Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Part II: A Day Between Two Mountains

This is the second of five parts. Part one was the previous post.

arsabit is an extinct mile-high volcano rising above the hard-scrabble wasteland like a tropical island in an vast ocean. Once the volcano was surrounded by lush plains similar to the famous Serengeti or Masai Mara to the south. But overgrazing and changing weather patterns have eaten away at the vegetation, turning the plain to desert.

The devastation now licks at the feet of Mount Marsabit. The desert cuts off the mountain, leaving its crater lakes and forests as an isolated refuge for elephant, lion, leopard, greater kudu, baboon, gazelle, onyx, giraffe, buffalo, monkeys and 13 species of bats. The dense forest is also home to 350 kinds of birds, who greet each day with riotous, cacophonous song in the cold, misty, pre-dawn hours.

We arrived with some note and ceremony from local dignitaries. I settled in at the local high school, where a Peace Corps colleague had been appointed headmaster. Marsabit Secondary School was a five minutes’ walk up the foot of the mountain from Marsabit town, a huddle of shops separated from the vast forest by neatly tended gardens and banana plantations.

I put in my time at the clinic in the town, helping clean boils, blisters and abrasions. The patients were reticent, dignified inhabitants of the desert. They carried their solitude with them. Rendille, Borana and Gabra, they were all dark skinned Nilotic peoples, unlike the Hamitic traders from Ethiopia to the north or the Semitic Somali to the east.

The Ethiopians and Somali were present in Marsabit too. The mountain’s temperate micro climate creates an oasis on the ancient trade route between the highlands of Ethiopia and the fertile, populated lands to the south beyond Mt. Kenya. The road I had seen from the sky passed through Marsabit town, linking Moyale 100 miles north near the Ethiopia/Kenyan border with Nanyuki, nestled on the lush slopes of the Mt. Kenya 125 miles to the south.

Like any visitor to Mt. Marsabit, I wanted to plunge into the forests of mountain preserve and seek out its game. But before I had a chance to set out up the mountain with my Peace Corps friend, the doctor was summoned to fly to distant Lake Rudolf on an emergency. He would not return to Marsabit for another month. I could either go with him or stay behind to drive up the mountain. Staying would mean returning to Nairobi across the desert on the 100-mile-long stretch of road between Marsabit and Nanyuki. I decided to stay. The journey up the mountain seemed worth the trip across the desert.

The mountain safari was an overnight venture. My Peace Corps colleague and I traveled by Land Rover on a one-lane dirt track, setting out at dusk when the big game were also on the move to their watering holes. It turned out that at least one was taking the same road we were.

Rounding a corner in the forest, we found ourselves suddenly confronted by the bulky backside of a lumbering water buffalo. He was the size of our Land Rover and probably weighed twice as much. Suddenly, he wheeled around, choosing to face us down. His black muzzle dripping with saliva, he lowered his battering ram horns and pawed the road.

He froze; we froze. We inched ahead; he lurched toward us, then recoiled. We honked the horn; he didn’t flinch. A beast accustomed to trumpeting elephants and roaring lions has little regard for honking Land Rovers.

Finally we did the one thing he had never encountered. We flicked on the headlights. Stunned and blinded, the buffalo stepped back, then leaped over the embankment with the grace of a fullback surmounting a line of scrimmage. We listened as he crashed through the forest for what seemed like a full minute.

That night we hunkered down in bedrolls at an abandoned lodge on the edge of a lagoon where we had placed salt licks as an additional lure. We knew that the animals wouldn’t be out in force until 2 a.m. or so. We tried to sleep and push aside our imaginings of noises in the night.

After hours of restless vigilance, we heard noises that were undeniably real. We peered out into the moonless night at Goliath shapes no more than 30 yards from us. Grunts and wheezes shaped all kinds of imaginings. Certainly there were the hulks of elephants though how many we couldn’t be sure. And was that a rhino to the left of the far salt lick? Could our nemesis, the buffalo, his composure restored, be out there in the gray-black gloom as well? Much of what we saw was phantasm.

Eventually, the herds and their hangers-on, real and imagined, retreated into the forest, and we went back to sleep not quite sure what we had seen.

To be continued....

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