Ruaha vistas

Ruaha is not an African National Park which many people know about. Its remoteness is both its saviour and its struggle. It takes about two and half hours in a Cessna Caravan to fly from Dar es Salaam to the Msembe air strip in the Ruaha National Park. This means several parks such as Selous, Serengeti and Lake Manyara and the Ngorogoro crater are closer and attract more visitors and more income.

“Nothing but breathing the air of Africa, and actually walking through it, can communicate the indescribable sensations.”~William Burchell

The landscape changes as you draw closer to the Ruaha airstrip and you fly over the Great Ruaha river. The baobab landscape becomes more evident and there is greater hilly relief as you get closer to the airstrip.

For me, Ruaha’s remoteness and wildness was a magical mix. There were not many other vehicles in the park. This meant that wildlife sightings were privileged as you were invariably alone and could be quiet and just watch.

“We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.”~ Henry David Thoreau

On our first afternoon, we found a pair of leopard cubs not far from our Mwagusi Camp. One cub was smaller and very scared. It was in a cluster of small granite boulders. It could have been that it had been terrorised by baboons earlier that afternoon or some other predator ready to take advantage of its size.

The Mwagusi camp has eight spacious bandas. These are tented en-suite rooms under a peaked roof of Makuti thatch constructed from palm leaves. Each banda had a superb view across the dry Mwagusi river.

This scene typifies the view of the river bed. The banks are lined by Doum palms, large Sausage trees and thick Combretum flora. The river was dry. It is a seasonal river which must flow strongly when flooding judging by the large tree trunks which had lodged against upright trees and large granite boulders in the river bed. The sand river bed and its banks are punctuated by large granite boulder outcrops.

We were in Ruaha in mid November just before the rains. It was hot during the day around 35 degrees centigrade but later in the afternoons there was spectacular cloud build up. The cumulus filled afternoon sky added drama to the wild Ruaha landscapes. This was the view from my banda’s veranda which was equipped with a comfortable hammock to catch any passing breeze.

“These groves of baobabs emit an aura of permanence and stateliness. A place where great sentinels gather to share the wisdom of the ages, where wildlife gathers to listen in reverence.”~ Mike Haworth

One of the special characteristics of Ruaha, for me, was the groves of baobabs. I am used to seeing occasional large lone baobabs in dry areas in southern Africa, not so in Ruaha.

As mentioned earlier the clouds build up in the afternoon heat and as the sun was setting, the sky and clouds were illuminated with wonderful warm colours emphasising the pregnant clouds. This was a view looking across the Mwagusi river at sunset only a few hundred metres from our camp close to where two lionesses an a male were lounging on the cooling sand river bed

Along the Mwagusi river in mid morning, we found a pride of lions lying in the shade created by the trees and granite boulders. You can imagine the comfort, on a hot morning, when lying on the cool wet sand in the shade.

A couple of hundred metres further down the Mwagusi river a few giraffe came down to drink. They were very weary as they probably smelt the lions. Although it had not rained for a long while in this area, the sand river bed surface was dry but for a wet patch meandering down the river. In fact, the water table in the river bed must have been very close to the surface because there were many shallow holes dug in the sand for water by the elephants.

“Give me a wildness whose glance no civilization can endure”
~ Henry David Thoreau

Another grove of young baobabs. For me these groves represented a treasure trove where you might find leopards, brown parrots, rollers, bee hives and baboons.

A lone sentinel silhouetted against a dark apricot sky just after sunset.

” A dry sand river bed looks barren. Do not be fooled there is much to discover. Sandgrouse and spurfowls are foraging for seeds. Predator hide in the undergrowth along the banks waiting for unsuspecting prey. Unseen just below the surface lies the water- the elephants know. Once opened the waterholes are a magnet for thirsty wildlife”~ Mike Haworth

This is a characteristic Ruaha scene with the Mwagusi sand river bed in the foreground, doum palms, sausage, tamarind and fig trees along the river with granite kopjies in the distance.

One male ostrich with three females wandering along the sand road close to the Great Ruaha river late in the afternoon. In November, the clouds were progressively building for rain. This was part of the attraction of this time of the year. The sky backgrounds are complex, dramatic and colourful.

“Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add colour to my sunset sky.” ~ Rabindranath Tagore

The rays of light beaming through the thick rain clouds gave the area a cathedral like feeling. My senses were swimming with all the colour. It was warm and flora was fragrant. In the distance, we could hear spurfowl calling and zebras braying.

“Wildness is not found but revealed.” ~― Paul Gruchow

Last light in the evening with rain falling from heavy rain filled clouds behind the hill in the distance with an apricot sky in the background.

A small herd of buffalo gathering around a tree for shade. It was hot, with scattered clouds. The adjacent river bed was dry and the area had many tsetse flies which seem to constantly bite the buffaloes as you can see from twitching skin, swishing tails and swinging necks.

We found numerous herds of elephant mainly along the Mwagusi sand river. The elephants must be able to smell the water. The old members of the herd dig in the sand with their feet to make a hole into which the filtered water pools.

“To see ten thousand animals untamed and not branded with the symbols of human commerce is like scaling an unconquered mountain for the first time, or like finding a forest without roads or footpaths, or the blemish of an axe.” ~ Beryl Markham

This was a breeding herd with members of many different ages. All the females attracted three bulls which gave each other a wide berth. The characteristic doum palms were ever present as was the thick croton and combretum brush lining the river banks.

“Let your life lightly dance on the edges of time like dew on the tip of a leaf.”
― Rabindranath Tagore

Down close to the Great Ruaha river in the ‘Little Serengeti” plain we found a loan and very skittish Roan antelope. It was very hot so there was a lot of heat haze which prevented us getting pin sharp images of this rare antelope. This is a large well built antelope and is the second largest antelope species. This antelope is named for its roan ( reddish brown) colouring. It looks somewhat like a sable antelope but is bigger and the colouring is quite different.

Sundowner time next to the Mwagusi river. Just imagine drinking a bitterly cold “Serengeti’ lager beer while looking out over this sand river with darkening trees on its banks silhouetted by a mauve and apricot coloured sky.

“The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough.”
~ Rabindranath Tagore

Another view of the Mwagusi sand river bed in the fading evening light, silhouetted by the characteristic douw palms

Looking down the a small section of surface water in the Great Ruaha river. This patch of the river bed was teeming with animals and birds. Just further down river to the right of the image the Mwagusi river joined the Great Ruaha river. This must be an impressive sight when these two river are flowing strongly.

At midday the light can be very harsh, as defined by a hard edge between the light and dark areas and is usually not a good time for wildlife photography but we took advantage of the opportunity to try high key and black and white style photography. This bull Debussa waterbuck bull was inquisitive and stood just long enough for use to get a couple of images.

Looking up the Mwagusi river early on a cloudy cool morning. It is interesting that you see less game and bird activity when it is cool and especially if it is windy.

Bat-eared foxes were seldom seen, we found a pair down close to our picnic site along the Mwagusi river. This diminutive foxes were very alert and weary.

Many areas away from the immediate river environs it was very dry, ideal for this candelabra Euphoria. We just liked the shape and uniformity of its spiky leaves. This is a tall succulent tree. Its spa is like a milky latex which is extremely poisonous. It likes dry, rocky areas.

This lioness was one of the pride we saw a few days before lying in the shade on the sand next to a granite boulder outcrop. She was out on her own looking around a broad part of the Mwagusi river. She made not attempt to hide herself so was not in hunting mode.

This was the view from one of our favourite picnic spots where we had breakfast on two mornings. Ruaha rivers are tree lined with many doum palms and sausage trees along both banks.

We drove down to the main camp to pick up a guide for our night drive. Close to the ranger’s camp we came across three kudu bulls. Two had already crossed the gravel road. This character unfazed by us just stopped and looked at us for a few seconds and then followed the others across the road into fading light.

A view of the early morning sky as we were drove out of camp for our morning game drive on our last day. This sky vista lasted about five minutes and it looked like the sky was on fire. It look surreal and you almost have to pinch yourself to remind you that your are wide wake. At this time the morning was fresh and bush fragrant.

From the mighty Ruaha River, the rolling hills, rocky escarpments and the vast uninhabited open plains dotted with the iconic silhouettes of African Baobab trees, Ruaha will fill your senses and meet your highest expectations.

“Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a sweltering inferno; it is a photographer’s paradise, a hunter’s Valhalla, an escapist’s Utopia. It is what you will, and it withstands all interpretations. It is the last vestige of a dead world or the cradle of a shiny new one. To a lot of people, as to myself, it is just ‘home.”
~ Beryl Markham

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

Ruaha- wild dog morning

This particular morning we were up and at the safari vehicle with our camera kit at 6h00. It was sunrise around 6h45 but we wanted to get going in the early morning light before sunrise. At this time it was cool and fresh, and a time when the latent heat change which releases perfumes from the tree’s flowers and grasses. It is a time when you feeling refreshed alive and excited to start the day’s adventures. there is always great expectations about what we could see.

“We have a genetic kinship with all of life on earth, an atomic kinship to all matter in the cosmos. So when I look at the universe, I feel large, because I remind myself that not only are we living in this universe, the universe is living within us.”~Neil DeGrasse Tyson

We had scarcely left the camp and were just across the Mwagusi river when Justin, our guide, who was a wonderful character with good humour, in depth knowledge of the bush and excellent eyesight, saw a flash of colour in the long grass on the left side of the road. Soon the flash of colour revealed itself, we had come across a pack of wild dogs which had just killed an impala. The sun had still not risen so the light was low. With a pack of dogs we also needed depth of field so it was a challenging scene on which to work photographically.

It is indescribably exciting to come across such a rare find in the bush. The Endangered Wildlife Trust estimates that between 3 000 and 5 000 individual wild dogs are left in Africa and these dogs are extinct in 23 African countries. Wild dogs are Africa’s most endangered mammal species.

Wild dogs are members of the dog family. Some think Hyaena are a species of dog but hyaenas are not members of the dog or cat families but have their own family, Hyaenidae. Male and female wild dogs are similar sizes. The wild dog has romantically been called the painted wolf because of its blotchy white, black, ochre and tan colouring. Its blotching pattern is unique for every animal making identification easier than for carnivores such as lions.

“Our quest, our earth walk, is to look within, to know who we are, to see that we are connected to all things, that there is no separation, only in the mid.”~Lakota

Wild dogs, like hyaenas, do not have retractable claws so cannot lock onto their prey with their claws and suffocate their prey like the big cats such as lions and leopards. They can only hang onto it with their mouths, so tend to attack on mass and start eating their prey when it is still alive.

Wild dogs eat their prey very quickly to reduce the losses from lion, leopard and hyaenas. The pack usually makes excited chirping sounds around a kill but on this occasion they were noticeably quiet. This was probably because they knew there were lions and hyaenas in the area and it was still early so these predators were possibly still on the move.

Wild dogs are cooperative hunters and feeders but there is an alpha pair which dominates the pack. Wild dogs are endurance hunters and are able as a pack to run down small prey ranging from baboons to impala and have been known to even take down adult wildebeest and zebras, though this is not common. The pack literally runs down its prey to exhaustion.

” We are all visitors to this time, to this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, learn, grow, love and then we return home.”~ Aboriginal proverb

While the rest of the pack is feeding there is always one member keeping guard so the pack is not surprised by a lion, leopard or hyaena.

This alpha male had already eaten judging from the blood on his throat and front legs, and while on guard picked up the scent or sight of something which caught his interest. It turned out to be a hyaena.

The hyaena came barreling into the kill scene to steal what was left of the impala carcass. The light was too low to get decent images of the intense scuffle which lasted a few seconds. The dogs tried vainly to nip the haunches of the hyaena but know only to well they do not want to get bitten by a hyaena. The hyaena prevailed and ran off with the remains of the carcass.

The wild dogs did not pursue the hyaena as they has mostly finished the part of the carcass they could eat easily. The hyaena was last seen crossing the sand river bed with the remains, probably to go and quietly munch on the bones in a secluded spot.

After the hyaena incident, the dogs relaxed on the sand bank and started to play among themselves. Wild dogs are highly social animals staying close together, playing often and will aggressively defend each other from external threats.

“Animals should not require our permission to live on earth. Animals were given the right to be here long before we arrived.”~Anthony Douglas Williams

After a brief play, the alpha male led the pack away from the kill scene probably because the noise and smell would eventually attract other unwelcome visitors. It was still early and the sun had not yet risen. The whole hunt scene lasted around 15 minutes.

Wild dogs are nomadic but tend to remain in one area when the alpha female has pups. As you see with jackals, wild dogs seem to naturally run rather than walk.

The alpha male led pack down onto the dry river bed and began moving downstream.

The dogs were always vigilant. At this time of the day, sunrise, there are still nocturnal predators on the move. Given their size these dogs are no match one-on-one with lion, leopard or hyaenas.

“Not a single creature on earth has more or less right to be here.”~ Anthony Douglas Williams

As the pack was wandering along the Mwagusi river bed, a troop of yellow baboons on the far bank further down river caught their interest. Out in the open sand bed they were easily spotted by the baboons which were foraging on the bank with the option of a quick get away to the trees nearby.

It is not everyday you get to see a alpha male wild dog on a granite boulder in a sand river bed.

“If all the beats were gone, men would die from a great loneliness of spirit, for whatever happens to the beasts also happens to man. All things are connected.”~Chief Seattle SuwAmish Tribe

It was not clear whether this pack was out hunting and whether there was a den with pups close by. Wild dogs are known to den for around three months a year while pups are being nurtured to the point when they can join the pack on a hunt. The alpha female gives birth to anything up to 16 pups at a time.

The pack remained in the sand river bed for about 15 minutes before retracing their steps and heading up a gravel road and off in the bush not to be seen again on our trip.

It is always special to see species which have become endangered.The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species has evolved to become the world’s most comprehensive information source on the global conservation status of animal, fungi and plant species. The African wild dogs is assessed to be endangered on the IUCN red list.

“The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.”~ Rachel Carson

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

Ruaha feathers

Africa is home to some 2 341 bird species, 67% or 1 561 of which are endemic to the continent. East Africa offers an incredible variety of non sea birds. Ruaha has 571 recorded species and that number includes migrants. In this post, I show a tiny selection of the birds which you could see in the Ruaha National Park.

“Cherish the natural world because you are part of it and depend on it.”~ Sir David Attenborough

Dawn along the Mwagusi river. A lone Tawny eagle surveys the scene for potential prey.

Too early for thermals, this Tawny has become a perch hunter.

A Little bee-eater came to visit at coffee time on our game drive along the Mwagusi river.

“Uniformity is not nature’s way; diversity is nature’s way.”~ Vandana Shiva

At the Mwagusi bush camp there were several bird baths. One, next to where we were editing our images, attracted several bird species. A frequent and inquisitive visitor was this Collared palm-thrush with its distinctive dark throat collar.

I am used to seeing Glossy starlings, Long tailed starlings and even Superb starlings but this was the first time I had ever seen an Ashy starling.

A male Nubian woodpecker waiting his turn for a drink at the bird bath in front of the dining area at Mwagusi camp. The Nubian looks similar to the Bennett’s woodpecker but has a black streaked ear coverts and a white throat.

The Collared palm-thrush was a daily visitor to the bird bath. Unlike the Grey -headed sparrows, this thrush was quiet. As the name suggests the Palm-thrush prefers palm like vegetation and can often be found rummaging around for insects in the fallen debris of a palm trees.

We found a Red-throated spurfowl searching in the leaf litter for edibles while we were waiting for a leopard cub to come down from the tree next to us.

“The diversity of the phenomena of natures is so great, and the treasures hidden in the heavens so rich, precisely in that order that the human mind shall never be lacking in fresh nourishment.”~Johannes Kepler

A Spur-winged lapwing was happily walking close to two lionesses lying in the sand next to the Great Ruaha river. This lapwing prefers marshes and fresh water habitats.

A juvenile Grey kestrel calling for food. Grey kestrels are able to hover like Black-shouldered kites.

This juvenile’s parents were close by but were not feeding it along the Mwagusi river. It seemed like it was time for a little independence.

A Jameson’s firefinch at the camp’s bird bath. It was very hot around midday so the birds came down to drink and bath. In Tanzania, there is a wonderful variety of firefinches, twinspots, pytilias, crimsonwings, cordon bleaus, silverbills, mannikins and waxbills which come in a dazzling array of colours.

A male Green winged pytilia came down for a drink at the bird bath in front of the dining area at the Mwagusi camp. The female Green-winged pytilia also came down to drink by they never drank together.

He looks like a Blue waxbill but for the red marking on its cheek. This is a male Red-cheeked cordon-bleu. The female does not have red cheeks.

It was hot around midday and it was the end of the dry season so there was little water around. The bird bath was a saving grace for many of the birds around the camp.

“Order without diversity can result in monotony and boredom, diversity without order can lead to chaos.”~ Francis D.K Ching

Down along the Great Ruaha river, we watched a Giant kingfisher hunting from a strategic perch with an excellent view of a stretch of water below it. We did not wait long enough to see him catch anything. From this angle it was difficult to tell whether it was a male or female but it looks like a male given the slight chestnut brown marking below his throat. The male has a broad chestnut brown breast band while the female has chestnut brown belly.

Along the Great Ruaha river not far from the Giant kingfisher we saw an adult Goliath heron tangling with a Fish eagle. We were too far away but presumed the Goliath had caught a fish which the Fish eagle stole.

“Burning a rain forest for economic gain… is like burning a Renaissance painting to cook a meal.”~ E.O Wilson

A hungry juvenile Verreaux eagle owl calling for food in the early morning light

An Ashy starling is only found in central Tanzania. It is a brownish grey colour with a distinctive pale creamy coloured eye.

The bird bath was a magnet for the red-necked spurfowl in the area.

The Red-throated spurfowl look quite similar to the Grey-breasted spurfowl but the former has a completely red bill, and redskin around its eyes. Its throat is same red skin colour as are its legs. The Grey-breasted spurfowl has grey legs and its bill is red but with a black tip and its belly feathers have chestnut brown streaks among the white and black streaked feathers. The Grey-breasted spurfowl are usually found in the western corridor of the Serengeti.

A male Yellow-throated sandgrouse searching for seeds in the sand close to a herd of buffalo. There were lots of tsetse flies around which loved the buffalo but they did not seem to bother the sandgrouse. We did not see large flocks of Yellow-throated sandgrouse like we have seen in the Serengeti, only one or two pairs at a time.

I am not too sure about this nightjar but I think it is a Eurasian nightjar by the markings on its wings. I managed to get off the game vehicle without disturbing the nightjar and got close enough to get a reasonable image lit by the vehicle’s headlights. I used a wide open aperture to get as much light as possible but it affected my depth of field.

“Look closely at nature. Every species is a masterpiece, exquisitely adapted to the particular environment in which it has survived. Who are we to destroy or even diminish biodiversity.”~E O Wilson

White headed buffalo weaver. It has a distinctive white head, breast and belly and an unmistakable orange-red rump and shoulders. You will find red-billed and white headed buffalo weavers in Ruaha. They both make untidy nests for a weaver and they build their nests on the west side of a tree.

Two different pairs of Oxpeckers grooming a Maasai Giraffe. The Yellow-billed oxpeckers have a bulbous bright red tip to their bill and the base is yellow, and they have a creamy-buff coloured rump and belly. By contrast the Red-billed oxpeckers have a pure red bill and a yellow eye ring around their red eyes. These two types of oxpecker feed differently, the Red-billed oxpecker combs or scissors through the host’s hair while the Yellow- billed oxpecker tends to peck at open wounds and insects on the animal such as ticks.

A Long crested eagle on a perfect perch in the late afternoon.

This Long crested eagle watched us for a short while and decided we were cramping his style and flew off to look for a more secluded perch from which to hunt.

There is an incredible variety of bird life in Tanzania and we only scratched the surface. South Africa holds its own in terms of variety of birds and it has a large variety of seabirds. Tanzania does not, but makes up its numbers with a dazzling array of hornbills, woodpeckers, turacos, seedeaters, barbets, bee-eaters, bush-shrikes, tchagras, flycatchers, lovebirds, parrots and list goes on. For anyone interested in birds this is a must, but you need time, a few days’ visit will not do it.

“The more you venture into nature, the more diversity and inter-connectedness you will discover. You will also realise there is complexity which only becomes fathomable with exploration and attention.”~ Mike Haworth

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

Traversing the Great Ruaha

On our third day in Ruaha we decided drive along the Great Ruaha river. From our Mwagusi river camp it took us about 45 minutes to get down to the Great Ruaha river travelling through diverse landscapes.

“Make the rest of your life the best of your life.”~ Unknown

Driving down to the Great Ruaha river along the Mwagusi we found a pair of leopard cubs we had seen two days before. The smallest cub was the most cautious and was still high up in a tree, obviously a busy night before.

“The beauty of Ruaha lies in its vast and unspoilt wilderness. It is natural and wild, the way it should be. It fills your senses so you feel alive. ~ Mike Haworth

First light down near the Great Ruaha river. A female giraffe and her calf were quietly going about their business. They were still very wary of all the sights and sounds around them from the night before, a time when they could lose their advantage.

As you will see in the Maasai Mara and Serengeti, the balloons are busy first thing in the morning. Those wanting to go ballooning needed to get up around 4h30 to get transport to a suitable launch site. The cool temperatures early in the morning provide the perfect temperature differential to get the balloons easily airborne. They normally fly for about an hour and a half before the ground temperatures rise and it gets too hot.

In the early morning it is easy to discern where the balloons are, even if you cannot see them because their burners make a loud roaring sound, unmistakable in the bush! Once they are fired up and the balloon is rising, all is quiet. In the very early morning, the burners create a glow inside the balloon which lights up, creating another worldly sight.

Once down and adventuring along the Great Ruaha river we were looking for a pride of four lionesses which we heard had cubs. When we found them, the lions were out in the open and clearly very hungry. A few impala wandered past on the far sand bank which created some excitement because we thought a hunt was about to begin, but the opportunity evaporated. As soon as lionesses saw their potential prey they went into stealth mode, but the impala never came close enough for a successful attack.

While the lion hunt was unfolding we were visited by a pair of spur-winged lapwings. Red eyes, but wide awake!

This image of one of the four lionesses showed the muscular strength in her legs.

Our wanderings were always eclectic. One minute we were watching lions, the next minute we heard squawks from a nearby tree and there was a juvenile grey kestrel calling for attention and food.

Wildlife seem, better than humans, to understand the need for their offspring to learn to fend for themselves. They progressively wean them off the support, and they teach them all they need to know until they are fully functioning – natural wisdom and respect for the next generation!!!

A panorama of the Great Ruaha river from close to the picnic site at the confluence of the Great Ruaha river and the Mwagusi rivers.

Part of the reason why the three lionesses above the bank were so interested as the small group of impala rams wandered by, was that a female was in the river bed, but could she not see the impala.

One of the aspects about lions which always impresses me is when the opportunity for a hunt is either missed or just disappeared, there never seems to be any recriminations. Instead they reinforce their bonds with each other by head rubbing and licking each other.

By the time we had moved on from the lionesses, it was late morning and starting to get hot and the light was bright with strong contrast. Time to switch gear to high key images. We found a small family herd of Plains zebra on their way down to the river to drink. I liked the baobabs in the background.

“Strip out the colour and see the tones and detail.”~ Mike Haworth

In Ruaha you really get a sense of space – feel you can breathe deeply!

Later that afternoon we found our lionesses again, few kilometres down river. They were still on the look out for a meal which made us wonder how the cubs were getting on. By this time it must have been at least a day since they last saw the cubs.

“Everyone is willing to eat but few are willing to hunt!”

A portrait of one of the lionesses in the fading light of the afternoon. She was lying on the top of the nearest bank of the Great Ruaha river.

For me I can see the strength and wisdom in her face. She is clearly very hungry but alert, patient and not wasting energy.

The evening skies were darkened by storm clouds. The temperature was still warm, so it was balmy. This is a wonderful time to be in the bush when all your senses are enlivened.

” There are no lines in nature, only areas of colour, one against another.”~ Edouard Manet

For a while we thought we were going to get wet, but the clouds dissipated, casting a mood over the landscape.

“I prefer living in colour.”~ David Hackney

By now it was getting dark and we needed to make our way back to camp which was still some distance away. When you are sitting in the game vehicle you almost have to pinch yourself because your are bathed in the beauty and light in this vast expanse.

When we got back to camp it was dark. After a quick freshen up we all gathered for dinner. This time it was in a different part of the river below the camp. The bonfire was blazing and the paraffin lamps were all around like fairy lights shining on the white river sand. Who said there wasn’t heaven on earth?

“The goal of life is to make your heart beat match the beat of of the universe, to match your nature with nature.”~ Joseph Campbell

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

Wandering along the Mwagusi river

This is the second post from our trip to Ruaha, Tanzania’s second largest National Park after Selous. It is located in the centre of Tanzania and is a photographic gem which is still not well known.

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”~Mary Oliver

There are two main rivers flowing through Ruaha, the Great Ruaha river and the Mwagusi river. At this time of the year, mid-November, the Mwagusi river course, although dry, was a particularly beautiful and productive part of the park.

“Along the dry river bed the wildlife gathers seeking life giving water. Be careful not to slaunter. The scene is benign and picturesque but the situation deadly. For tawny killers lie in ambush camouflaged in the grass and sand.”~ Mike Haworth

It was early in the morning on our second day, and we were driving along the Mwagusi river which for most sections was just sand. Early in the morning it is still too cool for raptors to look for thermals to get elevation so they can search for productive hunting areas. This tawny eagle was perched quietly, patiently surveying the area from the bough of a large fallen tree. It was dead quiet, the colours soft and the scene serene.

A bough to change the perspective!!

We found many giraffe on our travels around the park. This mature male was enjoying himself foraging in the tree and his long tongue was grabbing all the most nutritious buds and leaves. Other than the overall size, the ossicones are what distinguishes the male and female from one another. The female giraffe has tufts of hair on the top of her horns, while the males are bald on top, mainly due to fighting. Some males develop calcium deposits on top of their heads, which creates the  illusion of the him having a third horn. The extra weight helps in the head bashing competitions.

The bush is full of surprises. Driving along the river’s edge we found this beehive in the fold of the trunk of a fig tree. You can see the layers of honeycomb. There intriguing realisation is that the wild is bountiful but everything comes at a price.

This pair of yellow baboons were “chilling” in a warm glow of the early morning sun. The lady of the house looked like she had had a busy night!

There is much bird life along the Mwagusi river even though the water was patchy. This little bee-eater was very busy hawking insects around 9h30 in the morning. Needless to say it was warm around 37 degrees centigrade.

Along the river is a bounty of Lala palms. The yellow baboons love playing on them and they serve as a quick escape route from most predators.

At the top of one of the Lala palms was a grey kestrel surveying the surrounding scene.

I like all birds but a have a penchant for raptors, born from my schooldays. We disturbed this grey kestrel which was perched on a palm frond. This kestrel is grey all over with yellow legs and feet and a yellow eye ring and cere.

We found several agamas, all red-headed rock agamas with their colourful bodies and red head displaying to nearby females.

Along the Mwagusi river we were expecting to see lions. Of course, usually the only time we see the lions doing anything is first thing in the morning or at dusk. We were not travelling around the park at night when they are most active. Needless to say this pride of females was lounging on the cool sand of the river bed when we found them. When I see them sleeping like this it makes me wonder what they were doing the night before?! It was only when a few giraffe came down to drink did they pay any attention to their surroundings. There is always one lioness awake and looking around while the others are resting.

These giraffe caught the lions’ attention but nothing came of it. Giraffe appear to be very deliberate animals. They actively use their height to assess their surroundings.

I liked the texture and colour contrast between this red-headed rock agama and the tree bark. Little gems in the bush!

A red-necked spurfowl rumaging around in the underground for nibbles.

A crested francolin rumaging in old elephant dung for seeds.

It was late afternoon and we found a big male leopard in a figtree sprawled out on a large horizontal bough. Not too far away in the same tree we saw this bush hyrax who put its head out of a hollowed out knot in the tree to see what was going on. Needless to say with a leopard close by this hyrax was not going anywhere.

The camp’s logo on the side of our game vehicle – impressive.

Back at camp, while we were downloading our images, we were visited by this collared palm-thrush.

Later that afternoon, further down the river we found several giraffe drinking at one of the few pools of open water. It is clear that the water table is not too far below the surface of the sand even this late in the dry season.

“Trees are the earth’s endless effort to speak to the listening heaven.” ~Rabindranath Tagore

A simple scene crossing a broad sand river bed. Not so fast, there is nothing simple about it. There was a multitude of life. Elephants to the left and giraffe to the right. In front of us were a small group of Black faced sandgrouse. Along the edge of the water were hammerkops and sandpipers. And in the impressions in the sand, were printed all the tales of the night’s events.

In winter, the Tamboti tree gets red leaves so I was intrigued to see the Tamarind tree does the same at the end of the dry season.

For the life of me I can not remember the name of this tree which blossomed in late spring. It was a beautiful contrast to the surrounding area. Our guide, Justin told me the name but I cannot remember it.

One of the characteristics of Ruaha is its groves of baobab trees. This creates a magical environment for a myriad of wildlife.

One of the iconic images we were trying to get was a leopard lying in the fork of one of the branches of a baobab. We never found one but did find this male leopard in a well-leafed figtree.

“Whatever you do, look and be quiet. There is much to see. There is even more to understand.”~ Mike Haworth

A large adult male leopard lying comfortably sprawled out on the bough of a large figtree. He was in deep shade and high enough to catch any passing breeze to keep him cool. We spent around an hour waiting for him to come down which we knew he would do as the sun set.

Wildlife photography always has an element of chance in it. We were waiting for this male leopard to descend from the tree but it was getting darker and darker and our camera’s shutter speeds were falling despite pushing up our ISOs. Eventually it got to a point where we were not going to get a pin sharp image of this male if he moved. Sure enough as it was getting dark he got up and began to walk down the bough of the figtree. By now there was no option but to play with slow shutter speeds. We hoped he would descend the tree trunk on our side but he decided to go down the other side of the trunk. So is the way of wildlife photography!

“To photograph is to hold one’s breath, when all faculties converge to capture fleeting reality. It’s at that precise moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy.” ~Henri Cartier-Bresson

That evening back at camp, we gathered down on the riverbed for dinner. The camp staff had created a bonfire and there were lamplights all around. It looked beautiful. The food was warmed on coals buried in the sand. The staff were so hospitable, the food was scrumptious and spiced with animated chatter about our days’ sightings. The evening was cool, the fire was crackling and there was a Scops owl serenading in the background – bliss!!

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

Ruaha in isolated central Tanzania

It must have been in 2014 that I saw the National Geographic wildlife video called Lion Battle Zone. This documentary focused on several different lion prides in Ruaha National Park in Tanzania. The lion-buffalo and lion-lion interaction caught my imagination. I was fascinated by the landscapes and scenery too. This became one of my want-to-go-to wild places.

” Jobs fill your pockets but adventures fill your soul.”~ Jaime Lyn

I told a number of people of my desire to go to Ruaha and what had spurred my imagination. Finally in 2018, Andrew Beck from Wild Eye put a trip together in November 2018 to spend seven days in Ruaha. This was a place with names like the Mwagusi river, the Great Ruaha river, the Njaa, Bushbuck and Baobab prides which caught my imagination. Reality can be much better than imagination in these situations.

After spending the night in Dar es Salaam (Dar) we took an almost two hour charter flight directly west of ‘Dar’ to Ruaha. This is the second largest National Park in Tanzania. It is much less travelled than Selous or Serengeti. For me this was one of its key attractions.

“Fill your life with adventures not things. Have stories to tell not things to show.”~Unknown

In 2017 there were an estimated just over 20,000 wild lions in 26 countries in Africa and their numbers were reported to be dropping precipitously. According to the Ruaha Carnivore project across the continent, Africa’s large carnivores are facing an uncertain future. Lions, cheetahs and African wild dogs have all disappeared from 80 – 90 percent of their original range. Both the lion and the cheetah are now classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN, with as few as 23,000 and 10,000 individuals remaining in the wild respectively. While the African wild dogg is Endangered, with merely 6,600 estimated adults remaining.

Source: Safariline.net

Tanzania’s Ruaha National Park is a vital stronghold for these keystone species. The park holds over 10 percent of the world’s remaining lions, as well as the third largest population of African wild dogs. It is also home to one of just four large cheetah populations remaining in East Africa.

“Every man’s life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another.” ~Ernest Hemingway

We were fortunate to stay at the Mwagusi river camp. This was an authentic bush camp located on the banks of the Mwagusi river. The setting is idyllic and the camp is the perfect blend of isolated bush camp with superb food and wonderful hospitality. The next image is the view up the Mwagusi river from my banda. Mwagusi Camp’s rooms, known as bandas, are spacious tented rooms with a concrete floor encased within a large reed-and-thatch building – very comfortable way out in the bush.

In the area along the Mwagusi river close to camp there were groves of baobab trees. This for me was one of the iconic characteristics of Ruaha. In southern Africa we usually only see isolated baobabs, never large groves of them.

Although very dry, the landscapes and biomes were varied ranging from riverine forests, to groves of baobabs, to open grasslands like the Little Serengeti, to wide open rivers such as the Great Ruaha river. The Mwagusi river was lined with Sausage trees, Figtrees, IIala palms and Tamarind trees to name a few.

In our first afternoon in Ruaha we were fortunate to find two leopard cubs. One was very small and very shy and stayed deep in the bush around a small granite outcrop which made decent photography difficult. The second cub crossed the adjacent Mwagusi dry river bed and found a partially eaten bushbuck carcass.

“To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.”~Bill Bryson

The leopard cub was very wary and looked up at the slightest sound. The cub was feeding in a bed of dry autumnal coloured leaves which provided an interesting background.

We purposefully went to Ruaha in mid November which was the end of the dry season so that we would improve our chances of good predator sightings.

After spending an hour or so with the leopard cubs the light was fading so we made our way back toward camp. Our guide Justin told us that they had heard lions close to the camp the night before so there was a good chance we might find them resting close to camp along the river bed.

We found two adult females and one male in the twilight. The females were very affectionate toward one another. One was in season and the other not, so the male paid close attention to the female in season and rarely left her side.

“You know you are truly alive when you’re living among lions.”~Karen Blixen

This male was using the flehmen grimace where he stretched out his neck, curled back his upper lip exposing his front teeth drew the scent of his female across his Jacobson’s organ which is located above the roof of the mouth via a duct which exits just behind the front teeth.

The colour of the sky in the evening was sublime. In mid-November, the rain clouds were building for the big rains and everything in the bush was holding its breath for the onset of the rains after the dry season.

This was our introduction to Ruaha and our first afternoon in this wild place. So far it had met all my expectations and aligned with all my romantic notions of the the bush. It was going to be a good trip!

“All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.” T.E. Lawrence

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at is inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

Mashatu’s spring landscapes

This is the last post from my trip to Mashatu in late October 2018. In this post I want to show you the varied landscapes you are likely to see while travelling around Mashatu. This is a private game reserve and all visitors are driven around in Mashatu game vehicles by Mashatu guides.

“The best dreams happen when you are wide awake.”~ unknown

There are three aspects of this game reserve which make it especially appealing for a wildlife photographer. Firstly, there is a wide variety of mammals and birds to see, but you will not see buffalo and rhino. Secondly, the guides will take you off road to get those special sightings and thirdly, the terrain, rivers and different biomes add many interesting perspectives.

“Landscapes even when their general type is similar, are capable of as many expressions as the same type of face, and, without our being able fully to tell why, affect our spirits as we look at them with as many moods and meanings.”~ William Hurrell Mallock

Mashatu also undergoes a radical transformation from winter to summer. In winter it cools down especially at night though the days are warm. It is dry as the last major rain falls in April. The flora progressively looks drier and the colours turn to browns, reds and yellows. By contrast , summer is very hot day and night and the rains usually start in November and carry on until March or April . The flora blooms and the reserve turns into a garden of Eden which is a verdant green and the rivers have plenty of water in them. This creates fascinating differences in mammal and bird behaviour.

Two ostrich pairs had, between them, around 14 chicks of different ages.

The magnificent male lion who dominates Mashatu – for now!

On the southern border of Mashatu close to the border post is a large outcrop of broken granite and sandstone which is home to rock dassies, leopards and klipspringers. The occasional black eagle is also seen cruising over the overcrop in search of dassies for dinner.

“Photography is a story I fail to put into words.”~Destin Sparks

Driving down one of the numerous sand river tributaries in search of lions and leopards.

Mashatu has four cheetah groups. Three females with cubs of different ages and a coalition of three adult males.

One of the many hills from which to look out over the plains. These spots are ideal for a morning coffee or sundowners while watching the sun illuminate a blaze of colour across the evening sky.

“The camera makes you forget you’re there. It’s not like you are hiding but you forget, you are just looking so much.”~Annie Leibovitz

Looking at one of the stoney ridges in Mashatu. This shows you just how dry it gets during winter and spring.

A family herd of elephants were digging in the sand of the Limpopo river for water. A pair of impala males were hanging around waiting for the elephants sate their thirst so they could get a chance for a drink of fresh water.

The water table is not too far below the surface of the apparently dry Limpopo river. Within a few feet the elephants are able to find water which is clean, being filtered by the sand.

“Photography is a love affair with life.”~Charlie Waite

The last remaining pools of water along the Limpopo river. The water was stagnant so the elephants usually sought out underground filtered water.

A typical scene looking west and watching the sunset with a sundowner in hand.

Travelling south back towards Rock camp, we passed a large marsh area which was dry and not the waterlogged marshland it had been in previous years. The dam wall broke a few years ago and it has been very dry since.

One of the more unusual areas of Mashatu to visit is Mmagwa Hill to see Rhodes Baobab and look down on the Motloutse river. Mmagwa was one of the satellite settlements of the the legendary Mapungubwe Dynasty.

We climbed up the rugged Mmagwa Hill in the late afternoon to see the sunset from this wonderful vantage point.

Growing on top of Mmagwa Hill is a lone baobab inscribed with Cecil John Rhodes’ initials. The story told is that Rhodes once stood here, envisioning his dream of a railway from Cape Town to Cairo.

As the sunsets and it starts to get dark, we can hear a lone hyaena whopping in the valley below and decide it is time to break the magical spell created by the sunset and make our way down the rocky path in the last light.

“You can speak with spiritual eloquence, pray in public, and maintain a holy appearance… but it is your behaviour that will reveal your true character.”~Unknown

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike