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Nov-Dec 2012 Safari Diary
- by Alan Montgomery

Part 4: Mdonya Old River

photos by Flo Montgomery

link back to Alan Montgomery Safari Diary

 


Monday 3rd December - Mdonya Old River Camp - Ruaha National Park

On the Monday morning after the night drive, I wake rather blearily and prepare to move to our final safari venue - Mdonya Old River Camp - about one and a quarter hours’ drive from Kwihala. As its name indicates, it is located close to another dry sand riverbed, but whereas the whole area around Kwihala and the Mwagusi feels dry and parched at this time of year, Mdonya is relatively lush, covered with fresh green grass and with a much wider variety of plants and trees in the vicinity.

Mary Sandifer

We arrive at the camp and are greeted by the Assistant Manager, Mary Sandifer, who welcomes us.

Mdonya tent

Our tent is shaded by large trees. It’s the same plan as at Lake Manze, with a veranda in front, a double bedroom in the middle, and the bathroom at the back with shower open to the sky.

The tent is comfortable, with a writing desk, lockup chest, and shelves for our clothes. There is no electricity in the tents - like Lake Manze camp, its candles and torches, which certainly take us back to the early days of safari!

Mdonya shower 

Mdonya bathroom

Behind the main bedroom is dressing room area with a basin with running water. Behind that is a flush loo and on the other side, a shower open to the sky. Its beautiful at night, especially with the current full moon.
Mdonya camp

The tents are spaced out through a pleasantly shady glade which overlooks the old Mdonya Sand River, used by game as a corridor. The greenery brings down the temperature a degree or two and an afternoon sitting on the tent veranda watching birds or the occasional game animal wander through the camp is an attractive option.

At night a splendid campfire provides the perfect setting for mulling over the day’s adventures. If there is a draw-back to Mdonya, it is the prevalence of Tsetse flies, but never fear - a truly green solution is to hand! In the communal areas of the camp are fireplaces where the dried balls of elephant dung found throughout the area are kept gently burning. To provide protection on the game drives, every vehicle has a small brazier fitted to the rear, which is kept burning as one drives through the bush. If the fuel runs low the driver simply stops the vehicle, collects another ball of elephant dung from the side of the track and replenishes the burner. It works! Tsetse flies tolerance level of the slightly acrid fumes of the braziers appears to be significantly lower than ours.

On the first evening I want to visit a new area and my guide Zaccariah Kahimba and driver Ayoub Nyan’gango agree to take me to the Mwayembe springs. I notice that at this time of year this area is much less dry than that around Kwihala. There is some game around: the occasional impala, a few giraffes and as we reach the more open landscape around the springs a handful of zebra.

Zaccariah Kahimba 

Ayoub Nyan’gango
Our guide Kahimba (LHS) and Driver Ayoub

The springs themselves provide a vital source of drinking water for all the creatures in this area. Shallow as the water is here, it attracts quite a group of water-fowl, including Egyptian geese, nob-billed ducks, egrets, ibis and a spoonbill.

As we cruise slowly along, the guides spot a jackal, and almost immediately afterward a few lions, looking alert. At first I can only spot one, but Kahimba patiently points out to me that there are another two under trees nearby, as well as a further 3 or 4 under bushes about twenty metres to the left, and another largish group some sixty to seventy metres behind. This is a large pride of over twenty lions, with around six or eight adult females and a dominant and a subservient male. The remainder are cubs of varying ages. The young males will be driven out when they are around six years old and begin to become strong enough to challenge the head of the pride. Kahimba, who turns out to be something of an expert on lions - he is working on a research paper about them - says that the pride are very hungry. He believes that they last made a kill about four days ago. When we drive closer and one of the lions stands and moves away in a leisurely fashion, he points out that the belly is flat and there is no surplus weight around the flanks. When we drive across to the large group at the rear (this is permitted because we are in an open area) we see some of the adult lionesses get up and saunter forward to the area where the scouts are already on the lookout for game.

The dominant male is a magnificent animal, clearly in his prime with a heavy mane and capable of seeing off almost any challenger. But when he gets up and moves after the females to motivate them to hunt he appears as lean and lithe as they are.

If we had more time and could sit and observe the pride for an hour or more the chances are quite good that we might see a kill. As it is, however, dusk is now rapidly approaching and we need to head back in order to reach the camp before dark.

 

Tuesday 4 December - Mdonya Camp

Today we have asked the camp to arrange a full day out, in order to take a look at the Great Ruaha River itself, which we have heard is lower than ever before. Of course there is always a huge fluctuation in the river level between the dry and the rainy seasons. But the Ruaha is part of one of the great river systems which are the lifeblood of Tanzania and of its game parks in particular. Without a reasonable supply of water all the year round, the volume and variety of plant, bird and animal life in the parks will gradually diminish and the loss of this priceless African heritage will undermine the tourist industry which plays such a key role in the Tanzanian economy. We understand that upstream of the park large rice farms have been siphoning off the headwaters and depleting the natural flow through the park during the dry season. We want to see for ourselves whether these reports are exaggerated or if there is indeed a noticeable contrast with the conditions with which we were familiar a decade ago. This will involve quite a drive across the park to the main entrance and an afternoon exploring the riverside drive which we remember well as a lush area of shady groves overlooking a wide river of varying depths, offering a varied habitat for all kinds of birds and wild-life.

Ruaha hippos 

Ruaha hippos

The morning drive is uneventful and we arrive at the Hippo pool around mid-day. This has always been a good spot to observe large groups of grazing animals approaching the river to drink as well as quite large groups of hippo and some unusually large crocodiles that have found it easy to find meals-on-hoofs along the bank. Today, dry season not-withstanding, we are surprised that the pool has been reduced so much and is now perhaps a third or even a quarter of its former size. A single group of hippo lie semi- submerged in the middle and although there are still crocodile in the offing the numbers seem to be a fraction of what there were some years ago. The water birds have correspondingly diminished in numbers and there are relatively few grazers in the vicinity.

Bush lunch 

Fish Eagle

After lunch at a vantage point overlooking the Great Ruaha, we head for the park gate where there was always a huge rocky pool, full of hippo and many large crocodiles often sunning themselves on the surrounding rocks. This too, is a poor reflection of its former glory. The water level is right down, the cataracts over the rocks have dried up and though there are still a few hippos about I cannot see a single croc. As we head away from the bridge over the pool, we get a puncture. Our guides switch the wheel in ten minutes and then head for the Park HQ where we have some items to collect and can take the opportunity to freshen up at the new washroom facilities at the airstrip. We pick up some pamphlets and a binocular case which I left at Kwihala, but before we can reach the washrooms a park ranger drives up to apologise: the new wash rooms are out of commission courtesy of the elephants , who have dug up and broken the water pipe: they are amazingly sensitive the presence of water.


The Great Ruaha River – what is left of it, December 2012

As we resume our drive following the route of the river below the park entrance we can see why! The river, where it can be seen, is a narrow thread weaving its way through dried up sandbanks. This is ominous. As we reach what used to be the lush riverside drive, all we are conscious of is the dusty terrain, and we can see straight through the parched trees and bushes where before there was thick undergrowth and grass. The only creatures in sight are fish eagles and hawks. We are in no doubt that what we are seeing here is a potential ecological disaster. This is a classic situation where conflicting interests are being pursued without taking into account the potential wider consequences, both for the region and for the country as a whole. The intervention of the national government is needed to implement a sensible solution in the best interests of the country as a whole.

Ruaha rainstorm

As we finally turn away from the river, we are struck by a sudden rain storm. Our guides quickly let down the canvas sides of the vehicle, getting soaked themselves in the process. They produce a rain coat for each of us. Although the track now appears damp, the rain flurry is short-lived and has made no difference to the river, which needs both sustained heavy rainfall and a more consistent feed from the head-waters.

Ruaha skies

The last part of our journey brings us back along the route of the Mwagusi, that we know so well - an image of what the Ruaha may become if the present situation continues. We drive fast and the rain has not yet reached this northern part of the park, though the wind is blowing from side to side. All the animals are skittish – Kahimba tells us this is a very good time for the big cats to hunt, as their prey is unsure of the direction of the changing wind. The sky darkens.

We are just skirting the dry sand river bed, heading in the direction of Mwayembe Swamp when our guides spot a movement in the river bed. We head for it at once in a roundabout manner calculated to alarm the animal least.

Ruaha Leopard

Soon even I can see that this is a leopard. She seems relatively unfazed by the vehicle and we follow her from a distance across the sand river to the opposite shore, where she effortlessly springs up the bank and begins to walk methodically away from the Mwagusi.

Ruaha Leopard 

Ruaha Leopard

We get several more clear sightings before she finally disappears into the long grass.

Grumpy 

Ruaha Kudu

As we turn away, suddenly “Grumpy” the lion appears and stalks irritably away towards the river. Perhaps he was lying in wait for the leopard.

We are all tired now and our guides drive rapidly to Mwayembe, hoping to discover the lions I saw yesterday, but when we reach the open ground where they were resting yesterday, there is no trace of them.

We tell the Ayoub we are well-satisfied with our day and ask him to head back to camp. Almost immediately we spot another leopard, a youngster this time, crossing open ground before disappearing into the bush.

The third leopard
Our third leopard - very shy!

With the uncanny sense African guides have for knowing where an animal is heading, we accelerate towards back up the track and see the leopard crossing front of us and get a further hasty view of her camouflage merging into the bush before she finally disappears.

I am stunned – it is the first time I’ve ever been on a safari where I saw three leopards.

It marks the end of a fascinating safari. Although the time of year has meant that we have seen fewer grazing animals we have seen splendid birds, large numbers of elephant, and an abundance of predators. All the camps where we have stayed have had particular charms and have proved particularly good for certain types of game-watching. It has been a tiring but inspiring ten days, but a period at the end of which we have learnt a great deal more about the ecology of Southern Tanzania.

Coastal plane at Msembe

From Ruaha we will fly to Zanzibar where we will stay at the fifth Adventure Camps property, Mbweni Ruins Hotel in Zanzibar. But that is another story....


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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