Volcanoes, Wildlife & Adventure

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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 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.

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--> 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.

Walking In Ruaha

If you've read previous posts you will know about the guide training that I have organized and worked on in Ruaha National Park. Here's a link to an article published in Africa Geographic.

http://magazine.africageographic.com/weekly/issue-3/a-walk-on-the-wild-side/

A group of rangers watch elephants from a safe vantage point- can you spot them?

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

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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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