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Safaridude

Uganda and Ethiopia - Feb 2013 - Murchison Falls, Senkelle, Bale Mountain and Awash

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Safaridude

I guess we all collect something. Some people collect stamps; some collect albums; some collect antiques. I have recently come to grips with the fact that I am a collector of antelope photographs. Strange? Not really. Hundreds of “Great White Hunters” collected actual antelope specimens in Africa with their rifles, and modern day trophy hunters continue to do so. Luckily, with today’s photographic technology, I am able to collect my specimens guilt-free, without killing.

 

My personal mission to “collect” all sub-Saharan antelope species, subspecies and even races kicked into new gear in Uganda and Ethiopia. On the wish list were Uganda kob, Jackson’s hartebeest, Swayne’s hartebeest, mountain nyala, Menelik’s bushbuck, Salt’s dik-dik and Soemmering’s gazelle. There would be loads of fringe benefits along the way: the spectacular Murchison Falls with shoebills taking shelter downstream in the Nile Delta; a number of rare endemics in the Bale Mountains, including the Ethiopian wolf; and the endemic hamadrayas baboon and the gorgeous grasslands of Awash National Park. The Uganda portion was guided by a local guide, Morris Musungu, from the Uganda Safari Company; and the Ethiopia portion was guided by Dom Lever (a professional photographer to boot; who usually conducts safaris in Tanzania but is one of the very few Ethiopia experts around), with Fikir Mekonen as the driver/guide from an excellent ground operator named Travel Ethiopia.

 

Itinerary:

 

Protea Hotel, Kampala, Uganda – 1 night

 

Paraa Safari Lodge, Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda – 3 nights

 

Addis Regency Hotel, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – 1 night

 

Lewi Resort, Awasa, Ethiopia (near the Senkelle Swayne’s Hartebeest Sanctuary) – 1 night

 

Private Campsite, Dinsho, Bale Mountain National Park, Ethiopia – 2 nights

 

Wabe Shebelle Hotel, Goba, near Bale Mountain National Park, Ethiopia – 2 nights

 

Private Campsite, Awash National Park, Ethiopia – 3 nights

 

 

Murchison Falls

 

You just can’t believe the drive from Kampala to Murchison Falls. Much like yesterday’s drive from Entebbe to Kampala, all you see is a sea of humanity. There are hives of activity along the main roads filled with ramshackle shops, restaurants and houses. What could all these people possibly be doing? It’s not unlike other African cities such as Nairobi or Arusha except this city keeps going (it is unclear where it ends) – and except that it is clean. Ugandans take pride in rubbish-free streets.

 

About half way through the 5-hour journey to Murchison, finally some open space becomes visible – a state-owned pine tree plantation and then the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary adjacent to the main road. After a quick lunch stop in Masindi, tar gives way to murram, and a sense of adventure sets it. A thickly canopied Mudongo Forest must first be negotiated upon entering Murchison Falls National Park from the south. There are chimpanzees in the Mudongo, but the baboon is the only conspicuous species along the road. After the forest thins out, we cross the Victoria Nile in a ferry in order to access the game-rich northern plains of Murchison.

 

Paraa Safari Lodge is perched atop a hill overlooking the ferry station on the northern side of the Victoria Nile. It is essentially a bygone era hotel originally designed for mass appeal – quite usable but without any wild, adventurous feel. Two huge missionary groups would be based at Paraa during my stay, each using buses (not the mini kind) for game drives (one of the buses a large pink-colored one with the words “God is good” painted on the back in a psychedelic ‘60s font). Curiously, the staff village is situated several hundred yards below the lodge near the ferry station, and the lodge staff wander between the lodge and the village at all times. Of course, dangerous animals such as hippos wander between at all times as well. If you Google search for “Murchison + hippo charge”, you will get an idea of what this several hundred yard stretch is all about. Apparently, the man survived with just an injured arm.

 

There are basically three areas of interest at Murchison: the plains north of the Victoria Nile (the plains essentially divided into three tracks called Buligi, Pakuba and Queen’s); a boat ride upstream on the Victoria Nile to the Murchison Falls; and a boat ride downstream to the Nile Delta which bleeds into Lake Albert. The northern plains are interspersed with whistling thorn and Acacia sieberiana and in the far north transition into a Borassus palm forest. A few elephant families, small herds of buffalos and small journeys of Rothschild’s giraffes dot the plains, but they are overwhelmed by the abundance of Uganda kobs, Jackson’s hartebeests and oribis. These three species are so prolific it’s hard to describe in words. Aside from Masai Mara during the wildebeest migration season, Murchison may hold the densest herbivore population I have witnessed. Oribis are so abundant, the “normally found in monogamous pairs” thing is out the window. Jackson’s hartebeests are in hundreds and hundreds but not in any big groups and never in tightly bunched formations. The Uganda kob is a more elegant version of its closest relative, the puku. Interesting that the kob in local dialect is “nchila”, the same name used to describe puku in western Zambia. Easy to dismiss because they are so ubiquitous, the kob nevertheless exhibits a fascinating social system called lekking. Males gather in a particular spot to spar, attracting the transient females to the spectacle. Females then allow the victor/victors to mate. A definitive lek is in full progress near the Pakuba airstrip: males fighting; females wandering about observing the contests; and two or three males being allowed to mate. Fighting, mating and whistling (the kob’s distinctive call) pervade the entire arena. Shall this chaotic scene be dubbed, dare I say, “porn on the kob”?

 

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Oribi

 

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Jackson's hartebeest

 

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Uganda kob

 

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Uganda kob males fighting

 

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Uganda kob male with females

 

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"Porn on the kob"

 

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Borassus palm forest

 

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Rothschild's giraffe and Borassus palm

Edited by Safaridude

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Safaridude

The boat ride to the Falls runs the gauntlet of hippos and crocodiles. Nearly submerged, a bull elephant picks off browse dangling from the riverbank. An elephant family waters on the shore. Some 500 African skimmers begin their flight in unison – an awe-inspiring sight – using their lower mandibles to skim cichlids off the river surface. The Falls themselves are only 140 ft. in height, but the water is channeled through a tight squeeze of only 23 ft., resulting in massive downward force and thunderous noise. Many big fish are stunned by the fall and become easy prey to crocodiles that hardly have to lift a finger to eat in this part of Africa. Perhaps because a close approach and a “croc’s eye view” are possible from a boat, Murchison Falls are almost as compelling as the much more grandiose Victoria Falls, I find. There are some seriously large boats that lug tourists from the ferry station to the Falls and back. These boats are loud and tend to get “boozy”. Better to pay up for a small, private boat.

 

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Elephant on the Nile

 

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Hippo

 

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African skimmers

 

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More African skimmers

 

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African fish eagle

 

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Murchison Falls

 

The boat ride downstream to the Nile Delta is through a more languid world. An amazing number of pied kingfishers occupy the riverbank walls. Other water-loving birds here include crowned cranes, saddle-billed storks, African jacanas, knob-billed ducks and herons of all sorts. But the shoebill is the “holy grail” of the Delta. According to Milton the boat captain, there is roughly a 50% chance of encountering a shoebill in a single morning. Luck is on our side, as one is spotted in a papyrus reed bed, standing practically motionless (very characteristic) as we approach by rowing with the boat motor turned off. This hyper-rare bird is entirely without conventional charm but intrigues in other ways: the stare is indignant (almost demonic); the wide bill is textured like limestone; and its flight is reminiscent of a pterodactyl’s. He (she?) allows for a 20-minute, intimate photo session before suddenly and inexplicably flying away.

 

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Saddle-billed stork caught in the act

 

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Knob-billed duck in flight

 

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Goliath heron

 

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Goliath heron

 

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Shoebill

 

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The indignant stare

 

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Shoebill

Edited by Safaridude

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Safaridude

Back on land, a heavily pregnant lioness is spotted on Queen’s track. Her labored (pun intended) walk is brief, as she plops into heavy bush. This would be our only predator sighting other than a side-striped jackal. The lion population at Murchison is believed to be only around 50. There is an uncounted leopard population, but no cheetahs or wild dogs. With so much prey available, it is a mystery as to why the predator population is so low. Other mysteries include very poor birding on the savannah (plenty on and near the river) and the absence of mid-level (giraffe being “high-level”) browsers other than a few bushbucks. The biggest mystery of all is the Ugandan concept of a national park. There are lorries and people on motorbikes who make use of the roads to traverse the park. Each game drive, we negotiate about a dozen lorries and a half of dozen motorbikes passing through.

 

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A heavily pregnant lioness

 

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A subservient Jackson's hartebeest

 

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Rothschild's giraffe

 

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Rothschild's giraffe

 

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Buffalo

 

Despite that, I find Murchison Falls extremely satisfying. The representative species are plentiful, pristine areas still exist, and the shoebill more than delivers. The current situation is a far cry from the poached-out Idi Amin days. The juxtaposition of wilderness and industry (the big busses, the staff village road, the lorries and the motorbikes), however, would foreshadow the theme of the rest of the trip.

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Safaridude

More photos from Murchison Falls:

 

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Waterbuck

 

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Abyssinian ground hornbill

 

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A close-up of a Jackson's hartebeest

 

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Lake Albert

 

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Uganda kob calves

 

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Warthog

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Game Warden

Oh my. What a full on start to this safari report. I'm sure the above posts will receive a flurry of likes...

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Rwenzori

"The lion population at Murchison is believed to be only around 50"

 

This is very sad. In a previous report by .... I read that predators were doing well in Murchison Falls NP,

and following a census conducted in 2010 WCS states (here, http://www.wcs.org/news-and-features-main/uganda-lions-at-night.aspx)

that there are about 130 lions in the park, so why your figure is so different?

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Sangeeta

Safaridude, as always, the fluidity of your writing and the grace of your photos leave me speechless and dreaming...

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SafariChick

Beautiful photos! Look forward to more.

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egilio

Love the eyes of the hartebeest! Do you have the handbook of Mammals of the World, part II. You might not like, they split a lot of the antelopes!

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Safaridude

Thanks everyone.

 

On 3/4/2013 at 6:35 PM, Rwenzori said:

"The lion population at Murchison is believed to be only around 50"

This is very sad. In a previous report by .... I read that predators were doing well in Murchison Falls NP,
and following a census conducted in 2010 WCS states (here, http://www.wcs.org/news-and-features-main/uganda-lions-at-night.aspx)
that there are about 130 lions in the park, so why your figure is so different?

 

 

The figure of around 50 was given to me by my guide. I usually double check information like that, but in this case I didn't. In retrospect, I shouldn't have sounded so certain of the information.

 

 

On 3/4/2013 at 11:44 PM, egilio said:

Love the eyes of the hartebeest! Do you have the handbook of Mammals of the World, part II. You might not like, they split a lot of the antelopes!

 

I don't have that one -- yet!

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AKR1

K,

You are downright dangerous armed with a pen and your 300 2.8. Stunningly evocative photography mixed with erudite prose. Please keep going and don't let minor things like sleep and food get in the way of keeping this trip report going! Thanks

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Irish Elk

Great report but as you alluded to in your first post the human population growth rate in the Country is going to make preserving places like Murchison ever harder. Just reading a few things on Uganda's demographics and they make for very alarming viewing eg.

 

 

Population in 1950: 5 million

 

Pop in 2012: 34 million

 

Est for 2050: 120 million. :o

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Sangeeta

Sounds eerily like India's population explosion and we know how that had such an impact on wildlife and created these little unsustainable islands and pockets of wilderness :(

 

Hope Uganda and Ethiopia can turn the tide before it's too late. Nothing more pernicious than a human population explosion.

 

Remember driving from Bangalore to Ooty once and the main tarred road carrying heavy trucks and lorries cut right through the wilderness areas, much like Safaridude describes above.

 

On a lighter note, 'porn on the kob' is terrible :D It quite shatters the erudite professor gig, Safaridude!

Edited by Sangeeta

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twaffle

The reports from Murchison these days fill me with pleasure, to know that the herbivores are back there in numbers and that it doesn't feel like a war zone. I love the description of the road from Kampala to the Park, gives a good feel to the journey. I would love to see an Abyssinian Ground Hornbill, and a shoebill of course and like .... photos of skimmers, I'm totally amazed at the large flocks to be found.

 

The elephant in the water looked like he had an old snare injury around his trunk, but as it seems to be working perhaps it is something else entirely causing the markings.

 

I love the soft, dreamy quality to your photos and the landscape over Lake Albert is very evocative.

 

Am looking forward to more.

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Safaridude

The elephant in the water looked like he had an old snare injury around his trunk, but as it seems to be working perhaps it is something else entirely causing the markings.

 

I am pretty sure the elephant indeed had an old snare injury. Luckily, poaching is not a big concern, at least in the northern plains area of Murchison Falls.

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Safaridude

Senkelle Swayne’s Hartebeest Sanctuary

 

In Addis Ababa, I am joined by Dom Lever and Fikir Mekonen. Fikir is an enthusiastic, “switched on”, experienced safari hand in Ethiopia, and most importantly, a great, safe driver. It’s good to be with Dom again, with his now intimate knowledge of Ethiopia and his wicked sense of humor from “down under”.

 

It must be a very exciting time for Ethiopians. Never have I witnessed so much building activity anywhere in the world at any time. Major roads have been established or refurbished, and building construction is ubiquitous, with promises of “better” lives for everyone. The roads are, unfortunately, absolute chaos. Ethiopians, while having discovered the convenience of walking on new, smooth, flat, tarred roads rather than on dirt or gravel, have yet to discover the dangers of vehicle traffic. Every few minutes, Fikir has to evade someone who, head turned the other way, is about to walk or run into our vehicle. Hundreds of pedestrians must be struck by vehicles every day in Ethiopia. I am sure many of these accidents end up in fatality.

 

All of this is strange juxtaposition indeed to our destination, the Senkelle Swayne’s Hartebeest Sanctuary, a tiny reserve surrounded by humanity, established to protect the last remnant population of a dying sub-species. Swayne, Coke, Lichtenstein, Jackson, Neuman, Hunter. That’s an exclusive club of people who have had the honor of having a hartebeest named after them (though Hunter lost his, as Hunter’s hartebeest was later reclassified and renamed as hirola). In this case, Swayne was a British brigadier-general who discovered for the Western world in 1891 the eponymous hartebeest in Ethiopia and Somalia. Swayne’s hartebeests once “covered” the vast plains in enormous herds but is said to have suffered significantly from rinderpest, a disease introduced by cattle. Following years of poaching and habitat loss, the Swayne’s hartebeest is presumed to have gone extinct in Somalia, and small pockets of populations in Ethiopia have not revealed themselves lately. It is now presumed that the only viable population of the Swayne’s hartebeest in the world occurs only at Senkelle.

 

That Senkelle exists at all is preposterous. An offshoot road from the bustling town of Shashamene (believe it or not a Rastafarian town… look it up) leads to a crowded agro-pastoralist village strewn with hundreds of shambas. Then all of a sudden, there it is… picturesque grassland framed by some hills and dotted with acacia trees. Inside the 58 km reserve, Oromo pastoralists are seen gathering hay, allowed as long as the grass is hand-cut using pangas a certain time of year. The theory is that there is plenty of grass inside the reserve and the hartebeests eschew the rank grass anyway. Given that the local inhabitants receive basically no benefits from the reserve, perhaps this is a necessary trade-off to keep the reserve going.

 

In the freshly burnt area, it seems the entire earthly population of the Swayne’s hartebeest has gathered. “Ungainly” is a word commonly used to describe hartebeests, but the word does not apply here. The Swayne’s hartebeest appears to have been designed by an artist eager to showcase the tan-rufous-chocolate-black color spectrum. The hindquarters start pale tan (from the back, they look like Coke’s hartebeest), and the colors get progressively richer from there, ending up as jet-black in the face and forelegs. There is elegance there, found also in the topi and bontebok, long lost cousins of Swayne’s.

 

Other than the Swayne’s hartebeest, there are oribis and warthogs to be found. Greater kudus had been observed in the nearby hills, but they are now presumed to be gone, probably done in by all the tree felling. The good news is the hartebeests are on an uptick. From the low point of about 200 in the ’90s, the population has recovered to about 800 according to the warden. Even if you discount the current figure somewhat, there is no doubt that there has been a significant recovery.

 

Heartening it is to see them well, but the sanctuary is a chilling reminder of what could easily happen to other species in Africa. Swayne’s used to “cover” the plains but is now relegated to what is essentially a “viewing area”. Could this happen to, say, the Uganda kob, which I just saw “covering” the plains of Murchison Falls? The Pakuba Kob Sanctuary in the future? I would rather not think about it.

 

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Edited by Safaridude

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twaffle

They are certainly very distinguished.

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Game Warden

Did it put you in mind of the Hirola sanctuary, a small area with the last examples?

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Safaridude

Oh, stop it! Write it! Otherwise we strip you of the pith...

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Safaridude

Did it put you in mind of the Hirola sanctuary, a small area with the last examples?

 

Yes and no. The hirola sanctuary is still surrounded by open grazing land leading all the way to the Boni Forest. Senkelle is like Central Park in New York City almost.

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Safaridude

Bale Mountain – Part I (Dinsho, Web Valley, Gaysay)

 

It is a mystery as to why the Bale Mountains are not a mainstream ecotourism destination. Bale’s significance to biodiversity is off the charts. Two of its inhabitants, the Ethiopian wolf and the mountain nyala, would qualify as “charismatic African fauna”. Birders go nuts there for the numerous endemic species. There are still parts of Bale that are untouched (ok, some parts are definitely “touched”), and the colorfully clad Oromo horsemen riding across a vast grassy plateau is right out of a dream. That Bale’s Ethiopian wolf population (the stronghold in the country) was only discovered in the late ’50s speaks volumes about the obscurity of Bale.

 

A new road leading to Bale Mountains has just been completed, but the traffic is still relatively light. On either side of the road on the approach to Dinsho, the scene is strongly reminiscent of Mongolia. Cattle and horses are strewn across dry grassland under big skies. The huts are yurt-shaped. A flock of the endemic blue-winged geese monopolizes a natural spring. Just a few kilometers from the town of Dinsho is the headquarters of Bale Mountain National Park. Our campsite is located just inside the boundaries of the headquarters on a hill overlooking Dinsho, its buildings and power lines – nothing wild about that.

 

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A scene just outside the town of Dinsho

 

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Blue-winged geese (endemic to Ethiopia)

 

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Oromo horseman

 

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Oromo child

 

But strangely, the few acres around the headquarters are crawling with life. Mountain nyalas tend to lie up in the hills during the day, only to descend in the late afternoon. Around 4 pm, these massive, beautiful creatures begin to emerge out of the thick Hagenia/Juniperus forest and head toward the more open valley bottoms. Upon noticing how tame the animals are, I quickly rid myself of the bulky lens and monopod back at camp in favor of a smaller, more mobile setup. In just a couple of hours of walking around, we encounter perhaps 75 mountain nyalas, several Menelik’s bushbucks and 30-40 bohor reedbucks. “Mountain nyala” is really a misnomer, because the animal is closer to the greater kudu than it is to the nyala. I suspect it is named as such because the horns superficially resemble those of the common nyala (one and a half twists as opposed to the two to three twists of the kudu’s horn). Spiraled horns, however, are merely a result of horn matter pushing through, at different growth spurts, pressure points in the skull (imagine a pasta machine that makes fusilli), and the ultimate horn shape is of tangential significance to taxonomy. On the other hand, Menelik’s bushbuck is aptly named. A bushbuck so distinctively regal (the males exhibit intense dark chocolate coats) deserves to be named after an emperor.

 

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Mountain nyala bull on the run

 

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Mountain nyala

 

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Menelik's bushbuck

 

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Dom

Edited by Safaridude

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Safaridude

On most mornings in Africa, I usually hum to myself either Grieg’s Morning or George Harrison’s Here Comes the Sun. But the first morning at Dinsho is seized by the Islamic Call to Prayer, blaring from the town’s loudspeakers at 5:30 am. But we are off to the nearby Web Valley today, away from the town and civilization. The Web Valley is gently rolling, desiccated grassland framed by craggy hills. Some of the ridges and bluffs are serrated, no doubt byproducts of immense geological pressure and upheaval at the time the Great Rift Valley was formed. With no significant vegetation cover in the dry season, the Web Valley looks… post-apocalyptic. One wouldn’t be surprised to see apes on horses in pursuit of Charlton Heston.

 

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The Web Valley

 

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Craggy hills

 

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Spot-breasted lapwing (endemic to the highlands of Ethiopia)

 

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Cape eagle owl

 

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Oromo horseman

 

The Web Valley, endowed with a tremendous rodent population much like the Sanetti Plateau, is the second best place on earth after the Sanetti to observe Ethiopian wolves, as they prey principally on rodents. We luck into two six-month old wolf pups chasing (precocious behavior?) a huge serval (so big we mistook it for a small leopard at first) across the plain. Later in the morning, as the rodents become more active, we find adult wolves out hunting individually. With so much food available, hunting seems to be an easy affair. Wolves look for the slightest ground movement, then pounce/dig. In a matter of 30 minutes, we witness 3 rodent kills by two adult wolves. In the midst of the individual hunting session, two wolves cross paths and greet each other by interlocking their forelegs in what can only be described as a “bro hug”. Compelling creatures, these wolves…

 

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Ethiopian wolf on the move

 

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Patrolling...

 

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Portrait

 

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Digging for rodents

 

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Got one!

 

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"Bro hug"

 

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Hunting side by side

Edited by Safaridude

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Safaridude

An afternoon is spent visiting the Gaysay Mountain. Gaysay is yet another strange juxtaposition of wilderness and civilization. It is only a 10-minute drive from the town of Dinsho, and it only requires a single right turn off the main road – and within seconds, you are amongst an astounding density of herbivores – with a cell phone tower standing sentinel in the middle of it all. A single road traverses the bottom of the Gaysay Mountain where the hill meets the floodplain below. Again at around 4 pm, mountain nyalas emerge from the hills. These nyala bulls are consistently bigger than the ones seen at Dinsho according to Fikir. And there are many bohor reedbucks on the floodplain. As the only grazers in the area, they dominate here unlike any other place in Africa I have seen. And finally, there are common duikers, which are usually uncommon in other parts of Africa, by the dozens. If the common duiker, for some strange reason, happens to be your thing, Gaysay is the place.

 

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Mountain nyala browsing

 

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Female mountain nyalas descending

 

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Mountain nyala herd

 

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Mountain nyala portrait

 

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Mountain nyala bull

 

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Bohor reedbuck

 

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Bohor reedbucks in front of Gaysay Mountain

Edited by Safaridude

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twaffle

Have to say that I seriously hate you Safaridude … another must visit location which I can't afford! Seriously though, the b&w of the Mountain Nyala, the wolf on the move and the 2 of the horsemen really appeal … well they are all very good. (Sighs and looks in diminishing bank account)

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Safaridude

Have to say that I seriously hate you Safaridude … another must visit location which I can't afford! Seriously though, the b&w of the Mountain Nyala, the wolf on the move and the 2 of the horsemen really appeal … well they are all very good. (Sighs and looks in diminishing bank account)

 

Ethiopia is relatively cheap...

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