Empakai to Natron

The Empakai to Natron walk has been on my to-do list for many years: one of those things that is on your doorstep that you just never get out and do. When, Ake Lindstrom from Summits-Africa, Frank Castro from Adventure International, and Gian Schachenmann, Tanzania’s ultimate drone photographer, decided to do a trip to make a promotional film, I jumped at the chance to join as a recce as it is known in the safari world- an abbreviation of the word reconnoitre. I was amused being on the receiving end of an itinerary and getting the list of what to pack, and like most guests of mine, I disregarded the list and packed what I wanted to anyway, except that I did succumb to the advice of my wife to actually wear hiking boots.

Not only was the hike through dramatic views, but it was also geologically fascinating. The hike started at Empakai Crater, a beautiful caldera that is about 7 km in diameter with a typical alkaline lake thats waters reflect the dark forested walls that rise up 980m from the crater floor, and whose shoreline is encrusted with the snow-white residue of the alkaline salts. The first campsite was on the rim of the crater in the montane forest. We woke in cloud, surrounded by beautiful Hygenias thats flowers hung like giant bunches of grapes and Giant St. John Wort bushes, a habitat I associated more with mountain gorillas.
Empakai crater
Crotalaria species on the descent path.
Descending from the 2500m altitude, we left the forest and entered the drier grasslands. It was the perfect trip to discuss the effect that water has on life. The fertile soils, refreshed with new ash from Oldonyo Lengai every couple of decades or so provide abundant grazing for the cattle, sheep and goats that the Maasai tend. The easily eroded light soil forms deep gullies running from the highlands and incredible canyons lower down. These porous soils drain water efficiently, therefore trees cannot establish themselves, yet as we descended we found ourselves in one of the canyons, surrounded by a beautiful yellow-fever acacia forest. It is initially a surprise as these trees dominate swamps, and this was no swamp. But it indicated water, and though we never saw it, there must be a high-enough moisture content in the soil for these trees to grow. This was the setting for our mid-way camp and that afternoon we climbed a steep knoll to look out across the view.
Roadside flowers
Oldonyo Lengai
At this point in the walk, the rift valley wall, an uplifted escarpment became more and more imposing, while Oldonyo Lengai, the active volcano, stood out against the sky. In the distance, other volcanoes rose out of the dust as if hanging in the sky: Kitumbeine to the east, Shompole and Oldonyo Sambu to the north. The Masonik volcanoes appeared tiny in the Angata Salei plains and if you squinted you could see the Gol mountains to the west, where in 2007 & 2008, Gian and I had watched Oldonyo Lengai send pyroclastic clouds 30 000 ft into the sky.

On the last day of the trek, we followed a well worn donkey trail used by Maasai who move between the weekly markets bringing corn from the highlands and taking back bricks of natron (Sodium bicarbonate) to mix with tobacco for snuff and to soften beans. We left the fever tree forest and as whatever moisture there was in the soil also disappeared, we found ourselves on a knife-edge ridge, devoid of vegetation except for a thick tussock like grass. One could imagine that this trail we followed had been used for transit for millennia between the fresh waters at Ngaresero on the shores of Lake Natron, and the crater highlands. After lunch in the shade of a ravine, we trekked the last couple of miles to the vehicles that were waiting. It was a quick drive to camp and we quickly settled into the natural pools with ice-cold beers, the sweat and dust washing off. Fish nibbled at our toes and we discussed the activities for the next day.

The donkey path with the rift valley escarpment on the left and Oldonyo Lengai on the right.
Wildebeest skull at the bottom of the valley.
One of the striking things about this area is how harsh and hostile it is. Windswept and barren mudflows, dry cracked pans, brittle volcanic outcrops, the caustic bicarbonate lake, and stark volcano not to mention wind and sun, yet there are oases where life flourishes. The mineral rich springs along the edges of the lake grow algae that feeds and provides shelter for abundant specialized fish and lesser flamingos. Invisible moisture supports Acacia tortilis woodlands that feed giraffe, and sheltered spots provide enough grazing for zebra, wildebeest, and Grant’s gazelle. One of the most beautiful oases is the clear water that flows out of the rift wall.
Dawn on the lake shore.
Lake Natron Panorama
The incredibly lush forest in an otherwise desert scrub environment.
The incredible blossoms of the Desert Rose.
Having played in the waterfalls and clear waters toward the mouth of the gorge, I had never been to the source of the river and a small group of us decided to make the trek. It was very different walking in flip-flops and often barefoot as we scrambled up the boulders, jumping into pools and showering in the natural waterfalls along the way. In many ways it was paradise.
Homo sapien tracks preserved in the calcrete. New dating places them 11,000 years old.

A Small Selection of iPhone Video Snippets from a Northern Tanzania Safari

A lot of people are surprised when I tell them that Spotted hyenas are actually very efficient hunters and actually scavenge an average of only a third of their prey in places like Serengeti. When they hunt, they are usually quite successful- especially when more than one hyena goes on the hunt. The statistic- 1 in 3 attempts if there are more than two hyenas. In this case, it was broad daylight and these hyenas took on this wildebeest in Ngorongoro Crater. After a significant chase they brought it down next to the road. 10 minutes later, more than 25 hyenas had arrived and all that was left was a bloody stain on the ground.

I caught this little clip of this beautiful male lion walking across the Serengeti plains very close to the Kenyan border. Lions spend so much time sleeping during the day that it is fun to just see them actually moving. With the wildebeest migration moving through the area, his pride was looking well fed. Watching such a perfect specimen is so rewarding- and knowing that he is safe deep at the heart of this massive National Park.

During the dry season June through October, the 1.5 million wildebeest in the Serengeti ecosystem head north into an area of the ecosystem that receives a much higher rainfall throughout the year than the more fertile soils in southern Serengeti. It’s during this period that the famous wildebeest crossings happen. This video shows them coming from the northern side of the river to the south. Their movements are based on local localized rainfall so it is difficult to predict. After a very successful full morning of game driving we decided make one pass along the river before heading back to camp, when we found this mass of wildebeest standing on the edge of the river. After uhming and aahing over whether to jump or not, they actually turned back, but were met by another group heading towards the river. Joining forces they finally stepped into the water and the crossing frenzy began.

This cheetah mother was very attentive while her cubs fed from a gazelle she had just killed. Cheetahs in general have a hard time raising cubs. Cheetah cubs are born hidden in “dens” and are fairly helpless. They are tiny and that first 4 months of their life are easily killed by lions and hyenas- 89% of cubs die during that time. Only 4-6% survive the first year- but what is quite intriguing is that success is not equally distributed among the females. Over half of female cheetahs in Serengeti never manage to raise a single cub to independence, while there are a few “super-moms” who manage to successfully raise litter after litter.

This last one is not a video- but an image. No safari would be complete without spending time with elephants. it is always so encouraging and reassuring to see baby elephants. Serengeti National Park is the only park in Tanzania that has seen a rise in the population of elephants. No one is sure whether this is because of reproduction or whether human pressures like poaching outside the park are driving the elephants into it. Grumeti Reserves, a former hunting concession has invested in efficient anti-poaching so hopefully these elephants are safe- unless they decide to wander back onto village lands.

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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.
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 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.