Ethan Kinsey Safaris

Adventures in East Africa

Posts tagged Migration
Luxury and the Wildebeest Migration (1st week of August)

As water sources dry up in southern Serengeti, more than 1.5 million wildebeest begin to make their way north toward the permanent river called the Mara. While the exact arrival is dictated by the extent of the drying and rainfall in northern Serengeti and Kenya’s Maasai Mara, they usually arrive in mid-July. Again, depending on where the greener pastures are, they move back and forth across the Mara river, in and out of Kenya, following the sporadic thunderstorms.

Us watching as thousands of wildebeest plunge into the river below us. Photo credit: Pietro Luraschi.

We arrived at Singita Mara Camp, by far the most luxurious camp in northern Serengeti, on the 3rd of August. The herds had already crossed the river heading north, and some were making their way back across. Just the sheer numbers of wildebeest was incredible as we slowly drove the northern bank of the river looking for an aggregation that looked to cross imminently. Patience, patience… but we didn’t need much as we found a group many thousand strong gathering on the banks of the river. The milling back and forth, the reluctance of the wildebeest- whether it is fear of the cold rushing water, or fear of the crocodiles submerged with only their eyes and nostrils above water, I do not know, but it adds to the excitement (and sometimes frustration).

Here is an amusing cartoon about it. When they do start to cross, it just goes and goes and goes until there are no more wildebeest left. The energy is incredible. Then it stops and the milling resumes, this time, mothers looking for their babies and babies looking for their mothers. 

(The video below shows what we were seeing)

This could be your private lunch banquet in the Serengeti plains.

Of course, there is more to the Serengeti (and northern Tanzania) than the migration so we also included a couple days in Tarangire National Park, where there is a daily migration of elephants to the permanent water sources. The landscape is also different with the typical red African soils and eccentric Baobab trees that dot the ridges, offering a nice contrast to Serengeti’s woodlands and plains.

This is a classic Tarangire scene. Elephants walking into the sunset with a magestic baobab tree in the foreground.

Turkana by Helicopter, Serengeti by Cruiser

Coffee break on the east ridge overlooking Lake Turkana

The Nyiru Range

Silenced by earmuffs, we lifted-off effortlessly floating up and over the 9000ft range of Mt. Nyiru in northern Kenya. The impenetrable forest of moss and orchid shroud Pencil cedars, olives, and aloes gave way as we dropped down over the cliff, hovering momentarily to breathe in the eroded cliffs of these ancient rocks. The helicopter changed angle and we surged forward, northward, accelerating through the valleys and watching the landscape dry. Herds of goats picked their way through the seemingly barren rock and the odd group of camels fed on the

Acacia tortillis that had managed to establish themselves in the drought ridden soil. Inhospitable lava flows and boulder-ridden hillsides stretched out beneath us as we raced up the Great Rift-valley to the shores of Lake Turkana. As we flew the abrupt shoreline, fishermen waved and crocodiles dove into the water.

We were on our way to Ileret where Richard Leakey and Stony Brook University had set up a research station, the Turkana Basin Research Institute. Hot, windy and in a not-particularly-beautiful scrub it was hard to imagine that this land hid many of the secrets of human ancestry as well as the fossils of many of the predecessors of today’s vertebrate animals. A massive crocodile skull lay on the cement floor outside the door of a lab where a few individuals sat, eyes glued to microscopes while their hands manipulated little bits of fossilized bones and high-tech cleaning brushes. Behind it, catalogued boxes stood on shelves housing the finished secrets of their work.

Dinosaur bones (Dinosaurs became extinct 65 million years-ago).

Natural rock slide at Desert Rose

This wasn’t an ordinary safari. Starting in Meru National Park to get a taste of game, we ending in Serengeti National Park to really feast our eyes. The major diversion to Lake Turkana was as much about having fun as experiencing this historically significant part of East Africa. The helicopters allowed us to stopover for a scrumptious lunch at Desert rose, named after the beautiful succulent (Adenium obesum), but not before we’d thoroughly cleaned the natural rock-slide of debris with our bums.

Sand dunes near the Soguta Valley

Grevy'z zebra (Meru National Park)

Beautiful tusker... one of the last.

Topi (Serengeti National Park)

Hyena (Serengeti National Park)

The safari defining wildlife-moment came when we camped in an exclusive luxury mobile camp in the very north of Serengeti National Park, in a small corner known as the Lamai wedge. Having seen nearly every other animal that we wanted the pressure was on us guides to try to find a famed wildebeest crossing. Conditions looked good. The wildebeest migration had arrived and some billowing storm clouds on the north side of the Mara-river beckoned the herds across. The wildebeest began cascading down the bank and I eased the vehicle down-wind and down-stream of the wildebeest. The quickening sound of thousands upon thousands of calves and their mothers, gnu-ing as they dove into the waters and emerged on the other side silenced the normally chattering kids in my vehicle. An annoyed hippo emerged, scaring the wildebeest and they drifted downstream, now coming up on both sides of the vehicle at about 300 per minute. I estimate the average crossing rate to be 200 per minute, and when we left 2.5hrs later I estimated that over 30,000 had crossed the river.

Wildebeest crossing the Mara River.

Wilddogs and Camels

My latest adventure was a safari designed by Charlie Babault. Starting in Maasai Mara we had spent four nights watching migrating wildebeest and zebra, driven long distances with picnics and taken naps along the river. We then spent a couple of nights in Nakuru National Park capturing great images of flamingo, white and black rhino, and watching lions and leopard. Driving from Nakuru to Laikipia had turned into a longer drive as unexpected rains forced us to detour, but gave us a good feel for the vast wilderness in Kenya. We’d arrived on a road that petered out to nothing as we pulled up to a host of Laikipia Maasai waiting for us.

(Zebras in the red-oat grass)

(Flamingos in Lake Nakuru)

(Siesta along the banks of the Mara river)

(Camp in Nakuru)

As I stood alone on top of a granite outcrop, watching a dramatic sky and landscape change as evening crept in, baboons climbed the biggest granite outcrops, bickering for the best roosts and a lone white-necked raven cawed as the darkness and silence set in. We had arrived on a beautiful piece of land just south of the Ewaso Nyiro River in northern Kenya. The next morning we headed off on a long morning walk while the camels moved camp. Three camels accompanied us should anyone tire or feel like riding.

That night, the Maasai sat around the fire watching buckets of smokey water heat for the guest’s showers, murmuring and sipping on camel milk chai. A chef diced vegetables for a wonderful dinner he was preparing, all the while watching his metal box oven covered in coals, taking care not to burn the fresh bread. Everything had arrived on camels that had been hobbled for the night.

The next day we set off on the walk after a wonderful breakfast. The rains on the previous day had cleaned the ground and we picked up fresh hyena, caracal, kudu, and warthog tracks. We talked of the animals, the plants, and insects that we found along the way. In a sudden clearing we stumbled upon our new camp, fully set up. The camp chairs sat under a flysheet looking out across the bush, the tents were tucked under trees, and a table had been set with campfire baked pizzas.

Another highlight materialized as I left the next day to drive to Meru National Park. Not 10 minutes out of camp I drove around a corner to find African Painted Hunting dogs, otherwise known as wilddogs as they regrouped around a large male impala they had just killed. I am very fond of wilddogs and this sighting allows me to boast, having now seen members of 3 of the 4 largest populations of wilddogs in Africa.

Meru National Park proved to be another beautiful corner of Kenya where we closed the safari sitting on the banks of a river, reading and fishing as the sun set.

Aardvark to Zebra

Day 1

With renewed enthusiasm for a place that keeps ending up as my private playground, Saturday saw me back in Olduvai Gorge having a picnic on the 2-million year old lava and tuff. Having just spent a fascinating hour in the Oldupai museum, looking at the collection and reconstructions of skulls, bones and stone tools displayed at the museum, I cut brown bread with a stainless steel knife on a ceramic plate, poured cold white wine into wine glasses, and contemplated the advancement of tools and objects that may be unearthed millions of years from now. My mind was on evolution, changing landscapes, evidence, and the gaps of knowledge of the Earth’s History. I’d never noticed the photos of the Leakeys with dinosaur bones in southern Tanzania, but after an interesting conversation and a hyper link to a National Geographic Article, it had me wondering what was buried under the rock I was standing on between the deepest underlying rock (570 million years) of the Gol mountains and the 2 million year old basalt. How much do we really know?

Our journey continued, the same track I’d taken last week, but as always- never the same. The wildebeest migration is driven by their need for water and already, there were signs that they were preparing to moving back towards the permanent water sources in southern Serengeti. There was still enough grass on the plains that the wildebeest couldn’t resist, but their thirst kept driving them into never-ending lines as they made their daily trek to the last remaining water. We stopped in front of Nasera rock to watch a dung beetle rolling his prize to the random spot he’d bury it… slowly adding fertilized layers to the soils that covered the most recent tuff- of the last 30,000 years. The big picture can quickly overwhelm me- the uncomprehendable millions of years and the hundreds of thousands of years, to the near insignificant tens of thousands of years and all the interdependences, delicate balances, and implications that we’ve only really uncovered and documented in the last few hundred years let alone decades.

Take these figures for example- dung beetles roll away 75% of the dung produced in the Serengeti. The soil itself is 15-20% made up of dung beetle balls. Without dung-beetles the Serengeti wouldn’t support the nearly 3 million mammals.

Day 2 & 3

Hot coffee served from stainless steel French-presses set the morning off as we trolled out onto the plains. The wildebeest gathering as they headed towards the remaining water on the plains amused and awed us with their repetitive gnuing, their blank-stare faces, and the infinite numbers gathering on the plain.

This amateur video clip shows images of our morning game drive.

(apologies, due to slow internet I am having trouble uploading videos to this page)

I’ve posted images with captions of the rest of the trip and a video clip of lions feasting on day 3. The only thing I didn’t get a photo of was the aardvark that was digging in the road or the 11 lions we saw on the night drive. This time I don’t have words and I’ll let the images speak.

Day 4

These mother cheetah and her cub entertained us with a failed hunt before we said goodbye to the Serengeti plains and headed up through Ngorongoro back home.

Weekend away... (March 5th-8th 2010)

A picture is worth a thousand words, but what if you can’t capture that picture in a physical image without distorting it or failing to grasp the immensity and at the same time the detail of what your mind is seeing?

This weekend’s mission was to have fun, find a few hundred thousand wildebeest, to get back out into the wilderness, and a chance for me to show a few friends in the safari industry a quiet and amazing corner in the Serengeti ecosystem. It wasn’t three hours into the trip when the first fawn-colored wildebeest calves stood staring at us from next to their mother’s sides as we made a right turn off the main road and made our descent into Olduvai gorge. The river in the gorge was flowing but fordable and we picnicked as storm clouds darkened the sky and threatened a downpour that skirted us. Up out of the gorge we crawled and then made our way along a track that had grassed over, through some wait-a-bit thorn and then out onto the Angata kiti plains to Nasera rock. A coffee break, leg stretch and we were soon off again, cross country now, through the hundreds of thousands of wildebeest. Here’s an image for you- if you can imagine six guys on a weekend trip with a freezer full of beer, but all sitting in near silence on top of a Landcruiser as it drifted across the plains with the rolling green hills in awe of the vastness, the aggregation of wildebeest, zebra and gazelle, and solitude. We drove for a good 30km before the horizon in front of us changed from short grassland to a series of inselbergs, each with its rock-splitting fig in full leaf, and behind them an Acacia-woodland in which the camp was hidden.

I got stuck, I hate to admit it, but it was part of the trip hence part of the adventure. Only a few kilometers from camp I radioed that I would be in within the half hour and then took a gamble on a small stream and pulling out cheering at not having bogged down, slammed into a hole. Nothing we could do to jack the car up and get something underneath it was working so we settled down for an ice-cold beer and packet of cassava chips. As the sun set on our impromptu sundowner, we discussed the nine Aardwolf we’d seen- how many we’d seen before, and then how we’d all read about digging the spare-tire into the ground as an anchor for the winch when there were no trees around. Soon we were digging and with a small tug from the winch and a bit of wheel spinning the cruiser popped out of the hole. I’ll spare you the details but in the dark I sunk the car again, and one of the rescue vehicle looked even worse before it reached my car so we called it a night, and drove into camp with the second rescue.

The next morning we made easy work of our new winching technique and soon we were scouring the plains again, watching large herds of eland leap imaginary fences and bat-eared foxes dodge their way into their holes before emerging again to watch us, their satellite dish ears cocked for the slightest sound. Brunch knocked us out again, but by two we were raring to go. Fridge stocked we crawled back onto the plains in search of the ten cheetah we knew were around. Two is a bit too hot for action but we made our way towards a major drainage that flows into Serengeti, again through numbers and numbers of eland, zebra, gazelle towards a hillside that was so thick with wildebeest, they looked like ants. We gravitated towards a small clearing in the herd and combing the grass with our binoculars pulled out a hungry young male cheetah who obligingly got up and ran straight into the herd of wildebeest sending them scattering. We spent the afternoon with him as he posed for the camera and then made his was across the plains spotting a young Thomson gazelle. He gave chase again, another failed hunt, but the fun is as much in watching the chase as in the kill.

The option for Sundays should always include a lie-in, instead of moving at dawn we feasted breakfast in camp and then head off to look for fossils in a dry river bed. Over 7000 extinct species of mammal have been identified from fossilized bones in Olduvai, and it’s exciting to think that the fossils we were picking up are possibly the remains of species we will never see. We lunched on top of a hill to the gnuing of the wildebeest and then in post-lunch stupor drove the next 40km again, through wildebeest towards Ndutu. If this trip was about numbers of animals we saw thousands. Hundreds of eland, thousands of zerba, tens of thousands of gazelle, and a few hundred thousand wildebeest, but also exactly twenty two Aardwolf and one Striped hyena.

The Aardwolf is evolutionary one of the most interesting member of the hyena family. An insectivore, it feeds almost exclusively on termites and has lost the strong jaws muscles, and sharp carnascial teeth its cousins have and instead has pegs for teeth. It’s typically found in pairs or solitary and is generally active at night. The little hyena is also fairly neurotic and hard to photograph let alone see- so twenty-two in two days is a surprising number.

Ndutu was its usual gem, and we watched four-month old lion cubs playing in the dying evening light, watched a coalition of hungry cheetah “passively hunt” as Nick called it, and as we left were rewarded with the spectacle of nearly ten thousand wildebeest as they made a mad dash across Lake Ndutu.

Read Nick's blog entry on the trip: click here

Sidai, Gelai, Piyaya

The darkness is coming in fast and the road we’ve been following hasn’t been driven in months and the influx of the rain season has turned it into a gully. I’ve been bush-bashing and now I’m walking in-front of the car with my brother driving pushing through grass that’s above my head to get to higher ground. Its wet and all of us are hoping we can get to the big Acacia trees where we’ll set up camp.

Feeling liberated- I head off with my headlamp to collect firewood while my brother, father and cousin set up the tents. A couple matches and the flickering flames leap up the rungs of Commiphora kindling getting bigger and lighting heavier Acacia sticks. Meanwhile we’ve opened the fridge and the first gushes of cold liquid on the backs of our throats are heavenly. The slight anxiety to get camp up in the dark fades and my cousin’s first night under the southern hemisphere’s constellations is not in anyway typical. I apologize but the feeling is juxtaposed by his enthusiasm and as we lay out cushions next to the fire. I hear sighs of satisfaction.

The next morning, I coax another flame from the coals and heat water for coffee. Everything tastes so good in the bush. We pack camp and head off on a walk. Fresh elephant tracks pass nearby camp, but none of us heard them. The bush is alive and the rains have invigorated growth- birds are courting as are plants with their glorious flowers.

We decide to head to Sidai camp, where we should have slept last night had we not detoured and stopped too long to watch magnificent kudu, the long-necked gerenuk, giraffe, and gazelle stare at us. The road is not a road, but in the morning light we find our way, over rolling crystalline granite hills- I could go on the whole day, but I realize that we have arrived at a good stopping point. Nestled into Oldonyo Sidai (Mountain of Goodness) is a hunting camp. Built with local materials, it’sluxurious backdrop offers our heads a resting point on the large cushions in the open dining room. An old plow blade is acts as a bird bath and our bird list increases in 2’s, 3’s and 5’s. Male whydah’s display their extended tails, and emerald spotted wood doves and laughing doves chase the waxbills and sunbirds away.

At around 4, I get restless, it’s hot and I’m on holiday, but the bush is too vibrant for me to lie still. I wrangle the others- all feeling the same and we head off to look for elephant, and then do a night drive back. We find the elephants, and watch until its nearly too dark to get back to the road, then drive back, spotlight leading, illuminating nightjars, genets, and lesser galagoes that leap 10 feet from branch to branch. They leave scents along their paths and its said they can accurately execute a 3m jump on a pitch-black night by their keen sense of smell.

We sleep well and in the morning rise to the dawn, still and quiet. I load the rifle and we head off on a walk. There is a sand river I’d like to explore and we follow an old game trail. A lion has passed before us, and we can smell elephant and see where they have fed that night. The sun gets hot and we find ourselves walking the sand river. It’s a bit too warm to see much game, but the dikdik and giraffe don’t know that. That night we drive the sand river again, and on returning to camp use the spotlight to pick up jackals, and a great reward- a White-faced scops owl. Its been 7 years since I’ve seen one.

It’s so nice to be off any schedule, and the next morning it’s a late start. We arrive at a junction. Two roads diverge, one is graded, the other is just a track. The GPS shows that the track should take us around the north of Gelai mountain to the east shores of Lake Natron. We take the track. Like all the roads we’ve been on it hasn’t been driven in a while. We engage four-wheel drive, in some places we follow the little arrow on the GPS that changes direction if you leave the track. We can’t see the road, in other places its obvious, sometimes we have to dig the banks to climb out, other times it’s a low-range crawl. Our driving is distracted by beautiful straight-horned oryx, that gallop off. Occasionally giraffe stick their necks above the acacia scrub and watch us pass. I wonder what they think.

Around the north of Gelai the land becomes rocky and my cousin calls it a moonscape. Kiti cha mungu (God’s stool), otherwise known as a small hill. My father and cousin talk of Arizona, the Sonora desert. I don’t know if they have termite mounds there. We stop at one that must be nearly 30ft high. The rocks get bigger and it seems each gully leading off Gelai has carried with it rocks as big as basketballs across the road and down to the lake. We can’t drive the edge of the shore because at the base of each gully is a spring that softens the shoreline.

Oldonyo Lengai appears in the distance. We are headed towards its base but tonight we will sleep under the stars again, on the shores of the lake. We stop, set up camp, the sun has sapped us of energy, but we are rejuvenated by the shining grass flowers, the dark mountains, the reflection of Shompole, Masonik, and the Rift wall in the lake. Flamingos add pink, and the springs are all surrounded by dark green sedge. Grants and giraffe wander down to drink from the springs. That night we sit shirtless under the stars, sipping beers and listening to my father sing on his guitar. My cousin adds his songs as does my brother- such peace.

Too many things happen the next day to write about. The silent morning, the sunrise over Gelai, skinny-dipping in hot-springs- a dose of the daily amenities no luxury lodge could imitate. We drive south and cross the top of the lakebed. Alkaline salt flats that mirage, with zebra in the foreground. We head up the escarpment and climb, and climb and climb to the top where we have lunch and look out across our morning’s journey. We push on, across the Ngata Salei plain to the base of the Sonjo mountains passed their settlement; agriculturalists who have been in the area since long before any Maasai. The mountain pass we climb is flanked by cycads. Old plants that once fed dinosaurs. The temperature drops and the trees are lush- less adapted to desert conditions. The birds are also more colorful and soon we are seeing Augur Buzzards again; a bird identical to North America’s Red-tailed Hawk.

By 4 we are at the edge of the short grass plains that vitalize the migrating wildebeest. High in phosphorous and calcium the seemingly fragile grasses support lactating wildebeest. The plains are also full of zebra, the stallions fighting for their harems, and to my father’s amazement there are herds of nearly 500 eland. Most people only read about these congregations at the beginning of the rains. We stop and scan with binoculars before heading down into a woodland to the camp. Familiar smiling faces of the camp crew greet us with cold washcloths and ice tea. Our first hot showers it seems in ages are lifted into the bucket showers.

We sleep again, this time to the chorus of zebra and hyenas. The lions are silent tonight. The next three days we rise before dawn, coffee brought in French-presses to the tent door. We head off and find beautiful coffee spots on rocks or under trees eat breakfast and enjoy the wild. One day we drive to the Sanjan Gorge that cuts through the Gol mountains. They are 500 million years old I’m told- as old as the oldest mountains and once higher than the Himalayas. We find fossils and stone tools in eroded volcanic ash soil and finally hike down the steep banks of the gorge as two Black Eagles fly out from below us rising on updrafts. It is breathtaking. The water has carved natural slides in the rock but its too low to swim. Instead we lay in the brown water refreshed.

That evening is our last and we drive across the plains- it has rained while we were in the gorge and it seems that the wildebeest numbers are increasing. They must sense it before it rains. There is no need to use the road and the few land marks triangulate where camp is. The next day we head home. It will be the 8th day out and we have yet to see another tourist. The vehicles we have seen can be counted on our hands. 45km south I know we will cross the Olduvai Gorge and with it we’ll meet the masses. Our days have been filled with rich events, many I know I find difficult to describe. I have skipped parts of the some of the days- even highlights like the sand boa, a very rare find, or the Tree of Life standing out in the plains.