A Window Into Eternity

To see ten thousand animals untamed and not branded with the symbols of human commerce is like scaling an unconquered mountain for the first time, or like finding a forest without roads or footpaths, or the blemish of an axe. You know then what you had always been told — that the world once lived and grew without adding machines and newsprint and brick-walled streets and the tyranny of clocks. –– Beryl Markham, West With the Night

There is a dilapidated bridge on the dirt road that connects Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Conservation Area with the rolling grasslands of the Serengeti. It spans a gray, shallow, boulder-strewn creek bed that carries water for only a few days during the course of a typical year. A half dozen acacias shade its low banks near the road, but there are no trees in either direction as the dry stream winds its way into the adjacent plains. A sporadic procession of safari vehicles raises the dust along the road, coating the acacias — and everything else — with a fine veneer of charcoal colored grit, residue from the ancient volcanoes that dominated the landscape many eons ago. This barren and desolate savanna, haunting and beautiful in its way, is the uncontested birthplace of all humankind.

The Ngorongoro/Serengeti ecosystem lies at about two degrees south latitude, so the temperature variation from one month to the next is barely noticeable. There are two seasons, wet and dry. By late July the dry season is well underway. The days are hot, the land is arid, and the mid-afternoon skies are clear and featureless. It was on such a day a couple of decades back that I braved the heat and dust and stopped for a stretch in the tiny acacia grove on the banks of this nameless rivulet. During an extended lull in the safari traffic I slipped away to a midstream boulder with a bottle of water and found a place in the shade to savor the quiet. A half mile or so to the south, a pair of Masai boys was kicking up clouds of dust and brandishing their staffs as they shepherded a bawling mass of goats across an empty field. At that distance, through the shimmering heat waves and blowing sand, it was difficult to guess their ages, but it was likely that neither of them was much older than eight years. The Masai charge their children with enormous responsibility at an early age, entrusting them with the family’s wealth and one of their primary sources of food. This is a practice that probably hasn’t changed in centuries. I couldn’t help but think of my own sons at that age, operating under constant supervision as they packed their lunch boxes off to school, played T Ball and sat riveted to video games for hours at a time.

Young Masai boy keeping watch over the family treasure.

Closer by, an agama lizard was perched on the nearest rock of any size. He stared into the distance with his crimson head thrust high and his bluish-purple tail hanging free in the air. His eyes were wide and alert, but his focus was elsewhere. Neither threat nor prey, I was ignored completely, unworthy of his attention. Slightly insulted, I pointed a sunburned hand in his direction even though he was well out of reach. This gesture merited an unhurried response. The agama briefly turned in my direction, flicked his tongue and then slipped leisurely down the far side of his rock and wedged himself into a cranny in some nearby stones. He remained there for the duration of my sojourn, minding his business but poking out a curious head now and then to stare me down with a wildly rolling eye.

At one time, perhaps as recently as a hundred years ago, this part of Tanzania was populated with a stunning variety of wildlife. The wildebeest, zebra and Thomson’s gazelles would have migrated through in mind-boggling numbers in the rainy season and the great cats would have been present in force as well. Ernest Hemingway hunted here in the 1920s. In his stories he describes interactions with animals that are no longer found anywhere in this part of Africa — rhino, roan antelope, greater kudu, sable and wild dog. Nowadays a stray ungulate may pass through, but the lions and cheetahs seem to have disappeared for good.

The silence of my dry stream bed was periodically disturbed by a warm breeze that seemed to surge randomly from varying points of the compass and then die away suddenly and completely. It was in one of the silent intervals, between gusts, that I felt the first twinge of deja vu. I tried to conjure mental images of what the land must have been like before the invasions of the European colonizers and the Arab slave dealers, when the few humans here were an unobtrusive presence, well integrated into the environment and living compatibly with the land and the wildlife.

Solitary leopard on the hunt.

Even in that relatively recent time this would have been an active spot. In my mind I could see a leopard strolling the stream banks, gliding silently across the boulders or waiting in ambush in the acacia canopy. The zebra and wildebeest would have splashed loudly through here during the heart of the rainy season, trailing their young and nervously scanning the surroundings for indications of predators. A contingent of warriors could have crossed here in single file after a hunt, their dark spears pointed skyward in parallel with their slender bodies, heavily cloaked in the tribal colors. A family of elephants, led by an aging matriarch and wobbly with thirst, may have trekked in from the west, hoping to find a pool of water in this unreliable stream. How many times across the millennia would these occurrences been repeated on this very spot? So much life, so many generations — both human and animal, must have passed this way.

I reversed my seat on the boulder to access a view of the Ngorongoro Highlands behind me, trying to envision a time when those great but now dead volcanoes were active and spewing their fire across the land. Somewhere, off in the distance, was the Olduvai Gorge, where Louis and Mary Leakey discovered two million year old hominid fossils that are now recognized as remnants of our earliest ancestors. These proto-humans would certainly have left their footprints in the sand here, as they did at Laetoli and many other locations in this part of Tanzania. With this wild array of images surging through my thoughts came a moving and powerful sense of the age of this part of Africa. This land was unfathomably ancient, and now here sat a Missouri boy on a Serengeti boulder in the year 2001, looking out across the African steppe and through a window into eternity. With that epiphany came the odd the notion that I’d been here before, which, in an evolutionary sense, I had. That vague sense of deja vu may have been a subconscious recollection, an ancestral memory that’s somehow buried deeply within the souls of us all.

The Ngorongoro Highlands


Africa touches each of us in different ways. Of that I’m certain. There are people who go on safari, check the experience off the bucket list and then move on to the next item. Others are a bit more interested in the wildlife and enigmatic landscapes, and they may make a repeat visit one day, but their fascination falls well short of obsession. These travelers don’t feel the irresistible pull that afflicts so many. And then you have those like me, who are transfixed by the place and and whose every breathing hour revolves around the hope for another expedition. The nature of the appeal is not easy to define, but I think it’s fair to say that the fixation has multiple points of origin. The physical beauty of the land and wildlife requires no explication. It is documented in photographs, on film and in the exalted descriptions that span the centuries from Mungo Park to Jane Goodall. The people of East Africa are the warmest in the world. Not yet as burdened with electronic distractions as their first world counterparts, they are curious and sociable, always welcoming a conversation with a stranger from America. My obsession with the place encompasses all these elements, but there is definitely something more. It is a bond with the land that transcends the limits of the present.


It’s only natural that we seek to preserve that which we love. That’s why the unsettling prospects for the future of wild Africa are so personal to me. The continent is under pressure from an array of threats, the most immediate of which is a burgeoning human population. Both Kenya and Tanzania are home to over 50 million citizens, with each country’s numbers growing between 2.5% and 3% per year. We patronizing Americans feel compelled to urge the governments of these nations to conserve their natural wonders for the world and for posterity. We plead with them not to decimate their wildlife and habitat as we did ours in the formative years of our country. But people must live. And the greater the number of humans, the greater the requirement for land and food. We are often shocked by the lip service paid to conservation across the breadth of African leadership, and we are appalled by the bush meat trade that is now so pervasive among the continent’s poorest residents. But ultimately, it’s all a matter of perspective. The indigent African’s problems are more pressing than ours. As a high ranking Congolese official once forcefully told me … “If you were hungry enough, you would eat a wild animal.” Having never lived a hardscrabble day to day existence, I couldn’t deny the truth of his words.

China’s neo-colonialism is also an imminent danger. That nation’s designs on Africa’s bounty are a poorly kept secret. Their engineers, businessmen and advisors are present throughout the continent, and their heavy machinery can be found at work in even the most remote areas. Their efforts are masked under the guise of altruism — they are here to help — but their long range intentions are insidious. China is a dynamic, emerging country with an enormous appetite for natural resources that cannot be satisfied domestically. Africa seems ripe for the plucking, with great reserves of minerals and corrupt governments whose officials are susceptible to the financial rewards that so generously benefit those who cooperate with the Chinese.

The poaching of wildlife, perhaps the most chronic and wide-ranging of Africa’s many plagues, is largely driven by Asian markets. China is not the only guilty nation, but as always, they are the guiltiest. Elephant poaching was a rare event before the resurrection of the Chinese ivory carving industry in the 1990s. The consequent annihilation of African elephants has been outrageous and the ongoing rate of their destruction does not bode well for the future of the species. And it gets worse. The mindless belief in the mystical powers of the rhinoceros horn has resulted in the decimation of yet another of Africa’s icons. The current pace of rhino poaching seems to be holding steady at about a thousand per year, an especially alarming number since their total worldwide population is less than 20,000. Asia is also the primary market for the most heavily trafficked animal on earth, the reclusive pangolin. These shy, implausible creatures are illegally hunted for their scales and meat, and their numbers are dwindling rapidly. The cases cited in this paragraph are the the most egregious, but there are plenty of others. Sadly, no species of Africa’s wildlife can be be described as “thriving” at the present time.


If I’d pored over a map of East Africa as I rested under the branches of those Serengeti acacias twenty years ago, I would have found only isolated pockets of wilderness depicted in the shaded areas marking the region’s national parks and game reserves. The lines on the map may have changed very little in the interim two decades, but the boundaries of those refuges are now under a level of human pressure that no cartographer could ever hope to capture. And the scope of the damage to key species, extracted as trophies, medicine and food, is almost beyond our ability to calculate. So, as much as I hate to admit it, I can’t help but get the sense that wild Africa’s days are numbered. And I can’t imagine a sadder, more devastating commentary on the ravages of humankind than the destruction of our own physical and spiritual birthplace.

With that in mind, I think it’s important for those of us who suffer from the “Africa obsession” to record our impressions as best we can in both words and photographs. Hopefully, these efforts can in some way be leveraged to arrest or even reverse the ongoing damage to the continent’s last wild ecosystems. And if not, they can at least serve as a testimonial to the most unique, magnificent and mysterious stretch of earth in the history of creation.

This book is therefore dedicated to the preservation of what remains and to the memory of what is gone.

10 thoughts on “A Window Into Eternity”

  1. Very interesting and thought provoking chapter. Your dedication to saving Africa and its beauties is amazing! I look forward to the next chapter.

  2. Christy LeGrand

    I found your words so fascinating – your writing style but more importantly, your content. After seeing a tiny portion of what you have seen, I can understand your passion and drive. Thank you for standing up for maintaining this beauty and wonder.

  3. Taking us with you into the primitive areas of Africa and the precarious life of the animals in the preserves is a gift from you. Most of us will only experience this awesome part of our world through your pictures and words, and you certainly take us on an awesome journey.

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