Ethan Kinsey Safaris

Adventures in East Africa

Posts tagged The little things
Spring in Ruaha
 

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

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

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

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

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

A herd of impala resting in the shade.

Combretum longispicatum blossom.

A delicate Ribbon-wing lacewing is our dinner guest.

Magic.

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

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

Fresh growth on Combretum apiculatum.

Sesamothamnus blossom- another fragrant beauty.

Lillies on a walk.

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

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

 
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. 

 
"Spring" in Ruaha
 

My office under a baobab tree.

The lilies bloom.

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

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

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

A wild ginger.

Like a fresh breath of air.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Amol gives expert instruction in Swahili & English.

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

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

Kigelia africana, a common talking point.

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

 
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.

 
Exploring Mwiba
 

Fellow explorers from left: Grant, Elliot, Colin on a rock overlooking Lake Eyasi. 

So, I may have fallen in love with this place. Having been their at the end of the dry season for the first time, I went back in the middle of January for a week with Colin Beale, my brother Elliot, and the manager Grant Burden for a week of birding. I couldn’t believe how different it was, and this is the sequel of that trip. The colors had changed from the dry greys, purples, and yellows to all shades of green bursts of yellow, pink, blue, white and red from all the wild flowers. With the help of Collin, whose ear for bird song and eye for the subtle differences in larks and pipits, we managed to rack up a good 202 bird species. Not bad for an actual total of 3.5 days birding interrupted by buffalo bulls, a walk to the escarpment where we watched a pair of Vereaux Eagles (aka Black Eagles) soar the ridge, and jumping into rock pools to cool off.

Compare the brilliance of the green in January to the dryness in the photo below. (Same ridge different angle)

(Photo courtesy Mike Beckner Nov. 2010)

I went back the next week alone and spent some time doing some longer walks, had the opportunity to see the area from the air and to refresh my mind having had a busy safari season last year. Anderson, Grant, Beazie and I spent most of the time driving around, climbing into kopjies, walking along drainage lines, and frogging at night. When it comes to trying to describe a paradise, I’m not sure my command of English is good enough.

Red milk weed.

Aneilema sp.

White gladioli.

Gloriosa superba- need we say more?

 Mwiba is full of little springs that will provide water throughout the year for wildlife. There are numerous drainage lines that cut through the escarpment and its fault lines, cutting chutes through granite and creating hippo pools to sneak up on. There are ridges covered in antique Acacias to picnic under, grassy open glades to walk through, rocky outcrops to climb and watch the sun go down from, elephant paths to follow through the thickets, and of course the diversity of animals is also outstanding. In the two weeks there we saw nearly 40 species of large mammal. Admittedly the abundance of game doesn’t yet compare with the Serengeti, Ngorongoro or Tarangire, but I love the opportunity and the potential here. I can get out of the vehicle at any time I want, wade into streams at night, climb rocks, and search for nocturnal animals at night.

Tree hide overlooking Sele spring.

Bwawa la kiboko (Hippo pool) No hippos there in the dry season and its deep and about 20m across- swim time!

 
Guide Training 2010

The wet season in Tanzania is extremely quiet of visitors in the bush. Large mammals disperse from many of their dry season home ranges and the wild sorghum and red-oat grass gets higher than a man’s head. The heavy rains wash away the harsh dry season as the mood changes. I’m lucky and spent six weeks this season teaching in the bush with a group of trainee guides.

I started training Asilia’s guides in 2007 when I was managing and guiding from Suyan Camp. Initially it was simple training to waiters and tent attendants to give them some knowledge of birds, plants, and insects in the camp. The idea grew into a three-month course for ten guides who are currently guiding from their various camps. Its success initiated two-week on-going

training courses in November and May every year. Working with professional teachers on methods and the syllabus, I refined the course into a six-week course ending with two weeks placement in a camp with a mentor guide.

Our guide course started with three weeks back in Piyaya. The rains had brought the wildebeest back out onto the plains and our game drives were filled with lion (over 20 individuals) and cheetah (11 individuals) sightings. We completed the practical three weeks in a camp in Tarangire National Park. The diversity that we encountered in this course rivals any other course in Africa. Our carnivore list included leopard, lion, cheetah, caracal, serval cat, wild cat, genet, golden jackal, black-backed jackal, bat-eared fox, aardwolf, spotted hyena, honey badger, zorilla, white-tailed, dwarf, slender and banded, and Egyptian mongoose. The antelope list included most members of every tribe including Fringe-eared oryx, and Tarangire brought our bird list close to 200.

Some excerpts from the training diary:

“… after climbing my favourite kopje as the sun set looking for leopard spoor and a resident barn owl and talking about geological formations we spotted four 3-4 year old male lions hiding in some hibiscus looking out on the plains. We could only approach to about thirty meters before they showed signs of preparing to run…”

“… we set off early in search of the four lions to see if they’d hunted, but were distracted by a hyena chasing an abandoned wildebeest calf. We watched the kill and then from about half a km away a lioness came running over to steal the kill. She proceeded to feed on it. We followed her back to the pride which was guarding two wildebeest they’d killed in the night…”

“…this afternoon we set off late looking for cheetah. We spent some time scanning the plains from a hilltop and spotted the shape of a cheetah a long distance away. We approached to find two cubs eating a Grant’s gazelle while their mother panted…”

“… this morning one of the trainees spotted a White-faced Scops Owl in the Whistling thorn. It was wonderful after having talked about camouflage and mimicry, to watch the owl make itself as skinny as possible, close its eyes and use its ear tufts to look like a stump…”

“… a Peter’s Foam-nest Frog hopped into the classroom. After picking him up and putting him on the table it changed colour from dark bark-brown to a cream…”

“… stopping to watch hundreds of open-billed storks flying out of Silale swamp as the sun was setting we almost missed the leopard with an impala kill in a Desert-date Tree…”

“… we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by a herd of elephants that were distressed for some reason. It was a great lesson in staying calm as they mock charged from more than one direction…”

“… spent this morning identifying trees and flowers. There are at least five different morning glories, the purple mallows showing both yellow and purple shades, the pink ink flowers, the yellow Aspilia mossambicensis in stands- one of the Maasai keeps stopping and saying, please enjoy the landscape…”

“ after watching a DVD on social insects we spent the next day reliving the content of the DVD as we found the progression of sociality from solitary wasps to mud wasps, to paper wasps to bee hives, ant colonies and termites…”