Spring in Ruaha

Same baobab tree, 11 days apart, slightly different angle.

Ruaha is just that far away that it doesn’t make it into enough of my safari itineraries. This year I was fortunate to have two back to back safaris in Ruaha, giving me two weeks in the park at one of the best times to be there.

I’ve written about Ruaha in other articles about walking safaris or exploring the more remote areas of the park. However over these two weeks, most of the time I spent was in the core area- a triangle between the escarpment, Mdonya River, and Great Ruaha River. Being the end of the dry season, water had ceased to flow in the Ruaha and elephants, warthogs, zebra and baboon dug in the sand rivers to get at the cool water that flowed beneath the sand. The predators staked these points out, waiting in ambush, for whatever prey overcome by thirst would venture too close without a careful scan.

Within a few days of me being there, the rains came. Big, violent thunderstorms that brought with them relief. Change was overnight. Areas that had been doused with water began the transformation into an emerald paradise. Fragile buds pushed through the soils crust, the tips of dead-grey branches began to bud, while other plants threw sprays of fragrant blossoms that filled the air with the scent of jasmine.

The following images and videos were all taken with my phone (for more and better quality follow me on instagram @tembomdogo

video
A herd of impala resting in the shade.









Combretum longispicatum blossom.
A delicate Ribbon-wing lacewing is our dinner guest.
Magic.
Scadoxus multiflorum is a great Latin name for this Fireball lilly.
The incredible light- what you can't see is the fragrance of jasmine that was drifting in the air from the blossoms of this bush.
Fresh growth on Combretum apiculatum.
Sesamothamnus blossom- another fragrant beauty.
Lillies on a walk.
You have to get out and walk to find this baobab tree that is growing out of a rock!
Never smile at a crocodile- unless you're a Ruaha lion that specializes in hunting crocodiles. 
video

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.

Follow me on Instagram!