Nov 172014

Road Senseless

Road Senseless Ethiopia

Some Observations on Street Life, Past Life and Cycling

Ethiopians appear, after one week in the country, to have the street sense of what I refer to as “the headless chicken riders”: those 50,000 or so cyclists who bunch and barge, flail and force their way around my home town on one day in March each year. For all intents it’s a mindless, performance-enhanced, drug-crazed frenzy called the Cape Argus.

Driving long distance in Ethiopia is a thought-provoking experience. Most of those thoughts are of utter terror. The route from Addis Ababa to Bale is tarred all the way to the national park boundary. The journey usually takes six to seven hours, depending on things like the availability of fuel and the bravery of the driver.

 Ethiopians are very proud of their 2,000-year-old culture, but it seems this 40-year-old road construct is an all too new concept. It certainly is not a major transport route in the Western sense of the thing. For much of the way there are wide verges through the verdant countryside or substantial sidewalks in towns and villages. But they are seldom used for their intended purpose. Mostly they serve as extensions of farms or businesses. Everyone and everything else uses the road: vehicles, budgets (tuk tuks), horse carts, horsemen and horsewomen, cattle, horses, donkeys, sheep, goats, dogs and pedestrians.

In towns and villages (and goats do roam in villages), they will seldom make any effort whatsoever to give way to the traffic, whether budget, bus or truck. In towns pedestrians do not think for one second to look when venturing with great purpose into the street. Actually about half do, and half do not. But either way, none of them changes speed or direction in any event.

Pedestrians walking five or six abreast do not flinch for oncoming traffic. They appear to have as much right to use the road as anyone, or any animal. People standing in the middle of a lane chatting will not move out the way for any wheeled machine. “Excuse me! Can you see I’m standing here, talking?”

If a horse is straddling the middle line, vehicles whizzing past in both directions, the owner (who you can see standing on the far side of the road) will not expend any effort to move the animal. It’s not their problem; it is the drivers’.

The same goes for all animals. They appear to have every right to travel in the traffic lanes. People moving cattle, the herds spanning the road – abreast, never in line, they always move abreast – will make no attempt to move them to one side or part them for vehicles.

Animals, loaded or not, walk confidently towards oncoming traffic without so much as a blink, with no shepherding human supervision. The humans usually walk a ways behind: animal shields maybe. It’s all very interesting in a 2,000-year-old kind of way.

Ethiopian drivers seem to have worked out the behaviour of each animal species (as well as that of pedestrians), and adjust their speed and direction to just shave a horn, ear or arm. No one or thing gives an inch. It is only the dogs that seem to get nailed.

They are a somewhat shorter, stouter and fluffier version of a border collie. Maybe they are more smart than the other animals, or maybe they are less. When they find themselves trotting across a road and suddenly confronted by a speeding vehicle (truck and bus drivers here are called El Qaeda – they have no respect for life), they think “holy crap” and try to take evasive action. Not a good survival strategy around here, Darwin Dog!

We won’t say much more about the drivers, other than to observe that they also never (ever) look before pulling out or turning. The concept of lanes is still novel. If you are at all a nervy person, the best thing to do is close your eyes for the duration and ignore any sharp braking or swerving.

We also will not discuss night driving, other than to say, rather don’t. Ethiopia is one of those countries where driving with lights on after sunset is optional. But driving horse carts or moving large herds or cattle in the dark is customary.

A person standing, or walking, in the road with their back to the traffic will not respond to any amount of hooting. You can actually hear them thinking: “That could not possibly concern me. I have a right to be right here, and I am here exercising that right.

This possibly could have something to do with the history. Until the mid-1970s Ethiopia was a medieval-style society, governed by intrigue under the absolute rule of Emperor Haile Selassie . He was deposed in the revolution of the Derg, under the leadership of Sandhurst trained Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam and his blood-thirsty military cronies.

They were avowed communists in the Cambodian mode, who attempted to kill half the population and settle the remaining half on vast collective wheat farms. They were fairly successful on both counts. (To find more about this read ‘The Emperor’ by Ryszard Kapuściński, the best book by the best writer to ever write about Africa.)

Flying over the fertile highlands, from horizon to horizon the land is a finely quilted vegetable patchwork in golds and greens, with some blue-brown river wiggly worms appliqued over. This is not and never was a place without enough food. The starvation of Ethiopia was a purely political construct by one group to starve out their ethnic enemies.

The dreaded Derg were eventually overthrown by the Tigrean forces (remember the time of the starving Ethiopians, these were they), who instituted what is probably the most successful example of African socialism. Except that, as everyone who knows, much like Cape Town, the country is not really part of Africa.

So Ethiopian people today are agricultural, stoic and unyielding. About half the population is Orthodox Christian, their branch of the faith predating the Roman Catholic Church by around 200 years. The other half is Muslim, and it is enshrined in their culture that the two live side by side with total tolerance and harmony.

 It was on a 12-hour hell-bound ride back from Bale to Addis Ababa that I had an epiphany about, of all things, road cyclists back home in South Africa. Now I know where they all come from.

Nov 122014

The Birdman of Bale

By David Bristow

“The four top places in Africa to see birds are, in order, the DRC, Kenya, South Africa, and Bale,” James Ndung’u tells us over breakfast.

I note that while the first three are countries, the fourth is a 230,000-hectare national park in southeastern Ethiopia where we happen to be sitting, having just returned from an hour’s birding walk with James around Bale Mountain Lodge. In that short time we have notched up a list of 12 Bale endemics or near-endemics. All lifers for each of us.

Yesterday, driving over the Sanetti Plateau with lodge owner Guy Leverne, we counted about eight others. Some birders will pay thousands of dollars to go to see one such species, and we do not count ourselves among the world’s [serious] birders. We are here, like most visitors, to enjoy the amazing biodiversity of Bale and hope to get a glance of the Ethiopian wolves that live on the plateau.

As a pre-breakfast appetiser, Guy thought we might enjoy a short walk with James. Turns out we’d like a long walk with him. James is Kenyan, starting his working life with the Kenyan Wildlife Service. By and by that led to working as an ornithological research assistant in the Kenyan National Museum, and then on to bird guiding.

Bale Birdman James Ndung'u

Bale Birdman James Ndung’u

A stint at UNISA college in Pretoria (South Africa) was followed by study at the Percy Fitzpatrick Ornithological Institute at the University of Cape Town, where he rubbed shoulders with some of the continent’s top birders. “Boerewors,” he answers, when we press about what he liked best about his stay in South Africa.

As a certified bird ringer, and after spells teaching at Hawasa and Jima universities, he joined a multi-national project to map bird flyways in Ethiopia. He was minding his own business one day, at the public campsite in Bale, when these ferenjis turned up and told about their plans to build a lodge there. Guy offered him a job as the lodge naturalist virtually on the spot. That was about three years ago.

The old public campsite, now a glade in front of the lodge, remains one of James’s research (through the University of Utah) sites in his long-term project to determine the effects of climate change on bird populations.

We posed the question in a previous blog, about who were the best guides in Africa. At that stage we had not yet met James. Bale is one of out bucket-list icons: you want to visit there and stay in the lodge. And you very much want to go walkabout in the hauntingly beautiful hagenia (rosewood) forest with James.

For the serious birders among us, here is our list so far – Bale and regional endemics only:

Sanetti Plateau: blue-wing goose, slender-billed starling, spot-breasted lapwing, black-headed siskin, chestnut-naped francolin, wattled ibis, thick-billed raven.

Hagenia forest: white-cheeked turaco, blue-winged lovebird, streaky seedeater, black-faced citril, mountain thrush, Tukata sunbird, yellow-bellied waxbill, variable sunbird, African dusky flycatcher, tree pipit (a European migrant), Abyssinian oriole and Abyssinian white-eyed slaty flycatcher.


Nov 062014

Black Rhino

Black Rhino

We were at Desert Rhino Camp when the daughter of an obviously very well-to-do family from Milan declared across the dinner table: “When other people think of Italy all they think of is pizza, pasta and the Mafia.”

Hmm, not really I thought, but held the thought. The next day we endured a bone jarring 12-hour game-drive search for the desert rhinos and to pass the time (each time the Landy stopped to negotiate another boulder), I jotted down thoughts.

To fully appreciate the title, you should be familiar with the Monty Python sketch in “The Life of Brian” – What Have The Romans Ever Done For Us? I read it out at dinner the following night to great applause from the Italians.


By David Bristow

You gave us the arch, the aqueduct and dome,

And for those we are eternally glad;

You give us Firenze and Venice, Milano and Rome –

Cities greater than any other nation has, or has had.


When Septimus Severus ruled Leptis Magna

And other Roman ruins from Morocco to Libya,

And Julius Caesar marched, triumphantly, down the Appian Way

They created an empire that defines much of Europe today.


You gave us the Renaissance to break the Dark Ages

From Giotto to Bellini became the cultural sages;

Michelangelo’s glorious dome and Della Porta’s cupola,

Botticelli’s Venus born in a shell with the winds to guide her.

But it was Leonardo with his art and his machines

Who created our present from his futuristic dreams.


Then you gave us real food and Campari with bitters

Aglio olio, cannelloni, ravioli, formaggio;

But you also gave us some big hitters –

Rocky Marciano and the Yankee’s DiMaggio.


For the mornings you gave us cappuccino

And for the evenings double espresso,

Then we’d go to the movies to see Pacino and de Niro;

Reruns of old classics became the dreams of old men

Featuring Gina Lollobrigida and Sofia Loren …

With them!


To show off we drive a Ferrari, Maserati or Lambo

Or for the aficionado maybe a Lancia Montecarlo;

While the hip and happening ride a Vespa

As they race in the fast lane and live the dolce vita.


We look at our photos and memories we cherish,

Our visits to Lake Cuomo and the canals of Venice;

Remember the crazy horsemen of the Palio in Sienna

And on to Monza to see the brilliant young Aryton Senna.


In the Eternal City we discovered spaghetti al dente

And one evening we stumbled across the Comedia del Arte;

We were surprised by the scale of Saint Peter’s, the delicate Pieta,

The vibrant nightlife and the afternoon riposo, or siesta.


We ate pasta pomodoro in a piazza in Pisa

And pizza margherita in a side street of Napoli;

Remember the night we made love in Palermo

It was like a scene out of Dante’s Inferno.


But who can forget the Vatican state,

The Pope, the cardinals, the bishops and prelates;

Or the priests and nuns who ruled our schools with their sermons

till we thought they were not angels but educational demons.


These days as we sit with a book by Umberto Eco, and a glass of good grappa,

Or sip a Chianti while we watch the news after supper,

About the latest farce by Berlusconi with a sweet ratafia

And the rise of the Chinese and Russian Mafia.

It is no longer the Sicilian dons who we fear,

But these new global gangsters bring us to tears.


Desert Rhino

Desert Rhino

Nov 052014

Dustin Ugbike

Dustin Ugbike

By David Bristow at Buhoma Lodge, Uganda

It is true that the African Icons project has and is taking us to many amazing places, each one a bucket list mega tick. But for us, as for anyone who ventures beyond their comfort zone, travelling is greatly enhanced by the people you meet along the road, or path, or track.

I was in Zambia a year and a half ago, as a guest of @World Bicycle Relief, a very fine and big-hearted organization that rolls out virtually indestructible Buffalo Bikes for all manner of good causes there. Once there I learned of something called a Zambike ,  but information was thin on the ground.

Then at Buhoma Lodge at Bwindi Impenetrable Forest to see mountain gorillas, we met Dustin McBride, founder of Zambikes. Turns out his is a three- and sometimes four-person show of essentially do-gooders, who invented a tough-as-Africa bike in Zambia, and has since moved on to Uganda … but back to the beginning.

It was at “school” (what we call university) in Los Angeles that he and a friend Vaughan Spethmann, both business majors, undertook a trip to Zambia to see how the other half did things. This led to a project on Third World entrepreneurship, involving a bicycle. (If I get any details wrong I’m sure Dustin will forgive me, it was after dinner following a long day’s gorilla trekking.)

“This project kept coming back to us, and we kind of fell into the bike industry, which is funny sinc

since Vaughan and I were keen soccer players, not bikers,” says Dustin. They decided they wanted to do something that impacted on the people of Zambia in terms of business, socially and spiritually. Vaughan had bought what the people at World Bicycle Relief refer to as a BSO – bicycle shaped object – which did what all BSOs do: it fell apart.

In 2007 they pulled in US bike design fundi Darryl Funk (Funk Cycles)  to design their own quality but low-cost bike, which they named the Zambike. And by 2009 they were on the road. They also created a bamboo version, but that is a top-end machine, rather than a do-good rollout. One bike equals five jobs in Zambia, they say.

As is so often the case, one good thing follows another and in time they created a cargo trailer for the bike. Those are two things that can really turn around a person’s or a family’s fortunes in Africa.

In time the cargo trailer became an ambulance trailer – the Zambulance – mainly for rural areas, as so many things are today. Except that Zambikes was handed over to local partners after five years, as part of their start-up vision. The not-for-profit start-up was funded by family and friends, Dustin admits, but making a profitable business was always the overall goal.

From there they moved to Uganda. It’s a much more hilly place than Zambia, and there are cheap Chinese-made motorbikes everywhere. Light bulb moment: their ambulance trailer was perfectly suited to be towed by a motorbike. And thus was Pulse born, an ambulance trailer that was piloted in 2012 and up and running this year with partner Darryl. But in the meanwhile Dustin got married to Lauren and when we met them at Buhoma Lodge they were doing a kind of farewell tour of the region with one of their main sponsors and now friend, Dorothy Campbell of San Diego.

“We’re headed back home, to be closer to family and to start our own family.” Lauren agrees, but shows a long lip at thought of giving up “all this” for an undoubtedly less adventurous life back in the States.

It’s always illuminating meeting interesting people on the road: you meet them fleetingly but some leave a lasting impression on you. Like these youngish people who have created an amazing business from the spark of a vision to do something practical and good in a faraway place. Bless them and their kind.


Nov 042014

Fig, Wasps

Fig, Wasps

by David Bristow

God has been famously, and is often, likened to the great watchmaker: the parts of the biota being so complicated, finely crafted (it might appear), and inter-connected, much like the workings of a clock, only a divine creator could have made and fitted all the pieces together so finely and set it working so precisely. (Maybe God is Swiss, after all is said and done.)

The human eye is often used as an example of God’s exquisite watchmaking, which is not a good thing. A trainee biologist could tell you that the human eye has been constructed back to front; the wiring comes out the wrong way, through the middle of the retina; and the image comes out upside down. If a first-year engineering student submitted that as his design project, he would fail.

So it is left to the brain’s software to make all the needed corrections; it’s like God sending out the Space Shuttle to make adjustments in order to fix the design faults of the Hubble deep-space telescope.

But maybe there is a better analogy in nature itself we could look at to see things finely, minutely and precisely put together. There is a genus of tree in Africa and Asia called wild figs (genus Ficus). They bear fruits in great abundance, and although they are much loved by herbivorous animals, they are not generally considered palatable to humans. Today we watched a bunch of baboons (no, real ones), hurtling wild fig fruits onto a group of 10 tired, belly-full lions that were trying to nap under “their” sycamore fig in Ruaha National Park, which got me thinking about those figs.

The Chinese name for them means “fruit with no flower”, which aptly describes the fruits, which are not really true fruits at all. If you break one open you will indeed find the flowers on the inside, and often hordes of milling insects. Most of those insects will be small, stingless wasps, together often with various worms.

The flowers are pollinated by the wasps, and each species of wild fig will have a corresponding unique species of wasp to which it is host. Or sometimes two species, in other cases three.

An already impregnated female wasp enters the fruit through a small hole at the tip, one that usually goes unnoticed to human eyes (it looks like a dark spot). In the process her wings, antennae and other sticking out bits are usually stripped off her body, rendering her incapable of mobility outside the fig and thus convicting her to death inside: she will eventually be eaten by worms.

However, before her gruesome death (everything has to eat), she will spew eggs out of her ovipositor inside the still unripe fruit. By some working of the biological mechanism, the males hatch first. As an aside, in some reptiles such as crocodiles and turtles, the temperature of the surrounding sand of the nest will determine what sex the foetus egg assumes.

The penis of the male fig wasp is very large, relatively speaking, larger than the wasp’s body. With it he, in fact all the hatched males, go about inside the fig, piercing the unhatched eggs – which will be female by definition, or most of them at any rate – with that rapier organ of theirs, and impregnate the females while still in their eggs. It is somewhere around this time that the mother gets eaten.

The male wasps do not have wings, and they are somewhat larger than the females, so they eat their way out the fruit and are not seen again in our story; their biological work is done and they are expendable as insect fodder.

During all this time the fruit has been ripening and the flowers blooming. When the male wasps hatch the male flower parts, the stamens, have not yet developed. However, by the time the female wasps are buzzing about inside they have, and the female wasps collect pollen on their bodies. Off they then crawl, out the hole through which their mother came in, and fly off to find another fig tree.

When it is time for them to find their own little wild fig nest, they crawl in, pollinate the flowers inside, and the cycle replays. Some of these wasps have parasitic wasp species with longer ovipositors, and some of them in turn have their parasitic wasp species with even longer ovipositors. This is a theme much repeated in nature.

 So, God or natural selection? I’m not sure, but what I do know is that it is not worth going to war over a fig or a wasp.

Oct 302014




The Park That Produces or, When a Lion is a Cougar

We woke up extra early at Kwihala Camp this morning so we could get to the three killer brothers on the elephant carcass by sunrise. We were concerned that they would have eaten their fill during the night and be busy doing what lions do best – lyin’ around. When we got there just ahead of the magic light, the pride’s elusive five females and one male were there on the carcass.

So Roger did what Roger does; shot the sh*t out of it. Things got better, or worse depending on which side you were on. The sun rose, gently. Then one male lion that was lying up in the dry riverbed, took exception to one of the females (it was probably something she had said earlier), and went for her. A second male joined and chased her with violent intent. It was a high alarm situation. She limped back some time later.



Then some jackals arrived and played around with their health insurance. After a while the lionesses wandered off into the dry riverbed. They were mostly old, some with stubbed teeth. The young killers had clearly made them their own and had mated with them, we were informed by super-guide Pietro Luraschi.

One of the most war-worn torn, that was clearly lactating, went last and lay in the shade of a spreading sycamore fig, and softly crooned. Two cubs came running out of the undergrowth and went to greet one of the males at a small waterhole he had just dug (lions dig for water, who knew!). The males tolerated their niggling, as young ones will, sure evidence they were his.



They were followed by two tiny tots, no more than two weeks old. The two tinies sort of stumbled on their short legs over to Mom who they licked and nuzzled, then went to suckle. After a while all eight adult males were involved in doing the lying around thing as the four cubs played.

That was when the jackals dashed in furtively to steal tidbits from the carcass. At one point the two littlies stumbled up the far bank and we were alarmed when a bold jackal trotted after them: predators will take every opportunity they get to kill one another or, better still, one another’s offspring.

The cubs as well as all the sleeping adult lions were unaware of the impending danger to their family succession plan. The tiny cubs disappeared into some dense shrubbery and the wily jackal followed. I’m not sure quite what it means when people say “my heart was in my throat” but it did seem that way.

After a long wait, the cubs came rolling out the bush, down the riverbank and rushed over to mom. “Mom, Mom, guess what just happened….” Our hearts sank lower and our throats cleared.

“I have had quite a few wildlife experiences,” said Roger with just a hint of litotes. “But Ruaha is the cheese.”

Ruaha National Park

Ruaha National Park

Oct 252014

We sot some wonderful images of a pride of lions feeding on a young elephant that they had hunted. A very interesting sighting with huge amounts of interaction between the lions, their cubs, the occasional jackal and a variety of vultures. Some of the images are posted below while others, the best actually, will have to wait for the book to be published before seeing the light of day. Please drop us an email if you’d like to be on our mailing list so that you are kept updated of developments.

Oct 232014

Every now and then you come across a place that astounds. Kwihala Camp in Ruaha National Park in Tanzania is just such a place and it is here that we are shooting photographs of Lions and Baobab trees for the African Icons book. Their website describes it as: “Raw beauty with simple excellence” and this sums it up perfectly. We are loving it! Hot as hades but great game viewing and very warm and caring hosts. Photography has been brisk on all the game drives that we have done. If you’do like to be on our mailing list or if your like to order one of these books please drop us an email

Oct 052014

With great views of Kilimanjaro, Satao Elerai Camp offers easy access to Kenya’s Amboseli National Park as well as some pretty awesome wildlife sightings on the conservancy. We stayed there while working on the African Icons book and got some really great images, some of which we have added to this gallery. Read what Roger and Pat have to say about it on their blog, and travel with us on Facebook while we shoot the African Icons book.

Oct 052014

We visited the Great Rift Valley in Kenya to shoot images for the African Icons Book. We stayed at The Great Rift Valley Lodge and Golf Resort  and had a wonderful time, shooting many images in the process. Roger and Pat have written up a trip report. You may like to follow the action on Facebook.