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Ruaha 1997 : a battle of giants


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Bush dog

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With the lockdown, I took the time to look in my drawers for slides and photos from old trips from before 2005.  Because it’s a very time consuming job (cleaning, scanning and processing), I limited myself to only two trips including an unusual sighting made in July and October 1997 in Ruaha.  The slides and photos have undergone the wear of time, hence their poor quality.  So this is a mini-report, in fact more a few particular facts, always present in my memory, than a report.

 

In those days, Ruaha was, if I may say so, the private garden of the family Fox.  Indeed, they owned the Ruaha River Lodge, and Christopher, and again if I may say so, the black sheep of the family, owned  Mwagusi Safari Camp (they still do actually).  The camp was, and still is, located in the area where the concentration of game is the highest one.  I do not remember exactly how many bandas there were but certainly not more than 8 (actually 13).  Going off road was tolerated when necessary because Chris had an excellent relation, full of mutual respect, with the rangers.  There were not a lot of cars anyway.  It was not easy to see a leopard (only saw 1, in both cases very shy, on each stay) and one had just the time to glimpse the lesser kudu.   I even remember seeing, several hundred meters away, a group of roans fleeing as soon as they spotted us.  There were already a lot of lions.  I read somewhere that the largest population of lions in Africa is to be found in Ruaha, in this case 10% of them.  I had the opportunity to attend two or three of their hunting attempts, one of which was successful, their targets being mainly buffaloes that could be seen in huge herds.  This succes constitutes a large part of the Ruaha section of this report.

 

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From Dar-es-Salam it took almost 4 hours to reach Ruaha by small plane.  It is strange, the details that human memory can remember and why these in particular?  I remember well the pilot who brought us, my wife and me, during my first stay.  He was a nice man in his sixties who wore glasses whose lenses looked like bottoms.  Back in November, I asked Chris about him.  The poor man disappeared during a flight, fortunately without passengers, back to Dar. No one knows what exactly happened.  Despite extensive research, the wreckage of his plane was never found.  He could have had a heart attack, the flight continuing until the fuel ran out and ultimately being engulfed by the ocean.

 

Chris was a very controversial figure at the time and even considered by some to be crazy.  Personally, I don't think so.  Bold and thrill seeker perhaps but certainly not crazy.  He is a confirmed ethologist and as such fully aware of what he was doing.  He was certainly unconventional.  For most of the day, he was barefoot.  He only wore shoes at dinner.  There were no firearms in the camp.  He felt that, if one is competent, it is not necessary even to walk in the bush (This was confirmed to me afterwards by other guides although they have a rifle when they walk in the bush, if only to appease any fears of their customers).  But what a guide!  I really enjoyed all the game drives with him.  Many stories have circulated about him, such as the story that at night he stealthily liked to approach lions in order to pull their tails.  I do not know if this anecdote is true. And even if there is no smoke without fire, what is certain is that there is often more fabulousness than reality in the reputation made to someone.  However, I can say, having witnessed it, that the following is not the result of a rumor. During a game drive, guided by Chris, we came close to a small herd of elephants of at most ten individuals.  He turned off the engine, got out of the vehicle, and walked, of course barefoot, toward the matriarch.  It watched him come with an intrigued and curious look without any aggressiveness.   Arriving a few meters from it, he took palm nuts out of his pockets and began to throw them at the feet of the latter who, after a brief moment of hesitation, began to eat them.  When his pockets were empty, Chris turned around, returned to the vehicle without looking behind him as if he was walking in a public park, restarted and moved away from the herd.  The herd set off and chased the vehicle for a short while and Chris said, "I think they want more".   Honestly, I think maybe he shouldn't have done this since one particular person looked not well at all.  Since then, he settled down, as I saw when I met it again in 2014.

 

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offshorebirder

Wow - thanks a lot for sharing your photographic walk down memory lane @Bush dog.    Don't sell yourself short - even though they are from scans of old slides, etc. the photo quality is quite alright.

 

You have added another place to my bucket list - Mwagusi Safari Camp.   The problem with Safaritalk is that places are being added to my bucket list faster than I can visit them!

 

 

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Biko

@Bush dog thanks for sharing your memories about Chris Fox. He was not around when we stayed at Mwagusi Safari Camp in september 2019, but we enjoyed the fruit of his work very much. The camp is a delight, the staff ( of which many are in training) was very kind and taking care of us very well. And off course Ruaha is beautiful, its landscapes and wildlife. A camp to go back to sooner rather than later.

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Safaridude

@Bush dog

 

Wow, Ruaha was definitely an off-the-beaten-track destination back then.  On one of the hills you see in the fourth photo, there is now a cell phone tower!

 

Kodachrome, was it?

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Caracal

You're bringing back great memories of my stay at Mwagusi in 2000 @Bush dog.  Thank You.

We were seated in the back of the Landrover when Marion walked up and took the doum palm nut from Chris' hand.

Chris said it had taken 6 years and it was the first time she'd done that. The two other elephants that came right up to the vehicle were Mary and Corrine ( as also named by Chris). Amazing to be so close  to wild elephants 'tho I still wonder about such habituation.

I recall a pride of 22 lions and as for leopards in Ruaha I was lucky. On a walk with guide Batista saw one crossing the dry river bed (told we were the first to see a leopard on a walk) then saw two more before we left.

And once seen that scenery in Ruaha never leaves you does it ?

 

 

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BRACQUENE

@Bush dog

 

As you might have seen with others in my TR about Ruaha I stayed five nights in Mwagusi Camp in 2017 ( combining it with Kichaka Expeditions )  and Chris was not there either but I remember his ex-wife was : my opinion of Mwagusi is not much different of yours even if if your trip dates from twenty years earlier : it was and still is an old school safari camp you dream off but don't believe it even exists when you wake up : for all those who want to go I would say better now than later and moreover the wildlife is prolific and out of this world ; it was my son Willem 's first safari and he was so lucky in his sightings with three or four leopards in the first two days , magnificent Greater and Lesser Kudus and elephants , buffalo and lions all over the place especially off-road on a giraffe kill the icing on the cake being the five Cheetahs  ( mother and  four cubs ) in a place called Little Serengeti ! 

A dream that became reality  I can tell you ! Thanks for bringing it back :rolleyes:

 

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Bush dog

@offshorebirder  @Biko

 

Thanks a lot for your comments!

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Bush dog

@Safaridude

 

No, it is mainly Fuji RVP and RDPII.  I stopped working with Kodachrome at the end of the eighties. 

 

 

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Bush dog

@Caracal

 

Thanks!  I did not know Chris gave these elephants a name.

Like you, I still wonder about the utility of such practice.

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Bush dog

@BRACQUENE

 

It's true, the camp has not really changed much in form and spirit but the level of comfort in the tents has since improved. 

If you have not seen yet my report concerning my stay there in 2014, here it is :

 

 

 

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Bush dog

Those who have already visited the Ruaha may recognize this rock.

 

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This is a failed attempt by the lioness on the rock in the photo above.

 

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The following fact shows very well how some visitors arriving for the first time in the wild have absolutely no idea of the reality of it and unfortunately have not been sufficiently informed.  We were about to get into the vehicles and start the afternoon game drive when a new guest arrived.  She wished to join us.  In order not to waste time, she postponed her installation until later. Two vehicles left the camp in two opposite directions, one driven by Chris and the other by a young guide, Anton, son of a friend of Chris.  I was, like the newcomer, on the latter.  We decided to go to a fairly distant place called Hippo pool.  Before climbing onto the vehicle, this person hurriedly filled the largest container she found on the table and filled it to the brim with fruit salad.  I believe that if there had been a bucket, she would have filled it.  But perhaps she hadn't eaten for a long time?  She also immediately announced the color, "I want to see lions".  We were already far from the camp when Chris called us by radio to announce that he had found lions.  The newcomer immediately reacted, "Here we go, I want to see the lions".  Only, these lions were mobile and 45 minutes from where we were.  The risk of not seeing them was therefore very present.  Anyway, the lady firmly maintained that it was necessary to go there whereas I thought that it was necessary to stick to our first idea.  Anton, in order to preserve his commercial neutrality, then said: "Mike, you decide!"  As a result, we continued our drive to Hippo pool.  The lady was not happy.  She moaned and mumbled until what we saw next:  first, in the distance, the group of roans that I mentioned above.  I was very excited, they were my first roans but it made no difference for her.  Obviously, she desperately wanted to see lions and nothing else.  Near Hippo Pool, the road ran along the dry bed of a stream.  We spotted, in a hollow in the wall of the shore, a young leopard which, despite the distance which separated us, seemed terrorized by our presence.  It immediately rushed towards us, all claws out, growling, huffing and puffing to quickly change direction and disappear.  We continued our way on the bank of the dry riverbed and suddenly, there they were, two lions, one of which was very busy moving the carcass of a buffalo. 

 

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I do not know if she was well aware of the lesson that the course of events had just taught her.  However, I tend to think so because she remained silent during the whole trip back to camp.

 

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madaboutcheetah

Thanks for starting this report, Mike - I loved my time in ruaha in 2016 ..... what caused the leopard charge you reckon?? 

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Bush dog

 

@madaboutcheetah

 

Thanks Hari!

 

Without a doubt, fear.  Fear, in my opinion, already present before it saw us.  It was a young leopard of the age when mothers begin to abandon them.  As a result, they are often a little confused by what suddenly happens to them and which they did not expect.  On the other hand, this fear may have been caused by the lions who were nearby.  So it must have been extremely tense when it saw us with this almost immediate mock charge.

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Hads

Awesome report thanks @Bush dog-great sightings of Buffs and Lions.

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Bush dog

@Hads

 

Thanks!  Indeed, great sightings, especially the one that follows, one of the most dramatic kills I have ever witnessed.

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Bush dog

Here comes the battle of giants.  When we arrived for the first time (we came back twice again thereafter) to the site where it was happening, the male lion and the big buffalo were embraced like two wrestlers, all muscles flexed, in a fight to the death.  The buffalo had probably been attacked by the lionesses who, confronted with its power, could not overcome it.  A higher force then being necessary, the male had entered the scene.

 

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Bush dog

Chris told us that it could take a while before the buffalo abdicates and accepts its fate.  So we continued our game drive and came back an hour later.  The male seemed at this stage to want to push the buffalo towards the open space. No doubt so that the females can more easily try to finish it off.

 

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Bush dog

The lion then withdrew to the side, completely exhausted by the enormous debauchery of energy which it had spent during more than an hour.  When we returned for the second time on the way to camp, it was still panting heavily. The lionesses then entered the scene to finish the work started by the male, namely to open its guts in order to definitively immobilize it.  This modus operandi is only used when the predator, the vast majority of which is the lion, cannot kill its prey by suffocation.  Chris had positioned the vehicle so that he was personally on the opposite side of the action.  He went out calmly and crept under the vehicle to take pictures.  After about 15 minutes, he got back into it, very pleased to have been able to take some shots from an unusual angle.

 

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A few cubs were present from a distance, but one, the youngest.  Completely oblivious to the potential danger posed by this injured animal, certainly greatly diminished, but nevertheless still alive, the young cub actively participated in the party, even going so far as to try to extract part of the guts.

 

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After a while, knowing that it was no longer possible for the buffalo to escape, they all joined the male so like him to recover from their efforts.

 

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As witnessing the slow agony of an animal has no interest for me, I asked Chris to leave the place.  At the end of the morning, on the way back to the camp, we returned.  The buffalo was dead and the pride had not yet started to feed while it was still recovering.  We estimated that it had taken them close to four hours to overcome this giant.  All the time we were there, there were no other vehicles than ours.

 

To close this report, a characteristic view of The Ruaha.

 

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