Ethan Kinsey Safaris

Adventures in East Africa

Posts tagged Ngorongoro
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.

 
Gorillas, chimps, elephants and zebra
 

This four-chapter safari was in itself a sequel to a safari that debuted in February 2013. Following a very successful safari through the Serengeti with sightings and experiences ranging from wildebeest calving, herds of elephants walking through the fields of golden grass, prides of lions, cheetah coalitions and an intimate viewing of two leopards as they walked along a gully, I was asked to think about planning another safari.

Serengeti, February 2013

Marc and Barry have travelled extensively and particularly enjoy portrait photography, so we decided on an itinerary that would include the opportunity to photograph mountain gorillas in Rwanda, chimpanzees in Mahale Mountains National Park, elephants in Ruaha, and general wildlife in Ngorongoro Crater. When you are interested in photography, it is important to give it time. Most photos, especially of wildlife, are shot with an exposure that is smaller than one 60

th

of a second. It is an incredibly short period of time that is influenced by so many variables. It is essential to be patient and in doing so you increase your chance of experiencing and capturing that special fraction of a second.

Follow the links and enjoy some of those moments they captured.

Chapter 1: Gorillas in Rwanda

Chapter 2: Ngorongoro Crater

Chapter 3: Chimpanzees in Mahale Mts.

Chapter 4: Ruaha National Park

other galleries:

People in Rwanda

People in Tanzania

With both of them carrying very nice cameras, I decided to leave my big camera in my bag and opted to use my iPhone. I’ve noticed that phone photography is becoming popular and there are even courses at university level that you can take. The quick editing that some of the apps offer is also quite fun and easy to use.

The images and a video below were all taken with my iPhone and edited on Instagram- each tells a different story.

This little guy took interest in me and after posing for the photo above began a little performance.

They invite you to play.

Much of the wildlife in Ngorongoro crater is so habituated to vehicles that they hardly move from the road.

Greystoke Camp in Mahale.

Fishing for ants with tools.

You may have seen this pelican on youtube. The new camp pet provides quite the entertainment when you're not trekking the chimps.

Tuskless matriarchs are common in Ruaha.

The wet season in Ruaha can make game viewing a bit difficult but the landscapes are stunning.

 
Celebratory Safari
 

The moon rises as we enjoy sitting around a fire.

The new season kicked off to a wonderful celebratory safari for a well-earned birthday. Two nights in Ngorongoro, three in Serengeti and then a four-day Rwanda trip to see the Mountain Gorillas made for a sweet safari. So here's how we celebrated:

After breakfast on the verandah of the tent, we went for a game drive. Driving around a bush we encountered this impala giving birth- which seemed fitting for a birthday sighting.

The landscapes in northern Serengeti provide a quintessential backdrop to the wildlife sightings in the area. These 500 million year old kopjies provide refuge for lions and leopards. Rock-splitting fig trees (Ficus glumosa) find tiny spaces to establish themselves sending their roots through the cracks in the rocks. Some of them are very old like the one below.

What a perfect tree to have a picnic lunch! The rock at the base was also the perfect table top.

Rounding off the day with sun-downers on a rock with a view.

The celebrations continued in Rwanda with two gorilla treks. Gorilla groups are named after the silverback, the dominant male. We treked to Kwitonda group where this little rascal entertained us for nearly half an hour, and the next day to Agashya group where the weather made it too dark to photograph or film. The Agashya gorillas retreated in the mist and sat in a semi-circle in a cathedral of bamboo.

Kwitonda, the dominant silverback has 4 females and 14 children. He is accompanied by 2 other silverbacks

Gorilla individuals are easily (easily to some) identified by the unique pattern of wrinkles on their nose. By comparing nose prints on the family tree above and the rascal in the video below, I believe his name is Karibu.

 
National Geographic Expedition Feb 2010

Its not every day that you can get anyone older than a child to roll down a hill in the middle of a forest imitating a gorilla. Fortunately, the National Geographic Expedition I was leading had 14 exceptionally fun and different people and when the toddler gorilla decided to violate the 7-meter rule and tuck and roll down the hill, some of us just had to follow suit including the Bibi in the group.

I’m not writing a long entry on this trip but I am going to mention a few highlights. It was an honor to be asked by National Geographic to lead one of their expedition tours in East Africa. Read about the itinerary on their website.

National Geographic Expedition February 2010

There was never a dull moment on the trip, despite some long days packed with game viewing, Maasai boma visits, and the Olduvai Gorge museum. We even managed to find time to deviate from the main roads getting into the thick of easily a hundred thousand zebra on the plains, to sit and watch as a male lion posed on a rock scanning the plains for his pride, and to pick up a less known snake or chameleon for our expert, Bill Branch to brief us on.

The obvious first exceptional experience happened by accident when we noticed a particularly beautiful male giraffe with a pink object hanging from it’s shoulder. A white landrover with Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute (TAWIRI) sticker was inching its way forward as the giraffe appeared to be having a little bit of trouble staying standing. Through binoculars the thin rusted wire noose hung around its neck- a snare set by poachers. A quiet pop and another pink dart landed next to the other one and the giraffe struggling against the drug sat down. The vet’s threw a rope around him and then tried to cover his face and cut the snare from around his neck. Time was ticking and the pliers wouldn’t cut the wire, finally they managed to slip it over his head.

I managed to format my camera memory and lose the photos I’d taken of the safari part but made up for it in Rwanda. I don’t often take pictures of people but the kids performing the Rwandan traditional dance had so much energy invested- just look at their faces!

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.