Ethan Kinsey Safaris

Adventures in East Africa

"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!

 
The Rewards of The Road Less Travelled
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
The first safaris of the season...
 

Every year, come June, the clouds clear and the dry season is on us. It drizzles in Arusha, and mornings at Ngorongoro are like a dream with fog enveloping the trees and only lifting towards midday. Convoys of safari vehicles heading on conventional itineraries stream out of town, and small-plane pilots who have been on standby are suddenly working maximum hours.

Instead of frolicking in lush green grass, animals, particularly herbivores and their young are now making daily treks to a few remaining seasonal ponds, or have migrated to more permanent water courses. There’s still grass on the plains and it hasn’t been totally bleached by the sun, the skies are blue, and the faint wisps of smoke rising in the distance signal the burning season in the Serengeti.

Prides of lions that have scattered through their territory because the benefit of having a small kill like a warthog to yourself outweigh the cost of hunting alone, gather together again, reestablishing their bonds and territories and eagerly lying in ambush where animals must come drink. The massive crocodiles of the Grumeti and Mara rivers slide into the still waters, elicited by the vibrations of hundreds of thousands of hooves like Pavlov’s dinner bell.

 

Ostrich eeeeeeggs!

There is so much on safari that can’t be planned. Whether it’s finding an ostrich egg that’s just been laid in the center of 23 others, or arriving at a camp when there isn’t a wildebeest in sight and waking up in the morning to find a front of wildebeest a half-million strong marching like a determined army. Whether a leopard will be in the tree is out of the hands of the guide, which is part of the adventure, part of the freedom that draws some of us to fall so deeply in love with the bush. 

How much more luxurious does it need to get?

Every safari is completely different and I don’t blog frequently enough to be able to go into the details of each safari, but the first three safaris of the season proved just that. The first safari involved making sure that a family would have a smooth experience in a mobile camp before heading to the world’s best hotel- Sasakwa.

The next safari was designed to maximize 5 days of wildlife viewing. As you’ll know if you’ve read more of my blogs, I value the wilderness experience above the luxury experience. We began by ticking off Ngorongoro Crater because the reality is that as busy as it is, it is a spectacular wildlife destination. Combined with a visit to a Maasai boma and you learn about one of the most imminent wildlife conservation issues- massive population growth expanding into wilderness.

It's just beautiful.

The wildlife in the crater is so habituated to vehicles that it offers fantastic wildlife photographic opportunities... these photos were all taken with iPhone.

Maasai...

Following this we jumped on a plane and flew to Sayari Camp in northern Serengeti. This camp is one of my favorites and goes back to when I worked for Asilia and Sayari was just a mobile camp. It's obviously changed a lot but continues to offer a first class wildlife experience especially when I’m guiding and when I chose to come.

Who wouldn't want to swim here?

And how can you beat this breakfast... (NB. the only breakfast you should have in camp is on the last day)

The front of wildebeest...

The wildebeest migration accelerated this year and while there were thousands of wildebeest on the plains at the mobile camp on the first safari, the tsunami of wildebeest had moved further north. We arrived just the day before they arrived and the next day spent the morning listening to the incessant gnuing of tens of thousands of wildebeest as they moved into the area.

Wildebeest on the runway... 

Ethan Kinsey
The Guide Training Season.
 

‘At its best, interpretation is a whisper in the visitor’s ear.  It suggests ways of looking, plants seeds that may take root in the field of a visitor’s own thoughts, while leaving them free to explore for themselves.’ James Carter

As the guide training season draws to a close, I thought I would share a few highlights and thoughts on my guide training philosophy and what I actually do during guide training.

From the 2nd of April until the 1st of May, my home became a tent, as it often does. My tools include: a duffel of clothes, a flashlight, my binoculars, a trunk of books and various toys, from UV lights, to laser pointers, and i-phone apps. This month my training was exclusively for Asilia Lodges & Camps, a company that invests a small fortune in its guides.

Together with Lewis Mangaba, a distinguished guide from Zimbabwe with phenomenal knowledge, and 16 “trainees”, we set off to try to gain an understanding of how the world works. The month’s focus was to spend as much time in situ, learning ecological concepts and attempting to apply them to what we could find and what we could physically see. The abundance and diversity of what we call “charismatic wildlife” are incredible in this country, but all too often become the sole focus of a safari. You don’t have to watch too many David Attenborough documentaries to learn that nature is full of wonderful, weird, and crazy things going on - let alone on the savannahs of East Africa. It is our goal to influence guides to reveal and unravel some of these intricacies for their guests.

Lewis, inspiring.

During the past years I’ve been fortunate to co-train with various guides and as we draw near to the end of the training we realize how much we’ve learned from each other. Sometimes, it is just a different perspective or way of seeing something, but often it’s also an inspiration to learn more and discover more.

A dung beetle, forming a brood ball... do you have any idea how much dung we'd be wading through if it weren't for these little guys?

Grass identification.

But, all of this focuses on natural history and that’s not what guiding is all about, which is one of my major criticisms of the guide training/certification industry. Of course, it is necessary to have a baseline knowledge of ecology and to be able to identify most of the species of animals that you come across, but there’s so much more to guiding. At the very foundation, there’s plain and simple safety, and you’d be surprised at how many guides do not have adequate and up to date first aid knowledge, let alone certification.

A track- 3 lobed pad, claw marks... this is a special cat.

This year’s training did not just involve the 16 “trainees,” who Lewis and I spent the whole time with, but an additional 43 guides from Asilia’s portfolio of camps in Kenya and Tanzania joined to get a valuable Wilderness Advanced First Aid certification and to take another course- Adaptive Human Behavior and Client Care. This interesting course was developed by Robin Peterson after an the initial 3 day course Myers Briggs course into what is now a 5-day level 1 and 5-day level 2 course. Not only does this course improve the guide’s ability to interact communicate effectively with the guests, but a guide’s life is improved being armed with a toolkit to deal with the many human relationships that they have at work and home. In addition to this course, they spent a day each with a hosting coach, behavioral ecologist, 2 bird guides and a photographer who coached them on how to use a camera. 

 
Ethan Kinsey
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.