OnSafari: Sand Rivers

OnSafari: Sand Rivers

Rufiji.selous.aerialOnSafari: Going into the bush, again! A wonderful small group of people, and joined for part of the time by the most important person in the world, my wife!

We’re truly heading off the beaten track to the sand rivers of central Tanzania and Zambia. How will this differ from a more traditional safari in East or southern Africa?

First of all we’re likely to encounter fewer animals overall, but more kinds (species) of animals. This is because we’ll be far removed from the popular and heavily used game parks that abut newly developing areas in northern Tanzania and Kenya, and the eastern “Transvaal” of South Africa.

That human/wildlife conflict that flares so often on the periphery of the great, traditional parks buffers wildness from seeping into the human populated areas. When wild animals and their habitat is more seriously confined, they tend to accelerate their own survival behaviors and this increases the ecosystem tensions.

What this has meant in places like the Serengeti or the Kruger area is that herbivore populations are exploding. In Kruger they cull. In East Africa they do nothing, but in both cases it tends to put at serious disadvantage many smaller animals and animals with fewer numbers to begin with.

I think several species of antelope provide the example. Both sable, roan and oryx were once seen regularly in the big parks, but they are no longer. This in part is because the exploding populations of the more common antelope like wildebeest and partner species like zebra have simply squeezed out these more specialized antelope. I hope to see some of these on our safari, now.

Now don’t jump to too many conclusions! The Serengeti is still my favorite place in the world. It is normally these big, popular parks that a first safari should choose to visit.

But many factors should be considered in deciding where to go, and where we’re going is little seen, very very wild and with great biodiversity. Perhaps most importantly of all, it is a cohesive group of friends with similar hopes and anticipations.

We start in The Selous which vies with Etosha Pan of Namibia to be the largest wildlife park on earth, exceeding 20,000 sq. miles. This is the same size as Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Delaware combined!

The Selous is mostly a giant wetlands, defined by great rivers which become sand rivers as they stretch away from the coast. What is particularly urgent about visiting The Selous is that one of the world’s largest hydroelectric projects is being built here. The great Rufiji River will be dammed up. No one is sure how this will effect this massive wilderness.

We then go into the center of Tanzania to the great Ruaha National Park, another massive wilderness with the lowest density of tourists in any of Tanzania’s major big game parks.

We’ll then have an exciting stint in Zanzibar before going to Zambia and visiting it’s most important wilderness, the great South Luangwa.

Stay tuned! I’ll blog as often as wifi allows.

Kurudisha Tanzania

Kurudisha Tanzania

BringBackRomaA very dark cloud forms over Tanzania. The country is increasingly unsafe … for Tanzanians. Kidnappings, extra-judicial interrogations and intimidations against opponents of the regime increase day by day.

Last week a popular Tanzanian rapper, Roma Mkatoliki, was kidnapped. Social media went bonkers. Fellow rappers produced a video that by this morning almost 100,000 people had watched on YouTube. The government of Tanzanian can ignore this no longer.

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Fake Buddies

Fake Buddies

bestbuddiesThe Tanzania government yesterday fired nine journalists for disseminating a completely fake story claiming that Trump had praised the Tanzanian president as an “African hero,” republished from a completely fake news outlet called the “Fox Channel.”

The article suggested Trump admired John Magufuli, the Tanzanian leader, for his hard ball techniques in advancing his agenda which many observers believe grossly oversteps the Tanzanian constitution.
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OnSafari: Coming Apart

OnSafari: Coming Apart

worldcrackingapartIn a friendly coffee house in Arusha this morning we discussed the historic election yesterday of Somalia’s first democratically elected president. There were only Tanzanians and me, but one of the Tanzanians had Somali relatives.

There are great hopes for President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed who has widespread support and seeks more U.S. involvement in addition to holding U.S. citizenship. His greatest challenge: He could be banned from entering the United States by Trump’s executive order.

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Macabre Renewables

Macabre Renewables

newcapitalDrop some pop western culture into a poorly developed area of Africa, add a pinch of a dictatorial politic, and you get a horribly tragic ritual slaughter of three agricultural workers in rural Tanzania.

When the three field scientists from the urban center of Arusha traveled yesterday to a very rural part of central Tanzania, villagers accused them of being vampires and hacked them to death.

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Flying Where?

Flying Where?

tcrwandairEvery country wants an airline, its own airline, and how that airline works characterizes the country as a whole.

In a month Rwandair begins flying a new modern Airbus 330, the ninth modern aircraft in its fleet. Today, the third iteration of Air Tanzania begins as the first of two new turbo prop aircraft are delivered from Canada. I wouldn’t rush to buy tickets on either airline. Here’s why:

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Test for Tanzania

Test for Tanzania

grantprotestwashingtonTanzanian tourism is crashing following the country’s refusal to apologize for wrongly jailing an elderly California couple on trumped-up charges of giraffe poaching.

Thousands of dollars in bribes went to jailors, judges and other officials before Jon and Linda Grant were released from three days in a horrific Dar-es-Salaam lockup last March. Thursday, U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier took the couple to Washington “to clear things up,” but Tanzanian officials barred them from entering the embassy.

Tanzanians have a very short time to get this right before suffering enormous losses economically and diplomatically. The details of this incident are going viral.

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OnSafari: The Selous

OnSafari: The Selous

SelousBPWe’re in The Selous, a giant, uncontrollable river delta a bit like the bottom of Louisiana, a reserve the size of West Virginia in central Tanzania.

The Selous is not for everyone. Even now at a cooler time of the year it’s extremely hot and humid. Game viewing is restricted to not very many tracks, or by boat on the Rufiji River.

But it is the river which makes this such a wonderful safari experience. And with a massive dam planned in the next ten years, it’s an urgent experience, as well.

Approximately half of all of Tanzania is drained by the Rufiji and Ruaha Rivers through The Selous into the Indian Ocean. This is a wild unkempt wilderness, not quite as ever-changing as Botswana’s Delta, but similar. The great sand rivers change courses easily.

We stayed at a camp on the Rufiji and it was spectacular. Our tents were on the embankment just above the high water mark, so that now it is easily 15 feet down to the water. From my deck I looked over the great Rufiji, about a mile wide at this point, defined by great stands of Borassus palm. Since we’re on a bend, there were wonderful sand bars used by numerous crocs and hippos.

On our first river excursion we bucked the extremely strong current until we came to the first lake created as a side-water by the river. This is a main feature of the Rufiji and it results in more placid water not sure for our game viewing, but for the animals as well.

We saw tons of giraffe and impala together with waterbuck and buffalo, zebra and wildebeest on the dense game area along the shores of the lakes and river. We pulled close to elephant pondering whether or not to cross (and swim) the deep lake.

This is a time that resident birds nest, and the bird rookeries were exploding with activity. We spent a good amount of time at one, a white-fronted bee-eater colony. Our pontoon boat pushed right up to the edge of the water underneath the colony.

The bee-eaters nest in holes dug from the clay sides of the river. There were easily several hundred and we watched with fascination as they managed their one hole among so many others.

Just before we left, a monitor lizard appeared, its tongue flashing out into holes looking for eggs. The bee-eaters descended on it en masse but it wasn’t deterred. We watched him come up short from a couple holes before we had to leave.

I think the single most impressive thing about river game viewing in The Selous is the crocodile experience. There are so many the place begins to look like a set for an Indiana Jones move.

Probably not as big as we find on the Mara or Grumeti Rivers, or in far north Kenya, but the sheer numbers staggers the imagination. These crocs subside mostly on fish, and there are some incredible fish in the river!
Ben and Charlie went fishing and came back with over 25 kilos of fish! The largest was a catfish around 12 kilos.

But on the next day we saw that fish is not the sole diet of these river monsters. On our game drive, which focused along the shore of the river and lake, we were watching an idyllic scene of impala and waterbuck in a beautiful landscape with a small stream flowing into the lake.

I remarked to everyone to watch the impala, because they are masterful leapers. Shortly after I said this, a young waterbuck raced across the river (didn’t leap) and its left leg ended up in the snout of an 8–foot long croc! Snorting the waterbuck disappeared limping into the bush.

The animal persisted and pulled its leg free, and the croc followed it a few meters out of the water before slipping back.

Fish eagles are the trademark of wild Africa. They look and act very much like our bald eagles, but they have a piercing, undulating call absent from our eagles. I see them practically everywhere in Africa where there is water.

But here in The Selous they are remarkably vocal, calling constantly and often while flying. I think this is because there are so many of them, territories are very competitively obtained, and the screaming comes from the victors.

I was surprised how little good wifi we’ve had the last week. One of the staff at our Selous camp explained that the demand has grown so significantly that the infrastructure just isn’t there. So stay tuned! I’ll blog whenever I’ve got a signal!

OnSafari: Dar Hell

OnSafari: Dar Hell

DartrafficBPOn a two-day hiatus from my Miller Family Safari, I find myself in a Poe or King hell: Dar-es-Salaam.

The family’s foreign exchange student joined them for the first ten days. The two of us peeled off the group yesterday so that I could shepherd him onto his international flight home to Paris.

Unable to catch up with the family in Zanzibar for two days, I’m staying in Dar es Salaam. The Ramada Resort on Mbezi Beach had a good deal, and I also booked their “40-minute” transfer from the airport. It took two hours.

This was 7 p.m. on a Thursday night. My savvy cabbie avoided the main roads as much as he could. We wound our way through a maize of small streets that anywhere else in the world would resemble a walking mall, but with nano-millimeters to spare we passed giant petrol trucks and mammoth buses, but at least we were moving.

It was dark. No street lights, so the only illumination was the ubiquitous “open” and “welcome” neon signs of the myriad of shops lined up one after the other. Bridal shops, grocery stores, children’s toys to many pharmacies were doing a robust business, many with lines of people waiting to get in. People crossing the street, 3-wheel tuk-tuks and an unending barrage of motorcycles somehow effortlessly wove in an out of our two moving lines of mammoth traffic.

But this clever navigation had its limits. Three or four times we had to get back on a disastrous main road: Four, five or six lines of vehicles moved often quickly then stopped … once for 25 minutes. White uniformed policeman at several intersections wielding large red or green neon batons waved tides of vehicles forward and back in a futile attempt to unclog the mess.

Two minutes less than two hours I arrived at my destination, 11.2 miles from the airport. Taxi fee: $70 with tip.

Of course I was frustrated and exhausted, but I couldn’t help thinking of the people who live here, of the enormous resources spent just coming and going. Easily 1 out of 4 large trucks were petrol tankers. Sometimes my cabbie decided to turn off his car engine, but usually not. He explained that was hard on the engine and used even more gas.

What percentage of the gas was used to stand still? But that pales in comparison with the time all these people have lost of their productive lives.

Speaking with staff at the hotel I learned that most of them live in reasonable proximity to the hotel, but that was less true of management and specialty services. One woman said she spent five hours daily getting to work and back! Another has been given a room in the hotel, and “commutes” home (15 miles away) on his days off!

Most African metropolises are a mess. Urban immigration for the last two decades has stunned social anthropologists by its magnitude and speed, and Tanzania is right there at the top of the charts.

Of the estimated Tanzanian population of 55 million, nearly ten percent reside in Dar es Salaam. Add surrounding communities in the area where I stayed Thursday night and it’s likely around 8 or 9 million.

I’ve written about Nairobi’s congestion often in the last several years, and the new highway system that came on line last year did seem to help … a little. But even in Nairobi’s worst times, it did not take two hours to go twelve miles.

This was a real education for this old safari guide. All the pontificating about how to help the developing world, how to share the world’s resources, seems meaningless after this experience. Until the chaotic congestion of African cities is resolved, how can anything else begin to be done?

Where’s the Beef?

Where’s the Beef?

IsthereacarThe Tanzanian government and safari companies appear to have embarked on suicide missions as they react to Brexit. Consumers beware : African companies raising prices in today’s climate are probably already deeply in debt.

The bottom is falling out of the Tanzanian safari market because the largest single component is the UK traveler. UK travelers are reacting to Brexit like Americans did to 9-11.

According to the British financial website, This is Money, more than 1 in 3 Brits now plans to cut back on planned holidays.

Brits book travel not quite as far in the future as Americans. Americans tend to do so about a year in advance. With Brits it’s about six months. This means that the very important end-of-year holiday season could be a disaster for Tanzania.

This follows several bad years because of ebola, terrorism, the persistent European recession and in the case of South Africa, the plummeting Rand.

One of the most horrible practices of any small business is to live on cash flow, and that’s legend among travel companies in particular. Now in Tanzania, those who have done so may be on the way out.

If you’re a consumer considering traveling to sub-Saharan Africa and Tanzania in particular, I really suggest you beware.

Hardly two days after Brexit, the panic began when the government of Tanzania decided to slap an 18% tax on many tourist products that had not previously carried it, such as transport and guided sightseeing. In Tanzania’s fairy world land, certain government officials claimed they were even slapping the V.A.T. tax on themselves, onto existing taxes!

However the math might eventually be done, government fees are rising and in some cases substantially. The cost for a vehicle headed into Ngorongoro Crater, for example, jumps 25% Friday.

V.A.T. is the value-added-tax of 18% theoretically applied across the board to anything sold in Tanzania. For many years, though, many tourist services have been exempt, an incentive of the sort many governments in the U.S. afford businesses for locating in their town.

Tanzania’s President, John Magufuli, has been crusading ever since being elected last year in a dark-horse contest, slipping incognito into ministries and firing sluggards on the spot. He reduced income taxes earlier this year for the “common man.”

He’s now trying to right the budget, which since time immemorial hasn’t really been one, rather just a siphon of foreign aid. It’s unclear that the huge V.A.T. announcement on tourism was entirely the result of Brexit, but clearly the rush to impose it – even unprecedented in Tanzania – suggests so.

Laudable as Magufuli’s efforts might be, it will have definite negative effects on Tanzanian tourism.

Healthy companies, I think, saw this coming. Particularly the old strongholds, the midmarket chain lodges like Sopa and Serena, have held prices steady or decreased them, trimmed staff without a noticeable trim in service, and moved towards dynamic website pricing.

Unhealthy companies, particularly some of the upmarket ones like Asilia, are doing just the reverse. In fact, they are using the current situation to raise prices higher than to just cover tax increases.

The upmarket could be the most effected under the current situation. Upmarket trends have been moderating or declining recently, stressing the health of those companies.

Three of Asilia’s main competitors in Tanzania, Nomads, Sanctuary Retreats and &Beyond, have either announced no increases or agreed to guarantee current rates on existing reservations for which deposits have been paid. Wannabe upmarketer, Elewana, has even announced new specials that essentially lowers its prices.

This will not be a fun year for a safari company working in Tanzania. But tricking the consumer goes too far. Consumers should exercise exceptional due diligence before planning to sip a gin and tonic on the veld at sunset.

Not So Hidden Wealth

Not So Hidden Wealth

TanzanianGoldAt least 54 billion cubic feet of helium has been found in Tanzania. Add the country’s enormous gold reserves, large uranium deposits, massive coal, nickle and platinum reserves, Tanzania is now one of the richest countries in the world!

Or not.

Helium’s not as sexy as gold or uranium, but may actually be worth more. Engineers worldwide are celebrating the discovery as relieving the critical shortage of the gas which has stressed markets and high-tech companies for more than a decade. Helium is so important that the U.S. stockpiles it just like oil.

For nearly 25 years Tanzania’s natural resource deposits have just grown in leaps and bounds: More of the Great Rift Valley lies in Tanzania than any other country, and this is the reason it’s so resource rich. Yet the country remains poorer than 150 of the 185 countries ranked by the IMF in 2015.

The World Bank has lamented this situation for years: “Tanzania sits on about 15 trillion cubic feet of proven natural gas reserves, equivalent to approximately US$150 billion … or 6 times Tanzania’s current GDP,” the bank advised in 2012.

Four years since that announcement, no natural gas has been extracted. Do you know how popular natural gas is at the moment?

For more than two generations, Tanzania has been unable to benefit from its enormous natural wealth. I’ve often written about it.

There are several reasons. Corruption underlies all of them.

Mutinational mining companies like Rio Tinto — which has tried multiple times to work in Tanzania and recently announced plans to develop its coal after abandoning both gold and uranium contracts here — are no sweethearts to work with. Tinto’s North Mara gold fields were often criticized by human rights organizations for miner abuse, even of using children. That led to a number of worker revolts. Tanzanian mines are often closed.

Point here is that government regulationa exist against all such workplace practices, but officials choose not to enforce them. Why? I’ll let you guess.

While the government developed the cities and airports near the mines years ago, it has allowed maintenance to horribly lapse. Mines need electricity. Tanzania has almost as many blackouts as electricity. Mines need roads. Tanzania never builds roads; it lets foreign donors do that.

Current Tanzanian government contracts with the multinational mining companies concede some of the lowest royalties in the world. And worse, government budgets show less than half what the mining companies claim to pay. Where’s the difference?

In the end the Chinese have cornered the Tanzanian mining market. Chinese dominate the gold and uranium mines, and I expect they will dominate the helium ones as well. That has been disastrous for the Tanzanian environment as Chinese mining practices are governed from afar by a home authority that looks sideways on its own expressed environmental concerns.

Tanzania’s problem is manifold, but in the end it all comes down to corruption. Often that corruption is started by the multinational. Understandably if yet distasteful, it’s hard for a lowly official who has not been paid by his government for three months to refuse a bribe.

That’s the core problem, really. It isn’t that people are evil. It’s that corruption is now systemic. The regulator’s income is paid by the company he regulates.

The current president, John Magufuli, is on a crusade to right the ship and end corruption. Just like every other president for the last 40 years.

Young Discontent

Young Discontent

africandiscontentYou know, it’s not just US. Enormous discontent is sweeping across the most important countries in Africa with a heavy involvement by the youth.

Such generalizations are dangerous, so I’ve thought about this a lot. I’ll stop making conclusions: you make them. Let’s just survey today’s news.

Yesterday was budget day in South Africa. In Parliamentary fashion, the president is supposed to submit the annual budget, say a few words and then Parliament retires for a day before beginning a classic debate. That’s not what happened.

South Africa is a mess. The session was six hours of mayhem :screaming, fisticuffing, security officials pulling out MPs while those just pulled out snuck back in. The budget was never discussed.

The South African’s polity’s mess has a lot to do with one old peculiar man, Jacob Zuma, and one old revolutionary movement, the ANC, but many insist that it was the university students in the country who brought it to a head.

Last year’s country-wide student protests regarding fees and instructional language have moved into virtually all universities, even technical colleges.

Last year Nigeria elected a controversial old politician/general to clean up one of the most profoundly screwed up societies on the continent. I was skeptical but for the first few months things seemed to be going well.

They aren’t now. Leaks that the new president has sanctioned arresting the old president, a very public and questionable trial of a former Senate president, rising unemployment because of falling oil prices … and police and the military now battling not only Boko Haram, but students.

Tanzania’s good-guy president is suddenly behest by a host of unexpected protests, including support of indicted government officials, growing Islamic fundamentalism, and more which all probably began with the government’s stupid move to close all universities and colleges before last years presidential election.

In an attempt to avoid the turmoil of its neighbors, the president of Kenya announced yesterday he would remain neutral in the growing student protests in his country.

But what really caught my interest is the protests of youth in countries that … well, don’t allow protests.

A week of horrific student protests in Khartoum, the capital of one of the most dictatorial, autocratic countries in the world, ended today with tear gas and police shutting down the country’s main university.

And in neighboring Ethiopia, which tries hard to rival Sudan for in violating human rights, IT savvy government officials have so far failed at shutting down this internet music protest by youth of Oromo: click here.

My apologies if by the time you read this the Ethiopian government once again succeeds.

My take? The world is unsettled and it is largely the impatience of youth anxious for justice.