Ethan Kinsey Safaris

Adventures in East Africa

Posts tagged Cheetah
Volcanoes, Wildlife & Adventure
 

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.

Incredible plants.

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

 
Cats
 

I’m still reeling over the incredible wildlife viewing I’ve had in the past few weeks, especially the cats. It’s not often that you get to see every cat in the book. The fixations on leopards, lions, & cheetah are understandable. They are called charismatic fauna, and on a well planned safari you have a reasonable chance to see all three, even if it’s just a glimpse. There are a few places in central Serengeti where it’s almost guaranteed, sometimes all in one day. But as you might catch on, I try to work on the periphery of these areas. I take the risk that I might not see anything, but the reward is also greater. The smaller cats are more of a challenge. Many people have never heard of a caracal, serval or African wildcat.

There’s always a little pressure to try to find the leopard. Leopards are elusive and also really hard to spot, so my ears perked up when, having just enjoyed a beautiful moment with a herd of elephants, some impala started snorting. It’s one of those triggers that get’s my heart pumping… somewhere, something has spooked an impala. They all stare in one direction, ears facing forward, some stamp their front legs, but the snort is unmistakable. Searching for signs of a leopard, you can imagine the surprise when a caracal gave his presence away by flicking his ears. 

 
Late for Lunch
 

Portrait

Being late for lunch has become a habit- not deliberately, but because of circumstance. Twice we found leopard close enough to camp that I’d already radioed in our arrival. The second time, we were even able to return to spend the afternoon alone with her. Two other experiences involved cheetah. Of all the cats, cheetah are known to be the least aggressive. Hunting by sight during the day, they also habitually climb termite mounds or sloping tree trunks to get a good vantage. On occasion, especially in areas with many vehicles such as Maasai Mara, they habitually use vehicles as a vantage. This happened for us, and the first instance with a cub made us an hour late for lunch, but the second made us 6 hours late for lunch.

A cheetah on my roof.

Heading back to camp for lunch, I stopped one last time to scan the plains for cheetah. It’s always that last scan that gets me in trouble. Sitting in typical cheetah pose was a massive male. His belly size told me he was hungry and as a diurnal hunter, I suspected he would hunt. As he posed for the photographers in the vehicle, I scanned for prey. Low on the horizon I noticed another cheetah.

With no hunt imminent, we decided to visit the new cheetah and drove up to what turned out to be a female. Within 30 seconds of driving up to her, she ran up to the vehicle, seemingly agitated, circled, and leapt onto the roof. She completed ignored our presence, we were able to stand and watch while she stared intently on the male.

She keeps him away.

Cheetah mating is rarely observed. A friend who studied them in Serengeti for six years only saw them courting once, so when our cheetah jumped off the car and took off toward the male, I knew lunch was inevitably becoming dinner. The literature describes cheetah mating with words like kidnapping, rape, and hostage. There’s a lot of dancing that goes on and despite running toward him, at about 400m she became cautious and laid down. He hadn’t noticed her, so she jumped back onto the car. His approach became a stalk which prompted her to take cover next to the vehicle. We sat for 3 hours Every time he would approach she would lash out at him until eventually he gave up and ran off. 

 
Ethan KinseyCheetah, Serengeti
57 lions
 

Thousands of gnu on the plains.

It’s that time of year again when most people in the tourism industry in Tanzania are winding down, closing camps and getting a break. The heavy rains have usually started by now, and getting around tends to be difficult or even impossible, especially in the southern parks. Many of the animals have dispersed to areas that do not have permanent water during the dry season. This year has been a little different with the short rains completely failing and the long rains arriving a month late, changing the animals’ typical patterns.

Young male lion in Piyaya.

I was excited to be able to take some guests to some of my favorite places on a last minute safari. I picked up my guests at Kilimanjaro International Airport in the afternoon and drove to Plantation Lodge in Karatu which provided us a convenient starting point for the safari. A variety of luxurious places have emerged in Karatu as overflow to the lodges on the rim of Ngorongoro Crater, but I very rarely stay there because one misses the most beautiful time in the crater. However, in this case, my guests had already seen the crater in the 60’s and preferred to keep those memories intact.

Sitting at breakfast the next morning, I unfolded the Serengeti Ecosystem Map and traced our route. There was no way to avoid the crowds for the first hour as we climbed the steep, winding road up and around the rim of the crater, but I took the first opportunity I could to leave the main road and drive one of the most scenic roads/tracks through the area down to the plains south of Ndutu. Suddenly we were alone except for a few Maasai herding livestock along the road. We didn’t see another person or vehicle until we again crossed the main road heading north to Piyaya. January and February were unusually dry, and therefore the wildebeest were on the edge of the plains where they usually are at the end of April, so we had to drive a little further than I’d planned when creating the itinerary. We eventually found them just in time for lunch and sat watching and listening to the thousands “nyu-ing” all around us. That evening we spent the night in one of my favorite areas that I’ve blogged about a few times. Despite the lack of rain, the game was great with two sightings of three cheetahs.

Preying on Grant's gazelle hider fawns.

The safari then took us north through Loliondo and on the road that may become paved as the Serengeti highway. I could not help thinking about how it would dramatically change the face of the area that is already slowly changing due to pressures on the land and conflicts between the Maasai communities and the government-controlled hunting concessions. Permanent Maasai homesteads have sprung up where previously there was only the occasional dry season “rancho” or temporary cattle enclosure. Only two years ago when I guided and managed a camp, there was almost no difference between the land inside and outside of the park. Now the boundary between the park and community land is obvious due to the extensive livestock grazing outside the park.

Another amazing Piyaya sunset.

It always surprises me when I end up alone in the Serengeti. We stopped at a small spring on the side of a hill where over 200 elephant were making their way in different directions through the valley. Buffalo, topi, ostrich, impala, hartebeest, warthog, eland, and zebra grazed peacefully as we scanned for predators. A female elephant with a newborn wandered past us. The cute baby was still trying to make sense of its surroundings. As we pushed on, our drive took us along the Kenya- Tanzania border, the cliché “sea of grass” literal as the red-oat grass rippled in the wind. We enjoyed the solitude of the single track as the panorama stretched out before us - open space. A male lion with his lionesses under a tree sat with his head up seemingly enjoying the vista.

"Arturo" the patient male on the periphery.

Amazing?

It’s rare that guests want to stay more than three nights in a place, but with five nights at Sayari we were able to experience the area slowly and without the pressure to find anything. Of course when this happens, the animals decide not to let you rest, and the second morning we were woken around 4 am by roaring lions. It’s surprisingly hard to find lions when you’ve heard them roaring in the night, but by 6:15 we were sitting with a pair of mating lions in what would be one of the best lion experiences I have ever had. Two big males sat on the periphery and watched as the pair mated in front of us every nine minutes. The mating male was anxious and kept staring in the direction from which we’d come. A resident guide from the camp had set off in the morning and called me on the radio; two other males were headed our way and were about to emerge on the other end of the plain. The details of what happened and which lion did what are too complicated and confusing to explain here but we witnessed a heart-in-your-throat battle between seven different males on the edge of their territories. 

I’d never seen male lions in such great proportions; we’d only seen three lionesses so far. Needless to say, over the next days we found two prides: one with six females and eight 4-week old cubs, and one with 11 cubs and four females. In addition to these lion sightings, a mother cheetah and her three cubs entertained us on a couple mornings as we watched, hoping they would hunt. Come June, off-road driving in the area is being closed because of high-season congestion and I am glad to have had that last opportunity.

Elephant bull in musth.

Its hard to take photos of lions in shade at noon.

Mother cheetah with three near independent cubs.

 
Part III: Ruaha's cats

Camp lay on the boundary of two massive lion prides and it was common for us to have lions in camp. These lions killed a massive male giraffe just outside camp at 6:30 a.m. one morning. Above, a young male tears into the thick and beautiful hide.

Cubs are always cute.

Together with another lioness, this one killed this zebra in perfect light right in front of our eyes. It had been such a peaceful scene with elephants and baboons digging for water, and zebra waiting their turn to drink from the holes the other animals had dug. She waited in a bush until the elephants had left then attacked. It was interesting to see all the baboons come and sit around this sight- they would get so excited every time the zebra twitched.

Finding lions in the afternoon light overlooking waterholes.

Cheetah sightings were always a great treat.

Guide Training 2010

The wet season in Tanzania is extremely quiet of visitors in the bush. Large mammals disperse from many of their dry season home ranges and the wild sorghum and red-oat grass gets higher than a man’s head. The heavy rains wash away the harsh dry season as the mood changes. I’m lucky and spent six weeks this season teaching in the bush with a group of trainee guides.

I started training Asilia’s guides in 2007 when I was managing and guiding from Suyan Camp. Initially it was simple training to waiters and tent attendants to give them some knowledge of birds, plants, and insects in the camp. The idea grew into a three-month course for ten guides who are currently guiding from their various camps. Its success initiated two-week on-going

training courses in November and May every year. Working with professional teachers on methods and the syllabus, I refined the course into a six-week course ending with two weeks placement in a camp with a mentor guide.

Our guide course started with three weeks back in Piyaya. The rains had brought the wildebeest back out onto the plains and our game drives were filled with lion (over 20 individuals) and cheetah (11 individuals) sightings. We completed the practical three weeks in a camp in Tarangire National Park. The diversity that we encountered in this course rivals any other course in Africa. Our carnivore list included leopard, lion, cheetah, caracal, serval cat, wild cat, genet, golden jackal, black-backed jackal, bat-eared fox, aardwolf, spotted hyena, honey badger, zorilla, white-tailed, dwarf, slender and banded, and Egyptian mongoose. The antelope list included most members of every tribe including Fringe-eared oryx, and Tarangire brought our bird list close to 200.

Some excerpts from the training diary:

“… after climbing my favourite kopje as the sun set looking for leopard spoor and a resident barn owl and talking about geological formations we spotted four 3-4 year old male lions hiding in some hibiscus looking out on the plains. We could only approach to about thirty meters before they showed signs of preparing to run…”

“… we set off early in search of the four lions to see if they’d hunted, but were distracted by a hyena chasing an abandoned wildebeest calf. We watched the kill and then from about half a km away a lioness came running over to steal the kill. She proceeded to feed on it. We followed her back to the pride which was guarding two wildebeest they’d killed in the night…”

“…this afternoon we set off late looking for cheetah. We spent some time scanning the plains from a hilltop and spotted the shape of a cheetah a long distance away. We approached to find two cubs eating a Grant’s gazelle while their mother panted…”

“… this morning one of the trainees spotted a White-faced Scops Owl in the Whistling thorn. It was wonderful after having talked about camouflage and mimicry, to watch the owl make itself as skinny as possible, close its eyes and use its ear tufts to look like a stump…”

“… a Peter’s Foam-nest Frog hopped into the classroom. After picking him up and putting him on the table it changed colour from dark bark-brown to a cream…”

“… stopping to watch hundreds of open-billed storks flying out of Silale swamp as the sun was setting we almost missed the leopard with an impala kill in a Desert-date Tree…”

“… we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by a herd of elephants that were distressed for some reason. It was a great lesson in staying calm as they mock charged from more than one direction…”

“… spent this morning identifying trees and flowers. There are at least five different morning glories, the purple mallows showing both yellow and purple shades, the pink ink flowers, the yellow Aspilia mossambicensis in stands- one of the Maasai keeps stopping and saying, please enjoy the landscape…”

“ after watching a DVD on social insects we spent the next day reliving the content of the DVD as we found the progression of sociality from solitary wasps to mud wasps, to paper wasps to bee hives, ant colonies and termites…”