The last few Barn Swallows, bound for breeding areas in the farthest reaches of the Northern Hemisphere are, in these last few days of April, passing Mount Meru. This is three degrees South of the Equator. Most mornings we see them flickering overhead in ones and twos, occasionally in groups of up to six or seven. It looks like they are heading straight for the base of the misty blue volcano, whose amazing exploded cone surges fully three thousand metres upwards, above the gentle undulations of East Africa's plateau, here at an average elevation of 1300 metres.
A lot of birders grew up around industrial towns, many like me, near the cold grey Atlantic, in the north western quarter of Europe. Here for over half our days, through fully seven months of each year, suffocating grey opaqueness obliterated the blueness of the sky, separating us from the heaven above.
I think that is why, for some child birders of the seventies, the Roller, together with other 'southern' birds from the middle pages of our Peterson's Guide (let's not forget Guy Mountfort and Phil Hollom) birds like the Kingfisher, the Bee-eater, the Hoopoe and the Golden Oriole became totems, symbols of optimism. So colourful and yet Real European birds. Glowing with warmth, freedom personified and proof (to spite the grey uniformity of town and school) that life was well worth living. To this day, even living as I do now in the riotous exhuberance of Equatorial Africa, just catching a glimpse of the vibrant, sky blues of our roller never fails to spark a thrill in that child's heart within. Although I was in fact already seventeen before, at long last, I met the roller-being in question.
Vejer de la Frontera, southern Andalucia. A bright Sunday morning at Easter 1973.
Lucky us! We had just flown-in Iberia from Manchester, while he of course had made it by himself, very recently arrived from exotic African lands. I was on a manic early listing mission; though he was much more focused, carefully scanning the open ground beneath his telegraph wire for trundling dung and darkling beetles. Oily black insects caught out in the open, crossing the soft warm earth of rabbit mounds, along a lumpy limestone lane.
Along that village track, beside one of Franco's own great wheat fields, bloomed an unruly renaissance of brilliant buzzing Easter flowers. Legumes mostly; deep blue vetches and blood red Italian sainfoin, surpassed only by the whispering pagan spires of purple viper's bugloss, almost knee high in the verge. Humming, smiling, they were witness to grumpy old ladies, robed in colourless black, who hurried past squint-eyed, up the steep lane, to those bells of a Roman gong.
My next roller meeting became as indelible as the first. Another in-bound April migrant, it was in an ancient olive grove, on a sun-drenched hillside, beside the hazy blue Adriatic in northern Corfu two years later. I was still dizzy after my first ever encounter with a male Pallid Harrier; a silent ballet in bright white sunshine who had just floated past me on the softest of spring breezes, both of us crossing a wet-footed field of tiny, white and wild narcissus. The budding wayside elms and rufous Nightingales were still ringing in my eyes and ears when I decided to take a drier short cut 'home', through a stony maquis-thicket, into those scattered twisted olives. And there was the Roller, on a bare grey antler branch etched against the sky. Thickset, powerful, a square-headed bird with a serious beak and sharply knowing eye, a distillation of blues and rufous tan, and then in a wonderfully reckless flight yet more blues, ecstatic indigos, simply beauty beyond belief.
For a youthful naturalist (currently a shrinking minority and increasingly impoverished, in our rich northern societies) it might be the simultaneous stimulation of all our senses that almost seems to crystallize and thereby fasten such memories. This Serves to ensure our allegiance to Nature, so that we will for ever require and seek out the wonder and yes! the glory in nature. Searching for "most wanted birds", whether they be rollers or any desired 'species', can expose one's inner egoistic-conversational world to the subtle yet fundamental forces of the outer living world - nature as the great reality: all around, impinging on you, from all sides, from underfoot and overhead.
At last yesterday, Friday November 10, at ten in the morning, Dismus and I trundled away from the seething mass of bureaucratic compromises that daily permeates existence here in the city of Arusha. In less than an hour, fossil oils fueling the old blue Land Rover, we had put a million years between ourselves and the dark-day rain puddles of the twenty first century African street. Yes! We were back in the sparkling silence of a little desert, the one that is called Angyata Osugat.
Angyata in the Maasai language means a treeless expanse - a type of steppe to the ecologically-minded; and Osugat their name for the seasonal watercourse (a korongo or wadi) that drains the area northeastwards toward Lake Amboseli, just inside Kenya territory. The Angyata of the Osugat is indeed a unique fragment of the earth's surface, lying as it does between three towering volcanic giants: Kilimanjaro to the east, Longido to the north and Meru to the south - one that I have come to call in these gladiatorial days "The Arena of the Larks".