Ugalla Game Reserve – The Wild Thing
Travel Report by Safaridude
I’ve had lousy luck with wild dogs. Not that I had never seen them. I actually have had two quality viewings in my five previous safaris. Both times though, it was the case of what might have been. On other occasions, I simply missed them by a hair.
In June 1989, I saw a pack of them near Aitong, just outside Maasai Mara. Having just graduated from business school, deep in debt but with a job offer, I was part of a dirt-cheap, lorry safari. A few days later, everything I brought, including my camera and rolls of film, was stolen out of the lorry near Lake Naivasha. The entire pack of dogs apparently died of canine distemper about two weeks after I photographed them; they are the last known pact to roam Maasai Mara. Somewhere around Naivasha, I am convinced, there is a garbage dump where a roll of undeveloped film containing deteriorating images of those dogs is buried.
In 1997 while at King’s Pool in Linyanti, Botswana, a pack of wild dogs appeared out of nowhere, closely circled our vehicle a few times, plunged into the Linyanti swamps, and chased after some lechwes on the other side (Namibia), never to be seen by me again. Unfortunately, I had a very long lens loaded onto my camera at the time, and most of the images I took are not sharp because the dogs were too darn close!
In 1993, while at Tsaro Camp, Botswana, I just missed by less than a minute a pack of nine dogs that came into camp. In 1995, at Swala Camp in Tarangire, Tanzania, a pack of four dogs apparently came to the waterhole in front of camp at sunrise. The camp manager, with whom I shared my fondness for the dogs the night before, inexplicably decided not to alert me. It was the closest I’ve ever come to being homicidal.
About a month before the trip, I was told by the folks who operate the Ugalla concession that there was a known pack of dogs there. But, I knew that was a long shot. Wild dogs always are. The main reason for going to Ugalla for me was the healthy population of sable antelopes (my personal favorite) and a chance to see a real miombo park. The dogs would be gravy.
In Tanzania, unlike Kenya, hunting is legal. Obviously, hunting is illegal in the national parks, but strangely, photographic safaris are also prohibited in hunting areas such as Ugalla. I don’t hunt, but through a special arrangement, I was able to accompany bird shooters to Ugalla, a big-game hunting concession located in western Tanzania. Hunting in Tanzania, as it turns out, is a precisely managed affair. Each hunt must be accompanied by a PH (professional hunter) and a government game scout who monitors the hunt. There are stringent regulations and ethics, closely monitored game quotas, and stiff penalties for violations. I don’t pretend to have visited every hunting concession in Tanzania with every hunting operator, but my view of hunting is vastly different (much more positive) now that I had the chance of witnessing it firsthand. I, personally, could never shoot anything, and I don’t understand the psyche of those who do – but in terms of conservation and the love of animals, hunters and photographers have a lot more in common than we realize. Someone once said “when the question is black or white, the answer is usually grey”. As an example of that, I asked the PH, Craig, what he thought of elephant culling. His answer was “where?” “Depending on where, yes and no”.
I have never been to Ruaha or Katavi, but I imagine that Ugalla is a cross between them. The Ugalla River runs through the concession, whittled down to pools in the dry season. Extensive floodplains, some of them miles wide and dotted with borassus palms and topis, flank the river. Away from the river, combretum/terminalia woodlands give way to mature brachestygia (often called “miombo”) forests. These dense woodlands are interspersed with open plains (locally called “mbugas”) where sable and roan antelopes and Lichtenstein’s hartebeests can be found. The local western Tanzanian sables belong to the “Kirki” race, with the frontal white nasal stripes being abbreviated. The “Kirki” race occurs also in western Zambia, but the ones in western Tanzania are somewhat smaller and some fully mature males stay dark brown unlike the jet-black Zambian ones.
I never had so much fun tracking animals as I did at Ugalla. As you can imagine, the animals are extremely skittish, because they are being shot at., but, ironically, the best way to approach them is by foot. Luckily, there is a lot of cover and there are some gigantic termite mounds on the floodplains and mbugas. Once we spotted an animal, such as sable or roan, that we wanted to get closer to, Craig and the game scout would lead us on a track. Craig, with his rifle loaded, and the head tracker would be in the front, the government game scout, with his rifle loaded, would bring up the rear, and me and the bird shooters would be sandwiched in between. When the sable or roan turned away or began to graze, we would carefully walk single-file to the next strategic termite mound – then wait until the next opportune moment and head for the next mound and so forth. Why the single-file? In case the animal detected our presence, we wanted to give it a view of one person rather than a group. A conga line is a more accurate description. We must have looked pretty silly going from one termite mind to the next.
We saw roan twice, and we saw sable on every game drive. But the fully mature jet-black male eluded me (of the four fairly mature males we saw, two of them were black and two of them were dark brown – again characteristic of the sables in western Tanzania) -- except at the dinner table. There was plenty of leftover game meat in the refrigerator, thanks to the previous hunting party. It was certainly strange eating sable, my favorite animal. I relayed that experience to my young sons by satellite phone, and they thought I had gone nuts. Sable was better than I thought, but still tough. Reedbuck, on the other hand, was outstanding, rivaling kudu and eland I had on previous safaris to Namibia.
The next to the last morning, we followed the Ugalla River downstream toward the rarely visited western corner of the reserve. On the open floodplain, we came upon a fresh carcass of a young topi. Craig thought it looked like a cheetah or hyena job, although hyenas are rare in Ugalla and cheetahs may not occur there at all. As we left the carcass, one of the trackers in the back of the vehicle yelled out “fisi” (meaning hyena in Kiswahili), pointing toward a large termite mound. In the dappled shade of a borassus palm tree, indeed a hyena-shaped face peered at us. A split second later, my heart began to race as it always does when I see those large, round ears. It was no fisi. It was a wild dog pup. For the next twenty minutes, we would follow the pack composed of four adults and eight pups. Against all odds, somehow these survivors were carving out an existence in this remote hunting reserve.
The last morning was a sad one. What is it about East Africa that tugs at your heart? Whenever people ask me what the difference is between East Africa and Southern Africa, I always answer “Southern Africa fulfills you – you feel like you were in absolute paradise; East Africa breaks your heart”. Unlike the end of my previous safaris though, I absolutely knew I would be back again -- soon. I also knew that when I got back home, I would spread the word (in formats such as this site) about the special places in East Africa that need our patronage. For every sad story like Nairobi National Park (see Part I of my trip report in a separate thread), there were two successful stories like Campi ya Kanzi and Meru, but places such as those constantly need the tourist revenues. Late morning, waving goodbye to the game scout, the trackers and camp staff of Ugalla, heart-broken but completely satisfied with the trip, with a picture of my lovely wife and children in my head, I stepped into the waiting Cessna Caravan and headed north toward civilization.