Ethan Kinsey Safaris

Adventures in East Africa

Posts tagged Magical light
Spring in Ruaha
 

Same baobab tree, 11 days apart, slightly different angle.

Ruaha is just that far away that it doesn’t make it into enough of my safari itineraries. This year I was fortunate to have two back to back safaris in Ruaha, giving me two weeks in the park at one of the best times to be there.

I’ve written about Ruaha in other articles about walking safaris or exploring the more remote areas of the park. However over these two weeks, most of the time I spent was in the core area- a triangle between the escarpment, Mdonya River, and Great Ruaha River. Being the end of the dry season, water had ceased to flow in the Ruaha and elephants, warthogs, zebra and baboon dug in the sand rivers to get at the cool water that flowed beneath the sand. The predators staked these points out, waiting in ambush, for whatever prey overcome by thirst would venture too close without a careful scan.

Within a few days of me being there, the rains came. Big, violent thunderstorms that brought with them relief. Change was overnight. Areas that had been doused with water began the transformation into an emerald paradise. Fragile buds pushed through the soils crust, the tips of dead-grey branches began to bud, while other plants threw sprays of fragrant blossoms that filled the air with the scent of jasmine.

The following images and videos were all taken with my phone (for more and better quality follow me on instagram @tembomdogo

A herd of impala resting in the shade.

Combretum longispicatum blossom.

A delicate Ribbon-wing lacewing is our dinner guest.

Magic.

Scadoxus multiflorum is a great Latin name for this Fireball lilly.

The incredible light- what you can't see is the fragrance of jasmine that was drifting in the air from the blossoms of this bush.

Fresh growth on Combretum apiculatum.

Sesamothamnus blossom- another fragrant beauty.

Lillies on a walk.

Never smile at a crocodile- unless you're a Ruaha lion that specializes in hunting crocodiles.

You have to get out and walk to find this baobab tree that is growing out of a rock!

 
Happy New Year- day 2.
 

It was the 2nd of January. The 1st had been amazing, and now we headed toward Naabi across the short grass plains. A rainstorm had soaked the soil and driving very cautiously, you could almost feel the vibrant green growth in the morning sunlight. Scattered across the plains were small groups of gazelle. Female Thomson gazelles moved around in little herds, male Thomsons actively tried to set up temporary territories, while Grant’s gazelles wandered around in groups, the males strutting their horns.

Meanwhile in a patch of slightly taller vegetation, a small group of females stood around, snorting the alarm.

One of the things we warn in guide training is not to jump to conclusions. As I stood in my seat scanning for the predator that they might be snorting at, I was not seeing what was really happening. Almost giving up, I looked back at the gazelle as one female turned, the front hooves and head of a baby protruding out of her rear. The pictures below say the rest. What joy!

Returning to the road, an unusual movement caught my attention as two honey badgers lumbered by. The day was getting better and better. It was nearly time for a coffee break. I love slowing down and allowing time to observe, even if there is nothing apparent to watch. After a good look with binoculars across the plains, I decided to stop next to a tree for coffee. A few minutes later as we packed the coffee bag away, a female cheetah with her two cubs stood up a few hundred meters away. Perfect timing? 

 
"Spring" in Ruaha
 

My office under a baobab tree.

The lilies bloom.

A few weeks ago, I found myself sitting in the back of my open vehicle under a massive baobab tree, staring across the vast expanse of a tiny portion of Ruaha National Park. A lone antenna on a far away hill beamed an unreliable cell-phone signal that allowed me to send various emails and of course the occasional instagram photo (and to call my lovely wife). Around me the grass was green and the sky a Polaroid blue interrupted only by a few cumulus clouds. Woodland kingfishers reestablished their territories, and flocks of Eurasian bee-eaters and rollers patrolled the skies feasting on the termite irruptions, joined by other migrants such as Amur falcons and kestrels.

Seven weeks prior, I arrived in Ruaha to begin the second round of training rangers. The Pilatus flew over the Ruaha River, or what used to be the Great Ruaha River. Unregulated rice farming upstream and an illegally overgrazed, but now recovering, Usangu swamp have reduced the river to a few pools of hippo dung-infested water. The animal trails were clear when we flew over and spread like nerve ganglia from any form of drinking water. Ash lay in white shapes against the red earth, evidence of trees that had burned in grass fires, reminiscent of the chalk drawings used to outline bodies at crime scenes.

The temperature must have been close to 40 degrees Celsius, and the sun unbearable. Even with the windshield down as we drove to camp, the hot blasts of air did little to cool the body. It was pretty clear that the next few weeks were going to be intense. The harsh light and dust in the air immediately forced a squint that would become so permanent for the next weeks that I developed squint-tan lines across my forehead.

A wild ginger.

Like a fresh breath of air.

Building storms accentuated the heat, hinting at relief, but it wasn’t until well into the course that it finally did rain. The seasons do not change in East Africa as they do in the temperate climates. Instead of gradual changes, season changes here are striking distinct events, the zenith of a build up. There’s not half-rain between dry season and wet season, or a half dry between dry and wet season. It is a sudden thunderstorm that leaves you soaked and shivering when only half an hour ago you couldn’t drink enough to keep up with your perspiration.

That first rain is one of the most beautiful moments you can have in the bush. The bush becomes silent, and then the violent raindrops fall, bouncing off the hardened ground. If you go out you’ll notice that none of the animals take cover. Instead they expose themselves, the water washing off months of accumulated dust. Within a couple of days, buds appear on the trees, and little cracks appear in the ground as grass sprouts push through the earth. The next morning, the dry season silence is broken before dawn by migrant birds arriving, and a great weight is lifted while the impala fawns dance. Baby elephants run around trumpeting, no longer stumbling behind their mothers.

Within a week, lilies are flowering and the baobabs go from bare grey branches to dark green leaf. It is an amazing time for training as new life is visible and obvious. Insects that could not survive the dry season irrupt in unbelievable numbers, if only for their ecological role as food for the birds that begin their breeding. Other animals that may not be considered so pleasant also appear. Centipedes, scorpions, and massive spiders patrol the nights- but it’s all part of a big web of interconnectivity that keeps the wilderness wild and healthy. The contrast of obligate, fragile and intricate connections is easier appreciated on foot. The sense of immersion and vulnerability is far more appealing than watching lions sleeping under a tree from the safety of a 4x4. These are among the things that the training course was attempting to teach.

A young leopard tortoise emerges from aestivation after the first rains.

The training we conducted this year built on the training conducted in January: 20 participants, five days Advanced Wilderness First Aid, 10 days firearms training, and two weeks of walking emphasizing safety including dealing with potentially dangerous game. This November we added two weeks of identification, interpretation and further firearms training.

Marksmanship and weapons handling on the firing range with Mark Radloff.

Dr. Amol gives expert instruction in Swahili & English.

Andrew Molinaro goes through the drills- "what happens when an animal does charge"?

Simon Peterson on shot placement- "as a last resort, where are you going to shoot to stop a charging hippo"?

Kigelia africana, a common talking point.

It is a misconception that participating in a guiding course will equip you with in-depth knowledge. Even individuals with advanced academic degrees struggle in identification unless they have extensive field experience. However, the foundations can be laid, seeds of curiosity planted, and skills established enabling and encouraging a student in the right direction. It would be extremely arrogant for us “experts” to not admit that we are learning every day.

 
The Magic of Mwiba
 

For a long time references to Mwiba could only be found on this blog, and then later a friend’s blog. It is a place I love for the freedom that it offers and lots of little surprises. On a recent trip I guided we ended perfectly with two nights at Mwiba Tented Camp or not quite both nights at the camp.

Driving around in the open vehicle I was delighted to find herds of impala that would normally have exploded into different directions as we approached, and herds of buffalo that would have been a cloud of dust, staring at us and not running from the vehicle. The hangover from heavy hunting is slowly subsiding, we were able to watch a breeding herd of notoriously aggressive Maswa elephants as they only briefly formed their protective formation before relaxing and continuing to feed. Warthogs stared at us from respective distances without running and even kudu didn’t disappear as soon as we saw them.

An elephant behaving the way an elephant should- without fear or aggression.

The Pangolin- a scaly anteater, normally nocturnal!

Of course the wildlife is still not as great as in the core areas of some of the national parks, but it is still full of wonderful little surprises such as the envied sighting of a pangolin. If you’re not familiar with the Pangolin, it is a really special animal and this is only the second time that I’ve seen one. You can read more about them on my previous post and here.

However, my love for Mwiba is more about the ability to create magic. While Tanzania’s wildlife is exceptional in national parks, the necessary rules and regulations can be restrictive. Mwiba allows you to do whatever you want, within the bounds of guiding ethics and etiquette.

Sitting around the fire watching the sun go down on the first night, I challenged the guests- would they be able to sleep under the stars on the same rock we were sitting, listening to hyenas and the distant territorial roar of a lion. The next evening after a beautiful walk to the top of a rocky outcrop we arrived at our sleep out.

Sundowners. One of the great safari traditions. Being outside National Parks allows enjoying them into the night without curfews to worry about.

Now you have to imagine arriving behind a small rocky outcrop. Its already dark and you can’t see anything. You can hear the African night and the murmur of voices. You are led over the top of the rock and there before you is a beautiful fire and candle lit barbecue- the smallest details attended to, down to fine silverware and fancy-folded napkins on the table. Moving to the fire after dinner the tables disappeared and out came the bedrolls. Then the car is taken away and you’re left staring at the sky listening to the crackle of the fire. It is magical.

One of the magical views!

 
Wilderness walking, Oldonyo Lengai and Serengeti
 

Shedding the high thread count cotton linen and 5 course meals (luxuries of the semi-permanent and permanent lodges and camps I usually use) and braving the elements, an adventurous group of guests and I set off on safari. After having successfully climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, including the 10 year old and 12 year old in the group (thanks to the professional climbing outfit I use, Summits-Africa), they were excited for their next experience. My ten days with them can be divided into 3 chapters: Wilderness, the Rift Valley, and of course, Serengeti.

Gourmet bacon, scrambled eggs and cowboy coffee cooked over an open fire.

Wilderness

We left Arusha in one of my new open Land Rovers which immediately added an air of excitement, followed by my trusty Land Cruiser. A private lightweight camp had been set up for us in a special campsite just on the edge of where most people get to in one of my favorite national parks in Tanzania: Tarangire. When the focus is on a wilderness experience, you sacrifice the wildlife abundance that you get in the core tourist areas, but with the right guide, you get to immerse yourself in nature.

The encounters you have with wildlife become much more meaningful and so much more than just about the wildlife.

Three bull buffaloes visit a water hole while we quietly watch downwind of them.

We didn’t really sacrifice comfort. None of us were cold, and we had warm duvets to keep us warm at night. There was always cold beer, gin & tonics at the end of the day, and the scotch was good around the fire after dinner. We even had hot showers. The coffee in the morning was proper and hot. But, yes, there were moments when the sun was beating down, and when we got dust in our eyes. We woke up a couple of mornings having not slept all that well, but it was because of the excitement of hearing a leopard on patrol, and the hyenas whooping.

Rift Valley

Having enjoyed our wilderness experience, we ventured on, taking advantage of the lightweight camp to see another part of the Tarangire ecosystem that most guests to Tanzania don’t get to see. During the wet season, just like in the Serengeti ecosystem, the volcanic grasslands of the Rift Valley draw 10,000 wildebeest (10% of what there once were) to feed on nutrient rich grasses and calve. But during the rest of the year, the valley is dry and harsh. The fertile soil turns to talcum powder dust that feeds tornado-like dust devils, and the volcanic rocks and lava flows violently shake any vehicle that drives those roads. Yet, despite the harshness, Maasai pastoralists eke out a living, herding cattle across the grasslands, and large herds of zebra with their hardy digestive systems feed on the dry grasses that remain. And then, as you come around the corner, Oldonyo Lengai seems to rise out from the plain in front of you.

Under the light of the moon, we attempted began our summit bid. The views from the top are beautiful, but the climb is brutal. Volcanic ash fills your boots, and you slip constantly. There are no switch-backs, just a 5 hr, 6000ft ascent. Since its eruption in 2008, you can no longer walk out into the crater filled with lava and ash. Instead, the mountain is higher than it used to be and the crater a deep, deep hole.

That afternoon, after napping and eating, we drove to the edge of Lake Natron in search of Lesser Flamingos. Lake Natron lies at a low point in the rift. It has no outlets, and with high surface temperatures and wind, the water in it evaporates leaving behind salt deposits that make it as alkaline as ammonia.

These conditions are perfect for Cyanobacteria to flourish. Lesser flamingos are Cyanobacteria specialists and use Lake Natron as a nesting ground.

A few thousand Lesser flamingos through the eyepiece of my binoculars.

Serengeti

A lovely herd of giraffe... yes, those black dots in the background are wildebeest.

Having completed another chapter of our adventure, we climbed back into the vehicle and headed up the few million year-old rift and up and over the 580 million year-old Gol Mountains to northern Serengeti. Unusually dry for August, I was a little worried that the wildebeest migration might have already disappeared across the river into Kenya’s Mara. Again we chose to spend most of the time avoiding the other vehicles and bumbled around finding our own lions, except for one drive that took us towards the confluence of the Bologonja and Mara rivers to see the thousands of wildebeest. The rest of the time we took the opportunity to be quiet and capture the ambient sounds of the bush on film, sipping champagne in celebration of a wonderful experience and 69th birthday, and watching a threatening thunderstorm bear down.

Finding predators is always very satisfying although most of the time they are sleeping.

Post note: The group continued to Mt. Kenya where they successfully climbed to Point Lenana, the highest point on the mountain that doesn’t require technical climbing. Well done!

 
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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