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Nov-Dec 2012 Safari Diary

- by Alan Montgomery

Part 3: Kwihala

photos by Flo Montgomery

link back to Alan Montgomery Safari Diary

 


Friday 30 November - Kwihala Camp - Ruaha National Park

After breakfast at Manze, our guides drive us to the airstrip from where a light aircraft will transport us the one and three quarter hour journey to the main headquarters at Msembe, Ruaha National Park.

Coastal Plane at Siwandu airstrip, Selous

We wait some fifteen to twenty minutes, watching various birds in the trees and bushes around, until we hear the unmistakeable buzz of a plane approaching, circling and finally landing and rolling to a standstill some thirty metres away. Our guides quickly load our bags onto the aircraft and we are invited to board. The turn-around at these remote air strips is usually very quick, often no more than twenty minutes. Like most of the domestic operators, Coastal Aviation, the company used by Adventure Camps for all its safaris, operate a tight schedule. Their network covers the whole of Tanzania, and as well as linking the Northern and Southern Game circuits, they operate daily flights to Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya as well. With a large fleet of small (four to twelve-seater) aircraft, careful scheduling and efficient operation is essential if the company is to fulfil its commitments. An inadvertent booking error, a puncture in a safari vehicle or a sudden change in the weather, any of which can impede or even preclude a scheduled rendezvous, could throw the whole complex timetable out of gear. But fortunately this does not happen, as the whole operation is efficiently coordinated from Dar es Salaam.

So within fifteen minutes of the planes landing, we are taking off, bumping a short distance down the airstrip and we are airborne and quickly climbing to a height of around ten thousand feet. The experience of moving around in these small aircraft is one of the particular pleasures of local travel in East Africa. By this means it is possible to cover distances that would be uncomfortable, tedious and sometimes quite impracticable by road. Once aloft, we can get a very clear impression of the wildness, the bush, the rugged mountains, and the sheer magnitude of Africa and indeed of Tanzania, which covers an area similar to France, Germany and Belgium combined.

Flyiing in over the Great Ruaha River
Flying in over the Great Ruaha River – very dry at this time of year

In due course we begin to see familiar landmarks, the blocks of mountains that surround and demarcate the course of the great Ruaha River, itself a tributary of the Rufiji, which we were exploring in the Selous. On landing we are greeted by Marc Weiner, a South African Field Guide and Toni Zephania, a Tanzanian trainee guide, who are going to drive us to Kwihala, our first camp, which is located on a hillside above the Mwagusi sand river. Before setting off we have a chance to utilise the brand new facilities that have been constructed at the airstrip. They are spotlessly clean and there is even fresh water in the wash basin - provided the cleaner is around to turn the stop cock. (But watch this space!)

The Ruaha

We drive through glorious Ruaha scenery.

Kimilamatonge Hills

We are met by Marc Weiner at the airstrip in Ruaha. He is the current Head Field Guide at Kwihala - though he is due to leave in a few days. The journey to Kwihala takes just over an hour. We notice another change en route - an aerial or mobile phone mast has sprouted on top of a prominent rocky range, noted as a haunt for wildlife, including leopard. It looks a bit incongruous in the middle of this wilderness, but as an agent explains to us later during our stay, today's travellers expect to be able to use their phones and laptops, without which they are not quite sure whether they are human! (Come back Allan Quartermaine, all is forgiven!)

Ruaha Male Lion

Suddenly the car stops – right by the side of the of the road is a lion kill with a rather handsome male lion sitting almost on top of the zebra meal. Nearby are about five females.
It is midday and very hot, so we move on to the camp in order to settle in and have lunch.

Kwihala Tent 

View from our tent

Kwihala turns out to be something of a miracle. Established in dusty bush not far from the sand river, which is virtually dry now since the short rains are both late and scarce. Our tent has a view out over the Mwagusi Basin. The Danish Camp Manageress, Sara Ilum greets us and makes us welcome.

Kwihala tent interior 

Our bathroom

This camp has been designed to provide a de facto oasis, with airy tents specially created by a famous designer.

There is a striking Baobab motif, beautifully worked out on bedspreads, hangings, and ceramic table-ware, which is followed through both in the tents and in the comfortable lounge plentifully supplied with Ruaha-specific literature.

Kwihala Mess Tent Interior 

Kwihala Mess Tent Interior

This formula has proved so successful that an additional sister camp, located on a neighbouring Kopje, is being designed and built, due to open in the next year or so.

Preparing for an evening game drive

In the evening I join fellow guests on a game drive along the Mwagusi.
There is not a lot of game about at this time of year, especially as the rains are late...

 

...but we observe giraffe, impala, Kudu and Dik-Dik. The real interest of the area at this season is the copious bird-life. Birds in amazing variety appear constantly, either on the wing, or in the foliage along the river course. I am particularly interested to identify the larger birds, the predators such as birds of prey, and several species of vulture. The water birds indicate that there is more moisture around in this wilderness than may at first appear. One of my fellow guests is a more genuine twitcher than I.

Bustard 

Ruaha Hornbill

He is interested in every bird, however small or relatively common. Within the next three days he will compile an impressive list of over one hundred sightings. Our success rates are guaranteed by the acute eyesight and comprehensive knowledge of our guides, who seem invariably to have sighted and identified the birds before we have even noticed them!

Finally, when we pause for a sundowner on a sandy bluff overlooking the riverbed, we observe the nightly ritual of a large troop of baboons. When we first notice them they are engaged in all the usual activities: playing, eating, grooming, teasing and asserting sibling seniority and so on. But as the sun goes down the guides draw our attention to a grove of lofty Hyphenae palms, some around thirty metres tall. One by one we notice baboons breaking off their other activities and ascending into the feathery tops of the palms. The larger animals are confident, practically running up the trees. But some of the youngsters are clearly less sure of themselves and see the nightly ritual as something of an ordeal. In the end, confident or hesitant, they are all hidden from sight in amongst the crowning fronds of the palms - a practical way of ensuring a secure nights rest.

Tent, evening 

Tent veranda, evening

It is good to come back to the tent and freshen up with a warm bucket shower and change of clothes before going up to the Mess tent.

Drinks are served 

Mess tent, pm

We are served drinks at the camp fire and dine out under the stars, under an African moon.

Morning tea 

Ruaha morning

Saturday 1st December - Kwihala Camp AM

On Saturday morning, after an early morning wakeup call with tea and coffee, I am out for an early game drive which for the most part skirts one side or the other of the Mwagusi sand river.

We see both the very distinctive Bateleur eagle and the Tawny eagle, which our guide says are both capable of scavenging another predator's prey. There is an assortment of vultures in the river bed. These include hooded vultures, and the larger white-backed vulture. In the middle of the river bed our guide points out six young lions stretched out under small bushes The Pride are well known to the camp and our guide tells us this is a promising sighting: the adult lions have probably gone hunting, leaving the youngsters to wait for breakfast to be served. This doesn't happen while we are watching.

Evening game drive 

Lorenzo

PM

This evening we have requested our Italian trainee guide Lorenzo Rossi to take us up the escarpment overlooking the Mwagusi. We know that we shall probably see no more game here than in the river-bed but we shall see some different plants and trees, and get different views from the top of the ridge. Almost immediately, we spot a beautiful buff-crested bustard. We gradually climb upwards, our guide pointing out trees of interest, including the pod mahogany tree with its distinctive seed pods filled with red and black seeds. The tsetse flies are noticeably worse on this ridge, but we have plenty of spray with which to keep them at bay. From the edge of the escarpment we have outstanding panoramic vistas of the serried mountain blocks on the far side of the park. These are the kind of views that epitomise the grandeur and undeveloped character of so much of Africa.

WaHehe village site

WaHehe Village old site – iron age village

We stop at the site of an old waHehe village – long disappeared when the National Park was first created by the Germans. There are signs of iron smelting, broken beads and pottery and quartz hammer stones. There are ghostly echoes of the past here.

As we make our descent from the ridge, we see very little game, but then get good sightings of some sizeable elephants which are feeding and making their way down to the river bed. We see more elephant along the edge of the Mwagusi as we stop to watch the sunset and at some point spot a couple of ostriches in the open ground alongside the river. As we return across the sand river bed we can see that the young lions have gone, but neither we nor our fellow explorers in another vehicle have come across any indication that the adult lions in this pride have made a kill.

Marc Weiner 

Steve Roskelly
Marc Weiner (LHS) and Steve Roskelly – two of the team of rotating Head Field Guides at Kwihala.

Sunday 2 December – Kwihala Camp

This morning our South African guide, Steve Roskelly, who has taken over from Marc as Head Field Guide, is taking us out for a game drive. (The field guides rotate every three months or so, there is always one of them here). He will take us to search in a different section of the park and he has agreed to drive us over to the old airstrip, a good level section popular with game.

Bat-eared Fox   

Ruaha Hyenas

As we leave the camp we get a sighting of bat-eared foxes that have a burrow just beside the roadway. They are pretty little creatures and although they are largely nocturnal, with huge saucer-like eyes, can often be seen by day. Along the route we see more birds, many of which are becoming quite familiar now, and some Hyenas. Like Wild Dogs, Hyenas tend to move in social groups and will work together to hunt quite large prey or to intimidate other predators to abandon their kill. It is apparently quite common for hyenas to see off a leopard. Although Hyenas have a reputation as scavengers, they are well capable of making a kill themselves, working as a team.

Lion spoor 

Lion paw print
Steve is easily able to recognize where lions have lain in the road this early morning...

Steve and Toni also note a trail of fresh lion spoor running back along a road leading off to our right. We follow them for a while, but Steve soon concludes that the pride have headed off the trail into the bush where we cannot follow them. They could well have made a kill, but unless they happen to bring their prey down within the proximity of the road, we will not see them.

At the old airstrip we see a number of giraffe and some birds, but generally it is as empty of game as it was by the river. We hear on the intercom that the birders have been taken by their guide to the boulder-covered hills which lie between us and the camp where they have sighted a leopard on a rock, but we know that if we were to head in that direction the leopard will almost certainly be gone before we get there. Sure enough, we hear that it has disappeared before we leave the airstrip.

Ruaha Elephants in the Mwagusi

On our way back to Kwihala we follow the bed of the Mwagusi as usual, and this time see a large group of elephant - seventeen or eighteen - moving along the empty watercourse looking for water.

Ruaha Elephants in the Mwagus

At a certain point all the adults start digging over the sand with their trunks and hollowing out basins which are filing with water.

Elephants digging for water 

Elephants in the Mwagusi

The adults both drink and squirt the water over themselves, while the little elephants edge in behind their mothers and aunts to help themselves from the pools. It is a fascinating lesson in the art of survival and an encouraging indicator that the Mwagusi is not quit as arid as it appears.
Observing elephants  Elephants drinking
We sit on a rock just above them for at least half an hour, relaxing and enjoying their gentle sounds.

Night Game Drive - Kwihala

Over our two and a half days at Kwihala I have gone on five interesting game drives, but tonight I am going to try my luck with something completely different. I have arranged to go on a night game drive, an expedition offered by very few other camps. There is an extra charge for this, because the National Park has to provide an armed ranger to accompany the vehicle, but I have never done it before and I'm hoping to see something different from the norm.

We set out after dinner, at about 9.15. Steve is at the wheel, and Toni is perched on the bonnet of the land-cruiser with a huge flash-lamp which he sweeps from side to side throughout the next three hours. When the light picks out an animal the reflected light from its eyes will signal to Toni that he needs to focus in that area and he will then try to identify the species and pass this on to Steve. Almost immediately he spots a bush baby, and Steve points out to me the red reflections from its eyes. It takes fright and leaps away through the foliage, springing from tree to tree effortlessly until it has vanished into the bush. A little further and we see the bat-eared foxes which we have spotted on day drives. We continue for some ten minutes, with Toni identifying impala and Dik-Dik, but immediately swinging the torch off them - we are not here to spot diurnal animals and to focus the spot upon them would dazzle their vision and put them at a disadvantage in relation to predators.

Full Moon
photo by Steve Roskelly

We cruise slowly along the park highways hoping for more sightings. We observe a stunning orange/red full moon rising through the silhouetted branches of a distant tree. This alone would make this trip a special one.

Our next sighting really excites me - a real magnificent specimen of Genet, which creeps forward fascinated by the light and the sound of the vehicle, so that I get a clear view of its cat-like face, before it slips back behind a palm tree, with a flash of striped tail. Afterwards, when we have seen another, smaller but equally curious Genet, neither Steve nor I can recall whether the first one had a white or a black tip to its tail. The second tip is definitely white, but if the first was black, then we have seen two different species: the common and the large-spotted genet.

Soon afterwards we stop again, this time to observe a hare which seems unfazed by the light and only moves slowly out of our range. We drive on for a while, seeing more bat-eared foxes, but then Toni identifies a pair of animals that get Steve really excited. Under his direction I am just able to see them at the limits of the range of my binoculars: two dog-like creatures, one significantly larger than the other (probably a parent). I have no idea what they are, but Toni and Steve are certain that we are looking at a couple of Aardwolf, similar in shape, but much smaller and slighter than the striped jackal. These shy creatures are rarely seen, so my guides are delighted.

Ruaha Porcupine
photo by Steve Roskelly

Then Toni gesticulates ahead down the track. At first I can see nothing, but then I am able to make out a large black shape scurrying away from us at rapid speed down the track. Steve accelerates and I get a better view of the creature though I still can't make out what it is. It is in fact a large porcupine, and although I cannot see it clearly because of the pace it is moving, the shape and size clearly correspond to the official descriptions. We follow it, still running, around a sharp corner but then it veers of the road and vanishes from sight.

There are two more striking sightings to come. First Toni spots a Spring Hare, a huge rodent with large bushy tail and enormously developed back-legs exactly like those of a Wallaby. There is no doubt as to the identification, for it stays motionless for several minutes while we observe it, before springing off into the undergrowth kangaroo fashion.

Then just as we are heading back to the camp along well-known tracks we see another large animal moving steadily away from us straight down the road. This time, when Steve accelerates to bring it within range it doesn't quicken its pace, although when we approach too close at one point it turns and snarls at us. It is a solitary male lion, pacing out and marking the boundaries of his pride. This lion is known to the guides as "Grumpy", and is the dominant male in the pride we have been trying to track down for the past two days. He is a splendid specimen and quite unfazed by the moving vehicle. At first I am under the impression that he is moving slowly, but this is an illusion created by the steady pace at which he is moving. If we stop or slow down for even a moment he begins to disappear out of sight. At one point he turns off the road, but the guides know that he is simply cutting off a corner on his well-accustomed route to the lake. We quickly accelerate to the next corner ahead, from which we can see him cross the road, still moving at the same unhurried but relentlessly determined pace.

As we head the last few kilometres into camp, I reflect on the evening’s sightings. It has been an outstanding experience. I have seen more interesting creatures than I could possibly have expected, including several that I have never seen before. I also know a lot about them, due to Steve's well- informed briefing, but I feel particular appreciation of Toni’s commitment, skill and endurance without which most of the sightings would have been missed.

Ruaha Leopard, night
photo by Steve Roskelly – on another occasion!

We arrive back at the camp after midnight, and I head for my bed, tomorrow we are moving to another camp.

continue to Mdonya Old River Camp....

 


Follow these link to jump to the different sections of the Diary:

Selous Impala - Selous Game Reserve

Lake Manze Camp – Selous Game Reserve

Kwihala Camp - Ruaha National Park

Mdonya Old River Camp - Ruaha National Park

 

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