Ethan Kinsey Safaris

Adventures in East Africa

Posts tagged Serengeti
Luxury and the Wildebeest Migration (1st week of August)
 

As water sources dry up in southern Serengeti, more than 1.5 million wildebeest begin to make their way north toward the permanent river called the Mara. While the exact arrival is dictated by the extent of the drying and rainfall in northern Serengeti and Kenya’s Maasai Mara, they usually arrive in mid-July. Again, depending on where the greener pastures are, they move back and forth across the Mara river, in and out of Kenya, following the sporadic thunderstorms.

Us watching as thousands of wildebeest plunge into the river below us. Photo credit: Pietro Luraschi.

We arrived at Singita Mara Camp, by far the most luxurious camp in northern Serengeti, on the 3rd of August. The herds had already crossed the river heading north, and some were making their way back across. Just the sheer numbers of wildebeest was incredible as we slowly drove the northern bank of the river looking for an aggregation that looked to cross imminently. Patience, patience… but we didn’t need much as we found a group many thousand strong gathering on the banks of the river. The milling back and forth, the reluctance of the wildebeest- whether it is fear of the cold rushing water, or fear of the crocodiles submerged with only their eyes and nostrils above water, I do not know, but it adds to the excitement (and sometimes frustration).

Here is an amusing cartoon about it. When they do start to cross, it just goes and goes and goes until there are no more wildebeest left. The energy is incredible. Then it stops and the milling resumes, this time, mothers looking for their babies and babies looking for their mothers. 

(The video below shows what we were seeing)

This could be your private lunch banquet in the Serengeti plains.

Of course, there is more to the Serengeti (and northern Tanzania) than the migration so we also included a couple days in Tarangire National Park, where there is a daily migration of elephants to the permanent water sources. The landscape is also different with the typical red African soils and eccentric Baobab trees that dot the ridges, offering a nice contrast to Serengeti’s woodlands and plains.

This is a classic Tarangire scene. Elephants walking into the sunset with a magestic baobab tree in the foreground.

 
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
 

In my attempt to share experiences I find myself often writing trip reports that read a bit like a fill in the blank story. “I went to …., and I saw … Then I went to… and I saw …”. The wildlife viewing on the last back-to-back safaris was phenomenal. The list itself is impressive, but the experiences themselves were unbelievable. It seemed that every day topped the previous, and we couldn’t imagine how it could go on… but it did. I don’t want to get into the list, but I’ll write about a few select highlights.

Happy New Year- Day 2. Rubondo Island. Cats. Late for Lunch. An Unusual Hyena.

A Happy New Year!

As I opened the game viewing roof of my car at 5:30 a.m., a chilly wind sent shivers down my spine. Had I really convinced my guests to get up before sunrise on New Year’s Day? The sighting of 13 African wilddogs on a kill by other guests the evening before was enough to persuade me to enthuse my guests to get up for an animal they’d never heard of. After a quick cup of coffee, and with dawn quickly threatening over the horizon, we crept out of camp. A Kori bustard displaying the white of his under tail stood out in the darkness as I wove my car across the wildebeest migration trails along the edge of a large depression. Lappet-faced vultures roosting on Acacia trees stood out against the changing sky.

I stopped every few hundred meters and stood on my seat, elbows rested on the roof of the car, binoculars pressed against my face looking for a sign; the typical formation of wilddogs heading off on a hunt, the flash of white tail tips, panicking gazelle or wildebeest… something. A zebra brayed, and my binoculars scanned in his direction and caught a familiar trot that indicates danger. It was still a little too dark so I had to stare longer than usual to allow the opportunity for my eyes to adjust. But there they were. It is truly a beautiful moment and a nostalgic one for me which brings back memories of chasing wilddogs in Piyaya. What a thrill… my first wildlife sighting of the New Year was a pack of wilddogs.

Instagram

Few first time visitors to Africa understand the magic of wilddogs. Once common in the Serengeti, their population has struggled throughout Africa as a result of persecution from pastoralists and contact with domestic carnivore diseases. As co-operative breeders, only the alpha male and female breed The need at least 4, if not more, helpers to help raise their pups. Sharing their food through regurgitation and the constant reinforcement of the hierarchy through facial licking has made them vulnerable to diseases that can easily wipe out the whole pack.

The obligation to regurgitate, especially to feed puppies and dogs higher in the hierarchy means that the members of the pack generally get hungry at the same time. It’s predictable, and there’s usually a leader who sets off quickly followed by the rest of the pack. There’s no patient stalking and waiting like the cats, or strategic flanking like the lions. Instead it’s a bold trot in a loose arrow-head formation with no attempt to hide. It must be one of the most terrifying moments for a gazelle, impala, or wildebeest. The pace increases with sightings of prey and, once an individual is selected, can reach 60km/h, kilometer after kilometer. Prey has little chance, but it is exhilarating to follow.

We sat with the dogs for nearly two hours, watching them play, their curious nature bringing the younger pups closer to the vehicle. The alpha male guarded the female and I suspect that within the next couple months they will be whelping and the pack will grow by 8-12 puppies.

Piyaya puppies (2007)

 
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? 

 
Cats
 

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

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

 
Late for Lunch
 

Portrait

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

A cheetah on my roof.

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

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

She keeps him away.

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

 
Ethan KinseyCheetah, Serengeti
The Rewards of The Road Less Travelled
 

One of the struggles that I face when planning itineraries is the balance between visiting areas with great wildlife concentrations and at the same time avoiding areas plagued with tour operators and safari vehicles. 

The waterhole in front of the lodge attracts a huge variety and number of animals. This place would work great as a luxurious break or strenuous trip.

On a trip that I should have blogged about 2 months ago, our itinerary included a few challenging nights at the Four Seasons in Serengeti National Park. On this particular itinerary, the Four Seasons made sense, but if you understand my style of guiding you’ll understand that I place a huge emphasis on the experience of safari- the wildlife, vistas, and on the magic that the African bush can create. Now, while the Four Seasons service and view was, well, Four Seasons worthy, but despite its killer view, its location made it quite a challenge to offer the safari experience I believe in. Being one and a half hours away on a very corrugated transit road from the core of Serengeti known as the Seronera valley, I cringed at the thought of having to transit 3hrs a day to have a good wildlife experience so I broke the rules* and went exploring.

* Whatever some of the camps and safari operators tell you on green-washed websites, driving off-road is not allowed in Serengeti National Park. I love being off-road and justify where I do it, how I do it, and when I do it because I also care about the environment. I will never off-road in a core area because it is not environmentally sound, but there are too many drivers who do not have the same environmental understanding or ethic.

With all the other vehicles driving to Seronera from the Four Seasons, I decided it might be ok to sneak around and took a little track, and still within sight of the lodge found 3 leopards blending into a rocky outcrop. Our explorations later took me to this beautiful spot and this photo might evoke an atmosphere of beauty, adventure, and solitude.

Alone in the Serengeti. A Ficus sycamorus on the edge of a seasonal river that attracts a lot of game.

 
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.

 
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
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.

 
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.

 
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!

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.