Thursday, August 28, 2014

Traveling to Mdonya River Camp in Ruaha National Park

We used another single-prop plane to fly from Steiger's air strip in Selous Game Reserve to Ruaha National Park, using yet another airline but the same drill as with our previous flights.  I was seated up front so I had a great view of the pilot's dials as we climbed steadily past 10,000 feet, then leveled off except the ground was slowly coming toward us:  Ruaha is higher than Selous, from a half mile to a mile above sea level.  As we approached the airport, which was near the Ruaha River,  I had a great view of the plain below with a large number of baobab trees scattered around it.

Again we were met at the airport by three game drive vehicles – one for our bags, and two for our party of ten.  Here we would be using the more open sort of vehicle that would make viewing and photography easier - but would we be more exposed to dust and danger?

It was quickly apparent that our travels through Ruaha would entail much closer contact with the wildlife than at Selous.  We were driven first to a place where we could have lunch, a small enclosure with a rood but no walls that was part of what appeared to be a facility connected with the national park.   There were a pair of elephants hanging around the facility

Lunch was served from several tins containing a pasta salad, some meat, a curried peas dish, and rice, as well as bottled water, sodas or beers, but here, all drinks except bottled water would be charged extra.

An elephant approached us as we ate, and one of the drivers stepped outside and  clapped loudly.  The elephant stepped back temporarily but came back, charging toward us and turning over one of the large plastic food coolers, grabbing a bunch of bananas.

These are big beasts, and you can see from the second photo just how close to us it was.  Finally one of the drivers tossed a large rock perhaps a bit larger than a canteloupe at it, and it backed off and went away.

After lunch, we began a meandering drive through the park toward our camp, with many stops along the way, making this our first game drive.  I immediately noticed another difference from Selous:  the road were consistently smoother.  Whether this was because we were in a national park with publicly funded maintenance, or for some other reason related to the terrain, I never learned.

Another difference was that the game seemed much more plentiful.  Within a few minutes of leaving the entrance facilities, we had encountered both elephants and zebras grazing in a field.

As we got close to this zebra by the side of the road, it turned to run

We passed a jackal roaming in a nearby field; it blended well in the grasses and kept moving, but turned to look as us just once, to set up this nice photo

We passed several nice baobab trees, and  Maulidi, our guide for the trip, explained why the bark on so many of the trees was exposed: elephants strip the bark as part of their diet.

Over the three days we spent with him – this afternoon, the following day for a full day, and then the following morning when we headed back to the airstrip, we came to appreciate Maulidi’s excellence as a guide.  Like Francis back in Selous, and indeed, like many Tanzanians we met after leaving Zanzibar, Maulidi had come from the Arusha area in search of economic opportunity; but unlike Francis, who was using his work in the guiding business to save up enough to go to college and hence move upward in the tourist business, Maulidi had had the benefit of a some years of college classes about the wildlife he was showing us; he talked about going back to take more classes during the wet season.  He was a very knowledgeable guide, almost up to the standard set for us by Djalma Santos back in the Pantanal the month before.

There were several nests of the  red-billed buffalo weaver bird in this tree. Maulidi explained that
we could not infer that ten different birds were nesting in this tree; rather, the birds build multiple nests to fool their predators, hoping that an eagle or other predator in search of eggs or defenseless nestlings will raid an empty nest instead of the real one.

I never got a good photo of the red billed buffalo weaver, but this is the white-header buffalo weaver

and here the ruaha redbilled hornbill

Here is a blackshouldered kite

We drove across a riverbed at saw in the mid-distance a lion that was feeding on the carcass of a small elephant.  Maulidi explained although lions preying on elephants is fairly unusual, this was one of several such instances lately

We passed a few euphorbia candelabrum, which Maulidi identified as a poisonous tree but which looked rather like a cactus to me

We saw several Von Becken’s Hornbill, here pictured with a red-billed hornbill, which were much more common

we got near enough to get these closeups of red-billed hornbills from behind and from the side

Here are some red-billed hornbills in flight

Turning another corner we came across a group of giraffe

and we were able to get close enough to see a line of red-billed ox peckers, which sit on the giraffe’s mane and rid the giraffe of ticks, although apparently they may also peck directly at a mammal, keeping its wounds open and thus helping the parasites as well

We came across a pair of jackals and got a closer look; as they crossed the road, we could see something bloody hanging down from one of them; Maulidi speculated that it might be afterbirth

Then we were able to make out a tawny moving around in its nest high up in a tree

After passing a herd of elephants

we saw these helmeted guineafowl

After seeing loads of impala, we finally got a look at the tiny dik-dik, the world’s smallest antelope

as well as the  greater kudu, one of the largest antelopes.

The roads were lined with bushes sporting this bright red toothbrush flower

This dead tree made a nice arch

While this baobab tree had a nice set of roots growing up it, as well as a termite mound on its side

It seemed that every time we turned a corner we might see more elephants, sometimes gettnig pretty darn close.   By the end of our time in Ruaha, I felt that seeing elephants or giraffe along the road had lost its ability to surprise and awe.  We were getting used to the scene.

Just as we were turning into our new camp, we saw a harrier hawk low to the ground, sitting on this broken tree

Finally, after 5 PM, we reached the Old Mdonya River Canp, where we would be staying.  The vehicle with our bags had come straight to camp, and had been unloaded and waiting on the ground for us. Ricardo, an Italian man probable in his late twenties or early thirties, talked to us about what we could expect.  This was a bush camp, he explained, so we would have no electricity or running water in our tents.  We would have candles inside, and two kerosene lamps outside our sleeping areas – one on the front porch and one in the bathroom area.  Each tent was also supplied with a flashlight. 

Despite the lack of running water, we were told we could have hot showers, but only if we did that right away; the shower water was heated in solar tanks that would stay warm into the late afternoon but not so much after the sun went down.  I myself never got one of those hot showers, but Nancy enjoyed one, on our second day there, and others in our party also reported success in that regard.  Here are some photos of our tent, including the view by candlelight.

The sleeping tents were widely dispersed in a large field, connected by a series of sandy paths;

here is the view of the next tent over, taken from the mesh on the side of our tent.

In between two sets of tents at either end of the camp were the cooking tent and the office.  

Ricardo told us during his orientation talk that we should feel free to walking around the camp by ourselves during the daylight hours, so long as we stuck to the sandy paths.  At night, however, we were to walk around the camp only with a Masai escort, because the animals could be dangerous.   

Each tent was equipped with a whistle which we were to blow if we felt endangered.

I had somewhat different expectations about game viewing from the grounds.  The place is on a riverbed, but not really on an active river during the dry season, which is the only season when the camp is open.  So my assumption that we would be able to see game coming to the river to drink were unmet.  On the other hand, we could see animals walking among the grasses and trees near camp, and there were animals even in camp, especially at night.   Mary, the camp director, explained that unlike Selous Game Reserve, where hunting is allowed on wide swaths of land in the southern part of the park, on Ruaha no hunting is allowed and the animals feel safe around humans, including in camp; their presence in substantial numbers is the result

We sensed that there was some tension between Mary the director and Ricardo the assistant director.  No doubt it is difficult to work at such close quarters for nine months at a time.

Nancy woke up on our first night there to see a humongous elephant right outside our tent; maybe it was just as well that she did not wake me up to share her tremors.  During the night, and especially in the early hours of the morning, we could hear the roars of nearby lions — loud roars  —  standing over their kills.  We never needed the whistle but we were glad it was there.

The office had a very impressive “charging station” where guests could recharge camera batteries, smart phones and computers; the plug outlets accepted various international plugs, eliminating th needs for plug adapters.  There were also a handful of laptops that guests could use for emergencies or to check-in for flights, although as a practical matter it appeared to me that some guests were using the laptops for general browsing. 

The dinner hour was preceded by a campfire hour; there were about thirty seats ringing a large bonfire, where the guests would gather by around seven to schmooze and drink beer or wine before proceeding to the dinner table at 8.

We had been encouraged to give a time when we wanted to be picked up at our tents and escorted to the campfire; each evening at seven there ended up being a parade of guests, each holding a flashlight, and escorted by a Masai, heading from the tents toward the campfire.  We had got used to drinking pinotage, an excellent variety of South African red wine, while staying at the Selous Luxury camp, and we kept it up albeit from a different winery.  All meals were served at a long communal table, with something like 16 seats on either side.   Camp staff explained that this format was intended to encourage guests to share their experiences.

The food was simple but tasty.  Mary, an Englishwoman who is the camp director, generally sat at the dinner table with us and talked; one night she was talking about the very serious poaching problem – 11,000 elephants in one year alone.  The army had been called in, and the park rangers sent off so that the army could take strong action against the poachers, presumably without any witnesses.   Mary said that some of the methods had been lamentable but that the results were impressive.

After dinner, everybody would return to their tents.  There was no sitting area for schmoozing, no electric lights to facilitate reading, and besides, it gets chilly at night – in fact, camp staff were putting hot water bottles in each bed to prepare for the evening.  But the following morning, there was a nice sunrise.  What would the new day bring?

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