Tanzania 2008: The Cradle of Humanity

It's difficult to know if the African ash will ever come off, and as far as I can tell, I am now a slightly darker shade of gray. Although I managed to spend a good twenty minutes in the shower last evening, the clouds of burnt carbon made aloft by our feverish drive to the cheetah feels as if it has bored into the pores on my face, hands and arms. Blackness is discharged when I blow my nose, and Q-tips are the color of charcoal whenever I attempt to clean my ears. Regardless of the permanence of my newly acquired dirt, the experience of pursuing a cheetah and lioness on her prey was priceless (lookout MasterCard).  

Sleep comes easy on the savannah. I think that I was engaged in a battle with a giant stick insect (order Phasmatodea) when my alarm abruptly ended the dream. Yesterday evening was our last night on the Serengeti, and today we head east towards Ngorongoro Crater. After spending six nights and seven days in Serengeti National Park, I am already working on a plan to visit this special place again. There is some intangible characteristic of Africa, specifically Tanzania, for which words cannot describe. I feel my own biological connection to this place and can visualize how natural selection has shaped the evolution of these animals and this ecosystem. The feeling of connectedness is so strong that I see myself, and the origin of our species, wherever I look.  

We had to be out of Serengeti National Park by 11:30 a.m. or face a fine for a delayed departure. The parks in Tanzania do not receive funding from the government; they obtain all of their revenue from tourism. As such, fees and fines can often be exorbitant.  

As we moved from the Serengeti into the Ngorongoro Conservation Area the grassland gave way to desert. The forested rivers and abundant grasses were replaced by a sparsely covered landscape. Much like driving through the Mojave Desert, this was a trip into infinity. I was contemplating desert survival strategies as my eyes wandered from mirage to mirage. Time passed as I imagined the challenges of survival in such an inhospitable place. When our caravan made the abrupt right turn into the desert, I was vaulted back into the present. Looking around, I realized that we were not driving on a road. Traveling nearly 80 km/h, sand and dust swirled in our wake. We were all clueless  about our destination as we traveled further into the desert. In the distance I could barely make out tow distinct spots. One looked like a bush, the other was a red dot. It took fifteen minutes, but we eventually passed two lean men dressed in red blankets. They each carried a long stick and walked into the infinity with their herd of cattle. We were not to visit the red dots just yet; this was a trip to the bush. Ten minutes later, the bush grew into a giant acacia. Our Land Cruisers parked to block the wind and we began the "Michael Show" once again... We were feasting under the ONE tree.

By 2:00 p.m. we piled ourselves into the trucks and continued our off-road journey. It's hard to describe how the desert here is different from the desert there, but something must be different. This desert, that we are now approaching, is a home.  

As soon as we disembarked from the Land Cruisers, the chanting began. The sound emanating from the Masai was deep and guttural. The circle tightened around our group as these tall lean men bellowed. Each Masai warrior wore a colorful shuka (blanket) and carried a long pointed spear. As fast as it began the chanting stopped and one man stepped into our circle. He towered over us and, to my surprise, began to speak English. Our interpreter was educated, lived an urban life, but wanted to return to his culture. The Masai are semi-nomadic pastoralists, live in stick and mud huts (boma), and take whatever the land has to offer. Cattle are their currency, their food, and their bank account. To marry a man must have cows. While goats are slaughtered for meat, the blood of cattle is mixed with milk to make an iron and protein rich pudding. The men herd their cattle each day and travel more than 20 km to pasture and water the animals. The women farm and collect food from the environment. Each evening the cattle are returned to the encircled village where they are protected from nocturnal predators.  

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