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Meet the fish that happily live in the lake that turns birds to stone

Perhaps you have recently heard about Tanzania's Lake Natron, a body of water that has become famous on the Internet over the last couple of days because of the work of artist Nick Brandt, who took some eerie, posed photos of the calcified corpses of birds that he found along the lake's shore.

Natron, the stuff for which the lake is named, should also sound a bit familiar to you. That's because it's the mineral salt the ancient Egyptians used as part of their mummification rituals. (In fact, they used to harvest it from dry lake beds — Lake Natron isn't the only lake in Africa that's home to large quantities of naturally occurring natron.) It's both a serious drying agent and anti-bacterial, so immersion in natron can suck all the moisture out of a dead body while simultaneously preserving it against the ravages of microorganisms. As far as I can tell, that's what you're seeing in Brandt's creepy photos — birds and bats that look like Tim Burton's garden statuary, but are actually just mummified (and then propped up for artistic purposes).

Which brings us back to the video above. If Lake Natron mummifies birds, how do the fish survive?

Read the rest

Trapping Africa's animals — on camera

This great shot of a cheetah family comes from the Serengeti camera traps set up by University of Minnesota researcher Ali Swanson. The cameras are activated by heat and motion, and Swanson uses the help of citizen scientists to sort through the many, many pictures and identify species — a process that helps the scientists learn how those other big animals interact with the prides of lions that live in Tanzania's Serengeti National Park.

Check out some other great photos from the camera traps at Minnesota Public Radio's Daily Circuit blog. (I'm a big fan of the dueling buffalo.)

Head to Snapshot Serengeti to help scientists learn about how animals live.

After 20 years, a former teacher returns to Tanzania

Frank Bures is a friend of mine here in the Twin Cities. He's also one of the best travel writers I've ever had the pleasure of meeting. You might remember his work from a post a couple of years ago, about Bigfoot hunting in northern Minnesota.

He has a more-serious piece out in the recent issue of The Washington Post magazine. Twenty years ago, Frank spent a little over a year working as an English teacher in Tanzania, just outside the town of Arusha. Recently, he went back, both to re-connect with the people he'd met so many years ago, and to make a trip he'd always regretted not taking the first time around—climb Mount Meru.

Unlike most people who travel to Tanzania, I had no desire to climb Kilimanjaro, which seemed like an overrun fundraising cliche. But Meru was different. Meru was difficult, unforgiving, temperamental, with an air of hard beauty and mystery.

Our bus rolled forward, and I stared out the window at the mountain’s outline. After all these years, it looked the same, though much else had changed. Seeing it again reminded me of my last glimpse of it through a bus window, and of the ache of departure, of the bitterness of leaving all my friends and students and neighbors, but also of the sweetness of having known them.

This was a reunion of several kinds. After too long I was back in this place — to reconnect with people, to find out how things had changed.

But also, I was finally here to meet the mountain.

This is a long read, but worthwhile. At it's heart is a story you don't often hear about Tanzania, and other African countries. Turns out, some of the biggest changes that have happened over the last 20 years have been economic. In a good way. When Frank returns to Arusha, he finds that many of his former students have pulled themselves into the middle class. They're creating comfortable, happy lives for themselves and making their own country better.

In the photo above (taken by Washington Post photographer Sarah Elliot), you can see Simon Moses, and his wife Nai, in front of the home they built themselves. Moses was one of Frank's students. Twenty years ago, he asked Frank to take him to America, because he was afraid of having no future in Arusha. Today, Moses owns a travel company. His wife is an accountant.

Read the rest of Frank's story in The Washington Post.

Via Doug Mack