The Wandering Scot

An occasional travel journal.

Masai Mara: Zebra Crossings

IMG_0400I’m in the Masai Mara for the great annual zebra/wildebeest/tourist migration.

The migration climax is when the herds ford the crocodile infested Mara River, so I spent a morning watching at a crossing point. There weren’t many wildebeest crossing that day, but I saw two herds of zebra cross. There were crocs waiting, so the zebras dithered for a very long time before taking the plunge.

IMG_0379For reasons best known to themselves, a zebra herd on the North bank had decided to move South and a herd on the South bank had decided to move North, so I got two watch two files of zebras pass politely in mid river. Umm, how can this be optimal? This is why it is so important to always carry a reliable guidebook when you are migrating.

IMG_0383The crocs grabbed at several of the zebra, but much to my surprise, the first few managed to frantically kick their way free. But eventually the crocs got one and dragged him underwater. The other zebras continued on, business as usual.

I only saw one bold wildebeest charge alone across the crossing, but afterwards I went further North to visit one small part of the great wildebeest migration:


“The plains are alive with the sound of wildebeest… “

Gorilla, Gorilla, Woops

Mr HumbaI’ve been on two Mountain Gorilla treks in the last week, one in DR Congo and one in Rwanda. I got to see two family groups and watch a lot of relaxed interaction and play, which was extremely cool.

In the Virunga National Park in DR Congo, I visited the Humba family. By chance I was the only tourist visiting that family that day, so I lucked into a private tour. After a fairly short hike, I saw a large tree trunk blocking the trail ahead. Oh wait, that’s Mr Humba, the boss silverback himself.

Important safety tip: A silverback in the forest, 20 feet away, looks MUCH bigger than a silverback in a zoo enclosure.

Over the course of the hour, I think I saw everyone in the family group. They were foraging, so the group was frequently moving and a couple of times either the boss silverback or a large female passed quite close to us. A junior silverback seemed to be staying a little bit away from the main family group. He seemed to dislike human presence and would typically move away quickly if we got close. Several times I heard him doing chest-drumming offstage, which was very cool.

In the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, I visited the Pablo family. This is a very large group, with 35 members, but we only saw one part of it. They were having a midday rest and were pretty relaxed about their visitors, including a lot of loud shutter clicking, which they are probably well accustomed to by now.  We got clear views of the boss silverback and about ten others.

SAM_2180Unfortunately on the way back down I managed to slip on a steep section and fall badly on my left wrist. At the hospital the following day the X-ray showed a small simple fracture, so I’m going to be doing the rest of my African trip with a fine Rwandan cast on my wrist and arm. Drat.

Practicalities: I organized my DR Congo trek though the Virunga National Park and my Rwanda trip though Umubano Tours, who also successfully navigated me through the Ruhengeri Hospital. I recommend both of them.

DR Congo: Nyiragongo

“I survived Nyiragongo, but he ate my camera.”

When I was about ten, I had a very clear idea of what a Real Volcano should look like. A steep cone, with a razor sharp rim and sheer cliffs down to an inner caldera with a bubbling pool of lava. Aah, it is to dream.

Nyiragongo is that volcano.

It’s 3470 meters tall, in the Virunga National Park in DR Congo. Complete with steep inner cliffs and the world’s largest lava lake. He only slaughters people occasionally, but he can act decisively: during the 1977 eruption lava flow was clocked at up to 60 kph on the volcano slopes.

I took the trek up (4.5 miles, but 4800 vertical ft, a lot of it on loose slidey volcanic rock) on Wednesday and overnighted at the top.

The mighty volcano graciously gave us a good view of his lava lake. There was mist (and smoke from the lake) but we could clearly see the bright red lava. Most of it was simply red cracks between caked surface slabs, but there were periodic localized bubblings up of fresh red lava, sometimes leaping up in small fountains. We could hear a continual grumbling and rumbling from the lake.  It was mega cool. I just sat and stared!

Unfortunately on the way up we had hit rain. I had thought my camera was safe deep in my day pack, but I deceived myself. Other electronics survived OK, but the camera gave up the ghost and wouldn’t recover. So no exciting Nyiragongo lava pictures for me.  Aargh!  But it was still a great experience.

The photo below from the Virunga National Park website shows a typical night time view of the lava lake, very similar to what I experienced.

© 2015 Virunga National Park

© 2015 Virunga National Park

I highly recommend Nyiragongo.  I arranged my visit (transport in DR Congo, lodging, trek) though the Virunga National Park and it all worked out well.

Kashgar: New Ancient WallsI’m in the old Silk Road city of Kashgar, in North-West China,  famous for its wonderfully preserved Ancient City Walls.  Or rather, about to become famous, as the Ancient City Walls are still under construction.  They’re coming along well, and in just a year to two I expect the tour guides will be enthusiastically showing off these venerable Ancient Relics.

Kasgar: Wall ConstructionOK, OK, there are still some genuinely old pieces of city walls here and there, and maybe some of the current work is only over-aggressive “restoration”.  But there are definitely large sections of wall that are still covered in white construction dust and look spanking new.  I was even privileged to see a section of Ancient City Walls being built before my very eyes.  They are doing a good job, and with a few years of natural weathering, it will look fine – definitely more impressive and authentic than the mundane older sections.

Kashgar: Really old walls

Authentic Old Walls

“Authenticity” is often a flexible concept in China.  But I was amused to see the creative process happening right in front of me.

Yesterday, upon the steppes, I saw a sea which wasn’t there…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Aral Sea ship graveyard near Zhalanash used to host a dozen beached fishing trawlers. They had fled from the port of Aralsk as the sea dried up, but then, with nowhere else to flee, had been abandoned at Zhalanash. Most of the ships have long since been broken up and taken for scrap, but there are still the partial remains of one larger ship and two small ones. All the hulls and most of the deck have been removed, but the decayed superstructures are largely intact. The larger ship in particular is quite striking and I clambered cautiously up to the rotten higher deck and the bridge. Although the ships are just skeletons they are great fun to see; suitably eerie and alien on the dry salty sea bed, which is covered with sand, grass and small sea shells.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is in Kazakhstan, at the Northern end of the Aral Sea. The Southern end of the sea is dying, but while the Northern section of the sea is still much lower than in the past, its level has been stabilized and has even partially recovered due to the Kok-Aral Dam, which keeps the Northern water boxed in to a small manageable area. Freshwater fish have now returned and displaced the saltwater flounders, and there is even hope that sturgeon may return.

After visiting the sea itself, we stopped at the nearby village of Tastubek, which lives by fishing and livestock farming. My guide, Serik from Aral Tenizi, had arranged lunch with a Kazakh family. This was fun. The young wife had prepared a fine meal, with a tasty dish of horsemeat and potatoes; good bread; apricots in syrup; and much else. I enjoyed a cup of shumat, fermented camel milk, which tastes like a very sour and slightly bitter yoghurt. Half way through, the husband returned and struck up a conversation in mixed Turkish/Kazakh with a Turkish visitor. I was amused when a Turkish suggestion of “… Instagram?” was rebuked with a vigorous Kazakh assertion of “ … Whatsapp!”.

The next day we drove to visit the Kok-Aral Dam. Visually this is very tame, merely a low ridge on a concrete core. We stopped at a large set of sluice gates, currently open, which allow excess water to drain South. By allowing fresh water to enter the Northern sea from the Syr Darya (Jaxartes) River while sending overflows of mixed semi-salty water to exit South, the wise Kazakhs are also freshening the Northern section. Unfortunately none of the exiting water makes it to Uzbekistan or the Southern section of the sea. It all dries up within 70km at most. There is a plan to raise the height of the dam, thus expanding the stabilized Northern area, with work planned to start next year. So the Aral Sea may yet return to Zhalanash and its beached ships, and to the currently high-and-dry fishing port of Aralsk!

Quito: Equatorial Spin

Water spinning at EquatorI’m at the little Museo Intinan on the equator, near Quito, Ecuador.  Our guide is enthusiastically demonstrating exciting scientific facts about the Equator!  She positions a basin on the Equator line, pours water in, pulls the plug, and we watch the water drop straight down without spinning.  She moves the basin a few feet North, refills, and the water spins counter-clockwise as it drains out.  Then again a few feet South of the line, more water, and now it drains out spinning clockwise.  The audience is enthralled.  The Coriolis Force at work!  A scientific wonder!

There are, alas, two tiny flaws in this charming demonstration.  First, the “museum” is actually about 100 meters South of the true Equator, despite its brightly painted “Equator Line”.  Second, the Coriolis Force does indeed influence spin, but only on the scale of oceans or hurricanes, not on the scale of water basins!

So how does the “demonstration” work?  I initially suspected a trick with the plug hole, or how the plug is removed.  But no.  The trick appears to be in how the water is poured in.  By choosing which corner to target, the guide can impart an almost imperceptible swirl to the water within the basin.  The guide can also accentuate this while apparently fishing out floating leaves.  As the water drains, the swirl is picked up and accentuated at the drain.  It’s a fine trick and I congratulated the guides on how skillfully they executed it!

Equatorial ScotsmanThere is also a demonstration of how it is easier to balance an egg on end at the Equator, because of the lack of Coriolis force.  Hurrah!  It’s all very silly, but taken as a harmless magic show, it’s quite fun.

Nearby, is a much more serious, official, Equator park at Mitad del Mundo, with a commemorative tower and an official yellow Equator Line.  But alas, although this is charming, it is even further South from the true equator!

Using my pocket GPS I was able to navigate a few hundred meters North and cross the true Equator line, untarnished by any painted lines or markers.