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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
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.
It’s not everyday you get invited to a pygmy pool party. In fact, best as I can remember this is the only day in my life I’ve been privileged to attend such a special event. I was in the Central African Republic in the Congo Basin to film forest elephants and western lowland gorillas. On my first morning in the jungle on the way to look for the elephants, we passed a river where a group of Ba’ Aka or pygmy women were bathing and doing laundry. I stopped to take a couple of quick pictures. They immediately lined up and started slapping the water in a way that made it sound as if they were playing drums.
They were laughing and yelling and clearly having a grand time. Next they gathered in a very shallow area of the river and ran towards a partially submerged log, using the log like a diving platform to launch themselves into a series of jumps, and dives, and half flips. The ladies were almost done when I arrived and I also had to hurry on to look for the elephants so I asked if I could come back in a couple of days to take more pictures and that’s when I was invited to the pool party. The real fun began on this second visit as the Ba’ Aka ladies began to show off their fanciest aerial maneuvers, all to the sound of much cheering and commentary from the group.
I also shot some video at the swimming hole which I will will edit into a short piece and post later so you can enjoy the sounds as well as the sights of the Pygmy Pool Party. If you ever get invited to one, don’t miss it.
Have you ever driven in a rural area where farmers have set up roadside stands to sell some of their produce directly to the consumers? It seems that whenever you purchase fruits or vegetables from one of these places it always tastes better and fresher. You also assume that it’s also cheaper at the source than at the store where the middleman has added his profit to the price. That was the theory my driver in the Central African Republic was operating on when he stopped to buy this monkey hanging on a post by the highway. I knew bush meat was very popular with many people in Africa, even those now living in big cities, like my driver, I just didn’t realize he was going to buy this monkey until it was hanging on the side mirror of our vehicle. I thought he was only stopping so I could get a picture.
We were only an hour into our 11 hour drive back to Bangui when the monkey was added to our traveling party, which also included 40 lbs. of avacados, 10 lbs. of mangos, and a strange woman who needed a lift to get to the funeral of her mother who had just died. Services for the monkey would apparently be limited to saying “grace” before the evening meal. It was a warm humid day, so to my relief the monkey began the ride hanging outside our vehicle. However a heavy rain started to fall and the driver not wanting his monkey to get soaked put him inside the Landcruiser with the rest of us for the next couple of hours.
Before you start telling me about the horrors of the bush meat trade and how I should have not allowed the driver to buy the monkey, let me say I know the issues and about declining monkey populations in some areas, but I also understand that centuries of cultural traditions can’t be reversed by me screaming and yelling at my driver, especially since he speaks no English and I don’t speak French. So Jocko, yes the driver gave the monkey a name, joined our strange cast of characters making our way through the jungle.
The next morning, through an interpreter I asked the driver how Jocko was. He gave a one word answer, “Delicious”. I replied, “So was my mango.”
I went to the Mall last week, no not that mall, the National Mall and Memorial Parks in Washington D.C, You may not know it but the National Mall is our most visited national park with some twenty-five million visitors a year. My walk took me about five hours and two hundred thirty-five years. The years part was my refresher course in American history. I started at the memorial honoring the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.
My walk took me close enough to the Capitol to almost hear the partisan insults echoing off the walls inside Congress. I walked past all the memorials to various wars in our history. And I walked past the momunents to some of our greatest presidents including two who led the nation in time of war, Lincoln and Roosevelt. Of course Washington was elected president after leading the country in battle before we were even a country. But equally important as his leadership in the Revolutionary War, was his contribution to the establishment of democracy when he voluntarily handed over the reigns of power after two terms as president.
The Jefferson Memorial is beautiful with its neo-classic design, but the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial I think may be my favorite design. It looks the most like America, with wide open spaces, big granite blocks, and large waterfalls. It almost has a feel of a WPA project, appropriately for a president who led the nation through a great depression. But the surprise of my tour was the Lincoln Memorial where for the past ninty years Mother Nature has been adding her own decorating touches to the marble structure. Underneath the memorial is a cavernous space with concrete walls and dirt floors. Tourists haven’t been allowed in here since 9-11, but I got a special tour from park officials and saw hanging from the ceiling or the floor beneath Lincoln hundreds of stalactites. The long thin white geometric formations were created by water dripping through the memorial for almost a century. They make the place look like a starter cave.
Also on some of the support columns are cartoons drawn by the workmen who built the Lincoln Memorial. Of course above this seldom seen part of the monument to out 16th president are his own words from the Gettysburgh address chiseled into the stone work for all to see and remember.
My column for the July-August edition of National Geographic Traveler Magazine will have the full story of my trip to the Mall. And on my radio show, “National Geographic Weekend” on May 14-15 I will be talking about the mall and interviewing Susan Spain, the project executive for the National Mall Plan. She will explain why the park that is the face of America needs a face lift. But equally important is the story that the National Mall is a national park, one that tells the world who we are as a country and how we got here, as well as honoring those who served, fought, and died to protect our liberty. Next time you are in D.C. take a little time to visit the Mall.
Mr. and Ms. Easter Bunny were busy little rabbits today putting out baskets of treats for the kids and hiding eggs. Well scratch the eggs. The kids now over twenty-one are no longer interested in coloring eggs and they’re even less interested in searching the yard to find hidden candy treasures and colored hard boiled eggs. So this year Mr. and Ms. Bunny tried a new approach to spark Easter excitement.
We hid a case of beer in the yard, twenty-four bottles placed in bushes, behind rocks, in trees, next to lawn ornaments. Erica is in NYC so Taylor was left to find the bottles on his own. He proved up to the task and gone was his recent reluctance to participate in our Easter festivites.
Ms. Easter Bunny was thrilled to have the family eagerly participating in the holiday fun once again. She understands it’s all about knowing your audience. Find out what they like, what motivates them and then deliver the goods.
HOPE YOU ALSO HAD A FUN EASTER CELEBRATION!
Had lunch with the ducks today. Ms. Mallard and her ten babies have appropriated the National Geographic courtyard as their personal villa. According to some, the mom gave birth to the babies a week ago in a nest across the street. Then, at least one report claims, the family used the crosswalk to march over to the National Geographic headquarters here at 16th and M st. in downtown Washington, D.C. She and the kids are indeed lucky ducks to land at Geographic. Who better to appreciate wildlife, than National Geographic.
We’ve built a ramp to help the youngsters walk down into the pool and back out. We’ve posted signs asking people to give the ducks plenty of room so the mom doesn’t take off and leave the kids. But mainly people just come down and ooh and aah and take pictures and engage in silly baby talk, saying things like, “Oh you little guys are just sooo cute.” It’s almost embarrassing to see the adults who specialize in going to remote parts of the planet to bring back films of exotic creatures rushing out of the building at every opportunity to catch a glimpse of the ducks. This weekend on my radio show, National Geographic Weekend, I even spend some time discussing the ducks, or as we like to think of them, the newest members of the National Geographic Society.
Five to seven thousand humpback whales migrate to the Silver Bank off the Dominican Republic every year between January and April. Taylor and I joined them on their Caribbean get away last week. The baby whales, if you can call a 20 foot creature a baby, are still learning to control their bouyancy and breathing. They have to surface every 4 to 5 minutes to breathe. Their mother will surface every 15 to 20 minutes.
This is one of the few places in the world where people can get in the water with humpbacks and swim with them. Swimming with them is a bit of an overstatement, since it’s impossible for humans to swim fast enough to keep pace with a whale. With just the slightest movement of their tail a humpback will suddenly be a body length away, which is lot since an adult can be 45 feet long. And with a second second push they’re out of sight. So what we really do is get in the water and snorkel above the resting whales and wait for them to surface for a closeup view. And as you can see in this photo of Taylor taking a picture of a calf, it’s really close.
It was a great week with lots of encounters. One mom and calf let us hang around in the water with them for about 3 and 1/2 hours. The only negative was the water was a bit murky for great pictures but with the whales being so big and so close we had no trouble seeing them.
Taylor and I are in Puerto Plata, Domenican Republic trying to acclimatize to the ocean. We’ve started slowly just watching it from the beach bar at our hotel. Tomorrow we begin the real emersion when we head out to the Silver Banks to spend a week following and hopefully swimming with humpback whales. I was here about 15 years ago with a National Geographic crew but we had a couple problems I would prefer to avoid this time around. First the underwater housing on our expensive Betacam leaked and flooded the camera. We had to borrow a home video outfit from a tourist to finish the shoot. The video was less than stellar. The second problem occurred when a 40 ton male humpback whale rolled over and approached me in the mating position. I thought an all black wetsuit was supposed to make you look slimmer.