Travel

New video: Maasai shield project


Blood & Leather: Re-creating the Maasai war shield in 2012 from ConserVentures on Vimeo.


This video documents the first making of authentic Maasai war shields in 50 years (there is also a Maa language voiceover version here, vimeo.com/70596349). In October 2012 Jonathan and I volunteered as photographers and videographers, producing the video for the community; funding was provided by the generous donors of our charity, ConserVentures

The project sprang from within the Okiramatian community of southern Kenya, and is a global collaboration. The Maasai people of the region, through SORALO (South Rift Association of Land Owners), are building a natural and cultural heritage conservation program with funding and assistance from individuals, businesses, and non-governmental organizations in Kenya, North America, and Europe. The shield workshop featured in this video is one of several cultural preservation projects in this Maasai renaissance. By recording the knowledge of the elders, the goal is to inspire the next generations to retain and rekindle pride through cultural knowledge.
We are also producing a 115-page book and posters to return to the community for their November 2013 Maasai Cultural Heritage Festival. Just now finalizing the materials, after having to re-do the videos when we had trouble securing use rights for the original music we had wanted to use. But we love the new version—a big "thank you" goes out to Steve Amis and Marc Johnston, who donated the use of their gorgeous music from the documentary "Through Maasailand,"and to the Environmental Club and Maasai Music Project, of Cincinnati's Westlake Schools, a kid-to-kid collaboration featuring youth from the Olkiramatian community where the shield project took place.

Sierra Aconchi Expedition, Sonora, Mex., July 2013

Spent the last three days in Sonora, Mex., backcountry. Nine miles up 2500 feet--low and slow. Working on a biological survey with Sky Island Alliance.Our camp in a small meadow next to a sycamore-lines creek. #mexico #sonora #biodiversity #skyislandallianceMopar camp setup. John Palting's JK working hard. John is an entomologist and spends all night with lights collecting species-- a number of them new to science. #mexico #sonora #biodiversity #skyislandallianceMopar off-highway trailer.A few of the species collected on this trip. #mexico #sonora #biodiversity #skyislandalliancePhotographing a tiger rattlesnake. Beautiful.
Tiger rattlesnake discovered on the first evening next to our dining area. #mexico #sonora #biodiversity #skyislandallianceJonathan staking out a Sinaloan Wren nest to get some awesome video of nest construction and beautiful song. #mexico #sonora #biodiversity #skyislandallianceHow to put a lizard to sleep: tummy rubs. #mexico #sonora #biodiversity #skyislandallianceWe really like our new #Frontrunner aluminum and stainless table, which mounts under the overhang of the Four Wheel Camper. #mexico #sonora #biodiversity #skyislandallianceThe Frontrunner table slides mounted under the Four Wheel Camper overhang.Mud turtle. Could be undescribed subspecies. #mexico #sonora #biodiversity #skyislandalliance
Tiger beetle. #mexico #sonora #biodiversity #skyislandallianceOut of the backcountry, spending July 4 at La Posada del Rio in Banamichi before heading back tomorrow. Lovely restored colonial style hotel.Courtyard detail, Hotel Posada del Rio. #mexico #sonora #banamichiDoor detail at La Posada del Rio. #mexico #sonora #banamichiLooking at the Sierra Aconchi from Banamichi, Sonora, MexicoBanamichi, Sonora, Mexico.
Old door, Banamichi, Sonora, MexicoOld colonial hacienda "zaguan" entrance, Banamichi, Sonora, MexicoLa Posada del Rio courtyard at night.Truck art. Banamichi, Sonora, MexicoChuyita, the cook, gave us a lesson in making flan; open photos to read directions in the photo descriptions.Lesson in making flan
We spent four days in the Sonoran backcountry with Sky Island Alliance's MABA Expedition team (Madrean Archipelago Biodiversity Assessment) cataloguing insects, mammals, herpetofauna, birds, and plants. After four days in the field we headed to the colonial town of Banamichi along the Rio Sonora and stayed a night at La Posada del Rio, a restored hacienda along the plaza. It was a great combination of rugged backcountry exploration, camping, work, and then fantastic cultural experiences before heading home.

Easter 2013 exploration - Willow Springs Ranch, AZ

Sonoran Desert spring butterfly hilltoppingpoppiesDesert ChicoryWillow Springs Tortolita Mts campWillow Springs Ranch Catalina MtsSpring emerging tortoise
A group of friends gathered in the Sonoran Desert over Easter weekend 2013 to celebrate a 40th birthday. The company, food, and chocolate cake were outstanding. The weather was perfect, and to our delight we also were surrounded by beautiful desert wildflowers, found a desert tortoise just emerging from its burrow, and climbed a hill to find a furious flurry of hundreds of spring butterflies "hilltopping."

Hilltopping is mate-locating behavior. Males compete for the best location on the highest hills, patrolling furiously, trying to find the few females amidst a sea of males. Theory is that the "top" males that can ascend the hill and hold the best territory make the best mates.

We observed black swallowtails, desert orange-tips, Sara orange-tips, possible Texas crescents, and perhaps 4 other species.

The experience was pure magic—our blood pressure plummeted and we sat, entranced, surrounded by an aerial dance, exclaiming with delight like children at a circus.

Enjoy a short video here:



Sonoran Desert spring butterfly hilltopping from ConserVentures on Vimeo.

Blood & Leather Project completed

History records that rapacious, musket-armed Arab slave caravans of the 18th and 19th centuries avoided transiting what is now central and southern Kenya and northern Tanzania—it just wasn’t worth risking the wrath of the belligerent spear-wielding Maasai who dominated the region. Early European explorers as well dreaded the sight of a line of colorful leaf-shaped shields appearing on a hilltop, and took roundabout routes into the interior. Even the mighty British Empire never directly confronted the Maasai militarily, and relied instead on political sleight of hand to squeeze the tribe out of its best grazing lands once the area was deemed a protectorate.

While the Maasai no longer range and raid at will over the East African landscape, they have continued to fight to retain their identity as a tribe and culture, picking and choosing which bits of the modern world they wish to adapt. Thus a red-robed and sandaled herdsman leaning on a spear in the South Rift is quite likely to be chatting in Maa on a cell phone, and a smartly-dressed businessman in Nairobi might go home for the weekend to a hut surrounded by a thorn boma that keeps lions out of the livestock.

But one icon of Maasai history—those tall, intricately decorated rawhide shields, so universally recognizable that one features centrally on Kenya’s national flag—seemed lost forever, save as dusty relics in museums, rare and expensive objets d’art from exclusive curio dealers, or, tragically, as cheap, undersized, shoddily made tourist souvenirs. The loss was doubly sad since each shield’s design elements, or sirata, revealed detailed information about its bearer’s clan and achievements, and thus represented a tangible record of Maasai history.

This loss seemed unacceptable to two elders in the Olkirimatian community of Kenya’s South Rift Valley. Tonkei Ole Rimpaine and Karinte Ole Manka—both former shield bearers now in their 70s—approached ConserVentures, our small non-profit that often donates resources for cultural conservation projects, with a plan: They wanted to put together a workshop to build new shields, using authentic techniques and materials, with the immediate goal of producing examples to be displayed in a planned Maasai heritage museum, and the secondary but much more vital goal of passing on their knowledge to a younger generation. Through the generosity of several donors, we arranged to source rawhide and supply food and transportation to the group, and to use the Lale’enok Resource Center as a base. John Kamanga, the chairman of the Olkirimatian community and a driving force for Maasai cultural conservation, was our liason as we worked on logistics from 7,000 miles away. The construction team comprised John’s father, Ntetiyian Ole Pasoi, two other elders, Sipale Mpoe and Marikete Ole Ilelempu, and four women, Rijano Ene Ntetiyian (John’s mother), Majakus Ene Saitage, Moyiangei Ene Sampao, and Bebi Ene Mugesa.

Over the course of five days in late October, Tonkei and Karinte supervised the group while we photographed and filmed the entire process. In that time, one cowhide (the only major concession to the 21st century, the original cape buffalo being no longer available since Kenya banned hunting), some goatskin, and a pile of limbs from a Cordia senensis tree magically morphed into two sturdy shields—a stiff rawhide face backed by a carved, tensioned center stay and handgrip, the perimeter laced with goatskin around flexible Cordia wands. Then, alchemist concoctions of charred bone, ocher, limestone, and cow’s blood (the latter amusingly stored in an old Famous Grouse whiskey bottle), dabbed and streaked on the shields with chewed twigs, blossomed into recreations of the original Olkirimatian sirata. The two senior elders eyed each line and color critically, and more than once sections were scraped off and re-painted to achieve the proper symmetry. Throughout the process, young Maasai men of the community hung around to watch or help, taking cell-phone photos and fueling our hopes that some might be inspired to take up the craft as a business—we believe there’d be a ready market for detailed and authentic Maasai shields as a counterpoint to the cheesy tourist rubbish.

To us the end products—as far as we know the first true Maasai shields produced in decades—seemed like priceless artifacts. Yet before the paint was dry Tonkei and another elder had grabbed them and set to in a fierce mock duel, leaping and yelling like the Morani they were 50 years earlier while we cheered wincingly from the sidelines.

The completed shields, not minus a few scuff marks, are now stored at the Lale’enok Resource Center. One will be taken to Nairobi to be used in educational programs; the other is destined for the planned cultural museum to be built at a nearby archaeological site, Olorgesailie.

That is, as long as Tonkei Ole Rimpaine and Karinte Ole Manka don’t decide to requisition them, grab a couple of spears, and head out to raid cattle and take some land back from the British.

* * *

51-shield making team at Okiramatian1-elders-shields2-cow3-kill4-skinning and bleeding5-blood
6-stretching hide7-pegging hide8-ash on hide9-rubbing hide10-audience11-burning bones for pigment
12-fire for bones13-bones burning14-grinding burned bones to powder15-powders mixed with milk16-blood ready to mix for pigment17-dried hide
18-hide buried in boma dung19-hide under dung20-gathering rib poles by river21-Cordia poles for frame22-Elder and youth23-roughing in main rib

Photo gallery (51 images): click here.

ConserVentures provided photography and videography services for this project, and will be producing books, posters, and film for the Maasai Cultural Heritage Program. You can learn more about the South Rift Association of Land Owners and their programs at www.soralo.org

Land Cruisers of Baharia, Egypt

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Land Cruisers of Baharia, Egypt, a set on Flickr.


The oasis of Baharia, about five hours south of Cairo, is the gateway to the Western Deserts and a major hub for expedition services and vehicles.

While there during the Sykes-MacDougal Centennial Expedition in February 2012, we had heard there was a booming trade in all things Land Cruisers, but we were not prepared for the sheer numbers of every type of Land Cruiser imaginable—and then some!

There were plenty of new, expensive models, sure, but there were many custom amalgamations that sometimes boggled the mind. Apparently, to avoid the high import duties on any vehicle (new or used), canny Egyptian mechanics in Baharia started bringing in halves and quarters of Land Cruisers from Japan and elsewhere, and then reassembling them after arrival—duty-free.

These photos were taken in just one day plus part of a morning, not even a full 8 hours in the town during daylight. There were hundreds—literally six or seven out of 10 vehicles was a Land Cruiser. Almost all the images are snapshots, taken out the window as we drove or shot quickly while walking; there are a couple of non-Land Cruisers in there, just too interesting not to include.

Desert Rain Cafe, Tohono O'dham Nation

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As a thunderstorm charged across the desert floor north of us, dust and sheets of rain sailing dramatically in its path, we headed west across the vast Tohono O'odham Nation to visit a little cafe we read about over the weekend.

Tohono O'odham Community Action (TOCAonline.org) has many worthwhile projects across this vast nation (2.8 million acres), but their Desert Rain Cafe and Gallery, in the very nice, rather upscale shopping center on Sells' main street (Indian Route 19, on Google maps), is their most visible.

We pulled up at about 1 pm, and the place was hopping. All the tables on the porch (cooled by misters and shaded by mesquite trees on the west) and inside the small but cheerful cafe were full, and there were several people at the counter ordering. It's hard to miss the bright yellow walls—exactly the color of desert marigolds.

The menu features not only desert foods, but locally farmed on the nation. All the proceeds benefit community projects, and the young people involved in the cafe project and farming are gaining valuable skills in food production and running businesses. From the TOCA website:

TOCA’s Desert Rain Cafe’ opened in April, 2009 as the only restaurant using locally-farmed Tohono O’odham foods, including tepary beans, O’odham squash, and cholla buds. In the first year, the cafe served 90,000 meals.  In September, 2010, TOCA was able to publish From I’itoi’s Garden: Tohono O’odham Foodways. The cookbook serves as the basis for Desert Rain Cafe’s menu.  
TOCA’s commitment to offering affordable, fresh, native meals in the O’odham community has improved the local food system.  The cafe’s success and leadership by young adults has helped TOCA and our community partners bring traditional O’odham foods into the local schools:  
- In April, 2010, the first O’odham meals were served in local schools.  
 - In October, 2011, the Indian Oasis Baboquivari School District made tepary bean quesadillas part of its daily menu for K-12 students. 
- TOCA’s Y.O.U.T.H. & Project Oidag help in the school gardens and activities.

We ordered from the lunch menu ("Monsoon") as well as the appetizers ("Drizzle"). I had the prickly pear cactus-and-chile-glazed grilled chicken sandwich with freshly baked roll, which comes with a side of tortilla chips and pico de gallo salsa made with tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and cholla cactus buds. Jonathan had the white tepary bean and short-rib stew with a chile cornbread muffin. We both had lemonade sweetened with agave nectar. Both entrees were delicious and perfectly cooked, with the glaze just spicy enough to be interesting, and the stew very hardy but not greasy; the cholla-bud salsa is also very tasty, though you have to get used to the slightly mucilaginous texture of the buds. The food at the cafe is also very affordable—the stew was $5.95 and the sandwich $8.95. With drinks and an extra side of chips, the total was $25.

The service was not fast, but there were only 2 staff to handle phones, counter sales, and table service, and they did so with quiet efficiency and friendliness, though not effusive; if you're fond of the "Hi guys! My name is Mandy and I'll be your server!" perky waitstaff, head to the university, not an Indian nation.

Despite being happily stuffed, we had to get a couple of giant mesquite cookies to go. Made with flour from mesquite tree beans, these cookies had an almost gingerbread-like flavor and texture, naturally sweet and carob-y from the mesquite, though they are pretty dense and not super moist.

The clientele was eclectic and friendly; from hip young O'odham women in business attire texting madly on iPhones to bad-ass young men (who Jonathan dubbed, politically incorrectly, "Papago punks") with gelled hair, Bowie knives, tattoos and 'tudes, as well as Anglo teachers and social workers, O'dham business people, and "foreign" travelers (two men from Germany). It felt like we were far, far from the USA, which in a way we were.

As we left the cafe to head back to Tucson, we saw a scene unique to Indian nations and developing countries across the globe: livestock casually wandering the streets, in this case half a dozen horses with new foals, the traffic barely slowing down to get around them.

It's great to be reminded you can explore just 50 miles from home and still have wonderful travel experiences.




Pasco Kitchen & Lounge, Tucson

Pasco Kitchen, TucsonA "Rickey's" at Pasco KitchenPineapple hard at work infusing vodka at Pasco KitchenPart of what makes the mixology work at Pasco Kitchen—along with a totally enthusiastic staffDeep-fried dark chocolate beignet with double creamAftermath



We discovered Pasco Kitchen and Lounge in Tucson this week. Fresh, local, organic, house-made—it's all here, plus a vision for flavors and presentation that's unbeatable.

We enjoyed one of the most inspired cocktails ever: the Roasted Rickey's (roasted-chile-infused gin, cilantro muddled with sweet-and-sour, and fresh lime juice) with carnitas tacos, and grass-fed beef burger . . . followed by dark chocolate beignets (basically, mousse balls rolled in champagne-batter and deep-fried) and served with heavy whipped cream and raspberries.

Oh my.

Bisbee, Memorial Day Weekend 2012

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Bisbee, Memorial Day Weekend 2012, a set on Flickr. [iPhone with Camera+]
We took our 1982 Porsche 911SC out for some exercise Memorial Weekend. The Bisbee Bicycle Brothel is one of the West's best classic bicycle shops, full of beautiful European and American racing, randonneur, and 3-speed bikes and related accessories and ephemera. Ken Wallace, the proprietor, is always willing to share his passion. Call ahead, hours are limited.

What we have to be thankful for

We are especially thankful this year for the wonderful people we count as true friends. We spent part of the weekend in west-central Arizona, just south of the Bill Williams River Wilderness. We see most of these people once a year or every few years yet are blessed by the time we do spend, meeting up in remote beautiful locations.

A little backroads exploring with good food, good drink, good people. Isn't this what it is all about?

Heading toward the Bill Williams River, a beautiful desert oasis.

Look for Al's 'bar flag' and that's where you'll find the action . . . and the tequila selection.

No campfire is complete without marshmallows.
Chris and Sharon made everyone pancakes with all the fixing.

If you are on Facebook, you can see a full photo album here.


- Posted from my iPhone

South Rift Game Scouts donation


Some of the 'bull-dust' common in the Rift Valley during the dry season. The dust is the texture of cornsilk and billows like water - and enters any possible crack and settles on everything.


We arrived at the South Rift Resource Centre in southern Kenya yesterday afternoon after a spectacular drive from the moist highlands of Nairobi down the Great Rift Valley wall, and today spent the day with the South Rift Game Scouts from the two nearby communities.

We brought with us 5 lightweight tents donated by Sierra Designs, and waterproof binoculars and GPS units (and a solar battery recharger) donated by ConserVentures members and supporters.


Jonathan showed the scouts how to pitch the tents and set up and use the binoculars.



The equipment is just the start of a support program we are developing for the community conservation area game scouts in the region. Over half the famous East African wildlife in Kenya exists outside the parks, in community owned lands like the Maasai. They have developed their own scouts program to guard against poaching (which they are very effective at), and act as liaisons with the community when there are wildlife conflicts such as lions eating cattle. Not too long ago these young men would have been 'employed' in their communities as warriors; now they are warriors of sorts, but on the front lines of conservation.


Everything takes longer in Africa ...

...But fortunately the rewards are commensurate.



Delays because of roads, ferries and long lunch service put us behind our hoped-for schedule but that means an extra night on the shores of Lake Victoria. Not bad for the eve of Jonathan's birthday (his third in Africa).

Tomorrow: long day to Nairobi where we have a meeting, then on to the South Rift to deliver the tents, GPSs and binoculars to the game scouts.

-- Posted from my iPhone

Katavi to Kigoma to Lake Victoria

The track from Katavi NP to Kigoma was a surprise -- beautiful scenery, wild, up and over the Masito Escarpment, including a dramatic waterfall. It was a long day, but Kigoma, on Lake Tanganyika, held a little gem to revive us: the Livingstone - Stanley Memorial and museum. It is strictly a labor of love for a delightful Swahili gentleman who gave us a charming tour. He is passionate about the history.

Kigoma has tons of colonial charm but its past is dark: millions of Africans began their forced slave march to the east coast of Africa here.

Tonight we are en route to Lake Victoria where we take a ferry to Mwanza and then cross to Kenya.


Beautiful zebu cattle near Bwanga.


Most villages have guard stations going in and out. The guards are almost always friendly.

-- Posted from my iPhone

Remote Africa

Katavi National Park is one of Africa's most remote and largest, as well as least visited, parks. We saw only a handful of people this morning and then no one the rest of the day as we pushed farther into the park on little travelled tracks. We we rewarded with this idyllic scene -- waterfall and elephant.



-- Posted from my iPhone

Leopard day

Entered Ruaha National Park this morning (barely got in -- they only take US dollars and we had changed most of our funds to shillings). Within 30 minutes we came upon a lovely big leopard sitting in an acasia. Shortly after lunch we found another leopard. And then six lions snoozing off breakfast. Ended the day with sundowners at the Great Ruaha River with the hippos and crocs.



-- Posted from my iPhone

Dodoma to Ruaha National Park

We have covered 600 miles of some of the roughest of Africa's classic 'b' roads -- major routes (buses, trucks) but unpaved or historically surfaced but now rocks and ruts. We had hoped to make Ruaha NP last night but only made it as far as Iringa, a really lovely town near tea plantations. Guest house was US$10 including breakfast and classic Tanzanian dinner with 2 Serengeti lagers was $8. Ugali (polenta-like corn), greens, meat and peas in delicious sauce & fruit.

We found a great Tanzanian-owned campsite just outside the park--includes a big tent for just $15 more a night. Campsites in the park are $50 bare--no shade, no services. We can cook or have food cooked, and they have hot showers. Another plus is daytime security while we are on safari. Our camp for the next 2 days:



-- Posted from my iPhone

Arusha to Dodoma

Leaving Arusha, it was a tight fit. Footpaths suffice as roads barely as wide as a Land Rover.



Tarangire National Park, at Whistling Thorn Camp. A perfect first night.




One of the very best things about Tanzania are the enthusiastic kids. Everywhere you go they chase you or wave.




We arrived in Dodoma today, after 300 miles of classic Africa dirt roads, cattle, goats, trucks. Just had nyama choma (BBQ) and Serengeti lager.
-- Posted from my iPhone