Saturday, 9 January 2016

January 2016 - Back to Mikumi NP

Lazy lions at Mikumi
After the car behaved from our last week’s trip and with a long weekend on offer, it was Mikumi again with a night at Udzungwa mountains planned. We were on the road early Saturday morning but there was swelling on my jaw which we decided to monitor and keep going. 

The last time that happened I ended up on antibiotics being administered intravenously so this couldn’t be taken lightly but about 100 from Dar, with the swelling getting worse, it was decided to turn back in time to see the Doctor before the clinic closed at 12. 

Armed with antibiotics, we were back on the road but with lost time Udzungwa was put on hold with a plan to check out Simbamwenni camp in Morogoro. We knew about this place for a while but never had the need to stopover, so this was the perfect opportunity.

Simbawenni campsite is neat and clean
Turning right at Morogoro on to the Dodoma road, and left following the signs to the crematorium, we arrived to find a well kept secret run by Annie and her husband next to the Ngrengere river. Set in lush gardens and a coconut grove, with a campsite and tented accommodation, this was a pleasant surprise. 

There were plenty of birds to check out and a few interesting trees in the garden including a bread fruit tree and plenty of mango trees. We were told the bat hawk was a regular visitor which we didn’t find but we saw plenty of other birds, including 3 first time sightings. The dogs were a bit unruly and one of them bit Cheryl which saw two of them being tied up for the rest of our stay.
All set for the waiting game
The next morning, we left Morogoro after late breakfast under the trees and arrived at the Mikumi gate around midday. The rest house was available and the good news was the lions were in the park and apparently spotted just down the road in the morning. 

Literally meters from the park gate, 5 lionesses were resting under a tree and we could not have wished for a better start than starting off the trip with lions to track for the next couple of days.

Big bulls with full set of tusks are always great to see
There were 3 huge bull elephants walking about and we decided to check them out as there was little chance of the lions moving. They were magnificent specimens with large tusks and again literally meters from the gate. 

Next we checked out the rest house to find a herd of elephants hanging around there too.  Finally it was time to check out the park but so much seemed to have already happened and we had only arrived.

Collared Pratincole
 As always, first stop was the hippo pools water hole. The Collared pratincoles were here in numbers and they are always nice to see. Another notable sighting was the European roller, a visitor and common at times but we hadn’t seen one for a while. 

European Roller
Then a tourist vehicle sped past which we decided to follow to a spotted hyena which is a rare sighting in this park. We had seen one before and heard a few at night and now a clear shot to what was a great first day.

Elusive spotted Hyena at Mikumi
The rest of the day we spent with the lions waiting for them to get up and do something, preferably drink from a water hole close by but they didn’t budge from their spot under the tree till we had to leave as the light was fading. The question was which way would they move overnight and whether we could pick them up in the morning.
European Hobby on the road
The next morning was a frantic search for the 5 lions but we couldn’t pick them or see any signs of which way they had moved overnight. We headed to where the big herds of plains game were and still no signs of the lions and then finally to the water hole, which was no longer a hot spot as there was water all over the park. 

Close to the waterhole we found a lioness and a cub and it wasn’t one of the 5 lionesses from the previous day. We soon recognized the lioness as ‘Milky’, a member of the resident pride at the waterhole. We had seen her around this area for the last 4 years and have great shots of her hunting and mating so it was great to see her again with a cub. This meant of course she has lost 2 cubs and this one was only just off Mum’s milk.

Milky the lioness, she is now a legend at Hippo pools
The theories in the car were many! Where were the rest of the pride and what has happened to the 3 huge males that were part of the pride? It was a long time since we saw lions this close to the water hole, whereas 4 years ago, they seemed to be always in the vicinity of the waterhole. Is she the only survivor of this pride and was she related to the 5 we saw last night? It was a pleasant way to have our morning coffee on our own with a lioness and her cub and theories.

Green winged Pyatilia, a little gem of the bush
We decided to stick with these two but couldn’t help but notice another car in the distance behaving suspiciously like they had also seen lion but we had just driven past that spot and surely we could not have driven past anything special. A few other cars found us and now were 3 while the lone car in the distant continued to ignore us.

A bit of grooming for the bouncers of the bush
What’s more a few giraffes had joined the single car and showed the all too familiar behavior of staring down predators but we were still reluctant to leave our two. Then a few zebra also joined the single car and giraffes and there were new theories in our car on why there couldn’t be anything there. 

The giraffes are staring at the car, the zebra are now grazing, maybe they are birding, there is no way there could be anything there we just drove past there but why isn’t that car coming towards us to catch what is obviously a sighting of note with 3 vehicles.

The rain is coming, always a concern in the bush
Finally the single car started heading towards us and informed us there were 5 lions looking to hunt but disappeared in to the bushes! Seriously what is going on here? 

More theories - we should have checked it out, we somehow drove past the 5 lions we were looking for, whose side were the lions on, both the giraffe and zebra showed obvious signs of staring down a predator and we should have moved earlier, but all the plains game looked normal when we drove past them, who was to blame for this major oversight? Well we headed off immediately to the spot and there were no signs of lions and plains game looked like they hadn’t seen a lion for days.
If there were lions, these two didn't seemed concerned
Thankfully before the next set of theories could be addressed a lioness was spotted in the bushes and it was possible that we missed them earlier had they been in the bushes. 

Pork chops didn't seem to care about the lions around the corner
The good news was, it was still relatively early in the day and if the lions moved we could track them easily as the road network in this part of the park is good. The plan for the rest of the day was now obvious, stick with the lions and hope they give us the opportunities to shoot and if that took all day it was fine with us.
The time of plenty - wildebeest with calf
The weather however, was a problem with the rain starting and this just spoilt everything, especially if the lions moved in the rain which was unlikely, but possible given our luck with them this morning. Between rain breaks and lions seemingly set for the day in the bushes, we were keeping our eyes on a waterhole just around the corner where we had spotted what we thought was our first African crake on the previous trip last week. 

The photographic zebra
It was awfully skittish vanishing into the grass the moment it saw the car. You can’t exactly sneak up to anything in a 20 year old diesel 4X4 but we tried to kill the engine and roll up to the water hole which seemed to make a slight difference. It went down in to the grass and we waited and finally it appeared only for a moment to get the bins on it to make a positive identification.

Spur winged goose
There was another amusing scene playing out just a couple of meters away. The rain was bringing out the Christmas flies from there underground nests and the birds were literally having a feast. Even a baboon was spotted trying to catch one in mid air. 

A marabou stork had found the most efficient method by finding the hole in the ground where the flies appeared from and placed it massive beak open next to the exit point! That was a smart move and in hindsight worthy of shooting time but with crakes and lions around this scene was relegated. 

Ground Hornbill with a frog for breakfast
In between there was a ground hornbill who had frog in its beak. There was also a herd of elephants heading our way and we thought they may drink at the water hole with the crake but they didn’t but they were heading towards to the lions which could potentially be quite exciting.
All the rain around meant the Ele's didn't drink at the water hole
As usual other cars came and went and we had to point out the lions ears to a few who otherwise saw nothing. There were a few guys in a saloon car and cell phones desperately trying to get shots of the lions and we could only just see the ears from the elevated 4X4. 

Yellow-throated Long Claw, you can see where it gets it's name
An obliging yellow throated long claw kept us entertained with a perfect sighting next to the car. The elephants did get close but not close enough for the lions to react but finally the easing of the rain triggered the lions to make a move.

Patience finally paid off when the lions moved into the open
One by one the lions started to come out of the bushes and head towards the open plains to dry off. It was the perfect set up as they had to cross the road were on to get to the open plain allowing us to position ourselves for head of shots. There was also one other car and it was their lucky day as they arrived just as the first lion was crossing the road. 

We were in luck with lions in the open looking relaxed 
3 of them came out straight away and we re-positioned again to where they had settled down expecting a rush of cars soon. The saloon with the cell phones appeared and the all looked thrilled to see the lions in the open but they couldn’t get to where were as there was a big puddle of water after the rain was blocking their path.

The traditional lion meet and greet ceremony
They of course didn’t know how many lions there were all eyes on the 3 in the open not knowing the 4th was next to their car. As it passed next to the back door we could see the surprise and fright in the eyes of the guys in the car. 

All 5 lionesses were now in the open seated in the open making us a beautiful scene with the mountains in the back ground still with cloud handing over them. What we also noticed was one of the lionesses was ‘Shorty’, the lioness with the missing tail tip that we’d previously seen together with ‘Milky’.
Relaxing means different things to different lions
No more theories as we were now the resident experts on the hippo pool lion pride! We know Shorty well, together with Milky and a normal lioness (which we dubbed Norma), were the original 3 when we first met this pride. Three cubs from this pride had survived to adulthood which is so great to see and now making up a formidable pride of 6. 

Assuming the 3 males were still around, it is now officially a big pride. A pride of 10 including the cub with Milky. What’s more, the pride was headed towards Milky who could probably see them by now given we could see the single car from where she was this morning and they were now in the open.

The lions gave us the full show in the open in what was a 10/10 sighting. The light, the setting and subject could not be any better. Yes the sun wasn’t out but if it was, at this time of the day, they would have probably never come out and the light could have been too harsh so this was perfect. 

As the sun got hotter one by one the lions crept in to a bush and simply vanished under a bush right next to the road. There is no way you could spot or have any clue that five lionesses were under that bush right next to the road and it was probably how we missed them in the morning.

The dream sighting
We had our precooked pot of pasta lunch with the lions. It was a perfect example on the advantage of having your lunch ready the previous night as you’re ready to eat on the go with nothing to prepare. The roads were messy now because of the rain, and we were sliding around, but still we opted to check out Milky on possibly the worst road. 

She was out with her cub, sitting, looking towards where the pride was. The cub we concluded was not one of the cubs we had seen last week which of course meant we weren’t sure where those two youngsters were.

We assume they belong to this pride as they were certainly in the territory but it was strange that they weren’t here which means they were with another female making the pride 13! Last week other tourist had reported small cubs so we assume there is a female out there with a few cubs including the semi grown cubs we saw and possibly smaller cubs who are too small to come out all this way.

After a sensational day we spent the rest of day catching up with the rest of game to do some shooting. January is the time of plenty and herds had calved and there was plenty of plains game to shoot. The evening plan was always going to be to check out the lions. 

Two had come out of the bush and seated in the open plain and was an appropriate moment to have a beer with the lions. It was to be coffee, lunch and beer with lions which is surely the best one could ask for. On the way back we were hoping for one more highlight at the waterhole with the crake, but this time around it was not with the crake but a black crowned night heron who posed for the camera to end a perfect day in the bush.

Black crowned night heron
Next morning, again it was a chase for lions. It doesn’t seem to matter that the day before was a perfect lion day, here we were looking for them again. It was straight to the waterhole and found them all laid out in the open plain but miles from the road. 
Zebs at play!
There were a herd of zebra who were keeping a close eye on the pride but the lions were chilled out and were only going to head further away once the sun came out. We did have coffee with them but decided to leave them and look for other game and came upon a big herd of giraffes outside the campsite.

There were four elephants walking down the road while we were busy shooting the giraffes. As the elephants kept coming we decided to reposition the car getting one tyre off the road just in case there was a standoff. Amazingly the elephants kept walking straight to us in a single file and walked straight past the car on the single track we had left for them.

They are coming...
It was surreal experience to have massive elephants walk past you within touching distance. The first one did stop for a moment to sniff at the car but they were otherwise silent and total relaxed walking past the car.

They are here...
No one move - except the shooter!
They are going, start normal breathing!
We had also noted the huge herd of buffalo had made its way into the open but only accessible on the muddiest road of them all but we were up to it. After shooting the buffalo the road suddenly seemed a lot worse and it seemed like were driving on an ice ring, any loss of traction and we would slide off in to the ditch. Then we realized we would have to turn around and do it all over again as the road ahead could be worse but that’s what you do in the bush to get your shots. 

Buffalo never seem happy to see you
Other than a ground hornbill with a baby puff adder in its beak there was not much else for our final morning of what was a sensational bush trip. Yes there was one problem with the car, the air-conditioner it seemed had improved 3 fold and was blowing cold air like it was brand new. 

So it was shutters down for the trip back home and we found out that our a/c had only very high and high, suddenly medium and low didn’t work, but that’s a minor issue in the larger scale of the car trouble we have been having.         

White faced whistling ducks

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