As much as I love the wet season, there is no doubt that thirst drives great wildlife experiences in the dry season. The following images and videos were taken on a phenomenal ten-day safari in northern Tanzania at the beginning of September.
The beta silverback of the Nyakamwe group ponders our presence.
I give the head ranger the thick envelope of gorilla permits that I have. We speak in Swahili because his English isn’t great, and my French is poorer than his English.
“You want to do two gorilla treks tomorrow?” he asks.
“Yes, not just tomorrow, but everyday for 5 days.”
He looks at me, smiling. I can read in his face that he thinks this is crazy. Our conversation continues. There’s a phone call to his superiors. He calls another ranger and they speak too quickly for me to understand what is going on, but then he turns to me and says,“Ok. Don’t worry. Tomorrow I will come to the camp at 7:30. Be ready to walk far. This is the first time we have ever done this. I don’t even know if it is possible, but I will know how we will do this tomorrow.”
The next morning, we set off. One guest who has had knee surgery can’t walk the distance, so 12 porters are there, ready to carry her in a “kipoi”: a local basket stretcher. We trudge a long through the potato fields for the first two hours to the path into the forest with the most direct access to the gorilla group. The first group we visit is Bageni. This is the biggest group of habituated gorillas in Virunga at the moment with 22 individuals. Most gorilla families are named after their alpha silverback. After a successful visit, we head to Nyakamwe, a smaller family of 11.
Nyakamwe, the leader of a gorilla family.
Virunga National Park has eight families of habituated mountain gorillas, six of whom are within easy reach of Bukima Ranger post. Trackers and rangers go out daily to locate each group and check on all the individuals. Like humans, every gorilla has unique facial features as well as behaviour. The most obvious and easy to identify is the nose print. In our 5 days with the gorillas, there is no way to learn each individual, but as the week progresses, the names become less foreign, and I gain some insight into the dynamics of gorilla society. Their stories are saddened by tragedies involving assassinations and murder by rebels.
Jacques and Pierre, two dedicated rangers protecting gorillas in Virunga National Park.
One of the challenges of photographing gorillas is that you are only allowed one hour with a group per day. To get around this, we bought out all the permits for two groups, and negotiated permission to trek to two group per day. This would not expose the gorillas to more contact time than allowed but would allow us to double our photographic opportunities.
There is more to Virunga than gorillas. These beautiful ground orchids along the path in the forest.
Mawazo, the leader of Munyaga group watches us with a female and her youngster.
The parameters were fairly simple: organize a fun honeymoon. It doesn’t have to be ultra luxurious, but throw in a nice place or two, and sprinkle in a few special moments. So there are the organized special moments and the unorganized ones, and despite the concept of starting with our basic Wilderness Camp and ending with the beautiful honeymoon suite at Rubondo Island Camp, the wilderness experience set the bar high for the rest of the trip.
Like this elephant scene before we’d even got to camp.
A herd of elephant walk along the edge of Silale Swamp in Tarangire.
Or arriving in camp with this light, and a welcoming party of 200 zebra.
Our wilderness camp- a fantastic option for those who seek an exclusive experience but are less concerned about the amenities offered by luxury lodges and camps.
Or this leopard sighting less than half a kilometer from camp.
It had been a long and productive morning, but as we sat down for lunch, I heard a vervet monkey bark out an alarm. Instead of the all too appealing siesta after lunch, I hopped into the vehicle to investigate. It was hot and quiet but I found the vervet monkey in a fruiting fig tree. A bushbuck startled, and a few tsetse flies entered the car and began buzzing around in the foot-well of the driver’s seat. The vervet, who had been quiet barked again, but rather half-heartedly. Then out of the corner of my eye, I noticed dangling antelope legs in the top of an Acacia. Lifting my binoculars to my eyes, there on the branch I saw a beautiful leopard fast asleep in the tree with a young hartebeest that it has stashed.
This is what a tired cat looks like!
From Tarangire we headed up to Lake Natron, a special environment and perfect for things like swimming in waterfalls, watching the sunset with hundreds of flamingo in front of you, and flying over the dramatic landscape.
Incredible salt deposits on Lake Natron from the air in a ultra-light plane. Photo credit: Zac Peterson.
Honeymoons are supposed to have waterfalls in them right?
A beautiful setting for a sundowner with the rift valley and Oldonyo Lengai the backdrop.
I could easily stay longer, but with limited time, it was time to head to Serengeti for more wildlife. After the long drive we pulled into camp, and before the manager could finish his welcome briefing, two massive male lions began to roar not half a mile away. As you can imagine, we got back in the vehicle (with the camp staff, who couldn’t stop giggling) and followed the lions as they walked and roared into the darkness.
The Serengeti sunset makes for a special moment.
After a couple of full days of wildlife experiences we boarded a small plane to Rubondo Island. Rubondo Island and the Camp that Asilia manages offer such a different experience to the traditional savannah safari that I would love to include it in every itinerary. It was meant to be the finale of the honeymoon, the relaxation part, but as we met for drinks around the fire it was clear that instead of resting we’d be exploring. The next morning, before the sun rose, after a nice French-press coffee with hot milk and camp-made cookies, we set off for a dawn canoe trip along the shores of the island. It was beautiful: African fish eagles calling, hippos ducking away, a sheltered bay with hundreds of egrets, jacanas, and various stork species. We returned to breakfast, and the news that the trackers had found the chimpanzees.
Dawn kayak on Lake Victoria.
After little deliberation we asked for packed lunches and set off across the island to find the chimps. After an initial drive, we began to trek up a hill past one of the chimps’ favorite nesting sites to a “calling site” where the trackers listened for chimps calling. A rain storm had allowed the chimpanzees to slip away and while we tried to find them their silence meant it wasn’t likely that we would see them. Instead we wandered the trails, soaking up the forest, tasting fruit that was ripe, spooking bush-pig, and enjoying the bird chorus.
As we drove back to the camp, the radio crackled:
“Can you please ask if they still want to fish?”.
It was late in the afternoon, and the whole relaxation thing wasn’t going to happen.
“Yes, please get the boat ready because we won’t have much time”.
Not a bad ending to a day on Rubondo Island.
Deus smiled as we boarded the boat, there really wasn’t much time. Quickly showing the novice fishers how the rods worked we began to troll, the sun quickly dropping in the sky. “Zzzzzzz” went the line, “Fish!” said Deus, but we were too slow: 1-0 to the fish. “Zzzzzzz” went the line, “Fish!” said Deus. This time it was hooked. Reeling it in we could see it was a good size but then suddenly the line went slack. 2-0 to the fish. We laughed. Another bite, this time the fish did not get away and we’d caught our dinner. It was time to head back so we began to troll back toward camp. “Zzzzzzz” went the line, “Fish!” said Deus and we began to reel in our 4th bite, “Zzzzzzz” went the line, “Double!” said Deus…. and so ended the honeymoon.
Walking in Serengeti. Photo credit: Tom Kenny.
“[We] are interested in something that is a lot less comfortable, and involves a lot more hiking and camping…” was all I needed to put this itinerary together. Every guide I know of a certain personality and calibre will agree that being on foot is the ultimate way to experience wilderness. Wind direction and strength, the angle of the sun, the ability to interpret a bird’s call all become significant. In essence, it is also the test of a guide’s skill and guests’ discipline, because a small mistake usually means a cloud of dust and the screech of some tick-birds, followed by a few minutes looking at tracks on the ground and saying “A …. was here before it smelled/heard/saw us”.
Viewing hippos resting on foot- the ethical way is to leave them sleeping!
In pursuit of wilderness we headed to some waterholes in an area only frequented by a small group of guides in the know: a secret that’s existence relies on few people visiting. The first lesson in discipline came when a mother cheetah with four cubs came down to drink at the water. The excitement of the moment and gasps of awe gave away our presence and they quickly slunk away. It was a lesson that helped us into a beautiful sighting on the edge of another waterhole. The sun was high in the sky, and we’d covered 2 miles, very slowly, as we began an approach of a second waterhole. The heat was beginning to send the wind swirling as we quietly made our way around the Gardenia bushes. I could hear a flock of Vulturine guineafowl, a beautiful bird, beyond the bushes. We couldn’t scare them or they would warn everything around that we were there. A warthog trotted toward the water then turned to look at us; we all froze. As he approached a little closer, we remained motionless, barely breathing. A gap in the bushes allowed us to crawl into the view of the waterhole and we sat watching as the guineafowl took their turn drinking alongside the warthogs. An elephant came down, and we sat in silence as another and then another joined. After enjoying the elephants for a few minutes, we decided to retreat. It was quite thrilling knowing that they never knew we were there.
The wide angle of the iPhone camera doesn't do the distance justice. A small herd of elephant drinks while we watch quietly.
Our journey continued with a drive to the beginning of the Tarangire river. Camping on a bluff overlooking the drying river gave us great access to some of Africa’s finest walking. Elephants routinely come down to the river to drink, and the riverbank, termite mounds and large sausage trees gave us good cover to approach. Our goal always to leave the animals without knowing that we had been watching them.
Arriving back to camp from beautiful afternoon walk along the Tarangire river. What you can't see in the photo is that there were fresh lion tracks on top of our tracks from only an hour and a half earlier.
Lake Natron was next on the list, and we arrived hot and dusty to some cold beers and a dip in the natural pool of alkaline water, complete with white lipped tilapia that nibbled from between our toes. The Natron environment is really unique and I have written about it before …. One of the best ways to appreciate the landscape is from the air, so I organized for a friend, Zac Peterson, to fly in with his ultra-light airplane. Here are some images captured from the plane…
The next three days of the safari were spent walking in Serengeti National Park. Only a couple of kilometers after leaving the corrugated main road, we left behind the vehicle tracks and headed out cross-country to our first campsite of the trip. You know you are going to a remote camp when there is not even a vehicle track to get there. From then on, we would be on foot: camp would move about 5-8 km every morning while we walked following a tributary of the Grumeti river, arriving around noon in time for a cold beer and lunch.
The simple wilderness camp that moved while we walked.
We’d head off in the morning, reading tracks and signs and discerning what had happened overnight: fresh lion spoor - probably the ones we heard roaring at night, a leopard track, elephant coming down to drink at night, civet… the list goes on. By 10 a.m. it would be getting warm and we’d start to intercept animals coming down to drink. The entire walk teemed with game: giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, topi, hartebeest, eland, buffalo, impala, baboon, vervet monkeys. Wildlife would come by camp, and on the second day after lunch we found a beautiful lion and two lioness feeding on two young buffalo calves they’d killed. We decided to approach by vehicle so as not to disturb their lunch. At the last camp, at least 50 elephant came by while we were having lunch. Afternoon typically consisted of a shorter stroll arriving back in camp to watch the sun go down, have a hot shower, and enjoy a cold Gin-tonic, Kentucky mule, or beer by the fire.
As water sources dry up in southern Serengeti, more than 1.5 million wildebeest begin to make their way north toward the permanent river called the Mara. While the exact arrival is dictated by the extent of the drying and rainfall in northern Serengeti and Kenya’s Maasai Mara, they usually arrive in mid-July. Again, depending on where the greener pastures are, they move back and forth across the Mara river, in and out of Kenya, following the sporadic thunderstorms.
Us watching as thousands of wildebeest plunge into the river below us. Photo credit: Pietro Luraschi.
We arrived at Singita Mara Camp, by far the most luxurious camp in northern Serengeti, on the 3rd of August. The herds had already crossed the river heading north, and some were making their way back across. Just the sheer numbers of wildebeest was incredible as we slowly drove the northern bank of the river looking for an aggregation that looked to cross imminently. Patience, patience… but we didn’t need much as we found a group many thousand strong gathering on the banks of the river. The milling back and forth, the reluctance of the wildebeest- whether it is fear of the cold rushing water, or fear of the crocodiles submerged with only their eyes and nostrils above water, I do not know, but it adds to the excitement (and sometimes frustration).
Here is an amusing cartoon about it. When they do start to cross, it just goes and goes and goes until there are no more wildebeest left. The energy is incredible. Then it stops and the milling resumes, this time, mothers looking for their babies and babies looking for their mothers.
(The video below shows what we were seeing)
This could be your private lunch banquet in the Serengeti plains.
Of course, there is more to the Serengeti (and northern Tanzania) than the migration so we also included a couple days in Tarangire National Park, where there is a daily migration of elephants to the permanent water sources. The landscape is also different with the typical red African soils and eccentric Baobab trees that dot the ridges, offering a nice contrast to Serengeti’s woodlands and plains.
This is a classic Tarangire scene. Elephants walking into the sunset with a magestic baobab tree in the foreground.
The following photos are all taken with my iPhone on three safaris through the northern Tanzania, with Serengeti as the feature.
I'll start with a photo of the guides who co-guided with me on the trips. It is common knowledge that the guides make a trip, they keep you safe, host you, and give deeper insight into the wildlife and ecology of the savanna. With no more than four guests per guide we keep a ratio that ensures everyone gets the right amount of attention. Thank you Robert Tarimo and Paul Oliver.
The theme of many of these photos could be about big sky. This male giraffe seems dwarfed by the plains and sky. Since I only use my phone for photos, I don't use any zoom. This photo was taken en-route to Asilia's Namiri Plains Camp. Because of my previous work for Asilia, I am one of few guides allowed to drive in the camps where they normally only want people guided by their guides.
Again- the skies in the Serengeti provide this impressive backdrop fro wildlife viewing. This photo was taken on Christmas day. If you look carefully you can see one of the vehicles (driven by Paul Oliver who guided with me on this trip) to the left of the big rock kopjie. You can't see the lions they were watching.
Without using a zoom you'd have to be in a park with very habitated black rhinos to get a close up just using a phone. This is a black rhino and her calf only a few hundred meters from where we camped. Unfortunately rhino poaching still continues and there are very few rhino that are still left in Serengeti.
I'm often late for lunch- and on this occasion we were nearly back in camp but found this pod of hippos basking in the sun along the banks of the Mara river. While things are getting busier every year, this part of Serengeti is very quiet outside of migration season and while some of the animals are harder to find, it is a great place to be alone especially.
An elephant herd feeding along the main road at Bologonja. While flying between camps is often the most efficient way to maximize the wildlife experience, driving the vast distances does give you an understanding of the vastness of the ecosystem.
This old male lion was pretty beaten up but still trying to keep up with the pride. When the wildebeest move out of the north, lion prides that have had it easy suddenly find their territories tight and must venture further to find food and keep alive. This often leads to territorial fights between neighboring prides. Prides often divide into subgroups that are easier to feed, but this creates issues for the males who now risk their lionesses running into nomadic or roaming males.
A picnic breakfast in the Serengeti can be a 5-star buffet or a tailgate affair as below... as long as there is hot coffee I'm fine.
The choice of accommodation is yours. Do you want the ultra-luxury that Mwiba or Singita properties offer or would you rather keep it simple as below. For me, safari should be about the wildlife experience and the landscapes. With good guides, the experience you have at either the luxury or the simple camps will be very good.
Cats on rocks... doesn't get much better than this. It was pretty hot in the morning but with 15 cubs, these lioness were hungry. We found them walking along the road before they climbed onto these rocks to get a better view of prey in the long grass.
As a guide who spends most of his time in the classic savannahs of Tanzania in some of the world’s most wildlife rich national parks, the DRC offers a very contrasting but equally stimulating experience
A few iphone photos of the incredible vegetation on Nyiragongo.
Among the incredible life forms are these Boulenger's pygmy chameleons. A rare and special find.
There are few places in the world with as spectacular and diverse landscapes, habitats, and wildlife as Virunga National Park. Laid out along 300km of the western arm of Africa’s Great Rift Valley, it spreads from Lake Kivu through volcano fields (two of them still active), past Lake Edward and the equator, past the glacier-covered Mountains of the Moon, and ends eventually in the Semliki valley to the north. Such diverse geography lends itself naturally to diverse habitats home to an incredible variety of mammals, birdlife, and other lifeforms.
Getting up at night to watch the lava lake bubble and dawn arrive.
From a geological perspective, Virunga’s features are all very recent additions. 30 million years ago, pressure underneath the African continent caused by a series of plumes of magma forced it to bulge and effectively crack spreading southward from the Red Sea as far as Mozambique. As the rifting spread south, it reached a particularly resistant rock formation known as the Tanganyika Craton where it diverged into two arms forming what is now known as the Albertine (western) Rift and Gregory (eastern) Rift. It wasn’t until 12-13 million years ago that the first volcanoes began erupting in the Virunga region, although the 8 most prominent peaks are all younger than 2.5 million years old. Two of the 8 are still active to this day. The other six are no longer active and their forested slopes are home to some of the last remaining Mountain gorillas (Gorilla berengei berengei). These large and gentle primates complete the montage of charismatic African wildlife and complement the East African savannah experience.
This short time lapse of Nyiragongo's lava lake in the morning shows its mesmerizing power.
Critically Endangered, there is an estimated population of 480 individuals and growing found in the three national parks that encompass the Virunga Massif (Bwindi National Park in Uganda is also home to a population of about 300). The area that the Mountain gorillas occupy is a very small range of about 450 km2 in the montane and bamboo forests of the Virungas. At present there are 8 habituated gorilla groups in Virunga National Park.
All of these photos and videos are on Instagram @tembomdogo and higher quality.