Friday, 9 December 2016

Mikumi NP, December 2016

Hippo Pools was the only water for miles.
With no long weekends in November, two public holidays early in December was an opportunity to check out Mikumi for the last time of the year. The usual early morning start and we were on the road this time with 4 new heavy duty shocks a new clutch plate. The check in at the gate was surprisingly quick for a long weekend. The lion report was the Hippo pools pride was last seen near the water holes two days ago.

First sighting, yet to be identified
The rains were late and the park was dry and apparently the only source of water in the park was Hippo Pools. This was a perfect set up for a weekend of wateholing and what’s more our campsite was close to Hippo Pools as you want it to be. First sighting was a bird we are yet to identify but reckon it’s a juvenile Northern Wheatear. A Saddle Billed Stork was guarding the last remaining patch of mud at Jacana Pool which also had an African Painted Snipe moving around.

African Painted Snipe

Saddled bill storks were forced to Hippo Pools
We stopped at Hippo Pools and there were animals in all directions waiting for their turn to drink with a nice collection of birds in attendance. We set off to check out the campsite when we noted the first herd of elephants moving in for a drink and rushed back to shoot. We ended up having lunch in the car at Hippo Pools where you are allowed to get down from the car. What was apparent was we would need to shoot in the mornings to get the best light at Hippo Pools, otherwise the sun would be setting straight in to the camera.

They were lining up and we had the perfect spot
A fellow tourist, a teacher from the school in Mikumi town, requested we stand in for a few photos with his family. It seemed a strange request but we happily obliged, and so somewhere on Facebook, there are selfies with us and an unknown family!  The family had a guide with them and I was onto him about lion sightings. He spoke no English but from what I made out, the lions were in the ravine close to the campsite. Given we could see the campsite from the Hippo Pools, the lions were in the area.

Black Bellied Bustard
We were off to try locate the lions but what appeared like a straight forward task was not working out. We decided to head back to Hippo Pools and keep an eye out from there and stumbled upon a male lion sleeping on the Jacana Pool bund. It was Scruffer, the male with the short mane which made up the 3 male coalition which has since been ousted but what was he doing here? We assumed he had fled when the previous coalition was thrown out but here he was in the heart of the pride territory sleeping in the open and looking very relaxed.

Scruffer was back in pride territory.
Back at the water hole more and more herds came and went for a drink. The elephants were the most confident, only stopping for a brief minute to look around before heading in to the water. The Zebra took forever, hesitating right at the entrance to the waterhole and often having to make way for elephants and buffalo. Most times the Zebra would start drinking and run off in a panic which meant the whole process had to start all over again. After the elephants, the buffalo were the most confident but even they at times ran back to safety, just yards away from the water.

Ele's just walked in, the Buff were reluctant to move while others watched
We went on another search for the lions in the ravine and still couldn’t find them so it was back to Scruffer to see if he was showing signs of getting up or other lions had joined them. Negative in both cases, if anything he seemed faster asleep with a few Zebra watching him nervously from a distance. What we did notice was a conducted game drive vehicle speeding past the water hole they had just passed. These guys are hooked up on radios or cell phones and know exactly what is moving around the park so we decided to head in the same direction.
A rare shot of something away from the waterhole
The move paid off as there were lions on the road just passed Hippo Pools on the Mwanambogo dam road. It was Milky (the one with the milky eye) and Shorty (the one with missing tail tuft) with the two cubs and a couple of other lionesses. The older females just slept but the cubs were in an almighty game playing with Milky’s sub-adult cub who we named Super Sub, short for Super Subadult – so named because as a young cub she once stalked and successfully caught a francolin. It was great to see this little cub surviving this long and nearing maturity. Super Sub was much older than the two other cubs but was young enough to play with them which was most entertaining to watch. Finally they had enough and the two cubs went to sleep sprawled out on the road with the other lionesses just off the road.
The two cubs with Super Sub on the road

Play time

We could see a huge herd of buffalo approaching the waterhole and decided to get past the landing area to the waterhole before the Buffalo approached it and check them out from the opposite end with sundowners. The light was a serious challenge with the low dipping sun straight in to the camera but it was a spectacular end to our first day of the long weekend. Row upon row of Buffalo pushing their way for a drink probably about 10 meters from us on the opposite bank.

Once they start moving in there is no stopping them
Back at the camp site there was another couple camping but had thoughtfully left the best spot open for us. It’s also the spot that everyone wants and is often stolen despite our attempts to claim it for ourselves in the past. Just as we were getting the roof tent up the unmistakable sound of a lion roar came out from just down the road. It was Choccy the pride male and we could see him clearly from the camp and he must have been sleeping in the ravine as others had claimed but we just couldn’t see him. Nice to spot a lion from our campsite and there were heaps of other animals all over the place around the campsite.

More play time
The next morning the plan was simple. Hope the lions were near the waterhole as that’s where we wanted to be to shoot the drinking animals in the best morning light. Disappointingly they were not on the road next to the waterhole which would have been perfect, but Choccy was with Milky in the same spot that Milky was with the cubs the previous evening. She had a bad limp so no surprises why she hadn’t moved but where were the rest of the pride and were these two mating? After giving them some time and with nothing appearing to happen in terms of mating, we went along to try to find the rest of the pride.
European Roller was in for summer
Within sight of the camp site just about at the spot we saw Choccy coming out of last evening was the rest the pride asleep next to the road. There was Shorty, Super Sub, the two cubs and Norma who is hard to call as she looks like any other normal lioness. It was a perfect setting for our morning coffee hoping the cubs would come alive and start playing. Despite it being a long weekend, there was no one else around and the only other car that came around, our neighbors from the campsite, either didn’t see us or didn’t want to see the lions.

This little chap was having difficulty after a drink

Still struggling but he made it after a few attempts
The lions finally woke up but only to move in to the bushes away from the heat of the sun. It was time to head back to the water hole, only minutes away to shoot the drinking game in the best light. The procession was on again and it was a matter of waiting patiently for the animals to come. The biggest challenge was the road ran straight over the landing on the opposite side of the water hole and not all the long weekend tourists understood what was going on, often driving close to the landing for a better view and chasing off the game away from the water. Some tourist would stop at the landing to look at the game that were patiently waiting for them to move off in order to approach the water again. We just had to wait and hope more would work out what was going on so we could all have a perfect view.

Wildebeest's turn to drink
This was the perfect spot for selfies with animals drinking in the background and everyone was in to it as you are allowed to get out of your car. The animals were not bothered by it as long as the tourist stayed on the opposite bank. Even we couldn’t resist the temptation of a selfie with animals drinking in the background.

Couldn't resist a selfie with Ele's
When things calmed down we checked on the rest of the pride, only minutes away and then checked to see if Milky and Choccy were mating, another few minutes in the opposite direction. We felt compelled to drive around a bit just to see if anything else was happening in the park. A quick drive around Roller plains quickly revealed nothing was happening anywhere else and all the game was in the vicinity of Hippo Pools. There were hundreds, if not thousands of game on the plains next to the water hole and under the trees in the campsite so it was a good time to pull out the chairs and just chill at the camp site checking out the birds.

Friendly Warthog
What must be the longest bird call showed up - a Crested barbet - and a pair of African paradise flycatchers made for interesting viewing from the camping chair. The White browed sparrow weavers were by far the most common and noisy neighbors around. After some relaxing and rare camp time for a lunch break we were off once again the short distance to the pride first. We seemed to have got the timing right as Norma was on the move and we were able to get in to the right position to get a few shots of her walking towards the camera.

We think this is Norma
The rest of the afternoon was spent at the waterhole and surrounds checking out the game that came to drink and keeping an eye on the lions. We had a chat with the Tan Swiss game guide who we have got to know over the years. Apparently the best place in the park to search for leopards is on Tamarind trees on the airstrip. He pointed out two particular trees which we found later and noted for future. Also made us wonder the number of times had we driven past the trees without spotting the leopard.

A busy Ground Hornbill
Going by the sounds and activity the lions in the ravine had caught something. Once the lions go down in to the ravine, nothing is visible from the road but there were signs of life from the sleeping lions. However, a large herd of approaching elephants caught our fancy as it had some large tuskers and were heading to drink. We headed to the waterhole for the rest of the evening for sundowners and watching the game coming to drink.

Turn of the Zebs


That evening we heard Hyenas for the first time. Usually we heard them every night but this time they were missing till tonight. The discussion in the evening was around how we can capture the waterhole in a different mood the following day so as not to repeat a string of shots of the same scene. What was clear was we would not be diving around searching for anything as everything was within a 2 KM radius of the campsite.

Changed angle
The next morning the Lions were where they were supposed to be, on the road next to the waterhole! We came upon the two small cub on the road and had to push them aside to find the rest of the pride up the road. Scruffer was with them and this was a major surprise and highlights what little we know of what is going on out there. He was part of a 3 male coalition that included two black maned brothers (we presume) who have now been replaced with Choccy, a chocolate colored mane. Somehow Scruffer survived the takeover and continues to hang out with the pride.
Scruffer on the road with the pride
The first to drink this morning were the Giraffes which is always nice to see. One of them seemed more desperate than the others and drank without hesitating. However, the others had a tough time as Super Sub took an interest at the animals coming to drink and took up position on the bund. This meant a stare down between the Lioness and the animals with no one drinking. The unhappiest of the lot were the Helmut Guinea Fowl who made an almighty noise but proceeded to drink despite the Lioness watching them closely. I guess being able to fly in an emergency helps.
This guy was desperate and drank with Lions and us watching

After a lot of noise, the Guinea Fowl were desperate for a drink too
Now Milky, who was taking note of the game eager for a drink and moved towards them. Despite the lions being close to the waterhole the animals in the distance seemed unusually restless and started to run around. We were shooting the lions who were offering some nice shooting opportunities and even Scruffer got up and crossed over to watch the game. Then the unthinkable, a man was walking down the road!
The stare down
This was totally insane as he walked across the landing where the animals drink and despite having the option to stick to the main road, he turned down the campsite walking straights towards us and the lions. Our first reaction was to drive up to him and get him in to the car and away from what appeared to be certain death at the hands of the lions. The man was barefoot and holding a bottle of yellow liquid which we assumed to be a potion of black magic (known as Muti) or urine. Either way this was a serious issue, the prospect of taking in a man holding a bottle of Muti or urine in to your car is not something one is prepared for.

Milky and Super Sub
We drove up to him and tried to talk to him but he didn’t even look at us and kept walking towards the lions. We were dumbstruck and drove up to the waterhole and called the campsite manager to inform them of a man walking around. There were no signs of the lions who had vanished into the bush and we could see the man walking in the distance and appeared to have negotiated the lions without an incident. The first tourist car arrived and we informed the guide of the man walking around and they went off looking for him. We were still shaken by the incident and decided to stay at the water hole just to work out what on earth just happened. It also raised the question if we should be camping with a mad man walking around holding a bottle of muti or urine.

Ox peckers the opportunity for a dip
As a break we decided to check out the Tamarind trees for a leopard. The tress in question were easy enough to find but no Leopard in sight. We were aware of the Eagle Owl that hung around the airfield and were lucky enough to spot him resting in a tree. We also found a lone lioness hiding in a bush on the edge of Elephant running plains, a place where we have seen entire herds of Elephants running for no apparent reason! Yet to work out if something is going on here or just a coincidence but we have observed the behavior on a few occasions at the same place.

On our way back we were informed of a pair of mating lions to which we headed immediately. We assumed it was Choccy but to our surprise it was a second male, less brown than Choccy with what we think was Norma. They were just out of camera reach so decided to give them some time to possibly move but they seemed content under a large shade tree for the moment. Past experience tells us they will not move far so we had the whole day to shoot them provided they moved to a better spot.

They are at it but who is this male
It was back to the waterhole for more shooting and this time we picked a new spot for a new angle. That proved to be a mistake as it was on an exit route we hadn’t realized till a herd of Elephants started walking towards us. So it was back to the previous days spot for more shooting conscious of not overshooting the same thing over and over again. After having our fill it was time to head back to the campsite for some rare downtime relaxing and birding at the camp. Our neighbors had left and unless there were new arrivals, it would be us alone at the campsite at night. A worrying thought with a mad man walking around.

They kept coming to drink
Next stop was the mating lions and the good news is they had moved but the bad news was they had crossed the road to a tree which just couldn’t see them at all. We found a new task, searching for Leopards in trees on the dry weather track behind the camp site and connecting to roller plains. There was a scattering of game but things were really quiet except for a building of a massive storm. These storms usually stick to the mountains in the background and don’t reach the park which is on the flats at the base of the mountain.

But today was going to be a special day. We were going to be in the park when the dry season broke and the rains arrived. It was an awesome storm which would change everything in Mikumi and announce the arrival of the time of plenty. We got to Hippo Pools to sit out the storm and just enjoy the breaking of the rains. After a 30 minute deluge the storm disappeared as had every on the plains before us. Everything had simply vanished and understandably so as there was water everywhere and the new grass would soon arrive and there was no need to congregate around a waterhole guarded by lions.

There is a theory that after the rains, cats like to get in to the open, especially the roads to dry off. This was proven to be correct a while back when the pride did come out after a morning of rains and lie in the open drying off. We were at the ravine and could see one of the cubs on the opposite bank and went across. It quickly vanished but the bigger females were now on the side we had just left and appeared to be heading out. We were back across and sure enough, Milky, Super Sub and Scruffer were on the road. The two cubs soon joined them too and a hectic game started between Super Sub and one of the cubs. They were all drenched and didn’t seem to mind the mud or water around and running around.

Super Sub ready to pounce

It was the end of day and the air was fresh with water everywhere and the animals had vanished but the lions were there, just by the campsite as we set up camp for our last night. There was snake in the ladies toilet and that toilet was not used. We did have a problem with one of the gas bottles which was leaking gas and was nearly empty compared to the second one which was nearly full. Then we discovered our emergency light was not working and one of our head lamps was also on one globe. Luckily all manageable problems in a Mikumi situation but would be a major issue had it been on a long trip in a remote location.
Even Mum was playful after the rains
The next morning everything but the lions were around. What’s more Choccy had finally made an appearance by the side of the road. Scruffer appeared to be mating with Shorty and this was a surprise as well as we assume he was the leader but two other males were currently mating with the pride females under his nose. Going on seniority, it is possible that Scruffer is the new leader and the other two have formed a coalition with him to rule the Hippo Pools pride.

This chap was the outcast and sat away from the pod
It was a short morning drive as the lions went into the shade and there was nothing drinking and we were not going to chase game in to the plains on the last morning. It was time to pack up and leave for Dar after dry season special at Mikumi.

Had plenty to eat

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