Ol’ Dead Eyes is Back

A young Lappet-faced vulture tastes freedom of the skies for a few minutes before being returned to his captive state.

This raptor is among the most fear and respected of the many species of carrion feeders that provide an invaluable service to us and nature by being one of the few living things to be able to digest all but the most foul and pestilent bacteria on earth. With their beaks hard as diamond-tips, the huge lappet-faced vulture provides the vanguard role in disposing of a corpse, being one of the only raptors to have the strength and design to tear at tendon, sinew, and even cartilage.

 

On The Mountain of God

I remember rounding that bend and it coming into view, as plain as day. It wasn’t like any normal geological feature. By seeming to fuse beautifully with the ground beneath them, most uplands rise and fold and generally harmonise with the physique of the surrounding landscape. But not this bulge in the earth. Not Ol Doinyo Lengai. Lengai intrudes like a gigantic unwanted visitor. Its flanks, gouged with the long and drawn scars on the cheeks of a street fighter, jar with the green and rolling highlands around. Too volatile to keep its clothes on, too uncivilised to wear them in the first place, the mountain of God is bare and bold as belief itself.

For a full day, maybe two, my shuka-clad guide and I had threaded down on paths from the Crater Highlands. On the descent, the heat was incipient. It rose in small but profound shifts for every hundred metres or so dropped. Like a great fuck up in the joinery of the Earth, the Rift Valley was a natural sight as arresting as any. The thrusting up one side, the slumping down of the other, so pronounced were both that it was hard to tell which side of the rift had done the thrusting and which side the slumping.

As we descended onto the floor of what eventually becomes the boundless plains of the Serengeti, we lost the stature and the confidence that being on high ground had enabled us with. Contrastingly, it was Oldoinyo Lengai, the mountain of God, that rose in prominence. We were now standing on the same floor, no blocks under our feet to give that impression of fighting on equal terms. Born a stratovolcano and therefore devoid of facial form (forms like spurs and ridges, and bits that look a bit anthropomorphic if your strain your eyes hard enough), the mountain nevertheless looked on, taking the corner of my eye as its own. Rounding it, I was like a dog rounding a hackled opponent in the park. My eyes were fixed on it, and it on me. ‘I am going to the top of that,’ I muttered with a feeling of incredulity and a weary sigh of foreboding.

Now on the plains, Africa’s sun began to bite. We had traipsed all day and with temperatures topping 40 Celsius, even the leather-tough Masai said enough was enough. Calling on our jeep to come fetch us, for the last couple of kilometres to camp even scrawny trees appeared to offer a nod of understanding. In the wing mirror I caught a glance of it sliding away, that rumbling behemoth. We would be back the following night to tickle its flanks while hopefully it slumbered and let us do what bedbugs do while humans sleep on unwittingly. At this prospect I had misgivings. No slouch on the slopes I always considered myself, yet such misgivings I had rarely, if ever, felt. That was until now.

When dates are impending, they can leave us shaken and a whole lot stirred. When the following night arrived, our date was set. The afternoon had produced clear skies, but now that the equatorial night had plunged light into a bath of blackness we could sense a change in the weather. Pulling on those gloves, slipping into that climber’s cat suit, I felt like we were about to burgle the mountain.

‘Why are we climbing at midnight?’ I asked. ‘Do volcanoes only erupt during the day?’

‘It’s the heat,’ the Masai replied. ‘Cooler for climbing at night.’

‘Maybe so, but a whole lot darker, too.’

‘Don’t worry’, he foreswore. ‘You are safe with me.’ This he said holding his trademark sword by the hilt.

Over rough ground our jeep trundled until we reached the trailhead. One other jeep was there, its headlights trained on a sliver of mountain. The air was heavy and the moon raced across the sky. Darting behind walls of cloud, when it came into the open it cast a silvery accusation at the mountain. Barely able to look up for fear of what was to come, I kept my head low. It was then I noticed the first drops of rain on the bleached grass.

We started out well enough. My eyes on stalks, I did the natural thing by following my guide. Narrow beams of torchlight was all we had. Having done this before, he had that gait of a guy who just knows he’s going to make it. The incline started gentle, the floor of the lower flanks quite the strangest feel to the pitter-patter of human feet. Beneath our soles, the feel of it was akin to walking on glass. Sounding hollow, for some reason I adjudged that tiptoeing would not awaken the giant, as if creeping in my cat suit would improve my prospects, or change a damned thing.

Still the rain fell. Harder and steadier it came. From shower to unremitting rainfall, the carbonatite ground now turned into a paste. Beneath the paste was, as described, a weird substrate of thin ice or window glass. By now it was after midnight. No murmur was there from Lengai. Not a peep. This is why we climb a God at an unGodly hour, I surmised. Pitch black and alone, gauging height and position was all but impossible for me. My life was in my guide’s hands. After a while scaling ever steeper gradients, I grasped the ground, turned my head and, through the bombardment of rain through the beam, did see faint traces of light at the bottom of the mountain of God. ‘We have come far in short time’, I said to my guide. ‘No, he laughed. ‘We are still at the bottom.’

Soon enough, our hike became a scramble. The rain came down harder. The volcano rose to meet me nose to flank. It became apparent why gloves were the order of the day. Feet and feet alone were not going to suffice. Hands were deployed and the ascent took on a whole other complexion. Two limbs turned in to four. I had always thought that the pleasure in mountain hiking was that it was a hands-free experience, but this night was turning out different. Within two hours the gradient had gone from reasonable to completely unreasonable. The mountain of God might have been busying itself in answering prayer or meditation or whatever rock gods do, but by ensuring its slopes were not only slick but steep as shit, we had our work cut out. The trials of Job coupled with the labours of Heracles: and I was paying top dollar to be threatened with extinction by an anything-but-extinct zit on the face of the earth.

And so, up and up we went. My guide ahead, he paused periodically to check if I was still clinging on. Meanwhile, I could not help but look back and down. My clothes were soaked. The mountainside was by this point being drenched in a torrent of equatorial rain. Clumps of sticky carbonatite paste were coming away, like tufts from a chemo head, in my hands. Steadying oneself upright was turning into a nightmare. For once in my life I was wishing I were short and stocky and not tall and gangly.

Panic rising, about three-four hours up the mountain – 2,500m who can tell – I found myself alone. Craning my neck around in a moment I can only compare to the myth of ancient Greece when Orpheus, having rescued his lover, Eurydice, from the underworld, commits the fatal error of turning to look at her as she rises up behind him only to tumble back down forever, I saw the underworld with mine own eyes. The torch beam was powerful, but even it dissipated into the blackness immediately behind me. Initially I assumed it to be the void of night, before realising that the only void I was seeing was one involving the absence of solid earth behind. If you can imagine standing on a small meteor hurtling through deep space – that is exactly how it appeared to me.

To be continued……

A Life That Laughs Last Laughs Loudest

What does a man do with his life while he’s waiting for the real thing to get underway? He can start by picturing all the different scenarios of how it’s going to be, this life he envisages. He might take stock of where he is, what he’s got, where he’s going. He can even look around asking himself was I really meant for this? Did fate get the wrong man?

I never thought for one solitary moment it would cut this way. Never did I imagine I’d end up here by accident, far less on the permanent basis that it actually is. I remember seeing this land ten years back now. I was en route at the time to somewhere else, some place so unimaginably different, in every conceivable way, that I did not know that such a place as this one i was merely transiting through could exist on such a hot, barren and dusty land. When I set foot on that baking tarmac at that fast-expanding international airport it must have been for no more than a hour of getting off one big bird and onto the back of another. It seemed fitting that this place be the staging post and not the destination, for who would choose a destiny as this?

I can still see it now in the backroom of my mind. I visualize taxiing down that apron. The size and scale, not just of the surface area of the airport itself but of the ambitions that had gripped the powers-that-be in that young nation, were such that the bus from the jet to the terminal felt about as long as the flight from England to the airport had been. Even though there buzzed a certain energy to the place, I was not faintly interested in sharing their vision. To think of human history in an accelerated phase, the town was gripped in a frenzy of development, development of the kind that reminds you of a new pharaonic Egypt, built with hot haste and grandiosity by a vast army of freemen slaves under the discreet and watchful gaze of those city fathers plump with fabulous wealth and riches beyond the comprehension of the average Joe. Still, they could keep their gilded city at the edge of the empty quarter as far as i was concerned.

Distinctly unimpressed, I vowed not to miss that connecting flight. This transit town, although abuzz with the bold ambition of a late arrival eager to impress, would never be revisited by me as I saw it then. I and it were just too incompatible for a lengthier reunion. This place left its calling card alright. That card most closely resembled the king of diamonds, glittering the crassness that unlimited amounts of money can buy. That stench of ephemera. Even then I could see that it wouldn’t end well. Ozymandias writ large. What was now about to shine on the world stage would in the nearness of time (while London and Paris held on into a graceful senescence) be reduced to Shelley’s ‘colossal wreck, boundless and bare.

Nothing besides remains, not in a desert at any rate. When sand is ground down there is only dust.

The high entropy of all that sand would eventually rearrange the cosmetic face of this transit town, erasing all trace that we were once here. Nature’s infinite crystals would bring down man’s vanity, his attempts at immortality. At least, in my fertile, jet-lagged mind, that’s how I saw it. Fast forward ten years and those grand human designs were for the most part realised. That army of hired labour has been busy in the decade that intervened. The skyline is now a bric-a-brac effort of borrowed personality and epic proportions. My prophesy of never returning to a place so at odds with what I valued and how I saw the course of my own life rang hollow. But blown on the wind of globalization I did come back to that transit town to work and live. Oh the irony of it. Maybe if I vow never to set foot in the Redwoods of Northern California, I will end up there, too.

Well maybe it is just the time of year, Or maybe it’s the time of man, I don’t know who l am, But ya know life is for learning. Praise be, Joni, for sparing me the effort of summing it all up. Never knowing where the wind will blow us, we float. From place to place, time to time. And life is for learning. Look at me now sitting in this fancy apartment, not sixty miles from that transit town. Those cranes like derricks engorged with oil, I see them now as I was climbing the steps to board that plane. It could have been all my yesterdays ago. Like giant mantises praying on the far edges of the desert under a shimmering, jaundiced sky, I witnessed with fleetingness the birth of a nation. I am its age which, given the immortal life of the rock and sand on which it stands, sounds somewhat absurd.

So, the staging post became the destination. And the destination continues to elude. Life is funny that way. Not making its intentions clear until often it is too late to disagree.

 

Finding Dark Matter

Mise-en-scène: A party in full swing in a wild riverside wood by the banks of the Rhône in central Geneva. Being night, not much light radiates other than the fading embers of a campfire. A reluctant party-goer, the plan is to stand there, do nothing, and let the laws of attraction do its work. Those physical laws are no more ably demonstrated than by particle physicists. And this being Geneva, home to the world’s greatest particle accelerator, look who we have here at the party down by the river. We have none other than a rabble of scientists from the quasi-mystical kingdom of CERN. I fall into talking with a couple of them. They seem about as ill at ease with their sociable surroundings as me. Geekiness is alive and well on the banks of the Rhône.

One is Italian and bashfully claims to be doing the role of ‘standard model’ photocopying while the other is Mexican and claims to be brewing electrical currents so that the Atlas project can get up to full-speed smashing protons with evermore TeVs.

‘CERN?’ I explete.

‘Woah! Do you boys know Brian Cox?’

‘No. Should we?’

‘Well, yeah. Professor Brian Cox. He’s a playboy particle physicist in Britain. Man, he’s all over the TV popularizing the subject. I ask because he’s at CERN, too.’

The Italian delves deep into pockets and draws his weapon of choice, a smart phone. Busily he starts to type.

‘How do you spell that?’

I spellcheck his effort.

‘No, no. Not with a c-k-s. It’s Cox with the letter x.’

He might be au fait with quantum mechanics, but the mysteries of Engligh phonetics needs working on. Duly, i take the Italian’s phone and type in the famous physicist’s name. He and the Mexican buzz with eagerness.

For reasons unknown, it is the risqué keyword ‘C-O-C-K-S’ and not C-O-X that leads the google image search. Low and behold a montage of photos illuminates the night sky, making my face glow with humiliation. They are all of gay porn actors posing in various states of explicit gay sex.

These scientists from the world’s greatest lab are not impressed. In fact, they couldn’t be more vexed if two WWF wrestlers were put in the Large Hadron Collider and sent crashing belly on belly at fractionally near the speed of light.

An awkward wait for something cosmic to happen ensues, but them being CERN boys they’ll be used to that peculiar phenomenon.

Busy protesting my innocence, I fumble to rectify (rectum-fy?) my mistake only to hit the wrong note again. This time a picture flashes up on google images of a gay porn actor’s anus looking ripe for the taking.

I am mortified.

My attempts at unpicking this mess are looking desperate by the second. What must they think of this stranger with mind full of smut and intentions of malevalence and sodomy?

A tussle for the phone ensues. I win. This time there will be no accidental touch of the recent history list. Cox – C-O-X. No mistaking it this time.

After a tense pause while the image montage loads, up flashes the face of CERN’s most photographed son. I stare at his perma-smile with a mixture of relief and anger. Something impish in that grin suggests Prof Brian was in on the joke all along. Caught red-handed browsing male butts, It is hapless I who is the real big butt of Brian’s joke.

By the blackened banks of the river Rhone in Geneva, my CERN acquaintances and myself have discovered dark matter. But we didn’t need the hadron collider to make that scientific breakthrough. It was the hard-on collider, in this case.