If like me you have serious hope that Omicron (and fingers crossed, the whole pandemic) might be gone by mid-year then you might want to join me as I continue chasing the herds in Tanzania this June!

My November “Recky” turned out to be a “Wrecky!” We slipped into sub-Saharan Africa at just the right moment, early November. Days after we started a fabulous safari Omicron hit the headlines and literally days after we headed home new regulations by our CDC would have made coming home much more difficult than it was.
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OnSafari: Serengeti

OnSafari: Serengeti

I was very worried. To begin with I don’t particularly like the dry season. The enormous amounts of dust kicked up by the rovers when traveling is constantly irritating, but more generally I just don’t like seeing the beautiful veld so dry and stressed.

The silver lining is that the cats are in their heyday, picking off weakened animals like flies.

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OnSafari: Dry but not Drought

OnSafari: Dry but not Drought

We finished four days and hundred of miles through the Serengeti, found the migration in multiple places and ended for our last two nights at Tanzania’s famous Crater Lodge.

It’s unusually dry. Not yet a crisis it will become so if widespread rain doesn’t develop, soon. We arrived the crater in a rainstorm, so that was obviously good news. But the day that preceded our arrival was a dust bowl.

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OnSafari: Mixed Migration

OnSafari: Mixed Migration

Equatorial weather is the most complex in the world: jetstreams tangle with each other from every direction. Weather forms but doesn’t move; the thunderstorm grows over you ominously and then dumps itself out of existence.

But climate change has turned the complex into chaos. We found the migration. Over two days we saw about 100,000 wilde and zebra; 400 eland; 10,000 gazelle and the count continues tomorrow as we head east from Ndutu onto the Lemuta Plains.

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Abnormal Normal

Abnormal Normal

Title.RiverCrossing.699.Aug15For the first time in a number of years, the great wildebeest migration seems to be “on track.” This means when I return to Africa in a few weeks that I should be able to show my clients a dramatic river crossing in The Mara.

This year the weather was fairly “normal” as defined by the mean of the last twenty years. Parts of Tanzania suffered a mini-drought, and the lands of the wilde were a bit dryer than “normal” but all within the margin of “normal.” But does “normal” mean anything, any more?

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OnSafari: River Crossing

OnSafari: River Crossing

rivercrossingBPWe were among 30 cars on one side of the Mara river – there were another 30 on the opposite side.

I don’t like crowds in the wilderness, and I avoid them pretty successfully. But this is an exception. If you want to see one of the most dramatic still truly wild components of the world’s last great animal migration, you’re going to be part of a crowd.

True, there are plenty of river crossings on the great migration route that don’t draw crowds, and I’ve enjoyed them. But the classic and most dramatic crossings are in the Mara, and there are only a couple dozen favorite crossing spots.

Unlike so many animals, wildebeest are very finicky eaters. All they will consumer is grass. Grass comes after rain. The wilde’s instinct forces them to “follow the rains,” which generally recede over the course of the year in a northwesterly direction onto Lake Victoria.

Before reaching the Mara, the great herds have crossed at least two and sometimes four or five other great rivers as they move north.

The Mara is the last and furthest northern river before the herds are turned back by developed farm fields, towns and villages. Here they cluster and start moving backwards and forwards across the river seemingly without purpose. The instinct to move is too great, and if the movement is a rebound, so be it.

This has been the case for at least the last half century. Before that they may have continued all the way to the Lake before turning around. The boundary is not natural in the wild sense, of course, and it results in the mass confusion, exceptional drama and photogenic scenes that have become the trademark of the great migration.

A bit further south the herds’ decisions to move back and forth across rivers is governed much more by actual rain. Particularly now with climate change, the intense micro-climates may mean a healthy rainfall a few miles to the north, or a drought, a few miles to the south.

I’ve often watched the herds move north out of Tanzania to Kenya right on schedule in June, but then return months early in August because of early, heavy rains in northern Tanzania.

Keep in mind that a wildlife documentary is simply an edited version of what the Miller Family saw this morning in person. I remember encountering a BBC/Nova film crew once shooting a river crossing here in the Mara, and there were at least 20 vehicles just in their team.
We were watching a newborn zebra being defended by its mom against a hyaena when we spotted massive clouds of dust several miles away above the river.

Our camp driver, of course, knew exactly what “favorite crossing place” was near the dust and we headed for it posthaste. Wilde will jump 20 feet into the river and then try (usually unsuccessfully) to scale the other side of a 20-foot canyon, but they prefer easier entries and exits, often dry river washes merging with the great Mara. There aren’t many, and everyone knows them.

To reach this crossing place, we had to drive through the herds, and that in itself was fabulous. I estimated between 3500-4500 in this particular group. They were racing in multiple files and converging on a plateau just above the crossing point.

We slowed down among their incessant blarting mixed with the anxious barking of the zebra. Clearly this group was getting psyched up to cross!

By the time we got to the crossing point most of the prime spaces were already taken by other cars. But our driver knew the river so well that we went down river all of a few hundred meters where it turned and found a beautiful viewing area right there.

Across the river were four giant crocs, pulled out onto the sun with bellies already bulging with previous crossings.

So then, like everyone, else, we just waited.

After about an hour, all of a sudden, we were surrounded by wilde! They came so fast the dust came after them! This wasn’t the crossing place, this was our secret viewing area, and it was very rocky and steep at the river’s edge.

Then almost as quickly, they moved away back into the riverine forest. For some reason, they weren’t going down the “favorite crossing place.”

After about another half hour some cars began to leave. We thought we would, too, but just as the engine turned on we could see upriver that the first of the group had reached the river’s edge at the end of the wash.

At first they didn’t seem to do anything but grow in numbers and drink the water. After about five minutes, though, the pressure of the racing wilde behind them forced them to start the swim across.

They walked until the depth of the river forced them to swim, and wilde do this by successive leaping. Water was splashing all of the place. I watched a croc leap out and grab the side of one wilde. It was soon mayhem. Six or seven abreast were swimming across, many getting drowned by others behind them, some actually swimming back across the river!

A half hour later it was all over. A very small group of about 25 wilde for some reason remained on the wash and didn’t cross, but the bulk had move onto the other side and were congregating on the plains and starting to graze.

We found a nice place much further down the river to set up our wonderful breakfast, but the river runs fast here, and numerous “floaters” or dead wildebeest passed by us.

The great migration is like one little muscle in Mother Earth. It’s a reflection of the ecological heritage that makes our planet so awesome. Until we free ourselves completely of our biological roots, we need to truly experience the power of our organic world so that we can concede that we’re only one piece in an infinite universe of life, beholden to the great migration as the wildebeest are to the rains.

OnSafari: Serengeti Day 1

OnSafari: Serengeti Day 1

WildeLionKillDay 1 of 4 in the Serengeti: a lion kill, a cheetah kill, and most exciting of all, a reasonable hunk of the great migration!

The reason we found the migration was because the people I’m with are so incredibly enthusiastic. It’s that simple!

I expect that most of the migration is in the center of the park where we go, tomorrow. We’re currently in the far southwest. The information we garnered from the many other drivers here at Ndutu Lodge, as well as from rangers and what we could pick out of the radio traffic, suggested no large herds in this area.

So we headed out at dawn ready for anything … but the great herds.

We saw five cheetah and ten lion including a lion kill and a cheetah kill plus an unsuccessful cheetah hunting a baby wildebeest. That event failed when the mother wildebeest intervened at the last possible moment.

We had a fabulous breakfast on the plains packaged for us in Ndutu’s famous picnic baskets and we’d been out for five hours. We were an hour from camp so I was ready to call it a morning and return for lunch, but…

…Justin, one of my outstanding long-serving driver/guides, heard over the radio that 3 days previously wild dog had been seen another 90 minutes out from the lodge. Was anyone interested? That was in a pretty remote place.

The chances seemed extremely thin. It could mean at least an 8-hour game drive and no lunch!

Soon the entire group, all three vehicles was on board with the idea, and off we went – in the opposite direction of lunch!

Hardly a half hour later I began to see a very large number of wildebeest.

Most of the wildebeest we had seen until now were in wildly dispersed migratory files heading to the center of the park, where we expect to be tomorrow.

Twice, lost baby wildebeest had attached themselves to us, once on the Lemuta plains and once this morning at breakfast.

On the plains the poor 2-week old ran itself close to death trying to keep up with our speedy Landcruiser. We finally led it to a water hole with hyaena looking on.

This morning we were packing up breakfast when another two-week old showed up blarting. It pranced back and forth hardly 20 feet away from us. There were no other animals near us, much less its mother.

There are all sorts of reasons baby wildebeest get separated from their mothers, but one important one is that the migratory files are moving so quickly; and they were all moving in the same direction. I was pretty convinced that the big herds were all in the center off the park.

But before long on our extended trek to find wild dog we were among very large herds, not just of wildebeest, but zebra, gazelle and all sorts of other animals. We probably passed 500 eland.

Everything was located in and around the Kerio Valley, west southwest of Ngorongoro not really too far from the village of Endulen. Nobody suggested this area to us. None of the radio traffic or driver/guides or rangers even thought that part of the migration would be here.

The main reason no one knew about this is precisely because no one travels to this place! It’s deemed far too far from established tracks or lodges. The only reason we found it, is because my group is so tirelessly enthusiastic!

Five people have been with me for 30 days, yet they were among those lobbying for staying out!

So no, we didn’t see the wild dog. My predictions on that count were right: the chances of finding some family of animals in a place they were three days previously is ridiculously slim.

But it was just the excuse these wonderful adventurers needed to stay out, go further, do more. And what a reward we got!

Rainy Days Are Here Again!

Rainy Days Are Here Again!

tsavoeasteleEl-Nino’s coming! This means I’m carefully reviewing all the safari itineraries for next year.

We’ve known that El-Nino was on its way, but the extent of it is only now being understood better. For safari guides like me, it’s going to be a challenge.

El-Nino effects different places differently. In my home in the Midwest of the U.S., temperatures will be mild and there will be lots less snow than normal.
On the California coasts and the south of the country, heavy rains … some which have already begun.

And that’s the prediction for East Africa where most of my safaris occur. The chart to the right was taken yesterday from the Climate Prediction Center of NOAA.

It shows the “precipitation anomaly” for three-month periods, starting from the top: Sep-Nov; Dec-Feb; and Feb-Apr. The bluer the shading, the greater the added precipitation expected.

Heavy rain is generally good for the animals. It just causes us guides some transport difficulties.

I realize, now, for example, that my penchant for traveling into the backside of Lake Manyara National Park is likely going to be impossible, as there are two river washes likely to be too high.

It means that multiple vehicle safaris only will be allowed into off-road areas of the NCAA, where black cotton soil, some quicksand and marsh turf, could become saturated. We space our vehicles out a bit further from one another so that multiple vehicles don’t get stuck at the same time in the same place.

On the other hand, there should be some impressively good news for the Kenyan portion of the my safaris, including Samburu, the Mara and Tsavo East.

These normally dry areas will likely get some water. In fact as shown by the picture above presumably taken in the last week, the rains have already greened up Tsavo East, a good month or two before normal.

That’s good. It will increase the survivability of animal births, pretty up the veld and reduce the horrible dust we normally have to endure in these areas.

So don’t change your plans! Just make sure that your safari operator is prepared! In fact, it’s usually been in years of unusually high rains that I’ve had the best experiences with the Great Migration!

OnSafari: Kenya vs. Tanzania

OnSafari: Kenya vs. Tanzania

TitleWildeTents.699.aug15The border between Kenya and Tanzania has been closed in the Mara since 1979, but that didn’t stop us!

Historically, the great wildebeest migration has been in the Mara regions of the Ngorongoro/Serengeti/Mara ecosystem from July – September. This is when – historically – the rains have ended in the south while continuing here in the north.

The Mara is Kenya’s best wilderness year-round. After a complex dispute between the two countries in 1979, the all important Mara/Serengeti road and border posts were shut down, and they’ve never been opened since.

This was our final day in the Mara region of the northern Serengeti, still Tanzania but the Serengeti right to the Kenyan border.

We saw lots of wildebeest, not a lot of zebra, a dramatic river crossing and this morning, two male cheetah just waking up to hunt.

Mara River Bridge
Mara River Bridge

Historically we’d be lucky to see as much as we did these last three days. But the weather’s changing and more of the entire ecosystem is wet for longer than in days past. So I was anxious to know what was happening just across the way in Kenya.

The Mara River is pretty mean, wide and raging where we were staying, and it’s an effective obstacle to going north to Kenya.

There is one cement bridge built years ago when the rivers were all smaller and shallower. It’s usually covered with water, and I expected it would be again today because it rained last night.

Three weeks ago when I was here with another safari there was about three inches of water over the bridge. It’s a false idea that it would be safe for a 1 ton Landcruiser. In fact someone tried (not us). They were fortunate not to be levitated by the water, which is common, but …

… a dead wildebeest was raging down the river, slammed into the vehicle and sent it into the Mara River. The guests were rescued but the vehicle and their belongings were lost.

Today there were about 4 inches above the water, and I was surprised, so immediately off we went towards Kenya!

As soon as we crossed that little bit north the terrain changed considerably and looked exactly like the Maasai Mara I know so well.

There were far fewer trees and bushes, the grass was shorter, and so the vistas were grander. There were lots more visible animals: gazelle, topi, warthog, giraffe – even impala, and of course wildebeest.
Not a lot. Not as many as I expected. But the terrain reminded me that the beautiful savannah before us is a product of elephants felling forests, a primary among several ecological dynamics. The extraordinary corporate poaching of elephant in the Serengeti in the 1970s and 1980s as opposed to the much better patrolled Kenyan Mara had the unexpected effect of prolonging the northern Serengeti forests.

That’s changing, of course. We are seeing more and more elephant in the northern circuit in Tanzania and lots of felled trees!

Anthony Ertle & James Graham
Anthony Ertle & James Graham

We continued towards Kenya and off to my right I saw a fallen tree in the distance. Underneath resting in its scattered shade were two male cheetah.

Undoubtedly brothers kicked out of their family at the same time, one was clearly agitated, looking all around him and feigning yawns. In the distance was the small group of Thomson’s gazelle that I knew he was contemplating.

His brother was snoozing, but as soon as he stood up, his brother woke up and looked around, amazed to see us.

Nevertheless, cheetah are remarkably docile and friendly animals. They’re no more scared of us than they knew we’re unafraid of them.

We left the brothers to continue to the Kenyan border.

The border is marked by a stone pyramid. Several tracks lead to it from the Tanzanian side, and one from the Kenyan side, down from the Mara Serena hotel.

Anthony and James cartwheeled over the border, in complete defiance of visa regulations! Then, we took a group photo on the Kenyan side of the marker!

Then, fortunately, two Kenyan safari vehicles came up and we chatted with the drivers for some time. Such scant information hardly a good report makes, but they claimed there weren’t any large numbers of wildebeest in the Mara … “yet,” they said.

But we’ve been seeing them come across the Mara to the Tanzanian side for several days, now. Still, the amount of wilde we’ve seen – while impressive and much greater than historically would be the case – it was still hardly a big fraction of the two million animals that make up the great migration.

The lack of the Serengeti herds into the Mara was confirmed today by an email sent around by one of the most respectable properties in the Mara, Governor’s Camp. The email said they were “still awaiting” the Serengeti herds.

(Unfortunately, I don’t think waiting will help. The rains are returning early, and those wildebeest on the Tanzanian side are beginning to move south already.

As I sit writing this back in our Lemala Camp, the blarting of thousands of wildebeest which have just crossed south over the Mara River prompted me to take the title picture above. It seems like all wilde are now moving south, away from Kenya.)

So taking our pack lunch we returned over the cement bridge and traveled along the southern and eastern banks of the Mara seeing once again the great carnage of multiple crossings.

We also saw hippo and giraffe, and a cute scene where a just young adult male elephant charged a line of wildebeest.

He’s just had enough of them, I guess!

In Kenya without a visa! Peg Walsh, Ann Ertle, James & Julie Graham, Rosalini Fini, Mary Disse; Anthony, Jane & Michael Ertle.
In Kenya without a visa! Peg Walsh, Ann Ertle, James & Julie Graham, Rosalini Fini, Mary Disse; Anthony, Jane & Michael Ertle.

OnSafari: Great Migration Doubling

OnSafari: Great Migration Doubling

MaraRiverCrossing.699.Aug15Astoundingly, thousands of wilde were amassed on both sides of the river. Were they going to run into one another, increasing the carnage exponentially?

Every day I see new confusions in the wild as climate change accelerates. My safari headed out this morning specifically to try to see a great wildebeest migration river crossing, presuming by the calendar it would be from Tanzania into Kenya.

We were lodging on the Tanzanian side of the Mara River.

1stPlunge.RiverCrossing.699,Aug15Historically, the 2 million animals involved in the Great Migration will be found almost exclusively in Kenya at this time of the year.

That’s because, historically, the rains south of Kenya have ended. Only in Kenya’s beautifully spectacular Maasai Mara does rain almost every day of the year except in October and November.

Wilde don’t need rain when there are such wonderful rivers as the Mara, Sand and Balagonjwe around. They need grass. Lots of grass. So they travel with the rains, because the rains grow the grasses they have to have.

But in the last decade the rains have gone bonkers. See many of my previous OnSafari blogs throughout the year to see how strange the rains have been and subsequently, have fractured and unpredictable the migration is.

Nevertheless, we had just come all the way through the Serengeti, from the very south. We knew first had that the south was desiccated, just massive swirls of dust over the veld. (And, by the way, hundreds of thousands of nonmigrating Thomson’s Gazelle which need no water in the dry season.)

So until we reached the Mara section of the northern Serengeti, I was pretty sure that conditions were more or less normal, and that it would be great luck for us to see many wilde at all, much less a river crossing.
But as we left the western corridor at Ikoma we began to see clusters of wilde, several hundred strong, here and there as we drove quickly north.

More importantly, I saw green in the veld, and even more importantly than that, massive storms forming all around us.

We reentered the Serengeti at Mugumo and even though the grass was shoulder high there were more and more wilde and even greater numbers of zebra.

My hopes improved! We got into camp late, a beautiful property right on the Tanzanian side of the Mara River. We went to sleep with sounds of elephant trumpeting, hyaena howling and one persistent leopard grunting.

Michael Ertle said he slept only about an hour, because of the persistent gnawing of grass at the edge of his tent. It was zebra. When it rains, the tents direct the water over the eaves where then the most nutrient grasses grow.

So after a quick breakfast we headed out along the river. We made numerous stops for giant crocs, dozens and dozens of them. One I spotted was at least 14 feet long.

But I also noticed lots of dead wilde. That in itself isn’t so unusual, but there seemed to be an unusual number of them and in very radically different states of decay.

And the largest congregation of vultures I’d ever seen. Julie Graham asked if I could estimate how many, and I really couldn’t. I’ve learned to estimate animals on the ground, but the swirls of vultures were daunting.
Perhaps thousands? More?

These unusual sites meant something unusual was afoot. The obvious conclusion is that the carnage on the river was greater than normal. Why?

Soon we would learn why. About 15k east of camp we came upon two massive groups of wilde, on opposite shores! Each side looked like it was about to plunge across.

Given the large number of wilde still grazing on the Tanzanian side, clearly the unusual rains had disturbed the predictable course of the migration. Obviously, from our very immediate experience, wilde were crossing both ways, and often.

We parked ourselves about 200m up from the river so as not to disturb the movements. It was around 11 a.m.

Numerous times each side seemed to make a move. There would be agitation and some prancing, wilde moving onto the sand bank but then darting back and drawing dozens back with them.

From the horizon both sides were being pressed by more incoming lines of wilde, migratory files moving in exactly the opposite directions of one another.

It was nearly 12:30p and the standoff continued. Part of group returned for lunch and the lucky die-hards stayed with me.
About a half hour later I saw one wilde put his left hoof into the river and I swear it was less than 5 seconds and dozens of wilde started the plunge.

Soon it was a thick of mass wild, loud blarting, splashing and difficult swimming against the strong Mara current, each pushing one in front of them further into the river towards the other side.

The first made it about 7 minutes after the initial plunge. Mothers would stop and turn back, having lost their young. Some, caught by the strong current, were swept onto rocks unable to dive back into the water without drowning.

But most remarkable of all, no crocodile take-downs. When I’ve seen this before, there are dozens of crocs. This time, we saw crocs resting among the running herds and not moving!

The wild are hard-wired to move aggressively and rivers beckon them as their greatest challenge. If there is good grass on both sides of the river, they’ll cross back and forth without other purpose.

That has led to one of the greatest carnages I can remember on the river. And that’s the reason there were no croc take-downs, today.

They’re all full.
Above Rosalini Fini takes a video of the wildebeest crossing Jim’s safari in northern Tanzania witnessed today.