Cool grey skies hang their high curtain above the savannah this morning. Scarcely any flash of colour. Just pale grassland, reaching as far as the eye can see, the horizon broken only by the gentle rise of distant hills and the lonely spread of a guardian acacia tree.
We rumble on, the tyres of the Land Rover clawing restlessly at the gravel. A shroud of pink is forming slowly in the east, where an invisible sun is lightening the underbelly of rippled cloud like some low energy lightbulb down a lonely corridor – weak and inept at first, then adding detail with every second.
Dawn on the Masai Mara – daybreak over one of the last wildernesses on Earth.
‘… So often I had felt irritated with people who arrived here, lived in “little Europe” or “little America” (in luxury hotels), and departed, bragging later that they had been to Africa, a place in reality they had never seen.’
Ryszard Kapuscinski – The Shadow of the Sun: My African Life.
* * * * *
The sun is low in an African sky and my subcutaneous fat and I are running down the road.
The Indian Ocean lies behind me now, and with it the easy lifestyle of the North. The beach hotel. Comfort. Contentment. Ignorance.
And in front of me ? Adventure, uncertainty. Guilt. A touch of fear.
The night air presses hot and thick outside the windows. The ancient bus groans and heaves itself another mile along the road. It’s four a.m.
A slim throw of light weaves ahead, as we slalom around endless potholes, the creaking chassis of the bus vibrating stiffly with every bounce of broken shocks.
And beyond our beam, it’s only darkness. As black as pitch – there is no distant orange streetlight glow here; no twinkling, reassuring glimmer of a distant homestead to break the gloom.
The rain is falling softly now, sluicing insistently down the windscreen. There are no wipers on the bus. But after a while, the drops somehow reassemble a filmy view of the road in front, and it doesn’t matter any more.
This is the main East African coastal highway – but don’t imagine any shiny roadsigns to announce that fact. No white lines, nor other traffic, either. Just deeply pitted, decaying tarmac. Puddles and blackness stretching far ahead.
My dream had come true – a request to write a journal editorial about Africa, and it had arrived on the same day that Bono edited The Independent, too.
‘May I say without guile, I am as sick of messianic rock stars as the next man, woman or child.’ Those are Bono’s words from 16 May, but substitute ‘geologists’ for ‘rock stars’ (they’re almost synonyms, after all) and perhaps you’ll soon agree.
The African geology conference in London earlier this month placed the wonders of the continent firmly at centre stage. I’ve been fortunate to witness something of African geology from Cape Bon to the Cape of Good Hope, and my geological travels have revealed many highlights in between, from the souk in Tripoli and the coffin shop in Tema, Ghana (Planned City at the Centre of the World) to the snow-capped High Atlas peaks rising beyond Marrakech.
And one of my most formative experiences as a geologist and a politically-conscious human being was a summer spent on a diamond prospect in the darkest Karoo.
So what have the musings of a messianic rock star like Bono to do with life as an explorationist?
The road from Marrakech.
Traversing a flat and featureless plain stretching southeast from the city. Empty. Just bare soil, patchy scrub, a village or two, and a few goats.
And always ahead is the grey outline of the mountains, rising slowly in front of us. They beckon silently with an understated call, and it’s only half an hour from the city that the scale of their promise is revealed.
For the Atlas Mountains are no mid-continental ripple – that much is clear as soon as the blue haze crystallises above the foothills to uncover the height of the snow-capped range behind.
The late October evening is already falling as I start my run. It’s only two weeks since my last marathon, and it’s not certain that I should be out at all, but the warm weather is just too insistent to ignore.
The streets are already busy here, with people hungrily rushing home to eat. I dodge the scurrying pedestrians waiting at the lights, and scamper across the road through a gap in the traffic.
It’s easy running, past the tower and out through the city walls, into the open countryside beyond. The sky’s been clear and blue all day, but now has turned opaque, a smoky grey canopy to drape the hills to the west of town.