Weird he may be, but this little guy is king of the laundry line.

Weird he may be, but this guy is king of the laundry line.

The chameleon is a weird little dude.  From its roving eyes to its freaky feet, it has many characteristics that set it apart from your average lizard.

Adaptations

Chameleon eyes sit on raised stalks that rotate around.  Independently.  You may think it’s paying attention to you, a scary predator, but it is also following that tasty fly buzzing around.

Their tongues are lightning-quick, even if the rest of their bodies are sluggish from cold.  While other lizards wait to warm up for breakfast, chameleons can feast on insects early in the chilly morning.

Their zygodactyl feet have five toes split into two groups, all the better for grabbing branches and climbing trees.  Many of them have prehensile tails that also help them to hang out in the aboreal scene.

The prehensile tail:  good for holding tree branches and biology teacher thumbs.

The prehensile tail: good for holding tree branches and biology teacher thumbs.

They also have a funky walk:  a slow, lurching gait, as if it were grooving to disco music only it can hear.  I have no idea why it does this, but if I were a predator, I would certainly be put off.

A little dude, strutting his stuff.  Don't stop 'til you get enough, little buddy.

A little dude, strutting his stuff. Don’t stop ’til you get enough, little buddy.

Most famously, chameleons can change color, particularly the males.  Part of this is for camouflage, but much of it is for communication.  Like a full-bodied mood ring.  Guanine nanocrystals in their iridophores (think “iridescent cells”) rapidly change the overall color in some species (Teyssier, 2015).  When he’s relaxed, the crystals are close together and he’s a calm blue or green.  When he gets excited, the crystals spread apart and make him appear more red.  He can tell the ladies to come hither or tell competing males to back off.  He can warn other chameleons of predators in the vicinity. He can also regulate his temperature by increasing or decreasing the infra-red rays he absorbs.

Folklore

The unique qualities and behavior of the chameleon has landed it in the myths of many cultures.  In the Zulu culture of South Africa, God was happy with humans, so He sent the chameleon to deliver the message that they should live eternally.  But the chameleon dilly-dallied, eating or basking in the sun.  God had time to change His mind, and instead sent the lizard to tell humans that they would die.  The lizard was much faster than the chameleon in delivering its message, so humans are now mortal.

The lightning-quick tongue has also led people to believe that chameleons can smite their enemies with lightning. This belief and the association of chameleons with mortality have made many people afraid of them.  Not Eddie, though.  Eddie is a student at the school where we live, and his gentle nature with small children and small critters has earned my deep respect.  He’s a bit of a chameleon whisperer, coaxing them out of trees and off laundry lines and showing the little ones there is nothing to fear from this weird, fascinating lizard.

Judge a man by how he treats the wee ones.

Judge a man by how he treats the wee ones.

The South Peak in greener days.

The South Peak in greener days.

Winter is dry here.  This year, even the summer rains failed a bit, so the maize stalks are stunted and the grass is even dryer than normal.  There’ll be some skinny cows.

In September on Heritage Day, the school girls dress in their traditional Zulu costumes, everybody climbs the South Peak, and they pray for rain.  I am told that without fail, it rains on them as they return, breaking the dry season with life-giving if sometimes merciless water.

Mike and Colonel Tom tramping along the top.

Mike and Colonel Tom tramping along the top.

The South Peak is a bit more hiker-friendly than her sister the North Peak.  I can reach the first little knobby peak in about an hour from my house when I am determined.  The cow paths meander across the broad top; these “mountains” are really mesas, carved by erosion from layers of sedimentary and metamorphic rock.

Obligatory housemate selfie:  Mike, Colonel Tom, and me.

Obligatory hiking housemate selfie: Mike, Colonel Tom, and me.

I see more flowers up here than I see in the fields by the school, perhaps because they have not yet been munched by the goats.  While there are some dams along the sides, there are also springs at the top where I am surprised by mud and fresh green vegetation.

Sweet surprises on top.  Check out the boggy flora in the lower right!

Sweet surprises on top. Check out the boggy flora in the lower right!

You can see clouds from far away.  And lightning.  My first visit to the peak was a bit more exciting than I bargained for.  Whether you have prayed for it or not, if you see rain in the distance, haul down as quickly as you can.

Weather from the west.  Lightning!  Gotta scoot down!

Weather from the west. Lightning! Gotta scoot down!

North_peak

The Mountain.  Back in the summer when life was lush and green.

“There is magic in that mountain.”  I have heard that statement over and over again.  I get the full story from no one, but little tidbits of information here and there.

There are many small peaks in our area, but only one associated with this magic.  I hike near this peak several times a week and people ask me, “Aren’t you afraid?”  Of what, exactly?  Snakes?  Yes, we have cobras up here, but I grew up scouting for rattlesnakes, so I am cautious rather than fearful of snakes.  “Maybe there are other animals.”  Like what?  Cows, sheep, and goats run rampant up there, so I doubt there is any sort of predator.  Perhaps they mean the giant, multi-headed snake associated with the mountain.  The students here don’t quite believe in it, but they also don’t want to discount it.  They want to see with their own eyes.

One of the 12th graders told me that her mother saw the snake when she was a little girl.  A dark cloud shrouded the peak, and she saw a big, black snake go up into the clouds and then come racing back to the mountain as if it were trying to hide deep within it.  Shortly thereafter, stones fell from the sky.  The Nebraskan in me immediately thinks “tornado and hailstorm.”  The little girl in me thinks “giant snake smart enough to get out of the way.”

Enveloped in mist.  Get thee home.

Enveloped in mist. Get thee home.

When there is mist on the mountain, we know change is coming.  Weather changes, of course, but also life changes.  People also believe that the mountain brings weather, that thunderstorms originate from its very peak.

There are caves in the mountain.  I’ve been told that they run from the north peak all the way to the south peak.  Anyone who goes in too deep never comes out.  There is heat coming from those caves.  Our neighbor known affectionately as “Dlukula” said he’d take me to the caves some day.  I promise I won’t go in too far.

Seriously, how do cows get up here?

Seriously, how do cows get up here?

Dlukula took Tom and I up to the top.  I tried to find the way myself, but the last push is very steep.  You can see EVERYTHING up there:  faraway schools and other peaks famous from the Zulu wars.  You can also see some of Dlukula’s cattle.  I don’t know what path they took, but I admire their agility.  The students tell me that when something seems amiss, like a goat with four kids or a cow on top of the mountain, it is the giant snake transformed into a disguise.

As in the valley below, there is not much wildlife on the mountain.  The mammals are all livestock, but lizards abound and we even found a cobra.  It appeared to be a pacifist, so we left it alone.  The wildflowers that manage to escape the munching mouths of the ungulates are wildly spectacular.

Dlukula eats these like honeysuckle.

Dlukula eats these like honeysuckle.  I’m not convinced.

This photo doesn't even begin to show how pink this flower really is.

This photo doesn’t even begin to show how pink this flower really is.

There’s some kind of antenna or weather station at the peak.  Dlukula doesn’t know what it is.  He said a helicopter just landed one day and somebody installed it.  Tom and I are planning a return trip to check it out . . . with permission from the great snake, of course.

Colonel Tom with the north peak looming in the background.

Colonel Tom with the north peak looming in the background.

Rainforest in Murangu

It gets drier somewhere in the middle

The coastline at Bagamoyo

When I told people I was going to Tanzania this summer, at least half of them remarked, “Wow, it’ll be hot.”  Really?!?!?!  Hotter than a Georgia summer?

While most places near the Equator are hot and jungle-y, east Africa tends to be much cooler and drier.  The plate tectonics that made the Great Rift Valley, the great lakes of east Africa, and Mt. Kilimanjaro have left Kenya and Tanzania high and dry (but not a desert, generally).  The high elevation in parts of these countries make the temperature nice and mild.  Mountains to the west also block the west African monsoons, leaving a drier, less humid climate compared to west Africa or South America.  Plus, June and July tend to be the cool season for most places in Tanzania.

Yes, I went to the Equator to escape the Georgia summer heat.

Topography dictates climate here.  There are rainforests in the highlands, arid regions in the central plateau, and hot, humid coastal regions.  By itself, Mt. Kilimanjaro has 5 major biomes as you climb up:  rainforest, heath, moorland, alpine desert, and the glaciated (for now, anyway) summit.

As we drove from Moshi to Dar es Salaam, the landscape changed quickly along the way.  Lush trees gave way to cactus-like Euphorbia and then again to coconut palms.

The socioeconomic status of the people changed, too.  Part of this change is politics, but a lot of it is the difference in biomes.  The mountain regions have lots of rain and good soil, so the population is much wealthier than that of the drier regions in the middle.  Even though delicious fruits come out of some of these dry places, much of it goes to waste because it either can’t be transported before it spoils (solar dryer!) or there’s no market transport them to (open up, world).  On the coast there are fishermen and lots of international trade (formerly ivory, gold, and slaves–a tale to be told in another post).

It’s not the Sahara, folks.  Tanzania is a country of biodiversity and cultural diversity.  Even in Zanzibar, I’ll be sitting more coolly than I would in Athens, GA.  Drinking coconut juice.