Friday, January 25, 2013

Where them dogs at

One of the holy grails of the safari world is the African wild dog.  Distinctive and elusive, many a seeker has traipsed all over East Africa trying to catch a glimpse.  In what could be my last trip to the right side of Africa for awhile (I will change jobs within the Bank in mid February – getting a new geographic beat), I gave it one last Hail Mary pass and went out to Selous National Park.  Selous is a big park – like significantly bigger than New Jersey big.  And while there are several thousand wild dogs known to live in the park, anyone that has tried to find decent TexMex in Jersey knows, things can be hard to find.  And burritos can’t even cover several miles in an afternoon.

But as this might have been the last chance, we gave it a shot.  We headed out to the Siwandu resort in Selous – where you sleep in luxury tented splendor watching water buck and impala roam next to the lake from your bed, and can take an outdoor shower while watching elephants cross the river, but must live in constant fear knowing that no smuggled piece of fruit or granola bar is safe from those god damned little tent-zipping monkeys.

The morning of the first day, we went on a boat safari.  Cruising around on a metal skiff about the size of a Boston Whaler, we got up close and personal with nesting birds, various species of crocodile (thousands of those toothy bastards too), and the lake’s large hippo population.  (A bit too close in one case – we were bumping it back around the lake towards camp when the boat suddenly pitched hard to the starboard side.  It was – thus far – the only time in my life where I was able to give an affirmative answer to the otherwise absurdist question, “did we just hit a hippo?”)  Eyeing the crocs slipping noiselessly from the shore, I found it oddly comforting that there were no life jackets onboard.

That afternoon we went out in the open safari car in search of dogs.  We ended up having a couple really cool lion encounters (including seeing five young males – just in the awkward new-mane state of adolescence – protecting their fresh buffalo kill), but no dogs.  Though we stayed out a bit later than we should have looking, facilitating the cool sunset with tree and vultures picture, and a hippo out of the water (thankfully it was not a friend or relation of the one we had thumped that morning, looking to have a Jersey-style discussion on the subject).

Second day we were up at the crack, still so dark the Maasai camp guides had to walk us out to the car.  Beautiful birds, feisty and frisky impala, more crocs and hippos than you could shake a stick at, more giraffes than was strictly necessary, gourmet breakfast in the bush, but no dogs.

I will admit, my lunchtime glass of perfectly chilled South African wine was slightly tense (it was also a sweltering afternoon), but as I searched for my inner zen “if-you-want-a-guarantee-go-to-a-zoo” place, the driver searched out information.  By time afternoon tea had come, which was enlivened by a visiting family of elephants, a plan had been set in motion.  We mounted up and fishtailed it through the ‘black cotton’ dirt shortcut, stopping only for the occasional bird sighting and crossing impala.  The driver knew where he was going.  After one wrong turn at a giant kudu, we found what we had sought.  A family of 8 wild dogs lounging by a small watering hole (also occupied by red dragon flies and one very nervous looking duck).

The alpha couple was attended by three pups (less than two years), and a couple of older dogs, two of which were badly wounded.  (This happens in the wild.  That morning we had met a three pawed hyena that was gnawing on the buffalo skull.  Apparently she had a reputation for aggression and a few years back a lioness had attempted to teach her a lesson.  She is now a doubly aggressive gimp.  But I digress…)  The pups were funny because every time they approached the water (which was really a glorified puddle – no more than a few inches deep in the center – they would very nervously and gingerly approach – checking for crocodiles at every step.  Their life experience has probably taught them that any water source bigger than a Nalgene bottle necessarily contains at least one crocodile.  We asked the guides why the pack didn’t leave the hurt ones behind, one clearly had such a badly broken leg she could barely stand, but the guide explained that a pack is a pack.  They stay together no matter what.  The hurt ones find other roles – lookouts, retreat blockers, pup wranglers… A place for every dog and every dog in his place.

SUCCESS!  In victory we departed from the visit with our new socialist canine friends. But, our glory was not yet complete, on the way back to camp, we spooked a leopard hunting in the grass.  She was gone like a shot - touching off a brief but exhilarating chase.  All in all, and incredible trip.  I just hope my first time safari companion doesn’t get it into his head that this is what things are like.  People that do safaris for years and don’t get such a hot weekend.  Some people just don’t realize how lucky they are!

Monday, January 14, 2013


She is seriously never going to trust me again.  Mom, look, I am sorry.  You just worry too much when I go places that you think are dangerous – and let’s be honest – you have enough to worry about right now without me adding to it.  So maybe I stopped by Somaliland again on my way to Tanzania… but I am actually in Tanzania now – and you had nothing to worry about.

I have to say, Somaliland is the most eventful uneventful little country I work in.  Over the course of less than four days – where essentially all I did was work – lots of things managed to happen.  First I got to take my first armed convoy ride.  This time I decided save a day of travel and add a bit of adventure to my life by flying commercial into the country through Ethiopia rather than taking the UN charter flight from Kenya.  (The runway in the capital has completely fallen to dust.  And, despite the rusting MiGs, we built that one.  The one the Russians built up 2.5 hours up on the coast can still handle jets – and therefore is the only commercial entryway into the country.)  Commercial travel is a slightly different experience.  The guy sitting across the aisle was having qat as his inflight snack.  And when you disembark, a great negotiation begins as to whether or not you need a visa, what said visa might cost, whether you need to pay entry fees on top of your visa, and what those might be.  We settled on a free visa, $10 for my UN passport, with $3 additional to pay for the official stamps.  The other UN guy in my convoy was apparently not as skilled a negotiator as I was – he had to pay $4 for his stamps.

Then instead of the standard hotel chauffeur holding my name of a plaque, I dragged my suitcase across the dirt parking lot to the fading UN SUV, and proceeded to wait 20 minutes in the heat for the police escort to appear.  (They had apparently been at the airport for hours and were off drinking Coke or chewing qat or something.  I complained briefly until the other guy mentioned that at least we only needed four.  In Mogadishu you need 18 of these jokers to drive around the block.)  The convoy ride itself was uneventful.  (If you are really curious, I took a 30 second video.  To get my full experience, watch it 400 times.  Sound track is original.)

Then I got to go to my first rural Somali village.  It looks a lot like a rural village in Afar, but ironically, the people are much less heavily armed.  And much friendlier.  (Or maybe the fact that we brought an escort with an AK47 encouraged them to smile.)  Later in the week I went to the local vegetable market in the capital.  It was much like any other market I have been to in Africa except no one hassled me.  Or felt the need to point out loudly that I Again, I had a guy with an automatic weapon trailing me around, so that might had dissuaded the beggars.  At one point I was watching a Somali man covered in blood hack at a camel carcass with a machete and scream that I shouldn’t take his picture.  I was okay with the guard at that moment.

Then there was the trip to dinner where the substitute driver was yammering on his cell phone and completely creamed an old guy pushing a wheelbarrow across the road.  The driver didn't even break, and I am sure the old guy's leg was broken.  And - as with all traffic accidents in the developing world with foreigners involved, the angry mob soon gathered.  A bit more excitement than I needed on my way to grilled fish.

And finally I got my chance to be on Somali TV.  I filmed a short promo video for the project we are working on.  This isn’t my first time being on national television (I made all three local news networks in St. Lucia when I did a training down there last year), but it was the easiest.  They let me write my questions in advance so that I wouldn’t look silly.  Then I spent the entire interview trying not to flinch as flies landed on my face.

I am including – in addition to the usual pictures – a  video of Somaliland -driving from Berbera in the north to Hargeisa.  (I wanted to add one more but it would take most of my natural life to upload.)  And the white blocks in the photos are raw salt being sold in the market, while the big mushy looking ones are dates imported from Saudi.