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!

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 8: A Swim for Survival

The time has come for the annual great wildebeest migration as over 3 million animals will cross the crocodile infested Mara River that separates Tanzania and Kenya. Considered one of the natural wonders of the world, it is very difficult to predict the timing, but once a year millions of wildebeest will travel north over the Mara River into Kenya searching for fresh grasses to graze upon. The river is not very wide, but the journey is made treacherous by lots of slippery rocks and crocodile that are awaiting their annual wildebeest feast.

The migration is difficult to predict, but normally occurs in mid-to-late August, so I timed my arrival in the northern Serengeti hoping to coincide with the arrival of the wildebeest herds. Getting to the northern Serengeti requires 4+ hours of driving over unpaved roads and there are few camps to support visitors, so only the most dedicated will travel this far in search of the migration. My chances of seeing a portion of the migration depended on being lucky with the timing; I became very nervous that I would miss it completely as reports in early August indicated the migration started early. Thankfully the herds had split into two larger groups, so I was not too late! As I arrived in the northern Serengeti, I began talking to other visitors and guides who indicated no migration activity had been seen for several days prior, so we again had to get lucky. 

Our safari driver, Ben from Caracal Tours and Safaris, wisely instructed us to start the day a little earlier than normal so we set out half asleep in search of some wildebeest. We didn’t have to go far - within 10 minutes we were watching a decent herd gathered in a corner of the river. We moved our truck behind some bushes so as to not scare the herd and waited for the call over the radio that they had started running. Apparently the wildebeest will be spooked by the smallest things, so the presence of a 4x4 will cause them to hesitate running; hiding behind some bushes can speed things along. As the call came over the radio, we pulled out it from the bush and my heart jumped into my throat. Here it was……. the migration of tens of thousands of wildebeest was happening right before my eyes. 

It took almost an hour to complete the run, with thousands of animals galloping into the river and struggling to get across the other side. They sang a song (“he-haw”) that captured the fear these animals must have as they made this journey. Some got stuck. One young one broke his front leg and hobbled across on three legs (and was probably prey to a hyena later that evening). Another group crossed a major portion of the river only to get confused and turn back to the original shore (and they will have to cross again in the future). 

Miraculously, we only witnessed one fatality and it did not come at the hands / mouth of a crocodile. While there were several in the water, they must have been well fed in prior days as they expressed virtually zero interest in the migration. The one wildebeest who did not survive had a stuck foot and while he eventually dislodged it, he drowned before making it across to the other side. While it was sad to watch a helpless animal die before your eyes, it was a good reminder of what makes this journey so powerful to witness and made me glad that we saw so many other animals cross safely. One fatality in several tens of thousands of animals is a good success rate!

The experience of watching the wildebeest was surreal and different from anything the documentary TV could have offered. While many of the animals we’ve seen in Tanzania have acted in very predictable manners, watching tens of thousands of frightened animals swim for their lives really is a magical and humbling experience. Sitting at the bank of the Mara River and experiencing it for myself will be something that stays with me for the rest of my life.

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.