I’ve just returned this past week from an overland safari to northern Kenya. It was inspirational, as well as sobering. The amount of wildlife we saw was fantastic, but also troubling as we know that many of these large mammals (e.g. cheetah, giraffes, elephants, rhinos, etc) are endangered and probably won’t outlast the century.
It was a long holiday weekend celebrating Kenya’s independence from Britain, so off we went to the coast. A full moon graced our visit and it was a magnificent ethereal presence over the Indian Ocean.
We are on a blue planet. The only one we have.
One of the many wildlife denizens of Meru National Park – the Blackbacked Jackal on the hunt.
Meru National Park in Kenya is about an eight hour hard drive north of Nairobi. It’s at the end of a roller coaster ribbon of tarmac that dribbles out into a ragged length of potholes at the entrance to this magnificent park. Needless to say, not a lot of people drive there – they tend to fly in. Home to the Born Free legend it’s breathtaking in its vastness, which unrolls northward into wild savannahal plains.
“Now more than ever do I realize that I will never be content with a sedentary life, that I will always be haunted by thoughts of a sun-drenched elsewhere.”
“From Nairobi we used a small Ford to visit the Athi Plains, a great game preserve. From a low hill in this broad savanna a magnificent prospect opened out to us. To the very brink of the horizon we saw gigantic herds of animals: gazelle, antelope, gnu, zebra, warthog, and so on. Grazing, heads nodding, the herds moved forward like slow rivers. There was scarcely any sound save the melancholy cry of a bird of prey. This was the stillness of the eternal beginning, the world as it had always been, in the state of non-being; for until then no one had been present to know that it was this world. I walked away from my companions until I had put them out of sight, and savored the feeling of being entirely alone. There I was now, the first human being to recognize that this was the world, but who did not know that in this moment he had first really created it.
“There the cosmic meaning of consciousness became overwhelmingly clear to me. “What nature leaves imperfect, the art perfects,” say the alchemists. Man, I, in an invisible act of creation put the stamp of perfection on the world by giving it objective existence. This act we usually ascribe to the Creator alone, without considering that in so doing we view life as a machine calculated down to the last detail, which, along with the human psyche, runs on senselessly, obeying foreknown and predetermined rules. In such a cheerless clockwork fantasy there is no drama of man, world, and God; there is no “new day” leading to “new shores” but only the dreariness of calculated processes.”
Carl Jung, “Memories, Dreams and Reflections”
After a 17 month hiatus (how time flies!), I’m back blogging. In the last post, I had relocated back to Nairobi and then I went silent. During that time, I found work with a medical aid agency, which took me around the region to some interesting places. Now, I’m finished with that contract and am enjoying the lotus-eating life of indefinite holiday (thanks working wife!). So, here is a photo of one of my favorite places in the world: Lamu. A Swahili island off the sultry, tropical coast of Kenya where one goes to shed one’s cares and to slip into an alternate universe where life is warm and friendly and 5 degrees off-center.
It’s been a while since I last posted, but I was busy packing up, selling off and re-locating from Dakar, Senegal back to Nairobi, Kenya. It’s been some years since I’ve lived here, and it’s barely recognizable to me. The city has been transformed into a fizzing, high rise boom town with new roads, upscale apartments, a burgeoning middle class and tangled traffic jams. I made this photo with my iPhone 6 Plus the night after our arrival. Although, I miss the laid back, idiosyncratic atmosphere of Dakar, I look forward to this new chapter in our lives in this most lovely (and also troubled) East African country.
Anyone who has ever lived or traveled in the drylands of Africa will recognize elements of this scene: orange light filtered through fine dust and a shimmering late afternoon heat. The town of Mandera, Kenya is where the country joins Ethiopia and Somalia in a volatile mix of ethnic, nationalist and Islamist aspirations. This particular visit was especially memorable for me because I got heat stroke. Despite it’s physical remoteness, I never felt alone. I traveled with a team of water technicians who were rehabilitating boreholes servicing largely Somali communities. We traveled widely and slept in tents close to camels and other livestock, so I always felt close to the lifeblood of these tough and resourceful people.
I first met Lupita when she was fresh out of high school in Kenya some years ago. At that time, I was asked to do some fashion shots for my friend, Ann McGreath, who owns the Kenyan fashion house, KikoRomeo. We were scouting for models and I remember meeting Lupita who, at first, seemed a bit quiet and shy.
Well, that sure changed when our production team began traveling around Kenya shooting scenes in Tsavo West National Park and Mombasa. Over the days, she opened up and spread her wings. She revealed herself to be intelligent, vivacious and a natural in front of the lens. I was watching the first glimmer of early stardom that she would attain with her Golden Globe Award and an Oscar nomination for “12 Years A Slave”. Good luck to her!
I met Peter Beard some years ago in Kenya when he was gracious enough to autograph some of his iconic photo books that I brought to him. We were at his “Hog Ranch” among the giraffes, wart hogs, a hyperactive mongoose and one supermodel. Here’s a nice little video of him, his art and his views.
There was a time when Manda Island in the Lamu archipelago of the Kenyan coast was a pristine environment and virtually uninhabited. A desolate ruin of a Portuguese fort is on the eastern tip of the island and Takwa ruins drew a few tourists. Otherwise, Manda attracted little attention, until some land developers bought up the beachfront and sold it off to holiday jetsetters. I guess you can’t stop progress, but I prefer to remember when I could hire a private dhow for a few dollars to take me from Lamu town and drop me off at this beach without the distraction of up market villas.
I’m not what you would call an avid wildlife photographer; although, I have spent many pleasant hours while on safaris watching animals in their element. I prefer to view them with my two feet on the ground with a camera in hand and not cooped up in a vehicle. However, there was this one time I saw the wisdom of being on four wheels and in a solid metal body when uncomfortably close to wild animals.
I was staying a few days in a private cottage in Tsavo West National Park in Kenya. It was ideally situated on the side of a hill overlooking a wildlife drinking hole. On this morning, a herd of buffalo were also being watched by several lions in excellent viewing position around my cabin. These were relations of the famous “man eaters of Tsavo” and full of interest in feeding that early morning. I decided it was best to retreat from the terrace into the front room. No sooner done, then this visitor showed up. He seemed more curious than threatening, but I saw that we were standing only 10 feet from each other with only a glass window separating us.
I managed to snap this blurry photo before the cat did a double take and disappeared around the corner; presumably, his curiosity satisfied.
There are mountains in the Samburu district of northern Kenya called the Mathews Range where you can walk in old growth forests sheltering leopards, elephants, antelopes and a fantastic variety of birds. This living belt of greenery is now threatened by global warming. While there, we came across some scientists who were studying the ecology of this area. They told us that the forest was drying out due to the severity and frequency of droughts. It was dying.
The Samburu communities are affected, as well, as it decreases forage and water for their livestock. When sustained climatic changes become the new normal, then cultures are threatened. People like our guide, here, abandon their ancestral homes for the poverty of the towns.
Some years ago, I had the opportunity to safari into the Loita Hills of western Kenya to see the Maasai Eunoto ceremony. It’s held once every 15 years to mark the passing of the young warriors into senior status. It’s an important rite of transition and is the last chance for the morans to enjoy their freedoms as warriors before their mothers shave their heads and they become elders.
I photographed this moran wearing a rarely seen relic of an old Maasai practice – the killing of a lion by spear. Only a warrior who has killed a lion in this manner can claim to wear its mane.
I first saw Maureen Gallagher in a file cabinet in Nairobi, Kenya. She was in a black and white 8 x 10 inch glossy photo standing heroically nude and feeding a giraffe. It was a pure Peter Beard signature image. That photo has since been re-worked into large collage art pieces, which sell for zillions of dollars, now.
So much is written and said of Peter Beard that I have nothing to add except that he was generous with his time in autographing a pile of his books that I brought to him. One day, I showed up at his Hog Ranch establishment in Nairobi, Kenya where he was preparing for a fashion shoot in Turkana District for the French Elle edition. Maureen Gallagher, his prime model, was also there, and I had an interesting afternoon hanging out at his very unconventional residence.
It was 1991, and I was working with an aid agency in eastern Sudan. It was at this time that I was introduced to the writings of Wilfred Thesiger, explorer, photographer, writer. He was the last of that breed of adventurers who walked wherever he explored and eschewed the conveniences of modern life. Among other things, he is noted for those classics of travel writings, Arabian Sands and Marsh Arabs, as well as for his explorations in Africa (he was the first European to explore the Danakil desert in northern Ethiopia). His black and white photographs are celebrated for their classical evocation of the bedouin life, which has since passed into history with the rise of the oil states.
As a young man, I was deeply impressed by his accomplishments. In his autobiography, A Life of My Choice, he mentions being stationed as a British officer during the start of WWII in the border town of Gedaref, Sudan, which happened to be my base. A friend of mine who knew Thesiger encouraged me to write to him; he was living in Kenya at the time. I did so and expected nothing to come of it. However, to my intense pleasure, I received a letter from the old explorer in his very fine, aristocratic script thanking me for my letter and inviting me to visit him in Maralal, northwestern Kenya, whenever I passed through.
A year later, I did just that and was graciously invited, along with my traveling companion, to camp out at his homestead on the edge of town, which he was sharing with his adopted Samburu family.
Several years later, I heard that he had moved back to London. When I passed through London, I dispatched a letter to him, and once, again, he contacted me to invite me over for dinner. Along with another friend, we visited his flat located in the posh Chelsea neighborhood of London. We shared a humble fare of aluminum wrapped TV dinners. Although, he was soon to be recognized as the great explorer that he was and would be knighted by the Queen, he was still feeling unmoored from his traveling days while slowly losing his sight. The impression I got that evening was of a lonely old man looking forward to death.
The portrait you see above was caught just as he turned to face the window as the sun set over the Thames River. The more famous portrait of himself (behind his shoulder) graced the cover of his autobiography, and reminds us of a young man who set out to explore the world without any thought of celebrity or renown, but purely for his own pleasure.
Soon after it opened, I had the great fortune to stay at Kenya‘s first community based eco-lodge, Il Ngwesi, located in the thorn tree country of Laikipia district. James ole Kinyaga, naturalist and one of the pioneers of the lodge, was our gracious Maasai host. Here, he poses with the skull of a Cape Buffalo, which populates the bush around the camp.