OnSafari: White Wizadry

OnSafari: White Wizadry

whitebaboonCan you see what we saw today?

Forgive my poor little sure-shot photo at 60 meters, and I’m sure my clients got much better, but I wanted to race to print with this. I’ve seen and photographed all sorts of unexpected animals: white lions, silver lions, white giraffe, the weird almost white zebra I wrote about last week, even a white wildebeest. But never though I’d see an … albino baboon.

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OnSafari: Kili Magic!

OnSafari: Kili Magic!

Kirsten Wede, John & Christina Massimini, Theresea & Brewster Johnson
Kirsten Wede, John & Christina Massimini, Theresea & Brewster Johnson
Easily more than 50,000 flamingoes graced our first game drive in Arusha National Park as we drove to Mt. Kilimanjaro.

The Wede Family Safari began in this remarkable little park hardly an hour outside northern Tanzania’s busiest and largest city. The park surrounds Mt. Meru, Africa’s 5th highest mountain, which towers over Arusha.

You won’t see a lion kill and you won’t see giant herds filling the horizon, but we did see lots of waterbuck, zebra, warthog, baboon and .. giraffe. The park is fondly nicknamed “Giraffic Park” because it has so many giraffe.

And there are great chances of seeing the uncommon black-and-white colobus monkey and rare red duiker, both of which I saw on my first visit this year a couple weeks ago.

It was hippos that most impressed the kids, I think; but it was the flamingoes that resulted in the most pictures from the adults!

It really is a beautiful sight. Both lesser and greater flamingo fringed the Momela Lakes, the crater lakes of the old volcano, and even spread into the shallower parts of the lake interiors. As John Massimini remarked, they’re most beautiful when flying.

It isn’t just the formation they form, but the beautiful pastel red flashing with the underwing white that’s so captivating.

Annika, Isabella, Ranger, Lucas & Magnus
Annika, Isabella, Ranger, Lucas & Magnus

As with my last safari we decided to use tracks from Arusha NP to our camp in west Kili, and like last time, we got lost! But it’s kind of hard to really “get lost” when a landmark like Mt. Kilimanjaro is shouting out.

This time it was probably a half hour delay, and I think well worth it, because we got to see what village life in Tanzania has become. And I don’t mean bomas with kids with runny noses:

I mean proper brick or concrete houses – albeit very small – in regular clusters arranged along the irrigation “stream” that a number of villages out here have cut to provide irrigation to this otherwise arid land.

Today we walked around the 11,000 acres of Ndarakwai Ranch in the foothills of Mt. Kilimanjaro. We saw zebra, wildebeest, warthog, eland, gazelle, mongoose, and tons of impala. The kids aborted the walk after a short while, and I called our rovers up to continue with them on a game drive.

While the adults climbed a hill with spectacular views. To the south was the incredible valley between Mt. Meru and Mt. Kilimanjaro. To the north was Amboseli National Park in Kenya. It was a landscape that was Big Sky awesome!

Babu Hans led the charge on the hike. He’ll be celebrating his 70th birthday soon, and this was the reason for his safari. When I told the ranger who was nimbly jumping ahead of his like an impala about Hans’ remarkable agility at 70 years, the ranger proudly told me he was 73!

I love this place, Ndarakwai Ranch, as a perfect way to ease into a safari. It has lots of animals, really comfortable and beautiful but classic not luxurious tents, good food, and fine staff. It’s not as wild and wooly as the big game parks we start to visit tomorrow, but the outstanding scenery is hard to match.

The perfect way to begin while people are still shaking their jetlag.

Tomorrow: Tarangire!

Let the Safari Begin!

Let the Safari Begin!

The safari calendar in East Africa resets each year at the end of November, and the news that has poured in from our safaris just keeps getting better and better. 2014 may be an exceptionally outstanding year for safaris!

The latest bit came from safari traveler Loren Smith traveling on a safari EWT arranged for the Cleveland Zoological Society. You can see Loren’s fabulous video above.

The first is the only disturbing one: there continue to be too many elephants, but let me get that single negative out quickly. I’ve been warning of a growing elephant conflict for more than a decade in East Africa. My blogs are replete with the problems and endless attempts at solutions.

The “elephant problem” has become a political problem in East Africa. Candidates for political office in both Kenya and Tanzania now often have planks in their platform regarding what to do about elephants.

My concern is that there will be overreach. And as I’ve often written, the exaggeration and bad analysis of the elephant poaching problem in the west isn’t helping.

But I can assure you that on safari the effect is nothing less than exhilarating as you can tell from Loren’s video. I show minute:second time points below in the video corresponding to my remarks:

0:10
Loren traveled in the last half of February, which over the last forty years of good climate statistics suggests should be much drier than shown in his first shots in Arusha National Park.

Typically the entire first half of the year is a wet season in northern Tanzania, but in February the precipitation abates at times almost completely. If you were planning your trip strictly by statistics, Loren’s video would have had little green in it.

Global warming has been changing this steadily for almost a decade, and as you can see by the green bushes, it’s not dry.

It’s hard for animals to be affected negatively by too much rain. But it definitely affects people, and that’s been one of the continuing stories in the equatorial regions of the planet as global warming progresses.

0:45
Tarangire is bit drier, which is always the case. Arusha is the wilderness around Africa’s 5th highest mountain and when it’s wet, it’s always wetter there. Tarangire is actually an ecosystem more similar to southern Africa than East Africa and is the only northern Tanzanian wilderness defined by a sand river ecology.

1:04
This lady has just eaten and washed herself off, which is why she is so close to the water in Silale Swamp. We can speculate about the three new lacerations on her hide. Two are just above her left hip and if you watch closely you’ll actually see a larger one on the far backside, middle of her left hip.

Lions gorge themselves when eating. Their very inferior molars are almost useless. They don’t chew much. They tear and swallow huge hunks of meat. A 400-pound male lion can easily chow down 70 pounds in a sitting. That extends the belly and makes it droop and is often confused in females as being pregnant.

So what caused the problem? We can only speculate but I think she was in a tussle with hyaenas, and the lacerations are the hyaena nips. In this area of the Silale Swamp there are four very grand males and for some reason they aren’t very welcoming of females. It could also have been a fight with the males.

Tarangire is actually where I think the best elephant experiences should be had, but Loren obviously had a fabulous one at nearby Lake Manyara National Park!

1:33
Notice the small tusks on this elephant, the legacy of the horrible years of elephant poaching in the 1970s and 1980s. As the video progresses we’ll see some better and longer tusks, because the elephant population is definitely on the increase and growing healthier.

Manyara was where the very first substantial elephant research was carried out in the 1950s by the famous Ian Douglas Hamilton. In those days there was no place on earth with as many and as healthy elephants as Manyara.

3:18
Junior here has a short branch in the back of his mouth. Elephant get a new set of molars about every ten years and like all good kids, he’s got to massage those tender gums!

4:36
What we see in Loren’s video is a large mass of transitory elephants: they’re moving through Manyara. They don’t live here as Hamilton’s elephants did in the last century. You can tell this by the way many multiple families are grouped together.

In a totally calm and balanced system, elephant families tend not to group. But when they’re on the move they do.

Tarangire provides a massive corridor to elephants south into central Tanzania’s great wildernesses of Ruaha and Rukwa. They move northwest from Tarangire into Manyara, and from Manyara they moved in very narrow corridors into Ngorongoro where they can then spread out widely into the Serengeti and Mara.

It isn’t that elephant are breeding so rapidly that their numbers are bulging. Poaching has been on the increase and the growth rate of the population is not high. But human encroachment is on a rapid increase, so their habitat is shrinking.

And more than ever, they have to move. Loren’s video is a magnificent documentary of this.

6:12
Until recently Ngorongoro Crater had the highest density of lion in Africa, but we need new studies since the rapid decline in lion was documented a few years ago. Even so, it is probably still one of the best places on earth to see lion.

These are two juvenile males, and despite their bravado they’re having a hard time. Look at their bellies and then look at their muddy feet. Lion like cats all over hate water.

Something was in the marsh that seemed like easy pickings, but they even missed that.

In a balanced population in the wild there are many fewer males than female lions. This is because so many young juveniles like these die of starvation. Unlike the sisters in their litter, they aren’t taught to hunt by the mothers.

But also unlike their sisters who usually remain with the mothers, the males are kicked out before they’re fully mature. A fully mature male is 50% bigger than a female, and nature’s way among lions to avoid inbreeding is to kick out the teenage males before they get as big as mom.

They have to teach themselves to hunt. Obviously enough learn, but these kids don’t seem to be doing so well. You might think what a pretty mane the one has. What I notice is their ribs and boney haunches. When the one starts to call, I think that’s a real hunger pain or possibly a pointless message to Mom for help.

7:50
The video ends in the central Serengeti and notice how wet the track is. Good for the critters to be sure. Not so good for the farmers.

Thanks Loren for an outstanding quick story of Tanzania’s wilderness in 2014!

On Safari: Never Discount Junior

On Safari: Never Discount Junior

There are few true big game reserves so close to large metropolitan cities as Arusha National Park, and it’s holding its own against an onslaught of peripheral farms and shops.

The park was exceptionally green and beautiful and lived up to its reputation for us as “Giraffic Park.” We probably saw 100 giraffe in the course of the afternoon game drive.

There are no cats, and elephants use it strictly as a corridor. We saw evidence of elephant but no animals. What we did see was the usual and beautiful groups of zebra, waterbuck and warthog, with the frequent peppering of lovely bushbuck in the sides of the forested hills.

But we also had a stroke of incredible luck and saw quite a few smaller forest creatures, including the spectacular colobus monkey with its gigantic white flowing tail. We saw a family of 20 grouped in a single tall tree in the distance – in the middle of a low bushland that I’m sure was of little interest to these strictly arboreal monkeys.

But perhaps they were enjoying afternoon tourist sightseeing!

And the grand find of the day was the red-flanked duiker. I personally haven’t seen one of these in Arusha for over ten years, and it’s just the type of species that is threatened both by elephants destroying the forest and human development on the outskirts.

We caught only a glimpse of it, but everyone in my car did see it, and it was really a joyous event recognizing that the forest is still holding its own. We also saw quite a few suni, another smaller but less endangered rodent/antelope and of course, the ubiquitous dik-dik.

But the farms are encroaching, and we literally drove on the edge of a corn farm on one side of the road and a meadow with giraffe and waterbuck on the other. There were regularly spaced new blue tents throughout the field, with machete armed lookouts to protect the crops.

That’s the challenge of Africa’s wilderness, today, to become relevant, meaningful and productive to African populations. Arusha’s holding its own, and it was a lovely first game drive in Africa for my clients.

And what’s more: never discount the little bits of wilderness that remain, either because the pressure to develop them is so large or because their size jeopardizes their being able to sustain real biodiversity.

The pressures on Arusha are enormous. And with extreme weather, like last year’s drought, I become certain that it won’t survive. Then the rains return and the wilderness flexes its muscle and shows us animals (the duiker) we haven’t seen for years.

Nature is resilient. That shouldn’t make us less vigilant, but we should respect and admire its own healing itself.

Arusha National Park is the perfect example of this.

Location,Location,Loc…

Location,Location,Loc…

Successful safari days have as much to do with where you’re staying at the end of the day, as what you’ve seen on your game drives.

We spent the last two days at Hatari Lodge in Arusha National Park. Some of my clients had been with me in Kenya for 6 days and others were just joining us. I was concerned that those who had already experienced great game viewing in Kenya might be a bit disappointed with the somewhat limited game viewing of Arusha National Park, but I was wrong.

“I never expected this!” Shelly Lazarus told me. Many of my clients are repeaters, but this was Shelly’s first safari. She was traveling with Ned Grossman, and this is his third safari with me, but Ned was equally impressed.

Hatari is located contiguous with the national park, a couple hundred meters from the park gate. It sits in the towering shadow of Mt. Meru with a huge 5-acre back yard which is a grassland plains usually occupied by buffalo and giraffe. Giraffe often wander right onto the pathways of the lodge to nip the juicy tips of the beautiful fever trees that landscape the lodge grounds.

Arusha National Park is a big game wilderness which surrounds Mt. Meru, Africa’s 5th highest mountain which rises behind Arusha town. There are developed farms all around the park so it’s almost impossible to take a game drive without seeing farm houses and workers in the not-too-distant horizon.

But the park is a beautiful rain forest with many small crater lakes that always have some wonderful bird life, often hundreds of flamingoes. We happened to be there when the flamingoes were breeding, so there were thousands of them. We found the rare turacos and gorgeous colobus monkeys in the dense forests.

Many of us joke that this is “Giraffic Park” because there are so many giraffe, because there are no lions. There are leopard, although fewer and fewer, and only a few night hooting hyaena. So the park is relatively predator free, and that allows the successful animals like giraffe, buffalo and bushbuck, to prosper.

I especially like the walks that are now well established and led by decent ranger/guides. Climbers take 3 days to summit Meru, but in 4 hours you can hike through some gorgeous rain forest and then step onto the lava field around the fascinating ash cone which finally ended Meru’s rain as a volcano in 1913.

Two of my clients, Illinois farmers, George and Nancy Halley, loved the walk but admitted that coming from the flatlands the 9,000-foot elevation did make things a bit slow going at times. In contrast, recently graduated Alison Eckenhoff who lives in Boulder, Colorado, didn’t miss a breath!

But what I realized this time was that the success of these two days wasn’t just the park, it was as much where the group stayed. Hatari Lodge is a beautiful creation of Joerg and Marliese Gabriel, who took a basic somewhat forgotten property and turned it one of the finest boutique safari lodges on the circuit.

The original property was part of the 1959 John Wayne film, Hatari. It was then a simple unused farmhouse. Fifteen years later it was turned into a very simple lodge by Stephie Leach and Baron Burt von Muteus. They called it Oldonyo Orok [“Black Rock” in Maasai, referring to towering Mt. Meru]. The Arusha couple didn’t market it very well, and it could never handle more than 16 people at a time when safari groups were normally in the twenties and thirties, so it remained something of a secret escape for smaller groups.

Several good American safari companies, like EWT and Mountain Travel, used the property extensively, but it was very basic. I remember having to caution my groups at the time about the “facilities.” A group of more than 10 couldn’t sit around the little, round dining room table that was squeezed into one corner of the single tiny public room. The tiny, tiny bedrooms each had a very compact shower and toilet, that “usually” worked.

But there was a beautiful long verandah that overlooked the current “back yard”, almost always with giraffe and buffalo. And to wake up in the morning in the shadow of gigantic Mt. Meru was worth any slight inconvenience in comfort.

Marliese and Joerg changed this in the early 2000s. They built on the Hatari theme, an extremely romantic and comfortable place to come after a hard day on safari. New individual and spacious bedrooms and large bathrooms were built, somewhat Art Deco and minimalist, but marvelously engineered by Joerg. The living room and bar are long and elegant and attached to the absolutely necessary outside verandah overlooking the game-filled “back yard.” Being contiguous with the park and without fencing, the animals in Hatari’s backyard are the animals in the park.

The secret Oldonyo Orok, spectacularly located which you paid for with a bit of inconvenience, became the masterful Hatari Lodge.

This is unusual in East Africa. The better and more comfortable lodges and camps are often not in good locations, as Hatari is. Throughout the normal safari circuits the properties in the best locations tend to be the mass tourism lodges rather than the luxury boutique ones. This is because the mass tourism lodges were the first built and understandably in the best locations for game viewing.

Luxury boutique properties came much later, well after photography safaris had been established. The original mass tourism lodges didn’t need to wow clients with gourmet food and stylish bathrooms. In the old days, the adventure of coming to Africa was so compelling you were awestruck just by the fact that your toilet actually flushed! Or that you even had one!

Today, there are more than twice as many boutique safari camps and lodges like Hatari as original mass circuit ones like the Sopas and Serenas. But in the vast majority of cases they came too late to get the best locations. Hatari is an exception.