Thursday, 9 October 2014

#014 Spine Race 2015 - 100 Days To Go!

It's crunch time...Less than one hundred days to go until a, very probably, cold winter Saturday morning on 10th January in Edale. When Spine Racers and Challengers alike will stare down the enormity of Pennine way with a heady mix of excitement, anticipation, trepidation and yes maybe a little fear too.

So with this in mind, every competitor has by now acquired and thoroughly tested all their race kit in weather typical of what will be experienced on the Pennine Way in winter...freezing cold, wet cold, muddy bog, drifting snow etc? Everyone has also practiced their navigation skills and is proficient at routefinding not just in the daylight, but in fog, during the night and in a rain lashed howling gale? Yes?

Of course not!

Because most of us live in a world where race training and skills practice has to fit around a combination of work, home life, mortgage payments, house DIY, car MOT, the list goes on and on.


However, the Spine can truly be described as an 'expedition adventure race'. As such it demands a set of expedition and hill skills beyond almost all other races in the UK. Indeed, finishers from overseas have often described the Spine as one of the toughest in Europe.

Spine history is replete with stories of ultra racers, many of whom were highly accomplished athletes, who's 'wheels have come off' mid-race and DNF'd. The reasons why this happens are many, but common themes are underestimation of cumulative race attrition and weakness in (maybe just one) skills set which has compromised their whole race strategy.

Having worked on the Mountain Safety Team since the very first Spine in 2012, I have witnessed many superb achievements by both Spiners and Challengers. From my experience in both leading expeditions and competitive racing, I know the investment of time, training, energy, emotion and hard cash that goes before success.

 


For sure, every Spine finisher has truly earned their post-race celebration.

On the flip side, one of the toughest jobs on The Spine Mountain Safety Team is not the long hours, nor wading through waist deep snow drifts (the infamous 2013 Cheviot weather bomb springs to mind). It is redezvouing with, or walking racers off the hill who have made 'the call' and cannot give any more of themselves.



So what makes the difference between a race finish and a DNF. It can be a fine line, as mentioned earlier, a small deficiency in skills set such as the following examples often seen:
  • Over reliance upon GPS without knowing how to navigate with a map and compass. GPS fails (complete electronic failure is common). Navigation mistakes ensue and forward progress grinds to a stop. Cold and hypothermia begin to set in.
  • Inappropriate layering for the conditions and activity level. Base layers become waterlogged with sweat, cooling the core.
  • Energy deficit. Insufficient proper food input to sustain activity and aid the body in recovery and coping with increased attrition as the race progresses.
  • Untested footwear for the conditions & duration, compounded by not being proactive in prevention and treatment of immersion foot and blisters. 
The most consistent and successful Spine Racers have all demonstrated an proficient all-round skills set, with a 'well-sorted' approach to kit and a robust 'get the job done' mind set.
They may not be the best athletes and they do make mistakes. But it is their mental and physical response to this which is all important. In this respect, The Spine is a real leveller, because the winner may not be the fittest racer or have the fastest pedigree.

By being a 'Complete Racer', Spiners and Challengers vastly improve their finishing prospects and maybe even surprise themselves as to how well they are placed overall.



And here's the good news...

With winter rapidly overtaking autumn, bringing race type weather conditions and limited daylight (if you haven't done so already) now is the time to crack on with working at those Spine skills, techniques and kit testing

From October up until January, Ranger Expeditions are offering short course and progressive 'Complete Racer' training at competitive prices and dates to suit racers, including midweek availability.

With 1:1 and small groups we have the flexibility to focus upon your specific training requirements and together choose topics which give you the most help in developing a personal race finishing strategy.

We take examples from the hard won successes and lessons learnt by racers. We also draw from wider experiences of expeditions and survival in hostile environments and weather conditions.

Our courses are for Spiners and Challengers of all abilities and event backgrounds, for example:
  • Any racer requiring help with navigation skills.
  • Trail & ultra runners stepping up to a multi-day expedition style race.
  • Mountain marathoners looking for Spine/Challenger specific tips and advice.
  • Previous Spiners & Challengers looking to develop a race finishing strategy to take them all the way to Hawes/Kirk Yetholm.
  • Experienced racers seeking navigation notes for the Pennine Way.

Topics we cover include:
  • Navigation: (daytime, low visibility, night nav, micro nav, fast paced nav).
  • GPS:care of, benefits and limitations.
  • Hill skills and camp craft: Time and energy saving tips.
  • Kit & Clothing: Selection & weight saving without compromising safety.
  • Nutrition & Hydration: What works, learning from race history.
  • Environment: Coping with cold, freezing, wet, snow, bog.
  • Health: Prevention and management of attritional injuries.
  • Checkpoint Transition: Techniques to maximise the quality and quantity of rest time.
  • Course notes: Stage by stage navigation briefing of the Spine & Spine Challenger.
  • Safety: What to do if it starts to go wrong.
  • Staying positive: Techniques and coping mechanisms.
  • Support Teams: Working with your helpers towards the best possible outcome.
  • Personal strategy: A race finishing strategy that works for you.
We aim to de-mystify topics such as navigation, developing racers ability to move independently and with confidence in both themselves and their equipment.
Our courses are not just for Spine Racers, the knowledge and skills we share are readily transferrable to other Ultra, Endurance, Challenge and Mountain Marathon events.



Prices (all courses include overnight accommodation & breakfast)

1 day 1:1 training £100
2 day 1:1 training £195
3 day 1:1 training £245
Night Nav 1:1 training £40

For groups of 2 or more booking together, add £20 per additional person to the above 1:1 prices.
eg: 3 people for 2 days training £195 + £20 + £20 = £235

To discuss your training requirements or make a booking:

Stu Westfield, Ranger Expeditions
Mobile: 07890 620274
rangerexped@hotmail.co.uk

(If we can't answer straight away, we're probably out on the hill and moor with clients, so please leave a message and we'll get back to you as soon as possible).







Monday, 21 April 2014

#013 The Spine Race Countdown

The Spine Race - No ordinary ultra!

Ok, so there's still 9 months until the contenders assemble at the start line in Edale, on an inevitably chilly January morning, to face down the Spine and all the magnificent miles of the Pennine Way that lay ahead.


It's going to be tough: Bogs to be traversed, long hours of darkness, freezing wind chill and possibly snow. To complete the Spine and Spine Challenger will require mental toughness to overcome all the physical, emotional and technical challenges. Some, no, most racers will need to dig deeper than they have ever done before. To write emotively, it may even represent an intense psychological journey to places in the mind rarely visited.

Each year on Spine Mountain Safety Team, since the first race in 2012, I have witnessed awe inspiring feats of achievement: multiple finishers, race records smashed, previous DNFs returning to lay ghosts to rest and triumph in extreme adversity. There have been cheers, laughter, smiles, sometimes tears and the most uplifting spirit of camaraderie. One fact is certain, there are many people who feel passionate about the Spine. The huge popularity and continued success of the race is testament to this - one has just to read the varied items of social media and see how the entries are now filling up. In 2014 trackers were introduced which became an on-line sensation and a worldwide hit with home spectators.


Spine - Success Factors

The whole Spine organisation, mountain safety and medic team naturally want every racer to achieve their ambition. But the statistics remind us that many racers will not complete. I think the Spine Race is a real leveller. Past results have shown many elite ultra runners who have been caught off guard by the conditions and attrition rate.

There are a number of factors and reasons for this. But the ability to navigate stands out.
Over-reliance upon technology such as GPS is no substitute for proficient use of map and compass. As I have said in previous blogs, I am not anti-GPS. It is very useful for tasks such as quick position confirmation and relocation, provided you know how use the information. 

But, many of the most consistent Spine performances have come from racers who only used their GPS once or twice in the whole race. This is because they are racing with their 'heads up'. Mentally, they connected to the terrain, absorbing and processing what they see with a quick glance at the map. They are not a slave to a dot on the GPS screen. Putting the race in terms of enjoyment: surely taking the more active role described above, makes time pass quicker, provides more vibrant positive memories and gives the brain lots of interesting stimulation whilst keeping those negative vibes at bay.

By introducing few key map reading skills and a little regular practice, a racer can break free from being a slave to the GPS. The Spiners whom I have trained and mentored in route finding skills have all found greater confidence and enjoyment from the ability to independently navigate.

Spine - Navigation

Let's look at the navigational challenges posed by the Spine Race. Yes, the Pennine Way is a national trail and the footpath is well defined along many sections. And yes, most of the time pointing yourself in a northerly direction gives roughly the correct direction of travel. But, not all of the Pennine Way is waymarked and those signs are often not there when you most need them: i.e. on top of the moor, in the dark and the clag has reduced visibility to a few metres. The further north you progress along the Pennine Way the more sporadic the signage becomes, up to a point on The Cheviot where at least one of the signs is actually wrong.


Also consider the problems posed in 2013 when a blizzard completely covered the trail.
Thigh deep drifts slowed the racers to 1km per hour. Several GPS units suffered complete electronic failure. The life on those GPS still working was severely limited due to the cold and you did not want to expose your hands for too long in those conditions fumbling around changing batteries. These were circumstances where racers relied upon fundamental navigation skills such as pacing, timing and contour awareness to reach the safety of a mountain refuge.

A brief but intense blizzard shortly after the race start in 2014 caused navigation issues within the first few miles, as Marcus Scotney (winner of the Challenger) described to official photographers/filmakers Summit Fever in a excellent post-race interview:

"I got up to Kinder Low, then suddenly everybody who had been in front of me (had) stopped...firing GPS, maps and compasses out, looking very bewildered"

 
Spine - Navigation confidence

Three points worth considering:

     Every year, some racers make catastrophic errors in navigation which consume so
     much energy and time as to effectively end their race.

     Other racers lack confidence in their navigation ability and so team up with others 
     who can route find. There is nothing in the race rules to say you cannot do
     this (journeying together often gives a welcome morale boost). 
     However, does this mean that their personal race plan is compromised?
 
     Even the best navigators occasionally go wrong. I know several Spine racers who
     are excellent navigators who have made route finding errors. The difference is
     that that they quickly recognise and correct their error without it unduly
     affecting their mindset. 

Fear, lack of confidence and the impression that to use a map and compass needs some kind of mystical sixth sense are all barriers to taking that first step in learning to navigate. I have seen this in many new clients. With a little guidance, they quickly discover the truth that navigation is accessible for everyone, with a few simple rules where the most important tool is your eyes. It is a revelation which always gives me great pleasure.

The navigational techniques for quick and efficient journeying, and to overcome short sections of tricky terrain during the Spine Race are equally straightforward.



Spine - Strategy

I am very enthusiastic about learning though experience and of course we all want to enjoy the experience of success. But there are also valuable lessons to be learnt from events that did not go to plan or results that did not satisfy. We can also make short cuts to performance improvement and personal success by keeping an open mind to the experiences, both good and bad, of others.

The Spine Race has been described as a fast paced expedition adventure race and I totally agree with this. To finish demands a varied skills set along with mental and physical toughness. Notice we have mentioned neither running or winning in the above description.

"I think (the race) is almost perfect in its cruelty"
Scott Gilmour, Spine Race Director 

 

If you analyse the race timings you may be surprised at the average ground speed of even the fastest racers. Indeed, in my February 2014 blog were I reported on the findings of my post-Spine Race footwear survey, many respondents said how surprised they were at the amount of time they spent walking. One could question how much time it is physically possible to spend running on a race of this duration, carrying a pack with the compulsory safety equipment and supplies. 
 
So, the Spine cannot be described as a pure running race. But be under no illusion, you do need to cover the ground at a pace which in reality will be a mix of fast walking, jog-trot, run and by the end, doing whatever is necessary to finish.
 
A racer will also need a full compliment of basic, but well practiced, expedition skills. The ability to look after oneself is key to lasting the course. This can be broken down into: proper hydration, food input, energy expenditure, camp craft, kit, balancing body insulation against hypothermia and sweat loss, foot care, checkpoint transitioning etc etc. Neglect any one of these factors and the effects have been seen to snowball, encroaching into all other aspects of the racer's game. To quote an expression 'the wheels come off'.

The Complete Racer.

The most consistently successful Spine Race finishers have not necessarily been the fastest mountain runners, infallible navigators, or the most experienced expeditioners. What they have proved is that an all round sorted approach across every aspect of their race is a highly effective strategy.

The Complete Racer courses (offered by Ranger Expeditions) are developed to share the knowledge, training and skills required for this sorted approach and for a successful attempt on the Spine and Spine Challenger.

Through informative and enjoyable training, drawing upon personal experience of endurance events and expedition leadership, with course specific guidance and tips, we aim to help Spiners build their own personal Complete Racer skills set and strategy which is robust and best suited to their ambition. Many of these skills are also readily transferable to other technical ultra races.

This is not a 'one size fits all' approach. We take a detailed look at all the factors which should be considered in a Spine Race plan, use real examples from the race itself as well as borrowing lessons from the wider world of expeditioning.
 
In summary, having the knowledge and ability to take control of your whole race strategy can only be a good thing.  

 
The Courses & Events:

Ranger Expeditions, thoughout 2014, will be offering a range of Navigation and Race Skills courses, underpinned by the Complete Racer theme. There are fixed date open courses for racer in the South UK and the Peak District.

These are also available on flexible dates to suit clients who would prefer 1:1 training and useful discounts for groups (of 4) who book as one team.
 



With 12 to 14 hours of darkness (depending upon cloud cover) during the Spine Race, our Night Navigation course will help you with efficient route finding and to stay on track during the night.



Also, we return on the Friday 9th January 2015 with our popular Pre-Race Masterclass, for a last confidence building session with lots of race tips and energy saving strategies, as well as a specific course navigation review.

The masterclass can also purchased as an add-on to any 2 day course, or arranged to suit a team presentation.

The EDALE PEAK CENTRE also has great value pre-Spine Race accommodation, which is sure to be very popular. Book early to avoid disappointment.



To discuss any of your race, mountain navigation or hill skills training, give Stu a call or email:


Stu Westfield
Ranger Expeditions
rangerexped@hotmail.co.uk
07890 620 274




Friday, 11 April 2014

#012 Rwanda Memories

7th April 1994

Amidst other prominent current news stories, it is easy to miss that this week marks the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda. Those familiar with the events which occurred in this small land locked country may detect a certain irony in my opening remark.

Indeed, one feature I did see on Newsnight was characterised by Jeremy Paxman doing his best impression of a colonial oaf by shouting at a Rwandan embassy official who politely refused to be drawn into an artificially constructed argument. Paxman then topped this with unspeakable rudeness by barking "Well, are you Hutu or Tutsi?" It's difficult to think of a more inappropriate or offensively posed question in the circumstances. 

In 1994, Over 800,000 people were systematically murdered in 100 days of terror (thats 1 in 10 of the Rwandan population) while the rest of the world turned a blind eye.

Even when BBC journalist Mark Doyle made his reports during the first few days of the genocide, detailing the extent of the unfurling humanitarian disaster, the United Nations dismissed the event as a tribal conflict.

     "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing"
 
                                                                                            - Edmund Burke (1729 - 1797)

(Of course for the above quotation to find relevance, there is always a leader who has first abused the power in which people have trusted to him. History has given us plenty of those, and continues to do so).

Numerous opportunities to stop the killing were squandered, despite the UN having a force on the ground with a General (Romeo Dallaire) begging for a mandate to intervene. Astonishingly, the UN diplomatic response was to withdraw 2200 of Dallaire's troops, leaving a paltry and strategically vulnerable, 300 peace keepers with no authority. Later reinforcements of European troops (wearing the uniform of the United Nations) refused to help Rwandans escape, instead only evacuating other Europeans. This action effectively condemned untold numbers of the remaining Rwandans to death at the hands of the radical Interhamwe militia: Surely a travesty of all the high minded principles the UN purports to uphold.

Following the infamous 'Black Hawk Down' incident in Somalia, America did not want to commit soldiers to another 'African problem'. Likewise, Britain stalled deployment for reasons arising from the Balkans conflict. Diplomats across the UN prevaricated, talking semantics as to whether the situation in Rwanda could be classified as genocide.

Yet all the while the killing continued with sickening ferocity until the Tutsi led RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) counter attack secured the capital Kigali. Then at last, Lt.Gen Dallaire received orders to establish a ceasefire line.

Many people have since speculated, could the Rwandan genocide have been prevented? Possibly not. The interhamwe militia were highly effective in their aims during the first few days of the atrocity. However, what is certain is that had General Dalliarie's UNAMIR force been given prompt and decisive orders to intervene, many lives would have been saved.

Summer 2012

I was very mindful of the events in 1994 when I accepted an assignment to lead the first schools expedition to Rwanda on behalf of World Challenge. By 2012 the country had become politically and culturally stable, plus the school for which I was leading (London Oratory School - LOS) already had well established links with some of our project hosts.
 
I had learnt and read a lot about the efforts in Rwanda to bring about reconciliation and resolution to the troubled past. But how could people, who had witnessed and been victims of such atrocities, come to forgive the perpetrators? Let alone once again live in the same neighbourhood.

Unbeknown to me, what I was about to experience something both profound and truly eye opening.

Kigali

We arrived at Kigali airport in the early hours of the morning and were met by our in-country fixer Nyirigira Lord Hannington. A man every bit as colourful in character as his name suggests, Lord is a genuine Rastafarian. It later transpired that he is somewhat of a legendary guide for visitors to Rwanda, as when I returned to the UK the mere mention of his name drew bright recollections and happy memories from those who knew him.

Whilst in Kigali, Lord organised and escorted us on a city tour. Of course many of the landmarks we visited were associated with the genocide, but I thought it an important part of the expedition, both for me and the fifth formers, to understand how and why things happened in order to appreciate the underlying reason for our forthcoming community projects.

With a number of keen footballers in the group, a stop to walk around the national stadium was a highlight. Looking at the empty stands and well kept green pitch, it was hard to imagine the scenes of squalour and suffering when thousands of Tutsi and moderate Hutus sought refuge there.

When in the city centre we had also paused at the Hotel Milles Collines, known to many as Hotel Rwanda as the centre point for the film of the same name. We also passed by the King Faisal Hospital, where doctor James Orbinski from Medecines san Frontieres struggled on treating people with terrible machete, grenade and land mine injuries. Having run out of medical supplies he was left with no choice but to perform amputations with a hacksaw in order to save lives. In 1999, Dr. Orbinski accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of MSF.



Lord then took us to the Genocide Memorial. Inside, the information told of how traditionally there had been ethnic differences in Rwanda, with Tutsis occupying most of the positions of governance, which had been a source of simmering resentment among Hutus. The arrival of Belgian colonial ambitions, sought to use the Tutsis as a proxy ruling class. They did this by categorising Hutu or Tutsi ethnicity on identification cards, further en-flaming Hutu grievances.
As I walked past a glass case containing machetes and other weapons used by the Hutu Interhamwe militia, the display looked like many others I had seen in museums. But it was in the subdued light of the photos room that the human tragedy could be felt. In row upon row, column after column were the faces of the murdered. Their eyes in the ID photos seemed to stare out of the paper. Each one of these people was dead and we could only imagine the manner of their end.


There were rooms dedicated to remembering other acts of genocide. From the atrocities of the Nazis in world war two, the Herero suppression in German South Western Africa (now Namibia) in 1904-07, to more recent tragedies in Cambodia and the Balkans. It was at this point that Lord said he would meet us outside. I soon understood why he would only ever wish to read the accounts in the Rwandan childrens' room once.

Outside, I found Lord smoking a cigarette. We stood together, silently, in the memorial gardens. Surrounded by trees in flower, were several large concrete capped sarcophagi. Inside, were interred the remains of 250,000 souls.

Dom Bosco School

One of the principal reasons for our journey to Rwanda was for the LOS to renew its links with the Dom Bosco school in Kaborondo, Kayonza District. Usually it was a few sixth formers which travelled just to the school in their gap year. However, on this occasion it was fifth formers who had the opportunity, as part of a wider ranging expedition which would finish in Kampala, Uganda.

The Dom Bosco pupils, many of them borders, were nearing the end of term and so there was an upbeat excitement on our arrival. It was also a period of change for the school curriculum, with a transition from lessons taught in French to exams given in English. Clare, the LOS School Leader, had come prepared for this and together with Robyn, a teacher from Dom Bosco, they made lesson plans which both the LOS boys and myself could present to the pupils.

At first, classroom teaching, especially to the really young ones, felt a bit 'out there' and to be honest most of the time I was busking it. At the end of each session, I set aside the formal learning for a ten minute chat, where the kids taught me alot about football players in the UK premier league.

My final class of the week was with a group who were soon to leave school. I asked Clare for some ideas, she said I could try some singing. Clare had obviously never heard me sing nor was she fully aware that my musical tastes were more air guitar than adagio.  I doubt whether anyone in Dom Bosco has ever heard a class singing Freebird by Lynyrd Skynyrd and I'm fairly confident it will not happen again any time soon.  

Avega NGO
 
AVEGA Agahazo, was set up in 1995 by widows of the genocide. In the immediate aftermath the need to help alleviate the suffering was obvious. They organised counselling, emotional support and financial help for other widows, orphaned children, parents who had lost their children, as well as the elderly and handicapped who had lost thir family. As time progressed, AVEGA was also called on to assist those infected with HIV/AIDS as a result of rape during the genocide.

Twenty years on, their work continues to be of vital importance. The recent scenes during the service of remembrance held in the national stadium bear testament to this. Many of the congregation breaking down, totally overcome by their memories.

Unlike the United Kingdom, Rwanda does not have a welfare system for its citizens. For most families, especially in rural areas, the division of roles is still along traditional gender
lines. So genocide widows have a particularly hard time, raising children, providing food from their allotments and earning money. Consequently life is hard for their children who have to forgo their education (which must be paid for at secondary school level) in order to work. It is a cycle which perpetuates poverty.

The LOS team helped in a AVEGA sponsored community project to rebuild the dilapidated house of a genocide widow. We were based in the steep rolling hills of the Rwamagana agricultural district and our role was to assist local fundi (skilled builders). The house was constructed out of local materials; rock from a scratch quarry a little way down the hill and mud bricks from an improvised pit about 100 metres away.

The most challenging aspect of the task was that the nearest water source was about 250 metres away and there were no hoses or wheelbarrows available. So, with Jerry cans and old plastic cooking oil drums, our team carried what must have amounted to thousands of litres, along rutted and a dusty hillside trail, to a tarpaulin lined pit dug near to the workmen.



It was hot work. So we organised a shift rotation with staggered breaks so everyone had regular rests whilst keeping a steady supply of water to the pit. Mindful of the dangers of dehydration and heat exhaustion, I encouraged the team to do what they were able but not to push themselves too hard.

We gradually saw the house rise from
foundation to roof level. I was very proud
of what our small group of LOS boys and teacher had achieved in just a few days plus we had alot of fun and laughter along the way. Among all the schools expedition projects I have contributed to, this one stands out as the most significant and meaningful.


 


However, the most important words come from Nyirabazungu Berine...

"My name is Nyirabazungu Berine. I am a genocide widow. I am a member of AVEGA. My house fell down and during the mourning period. In commemoration of the genocide people came together to contribute some money to make 1000 bricks in order to rebuild my house. They also gave me money to rent a house for a few months. However, the bricks were not enough to construct the house. It required at least 1500 bricks to construct and finish it. AVEGA also helped in paying for 500 more bricks.

I am also happy for the donation from World Challenge that is helping in the construction of the house. I was also very thankful to the group from World Challenge which physically got involved in the construction work.

I did not expect a white person to fetch water, carry stones and bricks but they did it happily and willingly. I can’t express how happy I am. I used to have lots of sleepless nights because I had no shelter but I will now start to sleep like a log. My life and health will improve.

Long live World Challenge! Long live AVEGA! Long live people with humanitarian spirits. Thank you."

 
 
 
Environment


With the exception of the Virungas National Park, home to the mountian gorilla, Rwanda is not especially known for its wildlife reserves. In 1994 much of the game was shot out for food, either by desperate refugees, or in the case of Akagera National Park, by the advancing RPF soldiers having re-grouped across the border in Tanzania.

 18 years on, we saw a healthy recovery of grazing animals, tope, zebra, giraffe, impala and colourful avian species such as the lilac breasted roller. The enigmatic shoe billed stork, reported to be nesting in the wetlands, remained elusive despite our combined efforts peering through binoculars. At the time of our safari, predator species were still to be successfully re-introduced. The one lodge providing overnight accommodation looked of its time, but was clean and we enjoyed the sweeping views whilst sipping sodas on the terrace.

Akagera is a national park in the ascendancy. With time and continued investment, it has all the potential to be a wildlife showcase of international repute. There are parallels here with Queen Elizabeth National Park, just across the border in Uganda. During the Idi Amin regime QENP suffered a similar fate, but has now bounced back to be one of Ugandas premiere wildlife watching attractions.


For me it was a superb experience to discover Akagera at this stage on its journey back to greatness.

Reconcilliation

There was a great deal of premeditation and highly organised planning leading up to the start of the genocide. Radio broadcasts de-humanised the Tutsi minority, labelling them cockroaches and calling for their eradication. Establishing the ethnicity of those to be murdered was made easy due to the national ID cards. But the killing itself was medieval with machetes, knives, clubs, screwdrivers. Weapons requiring the user to be in close proximity to the victim. Neighbour killing neighbour, friend killing friend, even close family members, requiring a kind of fury which is hard to contemplate.
 
"We were animals" said one genocidaire.

But the most powerful story to arise out of the genocide is one of reconciliation. The war crimes trials held in Arusha, Tanzania did much to convict and imprison the principal figures and orchestrators of the genocide. On a local level, traditional Gacaca courts sought to blend punitive and restorative (victim centred) justice ,with lighter custodial terms given for those genocidaires who showed contrition and made reparations to their victims families; survivors who were often closely acquainted with the perpetrator. Other sentences made some genocidaires responsible for the financial welfare of the widows and orphans that their actions had created.

The Gacaca Courts were a bold idea following such a traumatic event. From the people I met in 2012, they do seem to have been at least partially successful in reconstructing a torn nation, bridging the post-genocide chasm that existed between Hutu and Tutsi. 

Representing something much more, is the remarkable expression of forgiveness shown by many victims to those who have raped, maimed and murdered. I find this difficult to understand, or even articulate into words. What I do feel is that in the face of overwhelming darkness, people have searched for the good inside themselves and others. It is a example that the rest of the world could do well to observe. 

I am Rwandanese

Concerned about inadvertently causing offence, one of the LOS boys asked me whether it was socially acceptable to speak about the genocide whilst in Rwanda. I said I thought it best to wait until the subject is raised by our hosts, or someone else first. What we actually found was that many people were eager to talk. Maybe not always about the events themselves, but more to emphasise that they were united in the pursuit of lasting peace.
 
"I am Rwandanese" was a often heard affirmation. 

On one of our projects, I passed some time with a workman who with touching sincerity asked me to

"Please tell the world that we are not those people anymore."

I left Rwanda, with deep impressions of people who simply wanted to get on with their lives, to make their way in this world, whilst at peace with their community. If tensions were to arise again, it could not be attributed to them, it would once more be started by just a few individuals and abuse of power.

Naturally, the pain of the genocide is still felt both personally and in the national consciousness. But for Rwandanese there is a want, even a aching need, to move forwards;

Not to be forever defined by those 100 days in 1994.

Further Reading

The following texts offer different perspectives and insights:
The solder: SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL - Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire
The medic: AN IMPERFECT OFFERING - Dr James Orbinski
The civilian: AN ORDINARY MAN - Paul Rusesabagina

The untold story: I whole heartedly recommend Mark Doyle's account of UN Peacekeeper Capt. Mbaye Diagne "A GOOD MAN IN RWANDA" who's selflessness and uncommon courage saved 1000 lives. Romeo Dalliare described one of Capt. Diagne's interventions as
 "There are no limits to descibe how gutsy. A Victoria Cross-type action".

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/special/2014/newsspec_6954/index.html

Slideshow

For this blog, I'll leave you with a You Tube link to an upbeat slideshow of the whole World Challenge - London Oratory School 2012 expedition to Rwanda & Uganda.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fL2WWTRFoeI

Stuart Westfield
Ranger Expeditions
11 April 2014
 

 




Saturday, 22 March 2014

#011 Ngorongoro Memories

On my African expeditions I have trekked, climbed and journeyed in many places of breathtaking beauty and spectacular grandeur. 

Sitting on the sand of the Skeleton Coast, with a myriad of stars splashed across the deep blue night sky, as the waves of the Benguela current rolled against the shore with hypnotic rhythm, was a very special moment. As was guiding clients to the summit of Kilimanjaro and the time walking through Kyambura Gorge in Uganda to track Chimpanzee accompanied by a national park ranger. 

Working alongside local experts brings a pleasure in itself, the sharing of knowledge and anecdotes enhances the experience creating a sense of camaraderie and connection with the whole team and the environment. It is perhaps no surprise that my most treasured memories have come from East Africa and in particular the Ngorongoro crater. A place which defies all superlatives and never fails to impress. 

For this blog I would like to share with you a story of my first two visits to the Ngorongoro. The local experts on these occasions were Tanzanian safari guides Beatus Ndanu and Arnold.


NGORONGORO MEMORIES

"In a hundred years’ time the political anxieties and hatreds for which men suffer (and die), will only have a printed existence in history books. But people will still consider it important that wildebeest should roam across the plains and leopards growl at night. It will matter all the more if human beings are increasingly condemned to live in soulless concrete cities."
                                                                             Dr. Bernhard Grzimek (zoological scientist)
from Serengeti Shall Not Die

I have seen a place where all life began, a vision of Eden, the crucible of creation.  Its affect upon me was so profoundly moving, it was as though time stood still and that the earth was at peace with itself.

With these strong and vivid memories of my first visit to the Ngorongoro Crater resonating in my mind, the Toyota Landcruiser continued upwards on the rutted and dusty track.  Dolores and I scanned the passing vegetation for leopard, a cat so secretive and well camouflaged that a sighting had eluded us.  My only reticence was the thought that the enchantment of the original experience would somehow be diminished by a second visit.  I need not have worried.  Soon after our vehicle crested the crater rim, the forest cover yielded to a breathtaking amphitheatre view and it was like seeing with fresh, innocent eyes.  

Feelings of homecoming made conversation impossible for a few moments as I looked out over Lake Magadi, the Lerai Forest and other familiar features among the pastel shades cast by the late afternoon sun.  I realised that I had left something of myself here and that it had been calling for me to return.  


This sense of place and oneness with nature must have been the reason why some early explorers returned to Africa many times, enduring incredible hardship and disease.  When David Livingstone died in 1873, his embalmed body was carried on a final journey from Chitambo village, near the shore of Lake Bangweulu, to be interned in Westminster Abbey.  But his heart was placed in a small tin box and buried in the African soil, the soul of this most well loved Scottish hero forever laid to rest in his adopted home.  A stone memorial pillar marks the place, standing alone in a grove of trees, it is simply inscribed: David Livingstone, born Blantyre, died Chitambo’s village.

Superlatives, and there are many, cannot capture the essence of what it is to experience the Ngorongoro Crater, known to many as the eighth wonder of the world.  At 20km in diameter it is the largest unbroken caldera on Earth and is home to an abundance of resident species, including several thousand mammals.  Such is the richness and quality of pasture contained within its steep 600 metre high walls that many of the wildebeest and other antelope have foregone the rigours of migration endured by their cousins in the Serengeti and Masai Mara ecosystem.

The Landcruiser followed the unmade road clockwise around the crater rim.  With the windows wound shut to keep out the dust, our view to the right alternated between the overhanging boughs of croton trees and fleeting glimpses across the crater.  After bumping along for another ten kilometres our vehicle turned into the narrow entrance of the Ngorongoro Wildlife Lodge. 

The view from the rear car park gave little indication of what lay beyond on the other side of the building, its façade dominated by a large sloping roof.  From the clerks’ check in desk, a wide flight of steps led down into the lounge bar.  The interior looked like an ski lodge with pine wood beams adding a cosy atmosphere.  Plate glass had been installed along the whole length of the side facing the crater making an impressive panorama window.

My attention was distracted by a large widescreen television situated in one corner on a slightly lower level.  In front of it, two or three people were sat on a sofa, absolutely riveted to a game of football.  They looked so completely out of place.  Surely the main event was happening at that very moment, just outside beyond the glass.  Each to his own, I thought, but I had to stifle a school boy urge to run up to them, point excitedly out of the window and say “Look!”

A few months earlier, our arrival at the Serena Lodge, a further half hour drive away had been an experience of visual delight.  Passing through the lobby and onto an open sided walkway, suspended on large tree trunk poles with a log roof, our porter led the way.

All the buildings and features were constructed from materials which blended sympathetically with the location.  The main dining and bar area looked like the great hall of an esteemed tribal chieftain, decked in highly polished wood with a rich dark grain and furnished in heavy fabrics, with simple bold patterns in earthy colours.  In the centre of the room was a large fireplace shaped like a brick kiln.  Logs were stacked alongside to provide warmth on the cool evenings of the crater highlands.  Full height glazed sliding doors ran along the frontage of the lounge, never allowing the sitter to forget the spectacle which was just outside, or to become tired of the mesmerising view.

We were escorted down a passageway, on the left hand side the numbers on the doors indicated that these were the bedrooms. The opposite side was open to a sheer rocky slope with vegetation clinging to its surface.  The porter stopped and unlocked our room.  It was gloomy inside.  He purposefully strode over to the shut curtains and flung them aside with a dramatic flourish of his arm, like an artist unveiling his finished canvas for the first time.  The theatrics were wholly justified, our eyes widened and we took a sharp intake of breath.  After thanking the porter, we opened the glazed doors and stood out on the balcony, perched over the edge of the crater. 


The scene was of such epic magnificence it rendered us speech less, it was beyond anything imaginable. All along the row of rooms, we could hear gasps of delight as the other arriving guests also ventured out onto their balconies. The scale was so immense that I did not know in which direction to look first.  It was almost too big, too overpowering to comprehend.  There was nothing subtle about the Ngorongoro Crater, this was big nature delivering its biggest gesture.

That night was like waiting for presents on Christmas morning.  The anticipation was unbearable and I awoke several times, not wanting to miss watching the sun rise over the crater rim from our room.  Breakfast could not be over quick enough.  I could have ordered one of several delicious specially prepared dishes, washed down with sparkling wine.  Instead, I opted for the self service continental with a strong coffee.  Dolores reminded me that we need not rush, there was plenty of time to spare before we were scheduled to meet Beatus at the Land Rover.  Never the less we were still a couple of minutes early.

With our fellow travellers on board and cameras loaded, we rejoined the track around the crater rim and headed towards Windy Gap and the Seneto descent road.  We wore fleece jackets as the morning temperature was still cool, not having yet been warmed by the rising sun. Alongside the road, Masai villagers were about their daily routine, most still choosing to wear their traditional costume of red linen robes.  Women, decorated with colourful bangles and bead necklaces, carried containers of water and produce, as children ran past them on the way to school.

The Crater Highlands are a string of volcanoes, between 2500 and 3500 metres above sea level, rising steeply from the side of the Rift Valley in northern Tanzania.  The oldest volcanoes, Oldeani and Mount Lemakarot, at the southern end of the 80km range, are very eroded.  To the north east the Olmoti Crater is the source of the Munge river which flows into Ngorongoro, feeding Lake Magadi and the Mandusi Swamp.  The Ngorongoro caldera was formed 2.5 million years ago when the volcano erupted for the last time, its top sinking back into the crater after the magma reservoir had been expelled.  At the northern most end of the range lies the almost perfect cone of Ol Doinyo Lengai, 2879 metres high, overlooking the shores of Lake Natron, on the Kenyan border.

Ol Doinyo Lengai is the Masai sacred mountain, its name literally meaning The Mountain Of God.  It is also the only known active carbonatite lava volcano in the world.  From a distance, what looks like snow on its peak is actually cooled sodium carbonate lava residue, similar in chemical composition to soap scum.  Its steep sides rise to a flat topped peak where there are hot steam vents and growing ash cones.

We stopped at a barrier, manned by rangers who checked our permit before waving us through and onto the descent road.  We had met our guide, Beatus, at the Ranger Safari’s vehicle compound in Arusha a couple of days previously.  In his early thirties, Beatus Ndanu was lean of build and had an excellent command of the English language.  His natural enthusiasm was accompanied by a deep knowledge gained from his studies of wildlife and game park management. 

To me, this way of earning a living had to rank well up there in the ‘best job in the world’ category, but I was also interested to hear if there was a downside or less pleasant aspects to it.  Beatus told us that the long distances of driving on unmade roads is not healthy for the internal organs so he is allocated a set amount of leave after each trip to allow for a proper rest. This gave him time to be with his wife and children for a few days before the next tour.  

Beatus had also been a driver and spotter on a couple of occasions for wildlife filming production companies.  We all perked up with interest to hear more about this. Beatus smiled and nodded, “Ah, you think it is so glamourous.  I tell you, we spend hours every day just waiting to catch one minute of film. Some days we got nothing.  The film company, they were here for a whole month.”  He shrugged his shoulders almost apologetically, “Sometimes it was just boring.”  Even so, I thought, I’d rather be bored here, than one of millions tied to a desk in a stuffy office with little natural light.

Beatus, drove slowly down the narrow descent road.  The Land Rover was an extended wheelbase type, with large windows in its high sides, ideal for photography.  The roof had been converted so that a hatch lid could be removed above each of the three pairs of seats behind the driver, allowing everyone to stand up, tank commander style, to get a better view. The vehicle slowed whilst Beatus pointed out a candelabra tree.  This was a type of euphorbia like we had growing in our conservatory back home, except here it stood ten feet high.  I could see other examples on the slopes above us which looked even bigger.

Edging down towards the crater floor I spotted several zebra on the nearest pasture.  Further along at the bottom of crater wall I could just make out a young Masai amongst his herd of cows.  We rounded the base of a rocky outcrop and were faced with a brown carpet of rough grass teeming with hundreds, if not thousands, of wildebeest.  When we returned the following February their numbers had swelled still further by recently calved young, still tottering around on spindly legs as they followed alongside their mothers.  The air was filled with lowing and grunting calls of  communication.  When zebra were added to this hoofed melee, the effect of their stripes mingling with the wildebeest created a shape shifting distortion aimed at confusing predators. 


A light mist rose from the soda lake as it was warmed by the morning sun.  The shoreline had retreated, leaving a white salty residue, but in the centre where there was still shallow water, a faint sheen of pink indicated the presence of flamingos.  At the side of the track, a cory bustard, the heaviest flying bird in the world, conserving his energy on this occasion by walking.

As we drove onwards we had our first encounter with the king of beasts.  A male and female lion had separated themselves from their pride and lay opposite each other, paws touching, on a patch of dried grey earth. Judging by the male’s attentive behaviour they were probably a mating pair. When on heat, a female will be receptive for only four days.  Therefore the male will monopolise his partner, coupling on average twice an hour during this time.  If successful, the female would give birth in three and a half months to a litter of between one and four cubs. 


However, as a rule, half would be dead by the end of their first year, having succumbed to starvation, disease or opportunistic predation by spotted hyena.  During a pride take over, the new dominant male will often kill all cubs under a year old.  Whilst abhorrent to human sensibilities, infanticide is a vital part of the lion’s reproductive strategy, prompting lionesses to re-enter oestrus and ensuring that only the progeny of the strongest males carry genes forward to the next generation. 

The lioness slowly rose to her feet and walked forward a couple of paces towards our Land Rover.  Oblivious of our presence, she then squatted down an relieved herself of a large poo. The male then sauntered over and inhaled the scent, eyes closed, his upper lip curling in a flehmen face, exposing his long, yellowed, canine incisors and pink tongue.  He sported an impressive dark full mane, almost black in places, typical of lion within the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.  Never had we imagined we would encounter this most handsome of cats at such close quarters, or be treated to such displays of behaviour.  As the pair ambled away into the grass, I noticed that the male had an open wound on his off-side hind quarters, probably inflicted by the horn of a wildebeest or cape buffalo in a recent hunt.

This was not the end of our Ngorongoro lion story.  Whilst traversing the central plain, near the Munge river, during our second visit, Arnold reacted briskly to a call on the vehicle radio.  While he drove, we scanned ahead to see what we were heading towards.  Out of the heat haze, appeared a pair of lion.  As we got closer I could see it was a lioness with a male following closely behind.  I looked at Dolores, my spine tingling with expectation. “It can’t be,” I muttered “that would just be too good.”

Yet there on the male’s rump was the scar, the flesh wound now granulated and closed, but still apparent by the way the skin folded upwards.  This gave us a wonderful sense of continuity and narrative, which must be intensely satisfying to the naturalists and film makers who document the family histories and life adventures of particular individuals. 

The pair looked like they were heading towards Ngoitokitok springs, where we would later see a crèche of several older cubs and young adults along with a lioness babysitting.  In their path stood a herd of twenty or so zebra. They remained in a tight group, as the stallion advanced a few paces towards the lions.  His muscles taught, head held high and ears pricked in alert posture.  He stamped down with both front hooves and emitted a loud ‘i-hah, i-hah, i-hah’ alarm snort.  Everything about him advertised the fact that he was fit, he could run fast and that he had a good set of hooves for kicking. Disinterested in chasing prey, our lions continued onwards, but did not deviate from their course.  The zebra edged away to the side, maintaining a safe distance.

Having slowly passed a group of very flighty Thompson’s gazelle, Beatus circumnavigated the shore of Lake Magadi and into the Lerai picnic site for a comfort break.  It was too early for lunch, but we were allowed out of the vehicle to stretch our legs.  I looked up into the nearby trees and saw vervet monkey leaping from branch to branch.  I thought nothing more of them until Karen let out a yell.  We rushed back to the Land Rover to see her snatch back what was left of Beatus’ tuck box as the monkey scampered out of the roof hatch and off with a round of sandwiches. Although still wild animals, these primates certainly knew the value of a free lunch.

Our route continued deeper into the Lerai forest, the most heavily wooded area on the crater floor.  Large acacia and broad leaved croton trees offered a little shade and dots of dappled light danced on the ground, as a mild breeze disturbed the hot air.  The forest was fed by the Endeani, Oluvera & Laratati run off channels from the crater wall which terminated to form the Gorigor Swamp where elephant chewed on the lush, green vegetation.  There was every chance that there would be a leopard lazing on a horizontal bough, high enough not to be disturbed by lion or hyena, whist it digested its meal from the previous night.  But, we saw no hint of one, despite the fact that leopard are thought to be just as numerous as lion.

A troupe of baboon made us jump as they rushed across the track loudly squabbling and screeching as two of them roughed up a subordinate for some transgression of hierarchy or etiquette.  A few of the adult females carried very young on their backs, riding in the jockey position, or slung underneath, clinging to the fur on their body.  The wide eyed infants looked at their surroundings with a permanently surprised expression.

On the far side of the forest a collection of rocky mounds sat between the west bank of Magadi and the crater wall.  On the Serengeti and Masai Mara cheetah would use features like these, known as kjope rocks, as look out points, both for spotting prey and identifying any closing threat from competing predators.  Apart from a few distant wildebeest, there were no animals to be seen so we continued north towards Goose Ponds, crossing the track on which we had entered the crater floor.

A black backed jackal broke cover and trotted away from the track. His mate also appeared from out of the grass and followed, stopping and turning momentarily, legs bent in anticipation of flight, to see if we were pursuing. Three Cape Buffalo stood at the side of the track on the northern plains.  These were the first we had seen in the crater, with the exception of the bleached horn and skulls of those unlucky enough to be taken down by lion, their only major predator, apart from man.  The nearest held its ground with an unreadable fixed stare.  This bulky and formidable African bovid looked unpredictable and dangerous and we were grateful that we were inside the  Land Rover.  In herds of buffalo a mobbing response is an effective anti-predator tactic.  It has been known for lions to have retreated up trees and be kept there for hours by buffalo marauding below.  No quarter is given between these species and Buffalo will also stamp and kill any lion cub it happens upon.

Further ahead, two vehicles had halted, the passengers had their binoculars and camera lenses fixed on an area of prairie about fifty metres away.  Beatus drove up behind the other vehicles and switched off the engine.  I leaned forwards, trying to pick out what was perfectly camouflaged in the tall straw yellow grass.  A cheetah popped its head up.  I was thrilled.  This was my favourite of all the big cats, its body and physique developed though evolution into the world’s fastest land animal. The small head with its beautiful teardrop black markings looked back towards me.  I had not come on safari with a tick list of expectations, I was happy to experience and photograph whatever animals were there, but seeing cheetah was wonderful.

From that moment my day just got better and better.  Another cheetah raised up on its front legs and then two more appeared.  Judging from their relative sizes, in all likelihood here was a mother with three offspring on the verge of becoming independent.  If this was correct, the mother had done well to raise them all to adulthood.  The littermates are abandoned sometime after they reach fifteen months old, but may stay together to form a coalition in order to gain an advantage when stalking prey and also when making a claim to territory and defending it against other males.  The mother then reverts to a solitary existence until she briefly meets another suitor to mate with.  Any young females drop out of the coalition before they are two years old, presumably at the onset of oestrus.  With sleek elegance, the four cats walked off across the flat plain and into the heat haze.  Now I could see their toned shoulder muscles, low slunk back spotted on top, white belly and long stripy rudder tail.  One of them made a casual show of stalking a zebra, but it was too far away and far bigger than a cheetah’s normal prey.  The zebra bolted off in a cloud of dust before anything more came of the display.

We continued in a loop around Madusi Swamp and then followed the course of the Munge River to the east.  An male ostrich stood a short distance away, its plumage ruffled in the hot dry wind blowing over the crater floor.  I had not previously appreciated just how tall this most unusual of birds was, or how thick its pink legs were, held taught by hawser like tendons.  Nearby a secretary bird strutted through the stubble looking for snakes to eat. In contrast to the ostrich, the secretary bird’s legs were covered half way down to the hocks. The featherless lower leg extended to a fearsome set of talons, used to hold snakes away from its body until it had battered them to death.

Heading due south, along side the Oljoro Nyokie River, actually little more than a stream with greener grass and reeds along its banks, we passed between the twin cones of Endoinyo Osilale and Endoinyo Rumbe. These volcanoes in miniature were probably the last gasp of lava activity within the Ngorongoro, before the geological forces moved on to form newer eruptions outside of the crater.

Beatus turned left onto the track leading to the Ngoitokitok Springs picnic site.  In a pool of black, sloppy mud, a hyena struggled to reach a pack of vultures fighting over the carcass of a baby hippopotamus.  It had not been dead long, possibly it had met its demise sometime during the night, as the vultures had only just penetrated its tough skin to access the soft tissues within its abdomen.  The birds did not seem perturbed by the approaching hyena, which was now up to its shoulders, labouring in the stinking quagmire of rotted swamp vegetation.  Panting heavily, it gave up and turned around.  The meal was not worth the effort on this occasion. 

I had expected to see packs of hyena, stealing carrion and harassing lion, however, Beatus informed me that they are normally nocturnal hunters.  Undoubtedly, the hyena suffers from an image problem, lacking the sleek lines of a big cat, the loveable playfulness of wild dogs or the shining stripy coat of a zebra.  With stubbly brown hair on its sloping back and limping gait the hyena is more closely related to the mongoose family. Never the less, the spotted hyena, commonly found over most savannah in sub Saharan Africa, is a highly social animal within a clan of twenty to fifty individuals, led by an alpha female.  Its highly developed sense of smell can detect carcasses several miles away.  Hyena are also formidable hunters in their own right catching and killing sixty percent of their prey themselves.  They usually target the sick or injured, thus ensuring that the main stock of wild animals is a strong and healthy breeding population.

Beatus parked up our Land Rover beside a large pond.  In the centre were several hippo mostly submerged in the water with just their heads and back visible from the bank.  As another surfaced it blew out through its nostrils spraying its sedentary neighbours.  Hippo are very susceptible to dehydration, especially during the midday temperatures, so they seldom venture too far away from water and when they do it is usually at night to forage for food.

Beatus handed out our lunch boxes, but had very little left for himself after the monkey had stolen it earlier in the Lerai forest.  Despite his insistence that he would be fine, we all divided our lunch boxes so we each had an equal share, there was plenty to go around. Whist doing this Beatus warned us of the red kites we could see circling over the picnic area.  These were magnificent raptors with a huge wingspan and ruddy brown feathers. Their ever alert eyes were tuned into identifying unguarded food or leftovers and would swoop down at terrific speed, snatching the item with fearsomely sharp bright yellow talons.  Beatus relayed the story of a client who had not heeded the warning to beware of the kites.  The client had put an apple on top of his head to see if the bird would take it. Seeing the opportunity for an easy meal the kite dived down and took the apple. Unfortunately its talons also took a portion of the man’s scalp which bled profusely and obviously ruined the rest of his day.  We looked outside the Land Rover and could see some people looking nervously upwards so we elected to eat lunch in the car and take a walk outside afterwards.


We stayed at Ngoitokitok for half an hour, sitting on the carpet of green grass.  The blades were wide and rough to the touch.  At the shore of the lake superb starlings hopped around, cleaning up the crumbs of food too small for the kites.  Slightly larger than European starlings, these African cousins sported an iridescent sheen of blue green wings, burnt orange undercarriage, with a tuft of white just below the tail.  We watched, fascinated by how they seemed untroubled by the close proximity of humans.

After lunch, we drove across the central plain towards Hippo Pool in the north west.  In a remote area away from the vehicle tracks Beatus stopped suddenly to point out a rhinoceros laying down, almost obscured in the grasses.  I added a doubler to my telephoto lens, but even with this extra magnification I could not achieve anywhere near frame filling shot. There was no way to get closer as off road driving is prohibited in the Ngorongoro in order to discourage harassment of vulnerable species.  A few minutes later, the rhino got up and walked into an area of short stubble. Following behind gambolled a young calf, which was only a couple of months old.  

Hunted to the brink of extinction for its horn and still critically endangered, here was a wonderful symbol of a bright future for wild rhino in Africa.  Fortunately, the popularity of the Ngorongoro meant that any poachers would be quickly identified and caught by the armed park authorities.  Sadly, this was not always a deterrent.  One night, poachers had infiltrated a sanctuary in Kenya, murdered all the rangers as they slept, then slaughtered seven rhinoceros.  The horn was destined for Chinese medicine or to be made into ceremonial daggers for cultures with more money than sense, or accountability for how their actions encouraged people far poorer and desperate than themselves to behave.

On our second visit, Dolores and I were most concerned to see if we could spot the female and her calf.  The morning had gone well when we saw a male rhino in the vicinity of the Ndoinyo Olkaria Hills, just beyond the Munge River near the crater wall.  Our relief was heart felt when we found our female, with calf having grown slightly larger in the intervening four months, walking in the direction of Gorigor Swamp.  Although still keeping their distance from the tracks, they were closer than last time and clear of vegetation cover, allowing me to improve on my previous photographs. 

At Hippo Pool we counted over thirty of the river horse wallowing in the water.  All around this oasis were hundreds of white egrets strutting through the shallows on their long legs. Our afternoon continued with another circuit of Lake Magadi, revisiting the wildebeest herd.  Unfortunately many of the predators had gone to ground, resting up during the hottest part of the day. 

On our final crossing of the central plain we had a vision which could be described as a most iconic image of Africa.  Through the intense shifting heat haze two large adult male elephants steadily crossed the parched earth, their forms slowly taking on gigantic proportions as they walked directly towards us in an ethereal timelessness.  From their jaws protruded the longest ivory tusks, dazzlingly bright under the intense rays of the sun. I was curious to know where the elephant had come from and where they were going, as they moved with purpose and intent. 


All around, the towering blue crater walls enclosed us in the biosphere.  I put my camera down and reflected upon what I had just witnessed.  Sometimes it is better to step away from the lens and let the power and beauty of the world directly into your soul.  In a theatre who’s cast played to the relentless laws of nature, I felt humble.  Man the inventor, the innovator, the moderniser, could never hope to equal the creative forces of evolution.  

On this day, I had watched the greatest show on earth. 



Stu Westfield
Ranger Expeditions
www.rangerexped.co.uk