There is Africa … and then there is everywhere else!

Within the last 12 months, I have made three trips to Africa. The first was to the hills of Uganda to help the Singing Gorilla Charity install water tanks and health clinics in a rural area. Not a paved road or an electric outlet to be seen for miles. It was maybe the most interesting vacation of my life. I came back to Chicago and looked around at everything that I had and thought about what an unnecessarily complex and spoiled life I have. The things I took for granted (like being able to have a drink of water when I was thirsty, or being able to choose what I ate every day) become more than an afterthought … for a while.

The second trip was to three areas of Kenya for a photographic safari, staying in nice lodges with great food. I learned how to use a camera  properly!  It was one of the best trips I have ever taken. Thirsty for more, the third trip was another safari to Kenya with my friend Jim, and we stayed in “luxury tents” on the bank of the Mara River with hippos making sounds night and day, drowning out the sound of hyenas, leopards, and lions hunting.

Each day, for many weeks after the trips, what I saw in Africa stayed on my mind. I remember that hyena hunting the wildebeest, that leopard carrying the carcass back to eat with her mom, those warthogs scampering away at any sound or movement, and that giraffe in a stare down with me until I’m the one that chose to leave. I remember the kids in the school reusing writing paper and sharpening inch-long pencils with knives. I remember them performing a concert with hand-made instruments. I remember being completely isolated from the news in the USA, and not missing it one bit (I now never talk about politics with anyone, as I feel that it’s a total waste of everyone’s time.)

Why does Africa stand out to me? It’s not for lack of places for me to compare it to, as I think I am fairly well traveled, and I do not get this feeling after returning from Bali or Thailand or anywhere else. Each trip to Africa in the last year was very different from the others, but I came away from each with a special feeling …. a feeling of witnessing something so different from what I experience in my “normal life”.  Some things have a lasting effect. After going to Uganda, I try to order only the food I will eat so that won’t go to waste.

Africa rarely does things on a small scale, it certainly has plenty of room so why should it? It feels like nowhere else in the world. A visit to Africa will leave you wide-eyed, and you will likely find a way to go back for more. If you’ve been there, you know what I mean.

As my friend Jim was preparing for his first trip to Africa, someone asked where he was headed. When he said “Safari in Africa … I have high expectations”, the answer came “Well whatever your expectations are, they will be far exceeded.  There is Africa … and there is everywhere else!”  If you go to Africa, you will understand what he means.  You will surely come back from Africa feeling like you witnessed something special. What will YOU witness?  Until you go, you’ll never know ….

I’ve heard people say “I should try to go to Africa  …” For sure, there is always an excuse not to go.  But as the wise Yoda said: “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”

I’ll end by sharing a poem written by Matthew Sterne http://blog.rhinoafrica.com … it says it well.

This is Africa – A Poem (by Matthew Sterne)

Dawn in Africa and another set of tracks
Morning sun glinting off the hippos’ backs
Wild dogs running and hunting in packs
The thrill of the chase and the kill the climax

This is Africa, the cry of a fish eagle
The pomp of a warthog, tail up and regal
And down below the mighty dung beetle
Of the African wilderness, there can be no equal

This vast dusty continent is the place of dreams
Of morning mists and lone sunbeams
The quiet savanna more alive than it seems
And crocodile-laden rivers that began as mountain streams

There’s another leopard print fresh in the sand
And my heart beats louder than a brass band
I know this is Eden, the ultimate wonderland
Home to the world’s grandest wetland

Now a franklin runs scared in front of the vehicle
And a cheetah speeds past always unreachable
The roar of a lion to remind us he’s unbeatable
It’s as old as time yet still unbelievable

There’s another sign of life, an elephant scratching post
Some of these animals are as quiet as a ghost
Yet they’re all over these parts from coast to coast
And to the world’s greatest spectacle Africa plays the host

The warning call of an impala, the scent of a lion
They normally come at night under the belt of Orion
There’s the baobab and acacia and a small dandelion
My thoughts will never leave Africa though they’ve been trying

Just one more sunset is what I desire
Afternoons in the bush, nights by the fire
A drink in the hand and stories that inspire
It’s a land of passion, the great amplifier

You feel so alive, the opposite of numb
To the magic of Africa, I’ll always succumb
Its people and places have me under its thumb
And my heart will always beat to an African drum

 

   
– Sign on a Wild Eye safari vehicle

 

A Short Film (post #11)

On each of my last 2 trips to Africa, on the last day. I combined some of my video clips with some music that I like, and produced a short video.  The one for the trip in February was posted here: http://wanderingaroundasia.com/bonus-video/

This one for this Great Migration trip turned out to be a bit longer (about 11 minutes). I’m no filmmaker so excuse the “rawness”: Here is the version suitable for this blog, feedback is welcomed:

I’ll do one more blog post over the weekend with final thoughts and a few more videos that did not make it into blog entries.

Zebra and Wildebeest crossing, with crocodiles (post #10)

In post #8, I wrote about the Great Migration …. late one morning, we saw a small herd of zebra and wildebeest contemplating crossing the river. This time, a few crocodiles are in their path.  But once they start crossing, they usually do not stop. Watching the crocs stalk the zebras and wildebeest was quite interesting, with all the hippos looking on too. Dozens of animals swam right in front of the crocs, with no attack. As time passed, there were two attacks on zebra, but both crocs missed. The first one, the croc was a bit too late and the zebra had time to get ashore. The second one, the huge croc went for the zebras neck and seemed to have him, but the zebra got away and scampered ashore. After this, the rest of the zebra seemed to be content not to cross!

Here are a few pics and video of the crossing and the crocodile attacks. At about the 1:00 mark, the small zebra swims right in front of the mouth of the crocodile, but no attack (croc attacks are at 1:25 and 1:40 in the video). I took the video and my friend Hunter took most of the pictures.

I’ll be winding up the blog entries for Africa in the next day or so.

Ode to the Female Lion (post #9)

I have asked people on safari with me about what their favorite animal is.  The most common answer is the male lion. With his big mane, he’s majestic, photogenic and regal. But I want to give a shout out to the female lion (lioness) and nominate her as my favorite (at least for this trip). Most times I see the male lion, he’s asleep. The lioness likes her naps as well, but she’s the hunter for the pride; more often than not, she makes the kill then the males eat first, followed by the cubs and the females. We saw a few lion chases and a kill and they were always by the lioness.

On the second to last day, we started the day with a male lion. But we notice he’s limping and also has a bloody tail. It appears he got into a scuffle with a lioness in the morning and got the worst of the fight. We run across a female on the hunt of warthogs (unsuccessful), a breakfast feast by the pride on a lion kill of a wildebeest a few hours before, then lionesses in the water!  Who said cats don’t like water. Jim could watch the elephants all day, I could watch the lionesses and their cubs all day (if they didn’t sleep most of the time).

Here are pictures and video of my favorite from this trip .. the lioness!

lioness.

Wildebeest and Zebras Crossing the Mara River (post #8)

The Great Migration … in January and February, the wildebeest cows give birth on the southernmost Serengeti. In March, when the area begins to dry out, the herds begin the Great Migration; they follow the rains and the growth of new grass (by weather patterns or instinctive knowledge etched in their DNA, or both). In August, September and early October, the herds are in the Mara River region of Kenya.  In this area, the river must be crossed and there are a number of places they can do this. It was also explained to us that while they are in this area, they can cross back and forth across the river multiple times.

Zebra and Wildebeest are good friends that move together while grazing and migrating.  Although they both eat grass, zebra feed on tall grass and wildebeest feed on short grass, so there is no conflict there.  Wildebeest have good hearing and a sense of smell (for detecting water) but bad vision and very poor memory (30-40 seconds, like some people I know). Zebras have good eyesight (for spotting predators such as crocodiles when crossing the river) and they also have good memory for remembering where safe migration routes are.

As you have seen from my pictures and video, animal sightings are numerous in the Masai Mara but an added attraction of being here at this time of year is to have the opportunity to see large numbers of wildebeest and zebras cross the river, while observing the dangers they face (jagged rocks in the river, crocodiles in the water, and lions, cheetah and hyena on the shore). To see a “crossing” is not guaranteed at this time of year. You can wait many hours for a crossing.

Our first experience around 11:30am was an “almost crossing”.  Hundreds of zebra and wildebeest had built up on the far shore and a few zebra were drinking water and decided to cross. Once the crossing begins, it usually does not stop, so we were optimistic. As they started crossing the river, a small crocodile approached and went to attack the zebras in the water … the zebras saw it and they ran back out of the water to shore. What a shame, as the croc was probably too small to take a zebra, so we would have to wait to see a full crossing. The video below shows the croc chasing the zebras out of the water.But we only had to wait for an hour or so.

Our wait wasn’t long … around 1:00pm, we settled in at another crossing point, and a small group of zebra was drinking water.  Eventually, a few cross the river and a crocodile is nearby, but he doesn’t seem to be too interested in the zebra.

Next morning, we got to experience a “proper” crossing (as the South Africans say). Hundreds of zebra and wildebeest cross the river after a big build-up.  Words can’t describe it accurately, you have to see the video.  This time, no crocodiles were really on the hunt so all wildebeest and zebra crossed safely, although a few did turn back when they were almost across.

The videos are below, as well as a few pictures taken during the crossings. The few wildebeest crossing pics are from my friend Hunter’s camera, I was shooting video.

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Elephants crossing river, buffalo fighting, black rhino and lions everywhere! (Post #7)

 

While I was on the balloon ride, the rest of the group had two “proper” sightings … a family of elephants crossing the river (including a baby!) and two buffalo fighting. I’m sorry I missed it, the video Jim took (with his point-and-shoot) is outstanding!  The video with commentary is in the gallery.

The morning and afternoon after the balloon ride was a “typical” day in the Mara, the usual sightings of zebra, giraffe, etc. The zebras were gathering at one of the crossing points so we watched them for a while, hoping they would cross the river. Alas, they were content to just get a drink of water. And a few lions here and there, lying near the road.

The highlight of the rest of the day was a sighting of 2 black rhinos grazing in the distance. Black rhinos have two horns, and occasionally a third small posterior horn. The front horn is longer than the rear which makes them lucrative targets for the illegal trade in rhino horn, which is valued in Vietnam and other places.  Between 1970 and 1992, 96 percent of Africa’s remaining black rhinos were killed. Now there are fewer than 2,500 left. Black rhinos are still threatened by poaching.

Moving on late in the day, we watched a family of lions a few feet away from our vehicles, a nice end to the day. Lots of pics and video in the gallery below.

Tomorrow, a river crossing of zebra … let’s see if the crocs have the final say.

Hot Air Balloon Ride over the African Plains (Post #6)

 

Wakeup at 4:00am …. Why?!? I’m going on a hot air balloon ride today over the Mara.  Normally, this is something I would not do, as we’ve been seeing so much on the game drives.  But so many people have told me how great the trip is so I decided to do it. Don and Hunter are the other two from the Wild Eye camp that are going and we are picked up at 4:30am and driven 45 minutes north, in pitch dark, to the balloon launch site .. we encountered a few hippos along the way crossing the road, and gave them a wide berth.

Once we arrived at the balloon launch site, it is still dark and we saw them inflating the balloons with fans powered by generators (no grid power anywhere in the region). Once air is in the balloon, the “flame-throwers” begin to heat up the air to get them upright. These things are HUGE (I’d guess 100 feet high) and have baskets that hold 12 people.

We all climb in and we take off (more like drift off). Our height varies during the ride from just above the treetops to over 1,000 feet. Great views of the Mara river, hippos, birds, hyenas, zebras and other animals. The pilot controls the MASSIVE burners to go up and down, and after about 50 minutes, we “land” in an open field. Land is a relative term; actually, we bounce a few times and then the basket falls to its side and the 12 of us and the pilot climb out. Interesting way to land but it is the only alternative with the wind blowing 10-15 MPH.

We are met by vehicles and taken to a champagne breakfast in the bush, with cook-to-order eggs, bacon, sausage, etc.  Very nice.

Here are a few pictures and video I took. I’ll add that almost all of the video is from my Samsung phone. The video from the Canon 7D II camera and 100-400mm lens was too shaky … so much for needing thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment!

Leopard working for her dinner and family of elephants (Post #5)

  

Later in the morning, we returned to the sight of the hyena kill of the wildebeest and we found the leopard eying the wildebeest carcass.   We watched from a distance while she looked for other predators, then she went out to the kill and picked up the entire carcass with her strong jaws and dragged it back to the stream where she and her mom could have their dinner. Awesome sighting and credit to our guide Jono to know to return to this site.

Next, there was herd of elephants just being elephants … roaming around, grazing and a young bull with a little too much testosterone. And who doesn’t like video of a baby elephant in the wild!

I’ll end this blog entry with video and pictures. I love the leopard shots.

Cheetahs, birds, giraffe and hippos (oh, and some lion cubs too!) (Post #4)

After moving on from the hyena kill and aftermath, we came across a couple of cheetahs (brothers, who we had seen in February). They were doing the same thing they were doing 8 months ago … being lazy under a tree!  lol  I took some photos and videoed them hoping they would do something interesting … like look up … they didn’t! Anyone who wants a nice 4-minute video of two cheetahs asleep, let me know.

Off in the distance from the lazy cheetahs were a pod of elephants huddled under a shade tree.  Really interesting behavior. Giraffe are also numerous in the Mara and they are not really shy, they tend to stop what they are doing and stare at you when you are nearby.

Down by the river, a mama and baby hippo were wandering along the shore, the mama yawns when she comes across a crocodile, but she doesn’t seem to be too concerned. If hippos could ever be referred to as “cute”, then these would be cute hippos. By the way, hippos are herbivores but cause more human deaths than any other animal in Africa (other than the mosquito and other humans). Best not be in their path. And their yawn doesn’t mean they are tired, it is done when they feel threatened so best stay out of the way of a yawning hippo.

Later, we came across some kind of vulture, I think (I’m not really a bird fanatic, maybe Beth or Leslie can help). We waited for about 5-minutes for him to fly but he never did, so the only picture I have is of him standing. Good pic, though.  Shortly after that, we saw a Martial Eagle. This is the largest eagle in Africa. Females are up to 14 lbs and a wingspan of up to 8 feet. Eyesight is perfect and can launch an attack on a prey as far as 3 miles away. It preys on game birds, reptiles, and small mammals. We waited for him/her to fly and finally, it did! At 6 fps, I got some nice action shots but the flight path was away from us. Only after takeoff did we see that there will a lizard in the right claw! Outstanding!  What a treat to see the stills showing the lizard, and confirming I’d actually focused the shot!

We went to the bridge that crossed the Mara and view was impressive, I suggested later to Gerry at Wild Eye that he might want to add a “Mara River White Water Rafting” extension to his safari … he said he would give it some thought! lol

Finally, late in the day, we came across lion cubs and mom playing at sunset.  A great end to the day.

I hope you enjoy the pictures and video, and comments are welcome. It makes me think someone is actually looking at the blog!

P.S.  From day 2, I have left out the leopard coming back on the scene and well as the family of elephants (mama, baby and young bull), that will be in the next post.

Final score: Hyena 1 Wildebeest 0 (Post #3)

 

Day 2 - Final score, Hyena 1 Wildebeest 0 (viewer discretion advised)

We started off at 5:30am and shortly we came upon a small herd of wildebeest grazing with a (not quite adult) hyena on the hunt in the distance.  The wildebeest usually graze with zebras because the zebra is a bit smarter as to awareness of predators (big cats, hyena, etc.) But with no zebras on the lookout, this small herd was an easy target for the hyena. He got close enough to surprise them and the chase began. It was explained by our guide Jono that his strategy would be to separate one from the others and sure enough, that’s exactly what happened.

But after a minute or so, the hyena was pushed out of the scene by a bigger adult hyena. The young, injured wildebeest got back up and actually put up a show of “force” but it was not to be. Another takedown and that was the end. Some vultures joined the scene and the hyena moved the wildebeest a bit, and the vultures went to the previous kill location for some scraps. We watched for a while and then moved on.

An interesting observation of our group was who was vocally cheering for the hyena and who was rooting for the wildebeest!

Seeing this entire scene was very interesting and this was just the start of a great day of sightings. The leopard from yesterday makes an appearance again shortly!

I have video of the chase and takedowns and some pics of the hyena and wildebeest. If you would like to view them, here is the link:  send me

Link —> http://wanderingaroundasia.com/final-score-hyena-1-wildebeest-0-video-and-pictures-viewer-discretion-advised/
Password:   kill

I have added the password to the link to ensure that you are choosing to view the pictures and video. Viewer discretion advised, this is not a zoo.

On our first day game drives (Post #2)

The Mara Conservancy Triangle is a national park in Kenya about 40 minutes flight from Nairobi. After landing at a dirt airstrip about 10:30am, the 12 of us are met by 2 guides (Gerry and Jono, both South African) and 4 vehicles with drivers (2 Kenyan, 2 Masai). We head toward the Wild Eye camp (20 mins nonstop drive time) but we stop along the way when we see something interesting …. like cape buffalo, some hippo, hyena, a few lions sleeping or relaxing and some elephants grazing. We’ve been here less than 1 hour and we’ve already seen 3 of the “Big 5”. Jim is impressed to say the least.

We arrive at the camp around 1:00pm and get settled in, have lunch and head back out at 4:00pm for a 2.5 hour game drive. More elephant, lions and lots of other things, including a leopard – we’ve now knocked off 4 of the “Big 5 ” and we’ve been here 9 hours! Back to the camp about 6:45pm for showers, dinner, drinks and sleep with the (not so) distant sounds of hippos (more on that and the camp later). Let’s see if tomorrow brings us a river crossing or a “kill”. The pictures and video below tell the story of our first day in the Mara.

Any questions, requests for more “coverage” of anything, let me know in the comments.

Arrived Africa! (Post #1)

I’m in Africa!

Note: I haven’t decided the form that this blog will take, I originally thought that I would do a day-by-day live recap but that is not going to happen. I don’t have enough free time in the day to edit all the photos, post them online here and write a description of the day. So not sure what each entry will contain but let’s start off with a quick intro to how I went from Chicago to sleeping in the bush in 48 hours time!

We arrived after a long journey … Chicago to London landing at 11:45am and a quick visit to the arrivals lounge at Heathrow for a showers and lunch. I am traveling with Jim G. and he is an experienced air traveler but not long-haul international flights. He’s enamored by the showers in the lounges in airports. We get the tube (subway) to Putney and have a few drinks and great Kashmir dinner with my friend Sue. Next morning, a bus and tube back to Heathrow airport, breakfast (and another shower!) in the lounge and a flight to Nairobi, Kenya landing at 10:00pm.

Next morning, we meet up with the rest of the group of 12 going on the migration safari with Wild Eye. I’ve used Wild Eye before so I know the drill. Single engine prop plane to a dirt airstrip in the Masai Mara Park and a short game drive to the camp where we will stay for 6 days (more about that later). We have lunch and do another game drive. Dinner, drinks and bed.

You really want some pictures and video, right ….OK … here are a few from London and the first day here in Africa.