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Tanzania - August 2012: Natron, Serengeti, Katavi, Mahale


Safaridude
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Itinerary:

 

Lake Natron Game Controlled Area – Tandala Camp (1 night) and Natron Camp (2 nights)

 

Serengeti National Park – Sayari Camp (3 nights)

 

Katavi National Park – Chada Katavi (3 nights)

 

Mahale National Park – Greystoke Mahale (3 nights)

 

With my older son college bound this fall, this was a much anticipated, precious family vacation. Though both my kids have been on safari once (my wife has been on three occasions), I felt a special kind of pressure for this one to be “perfect”… who knows how hard it will be to plan these things in the future with higher education in the way? So, this was the big one: my family of four and another family of four hitting four prime spots in Tanzania – Natron, Serengeti, Katavi and Mahale – guided by Craig Doria and Dominyk (“Dom”) Lever, old friends by now. Nothing short of millions of flamingos, wildebeests, buffalos and chimpanzees would do for a proper college send-off.

 

 

Natron

 

“Where is Lake Natron?” “It’s south, bush country. It’s no place for a white man.” – Out of Africa

 

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Giraffe in front of Mt. Gelai

 

It is indeed harsh and remote. It most certainly wasn’t a place to casually drop in back in the days of Karen Blixen and Denys Finch Hatton, and it remains so because aside from a couple of little-known lodges on the southern shore of Lake Natron (not the best location in my opinion), tourism in the Lake Natron Game Controlled Area (the official name) is leased out to exclusive concessionaires (Tanzania Wildlife Company controls the southern block, and Ker & Downey Tanzania/Tanzania Game Trackers controls the northern block; both companies operate trophy hunting seasonally). You are free to drive through Natron, but you cannot stop and camp at will. What a tremendous privilege it is then to be the only tourists in the Natron North block for three days. Various hunting parties had cleared out, and we are to visit Tandala Camp, located in the middle of the block, and Natron Camp, on the northeastern shore of Lake Natron.

 

We set off from the Legendary Coffee Lodge (not to be confused with the Arusha Coffee Lodge), which is undoubtedly the best overnight option in Arusha. These days Craig is sporting a beard, with prominent ashen streaks now, reminiscent of Ol Doinyo Lengai after an eruption. Dom, 11 years junior and Craig’s understudy of sorts when they were both working in Luangwa Valley, has just married, and having visited B&H in New York recently, is sporting not only a wedding ring but also several new high-tech gadgets.

 

The Arusha – Nairobi road, from which game such as gerenuk, giraffe, zebra and Grant’s gazelle could once be seen, is distressingly modern now. It is shocking to see that the town of Longido seems to have doubled in size in just two years. But as soon as you turn west from the main road at Longido, you are in bush country. The Commiphora-dominated country continues for a monotonous (but for fleeing gerenuks and lesser kudus) two hours until we arrive at Tandala Camp. It is here, on top of a hill overlooking the central part of the Natron North block, that you realize the immensity of the place. And the age! Natron, in stark contrast to the Arusha – Nairobi road or the town of Longido, is old. Unimaginably old. It is a byproduct of the eastern branch of the Rift Valley, which began forming some 20 million years ago when the earth fissured and belched. Its many volcanic mountains, especially Ol Doinyo Lengai and Kerimasi, have been responsible for spreading volcanic granules, without which wildebeest mothers would have insufficient nutrients in their milk to nourish their young, onto the Serengeti plains for millions of years. In 2010, fossil footprints of 18 Homo sapiens were found on the shore of Lake Natron – all 18 together heading west (toward the Crater Highlands) – a clear indication that Homo sapiens were indeed social creatures. In short, a tour of Natron is not just about flora and fauna. It is about visiting a living natural history museum.

 

Tandala Camp is located on an eastern ridge of the Natron North block, which ridge eventually blends in with the Matale Mountains to the north. West of Tandala Camp in the distance is Mt. Gelai, obstructing the view of Lake Natron that lies beyond it. Sandwiched between Gelai and the Matales, there are numerous low-lying grassy plains, or mbugas. Gelai, the Matales and the mbugas together form a giant amphitheatre. The game here is wild (though not as shy as one might expect) and predictable in terms of species. Dry country birds such as ostrich, guinea fowl, secretary bird, and kori bustard are ubiquitous; lesser kudus congregate along the numerous sand rivers draining from the eastern ridge (though unlucky for us they were dispersed because the vegetation away from the sand rivers still remained succulent); gerenuks are found anywhere where there is light bush (Natron is probably the best place in Tanzania to see them); zebras, wildebeests and Grant’s gazelles stick to the mbugas and their margins.

 

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Zebras near Tandala Camp

 

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Dom and Craig

 

Playing a frustrating “cat and mouse” with a herd of fringe-eared oryx in an attempt to get close is one of the sadistic pleasures of visiting here. Their catching your scent and galloping away while their tasseled ears apparently waive/taunt goodbye is quintessential Natron. Our one and only evening at Tandala, we stumble upon a herd of five. It is too dark for photos, but I can still make out the tassels on their ears: Oryx beisa callotis (“callotis” meaning “beautiful ears” in Greek). These beautiful ears are on the run in Tanzania. Like wild dogs, they require exceptionally wide ranges, and they are now more frequently running into things like villages and roads, not to mention protein-starved people and the poorly designed trophy hunting regime that has actually increased the number of allotted licenses to hunt them. I doubt there are more than 2,000 left in Tanzania. Indeed, they catch our scent and soon turn and sprint into the night. Run, I say, run.

 

The drive from Tandala to Natron Camp reveals all possible sceneries Maasailand has to offer. Especially memorable are the roads that run along the base of sand rivers. Shut in by 30-40 ft. riverbed walls on both sides, these oxbow-shaped river roads are eerie, claustrophobic, and mysterious. The horse chase scene toward the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark could easily have been filmed here. Near the northern foot of Mt. Gelai, an oddly shaped plateaued hill called Kiti ya Mungu (“seat of the God” in Swahili; nicknamed “Cowboy Mountain” by the mzungu) punctuates a more rocky terrain. Shortly thereafter, Lake Natron with its many layered colors comes into view. The Shompole Mountain in Kenya on the far side of the lake reflects in the lake waters – the whole thing looking very much like a pair of lips. The vegetation near Natron Camp is yet different. Acacia shrubs are evenly spaced as if in a gated community.

 

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Looking up from a sand river road

 

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Zebras in front of Lake Natron

 

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Natron Sunset

 

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Queleas!

 

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Giraffes

 

The two days at Natron Camp are spent exploring the eastern shore of Lake Natron. Big herds of zebras, wildebeests and Grant’s gazelles congregate near the lake. A cheetah (rare in Natron… a huge bonus sighting) is found resting in a reed bed. Lake Natron is regarded as the most important breeding site in the world for lesser flamingos, especially now with places like Nakuru and Magadi in environmental decline. The lake is not exactly pink with flamingos at the moment, but there are small mixed flocks of greater and lesser flamingos to be approached on foot. As soon as I make any kind of progress though, the flock takes choppy flamenco steps in unison in the opposite direction.

 

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A view from the lake looking back

 

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Grant's gazelle

 

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Cheetah

 

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Flamingos

 

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Flamingos

 

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A misty morning

 

A visit to Natron is incomplete without a visit to a Maasai village. This particular village near the border of Kenya is as remote as any. The Maasai all over East Africa in the last decade have learned to love their cell phones almost as much as they do their cows, but this village is yet to be “corrupted” by cell signal. In fact, this village is devoid of any hyper-commercialism so commonplace in others – no incessant push for Maasai trinkets; just the Maasai going about their business. The business today, luckily for us, includes a cow bloodletting ceremony. A single, precise shot of an arrow punctures the cow’s artery. The stream is collected in a gourd and the cow’s wound patched up with mud. Today, the blood is drunk fresh (neither curdled nor mixed with milk). A young boy takes the prize straight from the gourd.

 

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A Maasai elder

 

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Women and children tend the goats

 

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A girl milking a goat

 

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A precise arrow shot

 

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The prize

 

As we leave Natron by plane, the stress on the landscape becomes visible. Water is being piped in from most of the mountains in Natron (including Gelai, Kitumbeine and the Matales) to satisfy the growing number of thirsty cows, goats and people. Each year, the pipes extend their reaches deeper into the savannah, and the Maasai and their livestock become more numerous and sedentary, denuding large swaths around these water points. Off to the other side of the plane, a flock of flamingos wade peacefully in the lake. But they are in danger too. The idea of constructing a giant soda ash factory on Lake Natron has been bandied about (soda ash is used to manufacture glass). The factory would bring in hundreds of people and necessitate building a road through this fragile environment. The construction of and the discharge from the plant could disturb, among other things, the biggest breeding colony of lesser flamingos in the world. It is a complicated, politically charged issue in Tanzania where both unemployment and environmental degradation are rampant. The pressure to uplift livelihoods in Tanzania is certainly understandable. But as we fly over the Rift wall, I think to myself: could we destroy in just a few months a natural monument built over 20 million years? Because, well, uh, you know, we need more cheap glass?

 

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Ol Doinyo Lengai from the plane

 

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The Rift Valley wall

Edited by Safaridude
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Have been looking forward to this. Great start, Safaridude. Keep it coming.

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This is one heck of a college sendoff! A superb itinerary. I'm sure you had a wonderful time with your son in such beautiful surroundings.

 

I am very interested in Natron. A cheetah? No kidding! Do you have any estimates of travel time from Arusha to Natron? Also was the split in lodging in Natron to accommodate travel logisitics?

 

"could we destroy in just a few months a natural monument built over 20 million years?" So many times over the response has been yes.

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So did you dare drink the blood and milk mix?

Well, as I said, they drank the blood straight up. They didn't have milk readily available. I usually take mine with milk and sugar... ;)

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Do you have any estimates of travel time from Arusha to Natron? Also was the split in lodging in Natron to accommodate travel logisitics?

 

 

The drive from Arusha to Tandala Camp can be done in about 4 hours (most of the varibility is with Arusha's traffic). We were originally set to spend 3 nights at Tandala Camp, but Natron Camp opened up at the last second so we took advantage of it.

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Thanks for the info and looking forward to more when you are able to post.

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Sounds an awesome trip, Safaridude. Eagerly look forward to the other installments.

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Serengeti

 

All the recent blogs about northern Serengeti have been humming about the arrival of the wildebeests. Mara River crossings had been witnessed since late July. This being August 10th, we couldn’t have timed it any better? Indeed, as we cross into Serengeti, small black dots representing wildebeests begin to appear below us. I high-five everyone. But then, curiously, the dots begin disappearing as we approach the Kogatende airstrip on the banks of the Mara River. Wildebeests have vacated the immediate area. What’s worse is the Kogatende/Mara River Bridge, the only practical access road that leads to the stunning Lamai Wedge area, is overflowing with water. In both of my two previous trips up here, I had trouble with the overflowing bridge. I could only spend one and a half game drives (one was shortened due to a rainstorm that threatened the bridge from overflowing again) on Lamai. “The Curse of the Lamai Wedge”, dubbed by Craig and Dom in the past, is back it seems. Upon landing I see the grass in the immediate area razed – wildebeests, a vast number of them, were here not long ago.

 

This part of Serengeti is characterized by the preponderance of Acacia robusta (“splendid acacia”). Rarely found north of the Mara River, splendid acacias sprout rigid, untidy, spikey branches when young, giving this area a positively prehistoric look. We head out east our first afternoon where we saw some wildebeests from the plane. East of Sayari Camp toward Bologonja, the woodland thins out into a huge plain. It is home to hundreds of Thomson’s gazelles, whose purpose in life it seems is to wag their tails. In a drainage ditch not too far away, we spot their chief tormentor, cheetah. With its belly so full, he is sluggish and in no mood to pose for photos. There would be no big wildebeest herds today, but we do see a nice herd of eland on the way back to camp. Each bull eland has its own distinctive character, be it due to the color, horns, dewlap or tufted forehead (thought to be glandular). This one in the herd is very pale in color and does not have a much of a tuft. Examining this bull reminds Craig of his days at Nsolo Camp in the Luangwa Valley and one particularly impressive eland bull with a distinguished tuft (which earned him the nickname, “Lord Mountbatten”). For 4-5 seasons, Lord Mountbatten would always turn up after months of absence just when sausage tree flowers (much sought after by browsers) on the Luwi River began to drop in the dry season. A sighting of Lord Mountbatten became a sure thing each season at the first drop of the sausage tree flower, and he became very much part of Nsolo. Unfortunately, while Craig and another guide was guiding on foot one day, they accidentally spooked Mountbatten right into the jaws of a hungry lion. “Long live Lord Mountbatten”, Craig mutters dolefully.

 

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Cheetah in a korongo

 

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Lord Mountbatten he is not

 

The next morning, we explore the Wogakuria Kopjes south of Sayari, surely one of the most scenic parts of Serengeti. Rock hyrax, oribi and klipspringer are “a given” here. A female klipspringer with horns (unusual but not unheard of) basks in the morning sun near various lion and leopard tracks. Then, Dom’s excited voice from the other vehicle crackles on the radio, “Craig, I’ve got rhino here!” It is a sole black rhino walking casually through a recently burned patch on the other side of a gully – casually, that is, until he detects a huge dark-maned lion sunning himself on a kopje just in front of him. The rhino nearly jumps in surprise and then churns his short legs like Fred Flinstone, avoiding a titanic confrontation. Is he one of the many who have recently colonized this part of the Serengeti from Masai Mara or one of the recently translocated ones from Seronera? Whichever the case, the viewing is, unfortunately, from 600 meters with an un-crossable gully in the way.

 

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Kopjes

 

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Klipspringers

 

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Black rhino walking toward a lion (can you spot the huge black-maned lion in the photo?)

 

Back at camp, we marvel at the level of service and attention to detail. Most of Sayari’s employees are from the Kuria community bordering the northwestern corner of Serengeti. The Kuria are renowned for being traditional poachers/game meat eaters, but somehow Asilia Lodges (the owner of Sayari) was able to convert dozens of poachers to be employed as staff in an ecotourism camp. Asilia also sources produce from the Kuria community farms. Bit by bit, the Kuria are sharing the benefits from tourism. With fresh vegetables aplenty, meals at Sayari are extraordinary. Not only is the food amongst the best ever on safari, the dishes are actually inventive, cutting-edge.

 

A leisurely lunch is interrupted by Craig’s staring into one direction and slowly raising his binoculars. I also notice that the waiters are whispering to each other and pointing in that direction. Wildebeests are gathering at a known crossing point on the Mara River. No need for words at this point. Only screeches made by chairs sliding back from the table are heard as all rise up from lunch, and in no time, we are at the river. I guess there is a certain unwritten rule to be obeyed at a wildebeest crossing point. Seven vehicles including ours park several hundred meters from the river’s edge as to not spook the wildebeests. Waiting for a wildebeest crossing can often be a frustrating or fruitless affair, but this crossing begins not 10 minutes after our arrival. As soon as the first splash in the river is detected, the seven vehicles race toward the edge of the river in an attempt to jockey for the best viewing position, but this strange spectacle has no effect on the crossing: once a crossing begins, nothing seems to bother it. What can one say about a wildebeest crossing? Jaded by all those TV documentaries on wildebeest crossings? The real, live thing is different. Let’s just say we were all shaking with adrenaline afterwards.

 

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To cross or not to cross...

 

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Cross!

 

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Traffic jam

 

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The unlucky

 

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Craig

 

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Tawney eagle

 

Miraculously, the water level on the Kogatende/Mara River Bridge drops enough for us to cross into the Lamai Wedge in the afternoon. Lamai is quintessential northern Serengeti/Mara “big country” with a scattering of attractive Balanites (often confused with umbrella thorn) set amongst a carpet of red oat grass. It is here we finally find a big herd of wildebeests – perhaps 10,000 strong. A small herd, I think to myself (spoiled rotten by previous migrations), but the first-timers gasp with wonderment. Because Lamai is so wide open, lions tend to gravitate toward drainage lines (two main ones in the main circuit) or croton thickets (relatively few in Lamai) for shade and concealment. A pride of 16, which frequents the eastern drainage line, may have crossed the border into Kenya for the moment. Only a single young male is seen in a thicket. A fresh Thomson’s gazelle kill is surely the work of a cheetah. And while trying to track down the cheetah, we instead luck into a leopard. It is highly unusual to come across a leopard in this open country, and this distinctively dark male who obviously feels out of his element, appears extremely nervous. Even though the red oat grass is only about 3 feet high, he becomes completely concealed as he crouches down – spotted 50 feet away from the vehicle one moment, then invisible the next. Bewildered and in awe, we continue to search for this supernatural creature. Every few seconds, we detect a flicker of an ear or a twitch of a tail, only to lose him again. We finally catch him in a short-grass area. He has had enough of us though, and he dives head first into a warthog burrow.

 

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Lamai Wedge

 

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More of Lamai Wedge

 

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A big herd near the Kenyan border - Lamai Wedge

 

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Heading north

 

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Wild-eyed

 

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Ostriches

 

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A shower induced by a bush fire

 

On the way back to camp, we come across a pathetic sight: a 6-month old wildebeest with a big scar on his upper leg resting alone under a tree. He has apparently escaped the jaws of a crocodile earlier today but did not complete the river crossing. Separated from his mother and the rest of the herd by a frightening river, he is in for the longest night of his young life. He makes a feeble attempt to graze, but he appears too weak to even do that. We name him Billy. We would check on Billy the next morning, but he is gone. I would like to think that Billy the wildebeest somehow gathered up all his strength and courage to get up and walk north – and staggered upon the now dry Kogatende/Mara River Bridge, which he used to get across and reunite with his mother. That would surely put an end to The Curse of the Lamai Wedge, I would think.

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Amazing report... Next year I'll visit Serengeti, Katavi and Mahale

 

Waiting for your katavi pictures..

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Great report! I love the picture of the giraffe of Mt. Gelai - it really shows the scale and demonstrates the great vastness of the area. I also agree with your comments about cell phone coverage in these more remote areas. I go on safari to get away from them. It is discouraging when you hear people chatting away but hopefully this will make life a bit easier/more convenient for people in remote villages.

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That's excellent. Yes, it should be very green. Hope the mbugas aren't too boggy!

Edited by Safaridude
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Black rhino walking toward a lion (can you spot the huge black-maned lion in the photo?)

 

Answer: in the lower right side of the photo, there is a long, flat piece of rock. On that long, flat rock, there are 3 small rocks clustered together. The big dark-maned lion is resting in the shade just to the right of those 3 small rocks. A second after this photo was taken, the rhino saw the lion, nearly jumped, then he bolted out of there.

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I admit I had to double click on the image to supersize it and it still took me a minute or two to find the lion.

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Katavi

 

If there were a vote amongst hardcore safari goers on the wildest place in Tanzania, Katavi would come out ahead. It doesn’t get wilder or more remote – or more romanticized – than Katavi.

 

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No free lunch

 

Only a small portion of the huge 4,471 square kms is regularly trafficked by tourists. The main circuit is characterized by huge black cotton soil mbugas and woodland margins surrounding them. The woodlands have a distinct, Sherwood Forest-like feel due to the abundance of Sterculia quinqueloba. These “star chestnut” trees are leafless at the moment and their stark branches seem to absorb all the soft white and pink colors from the sun in the late afternoon.

 

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Sterculia quinqueloba

 

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Impala on the run

 

For viewing hippos and crocs, it doesn’t get better than Katavi. Not only are they abundant, they are relaxed and easy to observe here. Our driver/guide Mohammed kills the engine while expertly gliding the vehicle down a bank of the Katuma River. Crocs and hippos hardly move at our approach. This part of the Katuma River has been known to dry up completely in some years, and the local crocodiles estivate in small “caves” to survive the dry season. The river is not quite dry yet, and only one croc is seen entering a cave. Two other crocs feel comfortable enough to mate right in front of us. Being near a large pod of hippos in a shrinking pool is an olfactory disaster – something I will never forget. Only the comic relief offered by the hippos’ grunting takes my mind off the stench. One hippo starts the grunting. It is followed by a few others, then a few others after that, and then finally the whole pod goes at it. It is as if the first hippo has told a subtle, cerebral joke, and the other hippos start getting it – slowly but surely.

 

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Mating crocs

 

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Croc

 

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An olfactory disaster

 

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Hippo spa

 

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Out of the water

 

I think it is impossible to feel neutral about Chada Katavi. If you want to be close to nature (bucket showers, “eco-toilets” and elephants around camp all day and all night), Chada is the answer. If not, you may be in for the longest 3-4 nights of your life. The elephants are attracted to the falling pods of tamarind trees at Chada at the moment, and they can show up on your doorsteps practically any time of day. One particular family of eles are so present, they have been given a name (“the Mahoneys”), and the Mahoneys pay me a visit while I am flipping through some coffee table books at the tented central mess area. One of the cows (possibly the matriarch) uses her trunk to sweep off the tamarind pods from atop the tent canopy. Others then join in to pick off the fallen pods from the wooden deck with utmost finesse. While they are totally comfortable in the presence of humans, they still feel a need to bully once in awhile. The matriarch takes a step up on the wooden deck of the mess and flings her trunk forward in a tiniest mock-charge toward me. She doesn’t mean it, and she is somehow intelligent enough not to put all her full weight on the step. She is just playing elephant.

 

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Peering through

 

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Juxtaposed

 

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Sweeping the pods with their trunks...

 

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... delicately

 

Katavi is known as the best place in Tanzania to view roan antelope. Unfortunately, they are seen by other guests the day before we arrive at Katavi and, as we would later learn, a few hours after we leave. As far as rarely seen antelopes go, we do come upon a small group of Lichtenstein’s hartebeests on the edge of the Katisunga plain. Lichtenstein’s hartebeests often horn the ground and then their bodies. The result is the trademark dark patches on their sides. Supremely vigilant, they canter off after a few seconds.

 

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Note the dark patches on their sides

 

One morning we set off for an all day excursion to Paradise Plain. After driving through more than two hours of Combretum woodland, yet another huge mbuga that is Paradise opens up. Paradise has seepages fingering out green into the mbuga where large herds of zebras and buffalos congregate to water. A road runs along a tree line on slightly higher ground on the edge of Paradise. Obstructed by the tree line, animals on Paradise cannot readily make out the vehicle, and at certain strategic points, we break into the gaps in the tree line for a “giraffe’s eye view” of Paradise Plain without unduly disturbing the animals.

 

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A "giraffe's eye-view" of Paradise Plain

 

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Dagga boy

 

We finally get a quality lion sighting (the Chada pride of 10) one evening merely a couple of kms from camp, but light is fading and our 7 o’clock curfew is upon us. Much like this brief lion sighting, the whole visit to Katavi is too fleeting. There is so much more to be explored: Lake Katavi in the northwest with its great white pelicans and roan, Chorangwa Falls and the Mlele Escarpment to the east, and the largely uncharted southeast, etc. As we fly out, looking out onto the immense park, I feel a certain pang to return for an extended visit. Unfinished business, this Katavi…

 

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One of the two brothers of the Chada pride

 

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King and Queen

 

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Giraffe at sunrise

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Lichtenstein’s hartebeests often horn the ground and then their bodies. The result is the trademark dark patches on their sides.

I thought that it was because they have a gland beneath their eyes that secretes, which they then rub on their flanks?

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"One hippo starts the grunting. It is followed by a few others, then a few others after that, and then finally the whole pod goes at it. It is as if the first hippo has told a subtle, cerebral joke, and the other hippos start getting it – slowly but surely."

 

 

Two words I've never associated with hippos!

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What a place!!!

Your writing and images clearly illustrate that is somewhere special!

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Lichtenstein’s hartebeests often horn the ground and then their bodies. The result is the trademark dark patches on their sides.

I thought that it was because they have a gland beneath their eyes that secretes, which they then rub on their flanks?

I just double-checked Mammals of Southern Africa (Burger Cillie) and A Guide to Common Wild Mammals of Zambia (Wildlife Conservation Society of Zambia), and they both state that the dark patches are due to their horning the burnt ground. Lichtenstein's hartebeests do have pre-orbital glands, but I don't think the glands would be able to make such big patches. In fact, check out this photo I took from the Nanzhila area of Kafue, Zambia in 2009 while on a walk... the one on the left especially... only the horns could have reached that far to make the dark patch...

 

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Edited by Safaridude
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"One hippo starts the grunting. It is followed by a few others, then a few others after that, and then finally the whole pod goes at it. It is as if the first hippo has told a subtle, cerebral joke, and the other hippos start getting it – slowly but surely."

 

 

Two words I've never associated with hippos!

 

The smell of the pod in a shrinking pool is neither subtle nor cerebral. I can tell you that.

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