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
To see more images, follow my facebook page.

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 60th 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.


other galleries:

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.

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)

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. 

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. 




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.