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New Mexico this June is hot, dry, and on fire. We’re visiting friends in Santa Fe and for the three days we’ve been here we’ve watched the smoke from a fire in the mountains to the East and slightly North. It is off in the distance and the wind is taking the flames away from Santa Fe, and away from the forefront of our consciousness.
Then today a fire to the West of us broke out. The last report I saw put the size of the Las Conchas fire at 3,500 acres and zero per cent contained. It is 12 miles Southwest of Los Alamos, the city where many of the country’s nuclear weapons are designed, including our first two atomic bombs, Fatman and Little Boy. I spent the afternoon and evening watching the giant plume of smoke from the fire move across the sky causing the sun to pay peek a boo with the people in Santa Fe.
Residents in many small communities and at Bandelier National Monument are being evacuated. Authorities have asked resident in Los Alamos to consider a voluntary evacuation. Now that the sun has gone down, the winds are dying down which will hopefully slow the spread of the fire.
To paraphrase an old saying, “You can’t see the elephants for the trees.” That’s the problem for researchers trying to study forest elephants. Despite being the size of an elephant, these pachyderms can be only a few yards away, and yet disappear completely in the forest. One of the best places to observe their behavior on a regular basis is the Dzanga Sangha Bai in the Central African Republic. A Bai is a clearing in the forest and this particular clearing is a large one, perhaps the size of ten football fields. The Wildlife Conservation Society has been doing research on the elephants here for more than twenty years.
I recently spent some time at the research station taking pictures of the forest elephants. I don’t think we ever had fewer than forty elephants at a time in the Bai and there were occasions when we had as many as a hundred. They don’t come here just to be seen, like celebrities showing up at a night club because they know the paparazzi is waiting out front. These guys show up despite the cameras. They want the minerals in the soil, it’s almost like an addiction. They eat dirt for hours and come back day after day. One theory is there’s something in the dirt that helps with the elephant’s digestion.
When that many elephants gather in the same place, especially a lot of young males, it’s like putting a group of teenagers together in a high school, social dynamics will be tested every way possible. The big guys of course mark off their territory and let anyone who comes by know who’s in charge and who gets prime access to the best dirt and water. And of course eventually there will be some sparing over which guy gets the best women. While I was there several young males engaged in several pushing and shoving contests or play fighting in advance of the day when it will turn serious.
Andrea Turkalo has been coming to this bai leading the WCS research for 20 plus years and knows most of the elephants who show up here, kids and parents. I shared the viewing platform with her for two days and interviewed her about her work and its importance. You can check out the interview at ngweekend.com
I’m going to visit some friends this weekend that I haven’t seen since we were all together in Utah almost two years ago. Hopefully I won’t have a near death experience this weekend like I did during that trip to Utah. Back then we met up just outside Zion National Park for three days of canyoneering. For those who don’t know, canyoneering is a sport where you navigate your way through a series of canyons in a wilderness area by any means possible, climbing, boulder scrambling, rappeling, swimming, and hiking.
The backcountry around Utah is the perfect place to participate in this activity, with all its dramatic sandstone formations. I’ve done this before so I wasn’t expecting any problems, but on one rappel for some reason that I still don’t understand, I lost control on the rope and was dropping way too fast. Trying to do the impossible, that is trying to grip the rope tight enought to stop my fall, I succeeded only in burning the skin off my fingers. I was headed for a premature rendezvous with the ground and a multitude of broken bones when someone realized I wasn’t just showing off and grabbed the end of the rope, pulled hard and stopped my descent.
I taped my hands to cover the missing skin and continued on for another day and a half finishing up in an especially beautiful spot called, “The Subway.” Since I lived to tell the tale, I can now say the experience and scenery were worth the price of a little missing skin. I’m just hoping this weekend I can have some fun and keep all my skin
I think this is a first, Andrae Crouch playing the blues. Recently when Andrae and the original Disciples got together for an informal reunion, I was there with cameras to capture this reuniting of one of the most influential groups in contemporary gosel music. Two of the band members from the heyday of the disciples were also there, Bill Maxwell on drums and Hadley Hockensmith on guitar. I first heard Bill & Hadley when we were all still teenagers. I was in college in Oklahoma City, and considered going to hear the guys in “The Third Avenue Blues Band,” an essential component of my course work.
As a favor to me, they agreed to do a couple of impromptu blues numbers after we finished recording the Disciples songs. Great bass player and friend Abraham Laboriel was there to add his magic to the mix. Bili Thetford did the singing and Andrae, as best as we can remember, played keyboards on a blues jam for the first time ever. Without a rehearsal here are the guys doing their version of, “Going to Chicago”
If you get a chance to go to a pygmy pool party don’t miss it. The Ba’Aka or pygmies as they are commonly called can put on quite the show. In a kind of water fight slash dance party atmosphere the ladies play the river like a conga drum, or maybe I should say Congo drum since we are in the Congo Basin in the Central African Republic. Then comes what I call the “Unofficial Pygmy Olympic Diving Championship.” I recently put up a few photos of one of these impromptu shows that I was lucky enough to witness on my trip to the CAR, but now comes the video from that day. Clearly everyone is having a great time. It’s a day I will never forget.
These pygmy ladies took me on a “double date” Ba aka’ style in the Central African Republic recently. You might call it a dinner date since we were going into the forest near their village to hunt for dinner. They were hoping to catch a duiker, a small antelope, by trapping it in the nets they are holding in this picture. The nets are about 25 yards long and three feet high. The pygmies will string three or four of these nets together in almost a complete circle and then start beating the bushes and yelling hoping to scare a duiker into running into one of the nets.
The nets are all hand made in a very labor intensive process. Small branches are cut from trees and then split into then strips and dried in the sun. The Ba aka’ then roll the dried strips against their thighs like a kid might roll out a piece of clay until it a long round string. These strings are then tied together to make the net.
On this day the nets would remain empty. We didn’t catch any antelope or even see any signs of one. I did find a shotgun shell, evidence of others who have been in the forest mostly likely illegally hunting the duiker. Poaching has greatly reduced antelope numbers in recent years in this section of the forest.
This weekend on my radio show National Geographic weekend I’ll be talking about the pygmies and their lifestyle with Louis Sarno an American who has been living with the Ba aka’ for more than 20 years.
One of my favorite countries to visit is Peru. It has the obvious appeal of spectacular landscapes set in the Andes, and the rich cultural heritage of the Inca empire, but what really makes the place special is its people. You can get a sense of their spirit in this short documentary featuring a group of Peruvians who take a bus trip to Peru, Nebraska. It’s an entertaining cultural exchange program.