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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation. In January 2018 I was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for 'service to conservation and the environment'.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Thoughts of Waza: part 1

This posting is in memory of a place that I had the fortune to visit a few years ago - a fortune that will not be shared by other western visitors for a long time to come, it would sadly seem. My stimulus for this posting was a depressing news story from the first day of 2015.

Back in 2008 I had the privilege of exploring Cameroon with the excellent Rockjumpers, a South African-based birding company. It was probably the toughest trip I've ever undertaken, very challenging birding conditions in a country suffering from crumbling infrastructure dating from French and English colonial times, widespread corruption, including regular police roadblocks whose sole purpose seemed to be wage-augmentation, and a president dedicated to maintaining power for life (this year marks Paul Biya's 33rd year in change), though he is at least elected. At the time I was there, there had been transport strikes recently, put down with violence, and renewed rumblings as we were leaving led to much more threatening road blocks and checks.

On the other hand our interactions with civilian locals were always cordial, there was little evident sign of crushing poverty (though in the rural north life was clearly demanding) and Moslem and Christian communities apparently coexisted amicably. And the land itself is superb, with habitats ranging from semi-desert to rich dry woodlands to riverine forests to mountain rainforest to lovely coasts on the Gulf of Guinea.

A highlight for me was our trip to the far north, to Waza National Park in the Sahel (the arid woodland belt that crosses Africa from west to east, bordering the Sahara to the south). The heat was like a wall, and towards the end of our stay I got as sick as I recall being for a day or three - but, that's part of travelling, especially in less-developed countries.
The red arrow points to Waza village and National Park in the far north of Cameroon.
The key thing to note on this map in the context of this posting is the immediate adjacency of Nigeria in the west. Until 2013 a small but regular flow of tourists found its way to Waza for the vast landscapes and rich wildlife. All that ended in February of that year when the French Moulin-Fournier family - three adults and four children - were kidnapped by Boko Haram insurgents crossing the border. They were released two months later amidst claims that money had been paid to the Boko Haram cause (claims strongly denied by the French government). The flow of tourists - and the money they put into the local economy - stopped right then. In May 2013 ten Chinese engineers were also snatched from Waza and later released. And only a few days ago, on 1 January, a local bus was attacked on the main road south from Waza and at least eleven people killed. It seems to be Boko Haram's intent to destroy peaceful existence in northern Cameroon; one can only worry about their plans for the rest of the country.

However, the point of this post is to share my memories and images of this part of the world which is now off limits to us.

We drove from the south, from the 200,000-strong regional capital of Maroua, a distance of just 120km but on the appallingly pot-holed roads that's a journey of several hours - and of course we were stopping to look for birds. The gardens and spreading village trees of a bit further south have dried up in this area. The Moslem influence gets stronger to the north, though there are regular signs to '├ęglise evangelique'. Trees are low and sparse and unsustainable firewood collection looked to me to be a very serious problem indeed, especially as regular grass-bound bundles by the roadside awaiting collection indicated that much of it was for the city market. 
Transporting firewood; after visiting the Waza region I am convinced that there is nothing that cannot
be moved on a bicycle!
 The land is dotted with granite and volcanic outcrops. .
Rocky arid landscapes, Maroua-Waza road.

Somewhere which must have been near to - and very similar to - the murderous recent bus attack, we stopped to search the sparse scrubland for the mysterious and elusive Quail-plover Ortyxelos meiffrenii. It took some time, but we eventually succeeded.
A tough country, for birds and birders.
The hazy conditions, which made photography a bit smudgy,
belie just how hot it was.

Quail-plover south of Waza, a very interesting little desert-specialist. Fortunately for birders it is scattered,
though sparsely, right across this level of Africa; it will probably be many bird generations before this one's
descendants are again seen by visitors. It is apparently unequivocally a button-quail (family Turnicidae)
but doesn't at all give that impression, with its oddly bouncy flight.
While searching, other hardy desert-dwellers were encountered too.
One shouldn't get too easily distracted by wildlife - the plants, especially the acacias (above and below), are ferocious.
Capparis sp. The lovely flowers of the caper genus can be found widely in both
Old and New World tropics and subtropics.
Beautifully camouflaged grasshopper.
Dragon lizard, Family Agamidae; the family is found across Africa, Asia and Australia.
Black-headed Lapwing Vanellus tectus; a most handsome plover, at home in very dry situations
as well as moister ones.
Rufous Scrub Robin Cercotrichas galactotes, another widespread species.
Speckle-fronted Weaver Sporopipes frontalis.A specialist in the hot arid Sahel conditions.
And here I'll leave it for today. I feel quite unsettled at the idea that the apparently pointless slaughter of local villagers, perhaps people who waved to us as we passed that day, took place very near to where these photos were taken.

Next time I'll move just a little further north and introduce you to Waza itself - or at least Waza as it was just a few years ago.



The happy wanderer. said...

It is really sad what happens in some of these countries, and the people suffer though no fault of their own.

Flabmeister said...

My favourite "use of a bicycle" image was sent by a friend posted to Honiara. He snapped a melanesian gent riding along with a 1.5m crocodile in the position we would reserve for a backpack!

In Tanzania something of the order of 85% of fuel for cooking was either wood or charcoal. This - plus population growth needing more farms - was leading to rapid deforestation. We were told that 4 sacks of charcoal - the average bike load - weighed about 80kgs and the blokes would ride 60+ kms to get that to a sale point. The bikes were definitely more like that of Mary Poppins than Cadel Evans.