Dispatch from the Razor's Edge, the Blog of Michael Stephen Fuchs
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Snows on Kilimanjaro
"Far away, in a place where the heavens descended gently on earthly fields, there was love in this world. All would end happily there. A perfect peace . . . Just wait peacefully and you will receive it. Just go on resting and all will be given you. Everything is waiting. All things are possible. The magic is on its way."
        - Amos Oz

     So I actually spent a lot of time worrying about, and trying to figure out how to avoid, dying in that Land Cruiser we took to Serengeti. As a general matter, I've almost gotten to the point where I won't ride in cars with people. While this strikes most as extreme, the fact is – as I've documented elsewhere – aside from eating crappily and not exercising, riding in motor vehicles is far and away the most dangerous thing you do in your life. And in addition to the numbers on the above-linked page, I've got a new datum: it turns out the average American has a lifetime chance of dying in a motor vehicle collision of about: one percent. (We've killed about two million people with cars to date.) How do you like them odds? That's 1 in 100 says you're one day going to meet your end in a wrenching and bloody crunch of steel and glass, on the road. To put that horrifying statistic in equally morbid personal terms: I've got a 1 in 25 chance of losing a sister to a motor vehicle accident at some point. And people wonder why I go on and on about this stuff. I'm scared stiff!

At any rate, to return to Africa: our driver and guide Ismail drove like . . . well, like a guy in a truck in the third world with other things on his mind than traffic safety. And my entire existence – my whole carefully tended little mind and body, each of my presumably glorious future joys and accomplishments – not to mention those of my life-long friend Mark, and my new (basically honorary little sister) Laura – were right there in that truck with Ismail. What was I doing there? I mean, granted, the odds of us crashing and being hurt were probably pretty low. But the stakes were through the roof! That changes the game. Anyway, my first reaction (other than white knuckles) was to figure that there's just no good way to stay out of dangerous situations (like riding with slightly oblivious drivers) every minute of your life. I mean: I wanted to go to Serengeti, I had to take the ride. My next thought was: Where are your priorities? If I really thought my life was in non-trivial danger on this drive, what did it mean for me to risk trading every minute of my next 60 years on this planet – never mind the full use of my body, without which I would find life on Earth depressing, to say the least – for a couple of nights in a game park? What the hell is that?

But I didn't get out of the truck. I did muster myself to speak to Ismail in private before our drive back to Arusha – the last stretch of driving, when I was beginning to feel like we were so close to making it out alive – and gingerly alert him that I was a very nervous passenger, and that we were in no hurry whatsoever to get back, and that it would be greatly appreciated if his driving could reflect those two facts. In some measure, I'm happy to report, it did. Moreover, praise Allah, we all finished the trip unhurt.

* * *

     But enough about danger and death! On to Snake Park! That was, believe it or not, the name of the camp site we'd checked into outside of Arusha (and where Paul and Dudu had languished for three days while we game drove). Whence the name, whence the name? Well, it might have come from the sprawling and well-appointed zoo for snakes, crocs, turtles, birds, and other very cool non-human types that was attached to the camp. Much like the Natural History Museum in Zanzibar, this seemed uncannily tailor-made for Mark. (In fact, I wouldn't have put it past Paul to have steered us there for that reason . . .)

When Mark took me on a guided tour of the facility (his second of probably four visits), he lit up as he animatedly explained to me the habits, colorings – and venom ideosyncracies – of the residents: the superlatively deadly black mamba (also fastest snake in the world, clocking in at 20kph!); the slightly less deadly green mamba; the man-gulping African python; the Egyptian cobra; the Gaboon viper, with it's recessed two-inch fangs; the irridescent blue and green boomslang! which is both mean and exceedingly venomous, but almost surreally graceful and pretty moving around in the trees; and the puff adder, which causes more serious bites than any other snake, mainly because it's too cool to hide – it just sits in the middle of trails and dares you to come get your ass injected with hemotoxin (which will take about a day to turn into sickness and bleeding from all orifices, and which necessitates a total blood transfusion to save your stupid ass, and which good luck getting one of those out in the middle of the jungle).

In addition to the snakes, there were fat and happy Nile crocs, full-grown Monitor Lizards (it pleased Mark to be able to underscore his earlier claims that the (foot-long) Monitors we saw in the wild were mere whelps), endangered birds of prey (which were too wounded to be released into the wild), and turtles. With apologies, I simply refused to take pictures in a zoo. However, it was impossible to resist when we unwittingly intruded on the amorous liaison of two large turtles. I also took a movie, which I'll spare you (and them); but I will note that the bloke involved made this really off-putting wheezing groan with each thrust. I wouldn't want those two as upstairs neighbors!

Speaking of loud neighbors, I have to tell the story of the Guinea Fowl Morning. Readers who know their ornithology will have recognized the "very pretty chicken-like thing" I photographed in Zambia as a guinea fowl. Well, one is cute, but fifty are a nightmare. That's about how many they have wandering around the grounds in a big, swirling poultry miasma, and it's that particular nightmare that intruded on our dreams the next morning. As usual, Mark (master tent spot picker!) had positioned us way out at the edge of things – in this case, in a corner, the junction of two fences. And the guinea fowl, stupid bastards that they are, had picked dawn to sort of get caught in this corner and not really be able to figure out how to leave. Did I somehow fail to mention the hellish noise? The sort of clucking cum bleeeting that the members of the flock seem to each be trying to outdo all the others in belting out? Right. Well, that's what surrounded our tent. At dawn.

I lay there unsleeping, laughing silently and shaking my head. Mark rolled over a couple of times. Then a couple of times more. And then he began to rise out of his sleeping bag, in an ominous crouch. As he pulled at the tent flap zipper with palsied fingers, I saw the flash of a blade in his hand. And out he went. And then there was a great, deep-throated bellowing! And, with it, a wild crescendo of the guinea fowl screeching! It rose up, and circled the tent in a great wave! As did the bellowing, following it in a whirlpool of rage. Three times it circled me, lying as I was in the dark center of gravity that was the inside of our tent. On the third revolution, wild vocalizations of predator and prey chasing each other, the noise of the birds rose a last time and then fell away – fading into the distance of the far side of the camp site. Mark re-entered, still crouching, looking grimly satisfied. By way of explanation, he offered only this: "They're not so far from the tree that they don't know to fly off when an enraged monkey is coming at them with a tool." He put his knife away, and went back to bed. (*)

* * *

     On the drive out of Arusha, heading toward Kenya – which  was  pretty – I believe we must have passed a sign for "Elizabeth's Crab Shack" or some such. Something must have prompted a discussion of the fact that Elizabeth, which is one of the loveliest feminine names, is also certainly the one with the most diminuative forms:

Me: Elizabeth, Liz, Beth . . .
Mark: Betty, Lilly, Bette (as in Midler). . .
Me: Eliza, Liza, Lizzie . . .
Mark: Lisbeth, Lisbet . . .
Me: Jesus, that's eleven.
Perhaps lamentably, this led to a discussion of which variants we had each ever dated:

Mark: I guess I've been with an (un-diminuated) Elizabeth . . . a Lilly . . . a Betty . . . and a Betty Jo.
Me: Hmm. I only score a Liz, and an (also un-diminuated) Elizabeth. <thoughtful pause> I did sleep with a Beth once!
This led, almost certainly also lamentably, into a discussion of great female names – a fascination with which we seem to share – and, ahem, which ones we've ever dated:

Mark: I dated a Marjorie once.
Me: That's pretty good.
Mark: I had a shot at a Cassandra – although she went by Casey.
Me: Pity.
Mark: Yeah.
Me: I finally dated a Kate a couple of years ago! One from New Zealand. Boy, was that a big deal.
Mark: Indeed.
Me: Unfortunately, it was a total disaster. I mean, don't get me wrong, she was great: brilliant, accomplished, adventurous, and beautiful – five foot eleven and built, give or take, like a supermodel.
Mark: What was the problem?
Me: . . . She was mad. Completely insane. Just three sheets to the neurochemical winds.
Mark: What I've always really wanted was a Hannah. But I've never had a Hannah.
Me: Never hadda Hannah? You coulda, shoulda, woulda hadda Hannah?
Mark: That sounds palindromic. I had an Anna, but not a Hannah.
Me: That's pretty close.
Mark: It's those H's on either end that make all the difference.
Me: Good point.
Mark: The worst part is: if you put this on the site, Anna's almost certainly going to read it. And she'll know that the whole time I hadda Anna, really I wanted a Hannah.
Me: Blimey.
Mark: And I'm still 0 for Emily.

     I'm not sure whether Laura caught any of this, sitting two seats up from us. But she did look really good with her old hair back, so I wanted to include a picture. (In part to atone for that "Raggedy Anne" shot I included before.)

* * *

     We crossed the border into Kenya uneventfully enough – but then had to negotiate some of the most horrific road of the trip. After being tossed like dwarves for a couple of hours, we rolled into Amboseli National Park – one of Kenya's main ones, our last one, and which sits (as we'd learn, when the sky cleared) in the shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

But first, on our way in, we actually raced a couple of ostriches, in the truck. Those buggers are fast! We then parked in an amazing stretch of middle of nowhere for lunch. For once not hungry, I clambered up onto the roof with camera in hand. While I was up there, without so much as a "by your leave," Mark pulled his usual maneuver of just taking off on foot. He was making for the closest sort of anything, which was a thin copse of trees that was at least a quarter mile distant. By the time he returned, I'd descended to Earth; and his walk looked so appealing, I decided to take it myself, passing him on his way back in. And it was very cool, especially the view back. The best thing about it was the perfect silence of the scene. It was too far for even hollering Australians to carry.

After some time of standing, and then sitting, in my copse, I walked back. They were winding down lunch. I suggested that Laura might want to walk out there herself. She asked what was there.

Mark: Nothing. There's nothing out there.
Me: Yeah, it's perfect. <sigh> In fact – I'm going again.
And I did. And then I went out one copse further – though, with some care, keeping an eye out for lions (this was, after all, the middle of a game preserve). And then I hopped one copse to the side. Then I sort of came back in on an angle. As I did, I saw Mark angling out on an intercept course. I figured we were going to do another of our deadpan, "Mornin', Sam" walkbys. But he stopped and made a suggestion: "Let's just keep walking." The road we were travelling (in the truck, into the park) was surrounded by great swaths of nothing; but it was the only road around, and it went in a pretty clear and straight direction. If we just took off down it, Mark surmised, the truck would have to pass us whenever they got going again. And, heck, Paul would probably even stop and pick us up. Probably.

And so we did (walk on down the road). And so Paul did (stop). Well, at any rate, he slowed down a good deal, and we leapt onboard.

* * *

     At 5894 meters (19,340 feet), Kilimanjaro is Africa's highest peak. But less commonly known is that it's also the world's tallest "single standing mountain" (which I presume to mean "tallest mountain without any friends in the neighborhood"). However, no mountain goes higher than the clouds. So Kilimanjaro remained hidden to us as we reached the camp site. In fact, I went to photograph Mark, for sentimental reasons, setting up our beloved tent for the last time. <sniff!> Little did I realize, until it came out in all its glory a little later, we were parked right in Kilimanjaro's shadow. And it really is a pretty amazing, stirring presence. I have to imagine what it must be like to climb it; but just being around this hulking, white-maned eminence grise was truly affecting.

And then, with all the dynamic cloud vapor, and the day's fading light, and the atmospheric magic, and whatnot . . . then came the Rainbow – squaring off against Kilimanjaro's white-dusted pate, arcing protectively over our truck and camp site like God's own ribbon of achievement. What could be more special and beautiful than that? I found out when I passed a couple of locals who told me there were a pair of elephants out at the edge of the site. I shagged it on over, reeling the FinePix out of my bag by its strap.

When I got there, the two Kings of the Land Mammals were presenting me with what was pretty much the visual image of a lifetime. I ran after them, getting tighter shots. As I did, a large white bird took up residence on the back of the lead elephant. I really couldn't believe I was seeing all this. But, in that moment, it was just me and the elephants and the bird and the rainbow and African landscape to bear witness, just the six of us, as far as the eye could see. So I kept sighing and shooting and running along the fence with them. Finally, about 100 yards and 40 frames further on, they got fed up with me shadowing them, and took their leave. Evidently coming on for the second shift, a triptych of zebra wandered into the frame. (*)

* * *

     Dawn, and we broke down our tents for – sniff! – the last time ever, had breakfast in our traditional, hearty mode, and ran by a local hill which sits at the feet of Kilimanjaro, and which is called Observation Point. Leaving Paul, Dudu, and Sid below, we hiked to the top, and shot the mountain, and one another, and tried to stretch out this, what we knew to be our last spectacle in 45 days of heart- and head-reconfiguring spectacles. Then we filed back into Sid, and began our last drive – to Nairobi, and the end of the line.
Next: All Good Things . . .

  driving     women     mountains     africa     camping     danger     photography     pitely     wildlife  
close photo of Michael Stephen Fuchs

Fuchs is the author of the novels The Manuscript and Pandora's Sisters, both published worldwide by Macmillan in hardback, paperback and all e-book formats (and in translation); the D-Boys series of high-tech, high-concept, spec-ops military adventure novels – D-Boys, Counter-Assault, and Close Quarters Battle (coming in 2016); and is co-author, with Glynn James, of the bestselling Arisen series of special-operations military ZA novels. The second nicest thing anyone has ever said about his work was: "Fuchs seems to operate on the narrative principle of 'when in doubt put in a firefight'." (Kirkus Reviews, more here.)

Fuchs was born in New York; schooled in Virginia (UVa); and later emigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he lived through the dot-com boom. Subsequently he decamped for an extended period of tramping before finally rocking up in London, where he now makes his home. He does a lot of travel blogging, most recently of some very  long  walks around the British Isles. He's been writing and developing for the web since 1994 and shows no particularly hopeful signs of stopping.

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ARISEN : Operators, Volume I - The Fall of the Third Temple by Michael Stephen Fuchs
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