Ethan Kinsey Safaris

Adventures in East Africa

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.

 
Volcanoes, Wildlife & Adventure
 

Standing at 3,470m above sea level staring at the world’s largest lava lake makes you feel quite insignificant. It was cold at 4 a.m. and the precipice we were standing on kept us present, but the lava lake itself was mesmerizing We could feel the heat, generated in the depths of the Earth, the deep orange-red lava expressing itself vehemently, sometimes as explosive fountains and sometimes a moving kaliedescope of constantly shifting black plates. Occasionally the crater would fill with smoke and steam and all you could sense was the sound of the incredible deep rumble of the cauldron.

Nyiragongo, Democratic Republic of Congo

Standing at the top of Nyiragongo was one of the highlights of a sixteen-day safari that included two mountain summits and a combination of wildlife experiences. We began the safari by summiting Mt Meru, Africa’s 5th highest mountain (4568m asl). Climbing through the rich forest, through the heath and moorland vegetation zone, and finally onto the alpine desert gave us opportunities to enjoy a variety of beautiful birds including tacazze sunbirds, bar-tailed trogons, and silvery-cheeked hornbills.

A view of the ash cone in the right bottom corner and Little Meru.

An enchanted forest full of birds.

Incredible natural patterns.

The inner walls of the crater. Mt. Meru was once 5200m high, until the crater collapsed like Mt. St. Helens, in an explosion that was 10 times the magnitude of Mt. St. Helens.

Next up was Tarangire National Park. Tarangire is a classic African savannah complete with red soil, gigantic baobabs, and wildlife concentrations around water. We camped in the thick of it, close enough to a water-hole that we could hear elephants drinking, the water gurgling as it poured down their throats. We could smell the buffalo when they came down to drink, and when the lions roared we instinctively held our breath. Tarangire is also special because a tiny extension of the Somali Maasai Biome brings specialties like lesser kudu, fringe-eared oryx, and gerenuk.

The small fascinating stuff on a walk.

A  lion track.

Our next destination was the Democratic Republic of Congo. To get there, we had to fly to Rwanda, stay a night in Kigali, and then drive three hours to the Gisenyi-Goma border crossing. The process hasn’t changed much since 2011 (read about it here), but by lunchtime we had arrived at Mikeno Lodge. Mikeno was our base for the next couple days, and the morning after arrival we drove up to Bukima Tented Camp to trek for gorillas.

A playful gorilla.

A sniffer dog used to catch poachers.

As you know, I place a lot of emphasis on experiences when I design safaris, often more than the level of luxury or comfort. For this reason, visiting Congo is exciting because that is what it is about. Mikeno Lodge and the new Bukima Tented Camp are very comfortable, but more importantly they are well situated for the experience. Gorillas are known to wander through the camp, and recently a group of chimpanzee moved into the forest around the lodge. Strolling around the lodge you can see beautiful colobus monkeys, blue monkeys, l’hoest’s monkeys if you’re lucky, and, if you get up early and head of with the trackers, chimp viewing.

The operational headquarters of the national park are also next to the lodge so you can get insight into conservation including a visit to the gorilla orphanage or the tracker-dog kennel.

The gorilla trekking rules in Congo are also slightly different to Rwanda and Uganda. A mask is essential to prevent transfer of disease from us to the gorillas, and the number of visitors allowed to a group is smaller. The authorities are also flexible and should you wish, you could actually trek to see two gorilla families in one day.

After completing our two gorilla treks, we returned to Mikeno Lodge to prepare for our Nyiragongo ascent.

The ICCN, who places the safety of tourists paramount, had only opened the volcano to visitors a few days before. We would have been the first visitors up the volcano had a small group of UN peacekeepers based in Goma not jumped at the chance a couple days before us. Like Mt. Meru, the climb takes you through rainforest and a heath and moorland zone. It is beautiful, but also steep. At least half of the climb is on the very uneven exposed surface of the lava flow of 2002.

Incredible plants.

The lava lake at 4 a.m. Nyiragongo.

The lava lake at 5 p.m. Nyiragongo.

We returned to Kigali exhilarated by the climb and tired from the lack of sleep. The next morning, we headed to Rubondo Island in Lake Victoria for a night. We should have included two nights on this beautiful island, but I wanted to spend a good three days in northern Serengeti rounding off the safari.

Elephants in Serengeti.

I had hoped to catch the tail end of the wildebeest migration as they headed south, but their early exodus had also drawn with it the multitude of camps and tourist vehicles leaving us virtually alone. As usual, the wildlife viewing was incredible: the cats including a mother cheetah with her four cubs who we watched hunt an oribi for dinner, lions and lion cubs, and to put the icing on the cake, a black rhino strolling across the plains as we spent our last morning before the return flight to Arusha. 

Cheetah cubs enjoying an Oribi. Serengeti National Park.

Organize a multi-country safari including a trip to Congo through www.inspired-journeys.com

 
Flying on Safari
 

I remember the first time I managed to launch off a hill, suspended by a paraglider, tense and terrified. An Auger buzzard took off from a tree below me, soaring the same uplift I was on. Effortlessly, it turned, riding the wind while I continued to tense my body as I flew straight, my goal just to land.

I love flight, especially low-level flight. I’m not a pilot, but the different perspective, looking down at the ground from above, or looking eye-level at a cliff or mountain fascinates me. Over the last few months of safari, I’ve flown in helicopters, balloons, Cessnas, Boeings, and even a private jet. While the larger planes aren’t as much fun, here are a few images taken from the smaller flight vessels.

My first balloon flight was in June this year in northern Serengeti. A steady wind was blowing and I was a bit bewildered but equally excited as we lay on our backs, the loud fans blowing air into the balloon and burners roaring. The balloon filled and lifted, pulling the basket upright, the force of the wind jerking and tugging. Suddenly we lifted, and for a few seconds it was silent as we rose up leaving behind a frantic crew as they prepared the chase vehicles.

 

The fans blowing air into the balloon.

The burners on full-power creating the hot air that will lift the balloon.

The views are incredible.

Wind= bumpy landing.

The balloon experience in Namibia was very different.

We arrived at the balloon launch site, the balloons being filled. There was hardly a breeze, and the pilot uprighted the basket and balloon before we climbed in. Silently we began to rise. The colors in the desert as the sun rose were incredible, the hues of blue, orange, pink, and grey so soft.

The landing was different too, made easier by the lack of wind, and I was impressed by the conscientiousness to the fragility of the desert. The pick-up pulling the trailer stayed on the road as the pilot communicated our location. By throwing a piece of webbing that the crew grabbed, they were able to bring the basket down directly onto the trailer.

We will occasionally charter a plane. Not only does it maximizes time spent on the ground by allowing us to create our own schedule, but we can ask the pilots to detour or fly low. I took the following photos from the Cessna caravan en-route to Serengeti and then Rubondo Island.

Oldonyo Lengai is an active volcano. Read about climbing it here.

Wildebeest and migration trails on the Lamai Wedge in northern Serengeti. (August 2014).

As you approach Rubondo Island, the intensity of green stands out. Read about Rubondo here.

Flying across the western border of Serengeti National Park. Population pressures are growing.

My first experience with helicopters was guiding in northern Kenya on a safari organized by Charlie Babault.

This year I saw Victoria falls and flew over Rwanda in a helicopter. The ability to hover, the ability to fly through valleys, and the ability to fly slowly allow extra appreciation of the different perspective of being in the air.

Mosi o-tunya, Zambia.  

In Rwanda, we saved time and got a birds-eye view of intense small-holder agriculture, and a dense population.

Leaving Kigali at sunrise.

Like a patch-work.

A 3hr car ride became a 20 minute helicopter ride.

Sabyinyo group.

All photos in this blog article also appear on Instagram @tembomdogo.

A Private Family Adventure
 

Our private camp in Tarangire.

The sun was setting: a typical Tarangire sunset that turns the sky an amazing orange, framing cliché Umbrella acacias and baobab trees. The campfire was lit and the solar-heated water showers were being hoisted into the tree. One of the kids was climbing a fallen tree and setting up the go-pro for a time-lapse photo. It had been a long and good day. After a game drive lasting nearly 10 hours, we’d seen so much: herds of elephants coming to the swamp to drink, countless zebra sightings, impala, giraffe, a leopard in a tree, and a lion by a termite mound, not to mention additions to the bird-list that the oldest boy was keeping. We’d even seen a snake: a Rufous-beaked snake, (not an everyday sighting).

A pride of lions had begun roaring a few hundred meters upwind at 5:30 in the morning, close enough that even a seasoned safari go-er would say it was close. A troop of baboons was trying to get to the tall sycamore fig-tree that was in camp, but had to settle for the sausage trees on the edge of camp. It was the epitome of the immersion experience.

The next morning, we woke at again at dawn. The wildlife hadn’t been quieter, but everyone had slept soundly. The kettle of cowboy coffee simmered on the campfire as we discussed the day’s plans. It was going to be another long day of driving, but with the opportunity to see rural life in Tanzania. Our destination was also exciting as we were preparing to spend a couple nights camped in a remote part of the Eyasi basin among the Hadzabe.

The last part of the drive is an adventure in itself. Low-range is engaged and the car crawls up the hill, rock by rock until finally the track levels out and, sheltered by a rock, camp is found, exactly the same camp as in Tarangire. It wasn’t long before we were sitting on top of the rock, overlooking historic Hadza hunting and gathering grounds, watching the sun go down once again.

A Hadza high up in a baobab after following a honeyguide to the beehive.

The next morning, a small group of Hadza hunters walked into camp. One had already shot a hyrax and had it tucked in his belt. Honey axes slung over their shoulders and bow and arrows in hand, they lead us to where some women had begun digging for tubers. We were soon all distracted by the excitement of finding kanoa, or stingless-bee honey. Another distraction ensued when a Greater honey-guide flew around us, chattering its call to follow. You can’t plan these spontaneous, magical experiences.

Digging for tubers.

I continued to dig for roots with the women as the family I was guding followed the Hadza guides who in turn followed the bird, eventually finding a tall baobab tree, the hive high-up on the lower side of a massive branch. I don’t know if it is just for fun, but on numerous occasions I’ve watched Hadza climb the baobab trees without smoke to placate the bees and haul out the combs dripping with honey. Judging by the laughter, it seems that they find being stung somewhat comedic. So much for African killer bees. Following a mid-morning snack of honey, bees wax, roasted roots and hyrax liver (no kidding, everyone tried!) we returned to camp for a more traditional (for us) sandwich after which the Hadza hunters showed the boys how to make arrows and fire, and in the evening took them on a short hunt.

Making fire!

Now your turn!

The last attempt for a hyrax before heading back to camp.

Having spent the first four nights of the trip in the light-weight mobile camp, we next made our way to more luxurious accommodations, swimming pools, lawns to play soccer on, and unlimited hot showers.

A budding wildlife film-maker watches as a breeding herd of elephants cross the plains in front of us. (Northern Serengeti)

There is something about privacy and after visiting Ngorongoro Crater, we were all happy to be headed to the more classic luxury mobile camp in Serengeti; not for the luxury, but for the privacy. We’d timed it perfectly, and rains in the northwest of Serengeti were drawing wildebeest herds back toward the Nyamalumbwa hills, also a sanctuary for black rhino.

Watching giraffes or are they watching us?

There is something about privacy! Enjoying sunrise in the Nyamalumbwas. 

 
A June Safari
 

An elephant bull, Tarangire National Park

Zebra, Tarangire National Park

June in Tanzania is like autumn in the northern hemisphere: a transitional month. The last of the rains finish in mid-May, moisture begins to evaporate out of the soil, and the grass begins to turn gold. Baobab trees drop their leaves and seasonal water holes begin to dry up. Reluctantly, wildlife begins to return to dry season habitats. Lion prides that fragmented during the rains re-unite and return to favorite ambush positions where other wildlife will begin to regularly pass on their way to drink water. As the foliage dries up and falls, leopards can no longer lie concealed on branches. There is still plenty of forage for browsers and grazers so the atmosphere does not convey the harsh struggle that the animals will have in a few months. Early fires lit by park rangers and pastoralists to encourage a nutritious flush of fresh grass begin to fill the sky with smoke bringing out red sunsets, yet the dry season winds have not filled the sky with enough dust to block views.

Elephants in Silale Swamp, Tarangire National Park

A deck at Little Oliver's Camp, Tarangire National Park

Serengeti, with its large area and near intactness as an ecosystem, follows different patterns. Rains induced by Lake Victoria fall on its northern parts, including the Maasai Mara, and as the smaller streams of water in central and southern Serengeti dry and soda concentrations increase, the migrating herds of wildebeest and zebra head north. The wildebeest often pause in the western corridor until water in the Grumeti River also becomes scarcer. The minor changes in daylight hours, insignificant and unnoticeable to most people, combined with the effects of a moon phase induce hormonal changes in female wildebeest. The resulting synchronized estrus, also known as coming into heat, drives the males into a frenzy of amusing territorial activity as they attempt to stake out territories and herd small groups of females who continue on their migration.

Watching migration, Serengeti National Park

An approaching storm allowed us within 30m of this black rhino, Serengeti National Park.

 These trends have made their way onto maps, into guidebooks, and onto documentaries describing and simplifying “The Great Migration”. As a result, it is often a surprise when weather patterns don’t follow the standard predictions and the migrating herds don’t arrive where they usually do, show up early, or take an “abnormal” route. We were fortunate on our early June itinerary to catch up with the migration, yet our stop in the western corridor, empty of wildebeest, gave us the opportunity to witness some other spectacular wildlife. The herd of 50 giraffe, some resting, some standing, was a definite highlight for me, and it was impressive to discover an ostrich nest with 27 eggs, and then later an egg abandoned on the plain.

It is very difficult to photograph 50 giraffe, Serengeti National Park

Serengeti lions

An abandoned ostrich egg, Serengeti National Park.

On this particular itinerary, following the beautiful wildlife viewing in Tarangire and Serengeti, we ended at a camp called Shu’mata, set atop a hill with views of Kilimanjaro. With just one night, it was our opportunity to take a night-game drive, sight some Gerenuk, an unusual and arid-land specialist, as well as visit a Maasai home and glimpse their livelihood and culture.

A very comfortable lounge, Shu'mata Camp

Spear throwing demonstration, Shu'mata Camp

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Gorillas, chimps, elephants and zebra
 

This four-chapter safari was in itself a sequel to a safari that debuted in February 2013. Following a very successful safari through the Serengeti with sightings and experiences ranging from wildebeest calving, herds of elephants walking through the fields of golden grass, prides of lions, cheetah coalitions and an intimate viewing of two leopards as they walked along a gully, I was asked to think about planning another safari.

Serengeti, February 2013

Marc and Barry have travelled extensively and particularly enjoy portrait photography, so we decided on an itinerary that would include the opportunity to photograph mountain gorillas in Rwanda, chimpanzees in Mahale Mountains National Park, elephants in Ruaha, and general wildlife in Ngorongoro Crater. When you are interested in photography, it is important to give it time. Most photos, especially of wildlife, are shot with an exposure that is smaller than one 60

th

of a second. It is an incredibly short period of time that is influenced by so many variables. It is essential to be patient and in doing so you increase your chance of experiencing and capturing that special fraction of a second.

Follow the links and enjoy some of those moments they captured.

Chapter 1: Gorillas in Rwanda

Chapter 2: Ngorongoro Crater

Chapter 3: Chimpanzees in Mahale Mts.

Chapter 4: Ruaha National Park

other galleries:

People in Rwanda

People in Tanzania

With both of them carrying very nice cameras, I decided to leave my big camera in my bag and opted to use my iPhone. I’ve noticed that phone photography is becoming popular and there are even courses at university level that you can take. The quick editing that some of the apps offer is also quite fun and easy to use.

The images and a video below were all taken with my iPhone and edited on Instagram- each tells a different story.

This little guy took interest in me and after posing for the photo above began a little performance.

They invite you to play.

Much of the wildlife in Ngorongoro crater is so habituated to vehicles that they hardly move from the road.

Greystoke Camp in Mahale.

Fishing for ants with tools.

You may have seen this pelican on youtube. The new camp pet provides quite the entertainment when you're not trekking the chimps.

Tuskless matriarchs are common in Ruaha.

The wet season in Ruaha can make game viewing a bit difficult but the landscapes are stunning.

 
Happy New Year
 

In my attempt to share experiences I find myself often writing trip reports that read a bit like a fill in the blank story. “I went to …., and I saw … Then I went to… and I saw …”. The wildlife viewing on the last back-to-back safaris was phenomenal. The list itself is impressive, but the experiences themselves were unbelievable. It seemed that every day topped the previous, and we couldn’t imagine how it could go on… but it did. I don’t want to get into the list, but I’ll write about a few select highlights.

Happy New Year- Day 2. Rubondo Island. Cats. Late for Lunch. An Unusual Hyena.

A Happy New Year!

As I opened the game viewing roof of my car at 5:30 a.m., a chilly wind sent shivers down my spine. Had I really convinced my guests to get up before sunrise on New Year’s Day? The sighting of 13 African wilddogs on a kill by other guests the evening before was enough to persuade me to enthuse my guests to get up for an animal they’d never heard of. After a quick cup of coffee, and with dawn quickly threatening over the horizon, we crept out of camp. A Kori bustard displaying the white of his under tail stood out in the darkness as I wove my car across the wildebeest migration trails along the edge of a large depression. Lappet-faced vultures roosting on Acacia trees stood out against the changing sky.

I stopped every few hundred meters and stood on my seat, elbows rested on the roof of the car, binoculars pressed against my face looking for a sign; the typical formation of wilddogs heading off on a hunt, the flash of white tail tips, panicking gazelle or wildebeest… something. A zebra brayed, and my binoculars scanned in his direction and caught a familiar trot that indicates danger. It was still a little too dark so I had to stare longer than usual to allow the opportunity for my eyes to adjust. But there they were. It is truly a beautiful moment and a nostalgic one for me which brings back memories of chasing wilddogs in Piyaya. What a thrill… my first wildlife sighting of the New Year was a pack of wilddogs.

Instagram

Few first time visitors to Africa understand the magic of wilddogs. Once common in the Serengeti, their population has struggled throughout Africa as a result of persecution from pastoralists and contact with domestic carnivore diseases. As co-operative breeders, only the alpha male and female breed The need at least 4, if not more, helpers to help raise their pups. Sharing their food through regurgitation and the constant reinforcement of the hierarchy through facial licking has made them vulnerable to diseases that can easily wipe out the whole pack.

The obligation to regurgitate, especially to feed puppies and dogs higher in the hierarchy means that the members of the pack generally get hungry at the same time. It’s predictable, and there’s usually a leader who sets off quickly followed by the rest of the pack. There’s no patient stalking and waiting like the cats, or strategic flanking like the lions. Instead it’s a bold trot in a loose arrow-head formation with no attempt to hide. It must be one of the most terrifying moments for a gazelle, impala, or wildebeest. The pace increases with sightings of prey and, once an individual is selected, can reach 60km/h, kilometer after kilometer. Prey has little chance, but it is exhilarating to follow.

We sat with the dogs for nearly two hours, watching them play, their curious nature bringing the younger pups closer to the vehicle. The alpha male guarded the female and I suspect that within the next couple months they will be whelping and the pack will grow by 8-12 puppies.

Piyaya puppies (2007)

 
Happy New Year- day 2.
 

It was the 2nd of January. The 1st had been amazing, and now we headed toward Naabi across the short grass plains. A rainstorm had soaked the soil and driving very cautiously, you could almost feel the vibrant green growth in the morning sunlight. Scattered across the plains were small groups of gazelle. Female Thomson gazelles moved around in little herds, male Thomsons actively tried to set up temporary territories, while Grant’s gazelles wandered around in groups, the males strutting their horns.

Meanwhile in a patch of slightly taller vegetation, a small group of females stood around, snorting the alarm.

One of the things we warn in guide training is not to jump to conclusions. As I stood in my seat scanning for the predator that they might be snorting at, I was not seeing what was really happening. Almost giving up, I looked back at the gazelle as one female turned, the front hooves and head of a baby protruding out of her rear. The pictures below say the rest. What joy!

Returning to the road, an unusual movement caught my attention as two honey badgers lumbered by. The day was getting better and better. It was nearly time for a coffee break. I love slowing down and allowing time to observe, even if there is nothing apparent to watch. After a good look with binoculars across the plains, I decided to stop next to a tree for coffee. A few minutes later as we packed the coffee bag away, a female cheetah with her two cubs stood up a few hundred meters away. Perfect timing? 

 
Cats
 

I’m still reeling over the incredible wildlife viewing I’ve had in the past few weeks, especially the cats. It’s not often that you get to see every cat in the book. The fixations on leopards, lions, & cheetah are understandable. They are called charismatic fauna, and on a well planned safari you have a reasonable chance to see all three, even if it’s just a glimpse. There are a few places in central Serengeti where it’s almost guaranteed, sometimes all in one day. But as you might catch on, I try to work on the periphery of these areas. I take the risk that I might not see anything, but the reward is also greater. The smaller cats are more of a challenge. Many people have never heard of a caracal, serval or African wildcat.

There’s always a little pressure to try to find the leopard. Leopards are elusive and also really hard to spot, so my ears perked up when, having just enjoyed a beautiful moment with a herd of elephants, some impala started snorting. It’s one of those triggers that get’s my heart pumping… somewhere, something has spooked an impala. They all stare in one direction, ears facing forward, some stamp their front legs, but the snort is unmistakable. Searching for signs of a leopard, you can imagine the surprise when a caracal gave his presence away by flicking his ears. 

 
Late for Lunch
 

Portrait

Being late for lunch has become a habit- not deliberately, but because of circumstance. Twice we found leopard close enough to camp that I’d already radioed in our arrival. The second time, we were even able to return to spend the afternoon alone with her. Two other experiences involved cheetah. Of all the cats, cheetah are known to be the least aggressive. Hunting by sight during the day, they also habitually climb termite mounds or sloping tree trunks to get a good vantage. On occasion, especially in areas with many vehicles such as Maasai Mara, they habitually use vehicles as a vantage. This happened for us, and the first instance with a cub made us an hour late for lunch, but the second made us 6 hours late for lunch.

A cheetah on my roof.

Heading back to camp for lunch, I stopped one last time to scan the plains for cheetah. It’s always that last scan that gets me in trouble. Sitting in typical cheetah pose was a massive male. His belly size told me he was hungry and as a diurnal hunter, I suspected he would hunt. As he posed for the photographers in the vehicle, I scanned for prey. Low on the horizon I noticed another cheetah.

With no hunt imminent, we decided to visit the new cheetah and drove up to what turned out to be a female. Within 30 seconds of driving up to her, she ran up to the vehicle, seemingly agitated, circled, and leapt onto the roof. She completed ignored our presence, we were able to stand and watch while she stared intently on the male.

She keeps him away.

Cheetah mating is rarely observed. A friend who studied them in Serengeti for six years only saw them courting once, so when our cheetah jumped off the car and took off toward the male, I knew lunch was inevitably becoming dinner. The literature describes cheetah mating with words like kidnapping, rape, and hostage. There’s a lot of dancing that goes on and despite running toward him, at about 400m she became cautious and laid down. He hadn’t noticed her, so she jumped back onto the car. His approach became a stalk which prompted her to take cover next to the vehicle. We sat for 3 hours Every time he would approach she would lash out at him until eventually he gave up and ran off. 

 
Ethan KinseyCheetah, Serengeti
An unusual hyena
 

There is controversy among hyena taxonomists as to the phylogeny of hyenids. The evolution of hyenas occurred in Eurasia about 20 million years ago and spread slowly through Africa until they established themselves in sub-saharan Africa around 11 million years ago. They fall into a sub-order of Carnivora called Feliformia along with cats, civets and genets, and their closest relatives, the mongoose.

Spotted hyena on the short grass plains.

Two hyena species- the brown and striped hyena- are the most closely related and share the genus

Hyaena.

The spotted hyena, who appears in the fossil record around 3.5 million years ago, is the largest of the hyenas and shares a niche similar to lions posing as one of the lion’s biggest competitors. Their strong stomach acid and reinforced skulls allow them to crush and digest even the largest of animal bones. However, silently lurking in the shadows of these large hyenas is a small hyena, so distantly related that some specialists argue it should belong to its own family.

The aardwolf (Proteles cristata), unlike its meat eating relatives, is a very specialized insect eater. Instead of the massive cheek teeth that the other hyenas have, the aardwolf’s are reduced to little pegs. An aardwolf’s sight, hearing, and smell are well developed allowing it to hear termites as they forage. Instead of the strong jaw-closing muscle of the other hyenas, the jaw-opening muscle is well developed allowing rapid opening and closing of the mouth. Extra large salivary glands, a tough tongue, and sticky saliva all help in lapping up termites.

An Aardwolf strains to defecate before heading out to forage.

Surprisingly, aardwolfs are not well adapted to digging as one would expect of a termite eater, but instead specialize on termite species that forage in the open. Using their ears to find their food, they can consume up to 300 000 termites in a day (1.2kg). Since termites, especially the soldiers, contain chemical defenses, aardwolfs have to feed on workers rapidly before the soldiers come out. Due to their feeding method of licking, aardwolves consume a lot of sand. A single defacation can weigh up to 1 kg (approx. 10% of its body weight).

Aardwolves are monogamous and territorial. Their territory size is determined by the abundance of termites- approximately 3 000 termite colonies in each territory with 55 0000 termites in each colony. Though living in a territory as a pair, they are occasionally promiscuous.

(Facts checked and backed from Lars Werdelin, Mammals of Africa, edited by Kingdon & Hoffman, Vol V. 2013)

 
Ethan KinseyAardwolf, Hyena
Rubondo Island
 

Rubondo Island Camp

Perhaps due to my desire to leave behind crowds and find my own way, my frequent decision to turn off the radio because I won’t be able to make it to a sighting anyway, or the romance of Robert Frost’s life defining road choice, I have really come to love roads and tracks with grass growing in the middle. I vaguely remember my mother sharing a nostalgic moment of loving the sound of the grass hitting the bottom of the vehicle and when I head across the Serengeti plains and realize that I may be the only person who has driven this track in weeks, I too feel nostalgic. I’m not talking the new tracks that crisscross sensitive areas because of recent repetitive use, I’m talking about the roads and tracks that have overgrown. In nature’s persistent and perseverant way, it continues to try to reclaim back its own.

The grassy runway.

An African Fish-eagle with it's prey.

The same feeling comes too, I guess, from flying across a large body of water, when after watching intensely cultivated islands and shorelines, there before you is a different island: an island forested with massive trees, and with extensive marshes protecting the shoreline, seemingly untouched. In truth, Rubondo Island was inhabited until 1977, so in the sense of the word pristine, it is not untouched but has returned to how it was. To me, it’s an icon of nature’s ability to recover. Even the airstrip that was reconditioned is covered in grass, and the rocky road to camp has branches and vine tendrils reaching out to block it as soon as it ceases to be used. Most of the animals are introduced: giraffe, elephant, and the elusive chimpanzee. But the really fascinating lifeforms on the island are the insects, the birds, and, if you’re like me, the trees.

It is a paradise, and on the last morning before we flew out, I slipped into a kayak alone, and paddled out on the glassy water to watch the sunrise. I will definitely be trying to go back!

Sunrise.