Anthony brought our car to a halt. This was my favourite way to view Amboseli National Park: standing up in a parked car, with my head poking up out of the roof line, but still shaded by the raised canopy. On my left was a scene out of a thousand movies and TV shows. I’m often lazy about images. So the sight of a perfectly flat and dusty plain stretching to the horizon, a few zebras standing in the shade of an Acacia tree, brought out the competitive copy cat in me. “Quintessential Africa,” I thought. The Family looked totally bored, and started looking around.
On our right was jumbled bush. On top of it was a shrike. Anthony was pretty good at birds, but not accurate down to the species. He agreed with me and added “Butcher bird.” Many species of shrikes create a larder of insects they catch by impaling the carcass on thorns, so this phrase is sometimes used to denote all shrikes. Mother of Niece Tatu was a budding birder, so I thought it was nice that Anthony gave this explanation. Later, when I got a copy of the field guide to the birds of East Africa by Terry Stevenson and John Fanshawe, I found that the photo catches a lifer, the Lesser Grey Shrike (Lamius minor), in full breeding plumage. The field guide shows this as being spread across Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi. Strangely, the IUCN red list excludes this part of Africa from its recorded range. A cross check on the HBW site shows reports of sightings from across Europe, East Africa, and down to southern Africa. That makes me fairly confident about this identification.
I saw this stretch of sand and did a double take. The pattern of light on it made it look like the bottom of a shallow sea It was not hard to imagine that the light refracted through ripples in water could make the caustics and dark patches that I saw. But the patterns were static. Things had walked across the desert, and then the wind has worked over their tracks to make the gentle ripples in the sand that you see in the featured photo. I looked around to check whether I could recognize from a new spoor what had made these patterns. The obvious guess was right: they were the footprints of camels.
Looking up from the sand it was clear what attracted the camels here: the acacia trees which were all around me. The Acacia jacquemontii is a common second wave of growth over sandy areas which have been stabilized by plants such as the khimp and phog. While writing this now, I had a moment of doubt about the identification. Was it really the local babool tree, A. jacquemontii? The shape of the canopy looked like that of the babool. But still, could it be the imported Israeli babool, Acacia tortilis, which the state government is partial to, since it grows faster? I looked at a photo I had taken of the leaves, and found that it was indeed the native babool.
I’m a city person. I seldom see the horizon. What I probably share with you, whether you are a city person or not, is the habit of looking at tall things. Trees, poles for street lights, even buildings, set a scale for my judgment of distance. I found myself completely lost in the desert. In the flat landscape which extends all the way to the horizon, I could not gauge distances. I saw a man striding towards me, and took the featured photo. I thought it might take him a quarter of an hour to get near us. It was more like five minutes.
Later I saw this cow sitting in the distance, chewing its cud. Far far away, I thought. It got up, ambled past us and was lost in the distance; all in the space of ten minutes. My eyes could not adjust to this completely flat landscape. If there was a line of electricity pole marching from horizon to horizon, I might have been able to use that to estimate distances. But without any vertical cues, I completely failed.
A little walk later I saw this tree sandwiched between two hills. Later I looked at the photo and thought, “Just a minute. Hills?” No, in this desert there are no hills. The tree is the usual stunted acacia tree. It gives us a scale for how large things are. The bumps around the tree are just two heaps of sand, not very high. Looking again at it, I realized that the picture also has two electricity poles which are higher than the “hills”. The poles here are not very high, so that limits how high these piles of sand and dust are.
I didn’t stay in the desert long enough to get used to gauging distances. Wherever I looked I was deceived.