First stop, Serengeti!
The Caravan banked and turned at last, curving down towards the tiny strip, a smudge on the sketchy green of the plains, just inside the sinuous curves of the Grumeti river silver and smooth, that winds its’ way across this part of the Serengeti. The two Singaporean families who were my guests on this trip chattered excitedly in Hokin and English as I pointed out animals, and suddenly the dark ‘dots’ took form. ‘Gavin, Gavin….THESE are wildebeest??………….’ A dark mass of animals walked along the edge of the river, some of the herd rested amongst the scattered flat topped acacias, like carelessly scattered toys. The dark ‘cloud’ of moving creatures represented for me one of the earth’s most unique and wonderful spectacles.
They had traveled across half the world to see this…the annual migration in the Serengeti.
The bulk of the herd had moved on ten days previously, but there were still A LOT of White-bearded gnu, as they are correctly named. Thousands upon thousands of these bovids still remained…the vanguard of the million or so that perennially make this trek across the plains. The pilot grinned to himself. He had heard this excitement many times as flew travellers in to the bush strips at various points of entry in the Serengeti, and still he smiled…excitement of this nature is infectious!
The two dark green vehicles and khaki-clad guides were waiting for us, and as the turbo-prop slowly wound itself ‘down’, they smiled and waved at us peering at them from the fuselage windows. How often had I done the same over the 34 years I had been a guide across Africa! After a most welcome cup of tea and coffee, one of the hallmarks of &Beyond camps on arrival we loaded ourselves into the two customized game-drive vehicles and headed off to camp. The two guides had introduced themselves to us all, once at the aeroplane and secondly again before departing, and after a short briefing on ‘the plan’ we had set off for our Tented Camp, located somewhere along the base of the Kirawira Hills, Grumeti. We crossed a weir on the Grumeti river and there was a flurry of movement and noise. A whole flotilla of hippo lay next to us…the closest was literally within 20 feet of the vehicles! There were about forty animals that I could see, and they snorted, blinked and stirred the soup-like water of their pool as they moved and shuffled amongst eachother, disturbed by our close proximity. Bubbles of foetid gas burst on the surface disturbed by the animals movements and spread across the surface…..’ aaaaargh…let’s go. Let’s go…’ my guests grimaced and held their noses disgusted by the stench of hippo dung fermenting on the bottom of the pool! We moved.
The staff had been out in front of the camp on our arrival, waving and singing a song of welcome….and bearing drinks too. Cinnamon and ginger in lemonade…delicious. The Camp Manager had made us all welcome, and then briefed us the safety protocols, tent arrangements and meal requirements too. After introducing his staff and tent valets as well, we departed to settle in to our respective tents set up facing the east, looking out across the plains and Acacias of the Grumeti. The tents were far enough apart for comfort and privacy, and very adequately furnished.
Each tent had a double or twin beds with a full linen complement of sheets, duvet and a blanket (it was the edge of winter here), extra long pillows and altogether made one feel more than at ‘home’! Hanging shelves and of course hangers were provided for long shirts and trousers too. The flush ‘loo’ was in a partitioned section of the back of the tent, and the basin vanity with loads of bottled and tapped water stood to the end of the tent, with a shiny brass tank and of course an electric lantern. Lights were simple, and run off a 12volt system, and perfectly adequate for the tents. The final touch was the lovely shower, in a separate section at the back of the tent, which was filled, on request, by ones’ valet with hot water for that luxury at the days end!
Our first night was interrupted during dinner, when the manager rather worriedly came to me during dinner asking to have a private word with me. ’Bwana,’ he said, ‘We have a problem with tent 5…..siafu…they have entered the tent..’ ‘OK, but we have a spare tent..number 6?’ ‘Ndio..’, he answered..’Yes’. ‘OK, so let’s move the girls then.’ He smiled, his strong white teeth flashing with relief that I was not making a fuss about ‘siafu’ in a guests tent on their first night in the bush!
Let me explain…siafu are ‘army or safari ants’. They travel in long, disciplined columns through the central African bush and forests. Each column is comprised of two parallel lines of soldier ants, that is made up of individuals holding onto eachother in a thick line, about half an inch apart. Between the lines of soldiers the worker castes walk carrying food, eggs and larva of the group, and these lines sometimes measure 20 to 30 feet in length. When disturbed they break ranks in seconds and swarm over the area biting anything living. Armed with powerful and effective jaws the soldiers will clear an area of several feet in quick time. Only fire, paraffin or diesel fuel stops them! Stories are told of how columns walking through villages, devour chickens and small animals that cannot escape leaving only bones. One of the hazards of camping, but part of life too. In this case I calmly told the two young women we had moved them as they had ‘ants’ in their tent, and the staff had moved all their ‘things’…and explained what siafu were etc.. To their great credit….one night out of Singapore, straight into a tent in the bush…they received the news with the minimum fuss, and we finished dinner with decorum and calm. They are terrific, these two!
Our first game drive was good. We drove out across the bush, with sleepy tsetse flies buzzing behind us and trundled between thorntrees towards a hill a kilometer or so distant. The dust was sluggish in the cold morning air and swirled lazily behind us. It was cold, and each of us was bundled in jackets and scarves or beanies against the chill. I stood facing the wind, my eyes searching for any sign of predators or movement across the plains. Distant gazelles, a lone wildebeest, thornbushes, waving grass and old bones were all I could see. We carried on, stopping periodically to scan the grass land. As it warmed up we saw groups of vultures on the ground, sometimes just standing around carcases that had been stripped clean, or scrapping over remains…their long necks thrust aggressively forward, wings held wide and pecking at eachother or just bouncing along and jumping on eachother. They have a hissing, wheeze call when fighting, with a harsh chatter when submitting to a bigger bird. Ruppels griffon, White-backed and Lappet-faced vultures were the commonest species seen. We were looking for lions.
Suddenly the radio crackled into life and Steven, our guide spoke quietly into the microphone. He glanced at me and softly said, ‘simba’…’Good man’ I answered…’Pole, pole…no rush’. We carried on driving, stopping now and then as I explained what we were looking at…Thompson’s gazelles, so dainty and dapper…a Kori bustard…….Silver bird, Gray capped social weavers, an old wildebeest carcase with its’ white beard still attached…..elephant feeding on a very distant hill….vultures planning down on immaculate wings, head down and feet forward braced for impact….such a great photo. Then their they were……a whole pride with a fresh wildebeest carcase…seven females, about nine cubs of various ages and two maned males. Bingo…this was to be a great morning! Cameras clicked and everybody was silent or whispering. Big smiles all round.
On the edge of the group a pair of Hooded vultures waited for the bones to pick at. We spent an hour here, with the pride before they tired of our stares and wandered off over the plains to sleep beneath a shady bush. The females took their youngest cubs off into the Sansiveria thickets where they would remain safe and cool until the afternoon. A beautiful White-headed vulture planed in briefly to see if she could glean any meat scraps from the kill site, before taking off again into the stirring wind. Eventually, an old lion came out of the thickets and dragged the remains away from the birds to a shady edge of the thicket and started to feed. His scarred face and nose giving him an ‘old campaigner’ look. Over several days we had great sightings…..lioness, lionesses with cubs in abundance…cheetah with a gazelle…in the middle of the plains miles from anywhere. Elephant herds in thick bush, on open grasslands, herds of buffalo, hippo and of course crocodiles to dream about…bad dreams mind you. Each drive was different and all absorbing….birds of every description and we ticked them off happily arguing fiercely about the veracity of special sightings…it was wonderful.
Our time came to an end after 4 nights and we left feeling a little bereft as we hade come to enjoy the camp, the staff and the feeling of ‘coming home’ in the late afternoons…hot shower please, Mussa!
The flight from the Serengeti to
Grumeti lead us through thick cloud for the final 30 minutes, and I was beginning to worry about finding our ‘strip at Manyara. My fears were unfounded, and through a break in the ‘blanket’ flashed a patchwork of fields and the main road. The cloud broke and we were right on the strip….
The families were excited and eventually we turned and landed with a rush on the dark gravel airstrip, perched on the very edge of the Great Rift Valley…….Lake Manyara was on the left side as we came in…..it was very green as there had been rain in the preceding weeks, and the lake levels were high. Just a shimmer of pink from the flocks of flamingo’s (Greater and Lesser) could be seen at times, as we turned on our approach.Our luggage was retrieved and I led everybody out to the waiting ‘cars’. The guides were there, all ready and organized with a table of tea, coffee AND hot chocolate! After checking luggage, loading and ‘loo’ stop, we set off down the hill for the Lake Manyara National Park, stopping en route to appreciate the view of the reserve and get an understanding off the topography and layout here. There was a lot of repair work going on near the park HQ, as the recent rains and flash-flood from the rivers from the escarpment had severely damaged some of the road crossings and bridges!
The thick forest was alive with Olive baboons and Samango or Blue monkeys………a handsome primate! The springs that flow from the hillside have created a permanent water source for the forest and mahogany, Crotons, and other tall evergreens provide a welcome canopy for several kilometers before giving way abruptly to Acacia scrub and savanna woodlands. We stopped for a short lunch break at a picnic spot. Red & Yellow barbets and Superb starlings, obviously used to gleaning crumbs from travelers hopped around under the tables and we managed to collect a couple of decent pictures of them.
One of the guides then made our day!! Talking in a low conspiratal voice he said (having got our attention with word ’leopard’) that there was a chance of us seeing a leopard in a tree with a bushbuck kill….just maybe. ‘How far ahead….Is it a leopard?……Why is it in a tree?…….Is the bushbuck dead?……..Will it still be there?….a barrage of questions came forth, all of which the guide and I answered with humour and understanding. We were in two vehicles and naturally we in the rear vehicle kept a good dust-free distance behind the front one, until we came to a low-level crossing over one of several rivers flowing across the road. There was a large elephant bull. He was standing in the middle of the road, staring distractedly at the front vehicle, ears out, tail waving from side to side, trunk down resting on the sand. I looked at him carefully…..he was not behaving normally….and then I saw why. He was in ‘musth’.
‘Musth’ is a Hindi word meaning ‘uncontrollable’, and it is a time when bulls become overloaded with testosterone, have swollen temporal glands and a dribbling penis…..they are in full breeding mode, and very unstable in their behavior. They tend to be either aggressive or atypically placid until something disturbs them, and they can then change their mood in a flash.
The elephant slowly advanced towards the front vehicle…and the guide rapidly reversed, keeping an increasing distance between himself and the advancing elephant. After fifty meters or so…the guide stopped and the elephant wandered off the track into the bush. We drove on, (with a brief acceleration) passing the broad rump of the feeding bull half hidden in the greenery. Lots of chattering and noise from my guests….more questions. After a further 15 minutes the guide slowed the vehicle (we were in front now) and stopped next to a large Sausage tree…leaned over to the left side and peered up into the tree….smiled and pointed.
There it was….the most beautiful leopard. The animal was standing facing us, through a wall of leaves, and only when he paused and looked at us could we see his golden eyes. The head of a female bushbuck lay, glazed eyes black and shiny, over the broad bough of the tree. ‘Where is it?’……Everybody was trying to see at once and I had to calm everybody down, keeping it quiet and describe what it was they were looking at…and they all gradually got it. Sighs and exclamations of awe!
The leopard tired of feeding eventually, and jumped to another branch, lay down in full view and then carefully, cleaned itself by licking it paws and wiping them over its’ ears, and then the paws themselves. We collected some unforgettable images here, and with regret had to leave him sitting on the branch…we still had a way to go.
Eventually we reached the lodge after a final corridor of the most magnificent cathedral of Umbrella thorn Acacias. All the staff and managers were out to greet the vehicles with song and dance, refreshing towels and drinks.
What a day of surprises and travel tales.
Our cabins were a delight. These were huge bedrooms, all en suite with an outside shower and sitting area, with a large front verandah facing into the forest. Warm, well lit and so comfortably furnished as well. The pathways were lit by post-lights, and the greenery created a natural wall on each side of the paths. We were escorted to and from the main lodge by the porters who kept a good look out for elephant bulls that wandered about the camp.
Weird guttural screams woke us all at times…Thick-tailed bushbabies.
An early morning drive along the lakeshore. Zebra herds grazed along the foreshore, silhouetted against the mirror of the lake. Several groups of pale wildebeest watched us with bushy eyes, snorting and swinging their tails, galloped and frolicked, as they do when uncertain of what to do. This population is unique amongst White-bearded gnu’s in that the pale ‘oatmeal’ form is derived from the traditional gray form, and one can see them mixed together in the same herd. Very attractive to see.
Scattered small flocks of flamingo’s wandered along the shallows…..their guttural, low, throaty squawk quite at contrast to their plumage of shades of pink. Pelicans also paraded past like a tiny flotilla of important boats..their huge bills tucked neatly against their smooth chests. I found a tiny Kittlitze’s plover looking ‘guilty’….standing watching our vehicles drive past. I stopped the guide and eventually we found the nest. These plovers are the only species of plovers here that cover their eggs when danger appears. The female then runs away from the nest and performs the broken-wing distraction display, drawing the would-be predator away from her eggs or young. I gently blew the sand away from her eggs, exposing them for the guests to see….again. Much chatter and questions, they loved seeing them. We covered them up again and then left the bird standing some 100 feet away, watching us calmly. She would have waited until we were well away before returning to incubate.
The scenery along the lake grasslands was wonderfully calm, and with the backdrop of the forested slopes of the Rift cliffs on one side, and calm, almost blue of the lake on the other, we HAD to stop and collect some great photographs. The game was good, and everywhere here we were in sight of wildebeest, zebra, impala and numerous birds. The morning light was perfect as well. Eventually we stopped for a well earned breakfast next to some thorn trees. What a spread! What a view!
After breakfast we continued along the lake shore until the road reached the cliff base and we followed it amongst the boulders and Wild Gardenias to the Hot Springs. A Klipspringer and his mate paused briefly to let us collect some incredible pictures before skipping off on soft hooves to hide amongst the greenery covering the huge boulder-field along the base of the cliffs. The hot spring is a natural feature created by boiling hot water that bubbles out from under some rocks and flows gently away towards the lake. Natural hot springs the world over create unique habitats and plants, algae, crustacea, insects and even fish have adapted specific characteristics that enable them to occupy these very tough niches.
Alage seem to coat the rocks around hot springs and then sedges and grasses take over as the water cools. These were no different and nearer the lake side several old buffalo bulls munched and ruminated amidst the dark green sward. They were not concerned about us at all.
On our way back to the camp, it was hotter and we encountered several small herds of elephant feeding amongst the lush undergrowth. They created a bit of a stir when a young female trumpeted loudly and rushed one of the vehicles in a fit of pique! The old cows just ignored her tantrum and carried on feeding, and even the Olive baboons weren’t impressed. They just carried on grooming and talking to eachother in low almost human grunts.
Our routine was fairly standard, but each drive was so different in content and excitement. We glimpsed a leopard one day in the thickets near the shore. The cat had been on its way back from the lake when we rounded the corner. It had immediately bolted into cover. Only golden eyes betrayed it staring at us through the bushes. It paused long enough for me to find it briefly and then flashed away, running low, tail down, it melted before my eyes into the bushes….gone. Only two guests, the guide and I had seen it. It was SO shy, and the Vervet monkeys shouted abuse at it for the next 15 minutes as the cat worked its’ way deeper into the forest. Monkeys are prize leopard-spotters and will keep up a constant staccato gibbering call until the leopard disappears from view. One only has to hear that call to know there is one around……even as far as a kilometer away!
We had fun completing a bird list for the area, including the Camp Specials…Long-tailed Fiscal shrike, Red throated twinspot, Crowned eagle, Yellow spotted nicator to name a few. The Pangani Long claw proved elusive until one evening drive when we were watching 15 bull elephants at a spring just mooching around and wrestling each other. We found one bird sitting on the tall grass sward, as the light was fading, and despite all attempts managed only one reasonable photo, but we have it embedded in our minds forever. A beautiful longclaw with an orange throat and yellow streaked chest, and the quietest of calls.
One day we visited a village on the border of the reserve and part of the group rode bicycles through the settlement whilst a few of us opted to walk through the fields to the lake. Huge Sausage trees and Sycamore figs distracted us along the way through fields of tall, rustling, dry corn. Eventually we rendezvoused with the ‘cyclists’ and enjoyed a quick G & T on the grassy shoreline before heading home.
The camp itself was delightful, and with much reluctance we left it one morning for the last leg of our trip. Needless to say, en route we had an elephant ‘walk-by’ with several bulls passing us closely as they stayed on the road….their brown eyes watching us closely from gray wrinkled faces. The last bull was magnificent, with lovely tusks, huge ears and a definite swagger…. he was in musth! We gave him plenty of room.
Ngorongoro Crater Lodge
What an incredible place! We were in Tree Camp, which overhangs the very edge of the crater, so from the small verandah (whilst sipping tea or something else ending with T) we could see right into the Crater, and with binoculars I could count the animals easily. The décor and furnishings are fit for dreams, the food and service we received outstanding, and our ‘cabins’ outlandishly sumptuous and comfortable. Our first evening there, the evening calm (cool though) was suddenly was suddenly shattered by a loud scream and into our view came a whole procession of Masaai moran and women too. They each carried a flaming torch. The men in their red shukas, carried flaming torches and their sticks, they were followed by a dozen women also with torches. The men were uttering that nasal bleating sounds and grunting with each small jump…a description fails….the effect however in the glow of the flames, with red shukas and firelight was VERY effective. They danced and jumped for the best part of 45minutes and then as suddenly disappeared into the night. Great spectacle.
The crater drive the next day started off well with a late start and views over the crater and the Masai cattle herds moving along the floor of the crater, following well incised tracks made of scores of years. The Masai water their cattle every day, and drive them out over the escarpment again, the red cloaks of the herdsmen a bright mark against a dry brown dusty landscape. The first birds we saw were ‘specials’, the Schalows’ Wheatear, a male and a female, so we were lucky.
As we were deliberately late we were able to avoid the dust of other vehicles and so wandered at our own pace along the well-worn tracks around the lake Magadi. Distant flamingo’s and smaller birds waded in the shallows of the muddy lake. Wildebeest, zebra, Cokes Hartebeest, Thompson’s gazelles, buffalo and distant elephant were all we could see at one time. Two troops of Olive baboons also paraded across our path through the Lerai Forest. Vervet or Black faced monkeys too. We searched diligently for two hours for sign of Black rhino to no avail, and took the easterly track away from the forest, after a much-needed stop for a loo break. A very distant rhino was sighted and after a hectic dash across the plains the guide realized that the rhino was in fact long gone and we finally spotted it as it merged into the landscape and disappeared from our view. We did see one though! Long may it roam.
Herds of wildebeest appeared to our front, some were running east towards the lake and the greenery, so we stopped to let them by…….and the herd numbers just kept going…on and on…the main group was in a dip in the landscape and so were out of sight. What an amazing spectacle! Eventually the front of the herd finished drinking and started running out of the other end towards the hill slopes and then split so we had a three way line of animals all moving in a rocking gate so typical of the wildebeest. Difficult to capture with a still camera.
Lions were lying in tall scrub about 60 yards from the road…and a long line of cars with travelers hanging out of the tops staring or lines of thick-barreled lenses like weapons faced the lions. We stayed a few moments and moved on. We had brunch near the lake, away from the other vehicles doing the same thing, and enjoyed a very filling and satisfying meal, naturally in the company of Rufous-tailed weavers and Superb starlings too. After brunch we ambled slowly across the plains westwards to see hippos and investigate a low ridge of hills. The hippo were absent, except one which perambulated across the grassland, causing much mirth on its stubby legs and deliberate movements…reminiscent of a drunk trying to be ‘extra careful’ in public! The next excitement was a serval. The front vehicle spotted a serval near the road, beautifully backlit in the late afternoon sun….we were about to move forward when one of our group saw another….causing considerable confusion for a few moments in our vehicle….hilarious. Our serval sighting was distant but clear…and the animal was hunting. His lovely spots and cautious movements allowing him to blend into the tall grass easily. Only the black ear tips enabled us to follow him easily…until he too disappeared. More wildebeest and a lonely Cokes Hartebeest were near us as we climbed a the long hill past the Baumann’s old farm ruins out of the carter. An Auger Buzzard clung to a bare branch, balancing itself against the wind.
We climbed out past Flat topped acacias, scrubby bushes and trees and eventually exited the park…pausing again for a loo stop. The drive back to the lodge was melancholy except for the sighting of a melanistic Slender mongoose! This was a very unusual sighting and we managed to get a few shots of it on the edge of the road.
Dinner that evening was superb, and we prepared for a departure at 0800 am the next day. Naturally we had to stop at a curio shop en route and indulge in a little retail therapy….Tanzanite was hot on the list. Just one of Tanzania’s gems!!