Monday, December 7, 2009

The Tail of the Shark Whale

Most often you see the dorsal fin first. The boat chugs to a halt, and as quietly as you can from 2 feet above the water line, you slip into the water. As with all feet-first entries, you remove the hand pressing the dive mask to your face to be greeted by the explosion of bubbles you carried down with you. In this turbid blue water they resolve gradually into something approaching clarity, and you begin to kick. Carefully of course - you're snorkeling and the trick is to get power from the stroke at the hips without bending at the knees, and slapping your fins on the surface. That's inefficient and inelegant of course, but more to the point it's startling to the scenery. The shouts of the crew and riders on the boat, in French and English direct you at first. "To your right!", "A droit!", and then suddenly the hazy blue resolves itself into a coherent shape. The spots seem at first to be bubbles, or floating detritus, and then they all move in unison and your visual cortex says "Aha!", and a vast fish swims out of the murky sea. Le Requin Baleine, as our French friends call him. The Whale Shark.

Twenty of us had crowded onto a twin hulled dive boat, which met us at the very tip of the peninsula that Djibouti Ville occupies. At about eight in the morning we cast off lines and powered away south and west down the length of the gulf of Tadjourah. For an hour or so we cruised along the austere coastline, the volcanic hills heaping themselves one upon another to our left, as they climbed steadily higher, approaching the great central rift which birthed them millennia ago. The moderation of the searing heat of summer and fall, and the occasional rains of the winter season left the hills and escarpments a bit greener than when last I had ventured down this passage, but in all truth it is a subtle change. To the newcomer to this part of the world I'm sure it would seem desiccated, brown and lifeless. After an hour or so, our skipper slowed us down, and we began to scan the water for large blue shapes, or the tell tale dorsal fins. Within 5 minutes we had spotted our first, and our first group of swimmers took off in pursuit. It took us a couple of tries to get the knack of quiet entry and approach down, and the first few of the great fishes disappeared effortlessly down into turbid blue gulf - a glance of spotted flanks, the graceful sweep of a scythe-like tail and then emptiness.

Finally though we were able to approach without disturbing our quarry, and for a surreal 20 minutes I was able to swim alongside an enormous natural wonder - ranging from the cavern like immensity of the mouth, watching the huge gills filter the plankton rich waters, contemplating the slow arc of the tail as it propelled this great and gentle creature along. At last he left - swimming with stately grace deeper down toward the sandy bottom some fathoms below. For a few moments, suspended above him, I watched the whale shark fade from view - vast, mysterious and altogether wonderful. It was as if Djibouti had yielded up the last of her great wonders during my last day here on the Horn.

For that is what this is. The Whale shark trip was 2 weeks ago, and tonight as I write this is my last night in Djibouti - presuming the notoriously unreliable rotator flight is on time. We are to report at 0300 tomorrow, and with any luck at all sometime later we will start the long, circuitous flight home.

"Home". You can only really experience all the nuance that word can hold when you are long away from it. The absolute ache for things familiar, comfortable and well loved. The never quite silent hunger for the sight and sound and feel of wife and child. Has it been worth it? I think so, yes. This has been a great and interesting time. I don't know that I have extracted every lesson there was to be learned here, but I have made good friends, seen all manner of amazing, appalling and inspiring things, and tried to profit as much by opportunities afforded here in this corner of the world. I believe that we are doing - or trying our best to do - great work here. The shape of what we want to achieve - helping a volatile part of this old continent develop its own solutions to the myriad daunting problems which beset it - swims constantly before us, now clear and distinct and now lost in the turbid complexities of geography and human nature.

I'll end here. It's midnight, and I have about 2 hours to try to sleep. I'll try to write more - to ruminate a bit on my time here - but this will serve as finis for a while. Many thanks to those of you who kept in touch, who waded through these maunderings and who supported me and my family. God bless you all, and allow me to wish you joy on your own travels, and happiness on your return home.

Au revoir


Thursday, November 19, 2009


Hello All,

Well it's been a busy few days here at Camp Lemonnier (an aerial view of which appears above). It's a bit odd that, as time grows shorter, we seem to have accelerated our pace here at the best little EMF in Djibouti, but the additional work has been welcome. This is especially true as we had expected a bit of a lull while our point of contact at Hôpital Général Peltier - Dr. Elias - is away in Mecca on the Hajj. We've been preparing for some coalition military exercises, for which we will share medical duties with our French colleagues, so our drills have have taken on a new intensity (we've been working on our "walking" blood bank - that being the pool of folks walking around with blood of various types in their veins who might consent to bring it along to us in case we needed a bit extra in an emergency). The lab bit is a challenge, but it's really the administrative bit that's a nightmare - getting folks in, screened, and processed. Good practice though. Speaking of good practice, we've had a lot of practice with Medevacs and critical care patients. We've seen that big Air Force bird with a Critical Care Transport team in its belly touch down 3 times in the last week for a patient with heart trouble, a pharyngeal abcess and what we thought might be a case of acute meningitis. The former two were on ventilators, and as the de facto respiratory therapists my pal Herman and I spent a couple of long nights doing ventilator management. The weekend was dedicated to taking it easy and catching up on sleep.

Juxtaposed on all this is the ongoing H1N1 vaccination process. As an underemployed anesthesiologist, I ended up with "Public Health Emergency Officer", and as you can imagine I've been busy this past couple of months. With extremely able assistance (and extremely able assistants) however, we're almost done with the military folks here on Camp, and will start in on our contractors and other employees soon. We've been relatively spared so far, so that has been a blessing.

I did get my 11 mile run done this past Sunday though. My friend Kevin was kind enough to send along a book on treadmill training for runners, which has some helpful techniques, but most of the credit for not losing my mind must go to The Teaching Company, and to Professor J. Rufus Fears' absolutely engrossing series on Famous Romans. Having gotten to Marcus Aurelius, and the end of the series, I confess to being at a loss for next weekend's 12 miler.

Came back to a bit of sad news, as poor old Hektor, our long time patient Djiboutian military working dog, passed away. He had developed severe anemia and despite transfusions, and every other intervention we (and an international coalition of e-mail advisors) could think of, we could never get his bone marrow to restart production of blood cells. He had become a favorite of all of us at the EMF, and we were saddened to hear that he had passed on, albeit peacefully, last night. I will say that Hektor helped us all to become familiar with working around military dogs, and as that turns out to be part of the "expeditionary" mission, I would say he left us better than when we first met him - no mean accomplishment for anyone.

On a happier note, it now seems fairly certain that Mark, my replacement will arrive here on Thanksgiving day. It's an appropriate enough occasion: I shall of course be glad to see him, and - after a 30 hour flight - he'll be glad to get off the plane! Presuming that all then proceeds as scheduled, that'll put me home around the 14th of December - in plenty of time for Christmas, and with a bit of time to try to acclimatize in 70 degree San Diego before heading to Tahoe for our annual post-Christmas ski trip. I can't even imagine what 10 degrees is going to feel like on top of Heavenly. Brrrrr.

Other than that, not so much to report. With drills and critically ill patients we've been pretty close to base for the last couple of weeks. Weather is gorgeous, and it would be quite pleasant outdoors save for an explosion in the fly population - we're actually a few weeks into it now. The flies, which seem like ordinary house flies, have a discomforting tendency to land on one and ti refuse to take a hint. They aim for ears and eyes and noses and are thus a nuisance out of all proportion to their size or number. They also are sort of slow and not too agile, which doesn't work out that well for them - but it can make the outdoors a bit of a trial.

Anyway, reckon I'll sign off here. My CO pointed out to me the other day that Camp Lemonnier now has its own cool website. Should the mood take you, you can check it out at ""


Sunday, November 8, 2009

A melancholy little week

Hello All (any?),

Well, another week's worth of days has vanished into the the vastness of the Horn of Africa. No spectacular triumphs or catastrophes to report, but instead a group of small enough events that have conspired to bring on a sourish sort of feeling.

Chief among them must be ranked the departure of my friend Jeff - off to future endeavors in Jacksonville. In my experience, one fairly rarely runs into folks with whom a wide ranging discussion is as possible as a comfortable, companionable silence. Jeff possesses both gifts in abundance, and I found him an immensely easy person to hang out with. It doubtless speaks of my many character flaws that I have found such people have been few and far between. I guess it makes me appreciate them all the more. A life in the Navy is all about wishing "fair winds and following seas" to one boon companion after another, but it always leaves one - or me anyway - a bit wistful.

It was in this frame of mind then that I went to visit the nearby cheetah refuge. It's a place I'd intended to visit for some time, but as the afternoons and evenings are no longer poisonously hot this seemed an ideal time to check it out. We piled on the MWR bus one late afternoon and bumped and jounced about 4 miles down the road toward Somalia. Having cleared the village of Douda (for which the nearby dump is named) we came to the entrance to the refuge. It is a property of some dozens of acres that is a lovely, peaceful green(ish) spot in an area that is otherwise dotted with rubble, refuse and signs of hard scrabble existence.

The refuge is the result of the work of Dr. Bertrand LaFrance, a French veterinarian who has worked with the Djiboutian government to establish a spot for captive cheetahs confiscated by the authorities. The refuge currently has six of the cats, along with miscellaneous other African animals (gazelles, ostriches, caracals, tortoises, etc.), some of whom are destined for reintroduction to the wild. The "green" of the acres of enclosures is provided by scrubby acacia trees, extravagantly festooned with needle sharp thorns. The red sand and dust make these stubborn survivors appear an intense green, especially in the slanting light of the early evening. We strolled around the dusty paths, enjoying the soughing of the wind in the trees, the warbling of song birds - the environs of Camp Lemonnier being the near exclusive preserve of crows and pigeons, neither of whom produce much in the way of melody - and the absence of industrial noise.

The cheetahs were in generously sized enclosures, separated from the walking trails, so the viewing wasn't ideal (although I'm sure this is actually better from the cat's point of view). The place is as nice as it could well be, given the constraints of location and finance. I guess I couldn't get past the contrast of even a large enclosure with the vast sweep of the Masai Mara, and the contrast of the pacing of the cheetahs back and forth along the fenced perimeters with the sinuous grace they display stalking through the tall grass of the African plains. For all that though, there are less than ten thousand cheetahs left in all of Africa, a tenth of the population just decades ago. I'm sure these caged carnivores don't feel all that lucky, but lucky they are in point of fact. It was a pleasant enough afternoon, but suffused all through with just a hint of sadness at the thought of these graceful cats relegated to life "inside the wire". Anyway, soon enough we piled back on our bus and headed back inside our own wire.

Later that week, we saw one of our canine patients from a week ago. Back then, he had just needed an adjustment of his boy parts, but this time he presented gravely ill. For reasons that are still unclear, all of his blood cell lines had taken dramatic drops, leaving him severely anemic and and low on platelets - the little clotting cells that keep us from bleeding and bruising at trivial trauma. We tried one transfusion from a brave "donor" dog, but nothing seemed to improve. Best bet seemed to be related to his massively enlarged spleen filtering out the blood elements , and after some debate we decided to attempt a splenectomy - a risky business in a critter with low blood count to start with and the inability to clot properly. Thanks in large part to Bill's meticulous technique, the procedure went well enough, and our shaggy patient made it through. He was still desperately short of blood cells though, and another transfusion the next night didn't really seem to help. Suggestions for treatments poured in from all of our email contacts around the globe - special kudos to friend Mitzi for sending some of the most helpful - and by dint of much effort and many medications, he has hung on - to this point at least. He's a sweet natured Shepherd, who will need to be retired from life as a Djiboutian working dog, and who already has multiple volunteers to take him home. I hope he makes it, and I hope any future owner knows how to say "sit" in Somali.

The week ended on a bit brighter note, as the crew from Norwegian Frigate Fridtjofnansen pulled in for a port visit. They toured the EMF and we met them for dinner at The Melting Pot, a French/Greek/Japanese restaurant located not so far from their hotel. They were a congenial bunch, who spoke English very well and had a gift for humor and lively conversation. It was a very pleasant evening, and we are promised a visit to the ship's sickbay when next they pull in.

Beyond that not too much. A quiet weekend and a short week ahead, given the Veteran's day holiday. Might head out to Moucha island again, as chances to enjoy the beaches and reefs will diminish rapidly as the month goes on. My replacement reported to Fort Jackson this past Sunday, and while I still don't know exactly when I'll depart, the prospect is becoming more substantial.

Reckon that'll do for a bit. Take care all.

Pictures are of Cheetah refuge.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Les Chiens et les Chinois

Apologies for the blank verse appearance - some artifact introduced by writing this mostly on a different computer and then e-mailing. Of course, if you want to include this in an upcoming poetry reading, be my guest!

Greetings All,

Well, another interesting week here on the Horn. Weather continues to moderate, with relatively cool mornings and evenings, and even mid-days that are not blisteringly hot, or oppressively humid. That said, as I was thinking how pleasant the temperaure was yesterday around 5 pm, I happened to glance at a thermometer which read about 90 degrees Fahrenheit. "Ah", thinks I, "maybe that's part of what has changed". I've turned into a desert creature. It makes me wonder how San Diego and the low 70's will feel on my return.

I must apologize again for the all too obvious decreasing frequency of these
missives. I'm essentially a lazy creature of course, so that is likely the
root of the explanation, but I must admit to a certain sympathy with those
Europeans - mostly notably Colonial Service employees working in British
East Africa - who during the first quarter of the last century were
diagnosed with "tropical neurasthenia". This was thought to be "not
psychosis or madness, but was rather an ennui or loss of "edge" brought
about by the strains of tropical life...". I reckon I'd much rather be another
tragic victim of Tropical Neurasthenia, then a lazy sod! Many thanks to
friend Red for sending along the excellent article "
What Was Tropical about
Tropical Neurasthenia? The Utility of the Diagnosis in the Management of
British East Africa
" from the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied

At the root of it all I reckon is a growing sense of "being done". It is
not that the work is any less abundant, or the days any less interesting,
but instead that I grow increasingly impatient to be home. My days here
interest me less and less as that day grows closer, and they are
commensurately less appealing to write about. But today I've had an extra
cup of strong coffee and shall endeavor to catch you all up.

As you'll recall from the last entry (you can go back and read it...I'll
wait), we have only recently become aware of the existence of a Chinese-run
MRI scanner here in the city of Djibouti. We had a chance to go visit it a
couple of weeks ago, and found it just outside the Chinese embassy building
(which is a gorgeous new building near the French Naval base on Islet de
Heron, at the very tip of the peninsula). The scanner itself is a small 0.4
Tesla, open design unit. It is located in a small purpose-built
construction, in front of what will ultimately be an office and reception
area, but is now a two storey cement and rebar skeleton. We were able to
tour the facility, see some of the images, and meet the folks in charge.
Now, as I'm informed by my more imaging savvy colleagues, more powerful
units of different design will provide clearer, more detailed pictures - but
it was obvious even to me that we have just seen at a stroke, a quantum leap
in the availability of high quality diagnostic capability here in Djibouti.
Prices were pretty good too - about 300 USD for a head MRI ( and a discount
on your 2nd study!). We're pursuing some arrangement to allow the folks
here at the EMF to order studies, which will hopefully allow us to avoid a
couple of unnecessary and expensive medevacs here and there.

The scanner is run by Dr. Fong, a Chinese trained urologist and his wife -
also Dr. Fong - who is a radiologist. They have an administrator whose
anglicized name is Lydia ( I can't think of that name without hearing
Groucho singing "Lydia The Tattooed Lady".) They all speak tolerably good
English, although Lydia's is the most fluent. They were very pleasant and
accommodating, even inviting us to try out the scanner. Sadly, I couldn't
think of anything I needed scanned at that exact moment. Anyway, we made
plans to come back with all of our providers (the first visit was just Bill
and I), and did so one evening about a week ago. While the scanner was the
main reason for the visit, the highlight had to be dinner afterwards.

After our colleagues had toured the tiny building, and asked polite questions about the MRI, we hopped in our car and followed the staff to a nearby Chinese restaurant. I must admit to having some misgivings about Chinese food in Djibouti, having become something of a Chinese food snob after growing up close to Vancouver's large and thriving Chinese community and dining well there many a time. My worries were somewhat allayed when the owners of the tiny place proved to be expatriate Chinese, and were further assuaged when the next patrons of the place to walk in turned out to be guards from the Chinese Embassy. Dr. Fong and Lydia did all the ordering from a fairly extensive menu, and shortly thereafter dishes began to arrive at table. I couldn't possibly describe them all, but there was crab in black bean sauce, a steamed fish in ginger, spicy beef and spicy shrimp, dumplings, and about half a dozen other superbly prepared dishes. The company was delightful, and the meal was simply one of the best Chinese feasts I've had the good fortune to stuff myself on (you know that sensation when you're full, but you squeeze one more bite in 'cause it's so good?). Dr. Fong told us that he had first come to Africa as a volunteer - sort of a Chinese version of our Peace Corps - and had felt that there was a need for a few centers with MRI capability. He has set one up in Ethiopia, and is now establishing a site in Djibouti. His wife was a bit quieter, but was clearly excited about the prospects of their new endeavor. The only time the Drs. Fong seemed a bit less than enthusiastic about their work on the Horn of Africa was when the conversation turned to families, and they spoke about their 4 year old daughter, at home in China - Mandarin language education being scarce in these parts. We all sympathized and raised glasses of beer or tea to those left at home. Djibouti is certainly a place full of unlooked-for gratifications, and this night was another such. Anyway, we've invited them (the folks from the MRI center) over to Camp Lemonnier for a visit, and shall hope to hear more of them.

Later that week, we had a chance to help out our local veterinarian, and the Djiboutian police by assisting with surgery on a couple of Djiboutian military working dogs. Tona and Hektor stopped by for some x-rays, a few lab tests and a bit of surgery. Tona - an older German shepard female - needed an abdominal mass removed, and a couple of superficial lumps excised. Hektor, a younger male, needed some, um, boy surgery. Anyway, I got a chance to place the endotracheal tubes, and run the anesthetics, while Bill and Heather (the vet) set our two canine customers to rights. It was both comfortably familiar and pleasingly different. Although many of the medications are used in different ways or amounts, the anesthesia volatile agents have similar effects in most all creatures and were easy to titrate to the appropriate level. Surprisingly, temperature control proved to be a bit of work. The OR's (we used the second, back-up OR at the EMF) are fairly cool, and despite their fur the dog's body temperatures seemed to drop more quickly than I would have thought. Nothing a little forced air warmer and a warming blanket couldn't fix though.

Both dogs did well initially, and were returned to their Djiboutian handlers with antibiotics, pain killers and instructions to watch them closely (apparently those cone-head collars are just not available here to stop the dogs from worrying at their incisions). We saw Tona back today for a small wound breakdown, and little dental work, but she's a tough old girl who we think will do fine.

Beyond that, not so much to talk about. We did have an interesting symposium of the various expatriate medical services here in Djibouti at the French Naval base in mid-week. We met with our French, German, Norwegian, British and Belgian colleagues to discuss our respective capabilities, and to work out areas for mutual support. The officers of the latter three countries were here as representatives of the EU's Operation Atalanta (no that's how they spell it), which is an anti-piracy mission out of Europe. Discussions were warm and friendly, and I'm optimistic that much good will come of them. (Now that sounded like a diplomatic press release, eh?) If nothing else it's just nice to have faces to put with the names one sees on e-mails. We've agreed to a monthly informal dinner meeting, and a quarterly official get together.

Whale shark diving plans for this weekend got scrubbed for one reason and another, so it's been a fairly quiet one.'re caught up! Plans for the upcoming week include surgery at Peltier (it's like a box of chocolates - we never know what we'll get), a trip to the Cheetah refuge, and of course Taco Tuesday, which will leave 5 more to go. I'll try to keep you updated.

Picture is of me, Bill and Tona. She's the furry one.

Friday, October 16, 2009

A busy week

Or that's the way it feels!

The week started off on a pleasant note, as on Monday (the Columbus day holiday), I joined a group from the EMF for the long drive out to the little beach at the west end of the Ghoubbet El Karab - the enclosed bay at the extreme end of the Gulf of Tadjoura. I'd stopped there before, on the way back from a trip to Lac Assal, for a quick swim. At that point my companions and I had noted that the breakwater that separates the pebbled beach from the bay itself teemed with fish and corals. Unfortunately at that time we had only a single pair of swimming goggles to share between three of us. I'd been curious to head back with a proper set of snorkel gear to really explore, so the opportunity was too good to pass up.

We piled our gear in the Mystery Machine, and headed out about 1000. It's about a 2 hour drive, with passable roads much of the way (otherwise the venerable van probably wouldn't have made it), and we went in convoy with some other intrepid souls from camp lest either one of us develop automotive trouble en route. The weather was pleasant - the sky was full of dark rain clouds and even occasional warm sprinkles over Camp Lemonnier, but as we drove west the skies lightened and cleared eventually. The temperature was very pleasant - warm, but warm like a tropical island not like a blast furnace. Life in shorts, a tee shirt and sandals is actually quite comfortable. And the constant breeze is startlingly close to refreshing sometimes!

Anyway the trip out was uneventful. The diving proved to be quite as rewarding as hoped, despite a bit of surge on the bay side of the breakwater. Sightings included copious corals, anemones, clown fishes, sea turtles and three enormous red lionfish, lurking ominously in a rock and coral crevice - along with countless wrasse, parrotfish and other reef dwellers. The water was a perfect temperature - one could bob for hours without getting hot or cold, and we passed a very pleasant time indeed.

We had to speed back, in order to make a 6 pm appointment with our friends from the German medical detachment. They had switched teams again (they switch out every 8 weeks or so), and the newest group was coming by for a visit. The newest physician, Achim, and the EMT, Nicole, proved to be delightful. Friendly, funny and eager to continue to foster warm relations between the various medical detachments here in Djibouti. They stayed for dinner, and then joined us at "The Old Cantina" - the quieter of the camp's two watering holes - for a beer before heading out.

On Wednesday back to Peltier to try to help an unfortunate Somali refugee boy. This kid is an adorable 3 year old, who somehow contrived to aspirate a screw - sucking it deep into his right lung. The x-ray is astonishing as the vividly visible flat head screw appears to take up most of the main air passage on that side. Anyway, as there is no pediatric surgeon, ENT or Thoracic surgeon in the country, not mention no pediatric equipment we had to improvise a plan to try to extract the screw. I won't bore you with the details, but suffice to say that with the challenges imposed by having to get some form of 'scope, and a some grasping instrument down the same slender passage that the kid must breath through defeated even our most original and creative efforts - both on Wednesday and Saturday. We're still scratching our heads over what to do - referral options are essentially non-existent for Somali refugees. There is some possibility of bringing in some skilled help, but we're continuing to explore options. The child continues to do well, and to be as cute a bug's ear. Although he's not too thrilled with the sight of us at the moment...

Mid week we were presented with the case of a SeaBee who had been holding a couple of boards while a colleague nail-gunned them together. He missed, and the lumber nail shot straight through his coworker's hand from thumb side to pinky side. She was lucky enough to miss nerves, tendons, joints and bones, but we reckoned a trip to the Orthopedic surgeon at CHA Bouffard was in order. We got her to the OR there where Franck, their orthopedist removed the nail (she has it as souvenir), and an hour later the wound was washed out, drains placed and a splint applied. While she recovered from the anesthesia, we went for lunch with Franck. En route we stopped to admire the new CT scanner, now functional in the parking lot of Bouffard, which will be an incalculable aid to diagnosis here in the 'Bouti. Franck then dropped this bombshell: the Chinese have built an MRI, open to anyone who can pay the very modest fees, for a quantum leap in diagnostic capability. I swear, with all this and the lovely weather, I may have to reconsider buying a time share here!

Anyway, all this led to an invitation to our French colleagues to visit us at Camp Lemonnier - and this past Sunday, along they came - six doctors and nurses - to politely tour the the EMF with every appearance of interest. They showed considerably more enthusiasm when visiting the Bob Hope Galley (we can't match French food, of course, but the ice cream bar is the great equalizer), and the little Navy Exchange. I can't be sure of course, but it think it was a banner day for Franco-American relations.

That Sunday evening, clad in my whites, I joined Bill and, for a visit to the French base. We had been invited for a reception in honor of the feast of St. Luke, attended by all the officers, spouses and dignitaries of the local French military medical establishment. It was quite an event! The festtivities were held at the French naval base on Islet de Heron - the very tip of the peninsula on which the city of Djibouti sits. We were ushered into an open pavilion, overlooking the bay, across which the lights of city reflected on the water. It was a lovely setting, and with the breeze from offshore, even the polyester white uniform wasn't uncomfortable. So we listened to a speech by one of the French medical generals, and then mingled with the crowd, savoring cocktails and hors d'oeuvres. The French officers were tres charming, and their spouses tres chic, and we passed a delightful evening mutually assuring each other of our good will and amity. Probably the last time I'll get to wear the whites this tour - which can only mean it's time to at least start thinking about boxing things up and sending them home!

I think I'll end there - as I'm almost at the end of the next week, which has been full of international meetings, Chinese intrigue and dog surgery...until next time then.

Pictures are of our dive site.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Mara part III

Greetings All,

Sigh, well I think I've put off writing this third and final post on my safari trip because it seems as if to so will mean that the event itself is completely over. You know how, after you get back from a particularly good holiday, you get the added bonus of those first few days home when you still glow from the joy of the time you had - a few days of extended holiday inside your "I just got back from..." bubble? It slips away soon enough, and normal life takes back over of course. I've just been trying to draw the process out as long as I could - wrapping the time spent at Serian and on the Mara around me like a protective garment against the "Groundhog Day" routine of life here on Camp, the cloth becoming a bit more threadbare every day.

Or I could just be a lazy sod.

Anyway, before I launch into another post, I'd like to send out a Djohn's Djibouti Djournal thank you to...a rock and roll band! The group The Scarlet Ending came by Camp Lemmonier this past weekend to play a couple of shows. We got to meet them as they toured the EMF on what they later referred to as "bring a rock band to work day" - the day between concerts when they toured the base. They were nice, funny, and genuinely impressed with the things that the folks over here do and deal with every day. All of which was nice and all, but they were also really good - an eclectic mix of music that reminded some folks of slightly harder edged Indigo Girls, some folks of Tori Amos, some of the Cranberries or Dave Matthews, and one friend of mine of The Squirrel Nut Zippers (go figure). Anyway, despite truly awful acoustics in the metal barn of 11 Degrees North (our all hands club), they put on two great shows, and hung around afterwards to chat with the folks interested. It was so nice to hear live music - Djibouti is a ways off the beaten track for USO tours and the like - and such a pleasure that it was so well done. They're a band on the rise, from Syracuse, NY. Check 'em out on iTunes or at "". My current favorite song is Before I Fell off their last album. Whew! There it is. My first official endorsement!

Anyway, back to time on the Mara.

Well, although I think I could still give an accurate day by day account, I'm not sure it would make for good reading. Instead I thought I'd tell you about some of the really amazing moments we had a chance to share.

On the first full day of safari (a Kiswahili word from the Arabic safara - to travel), we were in the Land Cruiser rumbling along a dirt road on a short-grass plain, punctuated with low shrubs, termite mounds and occasional bunches of taller grasses. As far as could be seen - to the horizon in every direction - were wildebeest, gazelles and antelope in small watchful groups. If they were on the road they would scramble out of the way as we approached, but mostly we were ignored - although the herds always seemed a bit more on edge when vehicles got within 20 feet or less. Jonathon, from the driver's seat (on the right in Kenya) exclaimed "Look!" and pointed out to his right as he coasted us to a halt.

There on the grass, maybe 20 feet away, was a female Thompson's gazelle in the process of giving birth. We watched in rapt amazement as new life, in the form of a tiny, perfect gazelle made its miraculous appearance beneath the rapidly climbing mid-morning sun. The mother was nuzzling and licking the little Tommy, encouraging it to stand when there was a commotion behind us. We heard, from out of one of the other safari vehicles that had pulled up alongside us the word "Cheetahs!". We whirled about, now looking out the left side and there, slinking through some taller grass were 4 cheetahs - a mother and her 3 adolescent cubs. You can't imagine the mix of admiration and anxiety we felt. The cheetahs were so obviously lovely - casual power wrapped in sinuous grace -and so patently lethal. We knew that the angelic little gazelle just meters away to our right was doomed to a tragically short stay on the grasslands once the cheetahs saw him, to say nothing of his exhausted mother. "This will be quite sad" said Jonathan. We held our breath...and then it happened.

The mother cheetah, who had been strolling slowly in our general direction was, in the space of three strides, running faster then any other animal on earth, a lightning blur of cruel poetry in absolutely liquid motion. She veered to her right, and a small group of Tommys exploded out of the brush, bounding and scattering in every direction. In less than a second, she had locked on to a slower moving juvenile and, pivoting with an ease that should be impossible for a cat running so fast, she reached out a paw to sweep the desperate prey's hind legs out from under it. In an instant the chase, which had been all linear speed and the arcuate path of the springing gazelle, exploded into a rolling, struggling ball. A matter of seconds after that, the cheetah (Shakira, as it turns out is her name - you can check her out on Big Cat Diaries) came trotting back with the catch in her jaws. I'm sure I hadn't exhaled during the whole sequence. Anyway, she dropped the gazelle in front of her three cubs and it was then we saw that the little creature, while wounded, was still quite alive. "She teaches her children to hunt" whispered Jonathan. And sure enough, like kittens chasing a mouse, the adolescents with various degrees of skill or clumsiness pursued the doomed gazelle for a minute or two until finally one of them obtained a neck hold and made the kill. It was an amazing, riveting, horrifying and beautiful thing to witness.

Behind us, the newborn had struggled to his feet, and as we looked back he trotted off with his mother to join the herds that blanketed the plain. We would come back by that way some hours later, to find the site of the cheetah kill now occupied by Maribou storks and white-backed vultures. It sounds so dopey now to say that we had seen the whole of the circle of life, but at that time, in that place it felt true and profound.

Later that day, after baboons, crocodiles, hippo and hyena aplenty we were on our way back toward the camp - heading roughly east I think - when we saw another solitary cheetah. He was seated atop a termite mound, gazing serenely across the Mara as clouds and dusk gathered in the eastern sky. He let us drive up quite close, and again Jonathan killed the engine, letting the utter stillness of the African plain wash over us. We spent what must have been 10 minutes just studying him - this gorgeous, lithe cat atop his hill like a statue on a pedestal. He gave no indication that he noticed us, appearing to look right through us when his head swung in our direction. After a time, he stepped delicately down, and strode away from us to the west carrying himself with a dancer's grace into the darkening evening. It was like seeing a Greek statue, suddenly fluid and agile, stride out of the museum. Amazing.

Another day we headed to the Trans-Mara reserve, a bumpy ride through the back country to the other side of the river in pursuit of a black rhino. Our ride was interrupted as a family of elephants descended from the hills above us as we negotiated the high country of the Ooloolo escarpment north of the river. They crossed the road behind us - adult females and some babies - and disappeared into the trees on the the slope below us, their presence revealed now only by the shuddering of the trees as the adults shouldered them aside. As always, they walked with an unhurried gravity that seems all the more real when they are free and wild and out and about on elephant business.

Don't ask me how Samuel and Jonathan did it. Dropping down out of the highlands, we navigated through marshy roads along the river marge, along paths choked by reeds and thick grasses. We seemed to be headed nowhere in particular until Samuel sat up (he usually spent his time seated behind high atop the canvas cover of the cargo compartment, his legs dangling down behind our seat) and pointed. "There he is!" he exclaimed.

Now, odds are you've seen black rhinos at the zoo, and they are remarkable creatures in any setting. Here though, as the solitary creature made his way through the grasses and marshland, he was a breathtaking figure of power and odd grace. The zebra and antelope moved warily out of his way, for he has a deserved reputation for a bad temper. The tall grass opening before him and closing behind reminded me of the way that warships look as they cut their way through the water - an uneasy mix of gracefulness and lethality. His gray flanks recalled to me the USS Missouri (BB 63) - the most curvedly beautiful, and unabashedly lethal ship I ever had the pleasure to see underway. Like the sea foaming off her ample beam, and the brutal 16 inch batteries on her fore decks, this creature shed the brush and greenery, his massive head and wicked horn sweeping this way and that - in search of food, danger, or anything foolish enough to challenge him. He was at once ominous and tragic - there are said to be only 5 black rhino remaining on the Maasai Mara.

Later that day, we patrolled the bank of the Mara river, hoping to catch a "crossing". Somewhat differently than I would have thought, there is no single crossing of the river by the herds of wildebeest and zebra. Instead, having arrived in the Masai Mara after migrating from the grazing lands away south, the herds cross back and forth across the river - seeking the best grass, or the most congenial setting, or whatever motivates wildebeest. Jonathan and Samuel had no particular explanation for the hazardous traversals of the crocodile infested stream except to attribute it to the essential fickleness of the wildebeest heart. With this in mind then, small armies of safari vehicles - vans, buses, Land Rovers and others patrol the banks of the Mara, watching for the telltale gathering of large groups (and they really are endless) of wildebeest at the river's edge. It is an odd truth that perhaps the most reliable sign of a crossing is the cloud of dust kicked up by the swarm of pursuit vehicles. Spotting such a cloud, earlier that day, Jonathan had had us hurtling along the dusty road toward the river - it felt like we were trying to win the Paris to Dakar rally. As always though, his driving was impeccable and we arrived just at the end of a major crossing from our side to the other.

Just as we rolled up, a young wildebeest was clambering out of the current to the far shore when the the muddy water roiled and and enormous crocodile snatched the creature, vanishing into the river so quickly as to make one doubt that a 250 animal had been there just seconds before. At that though the crossing ceased. The day stretched on, and although we saw a few zebra cross at another place upriver a little later - crocs made a a couple of half hearted attempts, but zebras are sturdy little fellows, and shook off the hungry reptiles with ease - there was no other significant activity. We had pretty much decided to to head back to the camp - it had been an amazing day in any event - when 200 yards from where we sat the wildebeest on the opposite bank began to surge toward the water. It was on. We were in prime location to see hundreds and hundreds of wildebeest splashing across a shallow part of the river . A major crossing! You can see the beginning of it on the video clip attached to last week's post.

Now, your average wildebeest isn't a prepossessing beast at all, looking for all the world as if it had been assembled from spare parts left over at some "hoof 'n horn" assembly plant, and it seemed as if the odds were stacked against them. At the first step into the watercourse, the crocs arrowed to the site of the crossing - large, sinister, and dangerous looking. The wildebeests appeared doomed as they and the waiting crocodiles converged , and then...they all made it. Every blessed one of the horde! As it turns out wildebeest have this sort of sideways rear legged kick and bounce move that wrested every one of the crocs' intended meals out of their snapping jaws. In part the reptiles seemed confused by the sheer multitude of the herd, but most of the individual credit for their escape must go to the surprisingly agile wildebeest. At the end, we all breathed a sigh of relief - for as happy as I am to grant the ancient race of crocodilians their right to a meal - I must admit to a certain sympathy with my fellow mammals.

The sigh turned out to be premature however, as hard on the heels of the big and agile wildebeest came a small herd of Tommys, who apparently reckoned that the wildebeest must know something to go to all that trouble. Now the Thompson's gazelles are graceful athletic creatures in their own right, but in the chest high water of the river Mara, their best strategy is to, well, bounce. And bounce they did, reaching incredible heights out of the surging waters. Alas, it availed them only a little. The crocs were revved up and waiting. After the hoof slashing, horn tossing confusion of the wildebeest crossing, the Tommys were like popcorn to the crocs. The great tails would thrash, the water boil and "snap!" - a Tommy would vanish. In unbelievably rapid succession five of the gazelles were gone. But at last they were across - maybe 15 of the little chaps. And then, incredibly, they couldn't find the route up from the river bank to the pasture above...and they headed back across the river. Two more fell to the crocs, who by now were growing sated, and then they were back on the other side. Everyone in the caravan of safari vehicles (another 10 or so had rolled up) cheered the stunned survivors as they scrambled up the bank to safety. The evanescence of life in the natural world, and nature's profligacy with her gifts could not have been writ more plainly before our disbelieving eyes.

Ah friends, I could go on. There were more such days ahead: hikes along the Mara bank with a Maasai warrior guard and an elephant encounter, a pride of lions hunting in the rain and lightning laced darkness of the Mara at night, an incomparably beautiful leopard lounging on a tree branch - inert until those huge yellow eyes opened and gazed speculatively in our direction, skidding to a halt on a rain slicked dirt track when a petite mother crowned plover stood fearlessly in our way, wings raised over her head to prevent us from hitting the handful of downy chicks that scurried away on her left ( the sheer self abnegating courage of it still catches my breath). And the birds...hawks, eagles, vultures, cranes, storks, shrikes, rollers, bulbuls, fly-catchers, hammerkops, bee-eaters, gorgeous starlings, guinea fowl, bustards, mousebirds and my favorite, the go-away bird (really!). It was every day a pageant, and every night a feast. It was among the best vacations I can imagine - made almost perfect by virtue of my congenial travel companions, and only almost perfect because I couldn't share it with my wife and son.

But I'll be back .

Anyway, gonna end here and move on in my next.

Besides the animal pix (the Cape Buffalo sat under that same tree every day as we passed them), there is a picture of our little safari crew - Johanna, Adrian, Samuel (next to me on the right) and Jonathan (between Jo and Ade), and me. There is also a picture of the EMF crew (the one in uniform) with The Scarlet Ending.

You could do worse today than to buy an album, and book your stay at Serian.


Thursday, October 1, 2009

Mara part II

Hello again! I've decided to try adding a very brief movie bit to the blog (sophisticated, I know). I hope it comes out well. I reckon it might add a bit to the time it takes the page to pop up, but trust you'll forgive the inconvenience.

Well, when last we left our heros, they were rumbling off across the Maasai Mara, their 4X4 bouncing over the rocky, rutted roads, as Jonathan and Samuel, their Maasai guides ushered them into this living Eden. As it turned out, we had arrived at about 1500 - too early for dinner, but with plenty of light left in the sky for sight seeing. With that in mind, when our guides saw a herd of elephant proceeding with stately miens across the plain, we swerved from the road onto to barely visible path and rumbled down to have a closer look. Within a minute we were a mere 10 meters from the herd, and Jonathan cut the engine. The first impression was of the utter stillness of the place - the wind tugged and skirled around us as it streamed down from the Oloololo escarpment, but save for its soughing there was near silence - not an engine, a car, a plane, a radio...nothing. The peace of Eden at the end of the sixth day.

The second impression is that we are now surrounded by a herd of wild African elephants - matriarchs, babies and a few young males - who have parted to walk around the truck...and it is still almost completely silent. If we had closed our eyes, we would have had no idea that on either side of us 10,000 pound mothers and their 3000 pound children walked methodically by - so silent are their footfalls. The herd disappeared off into the approaching evening, and we all exhaled...."Wow"! It was to be the first of many such magical moments - it will stay with me forever, I think.

And so we made our roundabout way to the camp. Within an hour of landing we had seen elephant, giraffe, gazelles and antelope in a bewildering variety and birds of myriad form and song. Eventually we came to a spot where the primitive road became little more than a rocky path, sloping steeply down to the river bank. We were so fascinated, with Cape buffalo on one side, Dik-dik and Topi on the other that it wasn't until we stopped, practically, that we saw we were there. Two more Maasai gentlemen ushered us out of our truck, and welcomed us to Serian - one of the really special places it's been my privilege to visit. (You can check it out at if you're at all inclined.)

Gosh, it all seems so dream-like, sitting here in an air-conditioned CONEX box with Oingo Boingo blasting on the speakers...there, I changed it to "Africa" by Toto. Anyway, the camp sits on the bluffs on the southern side of the Mara river, and looks out across the river valley to the Oloolo escarpment. In the river below us hippos rested in "rafts" of 2 to 20 individuals, and our nights were punctuated by the snorts and guttural exclamations of these gigantic river horses. In the middle distance, on the plain at the highland's feet, giraffes, zebra and all manner of hoofed creatures wandered from copses of acacia to the glades and meadows that dappled the gently rising ground. The tents were luxurious affairs - for tents. Mine had two wrought iron 4 poster beds with white sheer curtains, and a sisal carpet. On the veranda, under the tent fly, were two chairs with a low table between them. This proved a perfect place to sit with binoculars, a cool drink and a field guide to the birds of East Africa, and watch the wonders of the Mara roll by. I brought books to read, but in the hours I spent sitting, dreamily gazing at Africa, it never occurred to me to open one.

At night, staff from the camp picked their way down the trails that led to the tents scattered along the riverside with kerosene lamps that were placed at the edges of the tent platform, and on the way to my private bathroom. I haven't mentioned this, but it was one of my favorite things about the place. It sat a few steps lower than the tent - closed to the whole camp behind, but open on its north wall, with that same mesmerizing view across the vale of the Mara. It was literally possible to sit in the stone bathtub, sip a cool glass of white wine, and watch the hippos bob in the stream, while Egyptian geese and egrets picked their delicate ways along the bank. It seems now that this has always been my mental image of bliss, but memory is a tricky thing and I can't promise that this is not a recent addition. In any ain't bad.

We dined either outdoors beneath a huge tree (it had silver bark and deep green leaves, and its limbs wound gracefully into the sky, providing pools of cool shade, but I never did learn its name ) or in the evenings in a central room with a grass roof, canvas sides that rolled up to let the evening breezes waft through, a fireplace at one end that gave off a delicious warmth as the night temperatures dropped into the 50's, and a dining table that sat at least twelve off to one side. Separating the two spaces was a carven chest whose ample top was covered with either tea and cakes or ice cubes and liquors - depending on the time of day one wandered through. On a typical evening we'd wander up about 6:30 p.m. , freshly showered after a long day on safari, sit round the fire with folks from the camp, and visitors like us and talk about the day's happenings, and who had spotted what where. Around 8:00 we'd move to the dining table where, night after night, dishes of such superb flavor and freshness were served that the trip would almost have been worth it just for the food. Californians are used to fresh fruits and vegetables of course, but I must say that I never tasted fruits and vegetables to equal the ones we were served. Kenya too is a fertile source of produce for which I now have whole new appreciation. Living was easy...

Most days had the following pattern: at 6:00 am, as the sun was rising, one of the staff of the camp would call from outside your tent, and pushing back the bed curtains, one would walk to the tent door , unzip the mesh door flap, and step out to find a carafe of hot Kenyan coffee awaiting. Suitably fortified, one accomplished one's morning ablutions - accompanied by bird song and hippo chorus - and walked up to the area where the Land Cruisers sat waiting. After being greeted by Jonathan and Samuel, we'd reconfirm the plans made the evening before - say at trip to the Trans-Mara reserve to look for black rhino or a major river crossing by the wildebeest. Then we'd clamber into our seats, bundled in fleece jackets against the morning chill, and away we'd go. The advantage of our own vehicle, driver and spotter was that, as the circumstances of weather, animal movements or whims of the passengers changed, we could change our plans accordingly, and we were thus always actively pursuing (or more often awaiting) something our guides thought both worthwhile and likely, or something we all particularly wished for. At about 930ish, we'd find a convenient spot (with no worrisome brush nearby that could harbor any hungry lions) and the guides would set up a breakfast - bread, jam, sausage, bacon and the freshest tropical fruits - while we stalked about the plain, stretching legs and basking in the quiet of morning on the Mara.

After breakfast, we'd re-embark, and head off in search of our next adventure - stalking lions or cheetah, or sitting in hushed expectation as they stalked the numberless herds of gazelle or wildebeest (we rapidly exhausted our stock of "gnus" puns). About 1:30 or 2:00 we'd find a shaded spot for lunch - often near the banks of the river. Again the table and folding chairs would be brought out, and the board set. Lunches were lovely - light, delicately spiced and delicious. I would usually wash it down with a cold (well, cool) Tusker. One of Kenya's superb local lagers, Tusker is a bit sweeter than its European style competitors due to the addition of cornstarch and sugar to the usual malt, hops and water. At the end of lunch, we'd head out again. By this time on most days, the heat of the day had peaked (maybe the low 90's), and clouds would be forming. The overcast would rapidly cool the air, and around 5:00 as we headed back, cumulonimbus clouds would have formed. Most evenings featured a brief tropical shower, and on a couple of occasions there were spectacular displays of lighting and thunder, including an impressive hail storm on our last night. In general these would soon pass away into the darkening night, and the cool evenings were ideal for bundling by the fire, quaffing any of the various beverages on offer, and then slipping exhausted into one's comfy four poster bed - lit by lanterns, covers already turned down by the ever attentive camp staff. The nights were restful, if you could ignore the nocturnal chorus of crickets, frogs, hippo and the occasional other large animal noises. I slept like a rock.

Next post - what we did and saw. Not trying to be coy, but I don't want the posts to get too lengthy.

Until then!

PS: I've been fortunate enough to get several very thoughtful gifts in the last few weeks, and wanted to acknowledge them here, as I don't have e-mail addresses handy for most of the folks kind enough to send them

I'd like to thank Kevin for the book on treadmill training for runners - lots of great ideas for those of us who get the majority of our mile on a rotary belt. Great book! Thanks a million!

Thanks to sister Moira for sending along a double album of The Tragically Hip's bigger hits - wonderful stuff that I can't believe I've missed until now. It's been at the top of my queue the past week.

Thanks to friends Justin, Tara, and Ramona for care packages. It is such a pleasure to open a box of treats, magazines and other goodies. It seems silly, almost, that it should delight me so - but every package from home makes me feel like a kid on Christmas morning - delighted, and most importantly thought of with affection. Thanks all - you make this sojourn as easy as it can be.