The dust of Amboseli

I’d read that Amboseli was dusty. In anticipation I was carrying a breathing mask with a filter in my pockets and had left my camera in my backpack. The Family was prepared to breathe through a dupatta, that all-purpose face mask and head cover that she always has handy, either worn or in a bag. The Mother of Niece Tatu was similarly equipped, and FONT didn’t seem to have any dust allergies. Even with all this preparation, the last few kilometers of the road was something that was astounding. The road was a river of deep dust, blown by winds. As we passed over it, we found ourselves in the middle of our private dust cloud. Part of it entered the car, even with all windows and doors shut.

I took the featured photo with my phone, and The Family got a matching photo (above) on the other side of the car. The environment of this park has been studied very intensively. It is fed by melt-water from Mount Kilimanjaro, and its climate history over the last few thousand years is now known. Although the weather has cycled over wet and dry periods, it has been drying over the last 500 years or so. I found a study conducted over the 25 years ending in 2001 which recorded a huge increase in temperature (almost 7 degrees Celcius over this period, ten times that due to global warming) and an increasing variability in rainfall.

Amboseli is considered one of the jewels of wildlife conservation efforts in Kenya. But even here one finds man-animal conflict as the Masai turn from a nomadic to a settled lifestyle. The growth of land ownership means that animals are excluded from certain patches of land. Combined with the long term local climate trends, this has resulted in a decrease of wildlife numbers (counted over something like half a century) and some local extinctions. We were outside the park when we took these photos, and it is clear that it is not the most hospitable of places. The park was dry, but not as dry as this. I could understand how man-animal conflict could rise, and how, unless the Masai see profit from tourism, the conservation effort may fail in the very long run.

After all this flying through dust when we reached the lodge it turned out that we had time for a shower and a nice lunch before leaving on our first safari. The prologue sounds scary, but our experience in Amboseli was wonderful, as you will see from my photos in the coming days.

A placid volcano

Our tour of south-west Cappadocia stopped at a bowl inside a mountainous terrain filled with water. It was called Nar Lake. Nar is the word for pomegranate in Turkish, and the name comes from the peaks which rim the crater. I found later that this crater was formed in an explosive volcanic event maybe 12-40 thousand years ago. Standing there, I saw a placid crater lake, perhaps less than a kilometer across, empty roads surrounding it, and sparse signs of human habitation.

No part of the world is really undiscovered or unexplored any longer; we’d arrived here on a guided day tour in any case. Although there was no other car or van nearby, any illusion that there are few tourists was dispelled by three children holding a lamb and a donkey, demanding that we pay to photograph them. Still, there is an air of desolation and silence about the area. The rubble at the edge of the crater looked like burnt cinders. Was this the remnant of the building of the road, or part of the original volcanic geology?

I had been hearing bells ringing ever since I got off the bus, and now, looking down, I saw that they came from sheep which were grazing at the bottom of the crater around the lake. I walked a little along the rock cinders and saw that the rocks continue all the way down. Probably not junk from the road then, I thought. The lake has been studied in detail, and sediments in the lake bed have been analyzed to infer climate changes over the last 14000 years. Special conditions at this lake gives a fine grained picture of a succession of wet and dry climates over the millennia, as well as unusually dry centuries.

I found the place beautiful in its desolation. There was abundant grass in the crater, and some reeds grew in a border around the lake. Pollen deposited in the bottom of the lake throws interesting light on the history of this region. Apparently the land was settled by wheat and fruit farmers in the early Byzantine era, abandoned for several hundred years (7th to 10th century CE) during Arab invasions, as a result of which forests re-established themselves. The land was resettled for the farming of cereals in the Byzantine Golden Age, and has been continuously farmed since then. My unaided eyes saw only the surface of this deep history. Nor did I see the microscopic diatoms, Clipeoparvus anatolicus which have been found only in this lake.

Do you find Dalmatian Pelicans in Dalmatia?

I understand that the pelicans named after the Dalmatian coast of Croatia have not been seen there since the 1950s, and may be considered to be locally extinct. I was not aware of its immense population crash in the previous century when I admired this lone Dalmatian Pelican (Pelecanus crispus). When The Family called out to me, I came running with my camera ready, but I caught the featured photo seconds after a fish had disappeared into its gullet. There is really no understanding of why there was a major drop in the population of one of the largest freshwater birds in the world, but it now has only two breeding populations: a very small one in Mongolia and another larger one somewhat further west in Russia. The ones I saw in Bharatpur’s Keoladeo National Park were winter migrants.

I read the usual stories of hunting (mainly in Mongolia), habitat destruction by draining of swamps (mainly in Russia), and widespread disturbance of nests due to human activity having pushed it into the near-threatened category of the IUCN red list. But interestingly, there have been many investigations in their mysterious decline. It seems that intense parasite infestation is one reason. This was found in other pelican species too. Current thinking rates this as a more significant factor than chemical pollution. This kicked off studies of parasite epidemics and climate change, since the realization that the immune systems of host birds may be stressed in warmer climates.

If you thought that the end result is the disappearance of this species, you could be wrong. It seems that 6000 to 8000 years ago, when the temperatures were about 2 degrees Celsius warmer than today (a time called the Holocene temperature maximum), these pelicans could be found as far north as Denmark. This could happen again, as animals move to parts of the globe more suited to their lifestyles. As the earth warms, egrets have begun nesting and breeding in England in this decade. Strange to think that the tropical birders’ paradise we watched could be in northern Europe in a century.

A Desolation of Salt

We sped into a desolation on the back of an open jeep. Behind us a lurid sunrise, in front a perfectly flat desert with the wind whipping up a cloud of salt. I settled a surgical mask over my face to filter out the salt. It wasn’t good enough. You need a better filter in this part of the Rann of Kutch.

Salt is part of everyday life in this desert. As we pulled off the highway we passed the production area of a government-owned company called Hindustan Salts Limited. From a distance it looked like a typical chemical industry, fenced off for your own good, different production areas connected by conveyor belts.

What you see from the road is incongruous. Immense pyramids of impure salt, with earth-movers trundling along between them, cutting the heaps into smaller piles. Other machinery moves these piles into sheds and from there into purification plants. This is machinery you normally associate with quarrying. I wondered why the impure salt is first piled up into mountains which require excavation.

But incongruities begin to pile up as you move far into the desert. This was the last day of our time in the Rann of Kutch, and this area was much more inhospitable than anything I’d seen till now. But there were more people living here. The Swedish countryside is dotted with farmholds, each well-separated from the next by fields. The landscape here was a desolate version of that: make-shift houses, well-separated from each other. Around every house were shallow ponds separated by low berms. Each rectangular pond held briny water, to be evaporated by the sun for a harvest of salt.

Everything was make-shift. Each family start work here late in the year, and try to harvest the salt before the beginning of the monsoon. The monsoon floods the area, so that you have no choice but to move out. My two-week long troubled breathing after half a day here cannot be singular. People who spend half a year here must be paying a price in poor health. It is not a life that one would choose freely. I keep returning to a wonderful movie which introduced me to the story of the people here.

Further on I saw a smaller establishment. Perhaps the family is more poorly off, but they had a couple of thorn bushes near their house. A considerable walk away they had set up an array of solar cells. This was common. There is a lot of pumping of water as part of their normal work. The old oil-fired motors have been phased out for solar power. A small luxury comes with it. In the other household I noticed that the makeshift toilet, walled off in green and white plastic, had a makeshift overhead tank of water.

Geologically, the Rann of Kutch is a rift basin, originally formed during the break-up of Gondwanaland, about 180 million years ago, but active today since it forms part of the continental boundary region of the Indian plate. It was inundated during the geologically recent Pliocene epoch, about 3 million years ago, and periodically later, as the sea level rose and fell during the Quaternary glaciation events during which humans crossed the globe and settled across the world. I suppose most of the salt here are evaporation residues from these events. Non-renewable removal of these salts should be the least of our concerns, given that another rise in sea levels is anticipated.

Old myths and histories are full of stories of armies destroying enemy nations by sowing salt into the soil. That is the normal landscape here. I suppose that the process of extraction of salt is not totally efficient. As a result a surface layer of free salt always remains, making this region even more inhospitable by blowing in the wind.

Roopmati’s pavilion

When we first visited Mandu almost a decade ago, The Family and I had just read a book where the sultan Baz Bahadur of Mandu and his queen Roopmati make a fleeting appearance. Enchanted by the fable of a singer-shepherdess marrying a musician-prince, we decided to start our trip from the very end of the citadel, where a former guard post had been converted to the private quarters of the queen. Baz Bahadur was the last independent ruler of Mandu, and ruled in the middle of the 16th century CE.

Walking up to the pavilion, it was not hard to believe that this could have once held a garrison of soldiers. Looking out at the view, it was not hard to switch frames of mind and believe that it could have been a queen’s palace. Perhaps the most definitive evidence that a singer queen could have lived here are the two domed structures, one of which you see in the featured photo. I am no singer, but acoustics under this dome could almost make me sound like one.

Little seems to be known about the queen beyond the obviously embroidered love story. Comparing versions of her story from the early 20th and 21st centuries shows how the legend of Padmini has now been mixed up with the story of Roopmati. Even a cursory reading of a paper on her shows the degree of confusion amongst professional historians. Her story seems to have been first written down more than thirty years after her time, and copied from one manuscript to another until the middle of the 18th century CE. The painting of the couple which you can see in Delhi’s national museum was executed a century or so after their death. Some songs are ascribed to the queen, but they were first collected decades after her death, and may have been added to in the later manuscript which comes down to us.

We looked out on the enchanting green landscape, a photo of which you see above. The green land around the citadel is watered by low hanging monsoon clouds. It struck me that the weather in the time of Roopmati was very different. The monsoon was well below today’s levels in the 14th and 15th centuries, leading to widespread droughts. Even as late as the 16th century, monsoon rains continued to fail in central India. Roopmati, if indeed she stood in these pavilions, would have looked out on an arid land, with the glint of a distant stream providing the only water in view.

The concern with water management and harvesting is very clear in Mandu. The multiple tanks and step wells are just one sign of this concern. We descended to the basement of Roopmati’s pavilion to look at water cistern there. My personal trawl through those photos threw up forgotten images of The Family and me walking through the wonderful chiaroscuro of the basement. The photo which you see above is the only one which does not contain us.

The cistern is a terrific water harvesting system. Rain falling on the pavilion and around it drips into the cistern, presumably to be used by the garrison or the household of the queen. A paper on the water systems of Mandu says that the water was filtered through coal and sand; that’s the same principle as the charcoal and zeolite filter which gurgles away in a corner of our kitchen, five centuries on! In the brief two centuries since the little ice age the improved monsoon and irrigation systems have led to an amnesia about water harvesting. That period of plenty could come to an end soon, and the now-obscure methods could have a resurgence.

The making of the Thar desert

As we drove through the Thar desert, I wondered about the mysterious landscape around me. India receives so much rainfall from the monsoon that it is hard to believe that it contains a desert. The popular belief that the monsoon winds are “depleted” of moisture by the time they reach the desert is false. The distance to the sea is rather small, and the air is generally moist. In just three winter months, when the rest of India is dry, the amount of water deposited by dew in the desert is between 30% and 40% of the total rainfall. Something prevents the western branch of the monsoon from penetrating into Gujarat and Rajasthan.

It is believed that this is the immense high-pressure anti-cyclone that exists over the Sahara and West-Asian desert. In fact, the claim is that the monsoon winds prevent the spread of this pattern to the rest of India. Evidence for competition between the two systems is what happens when a third factor occasionally intrudes. In the infrequent episodes when a Western disturbance hits India during the monsoon, causing immediate heavy rainfall and flooding over a wide area of the desert. This means that the monsoon winds are not depleted of moisture in this region, but are obstructed from flowing by the anti-cyclone. If this conjecture is true, then a weakening of the monsoon due to climate change could allow the anti-cyclone to extend across India, making it an arid habitat.

Our jeep had long wandered off the road. The flat landscape that I’d grown used to gradually gave way to undulations. There was still a strong wind blowing dust and sand into my face, so I had my mask on. But when I looked around, the ground had changed. Until a minute ago we were driving through hard packed sand (see the featured photo). Now, all around us I could see something different poking through the sand. The photo above shows the surface. The broken flat stones are made of a material called calcrete. This is formed by the action of water and atmospheric carbon dioxide on wet dust and sand (the word calcrete seems to be a portmanteau of calcium and concrete). The presence of calcrete means that wet lands turned to desert at some time in the past. Dating of calcrete in the Thar desert shows repeated cycles of wetness and desert starting from 1.5 million (15 lakh) years ago to 250,000 years ago.

I walked across this landscape in search of a wheatear, but my attention was on the landscape. A short walk through sand brought me to something that looked like a dry riverbed into which sand had trickled: calcrete was overlain with sand, as you can see in the photo above. Aerial and satellite photography shows evidence for a well-organized drainage system of interlinked rivers in the far past, disrupted by climate change. Successive surveys and dating showed brief re-emergence of local drainage systems over a period of a million years, which were disrupted within a few tens of thousands of years.

The wheatear perched briefly on a bush and I managed to take a photo. After it had flown off, I looked at the land behind the bush (photo above) and it became obvious that it had been shaped by flowing water. The surface was covered in calcrete, which it why it had not been reshaped by the wind. Studies of pollen around Didwana lake in the eastern part of the desert have established that about 6500 years ago the area was wet enough to support a large variety of grasses and flowering herbs and shrubs, of the kind which are usually pollinated by butterflies. This dried up around 4000 years ago. When these studies were first published, there was speculation in the press about the connection with the mythical river called Saraswati. More studies revealed a fluctuating boundary of the desert over human history and pre-history. Palaeolithic tools and sites have been found buried intact in the sand, showing that the desert shifts fairly abruptly. The gradual abandonment of Harappan cities could also have been partly due to such climate fluctuations.

The bird gone, I climbed a little bluff to join The Family, and saw immediately clear evidence that I had walked across the bottom of an ancient river. The photo above makes it very clear. How old was this? I’m sure it has been mapped out. The geological and climatic history of the Thar desert has been examined in great detail in the last 60 years by a large number of scientists working in India. There is a group in IIT Mumbai who examined the age of sand dunes, and found some as old as 160,000 years, and others as young as 11,000 years. In several of the photos above, you can see distant dunes. It gives me shivers to realize that they were being laid down at the same time as glaciers advanced across the north of Europe, Asia and the Americas. As water got locked up in ice, this part of the world turned dry.

Geology and climate sculpt the land over periods longer than our lives, even longer than our civilizations. As a result, it has been hard to see the forces which shape our societies. Walking across that river bed I thought that I had a tiny view of these forces. In the past our actions have been too weak to shape the planet. No longer. We need to understand the Thar desert to plan a way ahead as the climate changes.