Day 3 The Never-ending Road – we arrive (dramatically) in Ruaha

At 6:30 Martin and I met in the hotel garden.To my astonishment , there on the tree right in front of us was a large male Sykes monkey! The monkey stared back at us and apparently decided he didn’t approve of this disruption of his morning routine. He jumped around a bit, shook some branches and took off , disappearing over the garden wall just as the other 4 showed up looking bleary-eyed and unenthusiastic – I wondered why they hadn’t stayed in bed, since I had said this was optional, but said nothing.  There was no sign of N’eemi so we started up the road, eventually meeting her coming our way.

P1090171

We carried on, but no monkeys and not many birds – just the odd Common Bulbul and some rustlings in the bushes. By now Jeanne and Inge were thoroughly fed up and turned around and walked back to the hotel. As if on cue  birds started popping up all over the place and we had a nice leisurely stroll back to the hotel accompanied by Mousebirds, Hornbills, Puffbacks, Sunbirds and others.

P1090187

 

Still no monkeys but the people at the park headquarters (who had just been opening up) assured me that if we stopped by on our way out we would be sure to see some. So after breakfast and loading up we stopped by and several guides very helpfully tried to find us a Sykes Monkey; of course none showed, but the masses of Yellow Baboons kept us entertained. I was getting a bit tired of the Syke’s Monkey thing – I had wanted to show the group this very pretty (and usually fairly common) species but enough was enough, so off we drove, much later than planned. Modest, who had caught the bug, scanning the roadside trees for you-know-whats.

P1090199

 

We made a brief stop along the way at a fruit stall/barbershop/ bicycle repair shop under a giant Mango tree to sample some exotic fruit. Jack-fruit got low marks but Custard Apple was a big hit.

IMG_3705

P1090219

Then back on to the TanZam highway and starting the climb into the Southern Highlands. First we drop into the Ruaha River Gorge and follow it till it opens out into a wide Baobab studded valley. A brief stop on the river bank at “Crocodile Camp” and we climb on , away from the river into higher and higher hills, finally reaching Iringa for a very late lunch at the trendy traveller’s stop Neema Cafe, next door to Modest’s office.

P1090323

 

We still have to drive on to Ruaha so things are a bit rushed. While the others have lunch (pre-ordered  en-route over the phone – a complicated procedure as the Neema is a charity for disabled people and many of the staff communicate by sign language) I go over to the office and meet Ernest, Modest’s partner and we take care of a few formalities, have a bit of a chat and its time to go. In the car I hand out the chocolate-chip cookies I got at Neema’s , we tank up and take the road to Ruaha.

P1090327

Since arriving in Iringa there is a subtle change about Modest, he seems bigger, stronger and more confident. Now, as we drive on and he tells us about Chief Mkwawa and the great war of the Wahehe people against the German colonists in the 19th century, I understand; this is his homeland, his tribe. I couldn’t have chosen a better  guide to show us this country.  The road to Ruaha has been heavily damaged by last month’s rain so the going is slow and bumpy. Finally we reach the last section, known as “the never-ending road” . It is beautiful  and as we zoom along it (no potholes here) far ahead a large slightly hump-backed form with large horns steps out for a moment on to the road before melting in to the trees. “Kudu” says modest, a magic word,  an animal I had read about, seen pictures of  but never seen, a name that seems to capture the mystery and romance of Africa. We look in to the bush as we drive past but it has slipped away into the evening. I can feel the magic in the air as the light fades clouds  gather and we  race to reach the park gates before dark.

P1090364

We get there with the last faint glow of sunset and the first drops of rain. Tse-tse flies welcome us with a few nasty bites as we look at the row of skulls on display by the office – Elephant, Lion, Buffalo and the great spiraling horns of a Kudu buck. Modest is soon back from the office, the barrier is lifted and we drive into the park. Thunder rumbles, the rain gathers strength and soon we are driving through a torrential downpour. Visibility is down to a few meters in the headlights as we drive up and down hills, across a bridge and on into the park. An elephant stands on the road blocking our way, threatening until her little one crosses and joins the herd across the way, then she turns and leaves, letting us through. This is wildest Africa indeed!  Finally we drive up a hill and pull up by some buildings with lights on. The rain is too heavy to get out of car, sheets of water are flowing across the ground, a bolt of lightning strikes  nearby, but we have arrived at the Ruaha Cottages, our home for the next 3 nights. Modest dashes through the rain and returns with a small man (the manager) and an umbrella. Somehow we all make it into the spacious dining room and the cook, who has opened up the kitchen for our late arrival serves us an improvised meal of Pancakes, rice, spaghetti and sweet tomato sauce. It’s a somewhat unusual combination but it is cooked with love and we are very happy with it. We find our rooms, some have water on the floor from the recent deluge but soon we are all sorted out. Hakuna matata (Swahili for no problems).

IMG_6807

We are a long way from Kansas, as the saying goes (or something like that?). In just three days, so much. I know I am pushing the pace a bit, but some of the group didn’t have longer and its a pity to come all this way and not get the most out of it. It’s a balancing act and it’s working; we are having a lot of fun, it’s an incredible adventure.

 

P1090325

next Day

Previous Day

 

 

Day 4 Lions, Leopards and beauty all around: a day in Ruaha

P1090387

Last night we arrived in the dark and so had no idea where we were. Already from my window I can see some pretty dramatic scenery, to put it mildly.  The landscape is so majestic, so utterly beautiful, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry, to sing or just stand there, silent . I meet Jeanne who is in a similar mood and  we get some coffee and hang out on the terrace, enjoying the view, sipping our coffee and watching birds and animals.

IMG_6810 IMG_6817

 

Below us the ground falls away to a valley where the Great Ruaha river, wide and muddy  snakes along with flat-topped Acacias on its banks . Green hills and  mountains rise out the plain and stretch to the horizon. Everything is the lushest green you ever saw, every imaginable shade, from the yellowish grass to the dark green of the  trees.P1090378 Small groups of Elephants are moving placidly along and slowly we start to notice other animals moving through the tall grass – Giraffes (easiest to see), Wart-hogs, Impalas… a Lilac-breasted Roller swoops  to the ground in front of us with a flash of  brilliant blue wings. Red-billed Horn-bills flop around in the nearby trees.  All utterly pristine  and crystal clear after last night’s rain.

P1090394

The others show up slowly, there’s no rush, this is a morning to savour. Last to appear is a smiling, freshly shaved, very dapper  Martin who has found a small Owl just outside his room. Just as we are polishing off the last of our breakfast pancakes Modest rolls up in the Land Rover and we set off to explore this magical kingdom.

We haven’t gone very far (stopping for some Elephants  and the odd bird or two) and are admiring some pretty Little Bee-eaters when Modest calmly says: ” there’s a lion” and there indeed she is, a little way up the hillside, just peeking out of the tall grass. Soon she stands up, followed by a cub and moves down the hill; another and another appear out of the grass and soon they are crossing  the road in front and behind us, 6 lionesses, a young male and a cub. They are all fat and sleek, bellies full from the Zebra they killed yesterday. Modest has the story – yesterday evening some of the park workers  who were playing football at the nearby TANAPA staff quarters  saw the action, so it wasn’t a coincidence we passed by this way today ( Modest’s father worked as an engineer here and so he spent most of his childhood in the park and seems to know everybody).

P1090442

 

Not a bad start for the day, we take a break at the little riverside bungalows nearby and  rest of the morning passes quickly as we drive around the park stopping to look at animals, birds and the breathtaking landscape.

P1090557

Then it’s back to the cottages for a delicious lunch of fried  local Tilapia fish.   I am so happy with the cook I get Modest to teach me how to say  the food was delicious in swahili and go and visit him in the kitchen. He is delighted and  so am I  and so is the little manger who is there too. I feel among friends and am so happy we chose this budget accommodation to stay at instead of the pricey lodges, we couldn’t be better cared for and who needs hot water in this climate? I organize some beer for the group’s  evening (“hakuna matata”) and go for a siesta.

P1090599

In the afternoon we set off and soon find the lions again. They are up on a little hill , the big male now completing their numbers. Two lionesses are alert, heads up, watching a nearby herd of Impalas. “They have the hunting look” says Modest, and indeed the Lionesses change position, eyes all the time on the Impalas. Then some Elephants move out of the riverside trees and amble into the clearing. The lions stand down, not in a hurry and we decide to move on.

P1090604

We roll over a rise and enter a valley of stone sculptures, everywhere are  granite outcrops, colourful rounded shapes rising out of the mixed forest and grassland. Modest has said something about Leopards so every time we stop I scan every rocky hill carefully with my Nikon Binoculars. I had encouraged everyone to get some good binoculars for the trip: Jeanne has my spare pair which are not bad, Hilde and Martin have reasonable Porro types, Dirk uses his camera zoom and Inge’s – well, they are pink… Modest has a reasonably good pair but none come close to my superb Nikon Monarch 5 (hello sponsors are you out there?) and today proves it: about one km away, lying on a huge granite slab in the shade of tree I can  see  a yellow shape with legs, a tail and a head – a  Leopard!  It is so far away that I have to pass my binoculars around for everyone else to see it, but its worth a look, she is lying there like a queen, shaded by a wild fig with a view of the valley spread out below. We then  drive as close as we can get to the hill and finally find a place where by standing on the car’s roof we can get a fairly good view.  Leopards are not easy to find so this is very good, and I see Modest is  now determined to find something good – to match my lucky sighting, so to speak.

P1090620

The afternoon has more in store for us: further along in a  Baobab dotted glen on the side of a mountain a  small group of Kudu are making their way along the bank of a small river. The beauty of the scene and the graceful antelopes, like a Victorian painter’s romantic picture of Africa, is … well,  I think we all feel it and look on in a sort of hushed awe….

P1090634

On we go.  Modest is still determined to find something. It’s no good saying this has already been a mind-bogglingly amazing day. I had mentioned to him that I would love to see a Verraux’s Eagle, a handsome bird of prey which had eluded me for 30 years or so. They specialize in hunting Rock Hyraxes  and we are driving around the rocky slopes of Kimilamatonge Hill – Hyraxes galore – when he asks “you see the Eagle?” Far above, one, then another and another – 3 Verraux’s Eagles swooping over the granite slopes, black as ebony, bright white wing patches; I am delighted and Modest is satisfied now. We are all in a sort of dreamy euphoric mood as we drive slowly through the bush ,  taking a break where two roads meet, coming from nowhere, going to nowhere.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

But there is still a grand finale. Nearing home, Modest is busy on his cellphone when glancing up into a Baobab by the road he spots another Leopard! This one is really close, fast asleep on a thick branch (we can see his paws twitching as he dreams, maybe of a juicy Impala or perhaps a pretty lady Leopard?). He is a big one, his fur is so beautiful you want to reach out and touch it.

P1090647

2 Leopards in one afternoon is really something (not to mention all the Lions and other stuff we have seen today), and now modest is really pleased, but also a bit puzzled – “you are a strange group” he says, and Jeanne and I smile and have a good a laugh. We stop at the riverside to hang out with some Elephants with very small calves (who doesn’t love a baby elephant?) and are back at the cottages for another wonderful dinner and the promised beers – Kilimanjaro, Serengeti and Tusker.  Very very happy campers tonight.

Next Day

Previous Day

 

Day 5 Just another day in Ruaha

P1090669It rained all night, and at a late hour I  watched from my terrace as two Black-backed Jackals trotted past on the path. We make an early start, the idea was to have just a snack with our coffee and some fruit later in the bush. Coffee and bananas in the dining room but instead of the promised doughnuts are some canned sausages. Modest explains that we are out of flour, supplies didn’t get through as a small bridge near the park entrance has been washed out by flooding.  It means we may be stuck here and everyone is thrilled.

P1090679

First we visit some nearby Kopjes. Hyraxes are sitting out on the rounded Granite domes soaking up the early sunshine. The shapes of the stones, the Baobab trees rising out of the wet grass in the morning light …Cameras click away (or they would have in the old pre-digital days!)

P1090686

 

We head back towards the river and some comic relief is provided by a party of Guinea-fowl on the road – we are reduced to Guinea-fowl trot speed for a kilometre or so as they refuse to let us pass, running along ahead of us,  pecking at bugs, jumping around and putting on a great show.

IMG_3840

For the rest of the morning we make our way  slowly  along the Ruaha river through a lush landscape of huge Acacia trees and lush grass. The grasses are topped with feathery flower heads in great swathes of delicate pastel colours,; a feast to the eye and a lovely setting for the animals we see, the trees and the landscape. There are Hippos in the river, birds of all sizes and shapes and some   animal or other around every bend. We stop by the river   to eat our  papayas, avocados and Bananas.

IMG_3958

IMG_3892

 

The evening before, Modest asked everyone what they wanted to see today. Hilde wanted a good look at Zebras which was easy enough. Inge had asked for Ostriches; Modest was a bit doubtful about that  – not a good time of year to see them here – but  sure enough we soon came upon a group of them standing by the road .

P1090845

P1090756

Now we have to find a crocodile for Dirk and a snake for Jeanne  – not so easy. Crocodiles  are abundant here, but the heavy flood of the river has driven them into hiding.  We search high and low but no crocodile, no snake and it’s getting hot and we turn back. We are nearing home and Modest is again on his cell when Dirk calls out “stop, a crocodile!”. There it is, just a couple of meters away in a little pond in a stream we just crossed, not just a croc but a huge one  hanging  motionless in the water, just bobbing up and down a bit with its breath. We head home for a well-earned lunch.

P1090887

Another superb lunch (  I ask Modest if we can hire the cook for the camping part of our next trip – “I have already” – we seem to be on the same wavelength).

IMG_3982

After a Siesta, we set off for our last game drive in Ruaha.  We roll along  and look at this and that, but somehow it’s not really happening. Maybe we are a bit tired after the long morning run, maybe its just enough game drives, we have seen just about everything we wanted to and so much more, maybe its a case of “more is less”. I feel it’s time for something different. Ruaha is famous for what is called “Walking Safari” – walks through the bush with the park rangers – and I had wanted to put that in our program. But with the grass so high it’s not safe at this time of year, it’s not an option. When we make stops to stretch a bit and move around, Modest chooses open places and carefully checks the area, throwing stones into thickets, before letting us step out of the car – so walks are not on. Still I feel we need to touch the earth, especially the rocks, the smooth, ancient granite. So I ask Modest if it’s possible and  of course he knows a place.  We change direction and a bit later are on the bank of the Mawgusi River where a Large chunk of the granite I have longed for juts out into the reddish floodwaters. It is warm and smooth and so comfortable to stretch out on.  We hang out there, enjoying the stone and the gentle burbling of the river.

P1090949

Finally we head back, through muddy trails (no problem for our Land Rover and Modest’s driving skills – though we heard about some of the lower slung Land Cruisers getting stuck in this area). On the way we meet a Doe-eyed little Dik-Dik (on Dirk and Inge’s wish list) and further along   vultures of 4 different species are perched in some trees. We catch a whiff of  the kill they have been feeding on, but it is hidden somewhere in the trees.

P1090907

We are quiet, each in their own world as we come up the hill to the Cottages. The sun sets in a blaze of colour, and a Black-backed Jackal,  one the pair we see often around our home base, stands in the road as if welcoming us home after a long day.

IMG_6971

P1090980

Next Day

Previous Day