Friday, 6 April 2012

Mikumi NP: Easter 2012

Elephants in Mikumi NP

Mikumi is the easiest national park to access from Dar es Salaam, and we when drove to Tanzania from Botswana, we’d actually driven past it and decided to leave it for when we were settled in Dar.  Little did we know it would take us a year and a half and 2 abandoned trips (thanks to a dying car) before we actually got to go!

Marabou stork

But finally, after getting ourselves an old Landcruiser (named Kilimanjaro – or Kili for short) after a year of searching, we decided to use the Easter weekend to take Kili on his maiden bush trip and test out the car.  To find out all about Mikumi NP and its setup, check it out here.

We hadn’t yet been able to get the roofrack and rooftent onto Kili (it needed some reinforcing on the roof which would take a bit of time), so we had decided to take a chance and see if one of the bandas in the park were available.  We didn’t know what the protocol was with bookings and things, but were working on the principle that even if you book anything in Africa it doesn’t actually mean it’s yours ;)

Cape Buffalo
Being a long weekend it was a long shot, but there is plenty of accommodation in the nearby village of Mikumi about 20km from the gate, so we weren’t too worried – this was essentially a recon trip for us, to see what the park was like.


As we try to do when traveling, we left just after 6am to get the majority of the drive out of Dar out the way before the buses and trucks got onto the road.  Traveling through the city isn’t easy especially when every single cop has recently been given a speed gun and is trigger happy ;)  Needless to say that slows you down somewhat as there are plenty of 50km/h sections just trying to get out of Dar.  Still, the timing was okay and we managed to get to Mikumi after a relatively uneventful drive by about 11am.  (Yes, 300km in 5 hours – there are PLENTY of 50km/h zones!)

As expected, we rocked up at the gate to be told that all the bandas were full for the weekend….  As expected, nothing is straightforward, and soon we were headed to the bandas to double check – lo and behold, there was one free and we were soon dumping our bags in the banda to claim it just in case someone else wanted to try and sneak in.   

Straight away we headed for a game drive after checking the map that we’d just bought.  Mikumi is pretty simple to navigate – near the gate is the village with the bandas and park headquarters.  Near that is the hippo pools where everyone stops to stretch.  Further north is Mkati Dam, and even further north is the Mkata floodplain with the Mwanambogo Dam. 
Grey heron

Immediately we were astonished by the game on display – elephant, buffalo, plenty of antelope – it was a pleasant surprise to have so much variety and numbers, when we were expected a couple of antelope here and there.  And the animals were pretty chilled out – probably as a result of the numerous cars…  Yes, there is quite a lot of traffic in Mikumi, especially around the entrance – this is largely a result of all the weekenders, both from Dar and from Morogoro, which is only an hour away.  So a lot of the people were coming just for the day – and because the main park roads are good a 4WD isn’t needed – we saw a taxi in there, taking people around ;) 

And there are also quite a few buses… groups have hired a bus for the day and they take around the tourists.  Luckily (for us) the buses can only stick to the main calcrete roads – anything more demanding and the traffic thins out considerably.

We knew that there were lions in the park but weren’t really expecting to see much, so had a nice bonus in the afternoon with a nice male walking down the road, completely oblivious to us ahead of him or the cars behind him.  He walked straight past us with hardly a glance – we were stoked! Although we didn’t see any more lions the day, we thoroughly enjoyed exploring the park and got back to our banda by about 6pm.
Our 1st lion in Mikumi

Although the banda hasn’t got any kitchen facilities, we had brought all our cooking gear as we hadn’t been sure where we would be staying.  We had asked the manager there if we could do our own cooking, and after quite a few telephone calls in Swahili (where the word “Australian” was used quite a few times) we were granted permission to cook outside our banda on the balcony.  What we hadn’t realized was that they had a restaurant amongst the bandas and so the first night we decided to try it out. 

The menu was pretty basic – chicken or fish… being so far from the sea (or any lake) and that I don’t eat much seafood, we decided against the fish and ordered the 2 local dishes of chicken and rice.  Since it was going to take up to an hour to cook, we settled on the balcony of the banda and enjoyed a couple of wines.  Unfortunately for whatever reason, they’ve (in our opinion) positioned the bandas the wrong way round and we had to settle for a view of the restaurant building, instead of the view of the bush… all very odd ;)  

European roller
Still, after about an hour, the woman walked over to us and told us our fish was ready… fish?  No, we ordered chicken… A long confusing conversation took place before she headed back to make the chicken (after her telling us they didn’t have any!) We thought it would be another hour or so, but she was back in about 15 minutes to tell us that dinner was ready… An hour for fish and 15 minutes for chicken?  Something definitely was suspicious here!  There was…
Cape buffalo with yellow-billed oxpeckers
I don’t know what they did to the chicken, but I’ve never had such tough chicken in my life!!  It was so tough that you couldn’t actually cut it with a knife and had to rely on tearing off pieces with your hands and hoping you could eat it without breaking a tooth!  It was so bad it was funny, and Dru and I sat through our meal trying not to laugh ;) 

The chips were cold, but at least they were edible, and eventually we managed to get some of the chicken eaten, but not without a fight.  I’m not sure if it was the cooking technique or if they just have tough chickens in the Mikumi area – I suspect a combination of both – but needless to say, it was the first and last time we visited the restaurant ;)

By contrast, we were impressed with the bandas themselves – simple but clean with a hot water shower, and air-con!  Of course, when the electricity switches off at midnight, so does the air-con, so we made sure the mosquito net was down, otherwise the mossies would have a field day!

Pin-tailed whydah

 After a pretty good night’s sleep, we were up early to have a quick breakfast and head out.  Of course the lights don’t come back on until 6am (and this morning they were late) so we stumbled around in the dark before getting into the car and doing our morning game drive.  For the first hour or so, it was pretty quiet traffic wise, but as the cars and buses started checking in at the gate, it became busier and busier. 

We decided to take one of the lesser traveled roads up to the middle of the park.  The road actually goes through the marsh, and because we were there in the long rains there was quite a bit of water on the road.  And because patches of the road are actually black cotton soil, it can get very, very slippery!
Zanzibar red bishop

We actually turned back on a couple of roads because the bog seemed a bit too bad, but we finally came across a big one which we decided to go ahead and try – mainly because we couldn’t turn around on the road ;)  So into 4 wheel LOW and see what Kili was made of ;)  We shouldn’t have worried – Kili went through it with flying colours, and Dru said afterwards that he wouldn’t have attempted that with our old car (a Pajero) but Kili gave him more confidence ;) 
Kili on his maiden bush trip

Happy that the car could take on the roads, but hoping we wouldn’t need to test it too much, we were lucky to have the rest of the way pretty uneventful, and soon enough made it to Mkati dam, where we found that the road we were actually on had been closed ;)  That only means a couple of branches strewn across the entrance way, so we circumvented that and explored a bit of the surrounding area.

There isn’t really much to see, but the main focus point is the small dam.  You can actually ride up the side bank and look out over it, although it should really be a one way because there isn’t much room to pass, although we discovered that it is possible as we soon found out….
Mkati Dam

Someone had discovered a few lions sleeping in the bushes on the other side of the dam, so you had to drive on the bank to see them.  That’s not a problem for us, but the road is pretty tough and the cars were struggling to get there.  And so were the buses! 

Not one to miss out on a sighting, they were also navigating the road up, and eventually there were about a dozen cars, all parked behind one another on the top of the bank, staring down the side, looking for lions.  Everyone was happy with the sighting, since a few got up and moved around a while, but soon enough all the lions (we counted about 5) moved into thick scrub about 100m away, and we lost sight of them. 

Barn swallows
The excitement of the lions over, it was now time to move on… but this is where it got a bit confusing.  You should be able to drive up one side, along the top of the bank, and then down the other side.   The problem is that the other side is a lot tougher than where all the cars and buses came up, so essentially everyone without a 4WD needed to either reverse back or do a u-turn on this bank and head down – pretty difficult when there were still cars coming up to catch sight of the lions!
Needless to say, there was a fair amount of chaos – especially when the car behind us refused to get off to the side to let some of the cars pass.  This was just a domino effect, since then no-one could move.  Suddenly half the people were out the cars and have a heated discussion!  Forget the lions – moving the cars took priority now!  Wonder what the lions were thinking ?  Look at all these tasty morsels walking around ignoring us….

To cut a long story short, eventually after wild gesticulation, and a few heated (and loud) debates in Swahili, the bus managed to get off the bank, and the traffic slowly cleared.  It probably took about an hour of commotion to get it all sorted, and I was so amused by it, I completely forgot to take photos of the chaos ;) 

Elephant in the grass
After extracting ourselves from the traffic jam, we headed further north to the Mwanambogo Dam, which in the heart of the Mkata floodplain.  We weren’t sure about the road, but after finding a few other game drive vehicles doing it, we decided to give it a go.  It wasn’t too much of a problem in the end, and we made it there without too much hassle. 

Unfortunately there wasn’t much happening at the dam, so we didn’t spend too much time around there – besides we knew where the lions were, and were keen to head back there – we had figured out that by late afternoon, most of the buses would have left back to Morogoro, so it may be a bit quieter…

An unusual sighting - Eland
Turns out there was no one there when we arrived back at the Mkati Dam, but neither were there any signs of lions… We hung around there for quite a while photographing the oncoming storm, but by evening we hadn’t spotted so much as a lion’s ear, and decided to head back to the bandas, where we found an elephant actually sleeping in amongst the buildings in the village… what on earth… 

Rain over Mikumi
Having learnt our lesson about mealtimes, we opted to cook our own dinner the evening.  It was going to be a very  basic bacon pasta, which only needed the gas cooker and a pot – our stable in the bush ;) Despite it raining, the meal was easy to prepare on our balcony, and soon it was cooking away.  We got the fright of our lives during cooking though, when we looked round the side of the banda and spotted an elephant grazing about 5 meters away from us!  And he wasn’t the only one – the elephants seem to like wandering behind the bandas, and we saw quite a few – we’re amazed that they aren’t scared off by the people!

Soon, dinner was done and it was off to bed.  We had a plan for the morning – head to the lions of course... if we were up early and headed straight there, we might catch them on the road... we knew that the day trippers wouldn’t be in early (the gate only opens at 6.30 am, and you first need to do plenty of paperwork... so we had an advantage because we could leave as soon as it was light...

Mkati dam pride

It’s not often that something goes accordingly to plan, especially in the bush.  But in this case, it was exactly as we’d predicted.  We’d got up and headed out as soon as possible straight to Mkati Dam.  And just as we arrived, we spotted something along one of the roads – lions!  And it wasn’t the 5 that we’d expected – there were about 12 of them!  A whole pride with 1 male, about 3 or 4 lionesses, and 2 batches of cubs - some no more than about 6 months old. 

And we were the first to arrive to catch them!  They had been lying on the side of the road but got up when we approached, and started moving.  We figured out where they were planning to move,  and took a chance, driving a bit of a way but positioning the car so that they would walk directly towards us… and they did… love it when a plan works!

We spent a fair amount of time with the big cats, as they calmly walked to a road and started heading down it.  The total sighting was brief – only about 20 minutes, but it was fantastic.  And there were only about 3 cars that actually witnessed this all, before they headed off into the bush and disappeared. 

We halfheartedly looked for them for a while, knowing that we had already seen the best that we were going to see, so after about 15 minutes, we gave up and went to check out the antelope in the nearby area, nicely surprised with a herd of some eland – quite an unusual sighting – as well one of the birds that we’d wanted to see – the Yellow-throated Longclaw.

Yellow-throated longclaw

We planned to leave Mikumi by about 10am to try to get back into Dar before the traffic gets really bad (it didn’t make a difference in the end – the traffic is always bad!) but were slowed down by the sight of another couple of lions, a nice male and lioness.  There was a fair amount of traffic at the sighting, with everyone jostling to get a look, and eventually we left – nothing was going to beat our sighting of the morning ;)  Not long after the sighting we left back to Dar, having thoroughly enjoyed our trip to Mikumi!

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