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Come Bird with us, among the Beasts!

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It could be said some Eco-tourists come to ‘Tanganyika’ as pilgrims in the hope of finding answers when they bird among the beasts. Others come to snap-up memories, smuggled home in boxes, to rerun across these flickering screens until that last of days.

Whichever, we bear witness to what is arguably the greatest wildlife experience that’s left upon our Earth. An ungulate mecca driven across, what Maasai warriors once christened, the “Siringet” or endless plain. During this safari a breath-taking vista of the Serengeti savanna frequently seemed to fall away from the observer on all sides, stretching out over the horizon. It’s truly a vast wilderness, and seemingly untouched by human hand. Our safari began in earnest when we climbed into our Toyota Land Cruiser at Kilimanjaro International Airport, only twenty miles from “Kili” itself, fabled snow-crowned volcano, extinct yet free-standing and proud, beside the equator.

Our first two nights were spent at Hatari Lodge nestled in the forested foothills of Mount Meru, Kilimanjaro’s sister peak. Within an hour of our leaving the plane Daniel had safely piloted us into Arusha National Park where already we were delighting in what would be our first of many close encounters with Africa’s mega-fauna: in this case Common Zebra, African Buffalo and Maasai Giraffe. In the distance a monkey-eating African Crowned Eagle soared against the dark green backdrop of the mountain, whilst dapper African Stonechats and a variety of somewhat duller cisticolas popped-up among the roadside scrub.

We were to see a vast array of animal behaviour during this safari, as a bewildering variety of bird and mammal species revealed some of their most intimate moments to the highly privileged passengers in our vehicle. The first afternoon we made a visit to nearby Momella lakes, passing through grassland where mother buffalos and giraffes suckled tottering babies whilst White-browed Coucals, antiphonally-duetting Tropical Boubous, Grey-backed Camaropteras, Rattling Cisticolas and Pangani Lonclaws in the thorny acacias, ensured an undeniably authentic acoustic background to this essential African scene.

Next morning on the slopes of Ngurdoto Crater we were lucky to intercept, on foot, a tropical forest bird wave, which sent us sneaking to catch them behind the convenience block! Here a pair of Black-throated Wattle-eyes, three Placid Greenbuls, two Kenrick’s Starling, an African Paradise-Flycatcher and numerous Olive Sunbirds quickly added themselves to our bourgeoning list. Meanwhile, up above, stately Guereza Colobus monkeys hollered from the foliage in the canopy. Not far from here the lucky few glimpsed a pair of exotic Narina Trogons fly-catching beneath a foraging group of equally colourful Hartlaub’s Turacos.

At Momella Lakes both species of flamingo provided a superb spectacle, as they filtered the shallows in a leopard light of evening, seemingly just below our vehicle. Meanwhile various hirundines and swifts hawked for the lake’s Chironomid midges only feet above our heads. Around Hatari Lodge itself the White-fronted Bee-eaters were perhaps the most appreciated birds although a nearby pair of boisterous Egyptian Geese, cackling-away on top of a disused Hammerkop nest, vied for our attention.

From Mount Meru we made our way westwards via the dusty semi-desert of Lark Plains to Tarangire National Park.  Despite suffering a shattered side window, just as we reached the plain, we succeeded in finding a family of the gravely endangered Beesley’s Lark. The species for whom these plains are named, they were hopping about with a supporting cast of many much commoner bird species.

Inside Tarangire National Park ancient bottle-shaped ‘granny baobab’ trees dot a faunal reserve to create a kind of parkland, nowadays a unique living museum, that reveals how large parts of East Africa must have looked as the first Arab slavers trudged inland in search of the great interior. Here we encountered a trio of special birds endemic to these central plains of Tanzania: the Yellow-collared Lovebird, Ashy Starling and Rufous-tailed Weaver.

From the baobabs of Tarangire, some of which sheltered herds of Elephant and munching lions, from the searing sun, we left the Great Rift Valley, along its precipitous western wall, up onto Africa’s “Nubian Plate”.  Soon, after passing through the rich red soils of Karatu, at over 1,500 metres above sea level, we entered what seems like another world: the land of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority. Apart from our fellow travellers boxed, as we were, in safari vehicles trundling along dusty roads, and the staff of the very occasional administrative building, or in a handful of eccentric tourist camps and lodges, the only folk we saw from now on would be lanky Maasai herders. Men and women in robes of dazzling scarlet or brightest indigo blue, accompanying their piebald flocks; herds of ragged goats and fat-tailed sheep nibbling as they walked, amongst amiable one-humped cows.

For many visitors to Tanzania Ngorongoro Crater is the undoubted emotional highpoint of their safari.  This was surely true for us. Displaying Kori Bustards, mating lions, a pageant of water birds at the hippo pools, a pair of Bearded Woodpeckers, the sheer multitude of life, down in that most photogenic of natural environments; such sights will live long in our memories.

Leaving the crater rim we descended through an ancient-feeling Maasailand to Naabi Hill and the official entrance to the Serengeti National Park. Here we watched our first of several flocks of migrant Lesser Kestrels resting-up in the acacias, whilst brilliantly coloured Flat-headed Agamas scampered about, bobbing at our feet. Soon after leaving Naabi, and an old Marabou stork who was guarding the picnic site, we were very lucky indeed to draw-up alongside a Cheetah, lying right beside the road, enjoying the shade of a spiky Balanites tree. After admiring him for twenty minutes we were obliged to drive on toward our luxurious camp at Mbuzi Mawe, passing our first herds of Topi and increasing numbers of Wildebeest, whilst all-the-while listening-out for any tell-tale ‘Leopard traffic’ coming over the truck radio.

Despite the manifest wonders of the central Serengeti we had to push-on quite early next day, through the Western Corridor, necessary to deepen our understanding of the diversity of habitats that make up this nation-sized national park. The next two nights were spent beside Lake Victoria-Nyanza at the breezy Speke Bay Lodge where a whole new community of birds was waiting to greet and entertain us. Raucous African Fish Eagles, duetting Black-headed Gonoleks, ultra-confiding Swamp Flycatchers, Grey-capped Warblers and Angola Swallows, scintillating Red-chested Sunbirds, a broad selection of weaver species each with a different shape of bill, two species of gaudy bishop, fearless Thicknees (sometimes known as Dikkops) and a pair of Square-tailed Nightjars, snoozing by the parking spot.

Speke Bay was our terminus, from which we retraced our steps across the huge expanses of the Serengeti. After intervals watching hippos in the slow-flowing Grumeti river, and enjoying the wing-flapping display of the recently described Tanzanian Hornbill, we stopped for lunch at Seronera Visitor Centre. Soon after leaving we were treated to exceptional views of both tree-sprawling lions and a lovely female Leopard sitting in the crotch of a Yellow-barked Fever tree. After this we re-entered the short grass plains, which lie in the rain shadow of the Crater Highlands. Here countless thousands of Thompson’s and Grant’s Gazelles enlivened our journey to Ndutu, where would spend two nights in the perfectly situated Lake Masek Tented Lodge.  Sadly our driver Daniel was taken sick next day at Masek and so that morning we were driven by Ole a locally-born Maasai guide working with Tanganyika Wilderness Camps. He knew the back tracks, and all the rules, and was thereby able to get us up close to dumpy Chestnut-banded Plovers and elegant Greater Flamingos at the brackish Lake Ndutu, and to several raptor species perched in the umbrella acacias.

On the penultimate day of our safari we drove along the short cut toward Olduvai and, whilst stopping to admire some Black-winged Lapwings, Debbie spotted a distant clump of vultures on the plain. Bouncing overland, off-road, is still permitted in much of the NCAA and soon we were perched beside the jostling, snarling throng, composed largely of Lappet-faced and Ruppell’s, with just a couple of African White-backed Vultures, as they finished-off the last of what appeared to be a yearling wildebeest kill.

That day we ate our individually prepared packed lunches at over 2,500 metres, on the rolling temperate grasslands, not far from the Maasai settlement of Endulen, high above Lake Eyasi. Here Common Quails were calling, and lyre-tailed Jackson’s Widowbirds bounced among the tussocks of moor grass, to the evocative background sounds of cowbells and tinkling Yellow-crowned Canaries. Nevertheless well before nightfall we found ourselves back into the future, driving through a cloudburst, above Karatu town. And just as the heavens closed we pulled into the grounds of the extremely comfortable Tloma lodge for our last night in country.

On our final morning we walked up into the Croton forests of the NCAA that hug the outer western wall of the mighty crater. On the way to the forest, among the neatly-tended coffee plantations and organic vegetable plots, we passed a Peregrine Falcon watching African Green Pigeons who were gorging unconcernedly on Cordia berries in a tree top down below. Moments later a female chameleon tottered across our path, on delicate mitten feet. Once in the forest several bird species queued to join our list, including some that typically are “hard to get”, birds like Ayres’s Hawk-Eagle, Grey Cuckoo-shrike, Grey-Olive Greenbul, Green-backed Honeybird, Red-capped Robin-chat, White-tailed Crested Flycatcher and last but by no means least the highly appropriately named Thick-billed Seed-eater.

 We returned to the lodge for an early lunch then, with understandable reluctance, boarded our vehicle for the last time. After passing through the little town of Mto wa Mbu, down in the valley below, in the midst of the Manyara ranch game corridor, a pair of Giraffes emerged from the bush and crossing the road, book-ended us, as if to salute us on our way. All in all it was a fitting finale to a truly wonderful safari, one where the wildlife of Tanzania certainly did us proud.

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