The butterfly in me …

A few weeks ago I went to the IMAX theatre at the Museum of Civilization in Hull to see the movie “Flight of the Butterflies”.  In addition to being a visually spectacular film in 3D it told another amazing story.

Monarch butterfies weighing only a few grams migrate from our back yards in Ontario to one particular spot in Mexico where they spend the “winter” months.  They then fly back to the southern US where they lay eggs and a new generation is formed which makes the second migratory loop to the northern parts of North America.  The generation that goes through the egg/caterpillar/pupa/butterfly phase here in Canada is the one that goes back to Mexico.  This journey is incredible enough, given the size of the delicate butterfly and the distance traveled.  But even more unbelievable is that the butterfly that migrates back to Mexico has never been there. It was her grandmother that spent the previous winter at the same location.

What could be the explanation for this?  There must be something inate that leads the butterfly to Mexico – something in its DNA that acted as a homeing GPS.

I have often found it remarkable that caucasian visitors from the northern hemisphere (including me) who visit East Africa are drawn to return there.  I have this unusual inner voice drawing me back repeatedly.  I have often wondered what this is all about.

Now I know.  Or think I do.

I imagine that there is some little piece of my DNA that knows where I came from – not last year but hundreds of thousands of years ago.  I think that some of us have some tiny piece of genetic material that recognizes East Africa as the place of our origin and, although we are not a migrating species, there is some biological inner voice that draws us there.  If it can happen to a Monarch Buttefly or Pacific Salmon, why not us.

Homo Habilis Maxilla

This is an actual 1.5 million year old maxilla and teeth from Homo habilis – one of my extended family members?

I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to wander in the Rift Valley where humanity originated.  In a little museum in Arusha Tanzania, I have seen part of a 1.5 million-year-old skull of Homo habilis – one of my great, great, great, great, great, …x many greats ……..  grandparents, perhaps.

Science supports the idea that all humanity originated in East Africa.   It makes me wonder – does my DNA remember this in some primitive way and that is why, like the butterfly that returns to the place of its ancestors without a map, I am drawn to return to the Rift Valley of Kenya?

It is, I am sure,  my ancestral home.

The Rift Valley of Kenya - I am drawn to this place like a magnet is pulling me there.

The Rift Valley of Kenya – I am drawn to this place like a magnet is pulling me there.

Vacation on the Equator in July?

While Canadians sweat it out on the 45th parallel with July temperatures around 30 degrees Celcius, can you imagine what it is like on the Maasai Mara in Kenya, just below the equator?

Well, it is fantastic! Daytime temperatures in Kenya are around 24 degrees during the day in July and dip to a comfortable level in the teens at night. It is perfect weather and generally not rainy, either. My African friends complain that it is cool and call it their “winter”.

Giraffes on the Maasai MaraCombine that with the fact that it is summer vacation time here in North America and it makes the ideal time to travel to East Africa on a holiday.

The weather in East Africa has traditionally followed the pattern of having two rainy seasons, one in October to December and one in April and May. And when it rains in Africa, it rains.

During the dry season the ground gets packed down and hard and the first rains flow over the land in rivulets, causing great furrows in the roads and problems with erosion. So avoiding the rainy seasons are a good idea if you are planning a safari. Unfortunately, the weather conditions have become less reliable with climate change and rains tend to occur a bit more unpredictably.

But, in general, July and August and January and February remain pleasant and relatively dry.

Added to this weather appeal is the fact that the famous Wildebeest migration happens in July and August. Two million of these oddly constructed creatures migrate from the Serengeti in Tanzania to the Maasai Mara in Kenya, bringing with them hordes of zebras and enticing carnivores like lions to activley gorge themselves with the plenty. Even the crocodiles in the Mara River wake up for this passage, feeding while they can and then lying dormant for months between feeds.

The Indian Ocean coast, by comparison, is hot all year through. If you like to swim in the ocean or scuba dive or snorkel, the clear reef waters are the perfect place for a beach vacation.

Another unusual thing is that, despite it seeming quite summery, the days remain on an almost 12 hour cycle throughtout the whole year. The sun comes up between 6:30 and 7 in the morning and sets between 6:30 and 7 all year round. Early to bed and early to rise is the habit.

The only down side of traveling in July and August is that it is a more expensive time to fly to Nairobi since all the flights from North America tend to bounce through Europe and connect from there south. Being the peak season for travel in the Northern Hemisphere adds to the cost.

Wanting a trip of a lifetime? Kenya in July might fit the bill.

I took my “once in a lifetime” visit to Kenya in July 2003. I have been back to East Africa ten times since that trip. Indeed, it was a safari that changed my life forever.