Quick Shot: Puma

Warthogs were not terribly high on my list of 'must see' animals in while in Tanzania, but I was surprised to find them far cuter and more interesting than expected. Their skin is actually covered in a thick and bristle fur and they have some funny behaviors - for instance, when they run in a group, they always stick their tails straight up in the air. This reminded me a bit of remote control antennas - the tip of the tail was sometimes all you could see. The warthog was also surprisingly brave - we saw a warthog take on a cheetah when it was irritated that the cheetah was walking through his territory. And when rummaging in the ground, the warthog often gets down on his knees to get that big face closer to the dirt.

Here's two shots of the warthogs - one is a momma with her babies and the second is a warthog on his knees.

Quick Shot: Butt Shot

Sometimes having a photograph where the face isn't front and center is a good thing..... and in this case, the butts are center stage. These two wildebeest were facing away, but I was patient with the camera and was ready to shoot once both turned to look at me. I love the look and feel of this image!

1970s.....? No, 2015 Lion!

Looking at this photograph quickly and you might think it was taken in 1970. It's got that distinctive color and feel of a photograph from 1970..... the feel of a photograph taken with old film.

That's because it is! The photograph is from 2015 and Tanzania, but was shot on a 1970's era Rolleiflex 120mm camera on Kodak color film. 

For the past few weeks I've slowly been developing all the rolls of film I shot in Tanzania and am excited to start sharing those shots, starting with this one of a very friendly lion. Although the composition is a little.... wacky.... I think you can appreciate that I was a bit nervous to shove my arm outside the car to frame a better shot!

Ngorongoro Sunrise

Good morning! Sunrise in Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania was extremely photographic as the sun peeked through the dense cloud cover that settled overnight. To get this photograph, I stitched eight individual images together into a single mosaic. Shot on the Nikon D610 with Nikon 80-400mm lens.

A Day in Ngorongoro

The Ngorongoro Crater is one of the often overlooked treasures of northern Tanzania as it sits next to one of the best known parks, the Serengeti. To start our adventure, which requires a decent of 900 meters, Ben had us up at 6am so we could catch sunrise in the crater.

We woke up to a very chilly morning; it was barely above freezing and a dense fog sat over the crater and our hotel. Ben was constantly having to wipe down the windshield to fight the condensation - it was like driving through a cloud. Barely able to see the road ahead of him, Ben slowly crept the jeep towards the edge of the crater. I knew the crater was on my right side as we drove and just kept watching to make sure there was some visible road out the window as there was almost no way to know if you were about to dive off a cliff!

Eventually we arrived at the gate for the crater descent road and the sun was just starting to put some light into the sky. This significantly helped and within minutes we’d gone from virtually zero visibility to several meters. Beginning the decent onto the steep crater road, we were welcomed with some wonderful photographic surprises. First, the sun penetrating through the clouds offered some spectacular beams of neon pink light. Second, from below the cloud line, we could look up at see big dramatic clouds ‘stuck’ on the edge of the crater. In the soft morning light, it was a photographer’s dream. Not only did I get busy with my Nikon, I also pulled out the Rolleiflex 120mm film camera and fired off several images onto some color Kodak Ektar film.

Our journey into the crater had one specific goal - Rhino! Unfortunately, in talking with other visitors over the course of our journey who had been to Ngorongoro before us, no one had seen a rhino. It sounded like it had been several days or even weeks without a spotting. The rarity of this animal cannot be overstated; there are estimated to be less than 50 left in the entire country as poaching largely destroyed the population. Even though these black rhino are now under guard and protection from poachers, the rhino is not quick to reproduce, so restoring the population will take centuries. Ngorongoro is considered the best place to look for these animals because it’s estimated that up to 50% of Tanzania’s rhino population lives in this crater. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make things easier; the rhino is very particular about certain weather conditions like wind and seeing just one in the distance is a treat for visitors.

We drove around the crater spotting the usual assortment of animals - zebra, wildebeest, gazelle, lion, warthog - but all eyes were focused on finding a black dot on the horizon that would belong to a rhino. There were plenty of false alarms; the crater is also home to the water buffalo, which looks very similar from a distance!

Over the radio, in Swahili, came the call. A pair of rhino had been spotted walking in some grassy fields. We tore over to that area and stopped the jeep. Scanning the horizon it was possible see two little black dots with horns - two rhino. We were elated. It was too far to take pictures, but looking through the binoculars we could make out the faint shapes of the rhino.

We felt very lucky to see these rhino at all. Our search for the “safari big 5” (the name given to the five animals most safari-goers hope to see: rhino, lion, elephant, water buffalo, and leopard) was over. 

We continued the drive and made friends with several groups of lions, including some cubs that again decided the best shade was found next to and under safari jeeps. Time in the crater is limited, as is the number of vehicles allowed in at any one time, and we knew our morning in the crater was rapidly coming to an end. Around noon, Ben started to speed up and joined a line of other jeeps that was driving quickly down a main road. We assumed this was part of the jeep migration out of the crater and thought little of it. 

A moment later we joined a long line of safari jeeps; here was another (different) rhino and he was very close. Very close. For the next 45 minutes, we watched this animal walk around the grass, at one point coming very close to the car, before walking past. I rattled off hundreds of shots; the rhino walks with his head down and in the grass so rapid shooting was key to see his horns in the breaks of the grass. 

We were exceptionally lucky. To see even one rhino is a treat and we thought two at a distance was fantastic, but here was a third rhino very close to us. Morale in the jeep was very high as we exited the crater for our next adventure. 

Safari Cats: Lion, Cheetah and Leopard

There's one question I get asked over and over by coworkers and friends as they hear about my safari:

"Did you see any cats?"

It has become evident that I need to post some pictures of the felines observed during this safari to northern Tanzania pretty quickly, or I may have a mob of angry people to contend with! And after yesterday's somewhat depressing update about the Maasai, it's time I give you what you want! Pictured here are a collection of Lions, Cheetah and Leopard seen during our safari through Tanzania with Caracal Tours & Safaris.

So, without further ado, may I present *some* of the cats of Africa! I have to save a few surprises....

Day 6-7: Serengeti National Park

Rather than repeatedly offering play-by-play accounts of the animals we saw on safari in the Serengeti, I’m going to mix things up by instead offering a recap of the highlights from Days 6-7, which were spent in the Serengeti National Park. These days brought us virtually all of the animals seen in the Serengeti-  the exception being a rhino. We had almost forty lions, leopards, cheetah, gazelle, giraffe, elephant, hyena, warthog, crocodile, hippo, etc etc etc!

Some of my favorite moments in the Serengeti:

  • One of the roads we went down took us into the middle of a group of hundreds of Zebra. It was probably the biggest concentration of a single animal we observed outside the wildebeest in the north. As far as you could see were zebra, even spanning across a small river. The funny part was listening to the zebra; they make a "he haw" sound like a donkey, but when hundreds of them do it simultaneously, its a sound unlike any heard before. It became dubbed the zebra song and we enjoyed hearing it from smaller groups elsewhere.
  • The gazelle are particularly amusing when you watch them move. While their normal process is to just walk like deer, they have this very funny jump / bounce that they will do whenever they are moving faster (like when our truck approaches). It looks like someone attached springs to the bottom of their feet!
  • Lions are very lazy. Very lazy. They make my house cat look productive! In the Serengeti we saw several lions that decided to nap in the shade not under a tree, but under the shade of a safari truck. As a result, we had several lions just feet away...... talk about surreal!
  • Speaking of lions, they normally hunt in groups and we had a chance to see a failed lion hunt. There were three lions involved; two sat on the horizon near trees while the third was closer to us and sat in the middle of the field. A group of gazelle unknowingly walked between the group, making them in prime location for a hunt, but the lions were not successful in stalking the gazelle. One of the gazelle realized what was happening and they sprinted away before the lions could make a kill.
  • We saw other cats, including a cheetah, in the Serengeti. The funny thing about the cheetah was watching it be harassed by a much smaller warthog when the cheetah started to mark its territory. Apparently Puma felt differently about who owned the territory and, undeterred by the size difference, the warthog chased the cheetah out of the area. It was unexpected interactions like this that made the Serengeti so interesting!

The end of day 7 took us to the northern Serengeti where we began our quest for wildebeest migration.... stay tuned!

Day 5: Serengeti National Park

After many days of teaser / warm-up safari days, it was finally time to set out for the Serengeti. The national park is one of (but not the) largest parks in Tanzania, certainly the most famous. To get here, we drove through Ngorogoro Crater (pronounced “un-gor-o-gor-o”), which is a caldera formed by volcano millions of years ago. We’ll be back to the crater near the end of our trip, so more to come about it and the ecosystem there.

The drive through Ngorogoro was relatively uneventful, but getting there required a little extra effort. On the way there, we passed through a police “checkpoint” setup in the road. Our driver, Ben, was flagged for a crack in the windshield, which is very common here considering the unpaved roads (we got several new cracks driving the rest of the day!) Most windshields only last a safari or two before they need replacement. Anyway, although Ben had the proper paperwork stating he had ordered the replacement windshield and despite the appropriate stamps, the police here pretended that the paperwork was not in order. I say pretend because the police in Tanzania are notoriously corrupt and a major part of their job is to bother people for bribes. For the average Tanzanian who may not be well educated or know better, this is a part of their life, but Ben is very well educated and knew that he was technically in the right. After almost 30 minutes of debate, they finally agreed that we could go on our way if he paid a “fine” of 10,000 Tanzanian Shillings…… or $5 US Dollars! The police clearly pocket the money and we were sure to notice the diamond earrings and ring on the policewoman probably weren’t purchased on salary alone. While it does not seem like a significant amount of money, $5 USD here is a small fortune and can feed a family for a week!

Once we’d resolved the bribes, we continued for the Serengeti. The road was fairly bumpy and dusty, so it wasn’t my favorite of our drives, but certainly one of the most beautiful. The arrival into the Serengeti was marked with nothingness. Seriously. As far as you could see….. nothing. Flat. Not a tree to be seen. The only thing breaking up the horizon were the herds of gazelle nibbling on the grass. The midday heat caused a mirage effect as the ground radiated. On we drove and eventually ended up in the areas of the Serengeti that are closer to what I’d imagined; the odd tree, some rolling hills and the occasional dried up water hole. 

We finally approached a side road where another safari driver indicated to Ben that there were some cheetah, so we detoured off the main route in search of some cats. We drove for awhile never finding cheetah, but the cats still showed themselves. This time it was a mother lion and her three lion cubs. The cubs were hungry and you could see ribs and bones, indicating they could use additional feedings. A little stream separated us from the lioness and her cubs, so Ben started driving to find a way across the stream to the road on the other side. As we proceeded, I spotted another pair of lions laying in the grass in the sun. We drove over to them and saw two adult lions, one who was just starting to grow his first mane, lounging in the midday sun. After watching them for a minute, we went back to the lioness and her cubs. She got up and started to lead her cubs away from the comfort and shade of the tree they were under and toward the other lions. We were hoping she was going to hunt one of the million gazelle ambling nearby, but she kept walking. She walked so quickly that her cubs fell behind, eventually separating her from them completely. Her walking ultimately also brought her within inches of the side of the truck - close enough that I could have reached my arm through the open window to pet her (I did not!). It was totally surreal to have a lion walk up on you like that, just inches away. I think I held my breath the whole time, but I did manage to take some shots! 

Finally she went to join the other adult lions lounging in the sunshine, her children probably a half mile away and “lost” as far as we could tell. Ben tells us this isn’t all that uncommon, but we certainly were judging the momma lion’s parenting techniques to leave her young vulnerable like that! 

The rest of our safari drive brought us more hippo, more giraffe, more elephant, more zebra, more monkey, more gazelle…… more animals! We joke that we’re starting to become choosy safari folks - the sightings that would have consumed us early in the trip are now waved on like “oh, another one of those.”

As the sun set, we approached our camp, the Kati Kati Camp, which is a roaming tent camp located squarely in the middle of the Serengeti plains. There is no fence, just a bunch of tents that are setup for a few months and then moved. As a result, you are smack dab in the middle of the animal action and not allowed to leave the tent after dinner. You are escorted to and from the tent in the dark and have a whistle for emergency, but are NOT supposed to exit the tent. Lion, hyena, zebra, giraffe, etc are all common sightings around the tents at night and I woke up several times to the sound of an animal right outside the tent. It was fascinating to also watch the sun set over the Serengeti from this vantage point and I’m glad we are here another day to enjoy it again.

Day 4: Mto Wa Mbu

Today offered a brief break from the safari animals so we could spend some time learning about the local tribes and people before entering the Serengeti for the next portion of the adventure. As I previously mentioned, the area around Lake Natron is surrounded by many tribes, the best known of which is the Maasai tribe. The Maasai people are nomadic and historically have survived by herding cattle.

Everyone in Tanzania belongs to one of the 130 tribes in the country, and most tribes get along peacefully. To start our day, we explored some of the nearby villages and met the local people before spending the afternoon with the Maasai tribes. The area we are in is called Mto Wa Mbu, which translates to “mosquito river.” After meeting up with Michael, our guide for the villages, we started walking through farm fields to see the rice, beans and banana crops that are the major food staples here. As we walked, we had a chance to see some of the mud huts that house families here. Most of the residents lack electricity, running water, and normal sanitation, so it was fascinating to see their way of life. For instance, a spigot for water was found in most housing clusters, but individual homes lacked running water. Toilets were made from the dried stalks of corn (not the green ones as the cows would then eat your toilet!). I saw very few homes that had wire leading to the hut to suggest electric power. 

We had a chance to look inside one of these huts and get a sense of the home these people live in. The mud house has a roof made from corn leaves, but both the roof and walls require regular patching to repair. If it had rained while we were inside that home, the roof would have offered minimal protection to stop the rains. There was a single bedroom with a mosquito net (provided by USAID) and the floors were hard packed mud. The older boys lived in a nearby hut which was very similar, although they had decorated it with posters of American musicians like Jay-Z, 50 Cent and Rick Ross. The family kitchen was located outside in another hut, although this one was basically a bunch of sticks crudely assembled to form a structure. 

After touring some of the local life, we saw some of the tribes that specialize in wood carving. Of course the primary customer for these wood carvings is the western tourists, but I had a new found appreciation for woodworking as I watched these men working barefoot and chiseling out ebony into figures that can take weeks to complete. From there, we moved toward the market, but were first intercepted by some school children. One of the little girls ran over and grabbed our hands and escorted into her school, which is for children aged 3-6yrs. Inside the school was approximately 70 kids who had already learned a decent amount of English and were able to identify animals in English when they were pointed out on a particular sign. We joined them in counting and singing the alphabet. To these kids, we were rock stars. They all wanted a high five and to touch us. They grabbed at my camera - not aggressively - but with the interest and fascination of a little kid that has never seen something like that before. 

As we left the school, we had a chance to see some more USAID money being put to good use; some men were walking around to the homes of young children and were passing out a drug that is used to prevent eye disease that is common in these parts. While the disease has been eradicated in the United States and western countries, it is still prevalent here and is transmitted by infected flies biting the eyeball. The USAID workers used a measuring stick to determine how many pills each child needed and distributed them to the families. Recognizing that we were from the USA, they were eager to show us how the aid we send was being put to use and I was glad to see that with my own eyes - and I was proud that my country could help to stop terrible diseases like that! 

Speaking of American pride, we often get asked where we are from. The typical answer is the “United States” but sometimes they would ask more specifically. At one point I responded “Washington, DC” and they suddenly got very animated….. I live near Obama! President Obama is very popular in this area (Kenya, where his family is from is just to the north) and we have just started telling people we live in the same city as Obama. It’s incredible watching people’s reaction to us change when they hear we live near Obama - they go from being a little timid and hesitant to giving big smiles, cheers and thumbs up. Regardless of what you think of his politics, it is clear that having an African American President has really changed the impression these people have of America in a positive way.

Our morning ended with a tour of the market and villagers selling produce, spices and other oddities. We then took a “Tuk-Tuk” (rickshaw) back to the lodge for lunch before our tour of the Maasai villages outside town. 

The Maasai people and culture deserves its own, special, and unique post to really capture what we experienced; therefore, I am ending the Day 4 log early and will come back to a post about the Maasai in the future.

A young boy fishing in one of the canals that supplies water to the rice fields

This man carves ebony figurines to make money to feed his family

A man walking through the fields

Inside one of the houses of a local - this isn't a museum, this is a real person's home. The house is made from cow dung and has no electricity or running water. The roof leaks and needs repair every few weeks.

This is a kitchen hut. Cooking is done away from the sleeping area. The small area on the right with the blue cloth is the goat's house

Toilets - but no water! The walls are made from dried corn stalks (fresh corn would be eaten by the cows and you don't want your toilet eaten away!). Inside is a hole dug into the ground - no seat.

Inside one of the private schools. These kids sang their alphabet and counted in English for us

Inside one of the private schools. These kids sang their alphabet and counted in English for us

Day 3: Lake Manyara National Park

I am finding it increasingly difficult to come up with the words to describe the incredible wildlife and landscape in Tanzania. Our adventure today took us to Manyra National Park, which is located squarely in the heart of Maasai territory. The Maasai is one of the oldest and bigger tribes in this region; historically cattle farmers, they live a very primitive lifestyle in mud huts that dot the remote countryside. 

Manyra park borders a lake that is an alkaline lake full of millions of flamingos, but the park itself contains several mini ecosystems. With Ben once again at the helm, we set off in search of elephants, giraffe, monkey, and (fingers crossed) big cats. Ben told us that we’d have to be extremely lucky to see any cats in this park, it used to be more common but the cats have learned to avoid the areas visited by the 4x4’s and stick to remote areas. We started a running joke with Ben that, despite his warnings that this wasn’t a place to regularly see the big cats, we were still going to find a “leopard in a tree.” After a day and a half, the joke had evolved to finding all sorts of animals in trees: leopards, lions, and elephants! Every time we said it, Ben would chuckle and shake his head, no doubt thinking “those crazy people.”

You can imagine our excitement when a German tourist in another jeep mentioned “there is a lion in a tree just down the road, next to the wooden bridge.” Ben hit the accelerator and moments later we found the tree in question. Indeed, there was a large lioness relaxing in the upper branches in retreat of the hot sun. While we’d found our lion in a tree, this lion wasn’t exactly feeling social and only gave a view of her butt as she napped, occasionally shifting a paw to maintain her balance. As an aside, I was surprised by her choice of limbs for napping - she didn’t exactly go for big strong branches and I can’t imagine it was a terribly comfortable nap. 

I am sure Ben was relieved to finally produce a cat in a tree, hoping that would quell his guests and their jokes, but we immediately began joking that we now wanted elephants and leopards in trees. (Note: elephants don’t climb trees, but since Ben had delivered a sighting that was fairly rare, we figured we’d ask for the moon and see what we got!)

As we continued down the path, Ben would stop and chat with other guides in Swahili about their sightings: “did you see any elephants? any lions?” Ben reported back to us that the other safari groups were coming back empty handed, but this didn’t deter Ben. He’s one of the best drivers in Tanzania and if anyone was going to find the impossible, it was him. Onward we went!

Less than an hour later, we passed some very fresh elephant dung and urine; when urine is still present you know the elephants MUST be nearby. Despite our eagle eyes, we couldn't find any elephants, and pressed forward, disappointed that we may have missed a sighting by mere minutes. The end of this road was an open plain that eventually stretched to the edge of the lake. As we emerged onto the plain, Ben yelled out “Lion!”

Sure enough, in the middle of the plain was a single lioness walking towards the only bush that occupied this otherwise barren grassland. I only got a few quick snaps before she disappeared into the bush and sat down. After spending a minute looking around at the other animals, Ben drove the 4x4 over to the bush, putting us just feet away from the lion as she rested in the shade. 

Wow! These are big cats and very impressive to see in their natural environment - no cages or scheduled feedings. I don’t think she was as impressed with the humans as she’d occasionally lift one side of her lip to show us a long tooth. She was a truly magnificent animal and I cannot wait to see more in the Serengeti. 

We felt incredibly lucky - TWO lions! Ben commented that this is very rare to see here, so we felt very good about our timing, although still bummed the elephants evaded us. Unfortunately, the park was closing soon, so we had to start the drive back to the main gate without our elephant sighting. About fifteen minutes into the drive, Ben spotted an elephant leg as it moved across the road and into the bush. We drove to that area and could hear the sounds of a bunch of large animals and saw trees shaking. Ben stopped the engine and we sat there in silence listening to the bushes and trees around us shaking from a herd of elephants. Moments later the first elephant emerged from the bush and ambled toward us, getting within inches of the truck before ducking back into the overgrowth. Another group of elephants emerged, this time with a baby. The adult elephants surrounded the baby to protect it, but I still managed a few shots. Ben was starting to get nervous - the park was closing soon and we still had a long way to drive, but the elephants we were previously struggling to identify were now not in the mood to yield from the roadway. Even as we inched closer in the truck, the elephants were not interested in moving and we had no choice but to sit and watch this group of 10 or so elephants (bummer!). Almost as quickly as we found them, they disappeared when an older elephant was spooked by a nearby sound. Ben wasted no time and we tore onward to the main gate.

At this point, it seemed every time we wished to see an animal in a tree, that animal would appear for us, albeit not always in a tree! Once again we joked that all we needed now was a leopard in a tree. Almost as if it was on command, we passed another safari truck that was watching a leopard moving in the bushes. Unfortunately he was moving very quickly so we only got a minute to watch him before he disappeared from view.

On the whole, we had an extremely lucky day in a park that is more commonly known for the bird life. We are hoping our luck didn’t run out too quickly as our next safari stop is the Serengeti! The moral of this story is that we need to keep asking to see animals in trees!

Day 2: Arusha National Park Safari

If I was to sum up today's safari drive through Arusha National Park in northern Tanzania, it would be with one word..... 'Monkey!'

With our safari guide and driver Ben at the helm of our Caracal Tours and Safari's 4x4 truck, we set out this morning for a small park north of Arusha. The park has an interesting mix of dry landscape and lush greenery, providing a home for a variety of animals. Since our travels will soon take us into the dry Serengeti, I was most interested in the lush greenery as the animals we see there will not be found again later. One of the trademarks of this park is the black and white Colobus Monkey, which is relatively rare for visitors to see, but we were fortunate to catch twice. Along with hundreds of baboons, the monkey crowd certainly stole the spotlight and were the highlight of our day.

Monkey business was not the only thing we enjoyed as Ben also took us to see some Zebra, Giraffe, Warthog, Buffalo, birds and flamingos. While we eagerly eyed for Hippo and our first African cat sightings, neither made an appearance, but Ben promises an abundance of them in our future! With Ben's re-assurance that the other animals would come in due time, I focused my energy (and camera) into capturing the magic of the monkey.

Here's a selection of shots from the monkey business we observed today. All shot with the Nikon D610 and Nikon 80-400mm telephoto lens.

Momma and baby baboon sitting on a rock in Arusha National Park. The mom was preening while the youngster kept a nervous eye on us.

Another mother baboon breast feeding her young

I love the big orange eyes and the smile on this baboon!

The Colobus Monkey is less common for visitors to spot, so we were very fortunate to have some cooperative monkey business to watch. The Colobus Monkey is known for being a great jumper and we witnessed our fair share of that being demonstrated.

A little Sykes Monkey eyeing a branch and contemplating if he could make the jump for more leaves to nibble.