What’s so special about this forest?
24 November 2012, Ngel Nyaki Forest Reserve, Nigeria
Ngel Nyaki Forest Reserve is a hotspot. Not in the on fire type of way, at least not any more due to the control of burning on the periphery, but in biodiversity. It is one of the few montane (high) forests in West Africa and is home to many IUCN Red List species (a list of threatened species), from trees to frogs.
The Nigerian Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes ellioti), the most endangered of the four subspecies of chimpanzee is the highest profile species living in this forest. UC postgraduate research students Josie Beck and Paul Dutton have estimated the population size at around 15 individuals and Alex Knight is currently investigating the genetics of this population and whether there is any gene flow with other nearby populations. As the chimps are very shy, due to hunting threats, much of this work is carried out by collecting their poo, so is not a job for everyone.
I was lucky to get close to, and almost see, several of these rare chimpanzee in 2002 at Linde Fadale forest, not too far from here. Maybe this year I will get to photograph one. In the mean time I will have to make do with the more common putty nose monkey, which I spotted this afternoon while out photographing birds with Charles Nsor, who is currently completing a PhD on sunbird pollination.
Arrived on the plateau at lastFriday 23 November 2012, Ngel Nyaki Forest Reserve, Mambilla Plateau, Nigeria
It has taken a bit longer than expected (as things often do in Nigeria), but I have finally arrived at the field station on Mambilla Plateau. We arrived at Yelwa village to a gathering of familiar faces, field station manager Misa, and my old friend Sidu Esa were among them. Sidu was with us on our very first treks in the region 10 years ago, and now works for the project.
The roads from Abuja, the state capital, have on the whole not improved, and in places have deteriorated significantly. Gombe State University now provide transport for University of Caterbury visitors, which meant the 12 hour drive was done in the comfort of a new air-conditioned Toyota Hilux – a major upgrade from the previous transport.
The field station has also undergone major changes since my previous visit in 2006. There are new buildings for accommodation and laboratories, an upgraded kitchen and even an inside toilet. Satellite internet now enables contact with the outside world, another major advancement.
I am excited to be back here, it is such a great place to work. This year the rains have finished late, only 10 days ago, so there are many plants in flower and looking good. This will make for good photos. Also I have already spotted both red and blue dragonflies, which I hope to be able to collect samples of, but more on that later.
For now I am just glad not to have to travel anywhere for the next couple of weeks and tomorrow I will get started on some work (even if it is Saturday).
Going back in time, one church at a time16 November, Axum, Ethiopia
Touring north from Addis to Axum has taken us from the present day capital, with all of its bling in the form of cars and multi-story glass buildings, to a time when you demonstrated your wealth and power by erecting a 20-metre granite pillar, complete with expert carvings.
As we weaved our way into the past, we visited the former capitals of Gonder (1635-1855) and Lalibela (c.a.1150-1270), with their awesome stone architecture, before snaking our way through the Adwa Mountains to Axum (c.a. 1st-7th century AD).
Being a very religious country, much of Ethiopia’s history is tied up in churches, monasteries and religious artefacts. From Gonder’s giant ceremonial pool to Lalibela’s rock hewn churches, these are not your everyday artefacts. They required immense wealth, power and skill to construct, taking many years of sustained effort to achieve.
The most memorable one for was Abuna Yemata Guh, a church carved into a pillar of rock at the northern end of the Gheralta Mountains. It has extensive, well-preserved, 15th century paintings, but this is not what makes it memorable.
Carefully picking my way along a narrow rock ledge, 200 metres up the side of the rock pillar, is the bit I will never forget. This was after climbing up a 10-metre cliff with only a few indentations to grasp on to, followed by a shimmy across a narrow rock bridge to reach the pillar.
Once inside the round church it was very peaceful, with near silence, apart from my still racing heartbeat pounding in my chest. The effort to construct this church must have been huge, hours, days, months, if not years of chipping away at the rock to create the round chamber before the painters moved in.
The churches were constructed in such inaccessible places for several reasons; one is that they are closer to the heavens, for better communication with the gods. Another, possibly more important reason, is for defence. Churches housed many treasures, and were the seat of power, therefore a prime target for attack. Situating the churches on mountaintops and in cliff-sides they can be more easily defended when under attack until reinforcements arrive.
After listening to our guides’ explanation of the significant features and history, and taking a few photos, it was time to start thinking about the journey back down (or had the dread been lurking in my head the whole time). I usually find going up much easier than going down, so I was not looking forward to stepping back out on to the ledge, with its tiny handholds and uneven footing. But I could not stay up there forever.
The narrowest part of the ledge was nearest the church entrance, so things quickly got easier, and less precarious as we inched our way along. We were quickly back to, and across, the rock bridge, after which there was some solid ground to calm the nerves before tackling the final cliff.
This was not the biggest or most stunning church of the tour, but its spectacular location gave it an air or mystery and magic that set it apart from the rest. This adventure is not one I will forget.
The lure of the bright lights11 November 2012, Mekele, Ethiopia
Rural life in Ethiopia is very hard. Farming is at a subsistence level, with little left over to sell for luxury goods like pots, shoes and education. During our travels we have called in at several towns and villages to see how people really live, going outside of the tourist bubble that insulates most tourists from the real people of a country.
In Ambo Giorgis we visited a flour mill, a small dark room thick with flour dust, making it difficult to breathe. Inside, by the light of a single bulb, were around 20 people busily grinding wheat and weighing out the resulting flour. A difficult job that surely would give the workers lung problems in later life, but they have no choice. The people proudly showed off their equipment and asked to be photographed with it, photos that I will send back to them.
A few pots, some animal skins and hand-tools for farming were almost all the possession of the family we visited at Ambo Ger, a settlement of about a dozen buildings. They warmly greeted us into their dwelling, a circular hut made of sticks with a straw roof, reminiscent of something built by the three little pigs. Central to the house is the fireplace, with built-in adobe seating and shelving surrounding it. A platform separates the families sleeping area from the livestock quarters, a calf was sharing the main living area when we visited, only a metre from the cooking area.
With conditions like these it is easy to see how alluring the city lights are, for the hope of both an easier life, and access to education. But life in the towns and cities is not easy either.
Tourism brings with it much needed foreign money, but there are downsides, such as people resorting to begging from the rich foreigners. We have encountered many small children either selling trinkets or begging. Tourism can encourage this behaviour as it brings in money, but it takes the children out of school, resulting in them being locked-in to a life of poverty and begging.
It is not easy to resist a small cute kid asking for help, but giving in can do more harm than good.