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Monday, March 21, 2011

Ruaha Safari

 I just spent four days on safari in Ruaha National Park in central Tanzania. Beautiful beautiful beautiful! Here's the Tanzanian Park Service's website  with information on Ruaha and the rest of Tanzania's incredible national parks.  K2 and I took advantage of a "residents' discount" offer from Coastal Air and Mdonya Old River Lodge. (If you look at the Lodge's website, be sure to check out their motion-activated night time camera page with nocturnal animals photographed going about their business after dark.) The discount didn't even come close to making it cheap, but I'm glad we spent the money!

We flew in a small plane two hours to Dodoma and stopped to refuel. Dodoma was declared the capital city of Tanzania and parliament moved from the huge, cosmopolitan coastal city of Dar es Salaam to the much smaller, quieter, rural town of Dodoma. Why? Beause it's the geographic center of the country. The airport's very low key, the kind of place where you can wander around to the back door of the plane to grab a bottle of water while the crew pumps fuel. Two guys rolled out a pump and tank, then turned a two-handled crank to pump the fuel. Our pilot, an American woman improbably working for Coastal Air, pointed out that refueling would go fast because they had two guys on the crank. K2 told us most parliament members fly in for meetings and votes, then head back the same day to Dar.

We flew another 90 minutes to the park. Our pilot announced she'd fly below the clouds at 4,000' to the park, then drop to 1,500' (the minimum allowed) inside the park. She flew us between and around silver   columns of rain dropping out of the clouds, some straight to the ground, some sharply bending a few hundred feet above the ground. The air around us shimmered. That's why there was a resident's discount: trying to fill the planes and tents during rainy season!

We landed at a small dirt airstrip inside the park. When your plane lands in a place that looks like this, you know you're going to have fun!

Guides from Mdonya Old River Lodge were waiting for us, with Land Rovers parked in a line along the airstrip. K2 and I and our fellow resident/tourist Joyce boarded our truck and took off into the bush. Enoch, our guide, started us off with some typical tour guide humor.

Why do impala have those stripes around their tail? Because they all sat on a freshly-painted toilet seat. I know...but somehow it seems funny when you're riding around in the African bush looking for animals.

Warthogs typically run with their tails pointing straight up into the air, which I did not capture in a photo because these little guys are faster than they look. When their tails went up, Enoch said, "Radio Free Africa!" That one still sounds funny to me even though I'm back indoors now.

Our safari truck was open on the sides with a canvas roof suspended over our heads. The seats were tiered, with the back seat highest. Here's the view from the back seat.

We headed toward camp slowly, looking for animals on the way. Ruaha is breathtaking. It's Tanzania's biggest park and sometimes we drove a long way between animals. The air was cool and scented with a  sweet vegetative fragrance. People always say Africa has its own scent. Karen Blixen described Kenyan grasslands as smelling of thyme, and I noticed that in the Serengeti. This fragrance was different, sweet rather than spicy. Shady and full of water rather than sun and dust.

The park is plains and low hills, savanna grading to open woodland, grass and baobabs and acacia.

Wide sandy river beds wander through, mostly dry with some pools and channels still holding water.

The animals travel the river beds, drink, rest in the shade.

Many of the baobabs have large holes, some all the way through.

Somebody said that Maasai women traditionally would use these hollow trees as a place to give birth. I have no idea if that's true. Stories about the Maasai circulate here like urban legends at home.

The wood's extremely soft and holds lots of water, thus it rots easily. 

We saw this group of elephants in the river bed digging for water.

So does that make this water ballet? Very symmetrical and synchronized, trunks up and down...

 ...then down and up.

 Here's an elephant pooping, which brings us to...

...tsetse fly control. They burn elephant poop in this can wired to the spare tire on the back of the truck. The smoke wafts out behind and repels tsetse flies. Lucky for us, the flies were not too active most of the time we were in the park.

This is a tsetse fly trap positioned outside the camp. Tsetse flies are attracted to blue and black, and then killed by the insecticide sprayed on the fabric.

 I had a blue shirt and black pants to wear for the next two days of game drives. Instead, I wore the green shirt and tan pants I'd traveled in for the next three days. I figured the naturally sweet-scented wild air would cover up any problems. Either that, or I could light the poop can as a diversion.

We approached camp through beautiful twilight.

We surprised this Black-Backed Jackal on the road just outside of camp. We called him Abunwasi because he kept running up the road ahead of the truck rather than diving off to the side to make a clean getaway.

Abunwasi is a character in school books used in Tanzania from the 1960's through 1980's. He did all kinds of funny, stupid things: carrying water in his pockets, blowing out the match before lighting the lantern, or running down the road ahead of a car instead of stepping to the side. K2 introduced me to Abunwasi a couple of nights before this trip when I lit three candles on a saucer and the short one burned through the tall one and made it tip over.

Mdonya Old River Camp is a "luxury tented camp," as they say in Tanzania. Yes, we stayed in a tent. But it had a big comfortable bed with crisp sheets and cozy blankets and a bathroom at the back with flush toilet. The shower, sad to say, had better hot water and water pressure than the one in my house.  The camp is very remote, but they've dug a bore hole (well) for water supply, and installed a solar-powered water heater. They served family style meals in a beautiful meadow under a canvas awning and the food was quite good. The camp manager is an Italian woman who also works as an ecologist. She's clearly in love with Ruaha and it was fascinating listening to her perspective on the park.

By day two, K2 was speculating that maybe he could get a job here and we could stay and live in the tent. Sounded good to me!

This vervet monkey relaxed in the tree right outside our tent for half an hour one evening.

I took those last two pictures our second night in camp. The first night, we arrived after dark and a Maasai with a flashlight escorted us to our tent. Maasai escorted all guests in camp after dark, because of the danger of surprising wildlife in the dark. We heard hyenas two nights and lions the third.

We had a kerosene lantern on the porch and one in the bathroom, a small battery-powered flashlight/lantern combo, and candles in glass chimney lamps. It was so dark in that tent, I couldn't find anything! If I could have just put everything in place during daylight, I at least would have known where to grope for things in the dark. Later, I had some trouble blowing out the candles inside their glass chimneys, so K2 called me Abunwasi again. The second night we were there, the kerosene lantern in the bathroom malfunctioned. The wick sputtered out and flames were licking up the outside of the glass. Lucky we were still in the tent and caught it. 

We opted for the early-morning start, all-day game drive the next day. So we left camp just at first light, after more frustrating fumbling in the dark inside the tent. I thought we might see  more animals early in the morning. That didn't happen, because the weather's so cool that the animals are active throughout the day. (When Enoch told us this the evening before, I figured he was lying so we wouldn't make him get up so early.)

But, extra animals or not, early morning in Ruaha is beautiful. (P.S. Those two animal shapes standing behind the truck are sheet metal road signs.)

We cruised through the fragrant, cool morning air. Cool enough that I wore a fleece jacket and K2 wore a down coat. Doves and guinea fowl flew up from the road. Hornbills jumped from tree to tree. Birds called all around us.

We saw so many giraffes (left) and impala (there, to the right) that they seemed just a part of the landscape and our driver didn't stop for every one. Which was probably good, because the park's so big, you need some time to drive between the good wildlife-spotting places.

We saw hundreds of impala...

...and dozens of giraffes during our four days in the park.

As incredible as it seems, we really did stop noticing them after awhile. Sorry, big guy!

With the all-day game drive, you get a quick cup of brewed coffee and a bit of bread or cake before piling into the truck. Then, after an hour or two of driving around, a "bush breakfast." Enoch and our driver picked a nice spot under a baobab. They walked through the grass and checked behind the bushes, "clearing the bush," before we were allowed to climb down out of the truck.

At this point, we switched from brewed to instant coffee. And from what the other (lazy) guests told us later, the breakfast in camp was much more elaborate than ours. But who cares?! Look where we got to drink our instant coffee!

After breakfast, we saw assorted zebras...

...and elephants. Oh, and some more giraffes, but our driver never stopped the truck so I didn't take any photos.

He didn't stop, because we were on our way down to one of the river beds to look for...

...lions! We found three of them drinking at a water hole on our side of the river. These two left after only a few minutes...

...and joined the rest of their pride sleeping in a shady spot on the opposite riverbank. We watched them sleeping through binoculars for awhile. But even with lions, that got boring after awhile.

A third lion, obviously ill, stayed at the waterhole, sleeping under cover of heavy brush. K2 and our driver joked in Swahili that we should take the sick lion to Loliondo. In Loliondo, a town about 300 km from Arusha, a retired pastor has been dispensing an herbal remedy and a hearty dose of faith healing to all comers. Reports are that he's treated over 30,000 people. It's been going on for a few weeks, people all over Tanzania are talking about it. He claims his potion (an already well-known botanical infusion used to treat stomach problems) will cure everything from diabetes to HIV/AIDS. He tells his customers not to discontinue their regular medications and that they should be tested for any disease after one week. But a friend of mine who works in a hospital tells me that their AIDS clinic is empty, with patients discontinuing medication and not showing up for scheduled evaluations. Another friend, trying to arrange a safari for visiting relatives, tells me that almost all of the many safari vehicles based in Arusha have been rented out for trips to Loliondo and the prices are going up. If you want to read about this local phenomenon, check out the Citizen, an English language paper. I've linked to two stories,  here and  here.

Okay, back to Ruaha. After a picnic lunch, we hit a dry spell, animal-wise. I still loved riding around in the back of the truck. And Enoch began pointing out birds. He told us there are over 650 species in the park. (The Park Service says 450.) Guides usually cruise right on by interesting birds in the interest of finding big mammals to show their clients. So it was a treat to stop and identify some birds.

White-Browed Coucal.

The Tanzanian accent had quite an effect on bird names. I had to keep grabbing my new field guide to look them up and ask Enoch, "Is it this one?" I could have sworn he was saying "cuckoo," not "coucal." Because Swahili speakers don't say the letter "L" very hard.

Eurasian Roller.

We also saw the Lilac-Breasted Roller and the Broad-Billed Roller. Also a bit hard to understand since Swahili speakers often interchange "R's" and "L's." But I know a roller when I see one.

White-Bellied Go-Away Bird

Weaver nests hanging in a tree.

Tanzania has many species of weavers and they're quite common. I'm sure we drove by some, but we never actually identified any. Guides probably focus more on the big, exciting birds... this African Fish Eagle perched above the Ruaha River.

We also saw Verreaux's Eagle, Brown Snake Eagle (flew over holding a snake in its talons!), Bateleur Eagle, and  Long-Crested Eagle.

Helmeted Guinea Fowl.
They had these in the zoo in my hometown and my little brother used to call them fancy chickens. They act like chickens-- scattering in every direction from under the truck tires with much flapping of wings and only a little flying and zigzagging up the road with their necks stretched out.

Von Der Decken's Hornbill.

We also saw the Red-Billed Hornbill and the Silvery-Cheeked Hornbill. And Magpie Shrike, Ring-Necked Dove, Knob-Billed Duck (sounds like Nobility Duck with a Swahili accent). And Yellow-Billed Stork, Marabou Stork, African Open-Billed Stork. And actually a lot of other cool birds, too, but I'm not one of those nerdy "life lister" birders, so I won't list them all. 

 When things got slow, our driver spotted an elephant near the road...

..and drove up to it fast, provoking some anger.

  He warned us with the threat of a charge. The driver was chuckling, but I was scared! Hey, I was in the seat closest to the angry elephant. Although the first aid kit was hanging over my head, so K2 could have sprung into action with some wilderness first aid if anything happened.

After a couple of minutes, though, the elephant wheeled and trotted away. So no need for any wilderness first aid. Probably not enough gauze bandage in that little kit to take care of an elephant attack, anyway!

Driving back towards camp in the golden light of late afternoon, we came across a troop of yellow baboons wandering a meadow, eating grass seeds.

K2 claims these yellow baboons are better behaved and handsomer than the olive baboons in northern Tanzania.

We made it back to camp before dark this time. I had time to find my clean socks, and then to enjoy a beautiful sunset before dinner.

We headed out early again the next morning, not expecting early animals, but wanting to enjoy the beautiful morning.

Not far out of camp, our driver spotted lion tracks in the sandy road.

He seemed to be using a combination of following the tracks and just knowing the places where the lions hang out. 

We drove around some rocks...

...past some more impala...

...and there he was!

I couldn't believe we parked this close to him. But it must be routine because Enoch was in the front seat looking for knob-billed ducks in his field guide, and not even paying attention to the lion.

And the lion didn't pay attention to Enoch, either.

The rest of the pride was just across the road.

While we watched the pride, our driver was on the two-way radio letting other drivers in the park know where to bring their clients. I heard simba (lion), and vitoto vingi (many children) in regard to the cubs. Before any other trucks arrived, though, most of the pride sauntered off into the bushes, except for two adults who were soaking up some sun.

And all of this before breakfast! 

 After another scenic bush breakfast, we headed toward a section of the Great Ruaha River that flows water to look for hippos. (In the upper right corner of this photo, you can just make out the African Fish Eagle I showed you earlier perched on a dead tree--white spot of a head above dark body.)

Before we found the hippos, though, we saw Nile Crocodiles.

Here's a baby. Very interesting, but lacking the "cute factor" of the lion cubs.

I guess mammals are just more attracted to other mammals than to reptiles. My wildlife biologist friends used to bemoan the favoritism showered upon "charismatic megafauna," but lions are more charismatic than crocodiles. Although probably just as dangerous.

A bit farther along, we stopped at a series of hippo pools. About eight or nine hippos were in the water, occasionally surfacing to breathe.

Oops! Just missed those two! We saw a lot of this, and eyebrows and nostrils.

As Enoch was explaining to us that hippos seldom come out on land during the heat of day, a radio call came in alerting us to a cheetah sighting. We ran back to the truck and climbed in. The other guides called again to say four cheetahs were stalking an impala. Hurry! Enoch asked me and K2 and Joyce if we agreed to a fast drive over some distance in order to see these cheetahs. Of course we all agreed. The driver grinned and took off fast. Animals scattered at our approach! Two warthogs charged away into the grass. K2 and I barely had time to look at each other and yell, "Radio Free Africa!" and they were gone.

Why did the Greater Kudu cross the road... get out of our way!

 After a rollicking ride at top speed through half of the park, we saw the group of Land Rovers that always signals a really good animal sighting. But here in Ruaha, we brought the total to only four vehicles. In Serengeti, it would have been more than a dozen. And yes, there were the four beautiful cheetahs, a mother with three nearly grown cubs, just settling down to eat their impala.

Afterwards, I told the driver that even if we hadn't seen the cheetahs, it still would have been worth it for the fast ride through the park. He grinned again. I think he definitely likes a little excitement with his work when he can find it.

We sat in our trucks, within 50 feet of the cheetahs, and watched them for quite awhile. They were completely unconcerned with us. They took turns sitting up to look around and check for encroaching scavengers, such as hyenas and vultures, which can actually chase cheetahs off of a kill.

In the truck nearest us, two American (American-sounding, at least) men with big-ass cameras were clicking away. One camera was way bigger than the other. This guy had a special heavy-duty tripod mounted to the edge of the viewing opening in the roof of the Land Rover. He kept talking about what he was seeing through the enormous lens. Maybe the lens was too big, because he was reporting to his friend on different organs as the cheetahs pulled them out of the body. The guy was thrilled to see the stomach and the lower intestines. I'm just as happy my camera didn't zoom in that far!

In sharp contrast to the camera boys, we had this Land Rover full of Tanzanians who live near the park.

They were participating in a Colorado State University program with the goal of promoting visits to Tanzania's parks by local residents. What a great program! Most visitors are foreigners. When I asked K2 why locals don't visit, he said that there are cheap ways to visit the parks, including government sponsored hostels for Tanzanian citizens. But most Tanzanians are not familiar with the parks and think it will be too expensive to visit. He also said that when Tanzanians do visit the parks, they love them as much as the foreigners do, with the added dash of national pride.

All of this, and it was still just time for lunch. We pulled over under another baobab to eat our picnic. The Land Rover full of locals stopped, too. I struck up a conversation with one lady in Swahili. When she asked a hard question, I tried to switch to English, but she wouldn't let me! She said she'd heard me speaking Swahili, and we weren't going to use English now. So I dredged up all the Swahili animal names I could remember, and we had a nice chat. One of their Tanzanian guides had a video on his camera, shot the day before, of the park's elusive wild dog pack. They're very rare, and I was hoping (but not expecting) to see them. They're very strange-looking, with huge ears and black and brown spots and a white tuft on the ends of their tails. In his video, they were all standing around wagging their tails, just like a bunch of golden retrievers! We didn't see the wild dogs on this trip, but it's hard to complain about that after all the lions and cheetahs.

Next morning, we hit the road early again. But this time, we headed back to the airstrip. We really did not want to leave. But we were consoled by even more animal sightings on the way to the plane.

The baby got fierce with us.

 And speaking of fierce babies...

Here's the pride of lions we saw the day before...

...eating a giraffe.

On the right, you can see two lions with their heads and shoulders inside the giraffe's body cavity.

The male lion feeling satisfied with his bush breakfast.

With this last exciting wildlife sighting, we headed to the airstrip, boarded the plane, and came home to Arusha. Ruaha is beautiful. Mdonya Old River Camp was very welcoming. The whole trip was incredible.

I've put together three albums of about 80 photos each in Picasa Web Albums. You can view them by clicking on the Ruaha photos in the right sidebar. Usually I just say, "You can view them." This time I'm saying, "You must look at my photos! They're fabulous!" I didn't have the biggest camera in the park, but the place is just so beautiful that I came away with some great photos. So take a look! Please!


  1. WOW!!! What an amazing trip. I'm so glad I got to enjoy your photos and comments. It sounds like you had a great time. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Please hold on to all of this. It really needs to be published someplace so it can reach a wider audience. It's not just your spectacular photos and the accompanying write ups, it's your sense of adventure and love of nature that comes through so strongly that it makes me seriously feel a thrill. I'm am so glad you are living the dream!

  3. Barb - amazing photos - amazing adventures! Carol

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