OnSafari: Last Drive

OnSafari: Last Drive

Many still considered him a youngster. Only 6-7 feet long he was little compared to the monsters of Lake Turkana, many photographed at over 25 feet. But he didn’t feel young, anymore.

Born on a buried sand nest on the edge of the great Mara River, he ate voraciously his first several years, swimming madly away from the large bull frogs the size of soccer balls that gobbled up little crocs by the dozens.

A few years later when he reached a couple feet long he had to eat only a few days each week. He lie motionless just under the water at the shoreline, jumping up twice his length to snatch a bird trying to flee. Soon, irony of ironies, he was hunting the frogs.

When he reached his early teens he was too big to hide any longer among the water lilies in the crags of the great Mara. He began to crawl out onto the rocks to get warmed by the sun like the big guys.

It wasn’t long ago that he started to sleep more and more. When he woke hungry he waited for a small impala coming to drink and that was only a few times every couple months. But back then he ate his hunger rather than the impala if there were any big guys around. He’d seen some buddies persist only to lose the prey to one of the Mara monsters, and sometimes even parts of their snout.

Now at a robust 7-8 feet he found himself with no appetite except twice a year. He slept the rest of the time behind a secluded and log hidden under a big leafed tamarila bush that hung over the river.

His hunger woke him the day we saw him. Perhaps, too, he felt the ripples of the big guys slipping into the river. Whatever it was he was famished.

So no longer junior he couldn’t hang back an instant longer, because the moment he started to swim again after his several month sleep his appetite grew extreme. He hurried out no longer deterred by the current, his sleek powerful body cutting through the turbulent Mara waters as if it were a still lake in the mountains.

Suddenly he was with others his size swimming but without any real direction, nothing to hunt in the deep middle of the river. Then all of a sudden he saw one of his buddies snapping at a head with horns that bobbed among three or four of his peers. The horns weren’t sharp at the end or shiny in the sun. They looked puffy and grey.

The four 7-foot crocs gnawed and slapped their jaws all over the thing but it didn’t soothe their appetites. Soon they backed off and encircled it like the spokes in a wheel.

Finally the 6-month old skeleton sunk back into the water. His appetite soared. He wriggled, challenging his peers, but they quickly swam away. He stayed right there in the middle of the river. He knew something was on the way.

By the end of our 8th day in the Serengeti, our 18th on the overall safari including Kenya we’d seen virtually everything but a rhino. Most travelers lack the inclination for spending so much time and money on an East African Safari today but it reminded me that in the old days I rarely guided a trip that was less than 23-25 days. Marlin Perkins’ first safari with supporters of the Lincoln Park Zoo in 1957 lasted two months and six days!

We intersected the migration big time two days ago in the western corridor. We spent a night at a beautiful camp on a hillside overlooking Seronera and the next morning watched a 5-mile long file of wildebeest race across the valley below. The migration has yet to reach further north, but our schedule had us the last two days in Tanzania’s far north just in case the migration had been early.

On our way up we saw our last group of lions, bringing our total to 46. The family of 13 was draped onto a very small kopjes in the middle of a vast flat prairie like bits of discarded bread dough thrown over a broken spatula. We left the rock of lions just a tad bit south of Lobo and continued moving north. Game became very scarce. The grass grew five feet high.

Our last game drive scoured the veld up to the Mara River and the Kenyan border. This is Tanzania’s Mara District, and the terrain looks almost exactly like Kenya’s Mara: gently rolling hills, verdant and bushy.

But here in Tanzania south of the great Mara it’s higher and drier than just north over the great Mara River in Kenya. There in Kenya the valley is much better watered, less rocky and has better grass.

So our last game drive was pretty scant. The drive was interrupted with a bit of excitement as we tried and failed to pull another tourist rover out of the black cotton soil in which it was stuck. (Not really a good idea to travel in these parts during the rainy season with only one vehicle. Moreover this one had a broken 4×4 system, so it was doubly doomed and got what it deserved.)

We offered the lovely couple from Barcelona a lift back to their camp but they opted to remain with their driver until another vehicle was sent from their camp. We confirmed this happened by radio before we returned to our camp later that day.

The other notable event was sighting about a dozen giant crocs in the Mara River. Generally these 12-18 foot beasts hide themselves for most of the year in a dormant state. But they know the wilde are coming. This is one of the two times in the year they eat: when the wilde come, and when the wilde go back.

So they were out on the sand banks waiting in the sun or slithering anxiously through the river, positioning themselves for the hundreds of thousands of beefsteaks that will arrive probably in the next 2-3 weeks.

We even saw four trying to devour the head of a wildebeest. We didn’t see the kill and it was possibly the skeleton of last year’s migration, pulled from its crag under water.

So it was a very soft ending to a great safari.

As Steve said to me at our last dinner in camp, it’s a bittersweet time. Everyone looks forward to going home, but no one wants to leave.

OnSafari: Bingo Beast

OnSafari: Bingo Beast

So by the end of our 5th day in the Serengeti we topped 30 lion including three kills, 3 cheetah, thousands of elephant and literally tens of thousands of gazelle. Oh, and a python, serval cat and an absolutely wonderful chocolate cake presented to us with song at our last camp!

But remember this safari is “chasing the herds” and we’d only seen a couple hundred wildebeest. No real surprise, but the pressure was on.

Radio chatter (which only reaches about 10k) wasn’t helpful. You call a camp and ask honestly, “Is any of the migration there?” and inevitably you’re assured that several million animals are right outside their mess tent. Incoming drivers insist that they’ve seen the whole kit and kaboodal because no one wants to admit otherwise. So even after five days gathering intel it’s sort of a crap shoot.

Tumaini and I decided that at least a portion of the great herds had to be in the western corridor, probably around the Musabi Plains. This would be a little behind normal, but the rains have been so good and extended for so long that it would make sense.

We were in the Moru Kopjes. The Musabi Plains was pretty far away, a good couple hours or more at breakneck speed. So everyone got excited and agreed to have breakfast at 630a and leave promptly at 7. So the stage was set!
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OnSafari: Where they go?

OnSafari: Where they go?

Hundreds of vultures. Mounted on the acacia trees, flying between the patches of thick forest, landing and taking off from the meadows within the woods. So we plowed back and forth through the high grasses trying to discover what they were scavenging. What dinosaur could bring so many birds together?

Radioing back and forth between our rovers we covered almost every inch of open ground and could find nothing, even as the shadows of their huge wings slipped back and forth across us. What was going on?
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Recce

Recce

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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Level Headed Up

Level Headed Up

The BBC just published findings from thousands of British Covid cases of which 581 were the confirmed Omicron variant. The preliminary conclusion is that even those who are fully vaccinated with a booster have a 1 in 4 chance of getting sick from Omicron. How sick? The BBC is careful to say this won’t begin to be known until next week and hastened to add that the British Health Minister believes it will be “mild” sickness.

What is “mild?” Should you go on your trip?
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Covid Formalities

Covid Formalities

Seven of us returned from 3-4 weeks in Tanzania on Thanksgiving Day. This is a report of the formalities required with regards to Covid. This is a very small sample of how people travel to and from Tanzania, but every little bit helps.

Like all unexpected obstacles to travel, it’s usually a lot easier than presumed. I often refer to the time in 1970 when New Orleans announced the first metal detector for departing passengers. For a year no one flew through New Orleans. Today it’s second nature to us all.
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OnSafari: Rain

OnSafari: Rain

The rains start north to south, and we traveled north to south and always seemed to be just a day or two ahead of the rains. It was so dry and dusty in Tarangire when we got there Monday that the interior of my room was 105F and my hands were dry after washing my face in the sink before I could get to the towel rack.

We followed the Tarangire sand river and found lots of elephant but little else. At least the tse-tse were down in such conditions. Tuesday morning our dawn drive headed to the Silale Swamp and I swear that every animal in Tarangire was there.
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Whistling Winds

Whistling Winds

We left Ndutu after seeing another cheetah with three cubs, not sure exactly how we would go. Our destination was a lovely camp on the north end of the crater but the way you would go depends upon the dust.

The ride didn’t start out very propitiously. Although some rain had fallen the length of the dry season and its tons of dust were going to take a lot more than a few sprinkles to settle things down. Although the game viewing had been good around the lakes, as we left the area eastbound it looked like a desert trip, again.
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Face It

Face It

Steve Farrand and I have now completed four days in the northern Serengeti after a couple down at Manyara. Tomorrow we pick up five more intrepid travelers to continue my survey of post-pandemic Tanzania.

The troubled world goes well beyond Fox News. Vaccine is available in the most remote corners of Tanzania, but much of it’s sitting in fridges unused. One of Africa’s most prestigious safari companies, AndBeyond, admitted to me this week that most of their staffs remain unvaccinated.
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OnSafari: Klein’s Valley

OnSafari: Klein’s Valley

Those damned kids! They ruined dinner once again!

Mama looked at us unabashedly. It was really getting dark, around 7:15 p.m. in the Klein’s Valley that borders Kenya’s Mara to the north and the Serengeti to the west. The sun had blinked out at 6:30p and twilight doesn’t really exist in the equator, but the high stringy cumulus making the moon and Venus blur threw what light the far away sun touched them with back down to the ground. A sort of unexpected twilight.
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Sibili

Sibili

EWT currently has one safari operating in Kenya and I will be leaving on the weekend to take another to Tanzania. These are the first safaris EWT has operated since the pandemic and we’re learning a lot about what travelers like me should expect and how radically different the business landscape has become.

There’s a lot for me to still learn but I have some very preliminary advice to persons considering traveling to East Africa. It boils down to money: Don’t go if you don’t spend a lot but don’t spend a lot without being very, very careful.
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Not At Last

Not At Last

How times have changed! I love cliches. And the pandemic has helped refresh traditions and with that, nostalgia, and with, sentimentality and so now I’m terrified. In a few weeks I head back to my most loved Serengeti. What will it be like?

I drove my first safari vehicle into the Serengeti from Kenya’s Mara in February, 1972, and when I’m reminded that’s a half century ago I feel like putting on a toga and sitting on a park bench dribbling bread crumbs to pigeons.
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Should You Go?

Should You Go?

What’s the greatest risk to an international traveler right now? Obviously, Covid, but NOT for the reason you think! A vaccinated traveler is very unlikely to get sick from Covid. More vaccinated travelers are going to get hurt and some die from slipping on the stairs of the jetway than from Covid. More vaccinated travelers headed into wild jungles (who are taking malaria pills) will still get sick from malaria than from Covid.

The Covid vaccine is as much a game changer as Delta. Its efficacy is better than all the vaccines before it, better than malaria pills, better than attending daily mass, better than practically anything! So what’s the problem?
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