Safaridude's Trip Report - Part II (Tanzania)

Oct 9th, 2006, 01:58 PM
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Safaridude's Trip Report - Part II (Tanzania)

Ngorongoro Crater – the Garden of Eden or Disneyworld?

This was my second pilgrimage to the Garden of Eden. What can I say about the Ngorongoro Crater that hasn’t been said? The circular caldera of approximately ten miles in diameter is in one word, dizzying: open savannah here; an acacia forest there; a dry soda lake here; a swampy hippo pool there; and don’t forget the patch of rainforest on the rim. Flying in from Meru-Nairobi-Kilimanjaro to the Ngorongoro airstrip on the rim of the Crater in record time, we wolfed down our picnic lunch at the airstrip as we met our private guide who would be with us the rest of the way in Tanzania. Dominyk (or “Dom”), is a quick-witted Australian with a particular fondness for snakes and, for the next eight days, would serve as a tireless caretaker for the five American tourists. Eager to get down to the floor of the Crater for the afternoon, we cut the acquaintance session short.

The Crater is indeed a sensory overload. As soon as we descended, we saw a pride of lions resting, a hyena chasing a wildebeest, and zebras scratching their hides against rocks right next to our vehicle. Crowned cranes to the left, flamingoes to the right, a bull elephant emerging from Lerai Forest in the distance, and soon I begin to wonder if I brought enough flash memory cards for my digital camera. Something is amiss though, when you can practically reach out and touch a wildebeest without its batting an eye. Is this real or is this Jungle Cruise at Disneyworld? Do these wildebeests get paid at the end of day when all the tourist vehicles must leave the Crater?

In terms of phantasmagoria, Ngorongoro Crater Lodge somehow manages to outdo the Crater itself. Run by CC Africa, the Crater Lodge, in my opinion, is completely over the top – and I don’t mean that in a good way. There is a telephone in every room; serviced laundry is brought back to the room accompanied by a long-stemmed rose; and while you are at supper, unbeknownst to you, the staff draws you a rose pedal-sprinkled hot bath – even though you may have had the intention of just taking a shower. I wonder if CC Africa (“CC” by the way, ironically, stands for “Conservation Corp”) knows about the power rationing going on in much of Tanzania. A vast majority of power generation in Tanzania is hydroelectric. The recent drought and mismanagement have led to a shortage of electricity, and even significant towns such as Arusha are experiencing scheduled blackouts. I know there is rarely a water problem at the Crater, and the water from the Crater probably doesn’t end up in a hydroelectric power plant, but the nightly bath water thing seems out of place, at least, at this particular time.

The second day (a full day game drive) at Ngorongoro was, of course, spectacular. Lions and black rhinos are always special. But at the end of the day, as I sipped Moet & Chandon Champagne in the highly ornate dining room, I knew I wasn’t coming back. That’s just me though. Many of the local guides feel the same way I do, but they all agree that Ngorongoro should be seen at least once. It is akin to a serious recreational golfer paying $500 to play Pebble Beach once to see what it’s all about.

Next up: Western Corridor, Serengeti National Park
safaridude is offline  
Oct 9th, 2006, 02:19 PM
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I've had that same ironic thought about CCAfrica.

Good question on the crater. I think a little of both. My closest wildebeest shots ever have also been in the crater.

Where did you originally find out about Ugalla?
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Oct 9th, 2006, 06:23 PM
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Serengeti National Park – The Off-season?

All of us Fodorites know that the Western Corridor of Serengeti is at its best in June and July when the migration is likely to go through there. We also know that there is no point in going to Serengeti or Maasai Mara if you are not going to see the migration, right? This is why I raised a few eyebrows when I suggested that I would be going to the Western Corridor of Serengeti National Park in September. But I had my own reasons. I had seen the great migration twice in Maasai Mara. Both times, it was spectacularly fantastically splendidly great, but you can’t go home again. I chose the Western Corridor because of the good all-year round resident game, and because it allowed us the opportunity to traverse practically the entire length of the Serengeti by vehicle from Ngorongoro.

The day of the journey across the Serengeti will certainly be one of my top moments. The immensity of the place can only be properly felt there in person, not by reading about it. As you descend from the Crater highlands, giraffes, Grant’s gazelles, impalas and zebras peacefully coexist with the Maasai. Soon, a dry semi-desert landscape appears, leading to Oldupai Gorge. After a very educational 45-minute stop at the Gorge and its museum, we continued onto the short-grass plains, technically still inside the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, but part of the greater Serengeti ecosystem. It is here, when conditions are right, that hundreds of thousands of wildebeests, zebras and Thomson’s gazelles congregate between December and April. Having no permanent water, this area becomes a bit of a ghost town during the dry season. According to any number of research papers or books, the short-grass plains are supposed to be empty at this time, except for some ostriches and Grant’s gazelles, who do not need to drink regularly. But the “Luca’s rule” was invoked again (see my previous post “Part I”), as we saw two or three times as many Thomson’s gazelles (who need to drink regularly and should be out of there in September) as we saw Grant’s gazelles. Incidentally, we saw several Maasai warriors on the short-grass plains, without exception walking alone, surrounded by miles of nothing. As Dom pointed out, they were simply going from “somewhere” to “elsewhere”. Where were they going? Do they realize the importance of hydration? I wonder.

Near the park entrance around Naabi Hill, the short-grass plains abruptly change to medium-grass plains. Still, the game is very sparse. Some distance past Naabi, a series of attractive rocky outcrops, collectively called “Simba Kopjes” appear. After Dom surveyed one of the kopjes for potentially dangerous animals, we settled in half way up the kopje for a picnic lunch. As we neared Seronera, the administrative capital of the park, storm clouds began gathering to our southwest. It was around 2pm in the afternoon, and the tourists around Seronera were still taking their siestas; we did not get the full brunt of the infamous throng of mini-buses. The Seronera river valley delivered in terms of its reputation for leopards, as we had a good viewing of one female resting in a sausage tree.

As we departed Seronera, the vehicle made a left at the fork, taking us toward the vast Western Corridor. The otherwise straight and monotonous road is surrounded by the distant bush-covered hills, giving the Corridor a unique look from the rest of the Serengeti. The Corridor road passes alternate areas of whistling-thorn bush and huge open plains. There had been some recent showers in the area, and previously burnt plains were green with new flush of grass. Thomson’s gazelles (who are not supposed to be found deep in the Western Corridor if you read stuff from twenty or thirty years ago) were the most conspicuous from the road. Impalas here have the biggest horns I have ever seen.

About half way to our destination (Kirawira Camp on the far western corner), the thunderstorm reached us. The only way to describe the deluge was that it rained big cats and wild dogs (we even got a little hail). At one point, very near camp, a small stream developed on the road itself. We were never in danger, but our vehicle could possibly have floated for a few seconds. I love the dry season in the Serengeti. For the afternoon, there would be no game drive – although experiencing the massive thunderstorm itself was worth it.

Kirawira Camp appears out of nowhere. It is strangely appointed in that sense. While the staff is friendly and the rooms nice, Kirawira serves as a classic example that big hotel chains like Serena (the owner of Kirawira) just don’t “get it”. Every smiling “what can I get you to drink?” is followed by “what is your tent number”? Just charge me $30 extra per day and include the drinks! (It is already a very expensive establishment anyway. As a side note, it took us 18 minutes to check out our last morning, because it took that long for them to add up all our incidental charges.) What they should have done also is to split up the camp into two (one a few kilometers down the road, perhaps). There are 25 tents at Kirawira, and they are trying hard to be intimate. It just doesn’t work. On the positive side, the food at Kirawira is hands down the best I’ve ever had on safari. Benjamin, the head chef, is a genius.

During the three days at Kirawira, we explored the open plains (Ruana and Musabi being two of the most immense you will find anywhere) as well as the nooks and crannies of the Grumeti river. Grumeti allows some of the very best hippo-viewing in Africa if you can stand the occasional tsetses. On the open plains, the numbers of topis rival those of Thomson’s gazelles. Small herds of wildebeests are found throughout the Corridor, never following the main migratory herd to the north. Most dated publications refer to the big resident herd of wildebeests on the Ndabaka plain in the very western corner of the Corridor, but according to the local folks, Ndabaka plain can be empty at times. Instead, the herds can be found scattered around Kirawira and to the east. The same publications refer to the absence of elephants in the Corridor. That is also no longer the case. Serengeti is constantly changing.

Currently, there is a local specialty in the area: a three-legged male lion named “Stumpy”. Stumpy apparently got his right hind leg caught in a poacher’s snare and either lost it or bit it off himself. We had two sightings of him, and once we saw him limping along quite nicely. His brother is one impressive male lion. He has a perfect, full, ginger mane. I would nominate him as the next MGM lion. Apart from his physical beauty, Stumpy’s brother is to be commended for thus far successfully protecting his brother from hyenas and would be challengers to their throne.

In the end, I would highly recommend the Western Corridor even in the off-season. There is plenty of resident game to keep one interested, and you can have all of it to yourself. With only Kirawira and Grumeti River Lodge around, vehicles are sparse. Apart from the notoriously shy leopards, sightings of lions and cheetahs are virtually guaranteed. The animals are noticeably shyer than they are in other parts of the park, but it seems more appropriate in this pristine wilderness. The landscape, is without a doubt, the most attractive, in all of Serengeti-Mara.
safaridude is offline  
Oct 10th, 2006, 11:45 AM
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'They were simply going from “somewhere” to “elsewhere”.'

Great comment, very evocative.

Wish I had seen Stumpy!
Leely is offline  
Oct 10th, 2006, 12:12 PM
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Stumpy and his brother must have made for some nice views, especially knowing their background.
atravelynn is offline  
Oct 10th, 2006, 02:12 PM
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I like your writing style and am enjoying your report! I too wish I could have seen Stumpy!


Jenn
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Oct 10th, 2006, 04:08 PM
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Ugalla Game Reserve – The Wild Thing

I’ve had lousy luck with wild dogs. Not that I had never seen them. I actually have had two quality viewings in my five previous safaris. Both times though, it was the case of what might have been. On other occasions, I simply missed them by a hair.

In June 1989, I saw a pack of them near Aitong, just outside Maasai Mara. Having just graduated from business school, deep in debt but with a job offer, I was part of a dirt-cheap, lorry safari. A few days later, everything I brought, including my camera and rolls of film, was stolen out of the lorry near Lake Naivasha. The entire pack of dogs apparently died of canine distemper about two weeks after I photographed them; they are the last known pact to roam Maasai Mara. Somewhere around Naivasha, I am convinced, there is a garbage dump where a roll of undeveloped film containing deteriorating images of those dogs is buried.

In 1997 while at King’s Pool in Linyanti, Botswana, a pack of wild dogs appeared out of nowhere, closely circled our vehicle a few times, plunged into the Linyanti swamps, and chased after some lechwes on the other side (Namibia), never to be seen by me again. Unfortunately, I had a very long lens loaded onto my camera at the time, and most of the images I took are not sharp because the dogs were too darn close!

In 1993, while at Tsaro Camp, Botswana, I just missed by less than a minute a pack of nine dogs that came into camp. In 1995, at Swala Camp in Tarangire, Tanzania, a pack of four dogs apparently came to the waterhole in front of camp at sunrise. The camp manager, with whom I shared my fondness for the dogs the night before, inexplicably decided not to alert me. It was the closest I’ve ever come to being homicidal.

About a month before the trip, I was told by the folks who operate the Ugalla concession that there was a known pack of dogs there. But, I knew that was a long shot. Wild dogs always are. The main reason for going to Ugalla for me was the healthy population of sable antelopes (my personal favorite) and a chance to see a real miombo park. The dogs would be gravy.

In Tanzania, unlike Kenya, hunting is legal. Obviously, hunting is illegal in the national parks, but strangely, photographic safaris are also prohibited in hunting areas such as Ugalla. I don’t hunt, but through a special arrangement, I was able to accompany bird shooters to Ugalla, a big-game hunting concession located in western Tanzania. Hunting in Tanzania, as it turns out, is a precisely managed affair. Each hunt must be accompanied by a PH (professional hunter) and a government game scout who monitors the hunt. There are stringent regulations and ethics, closely monitored game quotas, and stiff penalties for violations. I don’t pretend to have visited every hunting concession in Tanzania with every hunting operator, but my view of hunting is vastly different (much more positive) now that I had the chance of witnessing it firsthand. I, personally, could never shoot anything, and I don’t understand the psyche of those who do – but in terms of conservation and the love of animals, hunters and photographers have a lot more in common than we realize. Someone once said “when the question is black or white, the answer is usually grey”. As an example of that, I asked the PH, Craig, what he thought of elephant culling. His answer was “where?” “Depending on where, yes and no”.

I have never been to Ruaha or Katavi, but I imagine that Ugalla is a cross between them. The Ugalla river runs through the concession, whittled down to pools in the dry season. Extensive floodplains, some of them miles wide and dotted with borassus palms and topis, flank the river. Away from the river, combretum/terminalia woodlands give way to mature brachestygia (often called “miombo”) forests. These dense woodlands are interspersed with open plains (locally called “mbugas”) where sable and roan antelopes and Lichtenstein’s hartebeests can be found. The local western Tanzanian sables belong to the “Kirki” race, with the frontal white nasal stripes being abbreviated. The “Kirki” race occurs also in western Zambia, but the ones in western Tanzania are somewhat smaller and some fully mature males stay dark brown unlike the jet-black Zambian ones.

I never had so much fun tracking animals as I did at Ugalla. As you can imagine, the animals are extremely skittish, because they are being shot at., but, ironically, the best way to approach them is by foot. Luckily, there is a lot of cover and there are some gigantic termite mounds on the floodplains and mbugas. Once we spotted an animal, such as sable or roan, that we wanted to get closer to, Craig and the game scout would lead us on a track. Craig, with his rifle loaded, and the head tracker would be in the front, the government game scout, with his rifle loaded, would bring up the rear, and myself and the bird shooters would be sandwiched in between. When the sable or roan turned away or began to graze, we would carefully walk single-file to the next strategic termite mound – then wait until the next opportune moment and head for the next mound and so forth. Why the single-file? In case the animal detected our presence, we wanted to give it a view of one person rather than a group. A conga line is a more accurate description. We must have looked pretty silly going from one termite mind to the next.

We saw roan twice, and we saw sable on every game drive. But the fully mature jet-black male eluded me (of the four fairly mature males we saw, two of them were black and two of them were dark brown – again characteristic of the sables in western Tanzania) -- except at the dinner table. There was plenty of leftover game meat in the refrigerator, thanks to the previous hunting party. It was certainly strange eating sable, my favorite animal. I relayed that experience to my young sons by satellite phone, and they thought I had gone nuts. Sable was better than I thought, but still tough. Reedbuck, on the other hand, was outstanding, rivaling kudu and eland I had on previous safaris to Namibia.

The next to the last morning, we followed the Ugalla river downstream toward the rarely visited western corner of the reserve. On the open floodplain, we came upon a fresh carcass of a young topi. Craig thought it looked like a cheetah or hyena job, although hyenas are rare in Ugalla and cheetahs may not occur there at all. As we left the carcass, one of the trackers in the back of the vehicle yelled out “fisi” (meaning hyena in Kiswahili), pointing toward a large termite mound. In the dappled shade of a borassus palm tree, indeed a hyena-shaped face peered at us. A split second later, my heart began to race as it always does when I see those large, round ears. It was no fisi. It was a wild dog pup. For the next twenty minutes, we would follow the pack composed of four adults and eight pups. Against all odds, somehow these survivors were carving out an existence in this remote hunting reserve.

The last morning was a sad one. What is it about East Africa that tugs at your heart? Whenever people ask me what the difference is between East Africa and Southern Africa, I always answer “Southern Africa fulfills you – you feel like you were in absolute paradise; East Africa breaks your heart”. Unlike the end of my previous safaris though, I absolutely knew I would be back again -- soon. I also knew that when I got back home, I would spread the word (in formats such as this site) about the special places in East Africa that need our patronage. For every sad story like Nairobi National Park (see Part I of my trip report in a separate thread), there were two successful stories like Campi ya Kanzi and Meru, but places such as those constantly need the tourist revenues. Late morning, waving goodbye to the game scout, the trackers and camp staff of Ugalla, heart-broken but completely satisfied with the trip, with a picture of my lovely wife and children in my head, I stepped into the waiting Cessna Caravan and headed north toward civilization.
safaridude is offline  
Oct 10th, 2006, 04:20 PM
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Testing...
safaridude is offline  
Oct 10th, 2006, 04:24 PM
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Never mind my last message. I was having trouble uploading my report.
safaridude is offline  
Oct 10th, 2006, 05:34 PM
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Thanks, safaridude. Incredible report!
Marija is offline  
Oct 11th, 2006, 06:17 AM
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Safaridude,

This is one of the most interesting reports i have read in a long time.

The Crater being over-crowded and Kirawira of all places having a whopping 25 tents seems very impersonal, indeed!!!

Very interesting report on Ugalla, although i dont hv the stomach to visit there.....very good luck with the dogs and hope they make it there....

Thanks for sharing

Hari
 
Oct 11th, 2006, 06:30 AM
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santharamhari
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Questions....what are the hunting quotas for a concession like Ugalla? I am assuming the quotas are mostly for the hoofed animals and a limited number of lion and leopard only? From your description, it seems like the hunters get the head for the trophy and the rest of the animal is eaten as game meat?

Thanks
Hari
 
Oct 11th, 2006, 07:40 AM
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Safaridude, thanks for your beautifully written report. Great description of the Crater Lodge! Not that I've been there, but it's been described before here on Fodor´s. The Western Corridor sounds fantastic and I wish Stumpy and his brother a long reign. I was really curious about Ugalla and now I'm even more interested, but I wouldn't want to travel with hunters. Almost all the hunters where I live are wolf-hating psychopaths and I have serious doubts about the regulations and ethics of hunting in Tanzania, not just because of Loliondo. It's good to hear that you saw wild dogs. They could have chosen another kind of antelope to hunt though… Asante sana.
Nyamera is offline  
Oct 11th, 2006, 08:41 AM
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Safaridude: awesome report, thanks for taking the time to share it. It's great that you researched new locations especially targeted for your favorite species and pursued it in an out of the way place. Out of curiosity what resources did you use to determine where to target the sable as well as research the historical distributions in the Western Corridor? You certainly had a very unique experience at Ugalla that was fascinating to read about -- of course wild dogs are my favorite African animal so I really enjoyed that part. Were the accomodations at Ugalla more basic than typical photo safari camps or about the same. It seems some hunter camps are very bare bones, more like camping but with service which I imagine could be a very nice and different experience.

It's nice to read a likeminded point of view that treasures the wilderness aspect and the overall experience as opposed to just easy animal sightings and luxury service.

Also it does make a lot of sense to me not to allow photo safaris in hunting concessions. Photography traffic is always working to habituate animals and get them used to people and vehicles which I don't believe to be ethical if someone is going to be hunting them next week in the same vicinity.
PredatorBiologist is offline  
Oct 11th, 2006, 08:56 AM
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PB, great point about habituation and the dangers thereof in relation to hunting. We discussed this with a few of our (photographic safaris) guides on our most recent trip.

safaridude, what can I say? Fabulous, poignant report. Beautifully written and very thought-provoking. How great to see dogs. And yes, East Africa, what a heartbreak. Hopefully not forever.

And by the way, I developed a terrible reaction to tse tses this last trip and got eaten alive in the Western Corridor, so I really appreciate your other thread, too.

Thanks. One of the absolute best trip reports I've read on this board. Pretty good for someone who went to b-school!
Leely is offline  
Oct 11th, 2006, 09:38 AM
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Hari, hunting quotas go frequently unmet. That is to say, for instance, if 6 roans are on the quota, only 3-4 get taken. Some quality operators are very stringent in only taking fully mature lions. There is growing evidence that taking 4-5 year old male lions (who look pretty mature) can have a significantly negative effect on the lion population. Of course, I am sure there are operators who will not be so discriminating. I do think the game meat gets distributed to the local communities, but we're only talking about edible stuff (they probably throw away lion meat, I am guessing).
safaridude is offline  
Oct 11th, 2006, 09:47 AM
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Predator Biologist, in terms of sable, there are numerous articles (from the Antelope Survey Group and such) on the internet. I have seen the "Roosevelti" race in Shimba Hills, Kenya (they also occur in Selous, Tanzania); the "Niger Niger" race is the most commonly seen (Botswana, Zimbabwe, S. Africa) at places like Hwange, Chobe, Vumbura, Kwando, Selinda, Kwara, etc. The "Anselli" race is best seen in Liwonde, Malawi; The "Kirki" race is found in western Tanzania and Zambia. Kafue is the best place to see the "Kirki" race in Zambia. The northern part of Ruaha (where new roads are being opened up) and higher elevated parts of Katavi are good places in western Tanzania.

The historical stuff on Serengeti primarily came from three sources: (1) Serengeti Lion by George B. Schaller; (2) Serengeti: Dynamics of an Ecosystem by A.R.E. Sinclair and M. Norton-Griffiths; (3)Serengeti II: Dynamics, Management and Conservation by A.R.E. Sinclair and Peter Arcese.

All three books are available on Amazon. It is fascinating to see that Serengeti is constantly changing. For instance, in Serengeti II, it talks about the northwest Serengeti being completely poached out in the '70s and '80s. Of course, now it is coming back!
safaridude is offline  
Oct 11th, 2006, 10:42 AM
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Thanks Safaridude -- great resources and great info on the sable. I have read and own the Serengeti Lion but will have to pick up those other books down the road.
PredatorBiologist is offline  
Oct 11th, 2006, 02:15 PM
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Superlative report. I endorse Pred's assessment of it. I like your style.

John
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Oct 11th, 2006, 04:07 PM
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A beautiful report. So that's how you ended up in Ugalla. As I read your previous wild dog encounters or near encounters I was shaking my head and shouting "oh no" at my computer. You deserved a wild dog break in Ugalla.

I enjoyed your poignant comparison of Southern and East Africa.

What's next for you?
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