Monday, October 21, 2002

Masai Mara, Kenya VI

As it is, rental cars and I already have a long and eventful history. A wheel flying off along Johannesburg's M-1. A windshield gone missing in Port-au-Prince. A little unpleasantness in Jerusalem regarding inexplicable rock damage. I've learned to say "Dude, it was like that when I picked it up" in seven languages. So it was with my usual brio that I picked up my designated safari vehicle, a sporty Toyota mini sport ute. After two weeks the muffler's been stove in, there's an alarming clattering every time I turn left and a fortnight's worth of spilled cookie crumbs have attracted a vigorous and rapidly expanding insect population.

Like I said, nothing new.

It wasn't until photographing a lion pride at dusk when I encountered an altogether new sound. I looked in the mirror in time to see an oversized tabbie lit blood red by the brake lights crunching on my bumper. I look at the holes she punched through the high impact plastic, look at my skinny, sunburned arm, and roll the windows up.

The insect life here has taken a liking to me as well. Assorted flies, ants and spiders have taken to calling my truck home. I thought the cookie crumbs would suffice, but one took an inexplicable liking to my foot. I felt a sharp sting, swatted, swerved and swore mightily, then went back to the never-ending business of disassembling my vehicle piece by piece. No matter how hard I ignored it though, the bite became a welt and kept right on swelling until achieving altogether elephantine proportions. I don't much care for doctors under any continent, but this seemed beyond the range of meager supply of Tylenol PM and Bactine.

Masai Mara, Kenya V

Every time I pack for East Africa, I take a look at the map; take note of the equator slicing through Kenya, and pack accordingly. But these plains lie more than a mile above sea level and the nights cool down fast. The autumn short rains have begun as well and each day starts clear and crisp, turning hot by noon until puffy cumulus clouds build into an eggplant-colored squall. It cuts loose without warning, a driving deluge that knocks the temperature down 30 degrees in as many minutes. Most nights it settles into a nagging cold drizzle that gives tent campers a head start on the chest cold season.

Somehow I managed to pack for a three-week camping safari without any excess baggage, but no matter how many times I dig through my duffel bags, all that cozy Patagonia fleece remains resolutely back home in Seattle. Instead, my desert weight sleeping bag and see-through tent have kept me on intimate terms with the elements here. If I sleep under a week's worth of dirty laundry, it's not really so bad.

I've driven more than a thousand miles so far, all of it in second gear and none of it on anything resembling a proper highway since leaving greate metropolitan Nairobi. Dust tracks wind through the bush, most no more than
tire tracks in the grass. When those give out, you can make your own. After a good afternoon soaking the black-cotton soil goes both icy slick and just about bottomless. The act of steering becomes less a command than wishful thinking as the car slithers and lurches about.

Masai Mara, Kenya IV

Cheetahs rely on stealth as much as their legendary speed to catch the gazelles that are the cornerstone of any nutritious breakfast. One morning this mother stalked three different herds of gazelle with an entourage of three playful cubs and a dozen rumbling diesel trucks. The element of surprise is frequently in short supply, and in spite of hitting highway
speeds, she came back winded and hungry each time. I'd happily share my lunch, but I doubt Pringles and canned curry would settle any better in her stomach than mine.

I do help matters some by accidentally flushing a hiding gazelle fawn from the tall grass. All wobbly legged, she looks like Bambi but the cheetah is in an unsentimental mood,
and has it in her sights instantly. I ponder the ethical and karmic implications of all this as the cheetah walks, then trots and finally throws on a last minute burst of speed to grab the fleeing fawn.

Bambi doesn't stand a chance in hell, not even when mum lets her go. It's
sort of catch and release hunting; training for her cubs. They give chase, tackle and thoroughly maul the fawn before finally having it for lunch. I feel awful for the fawn, but a whole lot worse when my camera jams as I'm shooting her bleating demise. The cheetah cubs feast and grow strong, vast herds of gazelle still fill the plains and mum is already looking around for seconds.

Masai Mara, Kenya III

Sharing all this senseless beauty are an additional thousand-odd tourists each day, most with a serious Hemingway fashion thing happening, all done up like great white hunters piled into Land Rovers and minibuses and hot air balloons to check out the sites. A lion kill, cheetah cubs, dozing crocs and snorting hippos, it all in their eyes, onto the video cam and out of their heads in a matter of seconds. Spending up to 14 hours a day driving myself around the park, I have ample time to meditate on the wonder of this place and the odd nature of tourism in our attention deficit age.

One morning at dawn, I spotted a cheetah crying a bird-like call searching for her lost cubs. She scoured the bush for ten minutes before finding them playing along a eroded stream bed, and they leapt to her with a maternal love left that left me gasping on the verge of tears. Within minutes a dozen safari trucks roared up, the khaki clad hoard gawked down, took some snaps and were soon impatient to see something else. Like a kill. Like now. Christ we're going to miss lunch at the lodge. There is no reverence, no mystery, just show me the damn animals, get me close for the video and okay now show me something new.

Masai Mara, Kenya II

Kenya's Masai Mara remains one of Africa's premier wildlife destinations, and this year the BBC has returned with a crew two dozen strong to shoot another season of Big Cat Diary. I show up feeling like the none-too bright new kid on the first day of school, trying to photograph those same lions, cheetahs and leopards, as well as pretty much anything else that moves

The park here offers no maps, no signs and precious little in the way of adult supervision. It's one of the last parks in all Africa where you are free to be as stupid as you please, bashing through the brush and chasing the wildlife to your twisted heart's content. Its hell on the landscaping but the management seems content to turn a blind eye so long as the hard currency keep rolling in.

Masai Mara, Kenya I

As Orion's sword passes directly overhead, I know it's time to get up. Most nights I have ample opportunity to track the stars' progress. Malaria is endemic to these East African plains, but after a couple weeks of Larium induced dreams featuring iridescent game-show host piranha and a flying carpet song-and-dance routine, I wonder how the disease could be much more disconcerting than the cure. Most mornings I'm left awake, alert and questioning my sanity.

Sunrise is still more than an hour away when I crawl from the tent, look for the first glow to the east and put on the coffee. I've mastered a system where I can tear down and stow my tent and sleeping bag and have the truck packed just as the water boils. Three tablespoons of Blue Mountain ground, two cubes of sugar and a splash of milk and I'm off. In the gloom I run into a termite mound hidden in the grass, spilling the assembled scalding ingredients onto my lap.

Saturday, June 29, 2002

Ilsafjord, Iceland

The hotel is a tiny concrete slab. Stalin with seasonal affective disorder. The lobby is all Danish surgical ward sterility. The obligatory Icelandic wool sweaters, Viking postcards and tourist twaddle are stacked amidst an expanse of blond wood and chrome.

And the place is utterly deserted. No wandering guests. No one at reception. No one anywhere at all. It’s like a TV news set after hours.

Feeling homesick, I pick up the lobby pay phone and dial home. Just as I start talking, from behind one of the pine slab of a door erupts laughter. Cackling, raucous gales of mirth. Not a soul is stirring anywhere. It’s a little hard to concentrate, standing as I am in the middle of such a perfect metaphor for my experience here in Iceland.

Somewhere close by everyone is have a grand old time, drinking and laughing and screwing on their blustery little island paradise. And I’m standing just outside, staring at my feet and wondering if I said something wrong.

The door swings open and a lone man walks out. Cheeks flushed, he’s wiping away a single tear of laughter. Seeing me he is transformed; assuming what I have taken to be the national expression, that of a Lutheran pastor with fallen arches and a nagging conscience.

He walks through the lobby in funereal silence, and only when he rounds the corner do I hear a single snort of suppressed laughter.

Thursday, June 20, 2002

Gullfoss, Iceland

I jumped the fence. I always do. Why is it that picture I want is always just a couple of feet on the other side of where I’m supposed to be? And how was I to know the President was watching.

There he was though, dapper but otherwise undistinguishable from the thinly assembled rabble of tourists out admiring Gullfoss waterfall just like the rest of us on a blustery summer night.

How was I supposed to know El Supremo anyway? Where’s the motorcade? Where’s the beefy guys talking into their sleeves?

I’m not in the habit of breaking the law in front of heads of state, but there I was, blithely hopping fences and scrambling around one of Iceland’s most beloved landmarks. In any civilized country I would have been rightly arrested, imprisoned, flogged and sent packing. But you have to admire a country that doesn’t take itself quite so seriously. Belatedly seeing my error, I slunk up to apologize. El Supremo gave a hearty handshake and laughed it off. But then he turned mean. He invited, no he insisted that I come back to Iceland sometime. In February.

Tuesday, June 18, 2002

Reykjavik, Iceland II

Exchange in downtown Reykjavik in 40 mph gale.

“This is nice.”
‘Oh, ya. It’s like autumn here, this wind. But then it’s raining. Or February. Then it’s cold, too.”
“And snowing.”
“But at least it’s dark.”
“It’s important to have sometime to look forward to.”

Sunday, June 16, 2002

Reykjavik, Iceland I

Imagine the Norwegian military conquest of Patagonia and you start to get the idea of this place. Which, come to think of it, is pretty much what happened one thousand years ago. The same glaciers and fjords, the same sheep and green hills. The same bloody cold, relentless winds whipping in off an ice-clotted sea.

But it’s the fair-haired sons of Oslo here, not some scruffy band of lisping Castilians. And the lads have grown strong and tall on all the fresh air and herring. Lacking an indigenous population of natives to slaughter, they had to settle on bashing the odd Irish monk. And each other, of course.

But the market for pillage and rape is not what it once was. And the sons of Vikings are now reduced to bashing around in Toyota Land Cruisers tarted up in monster truck drag, with a couple of baby seats in the back.

The presidential motorcade speeds past, consisting of two cops on Harleys and a Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham left over from the Nixon Administration. El Supremo is touring downtown Reykjavik in honor of Icelandic Independence Day. The sidewalk caf├ęs are jammed with patrons affecting a studied nonchalance in the face of twenty-knot winds keening in off the North Atlantic.

Onstage it’s battle of the bands here, with white boy rappers taking on with the death metal band next door and some imported Jesus acapella group getting drowned out by the Akuryeri Hillbillies, twanging with all their considerable might.

Keflavik, Iceland

We fly into the night, but darkness never comes. The north sky goes from a deep blue to crimson through the hours, and back again toward violet. As we pass over the vast icefields along Greenland’s coast, the sun unexpectedly crests the horizon. At three o’clock in the morning. I sleep not a wink.

Descending through a crystalline sky into Keflavik along Iceland’s west coast, the broken lava surface looks like nothing so much as an over-cooked brownie straight from the oven.

Two nights with precious little in the way of sleep and my head is spinning.

They say that Reykjavik’s storied nightlife doesn't get kicking until after midnight. I no longer posses that kind of devotion. As I wander vaguely through the downtown streets killing time until my hotel room opens up, all that remains of the previous night’s festivities are smashed beer bottles, pools of vomit coloring the sidewalks and little tornadoes of trash carried on the swirling wind. At 7 am the street crews are hard at it, tidying up the wreckage.

Saturday, February 23, 2002

South Georgia Island IV

I stand at the door trying to shoot the heaving seas in its fading light, but finally I'm struggling simply to hang on and stay upright. I fight waves of nausea and fear, and I'm soon standing eyes wide, dry-mouthed, sweating and trembling. When Jerome lights up another smoke I edge toward the door for a precious gulp of fresh air, and a quick escape route as the evening's pizza fights its way back upstream.

The cold wind and seawater on my hands gives me something else to focus on, and during a miraculous lull I stumble down below and lurch into my bunk.

I slap on headphones and try very hard to be somewhere else for a while. I doze fitfully as darkness falls, and I wake to the sight of the Southern Cross in the tiny portal above my bunk, the familiar stars pitching wildly past, dancing again but to an altogether different tune.

South Georgia Island III

As we sail from the protected fjord into Cooper Sound, the wind roils the sea's surface into an angry swell, blowing the tops off waves and sending us all staggering for shelter. Schools of Gentoo Penguins don't seem especially worried as they porpoise and surf through the maelstrom. I dash below to grab my biggest telephoto lens and stand in the wheelhouse doorway, dodging walls of spray as the boat pitches wildly in the seas.

Somehow in all the excitement, I notice the lens isn't there any more. I feel it slipping from my hand, slowly and inexorably, and watch it hit the rail, bounce once off the hull and disappear into the emerald green water, sinking like a proverbial stone. A very, very expensive stone.

We round South Georgia's eastern edge and slam into the guts of the storm. While the setting sun turns the sky a lovely salmon, our 20 meter steel yacht catapaults through a sea gone mad. With each wave the bow leaps skyward and at the very peak leaves us weightless for an instant before slamming down with a shuddering groan. Green water floods over the railing and a wall of spray slams the wheelhouse windows.

The crowd quickly dwindles as one by one the passengers retreat to their bunks or the nearest unoccupied sink to reconsider that last slice of pizza.

South Georgia Island II

A solitary Weddell seal, prevalent in the Antarctic but a straggler from the last Ice Age in these latitudes, naps on the rocky beach. I set up a tripod within eight inches of of her fuzzy mug and she is disturbed only so far as to blow a gob of snot at my lens before rolling over and retreating to her dreams of krill. She does not move again until some hours late, and only after the incoming tide has very nearly submerged her head.

In spite of the threatened storm, the sky clears and the afternoon turns balmy, at least by local standards. I strip to long johns, fleece jacket and boots. As is generally the case when in the presence of wildlife that is not fleeing me, I blow through very many rolls of film. It isn't until I exposure the last two frames that no fewer than nine seals gather in the water at my feet. staring up with those wet Bambi eyes, the fjord and circling mountains glowing in afternoon sun, that I sense a malevolent intelligence at work here. I am reduced to sputtering, apoplectic rage.

Back on board and suitably medicated, I join the rest of the crew in tucking into pizza for dinner before we pull anchor and motor out of the fjord. Jerome mentions something about the wind, but we're happy to sit bundled on deck and watch the sun set behind glacial crags.

South Georgia Island I

The stars of the Southern Cross dance slowly across the water. The fjord where we have anchored is utterly still, and at midnight the world appears reflected double, the night sky above and the water below both alive with stars.

But paradise is a temperamental place, and by dawn the barometric pressure is falling like it was dropped off a table. Jerome mutters through the smoke of another hand-rolled cigarette that this does not bode well. But inside the fjord, though the wind send periodic blasts of warm and cold air screaming through, we enjoy the day inside our sheltered idyll.

I motor to shore and devote a few hours to the local fur seal colony. Having evolved on South Georgia Island absent man's presence, they haven't yet developed the knack for fearing us. An early 20th century onslaught of industrial slaughter drove them to the brink of extinction, but this bunch at least seem wiling to overlook that transgression with nothing more than the occasional snarling charge at my shins.