Ethan Kinsey Safaris

Adventures in East Africa

Posts tagged Walking
Ruaha Walking Safari Training (May & September 2017)
 

Incredible views along the Ruaha river.

Contact me to organize a walk in this incredible place.

May & September saw our walking safari training team in action again in Ruaha National Park. We approached our 3rd and 4th sessions for SPANEST with new energy and the confidence of having two sessions already under our belts. With 24 rangers per session we had our work cut out for us, but with the highly qualified team we ploughed forward.

Christoline Motta & Simon Peterson running drills in firearms safety & handling.

Jacques Hoffman coaches a ranger.

Each course began with a first aid component.

Wilderness Medical Associates provided the accredited Wilderness Advanced First Aid course with a focus on anticipating, preventing, and ultimately dealing with medical issues that could arise not only in the walking safari environment, but also in the general duties of a national park ranger. 

Mike Webster gets the practice going in patient assessments.

The next component was the safe and competent use of the large calibre rifles that are recommended for walking safaris. Unfortunately many walking safaris in Africa are set up for disaster should the unlikely occur and a life threatening encounter with a potentially dangerous animal happen. Worth mentioning and on a very positive note, Ruaha National Park now provides rangers who are walking with suitable rifles and equipment.

Simon Peterson & Christoline Motta assessing a ranger in proficiency.

The final component of the training was an intense immersion in walking wildlife. We spent hours on the ground practicing walking in proximity to potentially dangerous wildlife, avoiding detection, extracting from situations, and ultimately decision making in order to prevent compromising situations that could result in stressing wildlife and stressing clients. 

Following an elephant bull and learning about how to use wind direction, cover, and predicting the animals movements to view without disturbing.

Some things have to be taught in the classroom. Here Simon Peterson revises shot placement.

Elephant watching on foot is exhilarating. In the heat of the day, the elephants come to the Mwagusi to drink the cool water filtered by the sand. The river bank provides a great safe vantage point to watch unobtrusively.

Pietro Luraschi leads post walk analysis in improving the guest experience and maintaining safety.

Magesa, a ranger from Sadaani National Park discusses the interesting lives of Grey-capped Social Weavers. A walking safari is more about the little things.

Rangers enjoy a beautiful scene with a small herd of elephants drinking in the river bed. Watching behavior is important in learning about predicting what might happen and making decisions to avoid any confrontation.

 
"Spring" in Ruaha
 

My office under a baobab tree.

The lilies bloom.

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

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

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

A wild ginger.

Like a fresh breath of air.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Amol gives expert instruction in Swahili & English.

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

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

Kigelia africana, a common talking point.

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

 
The Magic of Mwiba
 

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

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

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

The Pangolin- a scaly anteater, normally nocturnal!

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

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

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

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

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

One of the magical views!

 
Training in Ruaha
 

Squeezing a little ash out of an eye-dropper to get the subtle direction of the wind, a national park ranger chose his route. Approximately a hundred yards away a group of 4 elephant bulls were drinking water from a sand river having dug holes for sand-filtered water. Behind him 5 other rangers walked in single file together with a trainer.

Choosing his path carefully and using the river bank as cover, the ranger led his group toward the elephants. He eyed a spot approximately 25 yards from the elephants, downwind from them and with a good view, and he motioned with his hands to hunker down and follow his lead. After rechecking the wind, he relaxed and the group stood and watched, some of them kneeling as the elephants drank their fill. As they finished and silently began to move away, the ranger also rose and led his group away.

Meanwhile, a few kilometers away, another ranger was deciding where the safest place was to enjoy views of another small group of bulls that were moving toward another section of river. Finding a termite mound next to a big baobab tree with a good view, he stopped his group to watch the elephants walking by.

Simon Peterson and rangers discussing the approach.

These are two examples of over a hundred and twenty elephant approaches led by a group of 20 rangers in Tanzania’s remote Ruaha National Park as part of a training program I coordinated. During a Wilderness Advanced First Aid course led by Hewett Brown (A Wilderness Medical Associates instructor with Savanna Medics), the rangers learned Tanzania appropriate first aid skills not only to deal with emergencies and respond accordingly, but to recognize risky situations and prevent potential problems.

Getting ready for practice.

Simulated injuries.

Armed with their new found first aid skills, the rangers next participated in a firearms course. Familiar with automatic anti-personnel weapons used in anti-poaching patrols, the safe use of heavy caliber rifles used in walking safaris needed separate training as well as practice simulating charging animals. Under the guidance of Mark Radloff, a seasoned instructor, the rangers were put through drills to build muscle memory and improve their shooting.

Recovered bullets from the respective ammo.

Dry fire- practicing trigger control and sight picture.

Some ballistics theory.

With the knowledge that the rangers could deal with the medical aspects of an accident, and the knowledge that they could handle heavy caliber rifles safely and shoot accurately, we set off to try to ensure that they’d never have to actually use the first aid skills or ever have to shoot an animal. We covered all aspects of walking from necessary equipment, client briefings, walking formations, accidental encounters, and potentially dangerous animal behavior. We also practiced leading walks, being back-up ranger, and recognizing opportunities to provide unforgettable experiences all the while remaining safe.

 
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!

 
Congo I: Journey to Congo
 

There are a few experiences on safari that rate themselves as extra special above others. There’s something about walking through the bush where you become vulnerable, or sitting in the midst of elephants with their intimate social interactions. I highly rate sitting on a hill with a 360 degree view with hundreds of thousands of wildebeest gnu-ing around you, but I don’t think there’s much that can prepare you for that 1 hour with a gorilla family.

The 300kg Silverback crosses his arms and stares at you, then scratches his head, while a youngster looks at you and then does a summersault before looking back at you as if he wants to know that you’re still watching, or if you’re going to play.

The Virunga Volcanoes

I knew our trip to see Congo’s gorillas was going to be a real adventure when we crossed the border at Goma. We spoke to the immigration official in Swahili, handing him our passports and photocopies of our visa approval through the window with Expats written over the top. I don’t want to dwell on the pessimistic perspectives of Congo written up in most articles, but the stories of officials confiscating passports and then demanding bribes or “recovery fees” did pass through my mind. He reached to a drawer in his desk and pulled out a cardboard folder with a hand-written piece of paper with a list of names, nationalities, and passport numbers. Our names were all spelled correctly, but the nationalities were jumbled not to mention the passport numbers. It didn’t seem to matter and he nonchalantly ticked our names off and corrected the nationalities. Our passports were passed to another official along with some mutterings in French, while we waited for the $50, 14-day visa, recently negotiated by the conservation body for tourists.

We stopped at the ICCN office to pick up our permits before driving north to the park headquarters and newly built Mikeno Lodge. The excitement was hard to contain. In stark contrast to Rwanda where the roads that tourists see are all paved and clean, and the experience offered a highly polished and organized system that you’d expect in Switzerland, Congo was the opposite.

Like any other town?

Goma itself is a town occupied by the UN- mostly Uruguayan, Indian and South African troops who live in fortified compounds with watchtowers and drive around in jeeps and helicopters spending approximately $3million per day. Congolese soldiers walk around heavily armed with Kalashnikovs, RPD’s and rocket launchers, while pickups with music systems and flags blast political slogans and music, campaigning for the up-coming elections.

Blood hounds being trained to help rangers.

As we drove through the countryside we were astonished at the number of children running out to give thumbs-up and ask for pens and biscuits. As in Rwanda, the volcanic soils are intensively farmed and appear very productive, just less orderly. We remarked how few were the small kiosks selling basic necessities like soap. It is obviously a hard life and everywhere we looked, the scene cried out with a story. As we drove into the headquarters on the edge of the forest, one could not help notice the old grand administrative buildings that spoke of a different era.

Yet despite the evidence of deterioration, the result of decades of turmoil, there is an atmosphere of hope and positive change. 

(photos by Gian Schachenmann)

Beautiful rooms at Mikeno Lodge.

A wonderful breakfast before gorilla day.... stay tuned!

 
Places With No Roads to Them
 

...Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers today; And give us not to think so far away... Robert Frost

The lesser kudu cautiously tip-toed into the clearing around the muddy waterhole. We froze as the male stared right at us. Somehow he didn’t see us and followed his little harem and young nibbling at some Cordia. Our senses keen our footsteps sounded much louder than they were as we shadowed them. The slight breeze in our faces was perfect as we took cover in a Gardenia overlooking the waterhole. The 4 kudu we had followed were joined by 5 more, including a beautiful male and they nervously drank from the left-over rain water. A sausage tree spread its dark green leaves and we hoped the shy antelope would come towards us to feed on the flowers that lay scattered at the bottom.

Kigelia africana

Startled, the kudu barked- a false alarm as a female waterbuck walked into the water with her calf, then the low rumble that only elephants can make. We huddled a little closer as a young male marched onto the scene. Acting as if he owned the place, he marched into the water then suddenly realizing he was alone turned and ran back to the matriarch who had appeared with her two other young. We could hear them breathe and the sounds of camera shutters sounded as loud as gunshots. Silently they turned to face us as if to follow the path we had come in on. We whispered to keep still and keep quiet when they too changed their plan and as silently as they’d arrived, disappeared. 

 
Ethan KinseySolitude, Walking, flowers