Aardvark to Zebra

Day 1

With renewed enthusiasm for a place that keeps ending up as my private playground, Saturday saw me back in Olduvai Gorge having a picnic on the 2-million year old lava and tuff. Having just spent a fascinating hour in the Oldupai museum, looking at the collection and reconstructions of skulls, bones and stone tools displayed at the museum, I cut brown bread with a stainless steel knife on a ceramic plate, poured cold white wine into wine glasses, and contemplated the advancement of tools and objects that may be unearthed millions of years from now. My mind was on evolution, changing landscapes, evidence, and the gaps of knowledge of the Earth’s History. I’d never noticed the photos of the Leakeys with dinosaur bones in southern Tanzania, but after an interesting conversation and a hyper link to a National Geographic Article, it had me wondering what was buried under the rock I was standing on between the deepest underlying rock (570 million years) of the Gol mountains and the 2 million year old basalt. How much do we really know?

Our journey continued, the same track I’d taken last week, but as always- never the same. The wildebeest migration is driven by their need for water and already, there were signs that they were preparing to moving back towards the permanent water sources in southern Serengeti. There was still enough grass on the plains that the wildebeest couldn’t resist, but their thirst kept driving them into never-ending lines as they made their daily trek to the last remaining water. We stopped in front of Nasera rock to watch a dung beetle rolling his prize to the random spot he’d bury it… slowly adding fertilized layers to the soils that covered the most recent tuff- of the last 30,000 years. The big picture can quickly overwhelm me- the uncomprehendable millions of years and the hundreds of thousands of years, to the near insignificant tens of thousands of years and all the interdependences, delicate balances, and implications that we’ve only really uncovered and documented in the last few hundred years let alone decades.

Take these figures for example- dung beetles roll away 75% of the dung produced in the Serengeti. The soil itself is 15-20% made up of dung beetle balls. Without dung-beetles the Serengeti wouldn’t support the nearly 3 million mammals.

Day 2 & 3

Hot coffee served from stainless steel French-presses set the morning off as we trolled out onto the plains. The wildebeest gathering as they headed towards the remaining water on the plains amused and awed us with their repetitive gnuing, their blank-stare faces, and the infinite numbers gathering on the plain.

This amateur video clip shows images of our morning game drive.

(apologies, due to slow internet I am having trouble uploading videos to this page)

I’ve posted images with captions of the rest of the trip and a video clip of lions feasting on day 3. The only thing I didn’t get a photo of was the aardvark that was digging in the road or the 11 lions we saw on the night drive. This time I don’t have words and I’ll let the images speak.

Day 4

These mother cheetah and her cub entertained us with a failed hunt before we said goodbye to the Serengeti plains and headed up through Ngorongoro back home.

Weekend away... (March 5th-8th 2010)

A picture is worth a thousand words, but what if you can’t capture that picture in a physical image without distorting it or failing to grasp the immensity and at the same time the detail of what your mind is seeing?

This weekend’s mission was to have fun, find a few hundred thousand wildebeest, to get back out into the wilderness, and a chance for me to show a few friends in the safari industry a quiet and amazing corner in the Serengeti ecosystem. It wasn’t three hours into the trip when the first fawn-colored wildebeest calves stood staring at us from next to their mother’s sides as we made a right turn off the main road and made our descent into Olduvai gorge. The river in the gorge was flowing but fordable and we picnicked as storm clouds darkened the sky and threatened a downpour that skirted us. Up out of the gorge we crawled and then made our way along a track that had grassed over, through some wait-a-bit thorn and then out onto the Angata kiti plains to Nasera rock. A coffee break, leg stretch and we were soon off again, cross country now, through the hundreds of thousands of wildebeest. Here’s an image for you- if you can imagine six guys on a weekend trip with a freezer full of beer, but all sitting in near silence on top of a Landcruiser as it drifted across the plains with the rolling green hills in awe of the vastness, the aggregation of wildebeest, zebra and gazelle, and solitude. We drove for a good 30km before the horizon in front of us changed from short grassland to a series of inselbergs, each with its rock-splitting fig in full leaf, and behind them an Acacia-woodland in which the camp was hidden.

I got stuck, I hate to admit it, but it was part of the trip hence part of the adventure. Only a few kilometers from camp I radioed that I would be in within the half hour and then took a gamble on a small stream and pulling out cheering at not having bogged down, slammed into a hole. Nothing we could do to jack the car up and get something underneath it was working so we settled down for an ice-cold beer and packet of cassava chips. As the sun set on our impromptu sundowner, we discussed the nine Aardwolf we’d seen- how many we’d seen before, and then how we’d all read about digging the spare-tire into the ground as an anchor for the winch when there were no trees around. Soon we were digging and with a small tug from the winch and a bit of wheel spinning the cruiser popped out of the hole. I’ll spare you the details but in the dark I sunk the car again, and one of the rescue vehicle looked even worse before it reached my car so we called it a night, and drove into camp with the second rescue.

The next morning we made easy work of our new winching technique and soon we were scouring the plains again, watching large herds of eland leap imaginary fences and bat-eared foxes dodge their way into their holes before emerging again to watch us, their satellite dish ears cocked for the slightest sound. Brunch knocked us out again, but by two we were raring to go. Fridge stocked we crawled back onto the plains in search of the ten cheetah we knew were around. Two is a bit too hot for action but we made our way towards a major drainage that flows into Serengeti, again through numbers and numbers of eland, zebra, gazelle towards a hillside that was so thick with wildebeest, they looked like ants. We gravitated towards a small clearing in the herd and combing the grass with our binoculars pulled out a hungry young male cheetah who obligingly got up and ran straight into the herd of wildebeest sending them scattering. We spent the afternoon with him as he posed for the camera and then made his was across the plains spotting a young Thomson gazelle. He gave chase again, another failed hunt, but the fun is as much in watching the chase as in the kill.

The option for Sundays should always include a lie-in, instead of moving at dawn we feasted breakfast in camp and then head off to look for fossils in a dry river bed. Over 7000 extinct species of mammal have been identified from fossilized bones in Olduvai, and it’s exciting to think that the fossils we were picking up are possibly the remains of species we will never see. We lunched on top of a hill to the gnuing of the wildebeest and then in post-lunch stupor drove the next 40km again, through wildebeest towards Ndutu. If this trip was about numbers of animals we saw thousands. Hundreds of eland, thousands of zerba, tens of thousands of gazelle, and a few hundred thousand wildebeest, but also exactly twenty two Aardwolf and one Striped hyena.

The Aardwolf is evolutionary one of the most interesting member of the hyena family. An insectivore, it feeds almost exclusively on termites and has lost the strong jaws muscles, and sharp carnascial teeth its cousins have and instead has pegs for teeth. It’s typically found in pairs or solitary and is generally active at night. The little hyena is also fairly neurotic and hard to photograph let alone see- so twenty-two in two days is a surprising number.

Ndutu was its usual gem, and we watched four-month old lion cubs playing in the dying evening light, watched a coalition of hungry cheetah “passively hunt” as Nick called it, and as we left were rewarded with the spectacle of nearly ten thousand wildebeest as they made a mad dash across Lake Ndutu.

Read Nick's blog entry on the trip: click here

National Geographic Expedition Feb 2010

Its not every day that you can get anyone older than a child to roll down a hill in the middle of a forest imitating a gorilla. Fortunately, the National Geographic Expedition I was leading had 14 exceptionally fun and different people and when the toddler gorilla decided to violate the 7-meter rule and tuck and roll down the hill, some of us just had to follow suit including the Bibi in the group.

I’m not writing a long entry on this trip but I am going to mention a few highlights. It was an honor to be asked by National Geographic to lead one of their expedition tours in East Africa. Read about the itinerary on their website.

There was never a dull moment on the trip, despite some long days packed with game viewing, Maasai boma visits, and the Olduvai Gorge museum. We even managed to find time to deviate from the main roads getting into the thick of easily a hundred thousand zebra on the plains, to sit and watch as a male lion posed on a rock scanning the plains for his pride, and to pick up a less known snake or chameleon for our expert, Bill Branch to brief us on.

The obvious first exceptional experience happened by accident when we noticed a particularly beautiful male giraffe with a pink object hanging from it’s shoulder. A white landrover with Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute (TAWIRI) sticker was inching its way forward as the giraffe appeared to be having a little bit of trouble staying standing. Through binoculars the thin rusted wire noose hung around its neck- a snare set by poachers. A quiet pop and another pink dart landed next to the other one and the giraffe struggling against the drug sat down. The vet’s threw a rope around him and then tried to cover his face and cut the snare from around his neck. Time was ticking and the pliers wouldn’t cut the wire, finally they managed to slip it over his head.

I managed to format my camera memory and lose the photos I’d taken of the safari part but made up for it in Rwanda. I don’t often take pictures of people but the kids performing the Rwandan traditional dance had so much energy invested- just look at their faces!