Ethan Kinsey Safaris

Adventures in East Africa

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The Gorilla Story Part 1. Some Insight into Mountain Gorillas.
 

Kasole of the Munyaga group beats his chest for us! Watch a video here. Who is Kasole? Find out here.

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?

Read this post.

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 smoking

  • 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:

  • Warm fleece

  • Rain jacket/ ponch

  • 2 spare batteries & 2 extra memory cards

  • drinking water

  • high-energy/protein snack

  • personal pertinent medication

  • valuables like passport and money

Additional optionals:

  • 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

  • Garden gloves

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

 
The Gorilla Story Part II. A Brief History of the Gorilla Groups in DRC.
 

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)

Two stories:

Rugendo

Zunguruka

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:

  • Mapuwa

    • Left his father’s group in 1998, with two females.

  • Humba

  • Nyakamwe

    • Humba left with his brother Nyakamwe in 1998. In 2014 they interacted and split into two groups.

  • Senkwekwe

    • 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.

  • Bukima

    • (not Rugendo’s son) Is currently the dominant silverback of the Rugendo group. Kongoman and Baseka are both with him.

  • Kongoman

  • Baseka

  • 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.

 
Ruaha Walking Safari Training (May & September 2017)
 

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.

 
Empakai to Natron
 

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.

Empakai crater

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.

Roadside flowers

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 Small Selection of iPhone Video Snippets from a Northern Tanzania Safari
 

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.

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Beyond Ruaha's Charismatic Wildlife
 

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).

Day 1.

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. 

Racket-tailed rollers.

Racket-tailed rollers.

Day 2

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. 

Incredible flowers.

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.

Day 3

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.

Day 4

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.

Day 5

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.

Day 6

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.

Day 7

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.

To book an adventure in Ruaha contact me or Thad.

 
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

 
Flying on Safari
 

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.

My first experience with helicopters was guiding in northern Kenya on a safari organized by Charlie Babault.

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.

Sabyinyo group.

All photos in this blog article also appear on Instagram @tembomdogo.

A Private Family Adventure
 

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.

Making fire!

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. 

 
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. 

 
Rubondo Island
 

Rubondo Island Camp

Perhaps due to my desire to leave behind crowds and find my own way, my frequent decision to turn off the radio because I won’t be able to make it to a sighting anyway, or the romance of Robert Frost’s life defining road choice, I have really come to love roads and tracks with grass growing in the middle. I vaguely remember my mother sharing a nostalgic moment of loving the sound of the grass hitting the bottom of the vehicle and when I head across the Serengeti plains and realize that I may be the only person who has driven this track in weeks, I too feel nostalgic. I’m not talking the new tracks that crisscross sensitive areas because of recent repetitive use, I’m talking about the roads and tracks that have overgrown. In nature’s persistent and perseverant way, it continues to try to reclaim back its own.

The grassy runway.

An African Fish-eagle with it's prey.

The same feeling comes too, I guess, from flying across a large body of water, when after watching intensely cultivated islands and shorelines, there before you is a different island: an island forested with massive trees, and with extensive marshes protecting the shoreline, seemingly untouched. In truth, Rubondo Island was inhabited until 1977, so in the sense of the word pristine, it is not untouched but has returned to how it was. To me, it’s an icon of nature’s ability to recover. Even the airstrip that was reconditioned is covered in grass, and the rocky road to camp has branches and vine tendrils reaching out to block it as soon as it ceases to be used. Most of the animals are introduced: giraffe, elephant, and the elusive chimpanzee. But the really fascinating lifeforms on the island are the insects, the birds, and, if you’re like me, the trees.

It is a paradise, and on the last morning before we flew out, I slipped into a kayak alone, and paddled out on the glassy water to watch the sunrise. I will definitely be trying to go back!

Sunrise.

 
Hadza
 

A Hadza man tells me the names of different places.

A couple of weeks ago I took a family to spend a few days with the Hadza hunter-gatherers. The Hadza are a very interesting people to visit, not because of a complex society, but the opposite- beautiful simplicity. The Hadza speak a language full of clicks- not dissimilar to the bushmen of the Kalahari, yet linguistically distinct. They live almost entirely off roots, berries, honey and meat that they collect daily. The technology is so simple that there is no obligate reliance on anyone, so everyone is practically equal and independent. Their society is based on immediate return, not delayed return like most others so there is no need to accumulate food or amass wealth.

Not the stance they teach you in archery.

But an effective one..

Anthropologists studying hunter-gatherers and especially the Hadza see it as an opportunity to look into the past and try to understand how our ancestors probably lived. They’re not saying that the Hadza are backward or subhuman, but that the technology they use is probably very similar to the technology that the first humans used. By definition: “hunter-gathers are people who forage for wild foods, practicing no cultivation or animal husbandry (Marlow, 2010).” Because the environment that the Hadza live in is so similar and close to the habitat in which early homonid fossils have been found, they are the most relevant society to study from an evolutionary viewpoint.

Honey bee (Apis mellifera) larvae are a delicacy.

In a study conducted in the 80’s that scored different societies based on their complexity the Hadza (and Mbuti pygmies of Congo) scored 0 on the scale of 0-40 (Marlow, 2010). Hadza technology consists of a bow, arrows, and some men have an ax. Many also have a knife, and the women use sharpened sticks to dig for tubers. They make fire and light rolled cigarettes by using a fire drill.

Entrance tube of a Stingless bee (Trigona sp.) hive.

 
Congo II. Mountain Gorillas of Congo
 

Kabirizi, a magnificent silverback. Phot by Gian Schachenmann

In a country devastated by genocidal colonial rule, torn by kleptocracy, warring militia groups, and swamped with refugees, it is a wonder that Africa’s oldest national park, Virunga National Park, has managed to survive. The more time we spent walking around the headquarters, the more I was impressed by the Congolese Nature Conservation Institute (ICCN), headed in Virunga by Emmanuel de Merode. The heavily armed rangers who looked more like soldiers were evidence that not everything is peaceful, yet there was an optimistic air that begged us to bring tourism.

The MAN made for a bumpy but fun ride!

We climbed into the back of the 4wd MAN lorry that the ICCN had converted to transport guests on the horrific roads and slowly crawled up toward Bukima ranger post to begin our gorilla trek. The steep, rocky and sometimes slippery 12km road took us nearly an hour and a half to climb, through fields of bananas, cassava, pole-beans, and arrow-root and again, hundreds of children running out to wave. Whereas in most places in East Africa the adventurous route is a chosen option, the route we were on was the only way up the mountain. Wheels spinning and the massive engine straining, we made the last meters to the edge of the forest.

Without the ceremonial briefings of Rwandan gorilla trekking, after registering our names on a random piece of paper, we set off through the fields of potatoes and tobacco that crept right up to the edge of the forest. Startling us, a child ran whooping towards a patch of potatoes, giving us a glimpse of a couple beautiful l’Hoests monkeys as they scampered for safety in the forest. It was fairly easy walking and within an hour we’d reached the spot that would give us the easiest trek through the rainforest to the Kabirizi group that the trackers were monitoring. Compared to Rwanda, the forest trekking was easier. I don’t know how our ranger found the trackers because his radio battery died, but after only an hour we found ourselves with a very large group of gorillas.

Photo by Gian Schachenmann

Mountain Gorillas live in family groups led by a dominant male- an impressive massive animal weighing upward of 500lbs distinguished by the white-haired saddle on his back that earns him the title of Silverback. The pioneer research on Mountain gorillas was conducted by George Schaller, also a pioneer lion researcher in the Serengeti, but their plight was made famous by Diane Fossey and her book, “Gorillas in the Mist”. 

Donning our surgical masks, a precaution to protect gorillas from the various diseases we potentially carry to which they have no natural immunity, we began the precious hour. Kabirizi, a large and intelligent Silverback, took control of the group in 1998 his predecessor was caught in crossfire between the army and rebels. He acquired more females fighting other silverbacks, and now holds one of the largest groups, nearly 5% of the world’s Mountain Gorillas. We followed the family as they moved through the bamboo forest feeding on shoots and young stems, and we were rewarded with some commanding viewing.

With only 820 Mountain Gorillas left, a human disease would be a disaster.

The next morning we found the Humba group (14 individuals) and again enjoyed their calm company for the hour we were allowed. Although there is a minimum distance from which to observe the gorillas, it is sometimes impossible to get out of the way quickly enough should they walk toward you. At one point, when we were backed up against a bamboo clump, I was thrilled at the trust a female showed. Casually walking past us, her tiny baby clinging to her side, she stopped only a few meters away to pull a piece of Sticky-willy that had stuck to the baby’s hair.

 
Congo I: Journey to Congo
 

There are a few experiences on safari that rate themselves as extra special above others. There’s something about walking through the bush where you become vulnerable, or sitting in the midst of elephants with their intimate social interactions. I highly rate sitting on a hill with a 360 degree view with hundreds of thousands of wildebeest gnu-ing around you, but I don’t think there’s much that can prepare you for that 1 hour with a gorilla family.

The 300kg Silverback crosses his arms and stares at you, then scratches his head, while a youngster looks at you and then does a summersault before looking back at you as if he wants to know that you’re still watching, or if you’re going to play.

The Virunga Volcanoes

I knew our trip to see Congo’s gorillas was going to be a real adventure when we crossed the border at Goma. We spoke to the immigration official in Swahili, handing him our passports and photocopies of our visa approval through the window with Expats written over the top. I don’t want to dwell on the pessimistic perspectives of Congo written up in most articles, but the stories of officials confiscating passports and then demanding bribes or “recovery fees” did pass through my mind. He reached to a drawer in his desk and pulled out a cardboard folder with a hand-written piece of paper with a list of names, nationalities, and passport numbers. Our names were all spelled correctly, but the nationalities were jumbled not to mention the passport numbers. It didn’t seem to matter and he nonchalantly ticked our names off and corrected the nationalities. Our passports were passed to another official along with some mutterings in French, while we waited for the $50, 14-day visa, recently negotiated by the conservation body for tourists.

We stopped at the ICCN office to pick up our permits before driving north to the park headquarters and newly built Mikeno Lodge. The excitement was hard to contain. In stark contrast to Rwanda where the roads that tourists see are all paved and clean, and the experience offered a highly polished and organized system that you’d expect in Switzerland, Congo was the opposite.

Like any other town?

Goma itself is a town occupied by the UN- mostly Uruguayan, Indian and South African troops who live in fortified compounds with watchtowers and drive around in jeeps and helicopters spending approximately $3million per day. Congolese soldiers walk around heavily armed with Kalashnikovs, RPD’s and rocket launchers, while pickups with music systems and flags blast political slogans and music, campaigning for the up-coming elections.

Blood hounds being trained to help rangers.

As we drove through the countryside we were astonished at the number of children running out to give thumbs-up and ask for pens and biscuits. As in Rwanda, the volcanic soils are intensively farmed and appear very productive, just less orderly. We remarked how few were the small kiosks selling basic necessities like soap. It is obviously a hard life and everywhere we looked, the scene cried out with a story. As we drove into the headquarters on the edge of the forest, one could not help notice the old grand administrative buildings that spoke of a different era.

Yet despite the evidence of deterioration, the result of decades of turmoil, there is an atmosphere of hope and positive change. 

(photos by Gian Schachenmann)

Beautiful rooms at Mikeno Lodge.

A wonderful breakfast before gorilla day.... stay tuned!

 
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.

Photographic Memories: Ruaha Part I

I was recently handed an i-pod that had a year’s worth of photographs from Ruaha National Park that I thought I’d lost. Flicking through them, I realized how significant the events that the images recorded were in steering me in the direction to where I am now. I’d never had time to edit them and as I touched up the images and took an inspirational trip through the memories.

The rains end in April and early May and by June the long grass has turned golden. The grass seed-heads are mature and many of the trees start to lose their leaves or are turning red- its Africa’s version of autumn. Distant waterholes have started drying up and the Ruaha River takes on its role as the animals slowly return to the floodplains.The surface water on the Mwagusi Sand River is limited to a few spots that become wallows for elephants and regular drinking troughs for huge herds of buffalo. The skies are clear of dust and smoke and the last clouds depart as the dry sets in.

Stunning sunsets... and spectacular light.

The large buffalo herds coming down to drink in the Ruaha river towards the end of the dry season when the water flow is nearly stopped.

and magical light like this...

The toothbrush combretum has the most beautiful flowers and seed pods loved by kudu and giraffe- but some of the most beautiful were the various seed pods that we would dry and use to decorate the camp.

Living in camp for months on end, these little things began to fascinate me and the appearance of snakes would always cause a great deal of excitement among the other staff there. I managed to capture some beautiful images of these spectacular creatures.

This puff-adder was so cold in the morning sun and the buffalo weavers wouldn't give it a break.

And of course the wild dogs... my first encounters with them. Ruaha has one of the last viable populations of these beautiful and fascinating creatures.

The morning they ran through camp and stole the back off one of the safari chairs.

Typical mid-day behavior in the shade.

A classic greeting frenzy...

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Sidai, Gelai, Piyaya

The darkness is coming in fast and the road we’ve been following hasn’t been driven in months and the influx of the rain season has turned it into a gully. I’ve been bush-bashing and now I’m walking in-front of the car with my brother driving pushing through grass that’s above my head to get to higher ground. Its wet and all of us are hoping we can get to the big Acacia trees where we’ll set up camp.

Feeling liberated- I head off with my headlamp to collect firewood while my brother, father and cousin set up the tents. A couple matches and the flickering flames leap up the rungs of Commiphora kindling getting bigger and lighting heavier Acacia sticks. Meanwhile we’ve opened the fridge and the first gushes of cold liquid on the backs of our throats are heavenly. The slight anxiety to get camp up in the dark fades and my cousin’s first night under the southern hemisphere’s constellations is not in anyway typical. I apologize but the feeling is juxtaposed by his enthusiasm and as we lay out cushions next to the fire. I hear sighs of satisfaction.

The next morning, I coax another flame from the coals and heat water for coffee. Everything tastes so good in the bush. We pack camp and head off on a walk. Fresh elephant tracks pass nearby camp, but none of us heard them. The bush is alive and the rains have invigorated growth- birds are courting as are plants with their glorious flowers.

We decide to head to Sidai camp, where we should have slept last night had we not detoured and stopped too long to watch magnificent kudu, the long-necked gerenuk, giraffe, and gazelle stare at us. The road is not a road, but in the morning light we find our way, over rolling crystalline granite hills- I could go on the whole day, but I realize that we have arrived at a good stopping point. Nestled into Oldonyo Sidai (Mountain of Goodness) is a hunting camp. Built with local materials, it’sluxurious backdrop offers our heads a resting point on the large cushions in the open dining room. An old plow blade is acts as a bird bath and our bird list increases in 2’s, 3’s and 5’s. Male whydah’s display their extended tails, and emerald spotted wood doves and laughing doves chase the waxbills and sunbirds away.

At around 4, I get restless, it’s hot and I’m on holiday, but the bush is too vibrant for me to lie still. I wrangle the others- all feeling the same and we head off to look for elephant, and then do a night drive back. We find the elephants, and watch until its nearly too dark to get back to the road, then drive back, spotlight leading, illuminating nightjars, genets, and lesser galagoes that leap 10 feet from branch to branch. They leave scents along their paths and its said they can accurately execute a 3m jump on a pitch-black night by their keen sense of smell.

We sleep well and in the morning rise to the dawn, still and quiet. I load the rifle and we head off on a walk. There is a sand river I’d like to explore and we follow an old game trail. A lion has passed before us, and we can smell elephant and see where they have fed that night. The sun gets hot and we find ourselves walking the sand river. It’s a bit too warm to see much game, but the dikdik and giraffe don’t know that. That night we drive the sand river again, and on returning to camp use the spotlight to pick up jackals, and a great reward- a White-faced scops owl. Its been 7 years since I’ve seen one.

It’s so nice to be off any schedule, and the next morning it’s a late start. We arrive at a junction. Two roads diverge, one is graded, the other is just a track. The GPS shows that the track should take us around the north of Gelai mountain to the east shores of Lake Natron. We take the track. Like all the roads we’ve been on it hasn’t been driven in a while. We engage four-wheel drive, in some places we follow the little arrow on the GPS that changes direction if you leave the track. We can’t see the road, in other places its obvious, sometimes we have to dig the banks to climb out, other times it’s a low-range crawl. Our driving is distracted by beautiful straight-horned oryx, that gallop off. Occasionally giraffe stick their necks above the acacia scrub and watch us pass. I wonder what they think.

Around the north of Gelai the land becomes rocky and my cousin calls it a moonscape. Kiti cha mungu (God’s stool), otherwise known as a small hill. My father and cousin talk of Arizona, the Sonora desert. I don’t know if they have termite mounds there. We stop at one that must be nearly 30ft high. The rocks get bigger and it seems each gully leading off Gelai has carried with it rocks as big as basketballs across the road and down to the lake. We can’t drive the edge of the shore because at the base of each gully is a spring that softens the shoreline.

Oldonyo Lengai appears in the distance. We are headed towards its base but tonight we will sleep under the stars again, on the shores of the lake. We stop, set up camp, the sun has sapped us of energy, but we are rejuvenated by the shining grass flowers, the dark mountains, the reflection of Shompole, Masonik, and the Rift wall in the lake. Flamingos add pink, and the springs are all surrounded by dark green sedge. Grants and giraffe wander down to drink from the springs. That night we sit shirtless under the stars, sipping beers and listening to my father sing on his guitar. My cousin adds his songs as does my brother- such peace.

Too many things happen the next day to write about. The silent morning, the sunrise over Gelai, skinny-dipping in hot-springs- a dose of the daily amenities no luxury lodge could imitate. We drive south and cross the top of the lakebed. Alkaline salt flats that mirage, with zebra in the foreground. We head up the escarpment and climb, and climb and climb to the top where we have lunch and look out across our morning’s journey. We push on, across the Ngata Salei plain to the base of the Sonjo mountains passed their settlement; agriculturalists who have been in the area since long before any Maasai. The mountain pass we climb is flanked by cycads. Old plants that once fed dinosaurs. The temperature drops and the trees are lush- less adapted to desert conditions. The birds are also more colorful and soon we are seeing Augur Buzzards again; a bird identical to North America’s Red-tailed Hawk.

By 4 we are at the edge of the short grass plains that vitalize the migrating wildebeest. High in phosphorous and calcium the seemingly fragile grasses support lactating wildebeest. The plains are also full of zebra, the stallions fighting for their harems, and to my father’s amazement there are herds of nearly 500 eland. Most people only read about these congregations at the beginning of the rains. We stop and scan with binoculars before heading down into a woodland to the camp. Familiar smiling faces of the camp crew greet us with cold washcloths and ice tea. Our first hot showers it seems in ages are lifted into the bucket showers.

We sleep again, this time to the chorus of zebra and hyenas. The lions are silent tonight. The next three days we rise before dawn, coffee brought in French-presses to the tent door. We head off and find beautiful coffee spots on rocks or under trees eat breakfast and enjoy the wild. One day we drive to the Sanjan Gorge that cuts through the Gol mountains. They are 500 million years old I’m told- as old as the oldest mountains and once higher than the Himalayas. We find fossils and stone tools in eroded volcanic ash soil and finally hike down the steep banks of the gorge as two Black Eagles fly out from below us rising on updrafts. It is breathtaking. The water has carved natural slides in the rock but its too low to swim. Instead we lay in the brown water refreshed.

That evening is our last and we drive across the plains- it has rained while we were in the gorge and it seems that the wildebeest numbers are increasing. They must sense it before it rains. There is no need to use the road and the few land marks triangulate where camp is. The next day we head home. It will be the 8th day out and we have yet to see another tourist. The vehicles we have seen can be counted on our hands. 45km south I know we will cross the Olduvai Gorge and with it we’ll meet the masses. Our days have been filled with rich events, many I know I find difficult to describe. I have skipped parts of the some of the days- even highlights like the sand boa, a very rare find, or the Tree of Life standing out in the plains.

Giving, A Unique Cultural Experience

The sun is already high in the sky as we set off through the ankle deep talcum powder dust. A woman holding a little basket with a small wet rag in the bottom leads us up the hill. Carefully wrapped in the little wet rag is a precious little eye drop bottle in which is an important clear liquid.

We walk up to the first house and where we are warmly met by kids with shy smiles each of who wants to shake our hand, and then turns around and giggles. The old “Koko” or grandmother sits on a small stool in front of her hut holding her grandchild. Two scrawny cows are eating the left over corn stover that has been brought in from the fields. No chickens are running around today and we greet everyone in turn.

“Koko takwenya”

“Iko”

“Mama takwenya”

“Iko”

“Layoni sobia”

“Eba”

“Karibuni”

and we are welcomed.

We proceed. While the woman deliberately unwraps the little bottle from the wet rag and unscrews the cap, a little boy climbs up into the chicken coop and grabs the first chicken. His mother takes it from him and holding it one drop of the precious liquid is squeezed into the chicken’s eye. We’re only there for two hours but we’re having fun and we’re having an amazing experience with people welcoming us into their homes.

Nearly 100% of unvaccinated chickens in Tanzania die every year from a virus known as Newcastle Disease. The nutritional impact of this on rural peoples is harrowing. Yet, a precious bottle of vaccination costs 2800/=, about the equivalent of $2.15, and can vaccinate 400-600 chickens.

We move on to the next house. The chickens are inside the hut and a small window provides amazing light as Nicol squeezes in the door opening, trying not to let any chickens out. She gets some amazing photographs and everyone is lining up to have their picture taken with a chicken.

The woman with the little bottle charges 50/=, the equivalent of 3.8 cents per chicken. Of course on our tour we pay the $1.30 it costs to vaccinate the 35 chickens our neighbors own. On this first round in the village, the 50/= will cover her costs but in the future, she may charge up to 100/= per chicken which will bring her income. Even at 50/= per chicken, she can make the equivalent of $30 per campaign. I’m reminded of the saying “give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime”. The knock-on effects of this simple vaccination program are really amazing.

We walk back to the house in silence. As a guide, providing a genuine cultural experience is difficult. We didn’t set out with that in mind, but it has turned out that way- and in a far more real way.

Avoiding Crowds in the Ngorongoro

I took Nicol to the Ngorongoro Crater. She wrote to me about an article and wanted me to change that part of the itinerary because of the crowds, but I wanted her to see it. I likened it to being 30 miles from the Grand Canyon and not going to have a look. It was a risk, because I know how busy the crater gets and how awful it can be with traffic jams, but its still an amazing place- a caldera with the highest densities of animals found anywhere in the world.

The morning starts before the sun has risen- drinking coffee and trying get warm we huddle into the vehicle and start our descent into the crater. The fog is lifting out of the crater, the dust from the previous day’s chaos has settled as we make the first vehicle tracks of the day. We end up watching the animals nearly alone and as we exit the crater heading for our next destination, I’m hoping that it was worth it. I look back and can see 20 vehicles congregating along a short stretch of road where lions have just killed a zebra. Its what we wanted to avoid, and we did.

(Photo by Alyssa Nicol www.nicolragland.com)

I take a left at the Ngorongoro airstrip and head towards a small village where I will attempt to drive down a new road that I walked 10 years ago with a friend of mine when it was just a donkey path. It’s another risk but Nicol wants to get off the beaten track as I do. I’m a little nervous because I know that 13km of road on a map can be hours of low range four wheel drive clambering and I just hope we’ll get to camp before dark. The road is steep with loose rock in places but the Landcruiser makes easy work of it even when it seems that the road is sliding out from under us, or one wheel is in the air.

Occasionally, I stop the car and admire a leopard orchid, or for Nicol to take a photo of a baobab with her Holga film camera. Trickling through one of the valleys is a clear stream and I remember cooling my feet in it when I walked down. I park in the shade and we grab the picnic basket and walk downstream under some magnificent fig trees and we sit barefoot on rocks in the stream, eating pickles and making our own sandwiches with avocado, tomato, smoked beef and home-made bread and cheese.

It refreshing to be with someone who finds this fun and I expect that everyone probably does, but its easy to get caught up in worrying about what people will like or not like. As we finish the last bites of our sandwiches, it is as though we planned it, a herd of calves comes down to the river herded by some young Datoga boys and girls. Nicol calls it serendipity. The dust kicked up by their hooves disperses the harsh light and this noontime scene becomes a photogenic moment. While the cattle drink they ask to borrow a cup so that they can drink some water. Nicol takes some photos and the kids are happy. I share some bananas, but wonder what the implications of this innocent interaction will be.