Tuesday, September 27, 2011

As if butter wouldn't melt in their mouths

Photographs by Kennedy John

Pictures to melt even the most hardened of hearts.  All taken on safari this year.

Tales of the Unexpected.

                                                                               By Kennedy John
Sometimes, things happen in the bush which are not explained by the usual 'blah blah' of animal behaviour guide books. It shows how much we still really do not know of these matters. I observed a group of  three cheetah brothers and close by, three nearly adult cubs and their mother. The posture of the three brothers was head low, stiff legged walking which usually signifies agression. I assumed that mother and the cubs would flee but  they turned and attacked the coalition of males in unison until they reached a stalemate, whereby all seven settled down in close proximity to each other, looking puzzled, like me I suppose, by the behaviour of the young cheetah cubs and their mother. They never expected that challenge either.

A story of unusual cooperation near Tarangire Silale Swamp. It is a normal thing to see feathered creatures such as oxpeckers clean buffalo by taking off the ticks and other insect life from their hides. But it is not at all normal to see a bird cleaning another bird. I observer this fork-tailed drongo, perched on the bulbous head  of a Black-chested Snake Eagle. Thinking that this small bird was about to attack and maybe kill a large eagle though the eagle was doing nothing to get away, I picked up my binos and to see exactly what was happening. The insect collecter was actually picking parasites off the head of the eagle. I do not know if it was a common occurence in some places but to me, it was a new thing: to observe brids cleaning each other. Was it mutual benefit? Yes definitely. Drongo gets food and eagle gets cleaned, isn’t nature wonderful!

You never know what is just around the corner.......

By Chediel Mnzava

On safari with a lovely family in July this year.
Location:  Katavi National Park.
And this is why I like game drives. You just do not know
what is round the corner.

Late in the evening, making our way back to Chada camp, we stopped to take pictures of a beautiful sunset. Then, from nowhere,  a leopard came running fast towards our vehicle. About 10 meters from the car, there was a small acacia tree. The leopard took a giant leap and grabbed a vervet monkey from the tree, just in front of us. We were all left with our mouths open. This all happened within a few seconds. It was so fast our great photographer, Andrew, only managed to snap one quick shot as the leopard was running away with the monkey hanging from his mouth.

This is another leopard spotted soon after, the result of careful reconstruction at the scene of the crime. We spotted the impala in the tree first and then searched around until we found the perpetrator.

The safari had many high points. On one of our game drives, we were watching an elephant picking up seed pods from under an acacia tree. We stayed with him for more than 10 minutes, not moving, just watching what he did with his trunk and admiring his ability to pick up such small things with his big trunk. He pushed the pod up with his foot, then picked it up in his trunk. Just before he moved off, he gave us a bit of a show, making a small, quick rush towards our landrover. He stopped a few meters from the car and shook his ears and kicked up some dust before turning around and calmly walking away and disappeared into the bush. As a guide, I knew it was all OK, the elephant was just showing off, but my clients were a bit uncomfortable until they saw that I was not worried. It turned out to be one of the highlights of the safari and gave them a completely different experience of elephants from all the elephants that we had seen before. They thought they knew alot about elephants but now they know even more.

The elephant having a good look in the car, before calmly walking off.

Mahale was next. On the way, we spotted a boat taxi just leaving with its passengers - the best way to get around on the deepest lake in Africa.

We had a good time there, we saw the chimps twice and both times, we did not have to walk far to find them.

We had a nice walk to the waterfall with a beautiful scenery on the way. It was so relaxing swimming on Lake Tanganyika and watching the sunset of the lake from the boat, talking about all the exciting experiences we had in the past 10 days.Mahale came at the right place on our itinerary to bring us to the end of this wonderful expereince.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Moru Magic

By Richard Knocker
Photos by Mike Carr Hartley

What a pleasure to spend a few days in Moru once again.

Moru Kopjes, in central Serengeti, is one of the park’s iconic landscapes – great looming outcrops of granite, like so many whale backs, rolling through a grassy ocean. The up-thrust rocks give all kinds of trees a toehold, somewhere where they can flourish in the otherwise undifferentiated grassland. Each kopje is a botanical wonderland, with a crazy profusion of growth – and this, in turn, makes rich habitat for all kinds of birds, reptiles and mammals.

We are camped up by Ol Donyo Olobaaye (‘the last hill’), with long views over the plains, dotted at this time with zebra and gazelle. On the way to camp, we are blessed with 3 leopard sightings. One even climbs a tree for us, just to impress with his power and agility.
Late that afternoon, we are rewarded with sightings of spotted hyena and then a caracal, the elegant lynx of Africa.

Next day, we aim to take in the whole Moru area, but it is not to be – we come across a hunting cheetah, not far from camp. She spots a young gazelle and, after a short stalk, accelerates to full speed. At first, it looks as though the gazelle must get away but the cheetah quickly closes the gap and takes it down in a flurry of dust. She drags her prey into the shade of a bush and sinks down, suddenly invisible.
There is a pride of lion a little further on, with 3 young males right by the road, and the light is fabulous. We enjoy the sight, before tearing ourselves away to follow the river downstream with elephant, buffalo and giraffe along the way – then another pride of lion, whiling away the hours in the shade of a desert date. There are 5 tiny cubs; they can’t be more than a couple of months old. We spend a good long time here and as we are about to move away, 3 of the females spot a herd of zebra in the thick bush down by the river. They move purposefully into position. This is beginning to look like a 2-kill morning!

Meanwhile, a large herd of elephant is drifting our way. This could get interesting, as elephant don’t get on well with lion. Sure enough, they pick up the smell of large cat and several adults come over, ears out and looking like they want to show everyone exactly who’s boss around here. The male lions very quickly decide that discretion is the better part of valour and head for the rocks, quickly followed by the remaining adults. The cubs stare in consternation at the huge grey legs towering over them, then turn tail… another safari vehicle chooses this moment to move into a better position, which spooks the already nervous cubs, and they shoot off in the wrong direction.
The cats have all disappeared and there’s nothing to show for this little drama, except a herd of elephant, snoozing in the shade. We are concerned for the cubs – their mother is away hunting and they are on their own. She will find them easily enough later, but in the meantime they are at risk from a whole suite of predators – leopard, hyena, python or even a large eagle. Eventually, we turn and head for home.

The next morning, en route to our next camp, we swing by the pride again. Most of the adults are perched decoratively on a nearby kopje, every inch the kings and queens of the jungle. No sign of the cubs or their mother though; this could just be because she has them hidden away in a safe nook somewhere but we aren’t totally reassured.

Later, on a little used track, a herd of kongoni run from the car; why are they so wary of humans? The herd splits and we watch one group, as they bounce away with their distinctive gait. Mikey spots a lion – ‘Where did she comes from?’ There are 2 of them and they are feeding. The fleeing kongoni must have run straight past them and they made an opportunistic kill. Feeling a tad guilty, we continue on our way.

In the meantime, our home has been moved – the camp is now in the heart of the Western Corridor. We are here hoping for the migration. Once the southern plains dry up and the grazing around central Serengeti has been depleted, this is where the great herds come. In theory, at any rate – the whole migrations story seems so cut-and-dried, it scarcely seems possible to miss out. After all, there are over a million of these animals! The reality, however, isn’t so simple. Some of the cues (weather, grazing etc) that drive the migration are too subtle for mere humans to grasp.

We are in luck though. Next morning, we come over a rise into a great throng of wildebeest, all honking and mooing, a great wall of sound. For the rest of the morning, we are surrounded wherever we go. A terrific sight.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Midas Touch

By Sara Ashby

We had been watching the weather charts for days. It wasn’t looking good. Should we cancel the weekend or go somewhere else, somewhere with sunny skies and no black cotton soil? Nah… it would be fine.
So, the six of us set off to Mkomazi National Park, in a highly modified Land Rover and a ‘well loved’ Land Cruiser aka the “Anti-Christ” with its '666' number plate. As you can imagine from the very start, the Land Cruiser vrs Land Rover snipes were being texted between the two vehicles. Which was the real safari car?
We were only going for two nights and yet the cars were stuffed to the gunnels. I think it was the odd case of Pinot Grigio and slabs of cold beer that took up the majority of space. I, on the other hand, had packed my Ribena juice and granola bars.
It was time to get out of the office, back into the bush and what better way to do it than with a bunch of good mates? Just because we all work in the safari industry sadly, it doesn’t mean we spend our whole time in the bush.
Passing through the Park entrance gate, to our delight, we saw that we were the only people in the park. How brilliant is that? An entire Park to ourselves!

Squeaking into the campsite just before dark, we were half way through putting up tents when the heavens opened. It rained for a solid 4 hours. We got absolutely soaked to the bone. A makeshift tarpaulin and a dead acacia became our mess tent. Hey, we are safaris gurus - we improvised! The tarp leaked, the wind and horizontal rain put out our gas stove and our strip light was buggered. Gurus? … but at least the beers & wine were cold.

After a hearty breakfast, we set out to explore. Mkomazi is not known for her spectacular wildlife and rarely features on the normal milk run of the northern Tanzanian safari circuit. The game drive lasted 7 hours and, in that time, we saw a total of four different mammals and usually only the southern end of a north-going mammal. Thank God, we didn’t have paying clients along.

When the going gets this tough, it is a challenge to be kept entertained and this daunting duty lay solely at the feet of Richard Knocker. He thought he had the weekend off from his guiding duties… nope, sorry mate.

The passengers on board were probably worse than having paying clients. We all know our stuff, having been pro-guides ourselves. We have an intimate knowledge of the bush and there is little we don’t know. Well, that’s what we thought…..

No cats, no kills were seen that day. Man, that sounds boring, you might think. However…. it takes 7 hours of seeing absolutely ‘nothing’ to release just what it takes to be a real pro-guide. I have never had such an entertaining, interesting nor educational day. When the big five didn’t materialize, Richard kept us mesmerized with all the ‘small’ stuff. We learnt about robber flies, butterflies, trees, flowers. We read tracks & spoor down the road, learnt what leaves to eat if you have worms and what not to do when you hear ox pecker birds exploding out of thick bush whilst on foot - an indication that buffalo are present really close by. We chewed on things, smelt things, walked up kopjes, held poo and dissected owl pellets to find the jaw bones of different rodent species. Seven hours went by in a flash and still not a cat in sight. One of the best game drives we’d all had ever, except for the teeny weenie fact that the cooler box of beer & wine had been left behind in camp.

Golden Pipit

The birdlife of Mkomazi is absolutely amazing and I find it fitting that our favorite bird of the weekend was the Golden Pipit.

Oh, did I mention that Richard has just passed his Gold level exam with the Kenya Professional Safari Guides Association (KPSGA), one of only 10 in East Africa, and the only Gold level Guide in Tanzania? A Golden bird spotted by a Golden Guide, aka “Gigi”. Would I have paid good money to have been in Mkomazi with him? Dead right, I would have!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Threatened migrating herds need Wildlife Corridors more than ever

By Richard Knocker

When Tarangire National Park was gazetted, back in 1970, few foresaw the looming population explosion, or the farms that would spring up in what were then, important wet-season dispersal areas for migrating herbivores.

That has now come to pass. Populations of migrants such as wildebeest and zebra have crashed, largely cut off from their ancestral calving grounds.

AWF (African Wildlife Foundation) recognised the need to protect important game corridors outside National Parks, in order to keep the old migration routes open. An important (if controversial) move was the purchase of Manyara Ranch, a 44,000-acre chunk of land occupying a central position in the vital Kwakuchinja Corridor, connecting Tarangire to the nearby Lake Manyara National Park.

This is an attempt to achieve that holy grail of wildlife management – involving the local community in a sustainable conservation model, to the benefit of both people and wildlife. I wish them well. National Parks in Tanzania are, on the whole, in pretty good shape. Sure, there are inevitable issues, such as poaching. But I think most people are reasonably confident that, in 50 years or so, the parks will still be wildlife havens, providing enormous enjoyment to many visitors – and vital dollars to the national coffers. The future for wildlife outside the protected areas is much less certain.

There are similar projects afoot elsewhere in the region: north of the border, in Kenya, the Northern Rangelands Trust works closely with local communities, helping them to set up conservancies with fancy lodges so they can benefit from their wildlife resources. So far, NRT is involved in projects involving 15 communities, thereby helping to conserve hundreds of thousands of hectares of land in northern Kenya.

Here in Tanzania, high flying hedge fund manager and hunter / conservationist Paul Tudor Jones has been investing heavily in the Grumeti Game Reserve and Ikorongo Game Control Area, two degraded hunting blocks, lying just outside the western boundary of Serengeti National Park. The project has had its ups and downs but the proof of the pudding is in the eating: a few years ago, you would have been hard pushed to find much game in this area, so bad was the poaching. Now, it offers first-class viewing, with plenty of important species such as cats and elephant as well as hordes of plains game. Importantly, it now serves as an excellent buffer for the western Serengeti, which has historically suffered from massive poaching and wood cutting. And their conservation arm is leading the charge in the planned re-introduction of black rhino into the Serengeti ecosystem, to bolster the existing population.

What these projects have in common is the recognition that, outside the parks, successful conservation requires involving local communities and relies on the profit motive: I will protect that which benefits me. In other words, enlightened self-interest.

Contrast this with the situation elsewhere, in areas beyond park boundaries and lacking free spending conservation-minded billionaires: wildlife numbers are plummeting; the mechanisms and methods employed by wildlife authorities are, on the whole, outdated and simply not up to the task of conservation in the modern era. A lot of stick and not much carrot. And did I mention leaden bureaucracy?

Official policy has it that wildlife is a tremendous resource, a precious source of revenue, something to be cherished and nurtured – a blessing. The reality on the ground is somewhat messier: wild animals eat your crops and livestock; they are a threat to kids on their way to school, or women collecting firewood; and it is virtually impossible to make money from this ‘resource’, thanks to the convoluted and expensive bureaucratic procedures mentioned above. A neat example: a friend running a local NGO recently told me that the cost of creating a WMA (Wildlife Management Area) which is the legal process for Villages to regain control over their natural resources and develop commercial community toursim projects, could run up to a quarter of a million US dollars. Villages in rural Tanzania don’t HAVE that kind of money, which means that conservation can only happen in conjunction with large NGO’s with deep pockets.

Which means, once again, dependence on foreign aid…
What it really means is that wild animals are only really of any value dead, cut up into pieces and sold off to townies as bush meat.

So bring on the new private initiatives: if the game is to survive outside the parks, we will need this kind of approach.

Monday, January 31, 2011

The Spices of Life.

By Jules Knocker
Photos by India Howell and Annie Birch

You know what it is like: if you live in a country, you never actually travel around to see what is sitting on your own doorstep. It is so easy to put it off to another day. Exciting and exotic foreign climes seduce with their Siren calls and the days and years go by.

A couple of months ago, we were on Zanzibar with a group of friends and we decided to try out the Spice Tour, fully expecting a mildly entertaining morning, and feeling virtuous by taking an exercise break from chilled dawas and that extra plate of garlic tiger prawns and tender calamari rings that we could not resist the night before, around the pool.

Insufferably smug, we set off early to avoid the heat of the day – sunglasses and hats to the ready. After all, we live here... we know a thing or two or four!

How wrong we were! It turns out we knew almost nothing about many of the spices that infuse and seduce the dishes that we eat.

Fresh cloves and their flowers

Spices have, for well over a century, been a staple revenue earner for the island yet they are not indigenous. The Omani Sultan's Chief Envoy brought the plants over with him in the mid 19th century to try and provide some income and develop an economy for the poverty stricken isle. It took off and Zanzibar was soon known as the Spice Island. Jute bags of cloves, dried vanilla pods and nutmeg would line the shores to be loaded onto the wooden trading dhows and off they would sail, with the monsoon winds, to be delivered all over the world, leaving just a hint of exotic smells behind on the shore. I remember visiting Zanzibar in 1994 and coming across a small, wooden sailing jahazi on the beach. The captain was making repairs to the old planks and caulking the inevitable holes. Leaning into the empty skiff to watch his tradecraft, we were rewarded with a delicious aroma of wood, sea mist and cloves. The spice had left its mark long after departing those shores.

Back to the Spice Tour. The guide took his job seriously and we had to work hard for him. We had to guess what each plant was – he was not going to help. ‘Ginger’ we cried triumphant, as we spotted the telltale long leaves wrapped around a thick stem, only to be shown quite clearly that this was actually turmeric or one of two different types of cardamom. All the same family but such a variety of colours and tastes. Cardamom is the seed from the flower stalks but turmeric is the root, just like ginger.

Cardamon flowers

Vanilla orchids wove along branches and posts. Each flower has to be individually pollinated by hand every morning. The blooms are only pollinated in the wild by a tiny bee, the Melipone, which cannot survive outside its native Mexico. So never let your plant grow wild or you will have to shin up into the heights of the tree canopy to get at the flowers.

Vanilla pods

The piece-de-resistance was undoubtedly an unassuming greengage-type fruit. We could not even begin to guess that one. The guide cut it carefully open to reveal a veritable jewel: a beautiful, shiny, chestnut-coloured nutmeg covered in an intricate lattice work of deep-red mace. A glittering treasure in plain wrapping.

Nutmeg and Mace

The seed pods that produce the red dye used in chicken tikka, the blooms on the stumpy trees that end up as cloves, the bark that transforms into cinnamon sticks, the lemon grass tufts - it is all there waiting to be discovered.

The tikka dye on my fourth finger and the stain from tumeric on my middle finger

And at the end of it all, cups of tea flavoured with the different fruits, leaves, pods and barks that were, finally, familiar to us.

And the dawas? Crush 2-3 juicy limes and pop the juice in a wide glass, add a generous desert spoon of honey (more if limes are too tart) and mix. Add in the lime skins and fill with crushed ice then pour over a generous tot of cane spirit or vodka. Stir well and sip contentedly as the ice melts......

Repeat repeatedly.