Perfect Safari?

This post is about a safari that happened at the end of February and beginning of March. Having been away from home for nearly 3.5 months things have been hectic in the office and as a result it's been difficult to sit down and write this blog. Tomorrow I head to Tarangire for 4 weeks of practical guide training with a group of great guide candidates. Things have been hectic as I coordinate and advise training that over 160 guides in Tanzania will participate in one form or another. These are exciting times in Tanzania... but more on that later. 

I have selected moments of the last safari to write about, rather than the whole thing, although if one wanted a perfect itinerary, it wouldn't be pretentious to say this could be it. 


Experiencing Serengeti

Part 1

The Short Grass Plains (Day 4 & 5)

We pulled into our camp set up on the edge of the short-grass plains of the Serengeti, laughing over the rocky road wondering how close we were to the end of the world. We were the only guests in camp, a camp I love and have stayed in numerous times in a small concession called Piyaya. There’s a lot more to a camp than the equipment and food that the chefs can produce, and I love this 6-tent camp partly because it’s always just beyond where everyone else goes. Few agents can use it because the experience won’t fit into the predictable boxes of what they can safely sell. I like it because it opens up the opportunity for spontaneous experiences- another thing agents can’t sell and safaris many guides hate guiding. But for a few of us, this is what we love.

The VHF radio crackled and I could just make out the voice of a good friend and guide- Masenga.
Baado niko nao”. (I’m still with them)
Goodluck, another Maasai guide, explained;
Yuko na mbwa”. (He’s with the dogs)

I hadn’t told my guests about the dogs because I get animated when I talk about them and if we hadn’t found them it would have been a huge disappointment. It had been a long day, but guests or no guests, I was going to see the dogs. Postponing the hot bucket showers that were being hoisted up behind the tents, we set off in Masenga’s direction.

In my experience, African wild dogs typically sleep until 6 or 6:30 p.m. before they begin a ritualized and joyful waking up ceremony which involves chasing each other around, begging for food, reestablishing social positions and then a hunt. It was actually a ritual that established one of my own rituals when I worked in Piyaya with Masenga which was to depart for sundowners on a hill around 5:00, glass the wildebeest covered plains with binoculars until the dogs emerged and then follow them as they chased wildebeest across the plains.

Hearing Masenga’s voice on the radio brought back those memories. We set off and the video explains the rest.
video 
day 2 and more on facebook
African wild dogs, also known as Painted hunting dogs, are rare. There are fewer wild dogs left in Africa than Black rhino, though no one really knows for certain how many there are. While the loss of wild dogs in Africa is primarily due to land encroachment, they have also suffered at the hands of revengeful pastoralists and game managers who once considered them vermin and would shoot them on sight. They are not feral dogs, and although they belong to the same family as dogs, they belong to their own genus called Lycaon. Dogs, wolves and jackals belong to the Canis genus.

Wild dogs are considered the most efficient hunters on the savannahs and in the miombo woodlands. Hunting cooperatively in packs, they take down prey from the size of hares to wildebeest and zebra. Showing unbelievable endurance, they can run at speeds of 60 km/hr for extended periods of time, wearing their prey down. They catch more prey than any other carnivore especially on the grassy plains of the Serengeti, where they hunt without the tense stalk of the cats, and instead just rush into the herds of wildebeest.

African hunting dogs are particularly interesting in their version of cooperative breeding. Individuals in a pack live within a rank system with an alpha male and female at the top who dominate breeding. Rarely do other dogs in the pack get the chance to breed and if they do they risk losing the puppies to the alpha. The alpha female may have up to 16 puppies that are born blind in a den and begin to emerge after about 2 weeks. This is a taxing time for the other dogs that cannot range as far as normal but must return to the den to regurgitate food.

As I write this, I have received news that the alpha female whelped and two days later lost all the puppies when torrential rains flooded the den.

Having had a wonderful experience with the wilddogs, we set off across the plains through the hundreds of thousands of wildebeest in the direction of Ndutu. Having been alone at the previous camp, it took some time to get used to other vehicles again, but we were rewarded with some great sightings including a cheetah with her 4 small cubs. 



Part 2.
Northern Serengeti

Rounding the Serengeti experience off, we flew to Sayari camp to finish the safari part of our trip alone again. Having spent three weeks there with Nick Brandt (read here), I was eager to find the lions that I’d written about and see how they were doing. Our first drive took us up into the Wogakuria kopjies where we found a leopard and his mother and spent the afternoon watching, photographing, and sipping wine.


Taking advantage of being alone in the area, and the freedom that comes with it, we were up early the next morning and ventured a little further afield with a packed breakfast in the hope of finding black rhino. The only evidence of rhino we succeeded in finding was rhino tracks and the rhino had obviously retired into the dark shade of some riverine thicket where we couldn’t follow. Instead, a courting lion couple allowed us very close.

The landscapes in this region of the Serengeti are stunning and we spent a good portion of the time driving around remarking at its beauty. The wildlife was a bonus, and by the end of the few days there we had seen lions hunting, cubs playing, lions mating and on our last night were rewarded with an iconic view as 9 lioness walked off into the sunset.



Part 3.
Gorillas.

I’ve now written quite a few articles on visiting the gorillas and without using pretentious vocabulary, it remains one of the most powerful wildlife encounters.

The tourism warden joined us for drinks the evening before our trek and we were fortunate to be able to hear first hand about the struggles of managing the national park, but also how important tourism is for conservation.



Requesting a relatively easy group to see, we set off from the car park through the potato fields to try to find the Agashya group. As usual, trackers had already set off in the morning and as we came close to the National Park we were surprised to see the trackers sitting on a rock only a short distance from the famous rock wall boundary. We were quickly briefed on the etiquette of gorilla watching, and were then interrupted by a young gorilla feeding on the wall. After a half hour of watching the gorillas in the forest within sight of the wall, they all moved out of the forest and proceeded to gnaw on eucalyptus bark. It was the clearest I’d seen them and interesting to watch them out in the open.

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