Friday, 29 November 2013

Animals, animals everywhere

The sun was so fierce on my head that it felt like it was penetrating through my thick hair and boiling my scalp.

The air so dry that when you perspired it instantly evaporated.

What started as a bitterly cold morning was now 'Mad dogs and Englishman' time of day as the African sun smashed down onto the parched ground.

I held on for dear life; fingers white from gripping as I stood peering out of the roof of a safari jeep; as it hammered along the dirt tracks worn by countless explorers, tourists, hunters and wardens before us.

Clouds of dust filled the air and the breeze that buffeted my face was as warm as when you open an oven.

To my left were hundreds of wildebeest and to my right I could see the giant outline of distant elephants slowly, methodically plodding along. Every so often stopping to snap a branch off with their trunks and devour what ever greenery there was on it.

The wildebeest fascinated me. They seem so ungainly and as if they are still learning to walk like a calf would.

Our jeep startled them and they in unison all started to run away. As soon as they reached a distance that they deemed safe they came to a stop.

Not a normal stop but a ridiculous one where their front legs stop and their hind quarters try and over take them!
Somehow they managed to come to an awkward stop and remain on all four hooves.

Here I was in the world famous Serengeti national Park in Tanzania and I felt as though I was inside an Attenborough documentary.

The wildlife was abundant and soon I would see every type of gazelle and antelope, buffalo, wild birds, warthogs and baboons.

Baboons sitting lazily in the shade their large red arses proudly pointing in our direction as they gingerly picked fleas from each other stared at them intently and then plopped them in their mouths.

They sat my the waters edge of a stream oblivious to the large crocodiles that basked warming their cold blood in the heat of the day.

I had arrived the day before and as our jeep drove away from civilization and into the wilderness where the landscape became more barren and wild I felt like I was on a true adventure.

After hours of driving along dirt roads with no sign of any human habitation you enter the world famous park through a large gateway.

It seems odd that this gate was there. It seemed out of place, but it was nice to pass through it and know that you had finally entered the famous, fabled and much wrote about place.

I could not resist getting a cheeky photo underneath it with no one around for miles and miles.

Out of all the animals I saw including lions which roamed so close to our jeep that I could zoom in on them in my camera.

Seeing what has been known as the king of the jungle or king of the Savannah as it should be called up so close and personal was a pure delight.

A lion walks so royally, majestically and each paw seems to hesitate a tiny microsecond before touching the ground as if the lions is checking to see if the ground is worth of a paw print.

But out of all the animals I saw there is one that really stole my heart. One animals so abundant and so over looked that people ignore their beauty.

To me this animals is why I came on this trip back in 2009. This animal is one of the many reasons I am in love with Africa and keep coming back to see her.

This animal is the humble, but beautiful zebra.

To be honest I am not sure why I like them so much but they make me smile and seem so fantastically designed. Those stripes are just so good that you cannot draw or sketch them perfectly and believe me I have tried.

The noises they make are truly wonderful. How do you describe it. Its somewhat a hybrid sound of a dog yapping mixed with some electro tone. I just love it.

The grunts of the wildebeest and the roars of the lions combined with the trumpet of the mighty elephant can be heard aloud. But the zebra is quiet until startled and then that made up silly noise erupts and a smile creeps across my face.

I have been in Africa for long periods of my life but one thing I always wanted to see and experience was the Serengeti.

Now I was finally here and I was loving the experience. Seeing animals that normally people would see only on the TV.

That evening we camped in an open area that could have been ravaged by lions but wasn't likely to be. However what it was likely to encounter was roaming herds of warthogs and zebras.

I woke in my tent and needed to empty my bladder badly. Normally I would have a bottle in the tent to avoid running into a warthog that will take a nice chunk out of your calf with its tusks. Sadly the bottle I had was full of water and I didn't want to waste it.

I opened the zip and wandered a small way from the tent. I had a torch in my hand and shone the beam through the thick black cold night.

The beam hit trees and bushes, the jeeps and other tents and then lit up in the eyes of several zebras looking confused back at me.

Bladder emptied it was back to sleep and a warm sleeping bag.

I woke in the morning after what I think was a wild pig snuffling into the side of the tent a few times and sending my head askew.

At this time of the morning the mist and dew is out, it is bitterly cold and you layer up.

Ii was cleaning my teeth outside when I heard some crashing. I looked up and a giant bull elephant had appeared in the camping ground.

He was about 100 yards away and happily munching away.

Some of the local Masai were sitting on their hunches in the bushes watching him. Had they been there all morning or night even?

This was another opportunity too good to miss and I edged closer stupidly to the elephant. The resulting photo was a classic but the guide and the Masai seemed a little peeved at me that I had done that.

As the day grew longer the heat rose and soon it was incredible.

With the sun beating down it was another chance to explore and see the animal magic that was waking for the day or in the case of the lions drifting off to sleep and panting heavily.

I truly love Africa.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

The sacred pools of Paga

Have you ever fondled the tail of a crocodile?
That is not the sort of question you get asked that often, or ever even!

You can hardly describe a giant prehistoric beast with rows of evil looking teeth as an animal that you would want to cuddle up to.

Stories from Crocodile Dundee and travels in darkest Africa have told over the years of horrific crocodile attacks and near misses.

Therefore this picture of me holding a tail of one such beast needs explaining.

Way back in 2005-06 I was a volunteer teacher in Ghana. Because teachers get a bit of time off during the holidays I traveled the country.

One such trip saw me up near the Burkina Faso border in the small frontier town of Paga.

Paga is not too far from the capital of Ghana's Upper East Region of Bolgatanga.

Famous for one thing more than any. That of course is the famous crocodile pools of Paga.

It is a strange story of how Paga came to have these 'tame' crocodiles. One such story is that 1200 years ago a man called 'Naveh' was saved by a crocodile while out hunting.
Saved from what? whom or how it is unclear!

The locals of Paga which include both people either side of the border believe that the crocodiles contain the souls of deceased ancestors.

Therefore they believe that humans cannot be harmed by these crocs.

I arrived on a hot tro tro (mini bus) from Bolgantanga and stepped off stretching my legs after sitting next to a lady breastfeeding a baby who also had a months supply of vegetables on her lap.

I wandered down to the pools which are clearly signposted and unmissable as apart from crossing the border are the main reason people will come here.

Ok I thought, maybe it is slightly cruel to treat crocodiles as objects for photographs but curiosity got the better of me.
I also thought that maybe these crocs were not as docile as made out to be.

Standing on the edge of the pool but well out of of lunging crocodile attack distance I observed what was going on.

Locals would take someone to the pool after 'treating' the croc to a dead chicken which they threw at the beast.

The giant beast snapped greedily at the chicken and after chomping it down lay still in the sun soaking up the rays and heating its large body.

Being slightly dubious I wondered if maybe those chickens were in someway tranquilized or drugged in a way that made the crocs become docile.

Drugged or inhibited by friendly spirits never the less I paid my money to approach them and the man threw a chicken at a new beast that had emerged from the water.

'Do you want to lay him', the man said. I raised my eyebrows but knew he meant would I like to sit on its back.

Instead I held its tail in my hand as when I approached it started to move slowly and turned its large head so one eye was fixed on me.

Looking into that dead emotionless eye I knew this creature could rip me limb from limb if it wanted to.

'Sod sitting on that thing I though'. Instead I grabbed the tail and held it at arms length.

I could feel the beast move slowly and the muscles in the tail contract.

The man who asked me to 'lay' the crocodile approached and beckoned me to walk away.

Another massive crocodile was emerging from the water.

I followed the mans eyes and saw the lumbering shape slowly emerging from the shallows.

Definitely time to leave and I placed the tail back on the grass.

As I did the croc lurched forward and the tail swiped widely from side to side.

Checking to see the whereabouts of his mate I exited rather swiftly and walked to the safety of the red dirt road.

There were not many tourists there except a handful of us 'volunteer teachers' and one rather looking old lady. Locals must be used to scenes like this as apart from the man who fed the chickens there was no one paying any attention to us.

Later on I asked a few questions and got a few sketchy answers.

There were over 100 crocodiles in the pool at any time. No one seemed to know how many but as the pool was landlocked how did they come to be there?

That question drew a blank.

One observation I made however was that the locals do not fear these creatures. I saw an old lady washing her clothes in the shallows not 20 feet from the peering eyes of one crocodile peeping out of the water and creating a small ripple as he or she took breaths.

In some cases these crocodiles are treated as pets; it is very strange to see a man aimlessly wander past leading a donkey not five feet from a crocodile. He simply ignored it safe in the knowledge that he was safe. A strange sight to see.

Out of all the crocodiles in the world these are apparently and probably undoubtedly the most dare I say it 'tame'.

To be honest I believe it. Where else can you hold the tail of a 'wild' crocodile and live to tell the tale.

I am sure I wont be doing it anywhere else on my travels!

Monday, 18 November 2013

The White Desert

Back in 2011 I stood in the white desert in the pitch black. The hard rocky stone crunched under my feet as I tried to find a radio station on my little travel world receiver.
Suddenly through the static and sudden outburst of shouted Arabic I heard the dulcet tones of the BBC world service.
A voice came through the speaker and reached me sending me back to my days as an English teacher in Ghana where I would tune in everyday regularly.
The static crackled and then suddenly a voice as clear as day came through and the topic of conversation was the 'protests gathering momentum in Cairo'.
Then the voice and signal was lost in the desert and all became silent as I turned the radio off and walked back over to the camp fire where huddled under blankets a few Egyptians sat sipping tea with the other people from the three Toyota land cruisers that we had all crammed into.
The White desert is a beautiful lace. I sat and edged my way closer to the fire for warmth and reflected on a day of bumpy travel and magnificent landscapes.

The white desert also known as the Sahara el Beyda is a massive white sandy and chalky desert. Large chalky rocks have been shaped over the years by the winds and sands carried by them. Eroding them over time into brilliant shapes. Some are so large on top that they look like they will fall over and another one resembles a giant rabbit.

These rock formations where they are large on top are known as mushroom rocks and do resemble the fungi. We arrived bumpily off road and as I saw them a smile crept on to my face.
The desert certainly looked beautiful and when the sun was setting the large wind swept chalk rocks created long eerily glorious shadows that crept along the ground becoming more elongated as the sun sank below the horizon.

I sat staring into the hypnotic flames of the fire. The crackle of wood echoed through the surrounding deserts and if you strained your ears you could hear distant groups sitting around another camp fire chatting away.

There snippets of laughter and conversation became louder when the winds changed but still they seemed very far off in this giant expanse.
When you are in a desert the night becomes a treasure trove of stars. The sky lights up with twinkling beauty and you can lie on your back staring at them hoping to see a shooting star whiz into life and suddenly disappear again.

There is a calmness in a desert and a peace that I cannot find anywhere else. Especially at night after the searing heat of the day has been put away for the night.

The stillness and whistling melody of the winds can make you stand staring into the distance for hours on end. Lost in the thoughts running through your mind, time seems to stand still and nothing else matters as the stars twinkle overhead.

My mind went back to the voice on the radio and at that moment in time I wasn't concentrating on the Cairo riot madness that would be awaiting me and is another massive story entirely.Instead I was here in the present in a desert enjoying the stillness that engulfed me.

Nights can be cold in the desert as you wrap up and slowly as the fire urns down to embers migrate towards the coals in your sleeping bag.

The cold is worth every minute though as you wake to a glorious sunrise that slowly creeps alive revealing the wonder around you which were hidden by the cloak of darkness.

The sun chases away the shadow and the rock formations stand proud and un-moving. They look like at any moment their giant top heavy features will crumble and the small stack of chalk holding them up for centuries will suddenly give up and shatter.

The sun rises and with it the heat of the day starts to grow. The cold and stiff limbs that you have developed over the night are soon getting back to life and warming up and you shred layers of clothing worn from the evening around the fire.

The stillness is still there, but not as abundant. Coughs, splutters and the noise of a 4x4 starting up give a life to the atmosphere and it somehow seems like the desert is stirring.

The sun is now bright and you stare in wonder at the erosive power of time and wind. The rock formations look even more epic in the blazing sun which is now hot and sweaty.

Too much background noise take away something from the magical landscape so much so that I retreat into ipod mode to listen to some music that suits the surrounds.

I clamber back into the toyota and watch as the landscape moves and changes as we drive on. Onwards to the Western desert now. Another sandy slice of beauty.

I watch as after hours the last of the rock formations finally slip from view and enter the world of my memory, mind and imagination.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

The joy of maps

Maps, maps glorious maps. I can spend hours staring at every contour and place name near and far. 

Exotic sounding places that you dream of visiting and close your eyes to picture.
I have traveled near and far to see many of the places that I read on antiquated maps and still dream and desire of seeing more.

Maps have always enticed me, intrigued me and made me want to own them. 
Now as I get older I have acquired some. Some old, some new, some original and some reproduction. Some large, some small and some very large that they take up a whole wall and you clench your teeth when people touch it.
Maps adorn and embellish my house and I believe make it alive with the essence of travel and ancient cartographic beauty.

For me they are better than a photo of a place you have visited. They conjure up mystery and a wonder of what places are like.

To me the places I have visited come to life when I see their names on a map. Sighs, people, smells, tastes, experiences and inevitably a smile all return to me.

So many memories come flooding back and they are all contained within a map.

That piece of paper, parchment or canvas contains so many memories and emotions that no photo could ever conjure up.

For me a map is a true delight to the eye and memory.

I can stare at a map and my mind will transport me back to a place. Sometimes I am in Africa. Dusty, with a sun burnt nose teaching kids in a rundown classroom back in 2005.
Other times I am in the middle East standing at the top of a rocky outcrop looking out over the red sands at Wadi Rum. A scarf around my neck fluttering in the breeze.

Of course you can have a map related memory closer to home. Every time I see the name Pamplona my heart fastens and I remember the adrenaline rushes of running in front of bulls and the smell of sun stale sangria.

All this comes from a picture of a place on some paper.

Maps conjure up everything for me when to others they are merely prints.
To me a map is a story, a history, a glimpse into the past, present and future and mots important of all. A map is a tantalizing come and get me plea to travel again and again.