The Tree Where Man Was Born

The Tree Where Man Was Born

Matthiessen, Peter

1972

Reviews

'Wanderings and musings of the Zen-thinking polymath in Kenya Kenya and northern Tanzania. Enthralling for its detail on nature, society, culture and prehistory, and beautifully written, this is a gentle, appetizing introduction to the land and its people.'

Roughguides Internet Bookreview 1996

Book ID 172

See also

Matthiessen, Peter The Tree Where Man Was Born, 1972
Extract Date: 1972

our complex camp

For this Safari we had settled on two low camp cots, without tent, and a few essentials such as rice and tea and rum, and whatever tinned goods might be rattling around in the rear of my old Land Rover. For the rest we would make do as we went along. Even so, our camp was infinitely more complex than the Hazda hearths, and soon seemed littered. Both of us have a passion for travelling light, deploring the ponderous caravanserai which Anglo-Saxons in particular tend to conceive of as safari's - the table, camp chairs, ice chests, private toilet tents, truckloads of provender and swarming staff that permit the colonial amenities of the Hotel Norfolk "into the blue". Like myself, Peter [Enderlein], has often been ashamed in front of Africans by the amount of equipment that his white friends required. Yet Africans admire wealth, and anyway, they do not make judgements in such matters, but accept a different culture as it is. The people at Gidabembe, who still trust, are neither subservient nor rude. Here was the gentleness, the loving attention to the moment, that is vanishing in East Africa, as it has vanished in the western world.

Extract ID: 3674

See also

Matthiessen, Peter The Tree Where Man Was Born, 1972
Extract Date: 1972

Crater Highlands

Crater Highlands ...the strangest and most beautiful of all the regions I have come across in Africa.

In every distance stand strange shrouded landscapes of the past and future. The present is wild blowing light, the sun, a bird, a baobab in heraldic isolation, like the tree where man was born.

Extract ID: 3670

See also

Matthiessen, Peter The Tree Where Man Was Born, 1972
Extract Date: 1972

Lake Manyara

Lake Manyara, like Lake Natron, is a soda lake or magadi that lies along the base of the Rift Escarpment. The east side of the lake lies in arid plain, but the west shore, where the streams emerge from the porous volcanic rock of the Crater Highlands, supports high, dark ground-water forest. The thick trees have the atmosphere of jungle, but there are no epiphytes or mosses, for the air is dry. On the road south into Lake Manyara Park, this forest gives way to an open wood of that airiest of all acacias, the umbrella thorn, and beyond the Ndala River is a region of dense thicket and wet savannah. The strip of trees between the lake and the escarpment is so narrow, and the pressure on elephants in surrounding farm country so great, that Manyara can claim [~1969] the greatest elephant concentration in East Africa, and estimated twelve to the square mile. For this reason - and also because the Manyara animals are used to vehicles, and with good manners can be approached closely - it is the best place to watch elephants in the world.

Extract ID: 3669

See also

Matthiessen, Peter The Tree Where Man Was Born, 1972
Extract Date: 1972

Mylesí Land Rover

Mylesí Land Rover was packed with gear of all descriptions and a truck carried tents for each of us and two tents for the staff, as well as stoves, stores and water. Like most British East Africans, Myles is extremely thorough in his safari preparations, and saw nothing strange at all at having seven pairs of hands to help him on a short trip of three days - what was strange to him was my discomfort. Not that I let it bother me for long. While the tents went up, I watched white clouds cross the black thunderhead behind Naisera lightening came, and a drum of rain on the hard ground across the valley. On the taut skin of Africa rain can be heard two miles away.

Extract ID: 3673

See also

Matthiessen, Peter The Tree Where Man Was Born, 1972
Extract Date: 1972

Salei Plain

Leaving camp [at Nasera, also spelt Naisera] and the truck behind, we went eastward down the valley, taking along a driver and two rangers. ... The valley was much rougher than expected, and two hard hours passed before we came to a rise that descended onto the Salei Plain. To the south, in a kingdom of black rains, the Crater Highlands mounted toward the rim of Ngorongoro, thirty miles away; away from the Ngorongoro road, the Crater Highlands, girt by dead volcanoes that rise ten thousand feet and more into their clouds, are little known. Northeast was the rim of the escarpment, and beyond it, and far below lay the great lonely Lake Natron, stretching away to the Kenya border. Straight ahead, lost in the clouds, Ol Doinyo Lengai rose nearly ten thousand feet from the Rift Valley floor.

The Salei Plain, which forms a broad step between the Gols and the brink of the escarpment, is a bitter place of tussock and coarse bush that rises from grey cindery ash of the volcanoes, and for a time it seemed that its creatures were all solitary - one hyena, one giraffe, a rhino - as if only here, in this land too poor to support predators, such outcast animals could survive. The big coarse grass, too high to walk through with impunity, hid stones that could gut a car, and progress, which had been slow all morning, became slower still. In eleven hours of lurching and jarring, with one half-hour stop, we were to travel less than eighty miles.

... The Land-Rover retreated westward, toward the east face of the Gols.

... Under the cliffs was a Somali track, headed south toward the mouth of the Ngata Kiti, where we climbed out of the Salei in late afternoon. Soon the air was cool, and we paused on the slope, gazing back toward Lengai, which had come up out of its clouds to watch us go. The Mountain of God is a magnificent pure cone, a true mythic volcano, shrouded in pale ash so fine that it mists into the canopies of clouds, making the whole mountain an illusion.

Now the sun appeared, and the air dried; the pale tones of Ngata Kiti came to life.

... Three miles from Nasera, we got down from the Land-Rover to walk home. Today we were beaten, but another day we would come back.

Extract ID: 3671

See also

Matthiessen, Peter The Tree Where Man Was Born, 1972
Extract Date: 1972

The giant fig

... At dawn we left the Gol behind, turning north toward Loliondo.

...The vehicle traversed the lonely rises, rolling a thin dust cloud toward the west. Myles wished to show me an enormous fig that stands by itself far off beyond Barafu Kopjes. These hard plains are bare and bony, with only a whisper of grass, yet the animals keep to the ridges, where the grass is shortest. In a tilted world, the wildebeest went streaming down the sky, black tail tassels hung on the wind behind, all but a solitary bull, thin ribbed and rag-tailed, old beard blowing. Perhaps he felt his own death upon him, for he paid no attention to our intrusion. Soon he had the whole sky to himself.

The giant fig, which looks like a small grove in the distance, is at least as old as manís recorded history on this plain. Its spread is not less than one hundred and fifty feet, the size of six ordinary figs, and it is a tree of life. Cape rooks, kestrels, owls, and the shy brown-chested cuckoo were in residence, and none would willingly leave the tree because there are no other trees for miles around. One owl that moved onto a nearby rock was punished by the kestrels; at each blow from above it shifted its feet and shuffled its loose feathers. The tree has a Maasai hearth built into its thick base, and a flat stone near at hand for sharpening spear blades. One day I would like to sit under this tree that has drawn so much fat wood and fleshy leaves out of near-desert, and stare for a week or more into the emptiness. One understands why these old figs take on a religious aura for the Africans; they are thought to symbolise the sacred mountains, and the old ways of close kinship with the earth and rain, Nature and God.

Extract ID: 3672

See also

Matthiessen, Peter The Tree Where Man Was Born, 1972
Page Number: 161
Extract Date: 1972

Cave paintings

In a similar cave [he is in the Gol Mountains] in the Moru Kopjes, shields, elephants and abstract lines are painted on the walls in the colours that are seen on Maasai shields; the white and yellow come from the clays, the black from ash of a wild caper, and the red ochre is clay mixed with juice from the wild nightshade. Presumably the artists were a band of young warriors, il-moran, who wander for several years as lovers, cattle thieves, and meat-eaters before settling down to a wife, responsibilities, and a diet based on milk and cattle blood. ...

Until 1959, when their herds were banished from the Serengeti, they [the Maasai] lived intermittently at Moru Kopjes and elsewhere in the park, and signs of their long stay include mints and peas that thrive in the wake of overgrazing by domestic herds.

Extract ID: 918

See also

Matthiessen, Peter The Tree Where Man Was Born, 1972
Page Number: 161
Extract Date: 1972

Flying with Douglas-Hamilton

I flew back to Tanzania with Douglas-Hamilton, who had brought his new plane to the elephant conference. Iain's plane is twenty years old, and looks it, but it 'came with all sorts of spare parts - ailerons and wings and things. I shan't be able to use them, I suppose, unless I crump it'. We took off from Voi at a very steep angle- a stalling angle, I was told later by Hugh Lamprey, a veteran flyer who once landed his plane on the stony saddle, fifteen thousand feet up, between the peaks of Kilimanjaro.

Extract ID: 199

See also

Matthiessen, Peter The Tree Where Man Was Born, 1972
Page Number: 161
Extract Date: 1972

Ngurdoto, like the famous Ngorongoro

Ngurdoto, like the famous Ngorongoro, is extinct, and both have the graduated bowl known as a caldera, which is formed when the molten core of a volcano subsides into the earth and the steep crater walls fall inward. Ngorongoro was unknown to the outside world until 1892, and not until early in this century did the white man find this smaller caldera to the east of Meru.

Extract ID: 77

See also

Matthiessen, Peter The Tree Where Man Was Born, 1972
Page Number: 164
Extract Date: 1972

Momella

On certain rare mornings at Momella, Mt. Kilimanjaro rises high and clear out of the clouds that dissolve around it. From the north, in Kenya, it looks celestial, benign; from Momella, it is dark and looming. ... at 19,340 feet, Kilimanjaro is the highest solitary mountain in the world.

... Kilima Njaro, the White Mountain, has ascended into the sky, a place of religious resonance for tribes all around its horizons.

The glaciers glisten. A distant snow peak scours the mind, but a snow peak in the tropics draws the heart to a fine shimmering painful point of joy.

Extract ID: 3666

See also

Matthiessen, Peter The Tree Where Man Was Born, 1972
Page Number: 182
Extract Date: 1972

Empakaai

... I camped on the rim of Embagai, in the hope of going down into its crater. The rim was an alpine meadow dense with flowers, like a circlet around the cloud in the volcano, and under the cloud a crater lake lay in deep forest. All day we waited for a clearing wind, to locate a way down the steep sides, but instead the cloud overflowed onto the meadow, smothering the senses. Uneasy, Martin said: "It is so quiet," and was startled by the volume of his gentle voice: we could hear a mole rat chewing at the grass roots and the tiny wing flutter of a cisticola across the mist. In a bed of lavenders and yellows, cloud curling past the white band of its ears, lay a big serval. The cat remained there a long moment, shifting its haunches, before sinking down into the flowers and away.

In the late afternoon, the meadows cleared. Not far off, a band of ravens connived on a dead Haegenia, the lone uncommon tree left at this altitude. Before the mists reclaimed it, I climbed the tree and with a panga chopped down dry limbs for a fire. Already, at twilight, it was very cold, but in this hour of changing weathers, odd solitary light shafts, fitful gusts, the mists were lifting, and treetops of the crater sides loomed through the cloud, then the crater floor, and finally the lake, two thousand feet below, where a herd of buffalo stood like dark outcrops on the shore. Out of the weathers fifteen miles away, the Mountain of God loomed once and withdrew... Then the mists closed, and, around the rim of Embagai the fire tones of aloes and red gladioli burned coldly in the cloud.

... By morning, clouds had settled heavily into the crater, making the descent impossible. We returned south fifty miles to Ngorongoro across a waste of coarse tussock, wind and bitter cinder where the swirls of ash, puffing through each crack, burned nose and throat. In summer the moors are parched despite dark stagnant clouds that shroud the circle of old volcanoes, ten thousand feet and more, that in many trips across the Crater Highlands, summer and winter, I had never seen. The three villages here are the highest in Maasai Land, and once the car was caught in a tide of milling cattle, a maelstrom of shrouding dust and rolling eyes and a doomed bawling, as if at last the earth had tipped on end. At one time there was forest here, and water was more plentiful, but the Maasai have cut and burned the trees to make more pasture, as they have done also on the west slopes of the Mau Range, and so far they have paid no heed at all to those who tell them they are ruining their country.

The three villages between the volcanoes have some seventy people each, and because the moors are treeless, the villages are fenced with long split timbers brought up from the ravines; the bony staves, bent black on the barren sky, give a bleak aspect to the human habitations.

Extract ID: 3667

See also

Matthiessen, Peter The Tree Where Man Was Born, 1972
Page Number: 191
Extract Date: 1972

Southern Cross and the Pleiades

From the Crater Highlands rose the Southern Cross; the Pleiades, which the Maasai associate with rains, had waned in early June. July is the time of wind and quarrels, and now, in August, the grass was dry and dead. In August, September and October, called the Months of Hunger, the people pin grass to their clothes in hope of rain, for grass is a sign of prosperity and peace, but not until the Pleiades returned, and the south-east monsoon, would the white clouds come that bring the precious water.

Extract ID: 3668
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