In The Mist

 

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February 21-23, 2016

We bit the financial bullet and booked gorilla tracking permits for Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (BINP). It was a lifetime dream to spend time with these (generally) gentle giants but one that’s been toward the bottom of the bucket list given the likelihood of traveling to the western edges of East Africa. Then, we moved to western Kenya, and the limitation was primarily economic. We saved our pennies and made the decision to track in Uganda on a trip to Rwanda. We chose Ruhija for a couple of reasons. One, it was close to Kabale, and we were dependent upon locally available transport. Two, the highlands of Bwindi usually mean the gorillas can be found in relatively open areas where the canopy is not as dense. Three, Ruhija is only 25 kilometers from the section known as “The Neck”, where black bee-eaters are known to nest from January to March. We made arrangements to stay at Ruhija Gorilla Friends Resort Campsite, which was a phenomenal decision. Don’t hesitate to contact the manager, Clemensia, at +256751619725. She’s delightful.

We arrived to Kabale at 8:00 AM after taking an overnight Simba Coach from Kenya. There is only one shuttle/vehicle that travels to and from Ruhjia daily. It arrives in town about 9:00 AM and leaves around 2:00 PM. The driver is incredibly friendly, but his English is poor. His Kiswahili is only marginally better. However, simple phrases like the name of the campsite gave him all he needed to know. If you want to reach him, his mobile number is +256758537239. It was a long drive. About 3 hours later (including stops), we arrived in Ruhija. The drive itself was stunning. We climbed steadily into the mountains and slowly, the cultivated grasslands began to give way to banana plantations, which then gave way to tea plantations, and then forest. Dark, deep, dense forest. The stark delineation of Bwindi could not be missed.

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There is a gate at the forest boundary, but because we used the public shuttle, we were not charged the standard vehicle fee. After about 20 kilometers on the windy dirt road, we arrived to Ruhija, which is a charming little village. All of the buildings are made of timber, and it feels like a perfect caricature of a theme park. It’s set on the spine of a sharp hill with the road riding the crest. We checked into our safari tent, unpacked a bit, and met with Saul Ampeire, who was to be our birding guide. He informed us that the rains from the day before had thankfully knocked down the dust after over three weeks without rain. He warned us though that the rains could holdover and create come less than ideal scenarios for birding due to lowered temperatures. We continued to talk over dinner, which was a delicious roasted chicken in a Ugandan sauce with fried potatoes. I’ll say it now: The food blew us away given the price and location. We expected food that would get us by. We really looked forward to breakfast and dinners. Lunch was packed each day, as our activities would prevent us from returning to camp. Tired from 24 hours of travel, we called it a night.

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The following morning, we drove over to The Neck in search of black bee-eaters. Indeed, as Saul warned, the temperatures were cool, and the sun failed to come out all day. The usually busy and active bee-eaters were shut down for much of the time as they sat at the very tops of the forest seeking warmth. Two active nesting sites were found in which a bird was incubating eggs in both. However, they did not leave their roosts until the very end of the day. As we started our search, we scoped out a two-kilometer stretch of road where Saul suspected we’d find active nests. As aforementioned, we successfully located two. We spent all day patrolling this range and enjoyed great encounters with a male bar-tailed trogon, which was a lifer for us.

Bar Tailed Trogon

The day’s low light made for tough photography, but the cooler temperatures made for a very comfortable experience. We also found our very first male emerald cuckoo not more than 50 feet from the trogon and at eye level (though further into the dense forest). Great blue turacos and black billed turacos also let us know of their consistent presence through their barks, grunts, and scaws. At a small swamp, we found two African black ducks, which are an area specialty, and the blue on their wings is quite beautiful. Finally, at around 2:30 PM, some of the cloud cover burned off, and the incubating bee-eaters emerged from their nests.

Black Bee-Eater

Black Bee Eater Eating

They allowed for some decent photos given the conditions before the rain began to fall heavily beginning at 3:00 PM. This made for an interesting ascent back to Ruhija over the suddenly very muddy and slippery road. In fact, the road is impassable for up to 10 months of the year, with January and February being the exceptions. The surrounding scenery is stunning in this part of Uganda.

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We made it back to camp in time for a delicious supper of Nile Rice (a Ugandan stir fry/fried rice with vegetables and tilapia). It was delicious, and the dessert of crepe-like pancakes topped it off. We went to bed with hopes that the afternoon rain would blow over during the night to reveal a dry and brighter day for our gorilla tracking.

I awoke at 5:00 AM to the sound of soft rainfall and was not pleased. I was afraid it would only grow in strength, making our track and photos nearly unenjoyable. I was proven wrong when after about 45 minutes the rains ceased and the clouds began to part. We enjoyed our Spanish omelets, toast, and bananas but were distracted by the coming attraction. We packed our gear and were escorted through the village down the road to the Ruhija park office about two kilometers away. Here, we submitted our permits and waited to see if other trackers would arrive. After about 35 minutes a group of four Europeans arrived, and we were ushered into the briefing gazebo. Here, we learned the history of the park, were told the dos and don’ts with the gorillas, and were provided a few tips. Joyfully, it was announced we’d be searching for the famous Bitikura group of 19 members, with four of them being silverbacks and two of them being juveniles.

The hike was not easy. It was about 40 minutes of up and down over slick and often narrow passages along ravines and drop-offs. We arrived to the gorilla area and setup our camera gear…our one hour had begun. The sixty minutes went by way too fast. But in the midst, our encounter was unimaginable. We saw three of the silverbacks, including the 38-year-old founder of the family. We came upon a group of about six, including a three-year-old resting, eating, and sleeping under a group of trees.

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Slowly, they departed and spread out through the undergrowth. Two females moved only a few meters away and began to play and wrestle with each other. At one point, they were no more than one meter from us before calming down to eat. Activity was all around us, and while these two were a joy to watch, we left the Europeans and with two guides, explored more of the surrounding hillside to find other gorillas. We found a group of four in trees, a mother with a very small baby (perhaps no more than a few months). She was very shy and did not allow us to view her well at all. The tracking itself once we moved off trail was very challenging. The only path was the one cleared by the guides as they slashed and pulled the vegetation this way and that. Every step was on slippery, itchy, and sometimes spiky undergrowth that was strewn upon steep terrain, ditches, and burrows. We likened it to walking in the snow. One step we were on top, the next three feet deep.

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Another real highlight was watching the three-year-old playing in a young tree and swinging up and down. When he landed, he beat his chest like the larger silverbacks, sat down, and stared at us for a bit. It was a fitting way to end our hour.

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Just as we were climbing out, we spotted the dominant silverback far below with only his head emerged from the vegetation. He looked at us and then departed for a deeper recess of the forest, showing us his namesake as he grunted away. Truly magical.

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Christmas in the Masai Mara

The Lone Tree

December 24-28, 2015
When extended the opportunity to spend Christmas in the Masai Mara at Sentinel Mara Camp with our good friends (the owners), we called their bluff. We felt that four nights in the Musiara forests would make for an unforgettable holiday and we were right. Our previous trips coincided with the wildebeest migration which translates to a frenzy of activity and a cacophony of noise. The tail end of the short rains (December) makes for a very different game drive experience and feeling. The majority of the plains grazers are gone as they’ve headed south to Tanzania’s Serengeti to calf. The remaining residents are comprised of Thompson gazelles, Grant’s gazelles, topi, Coke’s hartebeest, and waterbuck in probably only one-fifth the density of July/August. Much to my delight, the mara was stunningly quiet. Only the gentle blowing breeze giving a rustle to the long grasses gives away a sense of movement. The rowdiness of the zebra and wildebeest was nowhere.

We arrived in the Mara in time for lunch and unpacked our bags. The camp itself is throwback to the time of Hemingway and Gin & Tonics. It has rustic charm with five-star dining and soft Egyptian cotton sheets.

Lounge Tent

Our Tent

Inside Tent

After a brief rest we headed out to find the wildlife. Our Christmas gift came quickly: a black rhino was spotted not more than 30 minutes into our first drive. We slowly eased toward him and watched as he grazed on herbaceous plants before making his way to the forest for the night. There were only four vehicles at the start and by the time the sun was setting, only we remained with this regal, sometimes ornery, and highly endangered animal. However, in this encounter, not once did he become agitated. It was truly a gift to spend so much time peacefully in the presence of such a coveted specimen.

Black Rhino

A long black rhino at dusk

In addition to the rhino, a single male saddle-billed stork (black eye and yellow throat wattles) was soaking up the final warmth from the sun. This enormous stork is in my opinion, the most beautiful of the family. We made our way back to camp and enjoyed a perfectly cooked filet of beef, mashed potatoes, cream of mixed vegetable soup, and a delicious cheesecake for dinner. And yes, everything is hand-made and locally prepared by the chef in a bush kitchen run on solar.

Saddle Bill

Male Saddle-Billed Stork (notice the brown eye and yellow throat wattles)

A 6:30am departure meant for an early wake-up on Christmas morning. I hadn’t been up that early since childhood when my sister and I enjoyed our stockings while mom and dad slept (quite the strategy I must admit). Still in the forest, we were treated to an incredibly soft sunrise due to fog which backlit a family of elephants as they slowly lumbered toward the marsh. Suddenly a troop of baboons in the canopy began screaming which in turn alarmed the elephants. Their stomping and trumpeting certainly got the blood pumping and keyed our guide onto the female leopard making her way back from the plains after an unsuccessful morning hunt.

Sunrise Leopard

The look in her eyes as she was forced to navigate through the elephants and beneath the baboons was intense to say the least. She was prowling and skulking through the shrubs and small trees so as to avoid confrontation. In open space, she was sprinting and dashing over fallen logs and gnarled branches to extricate herself from the situation.

On the prawl...

Not a bad start especially considering that drives in, we’d booked the two most elusive members of the Big 5. For the rest of the morning we drove around the Musiara swamp/marsh and over to “bila shaka” which translates to “without a doubt.” This is guide speak for “you’ll find a lion.” And that we did. Though the single mature sleeping male was quite obscured by the thick bushes. Nonetheless, the drive back gave us multiple Jackson’s widowbirds, a cracking lilac-breasted roller, a small flying flock of European bee-eaters, a solitary bateleur, Ruppel’s griffon vultures, white-backed vultures, spur-winged lapwings, long-toed lapwings, blacksmith lapwings, and crowned lapwings, and a host of doves. The birding highlight was the male Narina trogon that posed brilliantly for photos.

Lilac-Breasted Roller

Lilac Breasted Roller

Bateleur

Bateleur

Narina Trogon

Narnia Trogon – fitting for Christmas

The late morning and early afternoon were spent opening presents and socializing with our friends. A branch from an acacia that was knocked down by elephants made for the perfect (and locally appropriate) Charlie Brown tree.

Christmas Tree

The evening drive was once again highlighted by two previous acquaintances: the female leopard and the saddle-billed stork. But these experiences were much fuller. We spent over an hour with the leopard and her two cubs as they struggled to climb a steep cliff on the Mara river. One cub was significantly stronger than the other meaning that she could scale the softer section. However the little brother was too weak to make the climb. As it decided to remain in the bushes at the rivers edge, mom and sister started to walk off.

Leopard Series

Out of nowhere a large male baboon spotted mom and chased her off. Thankfully it did not spot the cub as he would have dispatched it out of territorial protection. It was a tense few minutes as the mother was gone and the lone cub trying to make its way back down the embankment without alerting any other baboons. Finally reunited with her brother, the two waited for their mother’s return while exploring and playing on the cliff. Mom eventually returned and both cubs were able to make their way to her. Once this scene ended we went over to the pools at the marsh and found our male saddle-billed stork in the company of a female. They casually went about their business seeking out frogs and small lizards.

Female Saddle-Billed Stork

Female Saddle-Billed Stork (notice the yellow eye)

Male Saddle-Billed Stork

Male Saddle-Billed Stork (Can you see the difference?)

The marsh was covered in elephants. This is not an understatement. Over two-hundred individuals from multiple herds staked out different sections of the wetland. It was a site to behold.

Elephant in the morning

One massive female was collared and her tusks were the largest we’d ever seen. Our guide Dominic informed us that she is very well known and loved by the Maasai for her gentle temperament. We can only hope that she stays safe and that the park rangers do their jobs to protect her from poaching. Tonight dinner was a Christmas feast with turkey, ham, stuffing, mixed vegetables, and the British favorite Christmas pudding (of which I am not a fan). We relaxed around the camp fire and shared stories of adventure, family, and wilderness experiences. It was a rich and fulfilling evening that was topped off with a glass of 12-year aged Scotch whiskey.

Another early morning found us up and loaded into the Landy before sunrise. Once again a beautiful sunrise was the beginning to the day. The grassland was cast in a light morning fog which made for dreamy photos.

First Light

The north west corner of the Mara is renowned for its marsh pride of roughly 40 lions. Surprisingly after three drives, we’d only encountered one sleeping male whose face was mostly obscured. For Dominic, this simply would not due. He was bound to put us onto the regal cats. He decided to give three different zones a go starting with the boarder to paradise plains. Here we found 3 females a very long ways away and due to the recent rains, reaching them was impossible. Instead we took 30 minutes to oblige my birding interests and we found a lappet-faced vulture hanging out with about seven superb starlings and a lilac-breasted roller. It was certainly interesting company.

Lappet-Faced Vulture

Lappet-Faced Vulture

The lappet faced is the largest vulture in East Africa and uses its size to push other carrion feeders off kills. That being said, their lack of aggression usually makes them number 2 in the pecking order behind only the Ruppel’s griffons who are scrappy, assertive, and ill-tempered. In numbers, they will pester a lappet-faced enough to make it move off a bit until the Ruppel’s have had their fill. Satisfied with our experience we made our way back toward Bila Shaka but not before my wife spotted a stunning rosy-breasted longclaw. This was a lifer for me and to get one in full blush was quite special. The morning light made for quite nice photos.

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Rosy-Breasted Longclaw

After a brief moment we slowly trudged through the muck in the company of a very noisy hammerkop and the ever present rufous-naped larks. But finally, just to the east of BS, we found a group of four lions: three females and a big black-maned male who is known as Lipstick due to a growth above his lips and below his nose.

Kipstick Lying Around

For a few tense minutes it looked as if they would hunt for warthogs but with a shift in the wind, the warthogs caught on and high-tailed it out of there (literally). Succumbing to our own hunger we moved off and found a safe place to disembark from the vehicle. A breakfast of pancakes, bacon, yogurt, handmade granola with dried mango and pineapple, juice, and tea really hit the spot. As we finished, a kori bustard walked passed us not more than 15 meters away. This bizarre bird is the continent’s heaviest flier weighing up to 19 kilos.

Kori Bustard

Kori Bustard

With the sun reaching new heights, we made the decision to head back to the forest for a relaxing mid-day. On the way we encountered more elephants, a herd of 500 buffalo, a few distant ostrich, and the pair of saddle-billed storks on their nest. Another nap, a game of Settler’s of Catan, fruitless beckoning of the Schalow’s turaco, and a lunch of salad and sandwiches was quite restorative and by 4:30 our Nikons were ready for more action.

The wife and 5 year old son of other family with us (besides the owners) had not yet seen lions. So for the evening drive we made our way back over to BS. The rains ended three days before our arrival and the immense amounts of water being shed down to the marsh moved the lions to the drier extents of their ranges. So rather than a five minute trip to see dozens from the pride, we needed 35 minutes to reach them. Honestly, this was no big deal in my book. Unfortunately for the other family, we only found a single female resting on the top of a mound. But with our timing at sunset, she made for nice photography. I decided to put down the camera and just soak it all in. On the way out we’d already seen my highlight: a family of ostrich comprised of one male, four females, and about 15 juveniles of varying size. This was quite unique as lion territory is not the best for so many young ostriches.

Tending the Flock

Male Ostrich with Juvenile Chicks

With the tall grass the adults would not be able to protect everyone. Of course, just for good measure, right before reaching camp our female leopard was resting on the top of fallen log bidding us good night’s sleep.

Night Leopard

But before we could fully retire we had to suffer through a candle-lit forest supper of roast leg of lamb, spring vegetables, fresh baked rolls, and a decadent chocolate mousse. Another nightcap by the fire made for the perfect close to another day in the Masai Mara.

Having experienced such good game viewing we decided that our third morning drive was to be more relaxed. There would be no targets. As Dominic put it, “we’ll see what nature brings us.” This will go down as perhaps the best game drive I’ve experienced. I’ll come out and say that we did not see the Big 5. We did not encounter a cheetah. There was no take-down. To be honest, the animals were not that special.

Black Bellied Bustard

Black Bellied Bustard (owner of the most comical bird call)

Instead this felt like quintessential Africa to me. We spent hours driving through the hilly plains, crossing small creeks, and utilizing tiny tracks that may have been unused for months. There was not another vehicle in sight. In fact on the entire drive we only encountered two vehicles and this was after we spotted two of the four brothers who rule the Marsh Pride. Our behavior of sitting and pointing our cameras down to the ground indicated to a two-Landy group that we’d found something and they eventually made their way over. In the meantime we had about ten minutes alone with the king. As we departed we took in more breathtaking scenery of rolling hills dotted with trees, the meandering Mara river, and scattered groups of game including giraffe, buffalo, topi, gazelle, and antelope. On this drive we did encounter something very rare. And when I say rare I mean it. Our guide has seen this animal twice in his life: the aardwolf.

Ardwolf

It’s a member of the hyena family but does not scavenge. Nor does it eat meat for that matter. It is an insectivore that specializes in termites. According to Dominic, when this animal is spotted it is usually far away, deep in the tall grass, and fleeting at best. For us, the animal paused for a good 30 seconds, faced us, sniffed the air, and then disappeared. Not much of a viewing, but certainly more than a glimpse. Frustratingly more Schalow’s turacos were heard calling from the forest but none were willing to come out and play. We were treated to another lifer for me: the white headed vulture whose pink head with a red and blue beak is really quite beautiful.

White Headed Vulture

White Headed Vulture

As we returned to camp Dominic said he wanted to see if the leopard was back near the cliffs where we saw it on Christmas. As we rounded a corner there was no leopard to be found. Instead a bush breakfast was set for us overlooking the river.

Bush Breakfast

We dined on eggs, toast, pancakes, bacon, coffee, tea, fruit, and more while listening to the sound of moving water and once again sharing stories of past adventures. Little bee-eaters were zipping around us, white backed vultures watched to see if one of us would keel-over, and African fish eagles were calling loudly around the bend. Stuffed and tired I collapsed onto the bed for a great nap, awoke in time for light and refreshing lunch, scrolled through trip photos, and talked with the owners for a while.

Before long it was time for our final evening drive and a quick moving storm had us weary of the time. We made our way to the ponds where we found African green pigeons, a malachite kingfisher, African fish eagles, African open-billed storks, woolly necked storks, glossy blue-eared and Ruppel’s long tailed starlings, grey kestrels, a tawny eagle, a white-browed coucal, fulvous ducks, and a couple of hippos. Once more we went to Bila Shaka in search of a male lion for those who were yet to see one.

Evening Storm

We had no luck but as we rolled back to the forest our friendly leopard had left her cubs to play on a fallen tree at the forest edge. The scene was busy. That’s an understatement. There were at least 20 vehicles preset all jockeying for position. The young cubs were resting a bit out of sight and after a while, with the light fading due to the storms to the south west, we called it a game-drive. Our final dinner was the bees’ knees. Seared red snapped with a lemon sauce, sautéed vegetables, and something called a banofee (a banana toffee) for dessert was a perfect final dinner. We went to be early very tired from the day and with a twinge of sadness that tomorrow we’d be leaving the Mara.

Final Sunrise
All of us awoke early with one thing on our mind (well two things): the cubs from the night before. We were told that they’d probably be in the same area because their mother would not risk moving them at night due to the lions and hyenas. We left by 6:15 and booked it to the same fallen tree. As we approached, a vehicle told us that the cub had moved into the thick brush and was gone. We were a bit confused. Having learned some Kiswahili, we knew that the guide said cub: singular. Yet we knew there were two. We skeptically went to the tree.

Leopard Cub on Log

The smaller brother immediately hopped us onto the trunk and walked along it and until plopping down. Suddenly something in a tree caught his interest and he decided to explore.

Leopard Cub

He sauntered across the fallen wood, stared into the tree and jumped. A good climb found him in the canopy looking across the way to his bigger sister who was in an adjacent tree. The most amazing part: we were completely alone!

Leopard Cub in Tree

Finally another vehicle joined us, then one more and things began to heat up. A family of elephants caught onto the leopards and not liking to share space, they drove them off while trumpeting and trampling the bush. Quite a fitting way to end our safari. On the drive out of the park and into the conservancy, I recorded one more lifer, a black stork.