This road has been safari, but now I am headed up a mountain

2/3/2018
This road has been safari, but now I am headed up a mountain

We woke early and made sure our bags were completely packed. Kimambo always outdoing himself, we ate breakfast and packed up sack lunches. We needed an early start from Lake Natron to return to Arusha and to the Airport Planet Lodge so Melissa could make her flight home. We actually made it in plenty of time. The washed out, pit holed, rough roads were no match for Daudi’s skilled hands at the wheel. We said our goodbyes and were left at the lodge for showers before our transfers.

I cannot say enough about how awesome Dorobo Safaris was in planning this trip. This company was recommended to Melissa and I by our professor, Dr. Rudnick, who used them during her own field work in Tanzania. We are ever grateful for that recommendation. Mike was a wealth of knowledge and insight. We did not work with the other brothers, but I suspect they are all cut from the same quality cloth. He helped plan a flawless trip to combine geology, anthropology, and tourism. His wife, Lisa, was the coordinator behind our meals. She has great taste! Kimambo was a superstar as our chef and camp staff. He kept a tight ship and was so friendly. I was glad we bonded over elephants being both our favorite animals. I showed him all the photos I had taken during our game drive. Daniel, our Lake Natron guide, was awesome. He had an endless supply of patience and encouragement, and was keen on experiencing our geological explorations with us. And lastly, but not least, our guide, driver, companion, and animal encyclopedia, Daudi. He was a phenomenal guide. This trip would not have been as rich without him. He worked hard to make us happy and help us accomplish our every desire. We only have the best thoughts and sentiments toward Dorobo Safaris. We highly recommend them for anyone planning an excursion to Tanzania. They were stupendous and pivotal to the success of this trip. I hope I have the opportunity to work with them in the future.

Their reputation and long list of top clientele speaks volumes of its own. But I confidently would like to promote them as well.
Dorobo Safaris: http://www.dorobosafaris.com

Like a whirlwind, our trip was over. Melissa headed to the airport, and I was picked up by a driver from Kessy Brothers Tours Ltd. and taken to Moshi. Cheating a little, I will talk about this company now, using hindsight, since I was already on a plug for Dorobo.

I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro using the Kessy Brothers Tours company. They were recommended to me through friends of my sister. Contacts she made in Guinea during Peace Corps. I will admit further encouragement was that this company’s prices are easily well below most other companies. Internet searches suggested the risk with cheap companies is that you miss out on quality food and the expertise of other companies. But that is just not the case here. I had an exceptional guide, Penieli Samuel Urio. He has summited Uhuru over 100 times and counting. He knows everything to expect and is very diligent to safety and acclimation. I also had a great cook, Betos. He served me three massive meals a day, always striving to cater to my tastes. He checked in with me frequently to make sure I was happy. I also think he was possibly worried that I was not well, since I found myself completely unable to finish any of the three three-course meals he prepared for me all six days. His skills over a camp stove are impressive, but I just cannot fit that much food into my body. Maybe if he only fed me cookies… I then had a personal attendant, Joshua. He served me all my meals and setup my eating blanket in my tent. He always had a smile and tried to teach me fun sayings in Swahili. My favorite was a response to mambo, how are you? It went poa kachizi kama ndizi ndani ya fridge, crazy cool like a banana in the fridge. And then there were three other porters, Godiliza, Daniel, and Jofray. All distinct in looks and personality, they brought their own bonus to our crew.

From observing various companies while on my hike, I will say the main difference is that we were probably more minimalist. I ate in my tent, rather than have a separate food tent with chair and table. I used the camp pit toilets rather than have a dedicated porter responsible for carrying around and cleaning one for me. And let’s be honest, I would not have been able to handle such unnecessary extravagance. Otherwise, I was safely brought up the mountain, and summited Uhuru Peak. I highly recommend Kessy Brothers Tours for any Kilimanjaro hike. I suspect the logistics change slightly when dealing with additional hikers, the number of guides and porters definitely increases.

Kessy Brothers Tours: http://www.kessybrotherstours.co.tz

After arriving to their office in Moshi, we settled all the logistics for the next day. They provided me with the gear I was missing and introduced me to my guide. And then I was whisked away to Sal Salnero Hotel to repack, shower, rest, and prepared for my Mt Kilimanjaro trek.

 

49E2855B-5FB0-4FF6-9B32-40368EEAAC2985E4B983-B36D-4026-8FA5-10CE8D940C4A

Oldonyo Lengai in 1.5 ascents and an outdoors safety announcement

2/2/2018
Oldonyo Lengai in 1.5 ascents and an outdoors safety announcement

I thought a long time about what I wanted to say here. I have a plethora of notes and thoughts and feelings from this day. But I think it is important to start with a safety announcement. As an avid outdoors woman, I sometimes take for granted the skills and comfort levels of my outdoor companions. I often go outdoors alone, so when I meet people out on the same adventures, we just happen to all be on the same page. This is not always true when planning an excursion in advance with companions. We all have our own abilities, fears, goals, and dislikes. So I want to talk about it.

When climbing mountains, there is one very important rule: the summit is always optional, but your safety is not. I repeat, no matter how much you want to push to the top of a mountain, it will always be there for another day. But if you become injured, or worse, die, you may never have another mountain in your future. This rule remains true whether you are out on a day hike, undergoing a grand expedition, paid $70,000 for the opportunity, or whatever other circumstances you can argue. If your safety is in danger, the peak is always optional. This might seem obvious if the situation is a threat of lightening, blizzard, any high altitude illness, or other confronting risk. But it becomes more nuanced at the nitty gritty side. What is the balance between pushing yourself and not exceeding your personal abilities? Only you can answer that question. The important thing is to remain true to your feelings, AND to practice excellent communication.

Please, I repeat, please, anytime you are going outdoors with other people, always take the time to discuss each person’s abilities, goals, and limitations. If you don’t feel comfortable talking about these things with the people you go outdoors with, whether from intimidation, pride, or whatever, step off your high horse right now. Going outside is a fun, challenging, and rewarding privilege. But it also has risks, real risks, life threatening risks. You would not go backcountry skiing without digging a pit to check snowpack. You would not rope up to trad climb with someone who cannot set anchors. You would not skydive without checking your parachute. I can go on, but the point is that we have safety checks for high danger sports, but it is also important to make safety checks for less obviously dangerous sports. I myself am often guilty of jumping in before asking questions and thinking about risks. But if you really do not feel comfortable doing an activity, whatever your reason(s) may be (physical ability, fear of heights, an emotional block to certain activities, lack of equipment, uncertainty, disinterest, etc), find an environment where you can work through those uncertainties on a safe playing field. Join organized expeditions (REI, NOLS, local outdoor stores), find classes (REI, local recreation centers, local universities, certification outfitters), and try to meet people who are willing to teach you (Meet Up groups, online support forums, friends, etc). Seriously, I know a lot of people who say they have always wanted to do X, Y, or Z, but never knew how to get started. My solution is always that you will find a way if you are truly passionate. Start small, do not be afraid of failure, know that you may have to do something several times before you know if you actually enjoy it. When deciding to thru hike for the first time, I planned a three day, very easy hike. Everything went wrong. I forgot my water treatment, I had never practiced setting up my tent before and it rained that night, I didn’t know where to begin with proper foot care and happiness. But I accepted defeat, went home early, and learned a lot. I tapped the knowledge base of friends and tried again. Now distance hiking is one of my all time favorite activities.

When you go outdoors and are surprised by a limitation of a team member, it is both your responsibilities to have talked it out before the adventure began. That is all I have to say. It is lazy and irresponsible to not take the time to have these discussions when preparing for an adventure. And remember, the summit is always option, but your safety is not.

As a brief recap of the day. We had a very short night’s rest. I honestly think I got maybe two hours of sleep. We left for the base at 11pm and were climbing by 11:30pm. I forgot to record this climb. It was still relatively warm outside, and the moon was shining brilliantly among a million twinkling stars. It was perfect out. We drove up the escarpment toward a saddle between Lengai and the ridge. The climb started as a gentle sloping flank before steadily steepening. We made it several miles up the side of Oldonyo Lengai before having to turn back. Melissa had even less sleep last night, she was sick to her stomach. When I thought that was it, I knew she could be ok if we went slowly and kept her fed and hydrated. But here is where my negligence comes in, I had never sat her down for that all important talk about goals and limitations. Melissa is afraid of heights, and has not climbed a mountain before, so did not know how that limitation would manifest with both feet securely on the ground. Knowing her to be a rock climber, I didn’t even think to ask. We made it a good ways up the mountain before Melissa shared the state she was in, stubborn to the point that she kept going even while thinking one false step would ruin her. As a blindly confident person, I have never faced a fear like she did this morning. That determined, we turned back. The summit so near, but Melissa’s safety more important. Once at the bottom I curled up and slept the last hour before sunrise. Then we walked another mile or two down the road to the lone tree to wait for Daudi in the meager scraps of shade as the day’s heat set in. We returned to camp, ate breakfast, and made a plan. I would go back with Daniel that afternoon and Melissa would explore Lake Natron and some cinder cones located there.

I went back to bed, in my sun-sweltering tent, to catch another three hours sleep before waking for lunch and summit attempt number two. Daniel and I set out at 3PM, in the stifling afternoon heat. We regained this morning’s ground quickly. I should clarify that there is not actually a trail up Oldonyo Lengai. We were literally retracing weathered steps up lava flow channels. When the mountain steepened, we were often picking steps from entrained boulder to entrained boulder, since the lava was slickly smooth or eroding rubble. And it was straight up, no switch backs, no protected coves, nothing. As real an effort at climbing up a raw, loosely vegetated mountain as it can get. I did record this second attempt, so you can watch how my pace lagged tremendously toward the top, the lack of sleep and heat-induced exhaustion setting in, my legs cramping like I have never felt before. Daniel, of course, not even breaking a sweat. That man is patience reincarnated.

We arrived at the summit just in time for sunset and to catch the last light across the valley. It was beautiful! And very interesting to see how the crater had changed from all the photos I have seen online. Since the 2007 to 2008 activity, there are now two hornitoes building up in the bottom of a deep, but filling crater. The south crater wall, which I think was attached prior to 2007, is now a separate abandoned rim wall. There is a crack about 1-3 feet across and 10+ feet deep running all the way around the current crater. And I observed at least five separate gas vents, seeping hot sulfurous volatiles.

As quickly as we arrived, we headed back down to take advantage of the last rays of light. Which was nice, because heading down those shear faces was much easier with daylight. I quickly realized that we would not have the same bright moon as this morning and my headlight batteries were running low. Thankfully Daniel led the way and I only needed to watch him mostly. The winds picked up from our backside, stirring up as the dust we disturbed with our steps. As the second in line, I received the powdery, blinding dust from both our dust clouds. We watched Daudi arrive as we sped down the mountain, his headlights seeming far away. But before I knew it we were back at the vehicle and headed to camp. A delicious meal from Kimambo awaiting me. I ate, showered, and went straight to bed. An exhausting but deserving day.

 

EF37B27D-CD0D-4513-8280-B77F32332455FB2E93FD-6133-44B7-A4E0-7245DA4A78D80A49E18E-23D3-4B88-BACB-4460E8112A0CF78A9F65-C052-4D1B-829B-420E8AAF1016B0987BB8-1065-49ED-B255-C33C3FE47468B4F1C8E4-45AD-43C9-A17C-3630C9DCF88EDDB51788-DF79-42A7-AA9E-98EB9DDABE2A3F5EEC62-5F6A-4E06-B577-DB3F0170F469

Geologizing around Oldonyo Lengai

2/1/2018
Geologizing around Oldonyo Lengai

Melissa and I continued our morning ritual by watching the sun rise over the flank of Gelai volcano from the edge of camp. It is nice to have freedom of movement again! Then Kimambo outdid himself this breaky feast: soft cinnamon bread twists, eggs, bacon, mango, pineapple, passion fruit, hot tea with milk, and my daily dose of EmergenC. Maybe the meal was not all that different from other mornings, but we were excited to be switching our focus to rocks!

For the past 20 million years or so, this part of northern Tanzania has witnessed two major periods of extensional crystal deformation, both followed by pulses of volcanism (Dawson, 2008). Instabilities in the mantle during late Tertiary time caused regional uplift and the formation of an irregular, domed highland. Extensional faulting along the crest of the domed structure, formed three diverging grabens: Natron, Eyasi, Pangani. In fact, more recent normal faulting throughout the Oldupai region may have originally developed along these older structures. Within this tectonic depression, numerous single mafic shield volcanoes (Gelai, Kitumbeine, etc) formed, while others coalesced into larger volcanic provinces (Mt Kilimanjaro, Ngorongoro volcanic highlands, etc). Renewed extension during the upper Pleistocene formed a half-graben with faulted margin in the west. This is the East African Rift as known today. Lakes Natron and Manyara developed within local depressions adjacent to the western rift margin. Finally, renewed volcanic activity on a much smaller scale activated Mt Meru, Kerimasi, and Oldonyo Lengai. Kerimasi and Oldonyo Lengai are the only two that have erupted carbonatite lavas. Oldonyo Lengai remains the only active volcano in Tanzania today, and the only active carbonatite volcano in the world.

Our first aim for the day was a place on the USGS map named “Ildonyo Loolmurak,” a small cone next to a volcano called “Loolmurak crater”. Daniel told us the local name for the crater is “Kerimasi” and the cone has no name. I enjoyed how “oldonyo” was spelled “ildonyo,” as ‘mountain of the crater.’ I have not investigated how the USGS determined the names of these cones, but it does beg to wonder whether they went straight from old papers, repeating the errors of early researchers, or consulted a local knowledge source.

The target material was to look at the lava flows from the small crater. From walking down the cone’s flank, it looked like 3-4 different lava flows of olivine melilitite separated by light-colored nephelinite layers. Everything was pretty weathered, but we observed large (1-3mm) olivine phenocrysts and abundant vesicles in the melilitite. The nephelinite was hardly worth hammering off a piece.

Then we stopped at a debris flow mound Danial called “Lollkimojok.” It is supposed to be a debris mound overlying a distinct phonolite lava dome, according to the USGS map. We found plenty of phonolite lava, but nothing in situ suggested it was independent of the debris flow material. I won’t say we throughly investigates the matter, but all the phonolite “outcrops” were higher on the mound than debris material, completely lacked any type of contact suggesting either burial or intrusion, and frankly looked like it was locally transported with the debris material. Like I said, we didn’t investigate on any major level, but this unknown relationship remains a mystery to us.

Near the NCA gate we also stopped at an active fault locale. It was as close to active faulting as I have ever seen. There is old uplift creating an ~50m cliff overlooking the lake bed below. Behind the cliff are a series of cracks parallel to the cliff face revealing active graben formation where this crust is stretching apart. The most prevalent crack, about 50m back from the cliff and 10-15m deep, is supposed to be less than 20 years old. Geology on a human scale! We could see bats flying around in the shaded portion of the chasm.

We kept today relatively low key because it is exhaustingly hot in the baking sun, and we are preparing for a nighttime summit of Oldonyo Lengai!

As already mentioned, Oldonyo Lengai is the only active volcano in Tanzania and the only active carbonatite volcano in the world. Thus it might also be one of the most famous volcanoes in the world. Early explorers thought the light coloring was snow, but it is actually light colored carbonatite ash and how the minerals in the lava weather to a grey color. The volcano is deeply incised by deep, radial gullies. Much of the eastern side was blown out by a violent eruption 2,500 years ago, and that eruption caused a large landslide scar still visible on the northeast face. Much of the landscape around Oldonyo Lengai are the remnants of large debris flows covering the east to northeast flanks. The most recent eruptions took place over 2007-2008, with lava flows and large ash eruptions that caused a lot of destruction and some mortalities in the small town of Engaruka.

Oldonyo Lengai, a nephelenite-phonolite-carbonatite stratovolcano is estimated to have begun ~0.37 Ma (Klaudius and Keller, 2006). Lavas of Oldonyo Lengai are geochemically diverse, erupting combeite-wollastonite-nephelinites, phonolites, and natrocarbonatites (Klaudius and Keller, 2006). Of the known extrusive and intrusive carbonatites, only the lavas at Oldonyo Lengai are natrocarbonatitic (Woolley and Church, 2005; Jones et al., 2013); thus these lavas are unique and have no other direct comparison in the geologic record. The unparalleled major oxide compositions, trace- and rare-earth-element geochemistry, isotope systematics, and volatile concentrations of Oldonyo Lengai natrocarbonatite lavas give igneous petrologists insight into deep carbon systematics, mantle processes, magmatic differentiation due to liquid immiscibility, and carbonatite petrogenesis (Simonetti et al., 1997; Dawson, 1998; Keller et al., 2006; Klaudius and Keller, 2006; Potter et al, 2016).

 

EA2EFD14-3279-41F5-9F39-9A9D8CED6F9894FBE974-05F9-4B64-9865-B94D224DDA4BBBDDCDC2-D1B5-4BBD-A7FC-7BF19ED37A61781A387D-07FF-4C85-BBE6-792A5F1A2959

Leaving the Serengeti for Lake Natron

1/31/2018
Leaving the Serengeti for Lake Natron

It rained while we were sleeping. As camp was packed up, I could smell the wet earth mixed with fire and vegetation. I feel like I am attuned to so many more smells here. Things are not paved over and transformed away from their natural state. It reminds me of being on trail. When you regain your ability to smell people – the soaps, bug spray, sunblock, perfume, and more – before you see or hear them. But this is different. It’s stronger, I am bathed, and have not become the same kind of feral beast I am on trail, yet I can smell the world in the air. It is like the rush of smells of nature when you first step out of a cave. You don’t realize you haven’t been able to smell nature until you are being reunited after breathing sterilized air. I like it.

Melissa and I again perched our selves on the kopje to watch the sunrise, Lucas dutifully leading the way. I spotted a banded mongoose, but discovered my camera battery was dead. We saw a wildebeest herd hustle by our camp. I don’t understand why predators don’t attack while they herd. It is clear the strongest wildebeests make their way to the front of the line while the calves are left racing to keep up the tail. As we drove out, we passed heaps of ostriches really close to the road. The pink legs of the males and faces of the females indicating breeding time was fully visible at this close distance. We could see Masai women collecting water from a stream that developed from the brief rains. It is scary to think water here is so scarce that these people work hard to capture all they can. Most of the migrating animals are independent of water, so they do not rely so heavily on a constant water supply.

Since the animals are mostly in Ndutu, we asked Daudi to take us into Serengeti National Park as a special request. As the always gracious host, he of course complied. The herd was noticeably thinner, but we still had many great sights! Immediately we saw about 20 hyena lurking around a carcass and encroaching on nearby wildebeests. The endless plain of its namesake was more evident here than in Ndutu. Prior to formation of the plain, this area would have been largely exposed pre-Cambrian metamorphic rock. Then the Kerimasi volcano, a small carbonatitic strato-cone on the north edge of the Ngorongoro volcanic highlands, produced a series of explosive eruptions, blanketing the entire area in pyroclastic air fall tuffs. The result is the “endless plains” seen today. Besides the mountains at the horizons, it could easily have passed for the plains of western Kansas (animal presence aside of course), interesting how so many geological environments can produce such similar looking results. We watched a miles long line of wildebeests crossing the road towards Ndutu, and a picturesque juvenile tawny eagle staring us down from in a lone acacia tree.

On the way back out the same road, it was like all the animals had come swarming. Instantly we spotted a female cheetah lounging by the side of the road. Then a lioness in the distance perched on a giant rock under a tree’s shade. The hyena were on the move and ostriches took off running. These animals are oblivious to the boundaries marked by humans, seamlessly crossing back and forth as best fits the path of their migration. Ndutu and Loliondo are pivotal to this ecosystem’s survival. The animals will go as they please, continuing migration routes established long before humans divide up their land as our own.

We went back through Oldupai Gorge to drop off Lucas and capture our last views of this earth cradling humanity’s evolution. Then we set off for Loliondo, the far other side of the rift fault. We drove across the far east side of the Serengeti, where Oldonyo Lengai volcano continues to contribute to those vast grass plains. Loliondo is where game hunting is allowed. You can immediately see the differences from Masai only territory. The buildings are more permanent structures, a combination of more wood resources and other tribes than Masai. Also, there is a noticeably greater turn to agriculture.

We pulled off for lunch under a whistling acacia and looked out over the landscape. The Tanzanian government has hired Chinese immigrants to build a paved road from the Serengeti to Lake Natron and then to Arusha. What a difference that will be for this landscape. I am not comvimced the outcome will necessarily produce beneficial results to the people living in these areas, but it will dramatically change tourism, for one. But that is all a long way off. For now all we see are the scars of ground being leveled. Then, many large bridges will have to be built. This land is riddled with deep gouges from water ripping through the fine sediment and wearing away the rock during rain storms. I hope their engineers have geological understanding, or the road is destined to crumble as quickly as it is built. But maybe that wouldn’t be such an overly bad thing. Not that I want to prevent the opportunities of easier travel, wealth of tourism’s arrival, or the modernizing of this land. But it will surely change this place in unpredictable ways.

Soon we began to loose elevation. I could tell from rising temperatures, and the wide sediment ravines we kept driving down, working our way off the Rift Valley escarpment. We passed through the village of Engaruka to Water Fall Camp. It is a public camp, and the only green oasis on this side of the escarpment (and we are not even in the dry season, when all the plants wither to black sticks). The owner hires Masai from the village below to work as camp helpers for whatever guests arrive. There are other camps, but I suspect this is a favorite. The grounds are relatively flat and grass covered, there are giant trees casting shade (several large fig trees were dropping fruit!), and it overlooks Lake Natron with Gelai looming behind it. And a short walk to the edge of the plateau reveals decent views of Oldonyo Lengai and the escarpment towering up behind us.

We met our Masai guide for this region, a kind and patient man named Daniel. He will accompany us on all our excursions, including Oldonyo Lengai. Melissa and I also learned that Daudi is Masai. No wonder he was able to tell us so much about their culture, his culture. And Kimambo is from the Chaga Tribe in Moshi. Daudi told us “oldonyo” is Masai for “mountain,” and “Oldonyo Lengai” is Masai for “Mountain of God.” So the Google map name of Ol Doinyo Lengai is yet another example of incorrect spelling from European explorers. We also discovered numerous other discrepancies as we showed Daniel our USGS geological map of the region. It contained a whole slew of of oldonyo spelling variations for the various peaks around; made all the more funny when that means everything has been somewhat formally named “mountain.”

Big Game Drive! Ndutu/Serengeti, Tanzania

1/30/2018
Big Game Drive!!

Melissa and I decided while planning this trip that we could not come all the way to Tanzania and not see wildlife. Thus today was entirely and exclusively about wildlife, and Daudi did not disappoint. He was the best driver and spotter of animals. Again, I will include more details in the animal post to follow, but I cannot go without detailing the events of the day.

Our camp is called Nauri Kisaruni, and we started the drive from there. Immediately we saw wildebeests, an aardvark digging hole, wattled starling, zebras, Grant’s and Thompson’s gazelles, a huge group of elands (Africa’s biggest antelope), kori bustards (largest bird that flies, it is ground nesting), ostrich couples (males have black feathers and females are gray; I was amused to think the Fantasia scene is a bunch of male ballerina ostriches…), crowned plover, nlack-crested snake eagle. There was a big luxury camp with large wooden cabins built around a kopje on a hill with a platform built to the top of the granite hill. Giraffe (Tanzania’s national animal), white-backed vultures, marabou storks, and more zebra, wildebeest, and Thompson’s gazelles. There are something like 2 million wildebeest, 700-800,000 zebra, 500,000 gazelle (mostly Thompson’s), and 200,000 impala in the Serengeti herd, which are all migrating to Ndutu currently. I do not have tallies for the rest of the animals. The wildebeest are literally in every direction to all horizons. Including giraffe and elephants, these grazer/browsers can all cohabitate because they eat from different levels of the vegetation. A symbiotic relationship at its best.

Then we entered Ndutu, Masai for “high animal concentration,” where the soil notably changes to reveal a higher phosphorus level, hence why most of the herding animals migrate to breed here.

We stopped to watch female dung beetles roll eggs into fresh dung and then male beetles come to roll the poop ball away and bury it in a hole. Quite prodigious creatures. Lappet-faced vultures, more wildebeest, an acacia tree (often called a devil tree on the plains because there are literally no trees in the plains except for these random lone acacia trees creating shaded caves underneath), grey heron, Egyptian geese, and common snipe. Then we rolled up on a freshly dead wildebeest swarmed by white-backed (or African) vultures, Ruppell’s griffon vultures, and marabou stork; all scavenger birds. Eventually other animals or birds will come take their turn, but the white-backed vultures were dominating the feeding. It is slow-going for them though because their beaks are not strong enough to rip hide, so they can only get in through the anus. It was quite a sight! If a lappet-faced vulture showed up, it would dominate over the rest, and would be able to rip open more parts of the animal. It was so interesting watching this scavenger feeding hierarchy and the displays of aggression even among the white-backed vultures. We saw a hyena covered in mud to cool off from the day’s heat, Grant’s gazelle, a newborn baby wildebeest (maybe 1 day old), white stork (or European stork), baby zebra (less than a month old), giraffes, superb starlings, and a dik-dik trio (they mate for life so any trios mean the third is an offspring). Then we saw a Lilac-breasted Roller. It is Daudi’s favorite bird, and I can see why. It is beautiful! And as it flies it will spin sometimes, hence the name “roller.”

We saw a long-crested snake eagle, impalas, and then, African elephants! African elephants (the savanna ones) are my all time favorite animal. I literally have a family of them tattooed on my arm. This was one of the single most important experiences for me. I have always been in love with these majestic beasts. While I spent a year traveling across South America after university, I had the opportunity to meet one and interact with it, and see others in their pen. This statement rang true for me then:

Long ago and far away, Edie Banister was told that a human soul infallibly knew its own value when it was reflected in the eye of an elephant.
Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway

They are so beautiful, their eyes so expressive, their significance undeniable. But I wanted to see free ones. I wanted to see my value in the eyes of a beast master to itself. Not ones poked and prodded for the entertainment of tourists like me. I do realize the irony as we invaded their space here as well, but these amazing beauties were free, dignified, and know they are the true masters of their world. It was a matriarchy of seven. The lead female, her next-in-line, two helper females, a three year old, a one and a half year old, and a less than one year old. I seriously teared up while watching them. Upon our invasion they instantly rallied around the matriarch, protecting the three young calves inside their circle, watching us with knowing eyes. Once deciding we weren’t a major threat, the older three shuffled along the calves while the matriarch came quite close as if to say, “I will crush you, so keep your distance.” Everything about these animals mesmerizes me. Females are typically between 6600-7700 lbs, while males range from 11,000-13,200 lbs. As the largest land animal, they have no predators (Except humans, particularly poachers, for whom I maintain quite strong and dark feelings toward. No creature deserves the brutality that poachers inflict.). They are incredibly intelligent, have very long memories, and mourn. They are wiser than we humans know, you can see it in their eyes. Shortly after leaving them, we came across the male elephant, covering himself in mud to stay cool. He was massive. And we could see him communicating to the matriarch through infrasound using his feet. I won’t forget this incredible experience.

We headed toward Ndutu Lake, moving into the woodland, spotting impala and helmeted guineafowl. Then we came across two female lions (both less then 6 years old based on their pink noses), resting in the shade of two trees. As nocturnal cats, they seemed completely unaffected by our presence to their napping. Then giraffes, impalas, black smith plovers, tawny eagle, batau eagle, northern red bishops, steenbok, agama lizard, and red-necked spurfowl. Then we stopped for lunch while overlooking a swampy marsh. Already an incredible day, Daudi wanted us to see more. We found another lioness, watching over some wildebeest below, then headed back to the grassland. We found a hyena which lead us to another hyena hiding in the brush, which scared out an African hare, then wattled starling, red-eyed dove, and another acacia species (apparently there are a bunch of acacia species).

Up ahead we saw a swarm of vehicles, respectfully making only a half circle, around two male cheetahs chowing down on a fresh wildebeest kill! We missed it by less than 30 minutes, but the feast was still exciting. They had a young wildebeest and were still working on the thighs. Cheetahs are diurnal, but still at risk from lions and hyena attacking to kill the cheetahs and steal their meal. In a weird way our presence at their feast may have helped them keep a meal, as lions are less likely to come over with the crowd, but it would be impossible to calculate the true impact of our presence (I suspect more harmful than good). The brothers took turns feasting, both still panting from the attack. Truly incredible. Not far away we found a male lion resting up in a tree. He was massive with a big huge mane. Though not common, lions are cats and will climb trees for a vantage. This one became unsettled and took off, I caught his ungraceful leap from the tree with my camera! Males here tend to survive only until they are 10 or 11 years old, while females can survive until age 20-25. Males are responsible for protecting their pride from other males, so it is a tough and short life for male lions on the Serengeti.

At this point we had to leave. Unfortunately the rules prevent sunrise and sunset presence in Ndutu unless you stay at the expense park camps, and even then it is limited. We saw Lake Ndutu from a distance, revealing the pinks and greys of Greater and Lesser flamingos with their young (the grey colors). We went close to Lake Malek, but never had a vantage. On the way out we spotted two silver-backed jackals, augur buzzards, and more superb starlings. Then the sky threatened to open up and pour down rain, we could see the streaked sky all around us, so we raced back across the plains to prevent getting stuck since the second water is added to the Ndutu soil, it becomes a sticky and thick red clay. A clay we would find near impossible to escape.

One last stop before we returned, our kopje visible in the distance. We went to a cultural boma to learn about the Masai. There are two bomas in the park, sanctioned by the government. A boma is the traditional living quarters of Masai, now where they gather to learn about and share their culture. It consists of a circular barrier of branches, within which are built small mud huts maintaining a center area where where all livestock (cattle, goats, donkeys, etc.) are kept at night to protect them from predators. A real boma consists of a single family, that is a man and a hut for each of his wives. There is not enough space here to discuss their interesting practice of polygamy, so I will let you research that topic on your own.

They welcomed us grandly, pulling us into their song and dance. Our guide, Liza, one of the Masai chief’s sons, led us through the village. We saw inside a traditional hut, visited the school where children sang us songs, and bought items from their market. It was a neat experience, and we were happy to contribute to their community and help support the children’s education. More and more the Tanzanian government wants Masai children to attend primary school, so they all need an education before then, primarily to learn Swahili and English. Masai children are taught to be trilingual: the Masai language plus Swahili and English. I gather that almost all Tanzanian people have to learn Swahili and English as their second and third languages, since most people belong to a tribe and all tribes have their own languages. Imagine if the US worked harder at bringing languages to our children rather than a half-assed requirement in high school. Maybe one small step to broadening our nation’s small bubble of ignorance and intolerance. For what other country demands everyone speak English, and then comments harshly about the challenges of traveling abroad where English is not spoken. Anyway, I digress.

We continued back and found our camp had expanded. Already from the first night we had gained a toilet tent, chairs to sit on around a fire, a food tent where Kimambo presents our meals on camp tables, and a cook tent with a second fire and chairs and table. Now we also have a shower tent. Both Melissa and I reveled in our showers while in Qatar because we earnestly thought they would be our last until after this trip was over. Nope! We had showers at the hostel, showers at the first night’s camp, and now a shower at this camp. And honestly I enjoyed this shower most of all. It was one of those solar heated bags with an open/close pull-to-spray spigot. They are so divine. But also it is probably nice for Daudi and Kimambo to not have us go a whole week as dirt-streaked sweaty bodies. The heat here really catches you off guard after sitting in a sticky seat all day.

We have really settled into this life. I have long stopped asking to help, instead busying myself with the bird identification book or reading The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. It is easier than seeing Daudi and Kimambo find new ways to tell us we are guests and that is just how things will be. They are really both so kind. I forgot to mention that every day at lunch we get a cold drink from the powered cooler. My favorite is Stoney Tangawizi, a carbonated ginger soft drink. I’ve had one every day. And each night at supper we rotate between red (my preference) and white (Melissa’s) wines from South Africa. We would seriously grow fat if we ate all the food they give us. Kimambo is a spectacular cook, but a stomach can only hold so much.

I settled into bed fat and happy after an unforgettable and incredible day. I could imagine guiding here is an amazing career. No two trips the same, all incredible and offering something new. What a life.

 

A782A354-7BD4-4FD0-ACA1-AC185B986AEA0D07AA53-2067-4953-A099-81753670D699248D4D19-9959-4B0F-B766-853185F862EB06F5659A-4F65-487C-8793-D7BF4ACB204D657CD16E-41D7-4DF0-805D-D043282049C0F8FEAEA5-F12D-49F9-8D81-5DA3A2ACF044DA77B8FC-182C-4147-9B1E-9EF3792A3002F687C28C-514F-47B7-916C-534C141176DD0C7ED800-B4E5-49EF-8AF9-FC12B67A9155F8AF8961-71FE-419E-B80C-F4BB448AC4E9582EB4F6-D40F-4F74-B7A8-371BA163C204520FCECD-CF46-4F72-8F3B-F144008BFD4C4C37E051-EBA9-44D3-8131-250AF78571D8BF8CFC0E-0B02-4C61-99AB-817882D3EBC5D6FB3133-022D-42CB-AE70-A877FB641E762E3D4732-FE42-4DF3-BF72-72348EDDBB557FFD2DA9-F7D1-4405-BA27-41DAA6528DD2890E1532-F9C3-4B3E-8AEA-ED8189E4D5CF

Walking with our ancestors: human evolution in Olduvai Gorge

1/29/2018
Walking with our ancestors: human evolution in Olduvai Gorge, Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania

Today was all about how human evolution and geology teamed up to record some of our earliest ancestors. We started with a huge delicious breaky then waited for Kimambo and Daudi to pack up camp, without our assistance. Once on the road we headed for the gate to Ngorongoro Conservation Area. We had already noticed how the plain we drove across was of a rich, red, volcanic soil. This nutrient rich soil coupled with moist micro-climate from the highlands have created a prime agricultural area and fertile forest compared to the Rift Valley floor.

Ngorongoro is a Masai word that has many meanings: first, it is the word for “bowl” because the crater looks like the Masai grinding stone bowl; second, it is another name for the tribes (Mbulu and Datogo) the Masai drove our to gain this area; and third, it is the sound that cowbells make (cows being very important features in Masai life for milk, blood, meat, and money). Originally the Serengeti was a huge area, but when the government made it a national park they wanted to remove the tribes living there. So they split it into three portions, Ngorongoro Conservation Area where Masai can live but not hunt, Serengeti National Park where no people or hunting is allowed, and Loliondo where Masai and other tribes live and hunt and where game hunting is permitted to tourists. Though the NCA and Loliondo do not have the notoriety of SNP, they are important migration grounds for animals. In fact, right now, most of the animals are migrating through Ndutu away from the Serengeti. Serengeti is also a Masai word (actually spelled Sirengeti) for “endless plain.”

Ngorongoro is a very large volcanic province of basaltic shield volcanoes. The crater is actually a huge, intact, and unfilled caldera. It formed 2 to 3 million years ago from the collapse of a large volcano that is predicted to have been of similar size to Mt Meru and Mt Kilimanjaro. There are several freshwater springs that feed into the crater and collect at Lake Magadi, enabling lush vegetation growth. The volcano was basaltic with minor trachytic lavas.

While at the gate there was a bit of a wait while Daudi worked out a mixup with our reservation number. It was fine with Melissa and I though. There was a small museum area showing the region, geology, and common animals and birds. We enjoyed it. Then a troop of baboons came to play at the gate with all the parked vehicles, looking for mischief. The alpha male walked about a foot away from me as he climbed up our truck followed by a mother baboon with her baby clinging under her belly. Baboons are so desensitized to humans they will go into open windows looking for food, and if they find nothing, they will leave a giant deuce (i.e. poop) on the seat as punishment. As funny as that sounds, the troop spotted a vehicle with an open window and one baboon was able to run off with what looked like bananas. It was hilarious watching the men run off the baboon, already in possession of its prize. It climbed right up a tree and stared down at the ruffled humans below. Silly humans.

To our delight, that was not our only wildlife exposure today. We saw so many animals! First, there was a group of Cape buffalo, or African buffalo (Syncerus caffer), right on the side of the road munching through the tree-covered crater rim. I decided to make a special animal recap post for the end of this trip since there will be so many interesting animals, so keep an eye out. We then had a vista down into the crater and saw what Daudi said were maybe black rhinos or wildebeest, its impossible to say without super zoomed binoculars. Melissa and I almost paid the steep price to drive through the crater, but Daudi convinced us we were mostly just missing black rhinos and they are rarely anywhere near the road. There are a few other other animals we might have seen in there, but we trusted Daudi’s advice. Being only 20 members strong as the final genetic offerings of black rhinos, we completely understood their distant lifestyles and let them be. Continuing forward, we also saw giraffes, Grant’s gazelles, zebras, more olive baboons, Thompson’s gazelles, wildebeests, an agama lizard, two dik-dik antelopes, numerous dung beetles, and a hyena. A bigger part of the animals was my discovery that Daudi went to university for wilderness guiding and specialized in birds! We saw so many! Little Bee-eater, Cinnamon-chested Bee-eater, Kettle Egrets, Speke’s Weaver, Helmeted Guineafowl, Pied Kingfisher, Common Ostrich, Kori Bustards, Augur Buzzards, Marabou Stork, Eastern Pale Chanting Goshawk, Ring-necked Dove, Red-eyed Dove, Red-billed Oxpeckers, Red-necked Spurfowl, and Lappet-faced Vultures. Daudi also pointed out thorny Acacia trees, Baobab trees, Amarula trees, and these massive termite mounds that littered the landscape. And this was just while driving to Oldupai Museum.

Oldupai is Masai for a type of plant native to this area. The misspelled name Olduvai comes from a German explorer. It seems there are numerous misspelled names from Masai words across all this territory. We lunched in the sun by the ranger gate and then went to meet our origins.

The museum is actually pretty small, but it is packed with information. It is divided into rooms based on both the different archeological rock units the specimens were found in and the specimen ages, a somewhat nuanced distinction at first. Oldupai Gorge preserves about two million years of human history. In 1959, Dr. Mary Leakey discovered the skull of Zinjanthropus boisei, and subsequently Homo habilis and Australopithecus, to show that three distinct forms of human ancestors co-evolved in the Oldupai basin. Potassium-Argon radiometric dating revealed ages for Zinjanthropus, Homo habilis, and Oldowan stone artifacts of 1.75 million years (Leakey et al., 1961). These discoveries ignited paleoanthrological research in Tanzania, Kenya, and Ethiopia. This work culminated in a consensus that the unusual geology and climate of the East African Rift valley created an environmentally complex and variable setting which may have driven human speciation, encephalization, and migration out of Africa (Maslin et al., 2015). Thus, highlighting the relationship between hominin history with geology (paleosols, fluvial sedimentation, tuff layers) and Milankovitch-driven climatic precession cycles on lake basin and ground water levels (Ashley et al., 2014; Habermann et al., 2016). Oldupai Gorge would have greatly resembled the Lake Manyara basin, a modern analog, situated at the rift floor. This basin provides excellent paleoanthropological and paleoenvironmental preservation due to extensive marker tuff layers separating the depositional beds. Preservation is so perfect, individual blades of fossilized grass can be identified in the uppermost surface of Bed I (Bamford et al., 2008).

After finishing the exhibits, we gathered on a vista overlooking the exposed basin where the Leakey’s excavated most of the specimens. It was pretty humbling as a human to look across the landscape holding many of the known secrets for our species. And then we went down to the shifting sands. There are two anomalous sand dunes slowly shifting across the landscape. It made me think of how the Great Plains in central US had shifting sand dunes through much of the Holocene, but here on a microscopic scale. They are very weird. Apparently they form from excess ash accumulating around a rock or some structure, until a lot of material has built up. Since the sand is volcanically derived, it has a lot of iron, making it slightly magnetic, further promoting a cohesive dune body. If you throw the sand straight up, instead of blowing away, it will clump together and fall straight down. Then a unidirectional wind slowly migrates, or shifts, the dune over time. Currently about 10 meters per year. That same wind movement creates the distinct crescent shape of the dune. And there are hundreds of dead dung beetles floating around in the pile. It was a strange encounter. Unfortunately we did not have enough time to visit Laetoli Footprints. That would have been extra special. I suppose my title is misleading since we never actually walked along the footprints. We did see all the remains and footprints replicas. I still feel tickled since this is where they mostly come from, so replica or not, my feet touched the same earth. Most of the specimens collected from Oldupai are now housed in the Dar es Salaam Museum. I can understand. Security is low here and exposure to the masses is more obtainable in Dar es Salaam.

We also viewed an active dig site for a group from Spain who found rhino bones in an ash layer. They only started three days ago. Just think what they might find! Unknown archeological riches may be found in the different beds as current interests expand the efforts from the Leakey’s. We saw Leakey Camp too. Originally Melissa and I were trying to stay there, but we never heard back from our various inquiries. We did have a neat connection with the guide who took us to the shifting sands, he knows Jackson Njau, one of the Indiana University professors we contacted during our research. James Brophy (geologist) and Jackson Njau (archeologist) provided us with an extensive field guide they have created for a summer field course they bring to Tanzania each year.

After our gawking at the museum, we picked up our Masai camp host, Lucas, and he lead us to where we were allowed to camp. Right smack in front of a kopje! Part of camping in the NCA is that we must have a Masai host. This is a Masai rule, but also for our safety. The second we stepped into the NCA Melissa and I were made aware of a single important rule: we were not allowed to ever leave camp or go walking anywhere without being safely situated inside our vehicle. This is because the NCA is where people and wildlife still coexist. And as ignorant tourists, chances were high we would become the lunch of one of those animals if not kept under strict observance. I was literally chastised for walking too far away from the truck to pee even though the area was completely open. Lions, cheetahs, and hyenas like to hide in low scrub, buffalo and wildebeests like to stampede at a moment’s notice, and there are likely a myriad of other ways we could die. I was not prepared to such confinement. I think Melissa and I both recorded less than a mile’s movement for both of the days we were here. Lucas did walk us up to the top of the kopje for the sunset while they set up camp. I think they are trying to keep us busy to not hear pleas of us wanting to provide assistance. They are so patient with us.

And yes, I said we are camped at a kopje! Much of this region, I will broadly call it the Serengeti, is a flat plain of volcanic ash burying the pre-Cambrian rocks below. The Tanzanian craton is between 2.7 to 2.4 billion years old, and is surrounded by the Mozambique Metamorphic Belt. We are over the eastern side of these metamorphic rocks, about 600-550 million years in age (Proterozoic). This suite of rocks is known as a greenstone belt, and are among the oldest in the craton, likely representing the original continental crustal mass that makes up the modern African continent. This eastern portion is largely high-grade micaceous schists (i.e., meta-schist) that formed from ancient clay-rich sediments like mudstone and shale. These meta-schists are intruded by granite bodies that are thought to have melted from the meta-schists. The granite bodies are more resistant to weathering, thus resulting in isolated hills as ash fall sufficiently covered the low-lying meta-schists. These granite hills are what are known as kopjes. Hence we are camped under the protection of melted basement rock, or erosional granite inselbergs. Neat!

 

6892B70E-33DA-492C-B795-4041966A0B303AA815F4-86CA-47F7-96A9-E584452607EAB1886462-0EAC-440B-BE44-1553F900E78E853E8DD9-DD7D-4925-9373-39C97085BE6DE7084B41-531E-4D95-B713-D4AD31EB13AAAF6D6BC7-119C-45AF-AC42-C9BD673A53192ED1B85C-B359-4D6A-B7C9-4C49517A96CFFE8B06BF-DBF8-424B-89BF-D5936058B5592EFD64E7-864D-4157-A159-5C2DAA3149D3ED073AF8-4EA1-47C0-8540-752A2F63484398ECF781-1F78-47F5-85B3-F1ABF58500F7636E8D89-592A-4508-8788-1BC8C9D65678CF55AA24-7DCC-40A7-B14E-3B73E65CA5DB

Hitting the road with Dorobo Safaris

1/28/2018
Hitting the road with Dorobo Safaris

I am not quite on Tanzanian time. At 4AM my body woke with the energy of Santa Barbara’s coincident 5PM. But I felt rested all the same. We made sure our bags were ready and then came out to find breakfast waiting for us. Hard boiled eggs, bread, and hot tea brewed in milk. I was happy.

At 8AM we heard the knock of our trip crew arriving. Daudi is our guide and driver. He has been working with Dorobo for eight years. Our cook and camp staff is Kimambo. He has been with Dorobo for almost 20 years. Daudi speaks impeccable English and spent much of the day telling us about the landscape, plants, and people we came across. Kimambo speaks only a little English, but he is very friendly. He sat in the back seat with me and was very diligent to make sure I didn’t lose my seat cushion out the door every time I left the vehicle. I wish I knew Swahili to include him in my conversation sphere.

On our way out of Arusha, Daudi took Melissa and I to a money exchange. We couldn’t change at the airport because they ran out of money. It was a good thing really. The place Daudi took us to had a great exchange rate. And then we set off. Our road trip out involved a pit stop for red bananas (in my opinion superior to the sweet yellow bananas sold in the US), an official tanzanite dealer (where yes, I bought the tiniest cut stone because that stuff is super expensive), samosas, and cookies. By 2pm we were driving through Karatu to our camp on the edge of town.

From Arusha to Karatu, we drove across the western floor of the East African Rift and up and over the large fault escarpment of the western rift boundary. The rift floor is pretty flat and dry, with some extension-induced normal faults. From this vantage, we could see numerous volcanoes that are part of the larger volcanic province including, Mt Meru, Mt Kilimanjaro, and the Ngorongoro Volcanic Highlands. This long-lived activity has taken place from the Miocene to the present.

I fully remember this being the plan, because we wouldn’t have arrived early enough to Ngorongoro if we had kept driving. But all the same we were both a bit dismayed at the day already being over. Karatu has the nickname “Safari Junction,” as most transits into Ngorongoro first overnight here. We also discovered quickly that way more food was allotted for our trip than Melissa and I thought feasible to eat. We enjoyed a large lunch right when arriving. Though we still felt full from all the delicious Tanzanian snacks Daudi and Kimambo had fed us on the drive.

And then we were left to our own devices while they set up camp. This was also a learning moment. Melissa and I both had our own personal walk-in tents with mattressed-cots, blankets, pillow, and towel. Outside each tent was a personal wash water bucket. They even set our bags inside. This camp location even had showers and toilets. We simply were unprepared for this luxury setup, and perplexed when our attempts to aid in any process of cooking, camp setup, cleaning, camp tear down, etc., were almost always turned down. Melissa and I are women of action; neither able to watch others work (especially on our behalf) while idly sitting by. But we appreciated how gratuitously and happily Kimambo and Daudi accomplished any task set about them. We could not have felt more welcome or cared for than in their capable hands.

Once everything was in place, we were introduced to Israel, the camp host. He took Melissa and I on a walk/hike up and around the escarpment to see the farms and Masai family dwellings around Karatu. It was very hot out but we were excited to be out doing something. Upon our return it was already time for another meal. Kimambo’s efforts not unappreciated, we simply felt stuffed to the gills. Kimambo served us a massive and delicious supper and bottle of red wine. I was delighted with the day, however low key it was. Melissa and I don’t make great tourists, so I suspect some of our stops today normally take much longer for people looking to shop and visit every curio storefront.

 

8A444650-92B8-4AB0-8CBF-1574295C16494E0A1B9C-523A-4A85-AC8D-C53469315E5DA442D0D5-CB1E-48A9-A21B-A9D2B9DE4FD267C78B13-262D-425D-93B3-1D52971EEA40

Luxury flying with Qatar Airways

1/26/2018
Luxury flying with Qatar Airways

Our journey is broken into three days. First we travel from UCSB to LAX, and from LAX to Doha, Qatar via a 19 hour flight on Qatar Airways.
My first impression was clouded by having a seat completely soaked by a miscellaneous fluid, a fluid that quickly absorbed itself into my pants. But then we realized that we were going to have whole rows completely to ourselves. I moved to the window, tucked myself in among my supply of pillows and blankets, and was ready for the long haul. Then a flight attendant brought a freshette towel, headphones, and mini toiletry pouch (with an impossibly adorable tiny toothbrush and toothpaste) to aid our journey’s comfort. I discovered quickly we had access to a wide range of interesting movies and television shows for in-flight entertainment. We were served a reasonly delicious supper not long after reaching altitude, a mere 42,000 feet. Much of the flight was a movie marathon between regular offerings of water or juice by the flight attendants. They all seemed so calm and happy to make us comfortable. There was a snack time in there for those awake during the night, for which I was of course binging into my fourth film by then. And toward morning, we received an assorted meal somewhere between breakfast and lunch. My favorite part was that every meal included dessert and ended with a round of tea with milk.

Qatar Airways is advertised as a luxury airline, and Hamad International Airport aims to become the highest rated airport. Our second day ended with a package deal to stay overnight in Doha. We had a 15 hour layover, with no option for an earlier flight, so took the Qatar Airways bargain to get out of the airport a bit. They arranged the entrance Visa, hotel with shuttle, supper voucher, and luggage transfer for an arguably small price of $125.

We stayed at the Oryx Rotana Doha hotel. It is a super modern hotel with several restaurants, including hookah bar and live jazz. We ate at The Cellar for a two course meal with unlimited wine. Unfortunately customs took a long time and then we walked out right as a shuttle left, requiring an additional wait for the next one. Resulting in us having no real amount of time to actually go out and see much of Doha. By the time we ate and showered, I was well past my bedtime. Melissa stepped out a minute for a phone call home and by the time she returned, I had peacefully closed my eyes while propped up in front of the television, wearing a cozy bathrobe. Melissa said I looked like a model for a spa advertisement. At some point I finished crawling the rest of the way into bed. It was an amazing night’s sleep.

 

The Departure

1/25/2018
The Departure

Today sort of snuck up on me. Since returning from winter break I felt like I had spent every waking moment in the lab. Barely sleeping, barely going home to change clothes. Then across a few short days my mass spectrometer analyses were finished and a new week began. That was this week, and it brought its own sense of hurry as I scurried to organize and pack for a long departure. And just like that, Melissa and I are sitting on a plane, shooting through the sky toward Tanzania.

Our final Big Island adventures.

Our final Big Island adventures.
9/10/2017

We all woke early, during a brief spurt of sunshine and packed up camp. Then the rain started. We were planning the crater chain hike, but motivation was low. When we arrived, our interest dropped to zero upon discovering the trail required backcountry permit. We decided to wander aimlessly around the park instead, stopping at many of the less advertised stops.

I found it curios how the trails are setup on this island. I do not fully understand the draw to certain areas. Numerous trails led you to exposed lava rock, with no water, that would be radiating heat when sunny and completely lifeless without sun, and no grand vistas. Strange trails. Not that I am against hiking for hiking’s sake. But these trails are well established routes. I suppose my spoiled mainland life leaves me looking down on building trails where space is available instead of building trails where interesting nature happens. It would be incredibly challenging to live in a place where a year of weekend adventures could completely exhaust all hiking avenues. As a visitor it is fantastic, but as a resident, I would find these islands to eventually feel too small. I have always been a wanderer though.

We stopped at Mauna Ulu. I purchased a trail guide and regaled the group with its super neat back-history. Namely, the pamphlet detailed the timing, quantity, close call of life, changes to landscape, and lava tree formation of Mauna Ulu’s eruption between 1969-1974. It produced over 350 million cubic meters of lava! The flows covered approximately 44 square kilometers, and in some places the lava pooled almost 8 meters deep. Like the flickering of a flame, lava is even more tantalizing. I read once that in cultures where fire is used regularly as a tool, people generally stop revering fire once they have mastered how to create, maintain, and extinguish a flame, about the age of seven. But I don’t know if I completely agree, because I know how to do those things, and yet I find fire to be mesmerizing. And lava even more so. Maybe I need to gain a higher level of understanding about large fires to satiate that curiosity.

We also stopped at Devastation Trail. This path leads through a still recovering dense rain forest to the 1959 eruption site of Kilauea Iki crater in 1959. A fissure eruption that produced towering lava fountains, reaching almost 500 meters into the sky. Remnants remain today of Pele’s hair and Pele’s tears formed from the spurting lava. Today it was a cold and soggy cloud enclosed tunnel of trees.

Having exhausted the remaining places to visit, we headed for the visitor center and our final exit. The power was back and I wandered through the gift shop, collecting mementos. What a worthy place to visit. We even saw three nene while driving this morning. No photos, but every time I saw this Hawaiian native goose, I kept singing “now watch me whip, whip, now watch me nene.”

We drove back to Hilo, the rain continuing the rest of the day, clouds blanketing our views. We took one last jaunt through town, eating lunch at the boochery. I had a delectable roasted veggie sandwich on sourdough, with sweet potato salad, and beet booch mixed with super ginger tonic booch. Yum!

It seemed like every shop and store were closed from the weather. Everyone taking the day to curl up with a hot drink and book. Really it was just a Sunday, and Hilo seems to close down that day. Luckily the coffee shop was open, so we went for a second round of ice cream. I also bought a breakfast cookie! So excited! The ingredients are like my own dense cookie pucks. We waited out the rain a little while with a crossword. We pretty much killed it with four brains at work.

My sister and I dropped Libby and Jack off for their flight. They were able to catch an earlier flight. It was fantastic seeing them! We tried to give them all our leftover food and snacks to take home. I hope to visit again soon to continue exploring the other islands. Erika and I continued our drive. We thought we could gain some ground to shorten the remaining distance tomorrow. Our hope was to explore Kona a bit more.

We took several side trips. A highlight was the Ka’u coffee plantation. I learned that macadamia nuts were once named “donkey balls” by earlier voyageurs when they visited the islands. They let us explore the coffee drying area. They also claim to be the oldest plantation on Hawai’i island. I found it difficult to fact check that information. I am not much of a coffee drinker. Honestly it makes me feel anxious and sweaty. But they had samples out of all the different bean types and roasting options. It was pretty neat to actually try a variety and compare the flavors. I even felt motivated to buy my favorite flavor as a gift. Hopefully my untrained taste buds serve me well! The best part was samples of macadamia nut brittle! Delicious! This was a neat side trip.

The best side excursion was to Papakolea Beach, or the Green Sand Beach. It turned out to be a much longer distance than we had realized, both for the drive and the hike out. It was actually pretty eerie as we drove out. First we drove through a couple small communities, then the drive continues on this small paved road toward nothing, and you drive on that road for quite awhile with nothing around except pastureland. At the very end of South Point Road we turned into a sketchy parking area with just as many broken down and abandoned vehicles as seemingly not broken down vehicles. There were foundations of all these buildings that didn’t exist. Everything looked abandoned. Just a lone corner of the island at the end of an empty road, everything dusty and broken down. The perfect setting for every horror movie you have ever seen. There were just enough signs of life that we kept going, not really knowing where we were going or how far it was to get there. We parked and started walking. It turned out to only be about 3 miles out on a rugged path heavily abused by off-road vehicles. The erosion of the volcanic ash created a super fine powder that completely caked our legs. And we could see a storm coming in as we began the hike out. At first we stayed on the path closest to the coast and watched raging ocean waves crash against the jagged basalt. It was a peak at the raw coastlines we had not seen on the islands yet. There was an overwhelming abundance of sea debris: propeller blades, metal trap cages, fish netting, bottles, drift wood, everything. It was filthy. It is what the beaches would actually look like if the tourist areas weren’t maintained, collecting all the waste dumped into the ocean. This was more visceral and disgusting than any exhibit I have ever seen to bring awareness to ocean littering. I will leave this article if you want to read more about the problem of plastics in our oceans. Anyway, this is clearly a local hangout. So many beefed-up off-road vehicles were driving around and parked by the ocean, one of the few signs that this place isn’t really abandoned. We could see the olivine content increasing in the small sand pockets as we neared the beach, but I was not prepared for how amazing this was going to be. A whole beach composed almost entirely of olivine grains eroding out of the partially collapsed volcanic tuff ring. This is one of four beaches in the world with sand made almost entirely of olivine! Olivine is one of the first minerals to form as magma cools, and is common in Hawaiian volcanoes. The beach is mostly olivine because this ferrous iron (hence green) mineral is denser than the volcanic ash, which is washed out to sea. The surrounding rock is relatively stable, so the layers are preserving previous eruptions and lava flows. We climbed down these layers to the beach below. It was magnificent! I know my sister enjoyed it, how could she not, but I sorted of lost my mind at first geeking out over how spectacular this was. I remember pacing around the beach, checking the sand for the highest olivine abundance, and scurrying across the rocks to look at where the grains were eroding out from. I was geeking hard for geology. I am constantly reminded how I study the neatest science. After collecting myself, we hurried back to beat the encroaching storm and quickly fading light. We were rewarded with a beautiful sunset over of the pasture. We had to wash off in the ocean before getting back into the vehicle. We were both covered in thick, orange layers of volcanic ash. I cannot imagine driving over that slick powdery surface in the trailer vehicles that were giving people rides.

It was a dark drive back to the main road. We did not have a plan for where we would be able to camp. Somehow we were able to get in at a beach camp that must be mostly predominantly favored by locals. The night guard was surprised when we pulled out California ID’s after announcing our non-local status, which unfortunately resulted in a different camp cost, which we literally had to count out coins to come up with. Of course we didn’t have any more cash on the last night of our trip, haha! We set up the tent and snuck off for stealth showers at the outdoor beach area. It was scandalous but so worth it. There were feral cats, cockroaches, flat box bugs, ants, palm nuts falling all around us, and ten feet from pounding ocean. I think we both slept like babies. Our final night’s rest at the end of an incredible trip. Aloha Hawai’i, until next time.

 

Copyright of Elizabeth Erickson.
Ka’u estate grown coffee. There were macadamia nut trees for miles!
Copyright of Elizabeth Erickson.
Coffee bean workshop at Ka’u Coffee.
Copyright of Elizabeth Erickson.
Black sand beach! Sand made of crumbled bits of basalt.
IMG_3626
This coastline was starkly different than the more touristy areas. Big crashing waves on jagged basalt with heaps and heaps of sea debris littered all along the coast. Fish nets, propellers, buoys, plastic bottles, metal traps, and so much more. Protect the ocean from trash, it’s important to the longevity of Earth’s largest ecosystems.
IMG_3627
Incredible southern coast.
IMG_3630
Olivine sand beach!
IMG_3632
Green sand! It’s completely full of olivine!
IMG_3645
Sunset over the pasture land.
IMG_3653
Our last beach campsite.
IMG_3657
Captain Cook bay
Copyright of Elizabeth Erickson.
Funny birds chilling on this truck and no where else in the parking lot.

For more photos you can follow me on Instagram @schemesinmotion