Ethan Kinsey Safaris

Adventures in East Africa

November
 

Amboseli elephants on the Tanzanian side (2008).

November Part I: Elephants in Amboseli

I just opened Big Life Foundation’s Facebook page to see the news that 2 poachers were killed last week and a high-caliber rifle was confiscated in the Amboseli area. Having spent 16 days there this month guiding Nick Brandt as he photographed the elephants, it had been extremely distressing to see the behavior of the herds of elephants change, from calmly walking passed the car to turning and running as we approached; displaying obvious signs of alarm and panic. One particularly disturbing sight was a stampede of about 80 elephants coming from the water holes heading back to Tanzania where it had rained and they were obviously feeding. The trumpeting and cowering elephants passing the vehicle displayed behavior completely unheard of in the Amboseli area. These elephants have had so much exposure to research vehicles that they are known to be extremely relaxed. The elephant researchers later informed us that one of the females from the herd was missing and that they had found an orphaned calf, who we encountered later as well.

In the past seven years, Nick Brandt has spent hours with the elephants in this particular ecosystem, photographing them and taking some beautiful portraits of incredible individuals. The loss of some of the largest tusked bulls to poaching, elephants that he had photographed, prompted him to start a foundation focused on anti-poaching in the area. Commendably, Big Life Foundation is already effectively operating on the ground by cooperating with other organizations already managing anti-poaching operations on both sides of the border. The website is up (www.biglifeafrica.org), and if you become a fan of BIG LIFE on facebook you can read the latest updates. During our 16 day visit, it seemed that once every 3 days another report of a killed elephant was coming in- from both sides of the border. These reports furthered the importance of Big Life’s presence, which, being a non-government organization can help to coordinate cross-border anti-poaching.

Adding to the sadness is the fact that during the extensive poaching that occurred in the 70’s, when black rhino went extinct in many parts of Africa; Kenya lost an estimated 85% of its elephants over a 4 year period. However, the Amboseli elephants managed to survive with very little poaching. Cynthia Moss attributes this to the Maasai in the area being uncooperative with poachers. This resulted in the Amboseli and west Kilimanjaro elephants earning a reputation as having extremely large tusked bulls whose numbers are now dwindling. The extensive research has added a tremendous amount of information we now know on elephants and their family structures.

Kilimanjaro sunrise (2008)

November part II. Lake Natron.

With the coming of the rains, Amboseli became too difficult for me to move around confidently, so Nick and I headed to northern Tanzania to the shores of Lake Natron and slopes of Oldonyo Lengai. Having driven the eastern shores in January this year (see blog article), I was excited to continue to explore the shores of the stunning and harsh landscape. Working with a photographer is interesting because the focus of the trip changes from an overall wildlife or cultural experience to the pursuit of the artists’ subject. It is particularly challenging because it involves trying to see the world through their schema.

We spent hours driving and walking the eastern shores of the lake and I hope to get back there sometime to explore some of the valleys and streams that come off the escarpment. Particularly enjoyable are the springs that seep fresh and sometimes hot water into the lake. The warmth allows algae to proliferate and feed a food chain including numerous flamingos and hundreds of tiny cichlids that swim up the little streams from the springs and create amazing ripple patterns as they try to escape your approach.

As usual the scenery was stunning and as I drove back to Mto-wa-mbu (River of mosquitoes) to start the next adventure, I was pleasantly surprised to see the beginnings of the zebra migration from the Tarangire ecosystem.

November part III. Mwiba and Ndutu.

Visiting a new area is always exciting, especially when it promises adventure. Having attempted to visit Mwiba earlier this year, I was particularly excited to get the chance to visit with friends and explore an area that looks promising for walking, fly camping and having fun. Within half an hour of driving into the private conservation area we were already walking around springs examining tracks and getting a feel for the place. As the sun began to set we explored a small rock canyon and then climbed a small kopjie to enjoy the sunset.

Reports of wild dogs in the area and the chance to see roan antelope prompted a little more driving around to cover ground, but nonetheless everyday had great highlights. The 19,000 hectare ranch borders Ngorongoro Conservation Area and Maswa Game Reserve and has traditionally been used as a hunting concession. The area is dotted with springs that attract game throughout the dry season and it was exciting to merely discuss the options of activities that are possible. I was chomping at the bit to get some activity in and on the first morning found myself climbing a Yellow fever tree and helping measure out plans for a tree platform from which to watch animals come down to the spring. We then enjoyed a 3 hour walk to the edge of the escarpment that looks out on Lake Eyasi.

I’ve included some photos with captions to describe more of the fun that we had in the area. 

The view of Lake Eyasi from the escarpment. Photo credit: Emily Cottingham.

Planning the waterhole viewing tree-platform. Photo credit: Emily Cottingham.

Cheetah cub in Ndutu who played with us. Photo credit: Mike Beckner.

 
Ethan KinseyResponsibility
Revisiting

I began writing this blog a year ago. Clicking through my entries, it all seems a little crazy how many completely different experiences I’ve had since my first entry about Ngorongoro Crater. I can see a weave forming and the stories that have started out as threads are coming back and joining with other threads to create a bigger picture; the fine art I’d originally intended my safaris to be.

My first client came back with her photography project. Attempting to capture the beauty of the Hadzabe and their way of life in the Eyasi basin, we spent 12 days shadowing, listening, and watching. Some would say we roughed it, but I loved it. We finished the trip at Oliver’s camp, where I started my next safari. The dry season in full swing, an estimated 800 elephants feeding daily in the swamp among a couple thousand buffalo and few thousand zebra. A week later, I was walking in talcum-powder dust with an eleven year old, his mother and friend, vaccinating 139 chickens in a neighboring (wa)Arusha village- revisiting The Chicken Story that had begun with Nicol’s first visit.

Revisiting the Hadzabe

(Images copyright and credit to Nicol Ragland Photography)

Sitting around the campfire, we repeat rituals. Sipping black cowboy-coffee from the kettle on the fire, as we did last nights caramel scotch. The thin sliver of light prompts a dawn chorus from the birds, their murmurs of greeting. The bustle of cameras, batteries, lenses, memory cards, water and sunscreen, as we set off. Off we tread on the hunt, before the cattle come through and scare the game, before the sun is high and the animals lay down in the shade. The sun will rise as it has done for millennia, and within a few hours the light will soon be as harsh as the environment. We pause every so often, wondering which way to go? The wind keeps changing. The hunters stop, pull out their fire sticks, twirl them until the familiar smell of myrrh smoke, ahh, yes, a tiny coal has formed to light the newspaper wrapped tobacco. Then one of us treads on the wrong twig, or coughs and the invisible kudu or giraffe crashes through the bush.

Taking aim.

The first day we walked for 8 hours in near silence. A hand signal and we’d squat as the hunter stalked. Losing his shoes, his body would take a different being, stringing arrow to bowstring. He would draw it back, the tension of the muscles in his back a reflection of the tension in the air. The twang, the curse, and another one has got away. Later on we sit as they whittle their arrows, using only a knife and their hands to lathe beautiful long arrows, stripping guinea-fowl feathers and tying them on with sinew. Another takes a hammer, nail and stone and proceeds to pound out a new arrowhead. They tell stories that I try to translate.

It’s an interesting journey into the past, but also into the reality of the present. It’s the story of population pressures that are marginalizing pastoralists who in turn marginalize hunter-gathers. We sit with men and women on rocks overlooking beautiful vistas. There is a history here. It is quite simple. The Hadzabe live off the land. When the men are hungry they hunt, when the women are hungry they go digging for tubers or picking berries. They come back to camp with what they have and then tell stories. The most complicated piece of technology is their arrow, which takes up to 9 steps to make if it’s an arrow with poison.

Hadza fixing a new bow.

Our conversations while drinking sundowners overlooking the widest vistas and around the campfire under the stars revolve around the dilemmas we face. It’s a very different experience than the first time Nicol and I visited the Hadza. We are looking deeper, and have researched more, yet the experience written up in The Irony of Poison reiterates itself.

Overlooking traditional hunting grounds.

Frank Marlowe describes it well in the Afterword of his book: The Hadza: Hunter-Gatherers of Tanzania. There is no easy answer.

Where will these boys be in 10 years?

Revisiting the chicken story

It has been an intense, and wildlife packed four days. With highlights including a lion jumping out from the river bank and killing a wildebeest as they crossed the river, watching elephants in the most beautiful light with a brewing storm as the backdrop, and three leopard sightings alone. It’s another early morning, but we need to get to the village before the chickens are let out. A couple of weeks ago, in discussion with an opinionated journalist I had been told that it wasn’t possible to have a meaningful cultural experience in half a day. “I can” I replied, and I have.

Since visiting our neighbors last year with Nicol, the same chicken vaccinators have vaccinated over 35,000 chickens. (The Chicken Story). Now a young boy was carrying around a little bottle of the precious liquid, one drop in the eye per chicken, two months of his pocket money donated to the project. It is enough to vaccinate 1,000 chickens.

Meaningful? Yes! Meaningful in many ways.

We do the calculations again. If a bottle of vaccine costs $2-$3, and can vaccinate 400 chickens @ 3 cents per chicken, the vaccinator earns about $12. But, the value of the vaccination is much higher. A chicken sells for around the equivalent of $4, so vaccinating 400 chickens is worth $1600, and we haven’t started counting the value of the eggs or chicks that the live chicken may produce.

I’ll leave it to you to decide the meaningfulness of this exchange to the boy.

Ethan Kinsey
Encounters in Kenya!

Though no day is ever typical or the same, some of the encounters on trips have to be written up. I “scored” some lifers- and as Paul Oliver put it;

“Life is about lifers, i.e. seeing or experience things you’ve never seen before”.

Sometimes staying in lodges isolates you from night life in the bush and the first two night on this trip with elephants and leopard around the tent made me realize how great the Kenyan luxury mobile camp is- providing the luxury without taking away from the experience. I’ve selected a few encounters to write about from this last two week trip in Kenya with Simon Belcher.

14/08/2010

I’m sitting on a foldable chair outside my tent. There’s a small flame burning in the kerosene lantern but I’ve turned that down. The wind is blowing and there’s a slight chill to it. But I can see the stars and there are elephants feeding. I haven’t heard them at night in so long and I was actually in bed but have come to sit and watch. I can see their silhouettes against the starry sky. There is no moon and the elephants look huge. The sound that they are making makes them sound much closer than they are. I love this. I can hear them pulling up the Doum Palm seedlings. Occasionally I can hear the low rumble as they communicate with each other. It’s amazing to think that the sound I’m hearing are actually the higher notes that they are making and there’s so much going on that I can’t hear. I’ve turned the screen off so there’ll be plenty of spelling mistakes but I’ll correct that in the morning… oh I hear a third elephant joining and it looks like this one is moving a little closer. I can actually see her trunk now and hear them breathing.

15/08/2010

I spotted 4 Somali galagos or bush-babies in an Acacia tree this morning. I was quite surprised as they are usually strictly nocturnal and tend to hide in thick foliage or nests during the day. We know so little about these little animals. From Jonathan Kingdon’s map and description I think these are Somali galagos of which very little is known. “Food: Presumed to be mainly gum and invertebrates”. (Pg 104, The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals). They are very similar to the Lesser galago (G. senegalensis), the closest animal we have to Madagascar’s lemurs. These amazing little animals are the high-jump, triple and long jump champions of the mammal world. With a standing jump of up to 7m, they can repeatedly bound (bounce) along the ground. Their eyes are so big in their heads that they can’t move them in their sockets. This gives them excellent night vision and they can see up to 20m just in starlight. I’ve heard one guide say that if we had eyes as big as theirs relative to our body size, ours would be the size of basketballs. Tonight, a large leopard walks through camp. He grunts his loud contact call that sounds like sawing wood so close to my tent that it takes my breath away for a second. I lie in bed listening as he walks around the tent and continues through the bush calling.

16/08/2010

This afternoon the other vehicle spotted a cheetah mother and her daughter. We sat and watched from a distance as they stalked some grant gazelle, the young one lagging behind. As the mother inched closer, the young one suddenly ran at a 90 degree angle over the horizon and then around, spooking the Grants gazelles towards the cub’s mother. The hunt failed, but this is the second time now that I’ve seen young cheetah behave in this fashion. The first time was last year in Samburu National Park, and resulted in a successful kill.

17/08/2010

I scored a lifer today. If you don’t know the bird watcher/ twitcher’s term, a lifer is a bird that you’ve never seen/ identified in your life. I love the birds and when I see a particularly special one I get quite excited. Getting out of the car at the picnic spot we’d chosen I disturbed a pair of Pel’s fishing owls. These owls are specialized fish eaters and rather rare. We followed the pair up the river until they disappeared among the Doum palm leaves.

21/08/2010

As Jonathan Kingdon writes: “When animals have become as scarce as rhinoceroses have today it is difficult to describe them as successful. Yet living African rhinos were, until recently, the widespread, abundant, advanced and successful representatives of a family that had seen a very wide range of types in the past (i.e. 30 fossil genera).” Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals.

We’ve now seen so many that we’ve almost become blasé about these wonderful animals. In total we’ve seen at least 7 black rhino, and upwards towards 20 white rhino. Add a leopard sighting, lions in trees, and the mystical yellow fever-trees, the rising mist, the bubbling cassinas in the night, the croak of black and white colobus monkeys in the trees- it is no wonder that Africa captures people’s souls.

22/08/2010

This morning we stand again on the shore of Lake Nakuru as the dawn brings the sunrise, drinking coffee and eating warm cinnamon rolls. The large flocks of Lesser flamingo flock in vast numbers eating Spirulina algae that flourishes in the alkaline waters of East Africas rift valley lakes. Having woken up before dawn we are there as the sky begins to change color. It’s a spiritual moment and we stand quietly watching. The sun rises and the pink colors of the flamingos, a result of the high levels of carotenes in their food, become vibrant and reflect off the water.

23/08/2010

The cutest encounter transpired as we watched a mother white rhino feeding with her calf. Parked about 25m from them we sat quietly watching when the calf decided to come play. He approached so close that had I stretched my hand out to scratch his developing horn I would have been only about 8 inches short. He (she?) then proceeded to prance around like a 2 week old goat-kid.

28/08/2010

There’s a reason to get up at dawn that is only really understood when you get to slowly follow a male lion for a few miles through waist height grass, blind to the scents that drive him towards a pride of 3 females and their cubs, only to watch and listen to the females put him in his place before he proceeds to steal their kill. We ended up seeing these females every day including the last day, as a monstrous storm drenched the Mara, using headlights at 6:30 p.m. we found them sitting in the middle of the road, as we returned from our finale sundowner. This last drive also pulled out a new ‘lifer’ for me- the Pennant-winged nightjar as it flew low across the grassland, the stormy winds approaching.

Ethan Kinsey
Highlights of a Family Safari

It’s a fun tradition to share highlights around the dinner table on the last night of a safari. I thought I’d share with you, some of the highlights of a 5 day safari to Tarangire, Ngorongoro Crater, and Serengeti. (Photos by Tom Kenny and Claire Mills)

General highlights.

The excitement of looking for animals and spotting.

Standing in the jeep and the wind in the hair.

Watching dynamics happening between animals after we’d just been told about them.

The sky at sunrise, sunset, and night.

Tarangire National Park

Sitting with the elephants in Tarangire for a long time and watching their dynamics.

Lions roaring close to the tents.

The lion cubs posing on the termite mound.

The picnic on the river bend with elephants drinking, zebra stampeding, baboons eating sausage flowers and impalas hanging out underneath.

Finding tracks of two leopards on the path outside the tents.

Ava spotting the leopard from the lookout at the lodge.

Dikdiks everywhere we looked.

Tracking the two lioness until we found them.

Baobab trees.

Ngorongoro Crater

Breakfast next to the hippo pool.

The sheer beauty of the landscape and so many animals.

Serengeti National Park

Popping open a Kili beer as we watched black baby hyenas playing around their den.

28 lions in one day.

The leopard coming down off the rock and walking through the grass.

Being alone for the whole morning.

Climbing and making music with the gong rocks in Moru.

Ethan Kinsey
Wilddogs and Camels

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

(Zebras in the red-oat grass)

(Flamingos in Lake Nakuru)

(Siesta along the banks of the Mara river)

(Camp in Nakuru)

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

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

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

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

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

Part III: Ruaha's cats

Camp lay on the boundary of two massive lion prides and it was common for us to have lions in camp. These lions killed a massive male giraffe just outside camp at 6:30 a.m. one morning. Above, a young male tears into the thick and beautiful hide.

Cubs are always cute.

Together with another lioness, this one killed this zebra in perfect light right in front of our eyes. It had been such a peaceful scene with elephants and baboons digging for water, and zebra waiting their turn to drink from the holes the other animals had dug. She waited in a bush until the elephants had left then attacked. It was interesting to see all the baboons come and sit around this sight- they would get so excited every time the zebra twitched.

Finding lions in the afternoon light overlooking waterholes.

Cheetah sightings were always a great treat.

Photographic Memories: Ruaha Part I

I was recently handed an i-pod that had a year’s worth of photographs from Ruaha National Park that I thought I’d lost. Flicking through them, I realized how significant the events that the images recorded were in steering me in the direction to where I am now. I’d never had time to edit them and as I touched up the images and took an inspirational trip through the memories.

The rains end in April and early May and by June the long grass has turned golden. The grass seed-heads are mature and many of the trees start to lose their leaves or are turning red- its Africa’s version of autumn. Distant waterholes have started drying up and the Ruaha River takes on its role as the animals slowly return to the floodplains.The surface water on the Mwagusi Sand River is limited to a few spots that become wallows for elephants and regular drinking troughs for huge herds of buffalo. The skies are clear of dust and smoke and the last clouds depart as the dry sets in.

Stunning sunsets... and spectacular light.

The large buffalo herds coming down to drink in the Ruaha river towards the end of the dry season when the water flow is nearly stopped.

and magical light like this...

The toothbrush combretum has the most beautiful flowers and seed pods loved by kudu and giraffe- but some of the most beautiful were the various seed pods that we would dry and use to decorate the camp.

Living in camp for months on end, these little things began to fascinate me and the appearance of snakes would always cause a great deal of excitement among the other staff there. I managed to capture some beautiful images of these spectacular creatures.

This puff-adder was so cold in the morning sun and the buffalo weavers wouldn't give it a break.

And of course the wild dogs... my first encounters with them. Ruaha has one of the last viable populations of these beautiful and fascinating creatures.

The morning they ran through camp and stole the back off one of the safari chairs.

Typical mid-day behavior in the shade.

A classic greeting frenzy...

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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…”

Aardvark to Zebra

Day 1

With renewed enthusiasm for a place that keeps ending up as my private playground, Saturday saw me back in Olduvai Gorge having a picnic on the 2-million year old lava and tuff. Having just spent a fascinating hour in the Oldupai museum, looking at the collection and reconstructions of skulls, bones and stone tools displayed at the museum, I cut brown bread with a stainless steel knife on a ceramic plate, poured cold white wine into wine glasses, and contemplated the advancement of tools and objects that may be unearthed millions of years from now. My mind was on evolution, changing landscapes, evidence, and the gaps of knowledge of the Earth’s History. I’d never noticed the photos of the Leakeys with dinosaur bones in southern Tanzania, but after an interesting conversation and a hyper link to a National Geographic Article, it had me wondering what was buried under the rock I was standing on between the deepest underlying rock (570 million years) of the Gol mountains and the 2 million year old basalt. How much do we really know?

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/03/100303-dinosaurs-older-than-thought-10-million/

Our journey continued, the same track I’d taken last week, but as always- never the same. The wildebeest migration is driven by their need for water and already, there were signs that they were preparing to moving back towards the permanent water sources in southern Serengeti. There was still enough grass on the plains that the wildebeest couldn’t resist, but their thirst kept driving them into never-ending lines as they made their daily trek to the last remaining water. We stopped in front of Nasera rock to watch a dung beetle rolling his prize to the random spot he’d bury it… slowly adding fertilized layers to the soils that covered the most recent tuff- of the last 30,000 years. The big picture can quickly overwhelm me- the uncomprehendable millions of years and the hundreds of thousands of years, to the near insignificant tens of thousands of years and all the interdependences, delicate balances, and implications that we’ve only really uncovered and documented in the last few hundred years let alone decades.

Take these figures for example- dung beetles roll away 75% of the dung produced in the Serengeti. The soil itself is 15-20% made up of dung beetle balls. Without dung-beetles the Serengeti wouldn’t support the nearly 3 million mammals.

Day 2 & 3

Hot coffee served from stainless steel French-presses set the morning off as we trolled out onto the plains. The wildebeest gathering as they headed towards the remaining water on the plains amused and awed us with their repetitive gnuing, their blank-stare faces, and the infinite numbers gathering on the plain.

This amateur video clip shows images of our morning game drive.

(apologies, due to slow internet I am having trouble uploading videos to this page)

I’ve posted images with captions of the rest of the trip and a video clip of lions feasting on day 3. The only thing I didn’t get a photo of was the aardvark that was digging in the road or the 11 lions we saw on the night drive. This time I don’t have words and I’ll let the images speak.

Day 4

These mother cheetah and her cub entertained us with a failed hunt before we said goodbye to the Serengeti plains and headed up through Ngorongoro back home.

Weekend away... (March 5th-8th 2010)

A picture is worth a thousand words, but what if you can’t capture that picture in a physical image without distorting it or failing to grasp the immensity and at the same time the detail of what your mind is seeing?

This weekend’s mission was to have fun, find a few hundred thousand wildebeest, to get back out into the wilderness, and a chance for me to show a few friends in the safari industry a quiet and amazing corner in the Serengeti ecosystem. It wasn’t three hours into the trip when the first fawn-colored wildebeest calves stood staring at us from next to their mother’s sides as we made a right turn off the main road and made our descent into Olduvai gorge. The river in the gorge was flowing but fordable and we picnicked as storm clouds darkened the sky and threatened a downpour that skirted us. Up out of the gorge we crawled and then made our way along a track that had grassed over, through some wait-a-bit thorn and then out onto the Angata kiti plains to Nasera rock. A coffee break, leg stretch and we were soon off again, cross country now, through the hundreds of thousands of wildebeest. Here’s an image for you- if you can imagine six guys on a weekend trip with a freezer full of beer, but all sitting in near silence on top of a Landcruiser as it drifted across the plains with the rolling green hills in awe of the vastness, the aggregation of wildebeest, zebra and gazelle, and solitude. We drove for a good 30km before the horizon in front of us changed from short grassland to a series of inselbergs, each with its rock-splitting fig in full leaf, and behind them an Acacia-woodland in which the camp was hidden.

I got stuck, I hate to admit it, but it was part of the trip hence part of the adventure. Only a few kilometers from camp I radioed that I would be in within the half hour and then took a gamble on a small stream and pulling out cheering at not having bogged down, slammed into a hole. Nothing we could do to jack the car up and get something underneath it was working so we settled down for an ice-cold beer and packet of cassava chips. As the sun set on our impromptu sundowner, we discussed the nine Aardwolf we’d seen- how many we’d seen before, and then how we’d all read about digging the spare-tire into the ground as an anchor for the winch when there were no trees around. Soon we were digging and with a small tug from the winch and a bit of wheel spinning the cruiser popped out of the hole. I’ll spare you the details but in the dark I sunk the car again, and one of the rescue vehicle looked even worse before it reached my car so we called it a night, and drove into camp with the second rescue.

The next morning we made easy work of our new winching technique and soon we were scouring the plains again, watching large herds of eland leap imaginary fences and bat-eared foxes dodge their way into their holes before emerging again to watch us, their satellite dish ears cocked for the slightest sound. Brunch knocked us out again, but by two we were raring to go. Fridge stocked we crawled back onto the plains in search of the ten cheetah we knew were around. Two is a bit too hot for action but we made our way towards a major drainage that flows into Serengeti, again through numbers and numbers of eland, zebra, gazelle towards a hillside that was so thick with wildebeest, they looked like ants. We gravitated towards a small clearing in the herd and combing the grass with our binoculars pulled out a hungry young male cheetah who obligingly got up and ran straight into the herd of wildebeest sending them scattering. We spent the afternoon with him as he posed for the camera and then made his was across the plains spotting a young Thomson gazelle. He gave chase again, another failed hunt, but the fun is as much in watching the chase as in the kill.

The option for Sundays should always include a lie-in, instead of moving at dawn we feasted breakfast in camp and then head off to look for fossils in a dry river bed. Over 7000 extinct species of mammal have been identified from fossilized bones in Olduvai, and it’s exciting to think that the fossils we were picking up are possibly the remains of species we will never see. We lunched on top of a hill to the gnuing of the wildebeest and then in post-lunch stupor drove the next 40km again, through wildebeest towards Ndutu. If this trip was about numbers of animals we saw thousands. Hundreds of eland, thousands of zerba, tens of thousands of gazelle, and a few hundred thousand wildebeest, but also exactly twenty two Aardwolf and one Striped hyena.

The Aardwolf is evolutionary one of the most interesting member of the hyena family. An insectivore, it feeds almost exclusively on termites and has lost the strong jaws muscles, and sharp carnascial teeth its cousins have and instead has pegs for teeth. It’s typically found in pairs or solitary and is generally active at night. The little hyena is also fairly neurotic and hard to photograph let alone see- so twenty-two in two days is a surprising number.

Ndutu was its usual gem, and we watched four-month old lion cubs playing in the dying evening light, watched a coalition of hungry cheetah “passively hunt” as Nick called it, and as we left were rewarded with the spectacle of nearly ten thousand wildebeest as they made a mad dash across Lake Ndutu.

Read Nick's blog entry on the trip: click here

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.