Having returned from guiding my nineteenth gorilla trek in fourteen months, I thought I’d share some of the insight that I have gained so that if you are considering a trip to see mountain gorillas you have more than the standard info pack you might receive from standard operators.
I personally prefer trekking in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The experience is slightly less regimented, sometimes disorganized, but is undoubtedly more intimate. The history of the gorilla groups in this article therefore applies to the groups in DRC, however, the Mountain gorillas are essentially the same wherever you are in the Virunga Massif.
Below are some frequently asked questions (see my next post for some history into the make up of the six of the gorilla groups you’ll most likely visit in DRC):
How many species of gorillas are there?
There are 2 species of gorilla- the eastern gorilla (Gorilla beringei) and the western gorilla (Gorilla gorilla). The former is found in Virunga and split into two subspecies- the Mountain Gorilla of which half live in Virunga National Park, and the Eastern Lowland Gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri) found in northern parts of the park and in Kahuzi-Biega National Park south of Lake Kivu.
How many mountain gorillas are left in the wild?
This question is a bit of a misnomer because mountain gorillas don’t survive outside of the wild. In fact, the only place where they survive in captivity is at the orphanage at Mikeno Lodge. While the results of the 2016 census have not yet been released, the estimates are that there are now over 1,000 mountain gorillas in the wild, between Bwindi National Park in Uganda, and the Virunga Massif. Stay tuned for up-to date information.
How big is the area that the mountain gorillas live in?
The amount of land that mountain gorillas have in the Virunga massif is on 447km2. You can clearly see the pressure of humans on the land when you look at a satellite image of what is left of the forest. An initiative by the Virunga is buying land adjacent to the park to replant bamboo and expand the area available to the mountain gorillas.
The forest (East) of the N2 in DRC is home of the Mountain gorillas. As you can see, the area of land in DRC is much greater than that in Rwanda.
What do mountain gorillas eat?
Mountain gorillas are vegetarian but occasionally will raid a nest of safari ants (Dorylus sp). and sometimes eat mushrooms. They select from over 60 different species of plants but their favourite is bamboo which may make up to 90% of their diet during bamboo shoot season. The rest of the time, over 75% of their diet consists of 3 species:
(Galium ruwenzoriense, Peucedanum linderi, and Cardus nyassus). A big silverback can eat up to 30kg per day.
The blue sign represents the new park boundary for bamboo project. Expanding the habitat for Mountain Gorillas. The forest in the distance is the current park boundary and limit of Mountain Gorilla habitat.
Are gorillas territorial?
No. Mountain gorilla groups live in overlapping home ranges that vary in size from 3 to 34 km2 depending on group size and food availability. They tend to move less than 1 km per day, resting and feeding for about the same amount of time. Occasionally when they encounter other groups or danger they will travel further, but not usually more than 3 km in a day.
What do you mean by a silverback?
The term silverback refers to a full-grown male gorilla. Male gorillas mature somewhere between 9 and 10 years old. At this time they are already much bigger than the females and the hair on their backs begins to turn white or silver. Somewhere between 12 and 15 years old, they reach their full size and can now begin to compete for females. They are now considered a silverback.
Humba's son poses for the camera.
Who is Humba?
While the specific make up of each gorilla group is different, gorilla groups are led by a dominant silverback. It isn’t completely straight forward and there’s a lot that is going on that we can’t see, but it seems that females choose who to follow. Remember, these are highly intelligent primates. Dominant silverbacks will usually tolerate other silverbacks in their group either because they are their sons, but occasionally they will also tolerate non-related silverbacks in the group- it is after all advantageous to have a strong coalition when they do encounter other gorilla groups to help guard the females from being abducted or convinced to join the other group.
Silverbacks are very protective of their groups and will display and act violently towards perceived threats including lone males and other gorilla groups.
How do you tell the difference between a male and female gorilla?
It is actually quite difficult to tell the difference between a young male and young female gorilla unless you see the penis. Gorillas have internal testicles so you can’t go by that visual cue either. However, adult gorillas exhibit sexual dimorphism (the fancy word for males & females looking different)- mainly in size and the obvious “silver-back” of a fully mature male. An adult male gorilla can weigh more than 155 kg which is almost twice what a big female weighs (80kg). If you could look at their skulls, you’d also see that the males have bigger skulls with a very pronounced sagittal crest. This is the attachment for the chewing muscles. They also have fairly large canines.
What is a gorilla’s life like?
Babies are born after a 255-day gestation period. They weigh about 2kg at birth. Twins are sometimes born, but it is very stressful for the mother and they rarely survive. 18% of infants die in the first six months- and the mortality is higher in the wet season because of respiratory diseases. Another 16% will not make it to 3 years, but after that they have a good chance of surviving to adulthood (8 years).
Females mature at 7-9yrs and usually have their first baby at 10. From then on they have babies about every 4 years for the next 20 years.
When males mature, they will often leave the group they were born into and join small groups of males or become solitary hoping to start their own families. Mature females also leave the groups they were born into and either join other groups or solitary males to form new groups.
What is a typical day on a gorilla trek?
Usually somewhere between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. small bands of trackers and rangers head out to find the gorilla groups. They do this regardless of whether any tourist is going to visit for monitoring purposes. Because the gorillas tend not to move that far, the trackers head out to where they saw them last and begin tracking from there.
Meanwhile, back at the ranger’s station, you are waiting for the registration process to begin. You’ll have your permit in hand and you fill in your details including passport number into a book and then sit down to wait for a briefing. It is fairly simple in Virunga, because there are fewer groups, and fewer people visiting, so you all sit in one room and the head ranger explains gives a short explanation of the gorilla groups and which ones you will visit. When you are ready to go, the rangers distribute facial masks and ask you to sanitize your hands.
At this point if you would like a porter to help you with your bag (and hold your hand on the slippery slopes) they are waiting outside ($15 fee per porter paid directly to the porter). You can also buy a walking stick for $10.
Once this is done you head off on the walk. The rangers have a fairly good idea of how long it will take to get to each gorilla group so you head off through the fields adjacent to the park to one of the numerous paths that enter the forest. When you enter the beautiful forest you head along a network of paths to where the trackers have found the gorilla group that you will visit. The trek can be anywhere from 20 minutes to 3 hours. You leave your bags and take only your cameras. I recommend carrying an extra camera battery and memory card in your pocket because you will likely take a lot of photos and video. You will don your mask and slowly approach the mountain gorillas. The rangers will vocalize to the gorillas to let them know that everything is ok and you will begin your 1 hour with the gorillas. This is non-negotiable, but if you want to spend more than 1 hour per day with gorillas, and have a relatively good fitness level - contact me. In my experience, the rangers are keen to get you in good photographic opportunities so sticking close to them often gets you in the best places. Your hour will go by fast. Then it is time to head back to the ranger post where your trek ends.
Sometimes all you need is an iphone and a cool hat.
How should I behave in front of the gorillas?
Be silent in the presence of the gorillas.
No eating or drinking
Do not stare or point directly at the gorillas
NO FLASH photography
Follow the guide's instructions/actions.
Move slowly and calmly
Should the Silverback charge, do not run.
Keep behind the guides.
No children under 15 in Rwanda, no children under 12 in DRC (non-negotiable)
Wear the surgical mask provided by the rangers in the presence of the gorillas.
Gorillas are highly susceptible to most human diseases and if you are knowingly carrying a contagious disease (especially flu) please DO NOT attempt to trek. This is because they are so closely related to us: read this awesome article about how close we are.
How fit do I need to be and what if I can’t walk?
This is one of those questions where the ideal fitness and minimum fitness are going to differ greatly. Mountain gorillas are found above 1,800m above sea level (5900ft). The forest paths are uneven and can be slippery- and any given group could be from 500m to more than 10km from the ranger post. Of course it is very unlikely that you will find that all the groups are deep in the forest or far away- the shortest walk I ever did in DRC to see Humba was less than 200m, but I’ve also walked for 3hrs with fit people to get to a group. The rangers will take your fitness or ability to walk into consideration but you should be able to walk a couple miles and be able to deal with some hills. If you are unfit, definitely hire a porter to hold your hand. Remember, a lot of it is in your mind. If for one reason or another you cannot walk, but would like to see the gorillas, it is a great opportunity to inject some cash into the local economy. Many of the villages in DRC are inaccessibly by car so the people have large woven baskets called Kipois that they use to carry people who can’t walk (or royalty) to roads. It costs $250 to be carried to a gorilla group.
What should I wear for the gorilla trek?
The key things to think about when packing for Rwanda or Congo are as follows:
There is a high potential that you will encounter wet weather,
The trekking can be slippery and steep and you may need to scramble over fallen log.
There are stinging nettles in the forest that can be quite uncomfortable when brushed against, and there are safari ants known locally as Siafu that can also be unpleasant.
The essentials to wear:
Strong waterproof walking boots
Wicking sock liners and hiking socks- it is really useful if you can pull your socks up over your long trousers to prevent ants from crawling up your pants. Gators can be very useful as an option.
Long sleeved shirt (or risk nettles)
Long trousers/pants helps with nettles.
I often just wear my rain-pants over shorts.
Sunscreen SPF 30 or more
If you need glasses or wear contacts carry an extra pair of glasses
Things to have in your day pack:
Rain jacket/ ponch
2 spare batteries & 2 extra memory cards
personal pertinent medication
valuables like passport and money
Insect repellent (Avon Skin So Soft is an effective insect repellent) but there are few biting insects that you will encounter in the forest.
Binoculars (not necessary with the gorillas) but if you like birding there are some spectacular birds
What camera lenses should I take?
This is always a little bit of a tricky question to answer because it depends on the type of photo you are looking for. I only use my iPhone which also takes good video but is quite limiting- I can’t get the close up of the eyes etc. If you are a wildlife photographer and you have two camera bodies you’ll want a 24-70mm and a 100-400mm lens. If you can only have one of the above- the 100-400mm lens will be most versatile. The ability to open up the aperture and lets as much light in will also be very useful in the forest which can be quite dark. There is always a chance of rain when you’re with the gorillas so make sure you have a way to keep your cameras and equipment dry. There are some awkward but nifty rain-jackets for cameras that allow you to continue taking photos when it is raining.
You’ll be surprised how many photos you take so make sure you have plenty of memory, spare batteries and a way to back your photos up.
The other thing to consider if you are a serious photographer is that during the one hour you spend with the gorillas, you’ll only have a fraction of the time when the conditions are right for the photo you’re looking for- whether it is light, gorillas posing, or whatever you are trying to capture. This makes it essential to do more than one trek. Furthermore, you’ll often spend the first 30-45 minutes just getting used to the shooting conditions.
What are the difference between visiting the gorillas in Rwanda & DRC?
There is no difference in gorilla behaviour between Rwanda and DRC except for the natural difference between individuals and groups.
The maximum number of people per trek in Rwanda: 8
The maximum number of people per trek in DRC: depends on the gorilla group size- 4 if the group has less than 10 individuals, 6 if the group has more than 10.
Minimum age in Rwanda: 15 yrs
Minimum age in DRC: 12 yrs
Cost of gorilla permit in Rwanda: $1,500
Cost of gorilla permit in DRC: $400 high season, $200 low season (contact me for low season dates).
Obligatory to wear a surgical mask in DRC for the protection of the gorillas.
More accommodation options in Rwanda
Rangers speak better English in Rwanda
Registration process in Rwanda is done by your driver/guide
Registration process in DRC is done by yourself
Habituated gorilla groups in Rwanda: 10
Habituated gorilla groups in DRC: 8 but only 6 accessible from Bukima
If we needed a species as an icon to represent the conservation of Virunga National Park, in the DRC, it would be the Mountain Gorilla, or Gorilla beringei beringei, as it is known to taxonomists. In fact, it could be argued that without Mountain gorillas, the National Park, established in 1925 and formerly known as Albert National Park, wouldn’t exist today. Paradoxically, it was two collectors of gorillas for museums that recognized the unsustainable collection of Mountain gorillas. Charles Akeley who collected for the New York Museum of Natural History, and Prince William of Sweden with their prominent connections were able to lobby the Belgian King and gather international support to establish the protection of Mountain gorillas.
The gorilla story in DRC takes us back to 2 legendary silverbacks, Zunguruka and Rugendo who each led a habituated group of gorillas on different ridges in the forest behind Bukima ranger post. Both were habituated in 1986.
A white board in the rangers office at Bukima showing the group make up. Key: SB: Silverback, BB: Blackback, ADF: Adult Female, SUB: Sub-adult, Juv: Juvenile, Beb: Baby.
Current lead Silverbacks in the six groups accessible from Bukima Ranger Post:
Kabirizi group: Kabirizi
Bageni group: Bageni (Kabirizi's son)
Nyakamwe group: Nyakamwe (Humba's brother, son of Rugendo)
Humba group: Humba (Son of Rugendo)
Rugendo group: Bukima
Munyaga group: Mawazo (& Kasole)
If all of Rugendo’s sons are his, he could potentially be one of the most successful silverbacks to have led a gorilla group. At the time that he led it, it was a large group of 18 individuals. His son's names are highlighted in bold-italic.
Rugendo was tragically assassinated on the 15th July, 2001, in crossfire between warring militias, however, his genetics and legacy live on.
Rugendo had many sons:
Left his father’s group in 1998, with two females.
Humba left with his brother Nyakamwe in 1998. In 2014 they interacted and split into two groups.
Senkwekwe took over the group, though as a young silverback he lacked the strength and experience to keep the group intact. Some of the females left, joining his brother’s group Mapuwa. Senkweke was murdered together with five other gorillas in 2007.
(not Rugendo’s son) Is currently the dominant silverback of the Rugendo group. Kongoman and Baseka are both with him.
Ruzirabwob a is a solitary silverback.
Zunguruka got his name from the habit of walking in circles. He had two sons, Ndungutse and Salamawho took over the family when Zunguruka died of old age.
In 1994, a wild silverback showed up on the scene and fought with Salama and Ndungutse. He did not win, but the wounds he inflicted on Salama eventually killed him leaving Ndungutse as the sole silverback.
The wild silverback was named Kabirizi.
In 1997, Ndungutse was assassinated. His sons Buhaya and Karateka took over the group, and after a series of fights, Karateka ended up as a solitary silverback.
At this point, Kabirizi returned to the scene and killed Buhaya. The females however refused to follow Kabirizi and were led by the oldest female Nsekuye.
At this point Munyaga, a lone silverback entered the scene and took over the group being led by Nsekuye. It wasn’t long before Kabirizi challenged Munyaga, this time winning and taking with him all the females. Munyaga remained with a small group of sub-adult males. Then in 2007 he went missing during a surge in rebel activities. At that time, Mawazo led the group although he was still a Blackback. He eventually matured and was able to acquire females of his own with his brother Kasole.
Kabirizi continued to succesfully lead his group that grew to 36 individuals. Then in 2013 he suffered a blow when his son Bageni, who had grown up to become a formidable Silverback, challenged him taking with him 20 individuals, including his mother, brother, and 2 sisters.
Incredible views along the Ruaha river.
Contact me to organize a walk in this incredible place.
May & September saw our walking safari training team in action again in Ruaha National Park. We approached our 3rd and 4th sessions for SPANEST with new energy and the confidence of having two sessions already under our belts. With 24 rangers per session we had our work cut out for us, but with the highly qualified team we ploughed forward.
Christoline Motta & Simon Peterson running drills in firearms safety & handling.
Jacques Hoffman coaches a ranger.
Each course began with a first aid component.
Wilderness Medical Associates provided the accredited Wilderness Advanced First Aid course with a focus on anticipating, preventing, and ultimately dealing with medical issues that could arise not only in the walking safari environment, but also in the general duties of a national park ranger.
Mike Webster gets the practice going in patient assessments.
The next component was the safe and competent use of the large calibre rifles that are recommended for walking safaris. Unfortunately many walking safaris in Africa are set up for disaster should the unlikely occur and a life threatening encounter with a potentially dangerous animal happen. Worth mentioning and on a very positive note, Ruaha National Park now provides rangers who are walking with suitable rifles and equipment.
Simon Peterson & Christoline Motta assessing a ranger in proficiency.
The final component of the training was an intense immersion in walking wildlife. We spent hours on the ground practicing walking in proximity to potentially dangerous wildlife, avoiding detection, extracting from situations, and ultimately decision making in order to prevent compromising situations that could result in stressing wildlife and stressing clients.
Following an elephant bull and learning about how to use wind direction, cover, and predicting the animals movements to view without disturbing.
Some things have to be taught in the classroom. Here Simon Peterson revises shot placement.
Elephant watching on foot is exhilarating. In the heat of the day, the elephants come to the Mwagusi to drink the cool water filtered by the sand. The river bank provides a great safe vantage point to watch unobtrusively.
Pietro Luraschi leads post walk analysis in improving the guest experience and maintaining safety.
Magesa, a ranger from Sadaani National Park discusses the interesting lives of Grey-capped Social Weavers. A walking safari is more about the little things.
Rangers enjoy a beautiful scene with a small herd of elephants drinking in the river bed. Watching behavior is important in learning about predicting what might happen and making decisions to avoid any confrontation.
As much as I love the wet season, there is no doubt that thirst drives great wildlife experiences in the dry season. The following images and videos were taken on a phenomenal ten-day safari in northern Tanzania at the beginning of September.
Fitting arrival at Oliver's Camp in Tarangire National Camp
Alone with two beautiful male lions in Tarangire National Park
Typical elephant scene in Tarangire National Park.
A beautiful camp to arrive to at the end of a long day of wildlife viewing. Lemala, Ngorongoro.
A beautiful scene in the morning on the crater rim. This photo was taken with iPhone and has not been edited.
A leopardess poses on a rock in the sunset. We stayed with her for a couple hours as she roared (video here)
This cheetah mother poses in the beautiful afternoon light on the Serengeti plains.
This lioness was hunting in the morning light in the Serengeti plains. We followed her for about 20 minutes.
The beta silverback of the Nyakamwe group ponders our presence.
I give the head ranger the thick envelope of gorilla permits that I have. We speak in Swahili because his English isn’t great, and my French is poorer than his English.
“You want to do two gorilla treks tomorrow?” he asks.
“Yes, not just tomorrow, but everyday for 5 days.”
He looks at me, smiling. I can read in his face that he thinks this is crazy. Our conversation continues. There’s a phone call to his superiors. He calls another ranger and they speak too quickly for me to understand what is going on, but then he turns to me and says,“Ok. Don’t worry. Tomorrow I will come to the camp at 7:30. Be ready to walk far. This is the first time we have ever done this. I don’t even know if it is possible, but I will know how we will do this tomorrow.”
The next morning, we set off. One guest who has had knee surgery can’t walk the distance, so 12 porters are there, ready to carry her in a “kipoi”: a local basket stretcher. We trudge a long through the potato fields for the first two hours to the path into the forest with the most direct access to the gorilla group. The first group we visit is Bageni. This is the biggest group of habituated gorillas in Virunga at the moment with 22 individuals. Most gorilla families are named after their alpha silverback. After a successful visit, we head to Nyakamwe, a smaller family of 11.
Nyakamwe, the leader of a gorilla family.
Virunga National Park has eight families of habituated mountain gorillas, six of whom are within easy reach of Bukima Ranger post. Trackers and rangers go out daily to locate each group and check on all the individuals. Like humans, every gorilla has unique facial features as well as behaviour. The most obvious and easy to identify is the nose print. In our 5 days with the gorillas, there is no way to learn each individual, but as the week progresses, the names become less foreign, and I gain some insight into the dynamics of gorilla society. Their stories are saddened by tragedies involving assassinations and murder by rebels.
Jacques and Pierre, two dedicated rangers protecting gorillas in Virunga National Park.
One of the challenges of photographing gorillas is that you are only allowed one hour with a group per day. To get around this, we bought out all the permits for two groups, and negotiated permission to trek to two group per day. This would not expose the gorillas to more contact time than allowed but would allow us to double our photographic opportunities.
There is more to Virunga than gorillas. These beautiful ground orchids along the path in the forest.
Mawazo, the leader of Munyaga group watches us with a female and her youngster.
The parameters were fairly simple: organize a fun honeymoon. It doesn’t have to be ultra luxurious, but throw in a nice place or two, and sprinkle in a few special moments. So there are the organized special moments and the unorganized ones, and despite the concept of starting with our basic Wilderness Camp and ending with the beautiful honeymoon suite at Rubondo Island Camp, the wilderness experience set the bar high for the rest of the trip.
Like this elephant scene before we’d even got to camp.
A herd of elephant walk along the edge of Silale Swamp in Tarangire.
Or arriving in camp with this light, and a welcoming party of 200 zebra.
Our wilderness camp- a fantastic option for those who seek an exclusive experience but are less concerned about the amenities offered by luxury lodges and camps.
Or this leopard sighting less than half a kilometer from camp.
It had been a long and productive morning, but as we sat down for lunch, I heard a vervet monkey bark out an alarm. Instead of the all too appealing siesta after lunch, I hopped into the vehicle to investigate. It was hot and quiet but I found the vervet monkey in a fruiting fig tree. A bushbuck startled, and a few tsetse flies entered the car and began buzzing around in the foot-well of the driver’s seat. The vervet, who had been quiet barked again, but rather half-heartedly. Then out of the corner of my eye, I noticed dangling antelope legs in the top of an Acacia. Lifting my binoculars to my eyes, there on the branch I saw a beautiful leopard fast asleep in the tree with a young hartebeest that it has stashed.
This is what a tired cat looks like!
From Tarangire we headed up to Lake Natron, a special environment and perfect for things like swimming in waterfalls, watching the sunset with hundreds of flamingo in front of you, and flying over the dramatic landscape.
Incredible salt deposits on Lake Natron from the air in a ultra-light plane. Photo credit: Zac Peterson.
Honeymoons are supposed to have waterfalls in them right?
A beautiful setting for a sundowner with the rift valley and Oldonyo Lengai the backdrop.
I could easily stay longer, but with limited time, it was time to head to Serengeti for more wildlife. After the long drive we pulled into camp, and before the manager could finish his welcome briefing, two massive male lions began to roar not half a mile away. As you can imagine, we got back in the vehicle (with the camp staff, who couldn’t stop giggling) and followed the lions as they walked and roared into the darkness.
The Serengeti sunset makes for a special moment.
After a couple of full days of wildlife experiences we boarded a small plane to Rubondo Island. Rubondo Island and the Camp that Asilia manages offer such a different experience to the traditional savannah safari that I would love to include it in every itinerary. It was meant to be the finale of the honeymoon, the relaxation part, but as we met for drinks around the fire it was clear that instead of resting we’d be exploring. The next morning, before the sun rose, after a nice French-press coffee with hot milk and camp-made cookies, we set off for a dawn canoe trip along the shores of the island. It was beautiful: African fish eagles calling, hippos ducking away, a sheltered bay with hundreds of egrets, jacanas, and various stork species. We returned to breakfast, and the news that the trackers had found the chimpanzees.
Dawn kayak on Lake Victoria.
After little deliberation we asked for packed lunches and set off across the island to find the chimps. After an initial drive, we began to trek up a hill past one of the chimps’ favorite nesting sites to a “calling site” where the trackers listened for chimps calling. A rain storm had allowed the chimpanzees to slip away and while we tried to find them their silence meant it wasn’t likely that we would see them. Instead we wandered the trails, soaking up the forest, tasting fruit that was ripe, spooking bush-pig, and enjoying the bird chorus.
As we drove back to the camp, the radio crackled:
“Can you please ask if they still want to fish?”.
It was late in the afternoon, and the whole relaxation thing wasn’t going to happen.
“Yes, please get the boat ready because we won’t have much time”.
Not a bad ending to a day on Rubondo Island.
Deus smiled as we boarded the boat, there really wasn’t much time. Quickly showing the novice fishers how the rods worked we began to troll, the sun quickly dropping in the sky. “Zzzzzzz” went the line, “Fish!” said Deus, but we were too slow: 1-0 to the fish. “Zzzzzzz” went the line, “Fish!” said Deus. This time it was hooked. Reeling it in we could see it was a good size but then suddenly the line went slack. 2-0 to the fish. We laughed. Another bite, this time the fish did not get away and we’d caught our dinner. It was time to head back so we began to troll back toward camp. “Zzzzzzz” went the line, “Fish!” said Deus and we began to reel in our 4th bite, “Zzzzzzz” went the line, “Double!” said Deus…. and so ended the honeymoon.
Walking in Serengeti. Photo credit: Tom Kenny.
“[We] are interested in something that is a lot less comfortable, and involves a lot more hiking and camping…” was all I needed to put this itinerary together. Every guide I know of a certain personality and calibre will agree that being on foot is the ultimate way to experience wilderness. Wind direction and strength, the angle of the sun, the ability to interpret a bird’s call all become significant. In essence, it is also the test of a guide’s skill and guests’ discipline, because a small mistake usually means a cloud of dust and the screech of some tick-birds, followed by a few minutes looking at tracks on the ground and saying “A …. was here before it smelled/heard/saw us”.
Viewing hippos resting on foot- the ethical way is to leave them sleeping!
In pursuit of wilderness we headed to some waterholes in an area only frequented by a small group of guides in the know: a secret that’s existence relies on few people visiting. The first lesson in discipline came when a mother cheetah with four cubs came down to drink at the water. The excitement of the moment and gasps of awe gave away our presence and they quickly slunk away. It was a lesson that helped us into a beautiful sighting on the edge of another waterhole. The sun was high in the sky, and we’d covered 2 miles, very slowly, as we began an approach of a second waterhole. The heat was beginning to send the wind swirling as we quietly made our way around the Gardenia bushes. I could hear a flock of Vulturine guineafowl, a beautiful bird, beyond the bushes. We couldn’t scare them or they would warn everything around that we were there. A warthog trotted toward the water then turned to look at us; we all froze. As he approached a little closer, we remained motionless, barely breathing. A gap in the bushes allowed us to crawl into the view of the waterhole and we sat watching as the guineafowl took their turn drinking alongside the warthogs. An elephant came down, and we sat in silence as another and then another joined. After enjoying the elephants for a few minutes, we decided to retreat. It was quite thrilling knowing that they never knew we were there.
The wide angle of the iPhone camera doesn't do the distance justice. A small herd of elephant drinks while we watch quietly.
Our journey continued with a drive to the beginning of the Tarangire river. Camping on a bluff overlooking the drying river gave us great access to some of Africa’s finest walking. Elephants routinely come down to the river to drink, and the riverbank, termite mounds and large sausage trees gave us good cover to approach. Our goal always to leave the animals without knowing that we had been watching them.
Arriving back to camp from beautiful afternoon walk along the Tarangire river. What you can't see in the photo is that there were fresh lion tracks on top of our tracks from only an hour and a half earlier.
Lake Natron was next on the list, and we arrived hot and dusty to some cold beers and a dip in the natural pool of alkaline water, complete with white lipped tilapia that nibbled from between our toes. The Natron environment is really unique and I have written about it before …. One of the best ways to appreciate the landscape is from the air, so I organized for a friend, Zac Peterson, to fly in with his ultra-light airplane. Here are some images captured from the plane…
The next three days of the safari were spent walking in Serengeti National Park. Only a couple of kilometers after leaving the corrugated main road, we left behind the vehicle tracks and headed out cross-country to our first campsite of the trip. You know you are going to a remote camp when there is not even a vehicle track to get there. From then on, we would be on foot: camp would move about 5-8 km every morning while we walked following a tributary of the Grumeti river, arriving around noon in time for a cold beer and lunch.
The simple wilderness camp that moved while we walked.
We’d head off in the morning, reading tracks and signs and discerning what had happened overnight: fresh lion spoor - probably the ones we heard roaring at night, a leopard track, elephant coming down to drink at night, civet… the list goes on. By 10 a.m. it would be getting warm and we’d start to intercept animals coming down to drink. The entire walk teemed with game: giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, topi, hartebeest, eland, buffalo, impala, baboon, vervet monkeys. Wildlife would come by camp, and on the second day after lunch we found a beautiful lion and two lioness feeding on two young buffalo calves they’d killed. We decided to approach by vehicle so as not to disturb their lunch. At the last camp, at least 50 elephant came by while we were having lunch. Afternoon typically consisted of a shorter stroll arriving back in camp to watch the sun go down, have a hot shower, and enjoy a cold Gin-tonic, Kentucky mule, or beer by the fire.
As water sources dry up in southern Serengeti, more than 1.5 million wildebeest begin to make their way north toward the permanent river called the Mara. While the exact arrival is dictated by the extent of the drying and rainfall in northern Serengeti and Kenya’s Maasai Mara, they usually arrive in mid-July. Again, depending on where the greener pastures are, they move back and forth across the Mara river, in and out of Kenya, following the sporadic thunderstorms.
Us watching as thousands of wildebeest plunge into the river below us. Photo credit: Pietro Luraschi.
We arrived at Singita Mara Camp, by far the most luxurious camp in northern Serengeti, on the 3rd of August. The herds had already crossed the river heading north, and some were making their way back across. Just the sheer numbers of wildebeest was incredible as we slowly drove the northern bank of the river looking for an aggregation that looked to cross imminently. Patience, patience… but we didn’t need much as we found a group many thousand strong gathering on the banks of the river. The milling back and forth, the reluctance of the wildebeest- whether it is fear of the cold rushing water, or fear of the crocodiles submerged with only their eyes and nostrils above water, I do not know, but it adds to the excitement (and sometimes frustration).
Here is an amusing cartoon about it. When they do start to cross, it just goes and goes and goes until there are no more wildebeest left. The energy is incredible. Then it stops and the milling resumes, this time, mothers looking for their babies and babies looking for their mothers.
(The video below shows what we were seeing)
This could be your private lunch banquet in the Serengeti plains.
Of course, there is more to the Serengeti (and northern Tanzania) than the migration so we also included a couple days in Tarangire National Park, where there is a daily migration of elephants to the permanent water sources. The landscape is also different with the typical red African soils and eccentric Baobab trees that dot the ridges, offering a nice contrast to Serengeti’s woodlands and plains.
This is a classic Tarangire scene. Elephants walking into the sunset with a magestic baobab tree in the foreground.
The following photos are all taken with my iPhone on three safaris through the northern Tanzania, with Serengeti as the feature.
I'll start with a photo of the guides who co-guided with me on the trips. It is common knowledge that the guides make a trip, they keep you safe, host you, and give deeper insight into the wildlife and ecology of the savanna. With no more than four guests per guide we keep a ratio that ensures everyone gets the right amount of attention. Thank you Robert Tarimo and Paul Oliver.
The theme of many of these photos could be about big sky. This male giraffe seems dwarfed by the plains and sky. Since I only use my phone for photos, I don't use any zoom. This photo was taken en-route to Asilia's Namiri Plains Camp. Because of my previous work for Asilia, I am one of few guides allowed to drive in the camps where they normally only want people guided by their guides.
Again- the skies in the Serengeti provide this impressive backdrop fro wildlife viewing. This photo was taken on Christmas day. If you look carefully you can see one of the vehicles (driven by Paul Oliver who guided with me on this trip) to the left of the big rock kopjie. You can't see the lions they were watching.
Without using a zoom you'd have to be in a park with very habitated black rhinos to get a close up just using a phone. This is a black rhino and her calf only a few hundred meters from where we camped. Unfortunately rhino poaching still continues and there are very few rhino that are still left in Serengeti.
I'm often late for lunch- and on this occasion we were nearly back in camp but found this pod of hippos basking in the sun along the banks of the Mara river. While things are getting busier every year, this part of Serengeti is very quiet outside of migration season and while some of the animals are harder to find, it is a great place to be alone especially.
An elephant herd feeding along the main road at Bologonja. While flying between camps is often the most efficient way to maximize the wildlife experience, driving the vast distances does give you an understanding of the vastness of the ecosystem.
This old male lion was pretty beaten up but still trying to keep up with the pride. When the wildebeest move out of the north, lion prides that have had it easy suddenly find their territories tight and must venture further to find food and keep alive. This often leads to territorial fights between neighboring prides. Prides often divide into subgroups that are easier to feed, but this creates issues for the males who now risk their lionesses running into nomadic or roaming males.
A picnic breakfast in the Serengeti can be a 5-star buffet or a tailgate affair as below... as long as there is hot coffee I'm fine.
The choice of accommodation is yours. Do you want the ultra-luxury that Mwiba or Singita properties offer or would you rather keep it simple as below. For me, safari should be about the wildlife experience and the landscapes. With good guides, the experience you have at either the luxury or the simple camps will be very good.
Cats on rocks... doesn't get much better than this. It was pretty hot in the morning but with 15 cubs, these lioness were hungry. We found them walking along the road before they climbed onto these rocks to get a better view of prey in the long grass.
As a guide who spends most of his time in the classic savannahs of Tanzania in some of the world’s most wildlife rich national parks, the DRC offers a very contrasting but equally stimulating experience
A few iphone photos of the incredible vegetation on Nyiragongo.
Among the incredible life forms are these Boulenger's pygmy chameleons. A rare and special find.
There are few places in the world with as spectacular and diverse landscapes, habitats, and wildlife as Virunga National Park. Laid out along 300km of the western arm of Africa’s Great Rift Valley, it spreads from Lake Kivu through volcano fields (two of them still active), past Lake Edward and the equator, past the glacier-covered Mountains of the Moon, and ends eventually in the Semliki valley to the north. Such diverse geography lends itself naturally to diverse habitats home to an incredible variety of mammals, birdlife, and other lifeforms.
Getting up at night to watch the lava lake bubble and dawn arrive.
From a geological perspective, Virunga’s features are all very recent additions. 30 million years ago, pressure underneath the African continent caused by a series of plumes of magma forced it to bulge and effectively crack spreading southward from the Red Sea as far as Mozambique. As the rifting spread south, it reached a particularly resistant rock formation known as the Tanganyika Craton where it diverged into two arms forming what is now known as the Albertine (western) Rift and Gregory (eastern) Rift. It wasn’t until 12-13 million years ago that the first volcanoes began erupting in the Virunga region, although the 8 most prominent peaks are all younger than 2.5 million years old. Two of the 8 are still active to this day. The other six are no longer active and their forested slopes are home to some of the last remaining Mountain gorillas (Gorilla berengei berengei). These large and gentle primates complete the montage of charismatic African wildlife and complement the East African savannah experience.
This short time lapse of Nyiragongo's lava lake in the morning shows its mesmerizing power.
Critically Endangered, there is an estimated population of 480 individuals and growing found in the three national parks that encompass the Virunga Massif (Bwindi National Park in Uganda is also home to a population of about 300). The area that the Mountain gorillas occupy is a very small range of about 450 km2 in the montane and bamboo forests of the Virungas. At present there are 8 habituated gorilla groups in Virunga National Park.
All of these photos and videos are on Instagram @tembomdogo and higher quality.
Same baobab tree, 11 days apart, slightly different angle.
Ruaha is just that far away that it doesn’t make it into enough of my safari itineraries. This year I was fortunate to have two back to back safaris in Ruaha, giving me two weeks in the park at one of the best times to be there.
I’ve written about Ruaha in other articles about walking safaris or exploring the more remote areas of the park. However over these two weeks, most of the time I spent was in the core area- a triangle between the escarpment, Mdonya River, and Great Ruaha River. Being the end of the dry season, water had ceased to flow in the Ruaha and elephants, warthogs, zebra and baboon dug in the sand rivers to get at the cool water that flowed beneath the sand. The predators staked these points out, waiting in ambush, for whatever prey overcome by thirst would venture too close without a careful scan.
Within a few days of me being there, the rains came. Big, violent thunderstorms that brought with them relief. Change was overnight. Areas that had been doused with water began the transformation into an emerald paradise. Fragile buds pushed through the soils crust, the tips of dead-grey branches began to bud, while other plants threw sprays of fragrant blossoms that filled the air with the scent of jasmine.
The following images and videos were all taken with my phone (for more and better quality follow me on instagram @tembomdogo
A herd of impala resting in the shade.
Combretum longispicatum blossom.
A delicate Ribbon-wing lacewing is our dinner guest.
Scadoxus multiflorum is a great Latin name for this Fireball lilly.
The incredible light- what you can't see is the fragrance of jasmine that was drifting in the air from the blossoms of this bush.
Fresh growth on Combretum apiculatum.
Sesamothamnus blossom- another fragrant beauty.
Lillies on a walk.
Never smile at a crocodile- unless you're a Ruaha lion that specializes in hunting crocodiles.
You have to get out and walk to find this baobab tree that is growing out of a rock!
The Empakai to Natron walk has been on my to-do list for many years: one of those things that is on your doorstep that you just never get out and do. When, Ake Lindstrom from Summits-Africa, Frank Castro from Adventure International, and Gian Schachenmann, Tanzania’s ultimate drone photographer, decided to do a trip to make a promotional film, I jumped at the chance to join as a recce as it is known in the safari world- an abbreviation of the word reconnoitre. I was amused being on the receiving end of an itinerary and getting the list of what to pack, and like most guests of mine, I disregarded the list and packed what I wanted to anyway, except that I did succumb to the advice of my wife to actually wear hiking boots.
Not only was the hike through dramatic views, but it was also geologically fascinating. The hike started at Empakai Crater, a beautiful caldera that is about 7 km in diameter with a typical alkaline lake thats waters reflect the dark forested walls that rise up 980m from the crater floor, and whose shoreline is encrusted with the snow-white residue of the alkaline salts. The first campsite was on the rim of the crater in the montane forest. We woke in cloud, surrounded by beautiful Hygenias thats flowers hung like giant bunches of grapes and Giant St. John Wort bushes, a habitat I associated more with mountain gorillas.
Crotalaria species on the descent path.
Descending from the 2500m altitude, we left the forest and entered the drier grasslands. It was the perfect trip to discuss the effect that water has on life. The fertile soils, refreshed with new ash from Oldonyo Lengai every couple of decades or so provide abundant grazing for the cattle, sheep and goats that the Maasai tend. The easily eroded light soil forms deep gullies running from the highlands and incredible canyons lower down. These porous soils drain water efficiently, therefore trees cannot establish themselves, yet as we descended we found ourselves in one of the canyons, surrounded by a beautiful yellow-fever acacia forest. It is initially a surprise as these trees dominate swamps, and this was no swamp. But it indicated water, and though we never saw it, there must be a high-enough moisture content in the soil for these trees to grow. This was the setting for our mid-way camp and that afternoon we climbed a steep knoll to look out across the view.
At this point in the walk, the rift valley wall, an uplifted escarpment became more and more imposing, while Oldonyo Lengai, the active volcano, stood out against the sky. In the distance, other volcanoes rose out of the dust as if hanging in the sky: Kitumbeine to the east, Shompole and Oldonyo Sambu to the north. The Masonik volcanoes appeared tiny in the Angata Salei plains and if you squinted you could see the Gol mountains to the west, where in 2007 & 2008, Gian and I had watched Oldonyo Lengai send pyroclastic clouds 30 000 ft into the sky.
On the last day of the trek, we followed a well worn donkey trail used by Maasai who move between the weekly markets bringing corn from the highlands and taking back bricks of natron (Sodium bicarbonate) to mix with tobacco for snuff and to soften beans. We left the fever tree forest and as whatever moisture there was in the soil also disappeared, we found ourselves on a knife-edge ridge, devoid of vegetation except for a thick tussock like grass. One could imagine that this trail we followed had been used for transit for millennia between the fresh waters at Ngaresero on the shores of Lake Natron, and the crater highlands. After lunch in the shade of a ravine, we trekked the last couple of miles to the vehicles that were waiting. It was a quick drive to camp and we quickly settled into the natural pools with ice-cold beers, the sweat and dust washing off. Fish nibbled at our toes and we discussed the activities for the next day.
The donkey path with the rift valley escarpment on the left and Oldonyo Lengai on the right.
Wildebeest skull at the bottom of the valley.
One of the striking things about this area is how harsh and hostile it is. Windswept and barren mudflows, dry cracked pans, brittle volcanic outcrops, the caustic bicarbonate lake, and stark volcano not to mention wind and sun, yet there are oases where life flourishes. The mineral rich springs along the edges of the lake grow algae that feeds and provides shelter for abundant specialized fish and lesser flamingos. Invisible moisture supports Acacia tortilis woodlands that feed giraffe, and sheltered spots provide enough grazing for zebra, wildebeest, and Grant’s gazelle. One of the most beautiful oases is the clear water that flows out of the rift wall.
Dawn on the lake shore.
Lake Natron Panorama
The incredibly lush forest in an otherwise desert scrub environment.
The incredible blossoms of the Desert Rose.
Having played in the waterfalls and clear waters toward the mouth of the gorge, I had never been to the source of the river and a small group of us decided to make the trek. It was very different walking in flip-flops and often barefoot as we scrambled up the boulders, jumping into pools and showering in the natural waterfalls along the way. In many ways it was paradise.
Homo sapien tracks preserved in the calcrete. New dating places them 11,000 years old.
A lot of people are surprised when I tell them that Spotted hyenas are actually very efficient hunters and actually scavenge an average of only a third of their prey in places like Serengeti. When they hunt, they are usually quite successful- especially when more than one hyena goes on the hunt. The statistic- 1 in 3 attempts if there are more than two hyenas. In this case, it was broad daylight and these hyenas took on this wildebeest in Ngorongoro Crater. After a significant chase they brought it down next to the road. 10 minutes later, more than 25 hyenas had arrived and all that was left was a bloody stain on the ground.
I caught this little clip of this beautiful male lion walking across the Serengeti plains very close to the Kenyan border. Lions spend so much time sleeping during the day that it is fun to just see them actually moving. With the wildebeest migration moving through the area, his pride was looking well fed. Watching such a perfect specimen is so rewarding- and knowing that he is safe deep at the heart of this massive National Park.
During the dry season June through October, the 1.5 million wildebeest in the Serengeti ecosystem head north into an area of the ecosystem that receives a much higher rainfall throughout the year than the more fertile soils in southern Serengeti. It’s during this period that the famous wildebeest crossings happen. This video shows them coming from the northern side of the river to the south. Their movements are based on local localized rainfall so it is difficult to predict. After a very successful full morning of game driving we decided make one pass along the river before heading back to camp, when we found this mass of wildebeest standing on the edge of the river. After uhming and aahing over whether to jump or not, they actually turned back, but were met by another group heading towards the river. Joining forces they finally stepped into the water and the crossing frenzy began.
This cheetah mother was very attentive while her cubs fed from a gazelle she had just killed. Cheetahs in general have a hard time raising cubs. Cheetah cubs are born hidden in “dens” and are fairly helpless. They are tiny and that first 4 months of their life are easily killed by lions and hyenas- 89% of cubs die during that time. Only 4-6% survive the first year- but what is quite intriguing is that success is not equally distributed among the females. Over half of female cheetahs in Serengeti never manage to raise a single cub to independence, while there are a few “super-moms” who manage to successfully raise litter after litter.
This last one is not a video- but an image. No safari would be complete without spending time with elephants. it is always so encouraging and reassuring to see baby elephants. Serengeti National Park is the only park in Tanzania that has seen a rise in the population of elephants. No one is sure whether this is because of reproduction or whether human pressures like poaching outside the park are driving the elephants into it. Grumeti Reserves, a former hunting concession has invested in efficient anti-poaching so hopefully these elephants are safe- unless they decide to wander back onto village lands.
An exploratory guide's-only trip.
Greater kudu- a flagship Ruaha species.
There’s a triangle in Ruaha National Park, bordered on the south side by the Mdonya river, the escarpment running north east, and on the east to south side by a section of the Ruaha River’s floodplain. Through the middle runs a sand river, the Mwagusi, creating an incredible area for the charismatic wildlife that gives East Africa its reputation. Like many places in East Africa, water is the limiting resource that determines wildlife abundance, and the Ruaha, Mwagusi and Mdonya Rivers provide just that- permanent (though not always obvious) water for herds of hundreds of buffalo, elephants, giraffe, zebra, impala, yellow baboons, and their predators: lions, leopards and cheetah. But it is a relatively small area in Ruaha’s extensive landscape.
Our first stop was a campsite on the Mdonya River. It was the end of the dry season, so water was limited to a few places where elephants knew to dig. We’d just driven 15 hours straight from Arusha, but were sighing in relief as the familiar sounds of the African bush comforted our souls. None of us bothered with the rain flies for our tents and went to sleep to the sound of the African scops owl. Lions roared as the walked by at about 4 a.m. but it wasn’t until the ring-necked doves started their morning call to work that Tom, our camp assistant, woke up to stoke the fire and get the coffee going.
Our first campsite under a Lebombo wattle (Newtonia hildebrantii).
Our first order of the day was a meeting with the tourism warden and a couple of rangers to discuss our expedition. Some recently opened roads were making access into some of the least visited areas of the park possible and we wanted to know if they would work for walking safaris. For many of us, walking is a way of experiencing a quieter side of nature and escaping from the diesel-engine-run game drives and trappings of luxury camping. Waking up to a thermos of coffee and going to bed after a sipping whiskey by the fire were all the luxury we needed; it was about the wilderness.
The magical triangle in Ruaha- see map below for context.
As we left the magic triangle we climbed up into the hills behind the escarpment and were rewarded immediately by a racquet-tailed roller who fluttered along side. “Lifers” were being added to the list and for most guides with passion like us, that is one of the most exciting things. The next lifer for a few of us, only a few minutes later, was a herd of Sable antelope: one of the most beautiful of all antelopes, and particularly exciting as they are miombo woodland specialists. The miombo woodland was also changing in anticipation of the rains, and with colors that would compete with a Vermont autumn. Vivid reds, purples, blue-greens, light greens; it was beautiful.
With 7 of us in the vehicle, food for 8 days, camping equipment, and our libraries, water was our biggest challenge. The 90 litres we could carry required us to take every opportunity we could to refill, and determined our campsites over the next few days.
We arrived at the first campsite as the evening light became intense and vibrant and what unfolded became the schedule for the next week: unload, set up tents, collect firewood and light fire, unpack and prep dinner, carry the basin to the stream to bathe and then sip on a cold beer, reclining on thermarests, binoculars on chests, and reference books open. We didn’t need to meditate or even think about focusing on the moment; it just was, pure, the product of a love of wilderness and like-mindedness. Sleep came quickly, as it does in the bush.
As the night sky began to change, the fire was stoked and coffee water boiled. Each of us woke to our own beat, grabbed a cup of coffee and the first moments of the day were appreciated in respectful quiet.
With heavy rainstorms imminent we followed Thad’s suggestion and headed to the furthest point we wanted to reach. The grass got greener and longer as we drove around the Kimbi Mountains. We saw more game that day: sable, zebra, giraffe, warthog, Lichtenstein’s hartebeest and even some lions. However, to say that wildlife was prolific would be very misleading.
Lichtenstein's hartebeest- a miombo speciality.
On maps, the Mzombe-roundabout appears to be the headwaters of the river. It is also on the border of the park; in essence, the end of the road. The grader driver literally created a cul-de-sac roundabout. In the past, the Petersons had walked the Mzombe River further downstream before trophy hunting and administration in the bordering Rungwe Game Reserve had become so profit-oriented that they stopped respecting the buffer to the park and hunted right to the edge. Yet, the Petersons’ stories of encounters with lions, elephants, hippos and more had left an impression of this river, one that was not fulfilled at the headwaters.
A natural bouquet. Nature does it better.
Delicate Orchids- Eulophia coculata.
Instead it was incredibly green, and the hills invited walking. It had obviously rained enough to bring out the wildflowers and on the walk the next day in addition to wonderful birds like thick-billed cuckoos, spotted creepers, and yellow-bellied hyliotas, we admired the proliferation of flowers.
Having walked for 7 hours in the morning, we returned to camp for lunch. The clouds were building and we had already been dumped on while walking. We packed up camp, and made our way back around the mountain. Our third camp was at the base of the mountains in a small clearing. Purple crested turaccos hopped around in the trees and as darkness fell, barred-owlets, tiny little owls, began calling.
Water re-filling break under a Faidherbia albida.
The next morning we set off early, and were fortunate to quickly find a proper elephant trail leading up into the hills. Elephants are big animals and just naturally take the best route. The switchbacks were there when we needed them and the path that wound its way up around rocks and to the top of the hills made it a real pleasure to climb the hill. A rocky outcrop distracted us as we paused for peanuts, homemade cookies and water. More new birds made our list but a particular highlight was 2 sightings of Chequered elephant-shrew.
Photographs cannot capture the extensiveness of this wilderness.
We returned to camp at around 3, exhilarated by the climb. Lunch was quick and we headed off to a clearing we had passed a couple of days before that we believed we could drive down to get to a river known as the Lupati, a tributary of the Mzombe. We barely made it half a kilometre when the woodland became too thick to drive through. Small drainages were converging and a couple of times we ran into dead-ends. We did have good sightings of Roan antelope and that evening as we watched nightjars hawk the sky, we heard our first elephants.
Just a lunchtime chill.
Spectacular storm build-ups warned us that we should probably head back to the Ruaha River, so after our usual breakfast we took a shorter walk before proceeding to head towards Usangu. We entered the new addition to the national park and drove and drove. It was a long day of driving, but the landscape kept changing as we pushed on. It was not until we made it into the lower areas that we began to see more wildlife, particularly giraffe and impala. There was evidence of game and in one clearing we had great sighting of sable, roan, and bush pigs foraging in daylight. Scuff marks and tracks in the road told a story of Africa wilddogs killing a warthog.
Roan antelope- another Ruaha speciality.
We arrived in camp as it was getting dark. Camp was on the river, just meters from a pool with over thirty hippos in it. We quickly set up camp before settling down on the riverbank to watch the birds fly by and hippos grunt their disapproval of their new neighbors. As darkness set in, we scanned the water for crocodile eyes- 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 pairs of eyes watching us.
The sun had not come up yet, but the sky was changing. Coffee cups in one hand, binoculars ready to train on birds flying by, we sat and watched. This was really a grand finale for us. It was a slightly slow start but this was the area we would most likely come to walk next year and I wanted to explore. We set off for a couple of hours and then returned to take the vehicle. There were campsites we needed to examine and stretches of river to see. The roads had not been graded as they had the previous days, and the going was tough enough that my vehicle is being repainted as we speak. A stump wrote off a tire, but those are the costs of adventure.
Pel's fishing owl.
It was the usual morning routine, but as we sipped our coffee and contemplated the view, we knew we were leaving today. We took down our tents and then took a quick walk along the river before climbing back into the vehicle for the ride home.
Standing at 3,470m above sea level staring at the world’s largest lava lake makes you feel quite insignificant. It was cold at 4 a.m. and the precipice we were standing on kept us present, but the lava lake itself was mesmerizing We could feel the heat, generated in the depths of the Earth, the deep orange-red lava expressing itself vehemently, sometimes as explosive fountains and sometimes a moving kaliedescope of constantly shifting black plates. Occasionally the crater would fill with smoke and steam and all you could sense was the sound of the incredible deep rumble of the cauldron.
Nyiragongo, Democratic Republic of Congo
Standing at the top of Nyiragongo was one of the highlights of a sixteen-day safari that included two mountain summits and a combination of wildlife experiences. We began the safari by summiting Mt Meru, Africa’s 5th highest mountain (4568m asl). Climbing through the rich forest, through the heath and moorland vegetation zone, and finally onto the alpine desert gave us opportunities to enjoy a variety of beautiful birds including tacazze sunbirds, bar-tailed trogons, and silvery-cheeked hornbills.
A view of the ash cone in the right bottom corner and Little Meru.
An enchanted forest full of birds.
Incredible natural patterns.
The inner walls of the crater. Mt. Meru was once 5200m high, until the crater collapsed like Mt. St. Helens, in an explosion that was 10 times the magnitude of Mt. St. Helens.
Next up was Tarangire National Park. Tarangire is a classic African savannah complete with red soil, gigantic baobabs, and wildlife concentrations around water. We camped in the thick of it, close enough to a water-hole that we could hear elephants drinking, the water gurgling as it poured down their throats. We could smell the buffalo when they came down to drink, and when the lions roared we instinctively held our breath. Tarangire is also special because a tiny extension of the Somali Maasai Biome brings specialties like lesser kudu, fringe-eared oryx, and gerenuk.
The small fascinating stuff on a walk.
A lion track.
Our next destination was the Democratic Republic of Congo. To get there, we had to fly to Rwanda, stay a night in Kigali, and then drive three hours to the Gisenyi-Goma border crossing. The process hasn’t changed much since 2011 (read about it here), but by lunchtime we had arrived at Mikeno Lodge. Mikeno was our base for the next couple days, and the morning after arrival we drove up to Bukima Tented Camp to trek for gorillas.
A playful gorilla.
A sniffer dog used to catch poachers.
As you know, I place a lot of emphasis on experiences when I design safaris, often more than the level of luxury or comfort. For this reason, visiting Congo is exciting because that is what it is about. Mikeno Lodge and the new Bukima Tented Camp are very comfortable, but more importantly they are well situated for the experience. Gorillas are known to wander through the camp, and recently a group of chimpanzee moved into the forest around the lodge. Strolling around the lodge you can see beautiful colobus monkeys, blue monkeys, l’hoest’s monkeys if you’re lucky, and, if you get up early and head of with the trackers, chimp viewing.
The operational headquarters of the national park are also next to the lodge so you can get insight into conservation including a visit to the gorilla orphanage or the tracker-dog kennel.
The gorilla trekking rules in Congo are also slightly different to Rwanda and Uganda. A mask is essential to prevent transfer of disease from us to the gorillas, and the number of visitors allowed to a group is smaller. The authorities are also flexible and should you wish, you could actually trek to see two gorilla families in one day.
After completing our two gorilla treks, we returned to Mikeno Lodge to prepare for our Nyiragongo ascent.
The ICCN, who places the safety of tourists paramount, had only opened the volcano to visitors a few days before. We would have been the first visitors up the volcano had a small group of UN peacekeepers based in Goma not jumped at the chance a couple days before us. Like Mt. Meru, the climb takes you through rainforest and a heath and moorland zone. It is beautiful, but also steep. At least half of the climb is on the very uneven exposed surface of the lava flow of 2002.
The lava lake at 4 a.m. Nyiragongo.
The lava lake at 5 p.m. Nyiragongo.
We returned to Kigali exhilarated by the climb and tired from the lack of sleep. The next morning, we headed to Rubondo Island in Lake Victoria for a night. We should have included two nights on this beautiful island, but I wanted to spend a good three days in northern Serengeti rounding off the safari.
Elephants in Serengeti.
I had hoped to catch the tail end of the wildebeest migration as they headed south, but their early exodus had also drawn with it the multitude of camps and tourist vehicles leaving us virtually alone. As usual, the wildlife viewing was incredible: the cats including a mother cheetah with her four cubs who we watched hunt an oribi for dinner, lions and lion cubs, and to put the icing on the cake, a black rhino strolling across the plains as we spent our last morning before the return flight to Arusha.
Cheetah cubs enjoying an Oribi. Serengeti National Park.
Organize a multi-country safari including a trip to Congo through www.inspired-journeys.com
I remember the first time I managed to launch off a hill, suspended by a paraglider, tense and terrified. An Auger buzzard took off from a tree below me, soaring the same uplift I was on. Effortlessly, it turned, riding the wind while I continued to tense my body as I flew straight, my goal just to land.
I love flight, especially low-level flight. I’m not a pilot, but the different perspective, looking down at the ground from above, or looking eye-level at a cliff or mountain fascinates me. Over the last few months of safari, I’ve flown in helicopters, balloons, Cessnas, Boeings, and even a private jet. While the larger planes aren’t as much fun, here are a few images taken from the smaller flight vessels.
My first balloon flight was in June this year in northern Serengeti. A steady wind was blowing and I was a bit bewildered but equally excited as we lay on our backs, the loud fans blowing air into the balloon and burners roaring. The balloon filled and lifted, pulling the basket upright, the force of the wind jerking and tugging. Suddenly we lifted, and for a few seconds it was silent as we rose up leaving behind a frantic crew as they prepared the chase vehicles.
The fans blowing air into the balloon.
The burners on full-power creating the hot air that will lift the balloon.
The views are incredible.
Wind= bumpy landing.
The balloon experience in Namibia was very different.
We arrived at the balloon launch site, the balloons being filled. There was hardly a breeze, and the pilot uprighted the basket and balloon before we climbed in. Silently we began to rise. The colors in the desert as the sun rose were incredible, the hues of blue, orange, pink, and grey so soft.
The landing was different too, made easier by the lack of wind, and I was impressed by the conscientiousness to the fragility of the desert. The pick-up pulling the trailer stayed on the road as the pilot communicated our location. By throwing a piece of webbing that the crew grabbed, they were able to bring the basket down directly onto the trailer.
We will occasionally charter a plane. Not only does it maximizes time spent on the ground by allowing us to create our own schedule, but we can ask the pilots to detour or fly low. I took the following photos from the Cessna caravan en-route to Serengeti and then Rubondo Island.
Oldonyo Lengai is an active volcano. Read about climbing it here.
Wildebeest and migration trails on the Lamai Wedge in northern Serengeti. (August 2014).
As you approach Rubondo Island, the intensity of green stands out. Read about Rubondo here.
Flying across the western border of Serengeti National Park. Population pressures are growing.
This year I saw Victoria falls and flew over Rwanda in a helicopter. The ability to hover, the ability to fly through valleys, and the ability to fly slowly allow extra appreciation of the different perspective of being in the air.
Mosi o-tunya, Zambia.
In Rwanda, we saved time and got a birds-eye view of intense small-holder agriculture, and a dense population.
Leaving Kigali at sunrise.
Like a patch-work.
A 3hr car ride became a 20 minute helicopter ride.
All photos in this blog article also appear on Instagram @tembomdogo.
If you've read previous posts you will know about the guide training that I have organized and worked on in Ruaha National Park. Here's a link to an article published in Africa Geographic.
A group of rangers watch elephants from a safe vantage point- can you spot them?
Our private camp in Tarangire.
The sun was setting: a typical Tarangire sunset that turns the sky an amazing orange, framing cliché Umbrella acacias and baobab trees. The campfire was lit and the solar-heated water showers were being hoisted into the tree. One of the kids was climbing a fallen tree and setting up the go-pro for a time-lapse photo. It had been a long and good day. After a game drive lasting nearly 10 hours, we’d seen so much: herds of elephants coming to the swamp to drink, countless zebra sightings, impala, giraffe, a leopard in a tree, and a lion by a termite mound, not to mention additions to the bird-list that the oldest boy was keeping. We’d even seen a snake: a Rufous-beaked snake, (not an everyday sighting).
A pride of lions had begun roaring a few hundred meters upwind at 5:30 in the morning, close enough that even a seasoned safari go-er would say it was close. A troop of baboons was trying to get to the tall sycamore fig-tree that was in camp, but had to settle for the sausage trees on the edge of camp. It was the epitome of the immersion experience.
The next morning, we woke at again at dawn. The wildlife hadn’t been quieter, but everyone had slept soundly. The kettle of cowboy coffee simmered on the campfire as we discussed the day’s plans. It was going to be another long day of driving, but with the opportunity to see rural life in Tanzania. Our destination was also exciting as we were preparing to spend a couple nights camped in a remote part of the Eyasi basin among the Hadzabe.
The last part of the drive is an adventure in itself. Low-range is engaged and the car crawls up the hill, rock by rock until finally the track levels out and, sheltered by a rock, camp is found, exactly the same camp as in Tarangire. It wasn’t long before we were sitting on top of the rock, overlooking historic Hadza hunting and gathering grounds, watching the sun go down once again.
A Hadza high up in a baobab after following a honeyguide to the beehive.
The next morning, a small group of Hadza hunters walked into camp. One had already shot a hyrax and had it tucked in his belt. Honey axes slung over their shoulders and bow and arrows in hand, they lead us to where some women had begun digging for tubers. We were soon all distracted by the excitement of finding kanoa, or stingless-bee honey. Another distraction ensued when a Greater honey-guide flew around us, chattering its call to follow. You can’t plan these spontaneous, magical experiences.
Digging for tubers.
I continued to dig for roots with the women as the family I was guding followed the Hadza guides who in turn followed the bird, eventually finding a tall baobab tree, the hive high-up on the lower side of a massive branch. I don’t know if it is just for fun, but on numerous occasions I’ve watched Hadza climb the baobab trees without smoke to placate the bees and haul out the combs dripping with honey. Judging by the laughter, it seems that they find being stung somewhat comedic. So much for African killer bees. Following a mid-morning snack of honey, bees wax, roasted roots and hyrax liver (no kidding, everyone tried!) we returned to camp for a more traditional (for us) sandwich after which the Hadza hunters showed the boys how to make arrows and fire, and in the evening took them on a short hunt.
Now your turn!
The last attempt for a hyrax before heading back to camp.
Having spent the first four nights of the trip in the light-weight mobile camp, we next made our way to more luxurious accommodations, swimming pools, lawns to play soccer on, and unlimited hot showers.
A budding wildlife film-maker watches as a breeding herd of elephants cross the plains in front of us. (Northern Serengeti)
There is something about privacy and after visiting Ngorongoro Crater, we were all happy to be headed to the more classic luxury mobile camp in Serengeti; not for the luxury, but for the privacy. We’d timed it perfectly, and rains in the northwest of Serengeti were drawing wildebeest herds back toward the Nyamalumbwa hills, also a sanctuary for black rhino.
Watching giraffes or are they watching us?
There is something about privacy! Enjoying sunrise in the Nyamalumbwas.
An elephant bull, Tarangire National Park
Zebra, Tarangire National Park
June in Tanzania is like autumn in the northern hemisphere: a transitional month. The last of the rains finish in mid-May, moisture begins to evaporate out of the soil, and the grass begins to turn gold. Baobab trees drop their leaves and seasonal water holes begin to dry up. Reluctantly, wildlife begins to return to dry season habitats. Lion prides that fragmented during the rains re-unite and return to favorite ambush positions where other wildlife will begin to regularly pass on their way to drink water. As the foliage dries up and falls, leopards can no longer lie concealed on branches. There is still plenty of forage for browsers and grazers so the atmosphere does not convey the harsh struggle that the animals will have in a few months. Early fires lit by park rangers and pastoralists to encourage a nutritious flush of fresh grass begin to fill the sky with smoke bringing out red sunsets, yet the dry season winds have not filled the sky with enough dust to block views.
Elephants in Silale Swamp, Tarangire National Park
A deck at Little Oliver's Camp, Tarangire National Park
Serengeti, with its large area and near intactness as an ecosystem, follows different patterns. Rains induced by Lake Victoria fall on its northern parts, including the Maasai Mara, and as the smaller streams of water in central and southern Serengeti dry and soda concentrations increase, the migrating herds of wildebeest and zebra head north. The wildebeest often pause in the western corridor until water in the Grumeti River also becomes scarcer. The minor changes in daylight hours, insignificant and unnoticeable to most people, combined with the effects of a moon phase induce hormonal changes in female wildebeest. The resulting synchronized estrus, also known as coming into heat, drives the males into a frenzy of amusing territorial activity as they attempt to stake out territories and herd small groups of females who continue on their migration.
Watching migration, Serengeti National Park
An approaching storm allowed us within 30m of this black rhino, Serengeti National Park.
These trends have made their way onto maps, into guidebooks, and onto documentaries describing and simplifying “The Great Migration”. As a result, it is often a surprise when weather patterns don’t follow the standard predictions and the migrating herds don’t arrive where they usually do, show up early, or take an “abnormal” route. We were fortunate on our early June itinerary to catch up with the migration, yet our stop in the western corridor, empty of wildebeest, gave us the opportunity to witness some other spectacular wildlife. The herd of 50 giraffe, some resting, some standing, was a definite highlight for me, and it was impressive to discover an ostrich nest with 27 eggs, and then later an egg abandoned on the plain.
It is very difficult to photograph 50 giraffe, Serengeti National Park
An abandoned ostrich egg, Serengeti National Park.
On this particular itinerary, following the beautiful wildlife viewing in Tarangire and Serengeti, we ended at a camp called Shu’mata, set atop a hill with views of Kilimanjaro. With just one night, it was our opportunity to take a night-game drive, sight some Gerenuk, an unusual and arid-land specialist, as well as visit a Maasai home and glimpse their livelihood and culture.
A very comfortable lounge, Shu'mata Camp
Spear throwing demonstration, Shu'mata Camp
To see more images, follow my facebook page.