Saturday, 26 March 2016

Mikumi NP - Easter 2016

Up close with ele's.
Easter weekend and it’s the traditional Mikumi run with an eye on the rain which starts this time of the year. With crowds expected the plan was to camp and we were informed at the gate of one other party at the Hippo pool camp site. News of the lions was positive with them being spotted in the area the previous day.

Plenty to eat for the locals but hard to shoot in the long grass.
The park was green and looking fresh with the recent rains and first stop was Hippo pool which was covered in water cabbage offering opportunities to shoot if you could find a hippo or jacana around. We spent many an hour the previous trip in January shooting both of them at Hippo pools but still couldn’t resist a repeat shot of a hippo in the water.

Dressed in water cabbage.
Next stop was the camp site for lunch and ensure the toilets were workable which they were. Quick lunch under a tree and we put up our beach shelter at the bottom of the camp ground to secure our spot with the expected crowds for the weekend. Time to cruise around and check out what was going around.

Water Thick-Knee
Other than getting the bird list started with the usual suspects there was not much to report in terms of special sightings and no signs of the lions other than confirmation they were seen the day before. After a bit of driving around it was decided to stop for sundowners at Jacana pool, which is next to hippo pool. This was a most productive water hole last time and today it was the turn of the huge resident herd of buffalo to drink. It was a pleasant end to our first day having sundowners with the buffalo before it was time to get back to the camp site.

Jacana pool.
There were a new set of campers at the next camp site which meant we had a full campsite with 3 campers. Showers before it was too dark as the toilet was a walk from the bottom of the camp ground. It was noisy evening with coughing baboons and a screaming jackal which we thought could be a rare side striped. There was also the one roar of lions confirming they were around. The Mikumi lions are usually quiet and seldom have we heard them roar more than a couple of times a night.

Bush taxi.
The next morning, the plan was as always is to find the lions. The plan was to head towards the gate which is where the roar came from the previous night. They could be anywhere by now but it was a starting point. We decided to check out the second campsite with the huge baobab tree and the moment we turned a couple of lions were sleeping on the road, perfect! 

First morning, in the middle of the park, which means we can track them for a while, lions on the road. It’s ‘Milky’ and ‘Shorty’ – 2 lions we knew well - with the semi grown cub chilling out on the road in the morning sun. We got our position knowing there would be a rush of cars and pulled out the coffee.

Shorty with Milky and the cub.
Cars came and went and the lions hardly moved while we were kept entertained by two male red-billed spurfowls who seemed to be having a problem with each on the road behind us. 

Red Necked Spur Fowl not happy with each other. 

The manner of sorting out their issue chasing each other up and down the road, non-stop, in an entertaining foot race. They would stop at times and get in to an old fashioned hen peck before starting the foot race again. Suddenly the lion cub started to take notice of the spurfowl fight.

Instinct kicks in.
The cubs eyes zeroed in on the Spur fowl and it got up and started stalking using our car as convenient cover. It stalked right past the car and settled for the pounce on the side of the car with the Spur fowl still unaware, deep in a hen peck. The cub pounced on the fighting duo and had one in its mouth while the victor, albeit with the aid of a lion, flew off!  

The winner takes flight.

The cub ran off down the road with spurfowl in its mouth and all this action had got the attention of Milky who was also keen to have a part of the catch. By the time we reversed and got alongside, the cub was already busy de-feathering his prize. Shorty had also moved close but the cub wasn’t going to share and had its fowl breakfast all on his own.

The loser paid the ultimate prize.

The opportunist has a meal.
Patience paid off once again, as we could have left a long time ago, but decide to stick around and see what happens and caught a great bit of action. Now it was time to leave and we announced to a passing car about the lions who in turn informed us that there were two more lions towards the gate. Well, this was perfect news, more lions to chase and it was still relatively early in the morning.

It soon became apparent where all the other cars were, as it was a traffic block pointing to where the lions were. There was a lioness seated a few yards away from a massive buffalo who was also seated and seemed totally unconcerned about the lioness. 


The other lioness was stalking wildebeest who knew she was around, but not her exact location in the grass. After a couple of half-hearted chases and her position revealed, the hunt was off and the lionesses walked away across the airstrip towards a herd of impala and vanished into the grass.

The lioness gives it's position away.
Like the wildebeest, the impala also knew she was around but not her precise location. She kept bobbing up in the grass as she attempted to get close but finally, the herd of Impala also ran off and the lioness walked off towards the closest tree line. 

All the cars raced of after the lioness trying to catch her on the road by the tree line but we decided to take our chances with the second lioness gawking at the buffalo. The theory was it was bound to head towards the lioness who just headed for the tree line.

Mikumi airstrip with the locals keeping watch. 
Soon as predicted, the lioness was on the move but this time straight towards us and we were perfectly positioned for the head on shots. We headed towards to tree line where the first lioness vanished to and caught the second one sniffing her way looking for the second lion. 

What was already a perfect morning with the spurfowl kill turned even better with two more lionesses. The two lots of lionesses were relatively close to each other and we were already theorising the possibility of them meeting up in the evening and what we would be doing later in the day.

Full marks for getting to the right spot for this shot.
 We were heading back to the camp site for a break when the car just cut out. Hello car trouble again. The starter was fine but the engine just wasn’t kicking in. We did the basic checks which was open the bonnet and ensure everything looks in place, which it was and nothing to suggest why the car just cut out and refused to start. Wild panicked plans were the call of the day including getting a tow to the campsite or the gate or jumping in to another car and getting to the gate to locate a mechanic on Easter Sunday!

Lilac Breasted Roller, probably the most photographed bird in Africa.
We called Mr.Nikas, the campsite manager and who we have got to know over the years. Turns out he was on leave but gave us the number of the park manager. After numerous attempts, the park managers assured us a mechanic will be sent for, which of course meant this could be a anything from a couple of hours to the next day. Much to our surprise, we got a call in 40 minutes from the park manager to ask us of our location as the mechanic was here!

Bush sunblock.
This was most impressive and the mechanic arrived with an armed guard carrying an automatic machine gun and in a minute located the issue. The power cable to the much troubled injector pump has fallen off its anchor point so the fuel wasn’t flowing. The mechanic had a box of spanners and needed a knife and our limited command of Swahili and English was going to make things ever harder. 

Pin tailed Whydah.

Then a passing tourist car was stopped and a piece of wire was produced. Another passing car was stopped for electrical tape, both of which we were carrying but the language barrier was getting in the way. He had the car sorted in 10 minutes and announced it was good to go and there was no need to go in to town get it properly fixed which we happily agreed given it seemed a minor issue.

Tower of Giraffes.
We were back at the campsite for lunch and were off again in the hotter part of the day with a plan to check out Jacana pool where the shade should have come on to the road. Jacana pool was a productive temporary water hole with a nice landing for big game to drink, a bund for sun downers in the cooler part of the day and a few big trees for shade during the afternoon for birding. There was also a great dried up fallen tree right next to the shade that the birds perched on and was perfect for shooting birds.

Zanzibar Red Bishop.
The Zanzibar red bishop was around as was a pin tailed whydah, both hard to shoot but the dried tree offered a great opportunity. On the water was a Jacana with three tiny chicks which kept us occupied for a while and noticeable were the extremely long toes even on the little chicks. 

African Jacana and chicks. 
Then they arrived, in numbers, a big herd of elephants with babies and all. It was later afternoon sun and the cloud around, was perfect light to shoot. Elephants at water is probably the best way to shoot them. Full of life and games and totally relaxed at the water. 

The apple green water cabbage added more colour to the scene and negated the shine off the water. After a perfect lion shooting conditions in the morning, the afternoon was turning out to be perfect elephant shooting.

Finally, they all left with afresh black sheen like newly polished animals and promptly dusted themselves to bring back that bush colour. We pulled back under the shade and waited and soon another herd smaller her arrived and gave us a repeat show. After the second herd we moved out looking for what else was going around.

White Faced Whistling Duck.
We caught up with our neighbours at the hippo pools waterhole, who informed us that four lions walked past their camp site around 10 the previous night! The rather expert sounding Dad with two kids in tow also reckoned the baboons were coughing due to a leopard walking up and down the road and the scream we heard was in fact a side stripped jackal but we believe he was making up stories for the kids.

Lazy jostle.
As the evening was drawing to a close lion fever was back and we were back in the trail looking for signs of the lions reappearing. The problem was so was everyone else and the lions at the tree line had been spotted but it was a crazy jam of cars moving around trying to get a glimpse of what could only be an ear or tail in the long grass. We decided to get back on the bund of Jacana dam for the rest of the evening leaving everyone else with the lions.

Jacana Pool bund - perfect for sundowners. 
A small herd of elephants obliged by showing up in the soft evening sun for a drink which ended a perfect day. We did try to shoot the sunset with the water cabbage on the water but just couldn’t make it work before getting back to the campsite. 

Another offer of Jacana Dam - sunset shooting. 
Back at the campsite and our immediate neighbours were gone which meant an entire side was now open to wandering game. It was a case of showers and chilling out next to the car with a wine before dinner and up in to the tent. We were woken up in the middle of night to the unmistakable noise of feeding elephants. 

A small herd had arrived and despite a whole fresh green park to pick from, they were instead insisting on feeding next to our car. One of the huge females seemed to be keen on the longer grass right under the tree were camped under but we nodded back to sleep to the munch of elephants. 
Dragon Fly of some description.
The theory for the morning was Milky and Shorty with the cub would get together with two that vanished in to the treeline and the starting point was Hippo pools and then along lion avenue to the first camp site. After wandering around we decided to check out Jacana Dam as a last measure and there on the middle of the road, as predicted, all the lions were asleep but other cars had taken up the choice spots. 

Stuck behind the cars the question was who to blame for not coming down this road which was the main road. We forgave each other that there was no one but the lions to blame for not sleeping along a road we decided to take.

Nothing beats early morning Lion sightings.
Some of the lions were starting to move and we pulled out and decided to reposition on the opposite side near “suspicious bridge” where the lions were heading to and the first tree line. It was a kind of strange scene, a pride of lions sleeping on the road surrounded by cars with one lonesome car (us) parked what looked like in the middle of nowhere having morning coffee!

The lions slowly started to move and the first one appeared right in front of us, again, and again in perfect morning sun. Now there was a wild scramble from the rest of the cars to join us as the lions were clearly heading towards us.

When Shorty appeared she looked like she had eaten an elephant on her own with a huge stomach. If we hadn’t seen her the previous day, we would have sworn she was pregnant! They must have eaten early in the night as there was no sign of blood on them. 

Shorty looked like she ate an elephants on her own.

One by one the lions came out of the grass and some walked straight past while a few vanished into a bush. The late starters were also here and it was a massive clump of cars trying to get a look with us in the perfect spot. In a crowded park, experiencing a sighting is great but for us, getting the shots is as important.

Shorty relaxed with a full stomach. 
Again cars came and went and tried to follow a few that disappeared round suspicious bridge while the late arrivals drove off road in a desperate bid for a lion sighting in the morning which eventually chased the lion further in to bushes.

European Bee-eater. 
It was time to move around and first stop was Pratincole dam (these names don’t exist but created by us) which was full of water a flock of open bills in attendance. Next stop was Mkata dam in the middle of the park and the customary destination in the middle of the day. 

Crimson Rumped Wax-bill.

Mkata dam couldn’t be reached due to the rain but the picnic spot is a perfect lunch destination under huge shade trees. The picnic site also has a resident pair of noisy broad-billed rollers. We had lunch here checking out birds and even jumped under the shower in the toilets to cool down from the heat.

Open Billed Storks.
 Back to the top end of the park and Jacana dam as the shade would be within reach now. The usual suspects of bishops and whydah were around as was a fan-tailed widowbird who had arrived in the park on their annual migration. 

Red Winged Widow-bird.
We were busy trying to identify a typical LBJ which we thought was some description of flycatcher when there was a splash in the water announcing the arrival of the elephants for the afternoon drink. We had to pull out of the shade to shoot but the scene was simply too good to be bothered by the heat.
The highlight of Jacana Pool. 
This was a large herd of elephants all excited at the thought of water (which was everywhere) but apparently the water hole with a landing was worth getting excited about. They all went straight in to the water for a drink and we had the perfect view with cameras ready. 

The elephant that arrived at the end for some reason wasn’t the popular one. It appeared to be a male and was noticeably drinking away from the rest of the herd. Suddenly the whole herd charged out of the water towards this one who moved away. 

Then the whole herd came to a dead stop, ears out, trunks up, standing still! Was amazing to see how this big herd just stood still, kind of made us nervous too, positioned a few meters away but with water in-between. Then after about 15 seconds, they relaxed and got back in the water. 

Heading out of the water. 

This is the time for babies who seem to come alive and start all sorts of games much like kids at play. Even some of the big elephants were relaxing on their side in the water.

Bunched & trunks up - not happy about something. 
They left and we pulled back to the shade and another herd arrived with a huge male who also got in to the water. Was nice to see the huge bull relaxing in the water with all the other elephants. This came to an end and we decided to drive around and shoot something else after all this lion and elephant shooting.

Mikumi is great for shooting Giraffe.
It was decided to check out “Roller plains” where big herds of plains game hang out. Soon we came upon a massive herd of Impala in perfect sun and with no one around, we were planning to shoot this to our hearts’ content. As we stopped the car, the Impala started to run and the whole massive herd just ran off in to the plain and even the humble Impala was now proving harder to shoot than the big five candidates in the park.

Black Headed Egret.
With evening arriving the lions plans are checked again and again with cars are all over at the last sightings looking for a glimpse. All too much for us and we decided sundowners at Jacana pool was the best option.

Buffalo never really seem too happy to see you. 
On a part of the park we seldom see anything was something different walking along the road. We stopped the car and but the bins to find it was a serval, on the main road and probably the most crowded road in the park but right now it was just us. 

The serval was some distance and we decided crawl behind it get close enough for a shot but not a chance, the cat darted into the bush. We moved as quietly as one could on a bush track in a diesel 4x4 to where we last saw the cat but the grass was long and there was no way we were going to see it. After giving it some time to show up, it was on the bund for sundowners.

Malachite Kingfisher.
The malachite kingfisher was around flying between dried stalks in the water, as was the Zanzibar red bishop and a small herd of elephants to make it a perfect end to a perfect day. We were still not happy with the elephants who didn’t start drinking till the sun had dipped behind the mountains and taking with it the golden light. 

It was still a spectacular scene and in the distance, the tourist cars were climbing over each other to get a peek at a lion while we were exchanging theories on overnight movement of lions.

Game watched the cars going past. 
Back to the camp site for the last night which was uneventful. The next morning was a desperate search for lions again with no success. We couldn’t even find anything to have coffee with so it was decided that we would go to Pratincole dam and have coffee with whoever was there which means coffee with barn swallows. Then the car wouldn’t start! 

It sounded like a dead battery that could be sorted with a push start as the car had two 12V batteries to kick the massive 24V starter. So the plan was to push start the car and head to the camp site to pack the beach shelter and head to the gate and swap the batteries where would be help available.

Staying close to Mum.
We soon learnt pushing huge 4x4 in suburbia is a plan that doesn’t always work on a bush track. A small hump meant we couldn’t get the car to roll so it was the battery swap job which is an easy task or so we though as we come armed for exactly this kind of thing so out with the spare battery which we planned to replace with the older of the two batteries. 

Still no signs of life with the car which is strange as this meant the newer battery was the culprit. This is still an easy fix, simply by swapping the new batter to the opposite side or so we thought.

Baboon trying to stare us down. 
It is at this point we realized that there is such a thing as a left and sided batteries which meant the new battery terminals don’t reach the battery anchor points. Now we had a problem and given it was still early morning, first call was to George in SA for advice from Cheryl’s dad who knows more about these things than us. 

His advice was to run a connecting wire from the battery to the terminals but was concerned if the wire has a lower carrying capacity than the battery voltage there is a fire risk. Ok we certainty couldn’t risk a fire so it was back to pushing again and the smallest of humps in the road was just proving too hard. Maybe we could dig away the hump on the road but the ground was hardened mud and didn’t look too conducive for impromptu road works.
Red-Necked Spur Fowl. 
Ok we had a problem, then Cheryl suggest we simply place the new batter on the ground and run the jumper leads to flat one and hey presto car was started just like that! Back to the camp site and we packed the beach shelter without stopping the car and headed for the gate. They suggested to drive to Mikumi village 20 kms in the opposite direction from Dar es Salaam. 

The park guys called up an electrician who promptly announced it was a simple case of a non-functioning battery terminal which he replaced with a new one before requesting a charge of TZS 70,000 (US$30). Knowing the story we offered him TZS 30,000. Later at the battery shop in Dar Es Salaam I learnt that we had the incorrect size battery terminal which costs TZS 5,000. We clearly need to improve our bargaining skills!
Hippo Pools covered in water cabbage. 
So it was back to Dar and we soon learnt the police had a new trick up their sleeve to catch speeding motorist (30 KMH) on highways that run through national parks. Obviously hiding behind bushes holding a speed cameral with animals running around is no longer an option so they run about in cars holding speed cameras out of the window and jump out of the car and stop you to give you a fine. 

Smart move I guess and lesson learnt that 30 KMH is serious as it should be for the sake of the animals. Didn’t seem to apply to the buses which seem to trash up and down the highway like mad men which recently has led to the death of 6 buffalo which even prompted a discussion on diverting the TanZam (Tanzania – Zambia) highway around the park. Thankfully, without further car issues or speeding tickets we got back from yet another great bush trip. 

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