Ethan Kinsey Safaris

Adventures in East Africa

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A Short Visit to Virunga (Nov 2015)
 

As a guide who spends most of his time in the classic savannahs of Tanzania in some of the world’s most wildlife rich national parks, the DRC offers a very contrasting but equally stimulating experience

A few iphone photos of the incredible vegetation on Nyiragongo.

Among the incredible life forms are these Boulenger's pygmy chameleons. A rare and special find.

There are few places in the world with as spectacular and diverse landscapes, habitats, and wildlife as Virunga National Park. Laid out along 300km of the western arm of Africa’s Great Rift Valley, it spreads from Lake Kivu through volcano fields (two of them still active), past Lake Edward and the equator, past the glacier-covered Mountains of the Moon, and ends eventually in the  Semliki valley to the north. Such diverse geography lends itself naturally to diverse habitats home to an incredible variety of mammals, birdlife, and other lifeforms.

Ascending Nyiragongo.

Getting up at night to watch the lava lake bubble and dawn arrive.

From a geological perspective, Virunga’s features are all very recent additions. 30 million years ago, pressure underneath the African continent caused by a series of plumes of magma forced it to bulge and effectively crack spreading southward from the Red Sea as far as Mozambique. As the rifting spread south, it reached a particularly resistant rock formation known as the Tanganyika Craton where it diverged into two arms forming what is now known as the Albertine (western) Rift and Gregory (eastern) Rift. It wasn’t until 12-13 million years ago that the first volcanoes began erupting in the Virunga region, although the 8 most prominent peaks are all younger than 2.5 million years old. Two of the 8 are still active to this day.  The other six are no longer active and their forested slopes are home to some of the last remaining Mountain gorillas (Gorilla berengei berengei). These large and gentle primates complete the montage of charismatic African wildlife and complement the East African savannah experience.

This short time lapse of Nyiragongo's lava lake in the morning shows its mesmerizing power.

Critically Endangered, there is an estimated population of 480 individuals and growing found in the three national parks that encompass the Virunga Massif (Bwindi National Park in Uganda is also home to a population of about 300). The area that the Mountain gorillas occupy is a very small range of about 450 km2 in the montane and bamboo forests of the Virungas. At present there are 8 habituated gorilla groups in Virunga National Park.

All of these photos and videos are on Instagram @tembomdogo and higher quality.

 
Beyond Ruaha's Charismatic Wildlife
 

An exploratory guide's-only trip.

Greater kudu- a flagship Ruaha species.

There’s a triangle in Ruaha National Park, bordered on the south side by the Mdonya river, the escarpment running north east, and on the east to south side by a section of the Ruaha River’s floodplain. Through the middle runs a sand river, the Mwagusi, creating an incredible area for the charismatic wildlife that gives East Africa its reputation. Like many places in East Africa, water is the limiting resource that determines wildlife abundance, and the Ruaha, Mwagusi and Mdonya Rivers provide just that- permanent (though not always obvious) water for herds of hundreds of buffalo, elephants, giraffe, zebra, impala, yellow baboons, and their predators: lions, leopards and cheetah. But it is a relatively small area in Ruaha’s extensive landscape.

Our first stop was a campsite on the Mdonya River. It was the end of the dry season, so water was limited to a few places where elephants knew to dig. We’d just driven 15 hours straight from Arusha, but were sighing in relief as the familiar sounds of the African bush comforted our souls. None of us bothered with the rain flies for our tents and went to sleep to the sound of the African scops owl. Lions roared as the walked by at about 4 a.m. but it wasn’t until the ring-necked doves started their morning call to work that Tom, our camp assistant, woke up to stoke the fire and get the coffee going.

Our first campsite under a Lebombo wattle (Newtonia hildebrantii).

Day 1.

Our first order of the day was a meeting with the tourism warden and a couple of rangers to discuss our expedition. Some recently opened roads were making access into some of the least visited areas of the park possible and we wanted to know if they would work for walking safaris. For many of us, walking is a way of experiencing a quieter side of nature and escaping from the diesel-engine-run game drives and trappings of luxury camping. Waking up to a thermos of coffee and going to bed after a sipping whiskey by the fire were all the luxury we needed; it was about the wilderness.

The magical triangle in Ruaha- see map below for context.

As we left the magic triangle we climbed up into the hills behind the escarpment and were rewarded immediately by a racquet-tailed roller who fluttered along side. “Lifers” were being added to the list and for most guides with passion like us, that is one of the most exciting things. The next lifer for a few of us, only a few minutes later, was a herd of Sable antelope: one of the most beautiful of all antelopes, and particularly exciting as they are miombo woodland specialists. The miombo woodland was also changing in anticipation of the rains, and with colors that would compete with a Vermont autumn. Vivid reds, purples, blue-greens, light greens; it was beautiful.

With 7 of us in the vehicle, food for 8 days, camping equipment, and our libraries, water was our biggest challenge. The 90 litres we could carry required us to take every opportunity we could to refill, and determined our campsites over the next few days. 

We arrived at the first campsite as the evening light became intense and vibrant and what unfolded became the schedule for the next week: unload, set up tents, collect firewood and light fire, unpack and prep dinner, carry the basin to the stream to bathe and then sip on a cold beer, reclining on thermarests, binoculars on chests, and reference books open. We didn’t need to meditate or even think about focusing on the moment; it just was, pure, the product of a love of wilderness and like-mindedness. Sleep came quickly, as it does in the bush. 

Racket-tailed rollers.

Racket-tailed rollers.

Day 2

As the night sky began to change, the fire was stoked and coffee water boiled. Each of us woke to our own beat, grabbed a cup of coffee and the first moments of the day were appreciated in respectful quiet.

With heavy rainstorms imminent we followed Thad’s suggestion and headed to the furthest point we wanted to reach. The grass got greener and longer as we drove around the Kimbi Mountains. We saw more game that day: sable, zebra, giraffe, warthog, Lichtenstein’s hartebeest and even some lions. However, to say that wildlife was prolific would be very misleading.

Lichtenstein's hartebeest- a miombo speciality.

On maps, the Mzombe-roundabout appears to be the headwaters of the river. It is also on the border of the park; in essence, the end of the road. The grader driver literally created a cul-de-sac roundabout. In the past, the Petersons had walked the Mzombe River further downstream before trophy hunting and administration in the bordering Rungwe Game Reserve had become so profit-oriented that they stopped respecting the buffer to the park and hunted right to the edge. Yet, the Petersons’ stories of encounters with lions, elephants, hippos and more had left an impression of this river, one that was not fulfilled at the headwaters. 

Incredible flowers.

A natural bouquet. Nature does it better.

Delicate Orchids- Eulophia coculata.

Instead it was incredibly green, and the hills invited walking. It had obviously rained enough to bring out the wildflowers and on the walk the next day in addition to wonderful birds like thick-billed cuckoos, spotted creepers, and yellow-bellied hyliotas, we admired the proliferation of flowers.

Day 3

Having walked for 7 hours in the morning, we returned to camp for lunch. The clouds were building and we had already been dumped on while walking. We packed up camp, and made our way back around the mountain. Our third camp was at the base of the mountains in a small clearing. Purple crested turaccos hopped around in the trees and as darkness fell, barred-owlets, tiny little owls, began calling.

Water re-filling break under a Faidherbia albida.

Day 4

The next morning we set off early, and were fortunate to quickly find a proper elephant trail leading up into the hills. Elephants are big animals and just naturally take the best route. The switchbacks were there when we needed them and the path that wound its way up around rocks and to the top of the hills made it a real pleasure to climb the hill. A rocky outcrop distracted us as we paused for peanuts, homemade cookies and water. More new birds made our list but a particular highlight was 2 sightings of Chequered elephant-shrew. 

Photographs cannot capture the extensiveness of this wilderness.

We returned to camp at around 3, exhilarated by the climb. Lunch was quick and we headed off to a clearing we had passed a couple of days before that we believed we could drive down to get to a river known as the Lupati, a tributary of the Mzombe. We barely made it half a kilometre when the woodland became too thick to drive through. Small drainages were converging and a couple of times we ran into dead-ends. We did have good sightings of Roan antelope and that evening as we watched nightjars hawk the sky, we heard our first elephants.

Just a lunchtime chill.

Day 5

Spectacular storm build-ups warned us that we should probably head back to the Ruaha River, so after our usual breakfast we took a shorter walk before proceeding to head towards Usangu. We entered the new addition to the national park and drove and drove. It was a long day of driving, but the landscape kept changing as we pushed on. It was not until we made it into the lower areas that we began to see more wildlife, particularly giraffe and impala. There was evidence of game and in one clearing we had great sighting of sable, roan, and bush pigs foraging in daylight. Scuff marks and tracks in the road told a story of Africa wilddogs killing a warthog.

Roan antelope- another Ruaha speciality.

We arrived in camp as it was getting dark. Camp was on the river, just meters from a pool with over thirty hippos in it. We quickly set up camp before settling down on the riverbank to watch the birds fly by and hippos grunt their disapproval of their new neighbors. As darkness set in, we scanned the water for crocodile eyes- 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 pairs of eyes watching us.

Day 6

The sun had not come up yet, but the sky was changing. Coffee cups in one hand, binoculars ready to train on birds flying by, we sat and watched. This was really a grand finale for us. It was a slightly slow start but this was the area we would most likely come to walk next year and I wanted to explore. We set off for a couple of hours and then returned to take the vehicle. There were campsites we needed to examine and stretches of river to see. The roads had not been graded as they had the previous days, and the going was tough enough that my vehicle is being repainted as we speak. A stump wrote off a tire, but those are the costs of adventure.

Pel's fishing owl.

Day 7

It was the usual morning routine, but as we sipped our coffee and contemplated the view, we knew we were leaving today. We took down our tents and then took a quick walk along the river before climbing back into the vehicle for the ride home.

To book an adventure in Ruaha contact me or Thad.

 
"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.

 
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