A Trip Report by Safaridude
The following is what I saw, heard, smelled and felt at five truly magnificent places in East Africa. In short, Campi ya Kanzi was thought provoking with its unique pursuit of resolving human/wildlife conflicts; Meru quite simply stole my heart; Ngorongoro delivered once again; Serengeti mesmerized me with its immensity; and as for Ugalla, ooh… you’ll just have to read on…
Campi ya Kanzi, Kuku Group Ranch – the Future of Conservation
On the morning of September 10, our charter plane from Wilson airport sprinted down the runway southbound toward Nairobi National Park. In three previous trips to Kenya, this had been the official beginning of the safari, the defining moment -- as hundreds of zebras and wildebeests, having migrated from the nearby Athi plains at the onset of the dry season, would soon be seen. But only a couple of minutes into the flight, I came to a quick realization: Nairobi National Park was dead. I had been reading in Swara magazine about the plight of Nairobi National. New human settlements were blocking migratory corridors to the south and east. Cut off from their seasonally plentiful food supply, lions in particular suffered hard. I had seen pictures of the emaciated lions in Swara, but the brown, empty plains below me somehow looked more grotesque.
Thirty or so minutes into the flight, the pilot pointed out Mt. Kilimanjaro to our right. It, too, was an unfamiliar sight, as the snowcap has been reduced to nothing but a sliver due to climatic changes. Just when I was feeling let down, the emerald, improbably shaped hills of Chyulu came into view. Just south of them lies Kuku Group Ranch, where Campi ya Kanzi (“Camp of the Hidden Treasure” in Kiswahili) is located. Ten years ago, Luca Belpietro and his wife Antonella Bonomi, both originally from Italy, struck a deal with the local Maasai landlords to co-develop eco-tourism in this important wildlife dispersal area between Amboseli National Park and Tsavo West National Park. The camp provides employment for the local Maasais, the trust that was set up in conjunction with the camp helps them build and maintain schools and medical facilities, an agreement is made to restrict livestock grazing from certain areas of the ranch, and ultimately tourism revenues are shared. During the next three days, we would explore, in a vehicle and by foot, an array of biomes contained within the 250,000 acre ranch, including the whistling-thorn flecked plains surrounding camp, the artesian spring area several hundred feet below, and the dramatic hills above leading up to a patch of rainforest.
In the afternoons, we opted for game drives or walks above camp. The vistas from high up at Kuku Group Ranch rival those of Laikipia or even Ngorongoro. I took some of the best landscape photographs I have ever taken (it was easy). At sunset, it’s just one of those places -- with an endless view of the plains leading up to the base of Kilimanjaro and a cold Tusker in hand -- to contemplate life. Fauna-wise, the area around and above camp may as well be renamed “Hartebeest Farm”. The long, dry grasslands do not support big concentrations of game, but that is where those awkward looking beasts with fanatical eyes thrive, along with smaller herds of zebras, elands, giraffes and impalas. Lions and cheetahs occur here but in small doses. On several occasions, we saw lion tracks, and we were lucky to spot five cheetahs sitting together one late afternoon. Some unusual observations were made on the hills. We saw a lone male Thomson’s gazelle high up on the ranch in a patch of very tall grass long ways from any watering source (Thomson’s gazelles are reputed to prefer short grass and need to drink every day). As Luca would later point out, most of the research on Thomson’s gazelles has been carried out in Serengeti-Mara or Ngorongoro, and when it comes to wild animals, there is only one rule: there are no rules. We also saw a giraffe utilizing browse on a nearly vertical hill even though there were miles of suitable browsing below.
The highlight of the game viewing experience at Kuku Group Ranch, however, is the trips to the springs. These drives are typically done in the morning. As you descend from camp, one may be lucky to see a naked view of Killimanjaro’s peak before it gets shrouded by the usual late-morning clouds. About 30 minutes into the drive, you begin to come across some of the local Maasais, with their ever-present cattle and goats, in a large swath of shockingly overgrazed land. After passing several Maasai villages on the main road, the vehicle turns left onto a tiny, almost undetectable road. The scenery changes abruptly and dramatically. You enter an area of green acacia trees and shrubs, reminiscent of Amboseli National Park’s edges, which I saw seventeen years ago, and which I am not certain still exist. Clearly, it is an area endowed with a high water table, because the vegetation stays green throughout the dry season. I forgot exactly what Luca told me about the area, but it is either an area which the Maasais for some reason choose not to let their livestock graze or an area that is off-limits for them according to an agreement struck with them. The area teems with giraffes, Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelles, gerenuks, elands, and offers fleeting glimpses of lesser kudus. In the open plain beyond the acacia patch, I had a good viewing of the fringe-eared oryx. It was, for me, the highlight of my stay at Kuku Group Ranch; because I know their population is crashing, without much fanfare, throughout Kenya and Tanzania. At the edge of the plain, elephants can be seen watering from the springs. Just when you reach that blissful state of mind though, Africa throws you a curveball -- as belts of new cultivation (mostly corn) appears near the springs, highlighting the challenges of human/wildlife conflicts this land faces.
The overall experience at Campi ya Kanzi is one of total harmony. The camp is set inconspicuously on a gently rolling terrain. The individual tents and the main mess area are built in a completely eco-friendly manner. No careful planning was spared in this regard. For instance, each toilet has two flush buttons: one for small flushes and one for large. I came away from Campi ya Kanzi thinking that there are endless ways we can all strive to conserve. Ultimately, the place is about Luca. His magnanimous personality trickles down the plains and percolates up the hills. A self-described lunatic, he almost single-handedly created this innovative experiment in conservation. He is fluent or conversant in many languages. With just a hint of an accent, his English is much more eloquent than yours or mine. More so than any place I have visited in Africa (yes, I have been to the wonderful Lewa Downs), this was the most intimate and familial. It’s just like being a house guest in a Tuscan villa – except, of course, for the sound of Cape buffalos grazing twenty feet away from your tent at night.
Campi ya Kanzi was ultimately stimulating to the mind. It charged me up. I saw the future of wildlife conservation in Africa there: give an economic stake to the local people living on the periphery of national parks. I see this as the most logical, sustainable method of wildlife conservation. Campi ya Kanzi has been around for ten years. The neighboring Ol Donyo Wuas, located on the adjacent Mbirikani Group Ranch, has been around longer. I do not know how financially successful these concession areas are to the operators of the establishments or the Maasais who ultimately own the land. But, I do detect an enormous amount of positive vibes from the folks at Campi ya Kanzi. During my stay, I met a young man there whose family is close to Luca and Antonella. This current resident of South Africa and frequent visitor to Campi ya Kanzi told me that at times it is hard to be optimistic about Africa, but we both agreed that it doesn’t mean we should stop trying. Ecological failure is not an option for those of us who love Africa so much. The first step for all of you is to visit places like Campi ya Kanzi yourself. It will help, even if only marginally, to financially validate the innovative conservation model. Besides, you’ll love it. You will be profoundly moved. In many ways, it is a richer overall experience than “doing the Big-Five” at Maasai Mara. Thank you Luca, Antonella, Stefano, Samson, Matasha, Thomas, Pashiet, etc. at the Camp of the Hidden Treasure.
(Note: I, along with many people I met on the trip, generally agreed that places like Campi ya Kanzi, Ol Donya Wuas, Lewa Downs, etc. are better to visit at the end of your safari. This is contrary to what most travel agents recommend. I just think it is better to get the Big-Five/cats/migration thing out of your system at places like Maasai Mara first, so that you can relax and take in everything these other places have to offer.)
Meru National Park – Reclaiming Paradise
No, I didn’t grow up with “Born Free”. As you may know, Meru National Park was where Elsa, the lioness, from “Born Free” was released. A few weeks before the trip, however, I did take out from a local library a couple of books written by Joy Adamson about her cheetah, Pippa, who was also released in Meru. The books were revealing. Adamson describes what must have been an absolute paradise. She describes Pippa surveying her options on the plains filled with big herds of Grant’s gazelles and beisa oryxes. Today, Meru is a far cry from what Pippa saw. Somali poachers began infiltrating the park in the ‘70s and then again in the ‘80s (there was an infamous incident when a poaching gang, armed with automatic weapons, killed off several white rhinos along with their human guardians in 1988). After a brief period or respite, the poachers returned with a vengeance in the late ‘90s when they virtually anchored themselves inside the park and poached out pretty much everything in sight except for the unpalatable waterbucks. Once a park that drew 50,000 visitors a year in the ‘70s, Meru became defunct. In 1999, however, Meru received a sizeable foreign aid in a bid to restore the park to its former glory. Since then, poachers have been forced out, security tightened around the periphery, local community relationships improved, and hundreds of animals translocated from other parts of Kenya. As a ringing endorsement to the state of affairs at Meru, several black and white rhinos have been moved into the park again – in a closely guarded rhino sanctuary in the northwest corner of the park. All of this information can be found on the internet in far greater detail. It’s exciting stuff.
Frankly, I was a bit apprehensive about Meru, not because of the security situation which is now iron-clad, but because I had been told by some people that the game can be “spotty”. How wrong they were! All the classic “northern species” are represented at Meru, and their numbers are good and growing. Samburu, Meru’s closest rival, is a more condensed experience. The total wildlife numbers are probably much lower at Samburu, but due to Samburu’s small size, one can see everything there in a day and a half (including many species of mini-buses). At Meru, you need more time and have to cover more ground to see everything. But, an efficient network of roads allows you to do that. The scenery is diverse and at times downright haunting. Mature doum palm trees dot the open plains, giving one the sense of being in Jurassic Park. Thick strands of commiphora dominate the south. Bright green, stunted combretum trees, spaced out evenly forming an orchard-like setting, provide contrast to the bleached grass underneath.
Elsa’s Kopje, the main lodge, is a marvel. Built onto Mughwango Hill, which is often referenced in Joy Adamson’s books, every room is uniquely designed. Elsa’s is currently looked after by Anthony and Emma, both Kenyan-born Brits, who will give you your privacy at first but charmingly engage if you are willing. Great food, smiling staff, and an inviting pool – you needn’t hesitate to skip a game drive.
On the first afternoon, George, our guide took us to the rhino sanctuary. Elephants, zebras, Grant’s gazelles, impalas, Coke’s hartebeests, dik-diks, reticulated giraffes, Somali ostriches, and a mess of waterbucks were seen along the way. No fewer than thirteen rivers criss-cross Meru. Every crossing point is negotiated over an unobtrusively designed bridge. Inside the heavily guarded sanctuary, we saw a total of five white rhinos – gentle giants they are, peacefully grazing on the floodplain, unaware of the bounty on their horns. The following day, we explored the northern part of the park. We saw a couple of lionesses sleeping off the ostrich meal from the previous night, but we did not see the rest of this big pride. I was pleased to see relaxed herds of beisa oryxes and a relaxed bull eland. These antelopes are wanderers, often moving out of protected areas, and they taste good to humans – as such, they tend to be the most skittish of the antelopes. The fact that they were so tame is a testament to the kind of quality protection Meru is currently providing them. I have not had good luck with the lesser kudu in the past, speaking of skittish antelopes. Despite having been to Amboseli, Tsavo West, Tsavo East and Tarangire, where they occur, I have only one marginal photograph of a full-grown male lesser kudu to show for it. Not only are they rare, they are also well camouflaged, and all you get by the time you point the camera is the flash of the tail. As a result, there are not many good photographs of them anywhere, and they are something of a holy grail for serious African wildlife photographers. But, in Meru, they run around like rats! In two full days, we had just shy of 20 separate sightings, and on three occasions, the males actually posed for a few precious seconds. The only “northern species” we did not see was Grevy’s zebra, although we saw spoor. Apparently, the translocation of Grevy’s zebras from Laikipia didn’t work out well. Only 20 or so Grevy’s zebras were moved in, not nearly enough for a viable population, and the lions took a heavy toll on them. There are only six or seven of them left in Meru now, and they are all females. Given that Meru is classic Grevy’s zebra country, I am certain one day a more successful translocation will take place. Thinking back to what Luca at Campi ya Kanzi said about how there are no set rules when it comes to wild animals, we observed or heard about more unusual animal behavior at Meru. Gerenuks are reputed to be ecologically separated from lesser kudus by their preference for relatively more open bush land. We found the exact opposite at Meru. While lesser kudus were, especially in the evenings, found in the relatively open bush, gerenuks were only seen in the impenetrable commiphora forests. One of the staff members told us that some cheetahs in Meru prefer the commiphora, subsisting on dik-diks and largely ignoring the impalas and Grant’s gazelles on the plains.
The first morning at Elsa’s Kopje, I was sipping my coffee by the swimming pool which overlooks the vast plains to the east. As the sun rose, my eyes welled up as I imagined what the scene must have been like in Elsa’s and Pippa’s times; then again in 1999 after the plains had been ravaged; then again 5-10 years from now. Then, it occurred to me that Meru will become a superstar again. As long as adequate protection is given, the herbivores will thrive (the proliferation of waterbucks, who were largely spared from poaching, hints at the potential of other herbivore population), which in turn, will lead to an increase in the number of carnivores. But the time is now to see Meru before it becomes popular again. You will have the whole park to yourself. Especially, if you have “been there and done that” at Samburu, you must go see Meru. Given the checkered history of Meru, this is, in all likelihood, the last chance for its survival. It is off to a great start, but we can all chip in to ensure that it prospers. Recall Bernard and Michael Grzimek’s groundbreaking film titled “Serengeti Shall Not Die!” I say “Meru Shall Not Die!”
Ngorongoro Crater – the Garden of Eden or Disneyworld?
This was my second pilgrimage to the Garden of Eden. What can I say about the Ngorongoro Crater that hasn’t been said? The circular caldera of approximately ten miles in diameter is in one word, dizzying: open savannah here; an acacia forest there; a dry soda lake here; a swampy hippo pool there; and don’t forget the patch of rainforest on the rim. Flying in from Meru-Nairobi-Kilimanjaro to the Ngorongoro airstrip on the rim of the Crater in record time, we wolfed down our picnic lunch at the airstrip as we met our private guide who would be with us the rest of the way in Tanzania. Dominyk (or “Dom”), is a quick-witted Australian with a particular fondness for snakes and, for the next eight days, would serve as a tireless caretaker for the five American tourists. Eager to get down to the floor of the Crater for the afternoon, we cut the acquaintance session short.
The Crater is indeed a sensory overload. As soon as we descended, we saw a pride of lions resting, a hyena chasing a wildebeest, and zebras scratching their hides against rocks right next to our vehicle. Crowned cranes to the left, flamingoes to the right, a bull elephant emerging from Lerai Forest in the distance, and soon I begin to wonder if I brought enough flash memory cards for my digital camera. Something is amiss though, when you can practically reach out and touch a wildebeest without its batting an eye. Is this real or is this Jungle Cruise at Disneyworld? Do these wildebeests get paid at the end of day when all the tourist vehicles must leave the Crater?
In terms of phantasmagoria, Ngorongoro Crater Lodge somehow manages to outdo the Crater itself. Run by CC Africa, the Crater Lodge, in my opinion, is completely over the top – and I don’t mean that in a good way. There is a telephone in every room; serviced laundry is brought back to the room accompanied by a long-stemmed rose; and while you are at supper, unbeknownst to you, the staff draws you a rose pedal-sprinkled hot bath – even though you may have had the intention of just taking a shower. I wonder if CC Africa (“CC” by the way, ironically, stands for “Conservation Corp”) knows about the power rationing going on in much of Tanzania. A vast majority of power generation in Tanzania is hydroelectric. The recent drought and mismanagement have led to a shortage of electricity, and even significant towns such as Arusha are experiencing scheduled blackouts. I know there is rarely a water problem at the Crater, and the water from the Crater probably doesn’t end up in a hydroelectric power plant, but the nightly bath water thing seems out of place, at least, at this particular time.
The second day (a full day game drive) at Ngorongoro was, of course, spectacular. Lions and black rhinos are always special. But at the end of the day, as I sipped Moet & Chandon Champagne in the highly ornate dining room, I knew I wasn’t coming back. That’s just me though. Many of the local guides feel the same way I do, but they all agree that Ngorongoro should be seen at least once. It is akin to a serious recreational golfer paying $500 to play Pebble Beach once to see what it’s all about.
Serengeti National Park – The Off-season?
All of us Fodorites know that the Western Corridor of Serengeti is at its best in June and July when the migration is likely to go through there. We also know that there is no point in going to Serengeti or Maasai Mara if you are not going to see the migration, right? This is why I raised a few eyebrows when I suggested that I would be going to the Western Corridor of Serengeti National Park in September. But I had my own reasons. I had seen the great migration twice in Maasai Mara. Both times, it was spectacularly fantastically splendidly great, but you can’t go home again. I chose the Western Corridor because of the good all-year round resident game, and because it allowed us the opportunity to traverse practically the entire length of the Serengeti by vehicle from Ngorongoro.
The day of the journey across the Serengeti will certainly be one of my top moments. The immensity of the place can only be properly felt there in person, not by reading about it. As you descend from the Crater highlands, giraffes, Grant’s gazelles, impalas and zebras peacefully coexist with the Maasai. Soon, a dry semi-desert landscape appears, leading to Oldupai Gorge. After a very educational 45-minute stop at the Gorge and its museum, we continued onto the short-grass plains, technically still inside the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, but part of the greater Serengeti ecosystem. It is here, when conditions are right, that hundreds of thousands of wildebeests, zebras and Thomson’s gazelles congregate between December and April. Having no permanent water, this area becomes a bit of a ghost town during the dry season. According to any number of research papers or books, the short-grass plains are supposed to be empty at this time, except for some ostriches and Grant’s gazelles, which do not need to drink regularly. But “Luca’s rule” was invoked again (see first chapter "Campi ya Kanzi"), as we saw two or three times as many Thomson’s gazelles (who need to drink regularly and should be out of there in September) as we saw Grant’s gazelles. Incidentally, we saw several Maasai warriors on the short-grass plains, without exception walking alone, surrounded by miles of nothing. As Dom pointed out, they were simply going from “somewhere” to “elsewhere”. Where were they going? Do they realize the importance of hydration? I wonder.
Near the park entrance around Naabi Hill, the short-grass plains abruptly change to medium-grass plains. Still, the game is very sparse. Some distance past Naabi, a series of attractive rocky outcrops, collectively called “Simba Kopjes” appear. After Dom surveyed one of the kopjes for potentially dangerous animals, we settled in half way up the kopje for a picnic lunch. As we neared Seronera, the administrative capital of the park, storm clouds began gathering to our southwest. It was around 2pm in the afternoon, and the tourists around Seronera were still taking their siestas; we did not get the full brunt of the infamous throng of mini-buses. The Seronera river valley delivered in terms of its reputation for leopards, as we had a good viewing of one female resting in a sausage tree.
As we departed Seronera, the vehicle made a left at the fork, taking us toward the vast Western Corridor. The otherwise straight and monotonous road is surrounded by the distant bush-covered hills, giving the Corridor a unique look from the rest of the Serengeti. The Corridor road passes alternate areas of whistling-thorn bush and huge open plains. There had been some recent showers in the area, and previously burnt plains were green with new flush of grass. Thomson’s gazelles (who are not supposed to be found deep in the Western Corridor if you read stuff from twenty or thirty years ago) were the most conspicuous from the road. Impalas here have the biggest horns I have ever seen.
About half way to our destination (Kirawira Camp on the far western corner), the thunderstorm reached us. The only way to describe the deluge was that it rained big cats and wild dogs (we even got a little hail). At one point, very near camp, a small stream developed on the road itself. We were never in danger, but our vehicle could possibly have floated for a few seconds. I love the dry season in the Serengeti. For the afternoon, there would be no game drive – although experiencing the massive thunderstorm itself was worth it.
Kirawira Camp appears out of nowhere. It is strangely appointed in that sense. While the staff is friendly and the rooms nice, Kirawira serves as a classic example that big hotel chains like Serena (the owner of Kirawira) just don’t “get it”. Every smiling “what can I get you to drink?” is followed by “what is your tent number”? Just charge me $30 extra per day and include the drinks! (It is already a very expensive establishment anyway. As a side note, it took us 18 minutes to check out our last morning, because it took that long for them to add up all our incidental charges.) What they should have done also is to split up the camp into two (one a few kilometers down the road, perhaps). There are 25 tents at Kirawira, and they are trying hard to be intimate. It just doesn’t work. On the positive side, the food at Kirawira is hands down the best I’ve ever had on safari. Benjamin, the head chef, is a genius.
During the three days at Kirawira, we explored the open plains (Ruana and Musabi being two of the most immense you will find anywhere) as well as the nooks and crannies of the Grumeti River. Grumeti allows some of the very best hippo-viewing in Africa if you can stand the occasional tsetses. On the open plains, the numbers of topis rival those of Thomson’s gazelles. Small herds of wildebeests are found throughout the Corridor, never following the main migratory herd to the north. Most dated publications refer to the big resident herd of wildebeests on the Ndabaka plain in the very western corner of the Corridor, but according to the local folks, Ndabaka plain can be empty at times. Instead, the herds can be found scattered around Kirawira and to the east. The same publications refer to the absence of elephants in the Corridor. That is also no longer the case. Serengeti is constantly changing.
Currently, there is a local specialty in the area: a three-legged male lion named “Stumpy”. Stumpy apparently got his right hind leg caught in a poacher’s snare and either lost it or bit it off himself. We had two sightings of him, and once we saw him limping along quite nicely. His brother is one impressive male lion. He has a perfect, full, ginger mane. I would nominate him as the next MGM lion. Apart from his physical beauty, Stumpy’s brother is to be commended for thus far successfully protecting his brother from hyenas and would be challengers to their throne.
In the end, I would highly recommend the Western Corridor even in the off-season. There is plenty of resident game to keep one interested, and you can have all of it to yourself. With only Kirawira and Grumeti River Lodge around, vehicles are sparse. Apart from the notoriously shy leopards, sightings of lions and cheetahs are virtually guaranteed. The animals are noticeably shyer than they are in other parts of the park, but it seems more appropriate in this pristine wilderness. The landscape, is without a doubt, the most attractive, in all of Serengeti-Mara.
Ugalla Game Reserve – The Wild Thing
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 on the top of this page), 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.