OnSafari: The Leopard Stalks

OnSafari: The Leopard Stalks

Photograph by Mariam McCall
Photograph by Mariam McCall

The Manyara forest was thick and opulently green after several weeks of sometimes heavy rains. The leaves on a dozen kinds of giant trees were newly green and spread wide opened, glazed as if waxed. Where there had been dust in the road there were now numerous puddles and muddy ruts with fresh, ginger-like smells.

A family of about 150 baboons wouldn’t even leave the track as we came along, so confident were they of their place in that blossoming jungle.
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OnSafari: keeping it an Adventure

OnSafari: keeping it an Adventure

Ladd, Sophia and Evan inside a baobab tree! One of the many big tuskers we’re seeing more and more! Thousands and thousands of birds on Manyara!
Ladd, Sophia and Evan inside a baobab tree! One of the many big tuskers we’re seeing more and more! Thousands and thousands of birds on Manyara!

The struggle to retain a real adventure spirit in safaris, today, is no better illustrated than in our experiences in Tarangire and Manyara.

Tarangire is the best elephant park in Africa, period. The population is healthy, increasing in numbers and so the only controversial question is are there too many elephant here?

So everyone wants to come here, and that means “crowds.”

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OnSafari: End of the Game?

OnSafari: End of the Game?

erraticWetDryBPI suppose as we age the accumulation of changes so untethers us from our foundations that it seems apocalypse is right around the corner. Nevertheless, this safari truly makes me wonder if African wilderness will be around much longer.

I remind myself that in 1979 Peter Beard published a best-selling book, The End of the Game, and his predictions couldn’t have been more wrong. There was not the near total collapse of the wild animals in East Africa he predicted, but in fact a tripling of the animal populations.

So I’m hesitant now to render a similar prediction. Few knew the East African wilderness as well and intimately as Peter Beard. Few were as moderate or unopinionated as him.

Yesterday we left the crater for Lake Manyara National Park. The crater was enormously stressed, but not by the customary impacts of a normal dry season. This was a much different dry season, one framed by the extremities of climate change.

The single-most easily observed effect of climate change in East Africa is the severity of micro-weather cells. The crater like the Serengeti was severely dry, more so than normal. But the areas hardly a few miles away in the higher elevations of the crater rim and Karatu butte were soaked. Not so much by current rain (although there has been some unusual showers) but by the floods of the last rainy season which went on nearly a month longer than normal.

Drop back down to Lake Manyara and the desiccation of the veld was as bad as the Serengeti or the crater floor. Yet the lake itself is massive. Rivers flowing into the great lake itself are so strong that tracks I used in the rainy season in March are now under water!

All this because the higher elevations – a soaked micro weather cell – continued to drain off the unusually wet season.

Grass on the veld doesn’t grow because a nearby river is flowing, but it does mean that a normal light shower provides just enough moisture to bloom grass on that desiccated veld: I guess the best way to explain this is that despite an unusually hot, dusty and dry veld, an unusually high water table supports grass growth at the slightest encouragement.

We saw ridiculous numbers of baby buffalo in the crater. (Buffalo eat very little of anything but grass.)

We encountered so many giraffe in the Serengeti around lakes Ndutu and Masek that 8-year old Donovan began each game drive by announcing, “I guaranteed you we’ll see giraffe.” Masek and Ndutu were unusually large for the same reason as the crater lake and Manyara: heavy continuing runoffs from the nearby highlands.

Giraffes main food are the leafs of the acacia tree. Deep rooting acacia trees tap easily into a high water table. The acacia near all these lakes are leafing anew and even blooming, something not normal before November.

More than a hundred elephant around Lake Masek, dozens in the crater forests, and yesterday, almost a hundred elephant in Lake Manyara is not something I expected to see, now. There were many babies, and elephant abort at the slightest indication of a drought. Elephant are the most voracious consumers of vegetation on earth. They can easily move great distances and they don’t remain in areas without food.

So why sound the alarm?

Elephant, buffalo and to some extent giraffe, easily move great distances and fairly rapidly. Other animals don’t. Impala are home-bodies, with family collections rarely shifting far. Hippo might travel ten miles a night to eat, but they don’t easily adjust their territories, returning to the same river bed or lake each morning.

We normally see hundreds if not thousands of impala on a normal safari. I think so far we’ve counted 35 or so.

The first four hippo we found were frozen dead in the dwindling waters of the Seronera river, their hides already cracked wide opened and storks already picking into them.

All the 20 or so hippo we saw in the crater were crammed into the single lake at Lokitok with none in other normal areas like the well-signed “hippo pool.” At the famous hippo viewing area in Manyara we saw only a couple hippo and they were all very sick, their hides chalked with salt.

Could it be that only those animals capable of rapid shifts in territory will now survive? There’s more water than ever, but it comes as torrential rains in shorter intervals into smaller areas followed often by severe heat and drought.

Animals that can react to these anomalies might not just survive but prosper. Those that can’t will die. But the matrix that emerges will be radically different from the one that has existed all my career until now. Can the ecology retool and resync this fast?

My gut says no. But then so did Peter Beard’s almost a half century ago.

OnSafari: Wild is Unpredictable!

OnSafari: Wild is Unpredictable!

lionintree.manyara.ckordash.648.14aprLions don’t climb, hippos aren’t in Tarangire, vervets hate thorns, and guides know it all. Just a few of the things disproved so far on my safari!

Apologies for the big delays between blogs, but Tanzania is in something of a data congestion at the moment. Reports from businesses in Dar and Arusha are all complaining of the slow internet signal.

It’s not the weather, which is beautiful and quite normal, nor nearby conflicts, because except for distant Burundi there are none. So common wisdom is probably true: there are suddenly just too many people trying to use to few satellites.

Common wisdom, though, would not hold much rank on the McGrath family safari. Today in Lake Manyara National Park we saw two near-adult lions in an acacia tortilis tree sleeping their lives away until we arrived.

They were draped over the branches like wet laundry hung out to dry. We watched them for a while until another car came up at which time one of the lions got nervous and teetered down quite ungracefully.

The last one tolerated 2 or 3 more cars before she finally took to the ground, too. So what’s all this about lions not climbing well?

The truth is that lions will climb trees everywhere, if it’s the right kind of tree: fantastic Manyara is filled with so many different kinds of trees there are plenty with the requisite low horizontal branches that will tempt this largest of the cats.

But you can tell it’s a real balancing act, because they never seem completely comfortable up there. But unlike their many cousins on the savannah, their views on the ground are obscured by Manyara’s thick vegetation, so anything that gives them height gives them comfort.

Manyara was great in several wonderful ways, today! The lake is pretty full, so the hippos are plenty. The wind was down, the morning not too cold, and we first watched for a good long time at least a couple dozen silvery-cheeked hornbills flying around and cackling madly.

This is the largest of the hornbills in Tanzania and true dinosaur looking bird!

Grandma Cindy asked if there were any malachite kingfishers, and a few minutes later as we headed to the platform overlooking the hippo pool, we saw two! Also saw lanner falcon, long-toed plover and a bunch of other stuff.

Manyara is baboon heaven, but otherwise I never expect Manyara to be a memorable animal experience. Yet we added to the lions-in-the-tree, 15 minutes literally immersed in an elephant family of 13, and the truly beautiful lake shore landscapes covered with giraffe, wildebeest and zebra.

I even glanced a klipspringer as we were leaving. Manyara was a much better animal experience today than I would expect.

The last several days in Tarangire were classic. The park is absolutely the best elephant park in all of Africa, and it gave us opportunities to learn to distinguish between healthy elephants, lone elephants, sick elephants … elephants that were agitated, and so forth.

The northern half of the park has the more docile and approachable sedentary elephants, whereas the south half of the park usually has more temperamental and transitory ones. Only this time I felt they were pretty calm in the south.

It could be that just over time the homesteaders are arriving. Or it might be that the transitory folks were just coincidentally absent, giving entry to the over crowded north. Either way it was an astounding experience for us.

That is except for Hakon and Alden on the way to their Tent #1 at Little Oliver’s, unable to do so because the elephant wouldn’t leave the path.

I think the manager, Julie, did exactly the right thing. Took a truck down the path and let the guy know he wasn’t welcome. Far too often camps try to cultivate wild animals, and it never ends up well.

We had a chance this time to visit the far southwestern side of Silale swamp, and that was a real treat. Lemala has put a semi-permanent camp down there and the tracks are being better maintained.

It gave us an opportunity to see larger numbers of Grant’s gazelle and hartebeest. If there is any drawback to Tarangire it has been the uniformity of its wildlife experience: almost exclusively elephant and giraffe. The new tracks in the south now will broaden its appeal.

Finally, too, as we were leaving we stopped at a water hole in the Serengeti Plains. We’d already spent probably hours watching elephant frolicking in water, but here they were frolicking among very angry zebra definitely not pleased with their arrival.

It was a wonderful interaction that ended when the Mommy elephants finally got the youngsters to leave the swimming pool and the zebra came down to drink. A wonderful end for us in this marvelous park.

Stay tuned! We’re on our way to the crater!

Excessive Force

Excessive Force

RangersGunManyaraNot just in Dallas or Cleveland, “Excessive Force” is a top news story in Tanzania where four Lake Manyara park rangers were arrested last week.

The rangers got into a confrontation with herders bringing cattle into the park, which is illegal.

The rangers tried to impound the cattle for trespassing on national park lands, then claimed that up to 30 villagers attacked them with traditional weapons provoking them to fire modern weapons in self-defense.

Several villagers were wounded, and one 34-year old man was killed.

Only the Arusha police commissioner issued any statement and that simply that four of the rangers were arrested for using excessive force. Tanzania national park authorities issued no comments.

East African media, though, unlike here at home was reluctant to publish the story. One of Tanzania’s smaller, independent newspapers published it only on its on-line edition, which when I checked this morning had received less than 400 views.

The reporter discovering the story, Hazla Quire, resorted to filing his news through friends on Facebook: John Mrosso: June 6 posting.

By the end of last week only the Chinese news agency, Xinhua, had picked up the story and distributed it in East Africa but notably not in China.

Incursions by local herders into national park lands are increasing throughout Tanzania as the competition for good grazing increases. It’s particularly stressful during times of drought.

I was in this remote part of Lake Manyara National Park in April, and we saw several small herds of cattle in the deep forests just after the park gate about 10k west of &Beyond’s Tree Lodge.

The private lands leading up to the gate are relatively prosperous by village standards in East Africa. Densely populated the farms here produce several types of grain and a lot of rice irrigated by waters related to Lake Manyara.

But there had been an intense although short drought in February. I think the rice was doing OK but the grains were stunted. Heavy rains had just begun and several farmers were trying to plant all over again, their normally planted first-of-the-year crops lost.

Herders were suffering more, because it takes only a few weeks of drought before all available private grassland is grazed out. As this happens more and more with climate change, grassland rejuvenation is trumped by the erosion that occurs with the first rain.

Whereas inside the national park wild animals have achieved a balance with the grassland that is more resilient to a drought. It takes only a few days of rain and the grasslands inside a national park begin to rejuvenate.

East African park rangers are among the better educated, better paid security forces in the country. Consider that regular police often miss paycheck after paycheck. This isn’t the case with park rangers who are heavily subsidized by foreign NGOs.

They are also well armed and otherwise well equipped and well trained. Like police here at home, their actions are being captured on mobile devices and provoke the debate over “excessive force.”

This is not a debate about the issues of the confrontations. I, for one, believe that much of Africa’s wondrous wilderness is protected for us rich foreigners with very little benefit to the local population, and that’s a massively important debate.

As is why Baltimore’s waterfront has received so much money for development but little more than one CVS store has been built in west Baltimore.

But those are not the issues at hand: the police have been given a job however morally compromised: it’s their sworn vocation.

I think they used far too much force in many of the incidents surfacing recently in America. But what about in Tanzania last week in Manyara?

In a less developed society where arrest is often tantamount to conviction, one would naturally surmise that the four rangers were guilty of the use of excessive force, but not necessarily.

Arresting the rangers was likely the only way to defuse the volatile situation. I think it highly unlikely that anything further will come of this.

What is now more unclear than ever is whether more cattle will intrude the remote western forests of Lake Manyara.

On Safari: Manyara Rebounds

On Safari: Manyara Rebounds

lionintreeYes! We saw the lion in the tree that Manyara is so famous for! My client, Chris Kordash, took the excellent shot above. And we saw the hippo pool that until this week had been erased by last year’s devastating floods and mudslide!

Manyara is one of my favorite parks in all of Africa, but it’s hard to arrange well and often hard to sell. I think today managed both those problems well.

The park is very small, hardly 40 sq. miles of ridiculously diverse jungle habitat that falls off the high escarpment of the great rift valley and then rolls over small savannah grasslands into the salt lake itself.

There is so much diversity in this radical altitude shift in such a short distance that the biodiversity in this little place is greater than in any other similar area in East Africa.

What leaps out at you immediately when entering (other than the baboons) are the trees. The park is dominated by varieties of giant and some ancient mahogany as well as a dozen varieties of giant fig. But there are numerous others, like the ironwood or “rhino ribs” and spiraling rocket ship trees that tower into the sky.

Varieties of trees and forest habitat means there are hundreds of kinds of birds, and the dinosaur like silvery-cheeked hornbill greets most early visitors as if they had just entered Jurassic park.

Last year this little treasure, an UNESCO biosphere, was nearly destroyed by a flash flood and mudslide. Today it’s recovered and literally today we were among the first visitors to use the new walkway above a new hippo pool, displaced after last year’s flood.

So the hippos are back! And the numerous birds at the lake’s edge, including the precious spoonbill, dozens of kinds of plovers and storks including the magnificently colorful spoon-billed and dozens of grey crowned cranes.

Frankly I don’t think you need animals for a dramatic experience in Manyara, but that’s been part of the problem. Now that the walkway and new tracks have been cut, we again saw lots of giraffe, buffalo and zebra. And …

… yes, we did see, the lion in the tree!

Manyara has always been famous for lions in the trees. While many travel companies like to keep it a mystery, it’s a simple fact that lions don’t climb very well.

So when you have as diverse a park as Manyara, with its many types of trees, many which have low horizontal branches, the clumsy lion can finally find something it can climb!

So our half-day exploration of Manyara was a complete success! And congratulations to TANAPA and UNESCO for rebuilding this magnificent park!

Photo by Chris Kordash.
Photo by Chris Kordash.
Manyara Saturday

Manyara Saturday

Saturdays are crowded in Lake Manyara National Park, but we still got a couple hours of fun game viewing in.

One of the really encouraging signs in Tanzania is how Tanzanians are using their own national parks more and more. I remember not too many years ago, you’d never see anyone but a foreign tourist exploring these national treasures.

Of course, development and time have helped. So have many foundations, like the William Holden Wildlife Foundation which take Kenyan school children into the national parks.

But it means that weekends are crowded. So I try to reduce the game drive to its main features, and that’s the hippo pool and views of flamingoes on the lake.

The hippo pool was much better than two weeks ago when I was here. Another mystery, since the lake was down. But again, the streams into the lake were flowing better than two weeks ago, the pelicans and yellow-billed stork were back (which means there’s fish in the lake, again). And so there were many more hippos, and they looked healthy… unlike Tsavo.

The cars were parked at one point three astride as visitors, locals and many school kids put their arms on the wooden fence and watched the 60 or so hippos in front of a backdrop of many other animals and birds.

At our picnic lunch Hayley jumped up screaming! Well, it wasn’t a cobra (remember, we’d just been at the snake park), but it was ants. And fortunately, not the really bad kind, just the really annoying kind.

We stopped at the viewing point on our way out of Manyara towards Ngorongoro. It seemed greener, although the lake was lower, but the few westwards along the escarpment was worth a portion of Bill’s camera photo chip!

Lion Failure

Lion Failure

There’s an impression from TV that lions are perfect hunters. We discovered otherwise!

On our day driving from Tarangire to Ngorongoro, we did the mid day game drive in Lake Manyara National Park. More than any other park, I love the forests here and would visit it even if there weren’t a single animal.

The forests contain a huge number of tree species, many towering into the sky and many wrapping around themselves like strangling figs. The leaves on many plants are huge, and Sykes monkeys and silvery-cheeked hornbills are everywhere.

We go here to see the hippo pool, and we weren’t disappointed. Clearly, all of East Africa has not had good rainfall, but this is not an area in drought. The streams are running well through the park and everything is green. Yet the lake is remarkably small, and there are even grasslands growing at places that use to have water. I hope this isn’t a long-term permanent phenomenon.

But there was plenty of water where the main stream meets the lake, and lots and lots of hippo. When I was here in March, it was parched, and there were very few. So there was a bit of recovery.

Afterwards we went towards lunch and stopped before the Msassa turnoff on the cul-de-sac that sweeps onto the plains. They were filled with wildebeest, zebra, and a line of giraffe walking slowly along the lake shore.

Then, we saw the lion. Lion in the grass. I was with our only real photographer on the trip, Michael, and he pulled out his long lense. Soon, we realized the lion were hunting.

Later we would learn that there were four mature lion downwind from the lead hunter who was crouched in the grass. This is a pretty standard hunt for lion: one places itself really close to the oncoming prey and will chase it into the others.

We were some distance from them, and so in binoculars and through long lenses it looked like a huge female giraffe walked right over the lion in the grass! Why didn’t she spring?

Because coming right behind was her teenager. Had the lead lioness waited all of three more seconds, I’m sure she would have pulled down the youngster, but she sprang too early.

The youngster bolted away, and mother came running back, her feet kicking before she even found the lioness. Other giraffe joined here. The mature lioness waiting downwind got up, dejected, and the lead hunter headed back to her cubs who were waiting patiently under a small acacia tree much nearer us.

The veld now knew the lions were there. Wildebeest and zebra ran way. The lions walked somberly back towards the cubs. They’d be able to do nothing, now, until dark.

Michael took 198 pictures of the event! How sweet is digital photography?

Oil Spots

Oil Spots

A Tanzanian conservationist is denied entry to a Manyara tourist lodge, because it’s a “no-go for natives.” Can someone tell me what century we’re living in?

The immediate fault is with the Chinese, an almost off-handed exportation of the racism and exclusionism in their own society. The secondary fault is with corrupt Tanzanians, who are proving they’re almost as bad as the Kenyans. And the way was paved for it all by the fight for democracy by the west!

Let me link the dots in this wadoadoa.

Madoa mbukubwa
Last month, David Maige, gathered some of his family for an afternoon outing to Lake Manyara Lodge, one of the most beautiful places in Tanzania to enjoy a cup of tea. The lodge is perched on one of the most dramatic examples of the Great Rift Valley, directly over Lake Manyara National Park with spectacular views.

He was stopped at the gate by guards who told him that the hotel was a “no-go for natives.”

Maige, who was born and raised in Manyara and is now an employee of the national parks, reported the incident to Tanzania’s Minister for Tourism, Shamsa Mwangunga. As reported in Tanzania’s Guardian newspaper, Maige said, `Honourable Minister, as domestic tourists, Tanzanians are facing discrimination at the hotel. We are not allowed to approach the facility, let alone getting in and being served.”

Ms. Shamsa hightailed it up to Manyara, made a surprise visit to the lodge and confirmed the barrier policy. Over tea over the Great Rift, Ms. Shamsa was told by two property heads (again as reported in the Guardian), “Our hotel is close to a residential area, and so we felt it necessary to control unnecessary influx, taking into account that we have suffered three robbery incidents.”

Kali ya wadoa
The first three lodges built on the Tanzanian northern safari circuit were in the early 1960s by a Swiss company: one in Ngorongoro, one in the Serengeti, and the one under discussion at Lake Manyara.

By today’s standards they’re very simple, often called plain, but I’d rather think of them as Frank Lloyd Wrightish. The problem was that as soon as travelers began using them, they stopped working. The outside was beautiful, but the inside didn’t function. Water supplies had been poorly engineered, and it wasn’t too long before water rationing at all three lodges was in place. Sometimes not having a toilet is better than having one that doesn’t flush.

Less than a decade after they were opened, Tanzania and Kenya had the great fight that sealed the borders between the two countries. Kenya embraced Wall Street. Tanzania embraced the Rising Sun, and terrible shortages of all things necessary to hotel management were no longer available in Tanzania. Things went from bad to worse. Water rationing no longer occurred, because there was no water at all.

In those fateful days of the 1970’s, EWT would often bring food and water with our safari vehicles if we were staying at those lodges, which at the time were the only lodges there were.

Bad engineering. Loss of patrons. Complete lack of use. At 20 years old they were already museums.

Wadoadoa wa PingPong
As I’ve often written before, the 1980s heralded the RETURN OF CAPITALISM to all of Africa, including Tanzania. Today, Tanzania has some of the most beautiful lodges in Africa.

In days of swank and style, it was even harder to do anything with these three poor lodges. Most of the time, they were owned and operated by the Tanzanian government. You could get great deals and stupendous views without water.

To its credit the Tanzanian government tried everything to offload the albatrosses. A number of good companies partnered with the government to try to rehabilitate the lodges, including several very reputable South African companies, and even the giant French Accor company (that owns Sofitel and Novotel). But to no avail. Ownership went back and forth between hopeful private enterprises and the Tanzanian government.

Kidemokrasi kidoa… labda, kidogo
While all this was happening, prior to the end of the Cold War, the west had opened the bank vaults to any country willing to embrace “democracy.”

President Reagan instituted a new and very important officer in all embassies world-wide, the “Democratization Officer.” Democracy meant capitalism. The World Bank insisted that everything, even small little parastatals like organized big game hunting, be privatized. Aid flowed virtually without any accountability, if only the country gave the U.S. embassy’s Democratization Officer and the New Capitalism a rousing welcome.

Tanzania privatized mining. Airlines. Electricity. Big Game Hunting. But every day the American Democratization Officer came to work, those three historic lodges were still owned by the Tanzanian government. Shame, shame. More money, please.

U.S. Aid financed engineering consultants, business consultants, financial partners, ecotourism partners, and soon everybody was getting a little bit of American money to do their thing for these poor three lodges, and there were so many routes for funds that nobody could count the total.

Unbounded, unaccounted for, U.S. Aid. So lots of private people and companies owned, at least for a little while, these three lodges.

Still, no water.

One report by the IPP Media in Dar-es-Salaam estimated that the total inflow and outflow of U.S. and other western capital for these poor three lodges could have rebuilt the entire tourism industry in Tanzania multiple times over. What happened to all this money?

Not only in tourism, but in any industry with such rampant transfer of unaccounted for funds, a lot blew into the opened pockets of people positioned along the route.

Mafuta madoa
China has had a historic presence in Tanzania starting in about the 6th Century. Later, they built Tanzania’s railway. But the surge in capitalism in China meant China needs oil. BP Shell had long given up on the East African coast, but not China.

I’ve written recently how China may have discovered (or think they will) oil in northern Kenya. With mind-boggling speed, they built a road 300 miles into the desert to get ready. I have wished and dreamed for this road for 33 years. It happened in six weeks between two of my safaris!

In Tanzania, they’ve been looking and looking and looking for oil. Capitalism works best when you don’t admit it. But I must admit I can’t find hard evidence for the following presumptions, so in the spirit of true capitalism, here goes:

In January, 2007, I took one of my safaris into the Ngorongoro Wildlife Lodge (one of the poor, little hotels) for tea and a terrific view. We had heard the lodge had just shifted ownership, again. There was a bunch of young Indian Tanzanians in the lodge looking very hopeful. I asked what they were doing, and one gave me a card that said “Hotels & Lodges, Ltd.” and identified himself as the new owner. But he wouldn’t give me his name, and there was neither a name nor contact address on the card!

The rumor on the circuit — recounted to me multiple times — was that an Indian Oil Exploration company that was owed a lot of money by the Tanzanian government to help China find oil, was given these poor three lodges instead of cash. If I didn’t have to spend so much of my time finding lions, I would be deeper into Google to prove it. Any help will be appreciated.

China’s method for doing business in Africa is exemplary capitalism: “International observers say the way China does business—particularly its willingness to pay bribes … and attach no conditions to aid money—undermines local efforts to increase good governance,” claims the Council on Foreign Relations in its excellent June, 2008, monograph on China, Africa & Oil. Sounds like the Chinese would make excellent Democratization Officers.

Mwisha Madoa
In March last year, I took my group again to the Ngorongoro Wildlife Lodge for tea and the great view. There were guards at the door who didn’t want to let us in, this time.

There was construction going on, they said, and it might be “dangerous.”

I saw workmen. They were Chinese workmen. And they were wearing pyramid straw hats. I managed to get in, anyway, and I was told that tea was no longer Tsh. 1000/- (about 10 U.S. cents), but now U.S. dollars 5, because it was “now good tea from China.”

I paid U.S. dollars 5 for each glass of tea. It wasn’t any better. The view was outstanding as always. And in between looking over breath-taking Ngorongoro Crater, I chatted up the barman who said the Chinese now owned the hotel and we’re remaking it for Chinese tourists expected to flood into Tanzania faster than crude out of the Zanzibar reef.

“Can I come back?” I asked meekly.

He wasn’t sure I’d be let in the next time.

I’ll be trying again in a few weeks. I’ll let you know.

Manyara Journey

Manyara Journey

Lake Manyara National Park is small, often congested, yet still one of my favorite game drives. But she’s a fickle place; either very good or pretty forgettable.

We drove from Tarangire Treetops to Lake Manyara in about two hours, and it would have been shorter except for the requisite stop at the Mto-wa-Mbu market. If I’ve been criticized for anything throughout my career as a guide, it’s been that I don’t give people enough time for shopping.

But this stop was particularly productive. Ken Winge, the owner with his wife, Sandy, of one of Galena’s finest little stores (Galena Wine & Cheese) has adopted woodworking as his life’s avocation. Any visitor to his beautiful new workshop/barn can’t help but think he’s preparing his living space as a future museum.

Ken wanted not just some of the beautiful curios you can buy, but some of the raw wood so that he, too, could fashion something. That’s not the easiest assignment I’ve ever been given! A lot of the wood carvings found throughout the circuit come from woodworkers far away. And those that do have “workshops” nearby have difficulty themselves getting the wood.

I learned from Ken that the common names we’ve all been using aren’t really correct. I’m a particular fan of rosewood, or at least what everyone here calls rosewood. They make especially beautiful bowls and I admit that this safari I acquired a curio myself, a rosewood elephant!

Final analysis has to await something more scientific, but Ken’s first impression is that rosewood is actually bubinga, much lighter than true rosewood. He also believes that most of what we call ebony is African blackwood. The new nomenclature doesn’t diminish the beauty or rarity of the wood, by the way.

Well, Ken found his hunks of African blackwood since my lead driver, Tumaini Meisha, happened to bump into a cousin near the market who took Ken’s artistic motivations to heart, and guided him through both the miasma of curio stalls then the ultimate bargaining.

We entered Manyara shortly afterwards and how different it was from 12 days ago! The low lake level remained a final indication that the season has been very dry, but it had to have been raining hard for the last several days. The veld was beautifully green running from the lake shore to the woods, and the streams were all nearly full. Where we had seen only a handful of hippos at the famous entry of the largest stream to the lake 12 days ago, this day we counted more than 60!

On the plains were dozens and dozens of giraffe, zebra and wildebeest. In the forests were fabulous elephants, and the red and yellow bishops were back. Frankly, I don’t know where they want last time, and it makes me realize that game viewing might have a strong psychological component to it. The bishop birds never leave Manyara. They had to have been there my last visit, but perhaps we were just all so discouraged that we didn’t look carefully enough.

My son, Brad, was the first to spot the great silvery-cheeked hornbills, too. The park was in its full glory this day, and the one thing that never changes and was just as beautiful even during my last game poor visit, was the indescribable forests of towering podacoprus, mahogany, and tangles of intricate ironwood.

The feast for the eyes was more than sufficient. So it was sensory overload when less than a few hours later we stared down on Ngorongoro Crater from its first viewpoint!

E.Africa Drought?

E.Africa Drought?

We abandon Lake Manyara because it’s too hot and dry. I think this is global warming.

We entered the park around 11:30a coming from Tarangire. A midday game drive in Lake Manyara for safaris traveling north from Tarangire to the crater is commonplace. We take a picnic lunch and sit by the lakeshore watching flamingoes.

We didn’t see any flamingoes. There wasn’t enough water in this usually giant lake for them. At the most famous place in the park, where a large stream runs into its northwest top drawing upwards of 100 hippo and hundreds of breeding birds, we saw around 20 hippo and no breeding birds.

The beautiful varied trees of Manyara were losing their leaves. And it was 95 F! After we guffed down our lunch, we raced out to the Karatu highlands where it was so much nicer.

Droughts have been a part of Africa for all of recorded history. We used to think of them as coming every ten years. But the last real drought in East Africa was in 1992-94, so we are certainly due. But many believe we’ll never get a normal drought, again. Rather, we’ll experience the unusual mini-droughts simultaneously with flooding nearby, which is wrecking havoc on this ecosystem.

Manyara is absolutely experiencing a drought. But Tarangire to the south, and Ngorongoro and the Serengeti to the north, are not having a drought. In fact, the southern Serengeti had some flooding yesterday.

In Laikipia in Kenya (the area in which Samburu is located), there was only one week of rains in November. Normally this area’s short rains begin in November and continue for 6 or 7 weeks. There were areas further to the east that missed the Short Rains altogether. The Ewaso Nyiro River which divides Samburu with Buffalo Springs national park that normally dries for only a week in October has been dry since January 12.

Yet in the Aberdare Mountains, a mere 45 air miles south of Samburu, it was pouring when we were there, and at least for a diagonal strip that we explored from The Ark towards the west edge of the park, it was lush and well watered.

I remember in February, 2007, the first time in memory that the Serengeti was parched at that time (except during the years of drought, and 2007 was definitely anything but a drought). Unschooled observers thought was just an interlude between short and long rainy seasons. (And it down poured before and after.)

This was dead wrong, at least historically. The “short rain-long rain” climate area has been restricted to areas east of a north-south line from Nairobi to Arusha. West of this line was a single rainy season the first half of the year followed by a dry season the last half (where the Serengeti lies). This is beautifully illustrated on a large display at the Serengeti park gate at Naabi Hill.

That difference in a relatively small area highlights the microclimate tendencies of an equatorial region. But now it’s being accentuated. The clear line that divided the two climatic zones is being fractured. And to confuse things further, when it rains, it pours. When it’s dry, it’s a drought. And all of this is happening in an extremely small area from a meteorological perspective.

I asked one of my clients on this safari, George Halley, to help me understand if this was unusual. George is a farmer in Illinois with 3000 acres of corn harvested annually. He explained that not too many years ago his area was completely dry, whereas ten miles away they had more than 4″ of rain in a short time. So to a certain extent, then, micro climates happen everywhere, and always have.

Are we just, then, noticing them more? Or is it really global warming?

I think it’s global warming. George was uncertain if that climatic anomaly happened often in the past on the Illinois prairies. I know that it didn’t happen, here. Obviously not every square inch of ground got the same amount of rain as the next, but there certainly wasn’t as great a difference between Manyara and Tarangire as we all saw this week.

And the quick ending mini-droughts of the sort the Serengeti experienced in February, 2007, have little if any precedent. And certainly the torrential downpours that precede then follow these periods of exaggerated dryness are not historical.

For George and his genetically engineered corn group and state of the art drainage ditches, the effects are less severe than for the poor farmers in Manyara, whose crops are withering or washing away. I think that for those of us who enjoy a better station in life than the farmers in Manyara, we better take another very serious look at the effects of global warming.