the buffalo on the mountain
Words and photographs by Tito West
There is a mountain in East Africa that rises out of the arid plains near Arusha like an ancient monument that stretches into the heavens, providing those who reach its summit with a view of the Rift Valley as it must have looked in the beginning, when Ngai created it. And from that great height you start to understand the connection that weaves through all things and all places. From there, the valley looks lush and green and it is only when you are down lower that things take on a different look.
The Masai have lived on the valley floor for thousands of years. In the old days they could move freely with their cattle, following the rains across southern Kenya and northern Tanganyika, allowing the grazed earth to grow new again. It goes without saying that those days are long gone. The Masai no longer move as far, nor as often. Some no longer move at all. And so the ground their livestock graze is well trodden and, in some places, completely barren. Dust reigns where vast savannas once stretched to the distant horizon. The only thing that seems to thrive now is the dense thorn scrub.
But the mountain, the mountain is different. It's not a famous mountain. It lacks the notoriety bestowed upon some of its more famous cousins like Meru or Kilimanjaro, or even Lossimingor or Lengai. And the environment here is different too. It's not the dense and lush rainforest you find on those other mountains, but rather something more similar to what you’d expect to find on the valley floor. In fact, the mountain is the valley floor, risen to it’s now great heights by the geologic forces that rippled across this part of Africa some 25 million years ago. And, as all mountains do, this one contains its own falsities, deceiving the viewer into believing that the incline is linear from valley to summit, but in reality the mountain is a series of ups and downs with huge terraces of flat ground in between. It is here that the wildlife has retreated to find sanctuary in the abundance of grass and the absence of both people and livestock and these variables have created a sort of Eden, a savanna in the sky where the wildlife flourishes with the buffalo in particular growing as much as 10 to 15% larger in body size.
To some degree, this is what we had come seeking, but in reality we are all here for our own reasons, none of which concern the buffalo. He is merely a symbol in the search for something deeper, something truer.
He had come to Africa to fight the pain of losing his wife to cancer. She’d been gone nearly two years and the kids were grown and out of the house and he was learning to live again on his own — so he let himself be talked into going on safari. He was full of the typical comments from first-time safari-goers about how wonderful Africa was and about how it had changed him and he wasn’t wrong, but it isn’t until you leave Africa that you truly begin to love her because time and separation are necessary to appreciate what you’ve experienced. He was a man who loved his wife fully and completely when she was here and he’s learning that love continues to grow even after we think it’s gone. The loss is what teaches us to love and, once you’ve experienced it, you know that nothing you love is ever permanent and so you are able to love more deeply.