Ethan Kinsey Safaris

Adventures in East Africa

Posts tagged Safari
Adventures in Serengeti
 

The following photos are all taken with my iPhone on three safaris through the northern Tanzania, with Serengeti as the feature.

I'll start with a photo of the guides who co-guided with me on the trips. It is common knowledge that the guides make a trip, they keep you safe, host you, and give deeper insight into the wildlife and ecology of the savanna. With no more than four guests per guide we keep a ratio that ensures everyone gets the right amount of attention. Thank you Robert Tarimo and Paul Oliver.

The theme of many of these photos could be about big sky. This male giraffe seems dwarfed by the plains and sky. Since I only use my phone for photos, I don't use any zoom. This photo was taken en-route to Asilia's Namiri Plains Camp. Because of my previous work for Asilia, I am one of few guides allowed to drive in the camps where they normally only want people guided by their guides.

Again- the skies in the Serengeti provide this impressive backdrop fro wildlife viewing. This photo was taken on Christmas day. If you look carefully you can see one of the vehicles (driven by Paul Oliver who guided with me on this trip) to the left of the big rock kopjie. You can't see the lions they were watching.

Without using a zoom you'd have to be in a park with very habitated black rhinos to get a close up just using a phone. This is a black rhino and her calf only a few hundred meters from where we camped. Unfortunately rhino poaching still continues and there are very few rhino that are still left in Serengeti.

I'm often late for lunch- and on this occasion we were nearly back in camp but found this pod of hippos basking in the sun along the banks of the Mara river. While things are getting busier every year, this part of Serengeti is very quiet outside of migration season and while some of the animals are harder to find, it is a great place to be alone especially.

An elephant herd feeding along the main road at Bologonja. While flying between camps is often the most efficient way to maximize the wildlife experience, driving the vast distances does give you an understanding of the vastness of the ecosystem.

This old male lion was pretty beaten up but still trying to keep up with the pride. When the wildebeest move out of the north, lion prides that have had it easy suddenly find their territories tight and must venture further to find food and keep alive. This often leads to territorial fights between neighboring prides. Prides often divide into subgroups that are easier to feed, but this creates issues for the males who now risk their lionesses running into nomadic or roaming males.

A picnic breakfast in the Serengeti can be a 5-star buffet or a tailgate affair as below... as long as there is hot coffee I'm fine.

The choice of accommodation is yours. Do you want the ultra-luxury that Mwiba or Singita properties offer or would you rather keep it simple as below. For me, safari should be about the wildlife experience and the landscapes. With good guides, the experience you have at either the luxury or the simple camps will be very good.

Cats on rocks... doesn't get much better than this. It was pretty hot in the morning but with 15 cubs, these lioness were hungry. We found them walking along the road before they climbed onto these rocks to get a better view of prey in the long grass.

 
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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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. 

 
A June Safari
 

An elephant bull, Tarangire National Park

Zebra, Tarangire National Park

June in Tanzania is like autumn in the northern hemisphere: a transitional month. The last of the rains finish in mid-May, moisture begins to evaporate out of the soil, and the grass begins to turn gold. Baobab trees drop their leaves and seasonal water holes begin to dry up. Reluctantly, wildlife begins to return to dry season habitats. Lion prides that fragmented during the rains re-unite and return to favorite ambush positions where other wildlife will begin to regularly pass on their way to drink water. As the foliage dries up and falls, leopards can no longer lie concealed on branches. There is still plenty of forage for browsers and grazers so the atmosphere does not convey the harsh struggle that the animals will have in a few months. Early fires lit by park rangers and pastoralists to encourage a nutritious flush of fresh grass begin to fill the sky with smoke bringing out red sunsets, yet the dry season winds have not filled the sky with enough dust to block views.

Elephants in Silale Swamp, Tarangire National Park

A deck at Little Oliver's Camp, Tarangire National Park

Serengeti, with its large area and near intactness as an ecosystem, follows different patterns. Rains induced by Lake Victoria fall on its northern parts, including the Maasai Mara, and as the smaller streams of water in central and southern Serengeti dry and soda concentrations increase, the migrating herds of wildebeest and zebra head north. The wildebeest often pause in the western corridor until water in the Grumeti River also becomes scarcer. The minor changes in daylight hours, insignificant and unnoticeable to most people, combined with the effects of a moon phase induce hormonal changes in female wildebeest. The resulting synchronized estrus, also known as coming into heat, drives the males into a frenzy of amusing territorial activity as they attempt to stake out territories and herd small groups of females who continue on their migration.

Watching migration, Serengeti National Park

An approaching storm allowed us within 30m of this black rhino, Serengeti National Park.

 These trends have made their way onto maps, into guidebooks, and onto documentaries describing and simplifying “The Great Migration”. As a result, it is often a surprise when weather patterns don’t follow the standard predictions and the migrating herds don’t arrive where they usually do, show up early, or take an “abnormal” route. We were fortunate on our early June itinerary to catch up with the migration, yet our stop in the western corridor, empty of wildebeest, gave us the opportunity to witness some other spectacular wildlife. The herd of 50 giraffe, some resting, some standing, was a definite highlight for me, and it was impressive to discover an ostrich nest with 27 eggs, and then later an egg abandoned on the plain.

It is very difficult to photograph 50 giraffe, Serengeti National Park

Serengeti lions

An abandoned ostrich egg, Serengeti National Park.

On this particular itinerary, following the beautiful wildlife viewing in Tarangire and Serengeti, we ended at a camp called Shu’mata, set atop a hill with views of Kilimanjaro. With just one night, it was our opportunity to take a night-game drive, sight some Gerenuk, an unusual and arid-land specialist, as well as visit a Maasai home and glimpse their livelihood and culture.

A very comfortable lounge, Shu'mata Camp

Spear throwing demonstration, Shu'mata Camp

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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? 

 
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.

 
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!

 
My Lions
 

‘Born Free’, by Joy Adamson is the first book I remember reading. I think that it was the book I was being read when I realized I could read faster myself than having someone read to me. I loved the stories of camping in the bush for long periods of time, the adventures of walking and driving through the bush on expeditions, and of course having your own lion to accompany you in the bush. As much of a dream of mine as it was, I never imagined I would end up driving around the bush, climbing rocky outcrops to watch the sun go down, or sneaking up on elephants at a waterhole on foot. I don’t own a lion to take with me on walks, but I work in one of the most amazing places on Earth, and sometimes that’s as good as owning it.

What a treat!

I’m currently in Serengeti for three weeks with a photographer, trying to photograph lions. Lions spend 16-22hrs of the day sleeping, but if you get up early enough you often see them moving around, or at least sitting up. They actually often hunt around 2 p.m. when everyone is back in camp having dessert and getting ready for their siestas.

Male lions roar tomake contact with other lions in their pride, and to let intruders know how strong they are. This is the most handsome lion of the Sayari pride. To really appreciate this, you need to plug speakers in or wear headphones.

I started working in this area 6 years ago when I was running Suyan camp, just outside the park. It was a beautiful camp and I have some special memories of walking the area with a couple of Maasai, my teaching them the English names of birds and plants, and their teaching me their traditional uses for plants. The concept behind the camp was to provide opportunities that couldn’t be had in the park like night drives, walks, and sundowners on ridges with bonfires. Sometimes I would convince guests to take the mattresses off their beds and we would arrange them around the fire and sleep under the stars.

Occasionally we would drive across the northern part of the park to the edges of the Mara River. The area had been closed to tourists for a period of time because of a rise in poaching and some violent encounters between tourists and poachers. Resident wildlife numbers were down, but during the dry months elsewhere in the Serengeti, this area got rain and the migrating wildebeest would move in. I won’t go into details of why wildebeest migrate, but I’ve written about it on another blog (safari ecology). Working together with Serengeti’s rangers, and also working in the villages adjacent to the park, Asilia took a risk and put up a camp called Sayari. When Suyan had no guests, I would pop over to Sayari and help out with the guiding. Sayari was a success, and within a couple of years other companies got the drift and now, during the dry season, this is one of the busiest areas in the national park.

Busyness is not necessarily negative, and tourists on game drive are effectively extra rangers on patrol, which makes operating quite difficult for the poachers, so poaching decreased when the tourists arrived. Lions were scarce at that time, as was other game, but the population of wild animals began to increase. It took three years for Asilia to build the first permanent camp here, and in doing so they set the bar for luxury camps in Serengeti.

I began coming here in the off-season, when the wildebeest weren’t here, helping out with the walking safaris. Then last year, when I came up in March, I saw over 50 lions here (see blog).  This explosion in the lion population is evidence that there’s also more prey.

Lions live in prides made up of a core of females, usually related. Prides are territorial, and the more females in a group, the more successful they are at keeping intruding prides out, and also expanding their territories when food is scarce. Larger prides also have higher success rates of raising cubs. Males take over prides when they fully mature at about 5 years old. In order to be reproductively successful, a male lion needs to rule a pride for at least 2 years, which is long enough for his cubs to reach independence. This forces lions to form coalitions to keep intruding males out. It is still too early in this area’s renaissance to see much stability, and therefore pride territories and dynamics are ever-changing. However, some of the prides are growing.

The pride above Sayari consists of 2 male lions. Coalitions of 2 males are often not related, though coalitions of 4 or more are. In this case, one is older than the other. There are at least 7 lionesses in this pride and there are 12 cubs that were born sometime mid-December.

The Cubs.

Such an amazing sight. The mothers killed a zebra this morning in an epic ambush. There will be plenty of milk to go around. These poor two lionesses were being harassed by all the cubs who were thirsty. 

As I follow the pride for the next couple weeks, I will enjoy it on my own for the most part. In a way, it is the dream that I’m living.

 
Ethan KinseyLions, Safari, Serengeti
Tanzania's Great Rift Valley Lakes & Mountains
 

As if the dry season is attempting its final life sapping effort to suffocate us before the rains come, an apocalyptic dust storm is sweeping across the southern shore of Lake Natron. Agitated by the dark, threatening thunderstorm, the dust is diffusing the afternoon rays of sun giving Oldonyo Lengai an eerie glow as the dust slowly envelopes the volcano.

Driving from Amboseli to Lake Natron the other day, I took a cross-country route through the plains between four prominent volcanoes. The volcanic dust, like talcum powder enveloped the vehicle billowing into the car through every space possible. Building cumulonimbus clouds inspired graphic dust devils on the barren landscape. Zebra, Fringe-eared oryx, Grant’s gazelle, Thomson’s gazelle and giraffe stood in the shade of the few Acacia trees resting in the heat of the day.

Lake Natron, where we’re headed is the largest of the Great Rift Valley’s soda lakes and is also the most caustic lake in the world. It is extremely shallow, no more than 3 meters deep. Lying at 610m above sea level it also gets extremely warm and water temperatures regularly reach 40C (60C recorded), combined with a pH of 9-10, it’s surprising that life can actually flourish. Microorganisms that love the salt give it amazing shades of red, greens and crystal white.

Lesser Flamingos use this lake as an important breeding ground, protecting their eggs and hatchlings by building little mounds in the water far enough away from the shore that predators have to seriously think about venturing out. They also specialize in feeding on the algae- Spirulina that blooms in these waters. There’s also an endemic fish- the Magadi Tilapia that concentrate in the hot springs that feed into the lake.

A year ago, travelling with Nick Brandt on safari, we drove to Natron in search of calcified birds. We scoured the shores picking up a variety of birds including hornbills, flamingoes, starlings, doves, bee-eaters, mouse-birds, and Quelea that had been mummified by the salts in the water. The small invertebrates, fish, and bats that stood frozen in their death pose were fascinating. Click to see his photos of what we found.

A mixture of Sodium bi-carbonate (baking soda) and Sodium carbonate is called Natron, and is the same substance that was mined in Wadi el Natron in Egypt 5000 years ago by the Egyptians when they began mummifying their pharaohs. The alkali salt loves water and absorbs it, drying whatever it has come in contact with. Its alkalinity is also anti-bacterial which helps to stop bacterial decay.

A few days after we arrived here, it rained. The dust finally settled, and you could almost hear the animals breathing a sigh of relief. We drove out into the plains in front of Kitumbeine Mountain visiting all the little parasitic craters at the base of Gelai, Kerimasi and Oldonyo Lengai. The green grass already sprouting, we counted hundreds of zebra and wildebeest on the plains and spent some time just sitting and watching. In the evening we drove up Lengai as far as the track goes and sat watching the afternoon light sending moving shadows through the valleys and ridges, reflecting Shompole in the lake.

 
Another Weekend in Tarangire
 

Finding myself back in Arusha for a couple weeks between safaris, it wasn’t long before I was wishing I was back out in the bush. With guests going into Matembezi’s private camp in Tarangire, I was invited by the owner to head out and spend the weekend there before the guests arrived on the Monday. The fridge full of beer, binoculars on the dash, and a spare set of clothes and other essentials, we left the traffic jams and noise of Arusha on the familiar road to Tarangire.

Looking through my blog it hadn’t occurred to me how much time I’d spent this year in Tarangire and after this weekend, I have to admit scores very high on my favorite places list. I was excited to get out there with my brother, girlfriend and some other friends not working as the guide or teacher, but just for fun. I’d get to look at some of the little-brown-jobs (LBJ’s) as birders call them, or stop to try to identify a fairly non-descript plant.

Just the drive into camp was wonderful, the 500 elephants in the swamp beginning to head out into the woodlands, a leopard in a tree next to the road. A lion in a tree, 3 pythons in trees, and of course the tranquil vistas. Maybe its because this was the first park my parents brought me to as an infant, but it always has a calming effect on my soul.

We woke up early on Saturday morning and drove out towards the swamp onto a beautiful green lawn, the result of a grassfire followed by rain. Within 300 meters from camp we spotted two lionesses feeding on a hartebeest and then watched as a hyena approached, urging the lioness to drag the carcass into the bushes. Surrounding us was an aggregation of Bohor reedbuck, Impala, Grant’s gazelle, Hartebeest, Eland and even a rare Fringe-eared Oryx wandered past, as we sat on the roof sipping fresh coffee. We continued on our little game drive only to bump into a pride of 14 lions- 10 cubs and 4 lionesses, before returning to camp for breakfast.

The Sausage trees were flowering and attracted Scarlet-chested Sunbirds who flitted about chasing each other away from their flowers. But the real highlight was the number of antelope that the fallen flowers attracted. At any one time, we could see at least 7 different species and all in all we saw a total of 12 species within a couple kilometers from the camp. The burned ground had also attracted a species of bird that I’d never seen before called the Chestnut Sparrow-lark as well as beautiful Collared Pratincoles.

Sunday came, and we returned to Arusha, revived by a couple nights in the African bush.

Antelope species seen:

  1. Eland Taurotragus oryx

  2. Greater kudu Tragelaphus strepiceros

  3. Lesser kudu Tragelaphus imberbis

  4. Bushbuck Tragelaphus scriptus

  5. Fringe-eared oryx Oryx beisa callotis

  6. Common waterbuck Kobus ellipsiprymnus

  7. Bohor reedbuck Redunca redunca

  8. Coke’s hartebeest Alcelaphus buselaphus cokii

  9. Grant gazelle Gazella granti

  10. Impala Aepyceros melampus

  11. Kirk’s dikdik Madoqua kirki

  12. Steenbok Raphicerus campestris

 
Turkana by Helicopter, Serengeti by Cruiser
 

Coffee break on the east ridge overlooking Lake Turkana

The Nyiru Range

Silenced by earmuffs, we lifted-off effortlessly floating up and over the 9000ft range of Mt. Nyiru in northern Kenya. The impenetrable forest of moss and orchid shroud Pencil cedars, olives, and aloes gave way as we dropped down over the cliff, hovering momentarily to breathe in the eroded cliffs of these ancient rocks. The helicopter changed angle and we surged forward, northward, accelerating through the valleys and watching the landscape dry. Herds of goats picked their way through the seemingly barren rock and the odd group of camels fed on the

Acacia tortillis that had managed to establish themselves in the drought ridden soil. Inhospitable lava flows and boulder-ridden hillsides stretched out beneath us as we raced up the Great Rift-valley to the shores of Lake Turkana. As we flew the abrupt shoreline, fishermen waved and crocodiles dove into the water.

We were on our way to Ileret where Richard Leakey and Stony Brook University had set up a research station, the Turkana Basin Research Institute. Hot, windy and in a not-particularly-beautiful scrub it was hard to imagine that this land hid many of the secrets of human ancestry as well as the fossils of many of the predecessors of today’s vertebrate animals. A massive crocodile skull lay on the cement floor outside the door of a lab where a few individuals sat, eyes glued to microscopes while their hands manipulated little bits of fossilized bones and high-tech cleaning brushes. Behind it, catalogued boxes stood on shelves housing the finished secrets of their work.

Dinosaur bones (Dinosaurs became extinct 65 million years-ago).

Natural rock slide at Desert Rose

This wasn’t an ordinary safari. Starting in Meru National Park to get a taste of game, we ending in Serengeti National Park to really feast our eyes. The major diversion to Lake Turkana was as much about having fun as experiencing this historically significant part of East Africa. The helicopters allowed us to stopover for a scrumptious lunch at Desert rose, named after the beautiful succulent (Adenium obesum), but not before we’d thoroughly cleaned the natural rock-slide of debris with our bums.

Sand dunes near the Soguta Valley

Grevy'z zebra (Meru National Park)

Beautiful tusker... one of the last.

Topi (Serengeti National Park)

Hyena (Serengeti National Park)

The safari defining wildlife-moment came when we camped in an exclusive luxury mobile camp in the very north of Serengeti National Park, in a small corner known as the Lamai wedge. Having seen nearly every other animal that we wanted the pressure was on us guides to try to find a famed wildebeest crossing. Conditions looked good. The wildebeest migration had arrived and some billowing storm clouds on the north side of the Mara-river beckoned the herds across. The wildebeest began cascading down the bank and I eased the vehicle down-wind and down-stream of the wildebeest. The quickening sound of thousands upon thousands of calves and their mothers, gnu-ing as they dove into the waters and emerged on the other side silenced the normally chattering kids in my vehicle. An annoyed hippo emerged, scaring the wildebeest and they drifted downstream, now coming up on both sides of the vehicle at about 300 per minute. I estimate the average crossing rate to be 200 per minute, and when we left 2.5hrs later I estimated that over 30,000 had crossed the river.

Wildebeest crossing the Mara River.

 
Learning, A Lifelong Adventure
 

As the low season has wound down and the dry season is in full-swing, I feel the need to share a little with you about what I’ve been doing since my last ‘proper’ safari. April and May, the two wettest months of the year have become a time to pursue a deeper understanding of the environment. I just came back this weekend from a night out in Tarangire National Park with savannah academics (fanatics) exploring a savannah very different to the one they research in. Maybe you can imagine the fascinating discussions and debates about how it all works, comparing South America’s savannahs devoid of large mammals to South Africa’s savannahs, compartmentalized by roads and fences. What a contrast sitting in Tarangire watching a herd of 300 buffalo come to the river to drink, a few hundred wildebeest and zebra grazing together, and then of course watching herds of elephants uprooting saplings. All of these are incredible shaping forces in savannahs.

Check out the individual variation on this Maasai Giraffe- a herbivore with the power to make plants panic.

We set off in the morning on a game drive, but not the normal type of game drive, because our focus was actually plants. The nine lions in the riverbed were only going to be a distraction today. Today we would look at leaves and growth forms and discuss plant predation. So few people realize how herbivory is in actual fact predation or serious assault on plants. So much so that plants have had to fight back and no more obvious than in East Africa with its high abundance and diversity of herbivores. Just look at the degree of armament on the Acacias, or taste a leaf and discover how bitter it is. Most plant leaves are packed with chemical defense- hence their medicinal purposes or toxicity. Chemicals like strychnine and cardiac glycosides among others defend some plants against their enemies.

The excitement in the vehicle as we drove along the front of a bushfire is something I’ve only experienced when guests see the more difficult to spot predators, but in this case, it was literally the flames. Fire is one of the most important savannah shaping forces there is, and of course most plants that live in savannahs are adapted to withstand fire. Leaves might be boring to most people, including Colin’s kids who resorted to making dust angels (like snow angels) face down, so I’ll stop talking about leaves and fire and if you’re really interested check out our new blog.

Some kids make snow angels...

Over the past 5 years a major part of what I do especially during the lull in tourism is guide training. I’ve done a bit for A& K, Thomson safaris and Adventure Camps, but the majority of it has been for Asilia Lodges & Camps. This year was the 3rd year that I set off with 10 trainees to spend 6 weeks in the bush. Our focus?- well, everything.

In the middle of the 6 weeks. (Photo by Laverne)

Our daily program was as such:

6 am: Tea

6:15: Game drive

9:00: Breakfast

10:00 Classroom

1:00 Lunch

3:30 Game drive

7:00 Dinner

7:30 DVD

At the end of the 6 weeks we took a week long break before heading back to Tarangire with all of the guides, and a few other people to help conduct training.

The Asilia Guides.

A special thanks to Colin Beale, Markus Coerlin, Robin Peterson, Moyra Earnshaw, Allan Earnshaw, and Jackson Looseiya who tirelessly led workshops.

 
57 lions
 

Thousands of gnu on the plains.

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

Young male lion in Piyaya.

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

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

Preying on Grant's gazelle hider fawns.

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

Another amazing Piyaya sunset.

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

"Arturo" the patient male on the periphery.

Amazing?

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

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

Elephant bull in musth.

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

Mother cheetah with three near independent cubs.

 
Christmas & New Year Safari
 

Flying into Shaba, I peered out of the small plane’s window trying to spot game on the ground. The end of the dry season had left the river low and most of the vegetation was leafless and dormant waiting for the rains to come. Every once in a while I’d spot the vivid pink of a blooming Desert rose (Adenium obesum) or the bright red pods of a Terminalia orbicularis. The grey of the dry vegetation only made these colors more vibrant and the White-cheeked bee-eaters and Lilac breasted rollers shimmered.  

Adenium obesum or Desert rose

Terminalia orbicularis seed pod

Shaba is home to some dry country browsers. Though they are all selective leaf and shoot eaters, it’s interesting to see how each one fits in at a different level, the dikdik eating leaves up to 30cm above the ground, where the impala takes over, followed by the gerenuk and Reticulated giraffe. Then every once in a while an elephant pushes down a tree that even the giraffe couldn’t reach.

The end of the gorge in Shaba.

We drove an hour to the beautiful mobile camp that had been set up just for this trip. The black volcanic rocks promised fun with the UV light in the night when scorpions which glow fluorescent yellow in UV, would be coming out of their hiding places to hunt for insects and other tiny prey. Granite outcrops and an amazing gorge cut by the river beckoned us to boulder them, and how refreshing it is to jump in the river after a morning game drive as the mid-day sun reaches its height. Because the wildlife is much harder to find, most people get sent to other parks, but for the other guide on the trip, and myself, this was a great opportunity to have fun.

Walking the gorge.

The Maasai Mara complimented Shaba giving us great sightings of cheetah, leopard and more lion than wildebeest at this time of year. I’m always impressed with the abundance of wildlife year round in the Mara. If its not wildebeest, its topi, or zebra, or eland in astonishing numbers. Hippo, hartebeest, elephant, warthogs, Maasai giraffe, hyena, black-backed jackals, a couple wildebeest, reedbuck, banded mongoose and the list goes on. Combining the Mt. Kenya hartebeest, oryx and white & black rhino we’d seen at Borana and Lewa the trip mammal list came well over 50.

The young male leopard.

 
Ethan KinseyKenya, Safari
Wilddogs and Camels

My latest adventure was a safari designed by Charlie Babault. Starting in Maasai Mara we had spent four nights watching migrating wildebeest and zebra, driven long distances with picnics and taken naps along the river. We then spent a couple of nights in Nakuru National Park capturing great images of flamingo, white and black rhino, and watching lions and leopard. Driving from Nakuru to Laikipia had turned into a longer drive as unexpected rains forced us to detour, but gave us a good feel for the vast wilderness in Kenya. We’d arrived on a road that petered out to nothing as we pulled up to a host of Laikipia Maasai waiting for us.

(Zebras in the red-oat grass)

(Flamingos in Lake Nakuru)

(Siesta along the banks of the Mara river)

(Camp in Nakuru)

As I stood alone on top of a granite outcrop, watching a dramatic sky and landscape change as evening crept in, baboons climbed the biggest granite outcrops, bickering for the best roosts and a lone white-necked raven cawed as the darkness and silence set in. We had arrived on a beautiful piece of land just south of the Ewaso Nyiro River in northern Kenya. The next morning we headed off on a long morning walk while the camels moved camp. Three camels accompanied us should anyone tire or feel like riding.

That night, the Maasai sat around the fire watching buckets of smokey water heat for the guest’s showers, murmuring and sipping on camel milk chai. A chef diced vegetables for a wonderful dinner he was preparing, all the while watching his metal box oven covered in coals, taking care not to burn the fresh bread. Everything had arrived on camels that had been hobbled for the night.

The next day we set off on the walk after a wonderful breakfast. The rains on the previous day had cleaned the ground and we picked up fresh hyena, caracal, kudu, and warthog tracks. We talked of the animals, the plants, and insects that we found along the way. In a sudden clearing we stumbled upon our new camp, fully set up. The camp chairs sat under a flysheet looking out across the bush, the tents were tucked under trees, and a table had been set with campfire baked pizzas.

Another highlight materialized as I left the next day to drive to Meru National Park. Not 10 minutes out of camp I drove around a corner to find African Painted Hunting dogs, otherwise known as wilddogs as they regrouped around a large male impala they had just killed. I am very fond of wilddogs and this sighting allows me to boast, having now seen members of 3 of the 4 largest populations of wilddogs in Africa.

Meru National Park proved to be another beautiful corner of Kenya where we closed the safari sitting on the banks of a river, reading and fishing as the sun set.

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.