On Saturday, it was time to leave Guassa for the next leg of my journey: Gombe National Park, Tanzania. After breakfast (pancakes with canned peaches and molasses) and packing my bags, I sat with Peter and Tyler in the kitchen tent, asking them about the names of monkeys in my photos, and wondering if the driver would really show up. The project doesn’t have a car in Guassa, so if the car we had hired in Addis failed to turn up, my only option would be to take a walk to the road and take a bus, or try hitching a ride, either of which would mean I would miss my flight to Dar-es-Salaam, and would also miss the two subsequent flights I needed to take to get to Kigoma, before taking the boat to Gombe.
Around 10:30 am, the car arrived. The driver had left Addis at 5:00 am to get to Guassa on time.
The drive down was basically terrifying. We rolled into Taitu at 3:18 pm. We left Guassa around 10:45 so that’s 5.5 hours, not bad time. The driver drove typical African style: as fast as possible, on whichever side of the road seemed better paved or reduced curves, honking to alert livestock, cars and pedestrians that he was coming through. The drive was almost entirely downhill, the first few hours especially steep. The road wound in hairpin turns, often with a steep cliff falling away to the side – usually the passenger side. My side.
For most of the way on the gravel road (the first third or so of the drive), there were no barriers at all on the edge of the road to keep a car from driving off into oblivion. On the paved road, several different kinds of barriers existed: stone and concrete rectangles built like castle fortifications, thick concrete posts, metal stakes, and the sort of metal ribbon we are used to in America. And almost every single one of these barriers showed signs of having been run into at high speed. We passed one truck with a double trailer dangling off a bridge, and several other trucks in various states of damage along the side of the road, rocks under the tires to keep them from rolling further, and more rocks and tree branches placed around the disabled truck as a helpful barrier and warning sign to oncoming traffic.
We passed through Eucalyptus plantations growing on the steep hills. These exotic trees are planted widely in Africa, and valued because they grow quickly, and also sprout new shoots from the stump when you cut the tree down. The many small trunks growing from older stumps seem to be the main source of the scaffolding used in the many new buildings going up in Addis: spindly trunks of
young trees roughly lashed together to provide a rickety framework for new multi-story concrete office and apartment buildings. We passed trucks belching black exhaust and diesel fumes with bundles of Eucalyptus poles tied to the truck bed, the leafy treetops extending far over the cab of the truck. Donkeys carried loads of smaller Eucalyptus branches, maybe for use in building the framework for wattle and daub houses.
In Addis, I took a long hot shower, my first since leaving the city on Monday. It was just too cold to bathe in Guassa. Then I had dinner. I ordered Special Tibs again. On previous nights, the mound of spicy meat and sauce and two rolls of injera seemed like more food than I could possibly manage, and I ended dinner stuffed and defeated before finishing it all. But now with a Guassa stomach, the meal looked disappointingly small. But with the addition of some extra njera the tibs proved highly satisfying.
After a long and rewarding day with the monkeys, the sun began to dip towards the horizon. Tyler suggested we leave the monkeys early to go looking for wolves. Ethiopian wolves are one of the highlights of Guassa, and Tyler didn’t want me to leave without seeing one.
Ethiopian wolves, like gelada monkeys, are endemic to the Ethiopian highlands: they don’t occur anywhere else. The highlands are so different and isolated from the surrounding lands that all sorts of unusual things have evolved here.
They are small for a wolf. They don’t get much bigger than 40 pounds. They eat mainly rodents, which are abundant at Guassa. The wolves don’t seem to pose any sort of threat to gelada monkeys, despite being depicted as hunting geladas in at least one nature documentary. They look more like a large fox or a coyote than a wolf, with a reddish coat. And indeed, when speaking English, Ethiopians seem to mainly call them “red foxes.”
But genetically, they are closely related to grey wolves, having diverged from them some 3-4 million years ago. And they are extremely rare. Only about 550 of them survive in the wild, of which something like 30 live at Guassa.
Before we left the monkeys, Tyler talked to Tayler, who has been searching for wolves on his days off. Taylor recommended several spots, including the big valley close to camp. So we left the monkeys and walked back towards camp, stopping now and then to look for wolves. As we approached the valley, we left the road and climbed a hill that gave a broad view across the valley. Tyler scanned the valley with binoculars, and before too long, found a pair of wolves on a distant ridge. With some help, I eventually found them too.
We sat on the hillside and watched the wolves, which were far beyond camera range. After a few minutes, the wolves trotted up the hill and out of view. Tyler said the wolves were shy, and I wasn’t expecting get close enough to take pictures; I was excited just to have caught a glimpse of these rare creatures.
We sat and scanned the valley some more, and eventually Tyler spotted two more wolves, some six or seven hundred meters away, on the other side of the valley, close to the road. People herding cattle or driving down the road didn’t seem to notice the wolves at all. I wondered how many times we had walked past wolves without seeing them. Despite their reddish-orange and white coats, they blended easily into the green-grey heathland. When I put the binoculars down to rest my eyes a bit, I couldn’t see the wolves at all with my naked eyes, and had trouble finding them again with the binoculars.
Peter commented that these four wolves represented nearly 1% of the entire population of the species. They are reasonably well protected on Guassa, but still face threats, such as rabies, which has killed hundreds of wolves, and cars, which occasionally kill wolves crossing the road.
Tyler speculated that these two wolves we were looking at now might be the grown offspring of the pair we had seen earlier. After watching the wolves through binoculars for a good long time, Tyler suggested we try moving closer to them. We walked slowly down the hill. Tyler suggested we walk towards a ridge that ran between us and the wolves, so we could get closer to them without them seeing us. The plan worked a little too well. By the time we climbed the top of that ridge, we found that one of the wolves walking right past us, and it startled, running another hundred meters or so away from us before turning back to look at us. We watched it slowly walk away, then began making our way to camp.
I lagged behind to put my camera away and take a GPS reading. Tyler and Peter walked ahead to the road. Suddenly I heard them calling “Mike! Mike!” I wondered if they worried I was lost. I called out, “I’m here!” then saw why they were yelling: a wolf was running right toward me! I hurried to get my camera out. Putting the camera away seemed to be a sure way to attract wolves.
Peter and Tyler had caught this wolf by surprise, and it quickly ran away, off towards the same direction where the other wolf had gone. Now it got another surprise: me. But though it seemed startled to see me, it didn’t seem especially concerned. It trotted past me, then turned to look at me, letting me take some pictures.
It even sat down and scratched itself a bit.
Then it hunted in the heather for rats: peering into the heather and then making funny bouncing hops towards its prey. It failed to catch anything, then trotted away at a leisurely pace.
I slept in the same clothes I’d been wearing for days: t-shirt, long-sleeved flannel shirt, long-sleeved field jacket, field pants and thick socks, huddled in a sleeping bag with a thick wool blanket on top. No mosquitos, no malaria, no snakes, no warmth – is this really Africa? Hardly feels like it.
Soon after breakfast, a thick fog rolled in. We started the hike down to Darjeeling Cliff where the geladas had spent the night. I wore the waterproof rainboots I had worn the previous two days, but found were killing my feet. It didn’t look like rain, so I returned to camp and put on the Kiboko soccer cleats that I had brought for Gombe. Much more comfortable.
We hiked several kilometers down to the cliffs, and found some of the geladas already up at the top, basking in the sun, grooming, and starting to feed. We followed them as they traveled in a long circuit through the open hills. This southern area looked strangely like the Great Basin in the American West: grassy hills and open plains studded with stark masses of rock, the bushy grey-leaved Helichrysum filling in for sagebrush.
The geladas ate and ate, sitting on their bottoms, plucking grass and herbs with their nimble hands and stuffing their mouths. So many monkeys plucking grass at once made a surprisingly loud munching sound, rather like a horde of locusts.
Geladas have such an interesting social system – one with some interesting parallels with human society. Like humans, geladas live in a multi-level society with strong bonds between males and females. They travel in herds made up of one-male units (OMU’s). Each OMU has a leader male, a ‘harem’ of females, their offspring, and sometimes one or more follower males. Each leader male tries to keep all the females in his harem to himself. But because the OMUs travel together in herds that may have hundreds of monkeys, there are always other males around, particularly the bachelor males, who hang around the periphery in menacing groups of unattached males.
In my own research, I focus on chimpanzees, which are much more closely related to humans than are gelada monkeys. The last common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans lived something like five to six million years ago, whereas the last common ancestor of humans and Old World Monkeys such as geladas lived perhaps 30 million years ago. But social structure can evolve quickly in response to ecological conditions and other factors. And in some ways, geladas, living in open country, may face ecological circumstances that are rather similar to those faced by our hominin ancestors, who also lived in the more open habitats of East Africa, compared to chimpanzees, which live in forests and woodlands.
In chimpanzees, males and females don’t have strong social bonds or anything like marriage. Instead, females attempt to mate with many different males. Males may try to keep other males from mating with a particular fertile female, but unless the male is especially intimidating, or manages to sneak off on consort with a female, the female usually mates with multiple males. The result is that chimpanzee males don’t know for sure who their children are, and no chimpanzee knows for sure who his or her father is. Even the researchers studying chimpanzees, keeping close tabs on every mating, couldn’t be sure who the fathers were before the advent of genetic paternity tests.
In contrast, in gelada monkeys, males and females do have strong social bonds. Each leader male grooms and herds and mates with and jealously guards the females in his harem. As a result, gelada monkeys likely do know who their daddies are.
There are other primates, like gibbons and titi monkeys, in which males and females live in monogamous pairs, with strong male-female social bonds. And there are other species, like gorillas and blue monkeys, where groups usually have a single male and harem of females. What is unusual about geladas is that they, like humans and a few other species, live in societies with strong bonds between males and females, not as isolated family units, but as members of complex multi-level societies.
Because competition for mates is intense, males are big and showy, nearly twice the size of females, with massive canines and flowing manes of hair. With their big hair and strutting posture, they look like heavy metal rockers, and they have been giving fitting names: Lars, Danzig, Ulver, Mustaine.
In the mid-afternoon, the geladas plucked short grasses from a meadow strewn with yellow flowers. Around 120 monkeys foraged together. We were closest to a one male unit led by Ptolomy. Though he was clearly the leader male, he still had to contend with two follower males: Cthulu, who had briefly reigned before Ptolomy deposed him, and Tony, who had enjoyed a long reign before being overthrown by Cthulu.
A female with a full red chest, Tatanga, presented to Ptolomy. He started to mate with her, but then he looked over and saw Tony, some thirty yards away, flashing his eyelids at him. How dare he! Though Ptolomy had just begun mating, he dismounted Tatanga and strode threateningly to Tony, who flipped his upper lip over his teeth, staring back at Ptolomy. Cthulu stood behind Tony, lending his support. Tony carried a baby on his back – probably one of his own babies, since he had enjoyed a long tenure as leader male. Males often use infants in fights with other males, though nobody really knows why they do this.
Ptolomy walked right up to Tony and stared into his face. Tony kept his lip flipped up and opened his jaws, showing off his huge canines. Cthulu flipped his lip and showed off his own fangs. This was the last straw for Ptolomy, who lunged right at both of them – and soon ran off into the hills, with the other two males chasing right behind him. To me, it looked like Ptolomy had been chased off by the other, lower ranking males, which surprised me. Peter explained, though, that such interactions often ended up that way. The leader males often ran ahead, letting the lower ranking male chase them. Maybe the leader males do this to show off their stamina.
So Tony, despite being an old deposed former leader male, could still get away with interrupting the new leader male’s mating efforts. And Tony seemed always to be surrounded with little kids, who were almost certainly his.
I woke up several times in the night, but I finally woke up to see dawn light filtering into the tent, instead of the pitch black of night. Used to studying chimpanzees, who often leave their night nests before dawn, I felt I had overslept. I unzipped the tent and went into the kitchen tent. Tyler was there heating water for tea and oatmeal. I thought everyone else must have already left for the monkeys. But no, as it turns out, geladas are lazy monkeys. As Taylor says, “they are solar powered.” They sleep on cliffs, and bask in the morning sun before climbing up to the grasslands above. Even then they may sit around socialize a while before starting the day’s main business: feeding.
The others came in one by one and fixed their breakfast and lunch. Unlike dinner, each person fixed their own breakfast and packed their own lunch, some more elaborate than others. Taylor eagerly prepared a sardine and salad sandwich from one of the five cans of sardines Tyler had bought for him in Addis. For our first day at Guassa, Tyler and I wouldn’t be going out all day, so we would come back for lunch.
It takes time for a body to adjust to 11,000 feet. There’s a lot less oxygen in the air. “I’m sucking wind just walking up the hill a bit,” Tyler commented ruefully.
The geladas had been spending a lot of time in the south of their range, but Tyler wanted me to see the north, with its spectacular views. So for our first day out, we went on a gentle hike, together with Peter. But even this left me winded. I stopped frequently to look at plants, take pictures and catch my breath.
Up close, Guassa looks like a giant herb garden. Thyme covers much of the ground, along with Helichrysum, bushy little plants with silvery gray leaves and bright yellow flowers, and other low-growing plants: clover, daisies, dandelions, two kinds of carrots, an onion, and many others I didn’t recognize.
Occasional stands of giant lobelias made clear that we were in the African mountains. These odd herbs look a bit like Joshua trees. Peter says that the ones at Guassa grow until they flower and then die, to be replaced by clones of the original plants. I knew these plants from the books and magazine articles on mountain gorillas by George Schaller and Dian Fossey that first made me want to become a primatologist.
We walked along a path through flowers and herbs, through stands of giant lobelias and giant celery. I asked Peter what the strange bushy plant with scaly leaves, and he said it was heather – which just confirmed my impression that we had somehow ended up in Scotland by mistake.
I had imagined that above the cliffs where the geladas slept, the grassland would be a gently rolling plateau. There were some places like that, but for the most part, here the cliffs were topped with steep hills, including the one that we were walking along. It was a long way down. Peter and Tyler said it was too bad about all the haze; you could normally see much further. But it looked like we could see plenty far down as it was.
At one point where we stopped, Peter said it was about a full kilometer down to the valley bottom. I’ve been up to the observation decks of a few skyscrapers, but the tallest of these, the Sears Tower in Chicago, is just over 440 meters, less than half the height that we now stood above the valley. We looked down to fields and round farmhouses topped with conical thatched roofs, spread out like a map below us.
Tyler spotted gelada monkeys on the steep slope of a hill above the cliff across from us. It seemed impossible to get from here to there without falling off the hill into the abyss. But still we went – and for the most part, found that even though the hills looked impossibly steep, if you stepped the right way, you could get around.
We met the geladas at closer range as they came up the hill. They let us come close, so they were used to seeing people, but they weren’t named individuals from study groups.
Geladas are strange monkeys. The females look rather like small olive baboons, but with thick, fluffy hair, and strange bare patches of red skin on their chest. The males look like little lions. They have long manes and tufted lion tails. Like females, they have bare red patches on their chests. They also have orange shadow all around their eyes, and when making threats, they raise their eyebrows to show off the orange.
Baboons display lots of information about their reproductive status on their bottoms. Females have bright red swellings that indicate when they are ovulating, and a pregnancy sign that turns red when they have a baby on board. Geladas, though, spend much of the day scooting around on their bottoms, eating grass. A big swelling would get in their way while scooting, and you couldn’t see it anyway. So they display their reproductive condition on their chests instead. (They do get little swellings on their bottoms, just nothing as dramatic as baboons.)
In The Naked Ape, Desmond Morris argued that over the course of human evolution, a similar relocation of reproductive signals occurred. Just as in baboons, in our closer cousins, chimpanzees and bonobos, females signal ovulation with big swellings on their bottoms, suggesting that our common ancestor also may have had sexual swellings on their bottoms. Chimp swellings don’t look terribly comfortable or convenient, but as they mainly get around by walking on all fours, using their feet and knuckles, the swelling doesn’t get in the way much. With the evolution of a bipedal gait, however, the area that swells in chimps ended up between the legs, where a big swelling would make it hard to walk – and a small swelling would be hard to see. So, Morris argued, the main female visual signals, and corresponding male interest, shifted up from the bottom to the chest.
If Playboy published editions for chimps and baboons, they would feature lots of rear views. Playboy Gelada, however, would be all about the frontal shots.
Later, back at camp, I met a group of four bachelor males who were foraging in the grass just beyond the kitchen tent. If these were Gombe baboons, they would be racing into the kitchen tent to steal all our food. But gelada monkeys don’t seem to care about our food. They were content to skirt the camp, just looking for grass and herbs to eat.
At one point, I heard strange high-pitched calls coming from up the hill. The gelada bachelors noticed too – they looked up and stared towards the calls. Walking into camp, I found others looking up the hill. “Did you hear the wolves calling?” they asked.
So, just like when camping up in northern Minnesota, there’s a chance of hearing wolves here. But Ethiopian wolves are much smaller, and have a high-pitched whistling call, much different from the haunting howl of the gray wolf. Still, it was tremendously exciting to hear the call of these rare creatures, which only live in the Ethiopian highlands.
After we arrived, I took a little tour of Gelada camp: a scattering of tents at the head of a long, wide valley. There is a kitchen tent, a storage tent (tattered and torn from the relentless wind and sun; Tyler had bought a replacement for it in Addis), a little shower tent, a handful of tents for the researchers and staff, and a rough little latrine, screened off on the side towards camp, but open towards amazing views in other directions.
The bare heathland seemed more like Scotland than Africa, as if we had driven so high that we had somehow found a shortcut in the sky to Europe. But the dizzying view of the rift valley below made clear we were somewhere else entirely.
We piled our more vulnerable belongings inside the kitchen and storage tents to protect them from the rain.
Before long Peter returned from the field, where he had been collecting plants for nutritional analysis, and welcomed us to Guassa. We huddled in the kitchen tent and drank tea and ate peanut butter and honey sandwiches waiting for the rain to stop before setting up our own tent.
In the kitchen tent, I tried reading the labels in Amharic on the honey jars and tea bags. I could work out that honey was mar, water was wuha, and tea was shai, but couldn’t make out much else. Bedulu saw what I was doing and helped out, pronouncing the words for me. He asked in Amharic if I would be visiting the farms while here; unfortunately there wouldn’t be time for that.
Wanting to get the tent set up before nightfall, we eventually settled for a lull in the rain, rather than waiting for it to stop completely. We chose a spot that had been previously occupied, still marked by a bare patch on the ground. Fitting together poles and stakes with hands numb from cold and wet with rain brought back memories of camping trips in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters.
Once the tent was set up, I changed out of my rain-soaked town clothes and put on layers of field clothes. Even after the rain stopped, and even inside the kitchen tent, I kept my raincoat and hat on for warmth.
The other researchers gathered in by sundown, and we ate dinner: huge bowls of rice with a sauce of tomatoes and onions. Dinner started with placing big pots of rice and sauce in the center of the table, surrounded by bowls for the nine people in camp: Peter, the project co-director; Ethiopian staff Bedulu and Shoa; the outgoing volunteer, Taylor; the incoming volunteers, Carrie and Bryce; visiting researcher, Morgan; and Tyler and me.
Then one person served rice and sauce until each bowl was piled high with what seemed like enough food for three people in each bowl. Then the salt, chili sauce and berberi (the local spice, a dark orange in color) were passed around for flavor, and everyone ate and ate, not saying a word, just shoveling in the food. Everyone emptied their bowl, hungry from a long day’s work. Then we talked, telling stories about the monkeys and people of Guassa and other places we’d been, and drank tea. I drank several cups, trying to warm up, holding the mug close between sips to warm my body.
Conversation included the researchers’ names for local places and things. Where did the geladas sleep? Darjeeling, down by the Cliffs of Insanity. Some others might be sleeping in Norway. During some parts of the year, the monkeys eat Injury Berries, which despite their name are supposed to be not only harmless but very tasty.
By 8:00 I was nodding off, and soon we all went off to our separate tents. I snaked into my sleeping bag wearing heavy winter socks, field pants, t-shirt, and long-sleeved field shirt, with the collar turned up to warm my ears. Even with a wool blanket on top of my sleeping bag, I shivered with cold.
I slept in fits and starts. The tent shook in the wind, then beat like a drum when the rain fell. Having drunk all that tea before bedtime meant I had to get up repeatedly in the night, slip on my rain-soaked shoes, unzip the tent, and step outside for a bit in the howling wind and rain.
Yesterday we drove up from Addis Ababa to Guassa – up and up and up. Up out of the crowded streets and diesel fumes of the city into the open country, up winding roads. The main road has been paved now and traffic moved quickly.
We started at 7:00, packing our luggage and all the supplies Tyler had bought in town: a storage tent with long metal poles (tied to the roof of the car), two mattresses, bags of food for us and the other people in camp. Tyler let me ride shotgun so I could enjoy the views that he knew well from previous visits; he sat in the rear passenger seat snugly surrounded by mattresses and supplies.
Then we drove to the transport operator’s house to pay him for this trip, my return on Saturday, and Tyler’s return in six weeks. We were supposed to bring up cylinders of propane gas as well, but the driver was worried that would make the load too heavy for the car to make it up the steep road into camp, especially now that the rains have started.
Some things that make Ethiopia seem really different from other parts of Africa:
Horses. I don’t remember seeing anyone riding horses in East Africa. I’ve heard of horseback safaris in Kenya, but local people don’t have horses. But here we saw lots of horses: people riding thin little horses, the horses decorated with bright red tassels. Thin little horses pulling little carts with three or more people sitting across. I don’t know why more people don’t use horses in Africa – they seem much more economical than cars for subsistence farmers. Maybe disease is more of a problem for horses at lower elevations? Or they just never caught on?
Donkeys. Lots of donkeys, with huge loads strapped to their backs, wandering aimlessly about or being driven here or there. Many of them carried huge stacks of flattened, dried cow patties: fuel for the home fires. Loads that in East Africa would be piled up on a bicycle are carried by donkey here. Again, seems much more efficient to use pack animals. Some of the donkeys were very shaggy, which is very sensible given the cold here.
Cows. Most of the cows look similar to East African cows: long horns, big shoulder humps, usually reddish brown in color. But we passed a herd that looked like Wisconsin dairy cattle: white and black cows grazing in an open field.
On the road we sometimes passed the whole family herd on the move: horses, sheep, goats, and cattle all traveling together with the men, women and children herding them along, hitting them with sticks to get them to move away from oncoming cars.
The higher we climbed, the more fabric people wore wrapped around themselves: white cotton drapes with colorful trim at one end, worn wrapped around the shoulders, and sometimes wound around the head as a turban. Higher up people wore wool blankets over their shoulders. Starting to think I should have packed more winter gear…
The paved road, like many others in Africa, was built by the Chinese. I suppose much (if not most) of international aid is rather selfishly motivated. Much of American and European international aid seems directed to projects that make donors feel better about themselves, or to promote things they happen to care about, such as conserving wildlife. I suppose Chinese aid is just as selfishly motivated as Western aid, but roads at least seem a particularly useful, practical sort of aid. Road improvements make life easier in all sorts of ways for people. Though of course faster roads lead to more deaths, not just of people, but of gelada monkeys, Ethiopian wolves, and other wildlife.
Along the way, we passed cars and trucks in various stages of break-down and disaster. One truck with two trailers hung from a bridge, having plunged off the side of the road.
About halfway to Guassa, in terms of distance, we left the main road and took an unpaved little branch road that climbed steeply up into the hills. The car soon broke down. While the driver tinkered with the engine, Tyler showed me the plants growing alongside the road: lots of thyme, mint, dandelions, and various yellow, purple and red flowers, including red-hot pokers. Thyme grows all over Guassa.
“That’s the scariest plant I’ve ever seen,” Tyler said, pointing to a plant that had inch-long thorns growing right from its leaves.
We shared a Snickers bar (our first food of the day, since the hotel doesn’t serve breakfast until 8:00) and some water. The road had already climbed so far above the paved road winding below that trucks looked like toys.
The driver got the engine going again, and we climbed into the car, driving higher and higher. We passed through forests of Eucalyptus trees, plantations clinging to steep hillsides.
We climbed up high enough to see down into the Rift Valley, and what had seemed like amazing views before now seemed barely worthy of notice. Even with the dust and late dry season haze in the air, the valley floor seemed impossibly far away. Valley doesn’t even seem the right word for it — a valley is gentle and pleasant. This is more like a canyon, a chasm, a rent in the crust of the earth. This is what the view from Gombe would look like if someone pulled the plug on Lake Tanganyika.
Despite the views, lulled by a gentle rain and the long drive and jet lag, I dozed off.
Sometime later, I woke up, hearing Tyler calling out that there were geladas ahead. We stopped and looked out the window to see a small herd of monkeys foraging in the grass near a cell phone tower. I took pictures, excited to see geladas for the first time. Tyler kept his amusement to himself, knowing that these views of distant, shy monkeys were nothing compared to what we would see of the research monkeys.
Finally, after hours of driving through landscape dominated by human activities — farms, fields, houses, tree plantations — we reached the Guassa: a vast, open country of hills covered by grass, flowers, herbs, and strange Afro-montane plants like giant lobelias.
Guassa is the local word for the kind of grass used for thatching roofs. For the past 400 years, the local people have protected this land in order to ensure a supply of thatching. In doing so, they also conserved a rare patch of natural habitat, and some of the creatures that only live here, in the Abyssinian Highlands: gelada monkeys, Ethiopian wolves, and many other endemic species.
We passed the Wolf Lodge, where the few tourists that make it up this way stay, and where the Frankfurt Zoological Society supports the study and conservation of the Ethiopian wolves. A herd of gelada monkeys scrambled up the cliff near the lodge. Tyler thought the researchers must be nearby but we didn’t see them. We continued on towards camp.
The road wound on and on, up into the hills. Tyler called for the driver to stop, then got out and scouted around until he found the faint track that led away from the main road towards camp. We drove up this steep, rocky track, until we could see camp emerging, a scattering of tents nestled at the head of a broad valley. This was where Peter Fashing and Nga Nguyen have been studying gelada monkeys since 2005. Tyler spent 13 months working as a volunteer on their study before starting graduate school at Minnesota, and now he was back to start his PhD research.
The two men in camp, Shoa and Bedulu, welcomed us. They greeted Tyler especially warmly, clearly very happy to see him again. Speaking Amharic, they told Tyler that the others were still out in the field. They helped unload the car. We thanked the driver, confirmed that someone would be back to pick me up on Saturday, then watched him drive away. An augur buzzard hovered over the edge of the cliff above camp, perfectly still, like a kite, holding steady in the strong wind blowing up from the valley far below. The air smelled of thyme, and rain.
I’m sitting outside the Taitu Hotel in Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia. According to the paper I read over coffee this morning, Ethiopia is the second most populous country in Africa (with some 82 million people), and has the fifth fastest growing economy in the world. Addis is on a high plateau some 7700 feet up, and it’s chilly here.
The hotel is the oldest in Ethiopia, and is named after the Empress Taitu, who led a force of cannoneers against Italian invaders in the Battle of Adwa in 1896.
Ethiopia is unlike anywhere else I’ve been in Africa. In the 19th Century, when the European scramble for Africa subjected most of this vast continent to colonial rule, Ethiopia dealt the Italian invaders a humiliating defeat and maintained its independence. The Italians invaded again under Mussolini, and occupied Ethiopia for five years (1936-1941) before getting kicked out by the British, who restored Emperor Halie Selassie to the throne. Though Selassie was considered the second coming of the Messiah by Rastafarians, he was deposed by the Derg, who took over in 1974 and ruled Ethiopia as a People’s Republic until the end of the Cold War.
At the airport yesterday, we didn’t find the car the hotel had sent for us, so Tyler haggled with taxi drivers in Amharic. Our luggage didn’t all fit in the small car, so the driver tied my suitcases to the luggage rack on top of his car. Driving through the city felt much like driving through other African capitals in some ways, though very different in other ways. With about 3 million people, Addis is similar in size to Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. Like those cities, the winding roads are crowded with taxis, minivans, and people. The streets are lined with small shops with brightly colored signs. But here most signs are written in Amharic, which uses its own alphabet, based on the writing system for Ge’ez, the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Ge’ez has a longer history as a written language than English, with some early inscriptions dating back to the 5th century BC.
The Ge’ez script has roots in common with Hebrew and Arabic, but doesn’t look very much like either, and all the signs in these odd, lovely letters make clear that we’re in a different world now. I’ve been trying to learn the script, and spent time on the plane copying out whatever phrases I could find. Each letter represents a syllable rather than a consonant or vowel. With 33 consonants and 7 vowels, there are 231 different letters to learn, but they vary in a sort of systematic way. Syllables that start with “m,” for example, all have a pair of circles connected by a horizontal line, like a set of spectacles. If the spectacles are unadorned, the syllable is “mä.” If the spectacles have a handle on the right, like a lorgnette, then it’s the syllable “ma.”
At the airport, on the city streets, many different sorts of people mill about. Some people have jet-black skin, and look like they could be from southern Sudan or Uganda, while most others have lighter brown skin and narrow noses. Ethiopia is a diverse country, with many different languages and peoples, and stands at a crossroads between Africa and Arabia. At the hotel, some of the visitors are dressed in long white gowns and Arab headdresses.
After checking in, Tyler and I walked through the city for a while to get our bearings. Our hotel is in the Palazzo neighborhood, with many old buildings dating to the Italian occupation. Before we had gone fifty feet from the hotel, a young man called to me – “Hey, are you looking for something? I can sell you my sister.” At a street intersection not much further along, small children reached up to touch my hand, begging for money. A pair of vultures circled high overhead, and a pile of garbage smoldered on the street. The city air was hazy and acrid, smelling of diesel fumes and burning garbage. Further down, shiny new office buildings stood on wide, smoothly paved streets. Buildings under construction arose in a framework of scaffolding made of roughly lashed together saplings. At the intersection of two major streets stood a huge bore cannon that was fired once, cracking the barrel.
There are a few tourists here, and I saw one white United Nations car, but the place generally feels off the beaten track. We drank excellent coffee in a small café, and ate delicious local food for lunch and dinner at the hotel: spongy injera flatbread with different sauces, vegan for lunch and meaty for dinner. After dinner went to the hotel’s jazz club to see a local band playing straight-ahead American jazz-funk – songs including Stolen Moments, Footprints, and Freedom Jazz Dance. What a country!
According to the GPS map on the little screen on the seat in front of me, we’re flying over the North Atlantic now, midway between the spot where the Titanic went down in 1912, and the Corner Seamounts.
Usually when I fly to Africa, the first leg is a flight to Europe, usually overnight. Then, after an early morning layover in London, Brussels or Amsterdam, we board a southbound plane that flies all day to Nairobi, Entebbe, or Dar es Salaam. But today we’re flying on a Boeing 787, which can fly straight to Africa on a single tank of fuel. And instead of taking off in the afternoon or evening and flying overnight, we left Washington Dulles in the morning. After some 13 hours in the plane, we’ll arrive in Addis Ababa Sunday morning.
While much of the routine is familiar, there have been many changes over the past 20 years. When I first flew to Africa, they showed movies on a few small, dim screens in the forward section of the cabin. Now the back of every seat has its own screen with a choice of movies, television, and GPS maps.
It’s fun to watch the plane slowly crawl across the world on the GPS map. Twenty years ago, GPS technology was just becoming available for civilian use. Towards the end of my time in Kenya, Jeanne Altmann brought a GPS unit to Mpala to help map the baboon ranging patterns. It was an expensive, bulky, heavy box, and in those days the US government scrambled the signal so that all locations would be off by an unknown number of meters. But it pinpointed locations in a magical way. At the time, I had been drawing range maps onto photocopies of a map of the study area, estimating location with reference to map features like the meandering wall of the cliff, which snaked along in parallel to the Ewaso Ng’iro river, and the streams, roads, and bomas (corrals for cattle and sheep). When we got up into the plateau above the escarpment, landmarks disappeared, and my estimations of where we had gone got worse and worse. A GPS would have been nice to have!
All these new gadgets, like GPS wristwatches and handheld units with global terrain maps, make it seem like the field of primatology has moved quite slowly in comparison. We still do basically the same thing: following primates around, watching what they do, recording behavior as systematically as we can, trying to answer research questions that really haven’t changed all that much from the 1970s: Why do animals live in the sorts of social groups that they do? What explains differences in behavior between males and females? How does that relate to their ecology?
The questions are simple to state but hard to answer. Ecology, evolution and behavior are all complicated, with lots of moving parts, and it can take many years to get enough data on enough individuals to answer key questions. But even the field does move rather slowly, new tools like GPS technology have helped greatly. We can track locations precisely now. And just like in real estate, the three most important things in much of behavioral ecology are location, location, and location. Animals need food, safety, water, and mates, and the availability of all these key resources vary in space and time.
At Mpala, each day the baboons traveled a circuit, leaving the safety of the sleeping cliffs in the morning to search for food and returning to safety for the night. One of my favorite parts of studying baboons in Kenya was arriving at the top of the sleeping cliffs before dawn to watch the sun rise over Mount Kenya. The baboons seemed to enjoy the view too, basking in the sun’s rays to warm up from the cool night before starting their day’s search for food. But where to go? How do they decide? How does a group of 50 or 60 quarrelsome monkeys pick a path for the day?
Answering questions like these requires lots of good location data. And now they’ve got GPS units small enough to go on radio collars, enabling researchers to watch the daily paths of baboons and other animals, just as I’m watching the plane on the screen on the seat in front of me creep closer and closer to Africa.
Today I’m on the plane from Minneapolis to Washington, DC, the first leg of my journey to Africa, where I’ll be visiting Ethiopia and Tanzania.
Twenty years ago, I traveled to Africa for the first time, a few months after graduating from college. Everything was new to me then: the shots and pills for yellow fever, typhoid, malaria, and other tropical diseases; packing long sausage duffel bags with everything I thought I might need for a year of living in a tent; the long flights in which the trans-Atlantic flight to Europe was just a step along the way; trying to learn the basics of Swahili, a language that has somehow gained a reputation for being easy despite having half a dozen different noun classes and totally different grammar and vocabulary from European languages.
Back in 1992, I studied olive baboons at the Mpala Research Camp in the highlands northwest of Mount Kenya. Since then, I’ve spent about a third of my life in Africa. After ten months studying baboons in Kenya, I’ve spent years studying chimpanzees in Uganda and Tanzania. This summer, I’m returning to Gombe National Park in Tanzania, but first I’m traveling to a place that’s new to me: Guassa, in Ethiopia.
My graduate students are working at each of these sites. At Gombe, Lisa is studying food-associated calls of chimpanzees, and Andrea is studying sexual coercion among olive baboons at Gombe. I’ll be traveling to Guassa with Tyler, who will be studying intergroup aggression in gelada monkeys.
Packing for Africa this time involves packing for two totally different climates.
Gombe and Guassa both lie on the Great Rift Valley, a vast set of connected trenches that stretches 3,700 miles from Mozambique to Syria. That’s about as far as going from La Paz, at the southern tip of Baja California, all the way to Fairbanks, Alaska.
This steep, narrow, deep, long valley results from the forces of plate tectonics tearing Africa apart. Eventually, the Horn of Africa will become a big island off the coast of the rest of Africa, just as Madagascar peeled off from Africa some 135 million years ago.
Parts of this valley are underwater: the Dead Sea in Israel, the Red Sea, and the African Great Lakes.
Gombe stands on the edge of a flooded portion of the Great Rift Valley: Lake Tanganyika, the longest and second deepest lake in the world. The Great Lakes of North America pale in comparison to the African Great Lakes. Right now I’m flying over Lake Michigan, which is an impressive body of water, and it parts is over 900 feet deep. Lake Tanganyika, however, is nearly a mile deep, second only to Lake Baikal in Siberia (another rift valley lake).
People often ask me if it’s hot in Africa. What’s hard to grasp is just how huge and varied Africa is. Sure, some parts of it are hot – just like some parts of North America are hot. Getting off the plane in Dar es Salaam, on the east coast of Tanzania, the heat and humidity hit you like a wall.
But Africa is big enough to hold all of the United States, China, India, Japan, and much of Europe. It stretches from a bit further north than Nashville to as far south as Buenos Aires. And much of equatorial Africa lies on high plateaus, which are much cooler than the coastal lowlands.
At the lakeshore, Gombe is 780 m above sea level (about half a mile), and rises steeply up the rift escarpment to peaks up to 1,623 m (over a mile high). The temperature is pleasant year-round. Guassa, on the other hand, is over 3,000 m – over two miles high. From what I hear, it’s cold up there!
I know what I need to pack for Gombe: t-shirts, army surplus fatigues, Kosovo soccer cleats (the best shoes for keeping a person from sliding down the steep hills), and a waistpack for fieldwork, and swimsuit, fins, snorkel and mask for swimming in the lake.
But I’m less sure of what to pack for Guassa. The list of suggested field clothes includes a short-sleeved t-shirt, a long-sleeved t-shirt, a fleece jacket, a wind-proof jacket, raingear, long pants, long underwear, wool hat, a broad-rimmed white hat to go over that (apparently the gelada monkeys know that researchers wear white hats and are therefore safe to approach), and waterproof gumboots.
In the end I packed two suitcases: a big one for Guassa, and a smaller one for Gombe. I hope I’ve got what I need!