled their vacant ecological niche. Moa-nalo were forgotten until archaeologists discovered their bones in the 1980’s.
Enter the chicken! The Asian red jungle fowl, domesticated 8-10,000 years ago, is hardy, tough and eats anything. It is only vulnerable when it nests, on the ground. In all the other Hawaiian islands, sugar farmers introduced mongooses to control the (introduced) rats. But rats are nocturnal, so the diurnal mongooses attacked birds instead, especially ground-nesters; only Kaua’i’s chickens are safe from that threat.
Today the “wild” Kaua’i chickens in parks and reserves are protected. You can harvest chickens that enter your property, but they may be tough. Islanders say: “To cook the moa, boil it in water, with spices and a rock. When the rock is soft, the moa is ready!”
“Hermano, hermano!” shouted the crouching man, twenty yards up the canyon, aiming his handgun at us. Oddly, we felt no panic but wondered why he would point a weapon at a “brother”. We held still. A second man had his hand at his hip but soon relaxed and smiled at us. The gunman looked embarrassed and walked off behind the trees, to make some very important radio call. Trying to take it all in, we just sat on our log under the shady oak in a remote canyon near the Mexican border.
Officer Friendly came closer and apologized for mistaking us for illegal immigrants. We actually had to laugh; two more unlikely illegals would be hard to find. Officer Quickdraw joined in the apologies, revealing that they were border patrolmen new to the area. They went their way without even noticing the Covert Assassin.
The what? That was the inconspicuous trail camera attached to the oak tree behind us – its brand name probably designed to lure hunters to buy it. We were downloading its photos of deer, javelina, mountain lions, foxes and a turkey.
Have you ever walked in the woods and wondered what happens when no-one is there? What shy creatures prowl at night? A trail camera can tell you. It’s a weatherproof digital camera with a motion sensor. Anything moving in front of the camera gets photographed, day or night. In places where people don’t go, we can use a camera with a flash. On trails often used by people, our cameras use an infra-red lamp which shows only a faint red glow – certain kinds of nocturnal hiker might smash the camera if they realized it was there!
We monitor several cameras for Sky Island Alliance, an organization that studies and protects the wildlife of the ‘sky island’ mountain ranges scattered across the Southwest. To avoid becoming genetically isolated, animals must travel from one ‘island’ to another, across a ‘sea’ of farmland, desert and suburbia. Which routes do they use? SIA’s Wildlife Linkages volunteer program investigates this through direct tracking (subject of a future blog) and through the use of trail cameras.
Every month or two, we visit our cameras. Will they still be there? Will there be something rare like a jaguar or ocelot? Those spotted cats are the Holy Grail of animal trackers in Arizona, but so far we’ve not found any. However, our sightings of commoner animals add to knowledge about their daily and seasonal activity patterns.
Checking the cameras is always a thrill, even without confused gunmen.
Here are some of the animals we’ve ‘captured’ on our cameras: