Friday, 23 December 2016

Ruaha National Park - December 2016

Ruaha National Park
One year after we broke the timing belt en route to Ruaha which led to a string of expensive repairs and after fixing a new clutch and four new heavy duty shocks after our last Serengeti trip earlier this year, we were finally heading to Ruaha National Park in the Southwest of Tanzania.

Bush times are good times
We were off early as usual and the first stop was to check out the TanSwiss lodge in Mikumi town which doubled as a toilet break. This was more of a recon mission as the lodge is closest to our long weekend destination Mikumi National Park.

Woodland Kingfisher
The central highland steep passes were a bit nerve-wracking particularly dealing with trucks crawling at 10 KMH up the pass with buses flying down from the opposite direction. Our destination was River Valley campsite just outside Iringa on the TanZam highway. After fuelling up we checked in to find we were the only guests for the night. We opted for a banda and dinner at the lodge and spent the evening with two lodge dogs looking for birds. It was surprisingly quiet as far as the birds went – considering the campsite is right next to the river, it was a major surprise.

River Valley Lodge Iringa
Next morning was better in terms of birding with a pair of purple crested Turaco’s making an appearance along with plenty of bird calls which yielded a pair of tropical Boubou’s and an African Paradise Flycatcher. By 9am we were on the road heading out of Iringa town down the escarpment into the Ruaha flats counting the conspicuous white churches in rural villages along the way. (We counted 8 Greek Orthodox churches on the road to the national park.) One of the reasons we had picked Ruaha ahead of the Serengeti was the awful road from the NCA to Seronera and this road was deteriorating and was soon no better.

The road that never ends, the final 60 KMS to the Ruaha gate
Thankfully the really badly corrugated sections were relatively short and finally we reached the ‘road that never ends’, the final 60 KM to the park gate which was smooth and a huge relief but it was not going to stay that way for long as this road was on the way to corrugation hell in the near future. The park gate was a pleasant surprise with us as the only tourists checking in. We are used to the usual masses at Naabi hill gate at the Serengeti, which can take over an hour to just check in but this was a breeze.  It is a recurring theme and one of the highlights of Ruaha - low tourist numbers.

The Ruaha gate, no crowds, we are the only car!
We stopped for lunch at the bridge where everyone seems to stop and were stunned at the river consisting of pools of water. We were half expecting it to be flowing, given it was flowing in August when we were last here, albeit 5 years ago. We were aware of irrigation activity upstream which was having a profound impact on the water levels of the river in the park and downstream.  This was a serious issue and surely a threat to this entire eco-system. We understand that people’s wellbeing must always take precedence but this was a disturbing sight.

Hippos at the bridge
Next stop was the campsite which we had been warned would be crowded at this time of the year but there was just one party, a couple of South African ladies, on route to the Serengeti stopping over to check out Ruaha. They informed of the nearest lions, along the Ruaha river and noted they hadn’t seen a single other vehicle the whole day. We were aware Ruaha had very little tourists but this was getting to the remote wilderness levels of Botswana.

Ruaha public camp site
The plan for the day was to check out the Ruaha river drive up to the confluence and see if we could find the lions the ladies had told us about and get an idea of what else was happening on the riverfront. Despite the river being restricted to a few pools of water, there was plenty of bird activity on the river with good numbers of Saddle-billed storks and Grey-crowned cranes. We also had a decent sighing of a two male Kudu resting under a tree, a Ruaha special and missing from the rest of Tanzania other than Selous Game Reserve.

Grey Crowned Cranes
What was also apparent was the main river side drive had been badly affected by the last rains which meant you had to keep going back to the main road to work around the numerous washouts on the river side drive. There was also significant tree damage to the beautiful old trees on the river side which we were informed was the handy work of elephants but they were doing a lot of damage no signs of new growth of these beautiful shade trees along the river.
Ruaha River drive
We finally came upon a passing tourist vehicle who informed us of a couple of lions which looked suspiciously like a mating pair but they were too far off the road to spend time with even though it was apparent that others had driven up to the two lions. As a rule we do not drive off road at sightings as this damages the terrain and disturbs the animals. We continued exploring the river bank to the confluence before turning back. Not being familiar with the park, we weren’t sure how long it would take to get back and decided to head back.

No shortages of African Fish Eagles around
Before long it was apparent it was a reasonably quick drive back and with time up our sleeve, we decided to check out some tracks going in-land. This park is remarkably well sign posted, probably the best in Tanzania on par with Mikumi which makes getting around pretty easy. We ended up at Kimilamatonge hill at dusk to try out luck at leopards, but time was running out and soon we headed back to our camp.

European Roller
Approaching the campsite, there was a large herd of elephants close to the campsite which always adds to the excitement. At the campsite it was still only the two ladies from the afternoon and we settled down to set up camp for the night. As the light disappeared, the herd of elephants moved closer to the campsite looking to access the river for an evening drink. There was also lions roaring from both sides of the river and Christmas Eve was going to be a noisy one.
All set for the night
Later that evening, a second herd of elephants approached our campsite, much too close to our liking, forcing us to get in the car. There were probably 5 elephants heading for the river landing located in the middle of the campsite between the two camps. The ladies had warned us of animals using the landing in the campsite so we knew where the ele’s were heading. As always with elephants they get amazingly close when relaxed and feeding and this lot were all around us before slowly heading for the river. The larger herd from earlier in the evening were still in the river so plenty of ele’s in the river while we headed to bed.

These colorful lizards were everywhere
That night the lions roared from both sides of the river the whole night and in the morning, we got up convinced the lions on our side of the river should be on the road. Once out of the tent sure enough our Christmas present from Ruaha were right there in the veldt, a mating pair of lions! We were up and away in a flash but it was still bad shooting light so we decided to hang around. As the sun came up the mating pair moved closer to us and finally walked straight towards us and settled in the shade of our car. It’s seldom we move away from lions but this was way too close and we had to put some space between us and the lions, so we backed off about 10 meters. Finally they got up and moved to the shade of a small bush even closer to our campsite. Knowing that mating lions don’t move too far, we were aware that they could be virtually on top of us in the evening.

Perfect pair, perfect Christmas present!

Our plan was to get to Kamilamatonge at dawn to check our luck for leopard which is where we ended up. Kamilamatonge is a huge rocky hill with a million small rocky outcrops for a leopard to sit on. There was leopard spoor on the road confirming the presence of leopards, but we had no luck. We did spend time to identify the Buff-crested bustard which was another lifer for us. The day’s plan was to check out the park to get to know areas we hadn’t been to in our previous visit and work out where the game was. We were headed for the Mndonya Old River camp area which was a long drive from the center of the park which we hadn’t been to before.

Crowned Hornbill
On route we stopped at the rather meaningless rope bridge! No idea what purpose this bridge is supposed to serve, especially across a dry sand river which probably flows once year at most. Next stop was Mdonya special campsite which was nothing special – just an empty patch of dirt which looked like it hadn’t been used in a while. But we did have our second bird lifer of the trip with an Isabelline Shrike along the way. Next stop was the Mdonya public camp site which was still under construction and occupied by a family who were having Christmas breakfast on the dry sand river.

Bee-eater with bee!
There was very little game around and the tsetse flies were getting out of control so it was shutters up to get some relief and an opportunity to travel in air conditioned comfort in the heat of the day. In all this time we had to yet to see a car the whole day and finally one was coming towards us. It was the folks running the Mdonya Old River Camp who were both friendly and handy with a lot of valuable information on the prides in the park and the roads. They suggested we take the road to Mwayembe swamp and then on to Mbagi, the best game viewing area of the park.

Black-faced Sandgrouse

After a brief moment of loss of direction that saw us in the Mdonya camp itself, we were headed to Mbagi. The area around Mdonya was lush and full of life and we even spotted a Purple Crested Turaco in the trees and a herd of female Kudu on the road. There were ele’s around but things began to get quiet once we headed out of the Mdonya area. While the drive was interesting and the road in good condition the game was thin till we reached Mwayembe swamp which has a scattering of game including an Ostrich.

Banded Mongoose on the run

Yellow Billed Oxpecker found a sweet spot on a Giraffe leg

 A little after the swamp, the road gets close to the river and the game started to increase. The first ele’s we saw on this stretch of the river seemed very uneasy with the presence of vehicles which we presume is a sign of poaching from areas neighboring the park. Ruaha is part of the mystery of Tanzania’s 12,000 missing elephants which have either been poached or obtained passports and migrated to other countries!

A Baboon keeps watch
Once we got to the Mwagusi river, the game activity increased and we finally came upon our first game drive vehicle who informed us of a lion sighting on the dry riverbed. Driving along the river we found a small pride of 3 females and 4 small cubs resting in the shade of a tree right next to the river crossing point offering great views. While were checking out the pride the vehicle that gave us the tip about the lions was back claiming there was a leopard seated under a tree! What’s more he was willing to drive us to the sighting which was apparently only around the corner. As luck would have it the leopard had moved within a few minutes of being spotted, so we missed it.

Lion Mum's love
When we got back to the lions they were just getting back from drinking from a small puddle of water on the road so effectively we had just missed a leopard sighting and the lions drinking as a result of chasing the leopard. It was time for lunch and we moved a short distance away from the lions up the river and had lunch under a tree on the river bank.  Meanwhile, the elephants were moving about in the area drawn to the middle of the dry river bed to dig for water and then to a mud wallow on edge of the river. All herds appeared to cover these two points as they came and went.

Ele's preferred to dig for water
One of many crossing points on the Mwagusi River
We decided to move down the Mwagusi River checking out the different points to cross between the two banks and places of animal concentration. There were a lot of elephants in this part of the river making getting around the thickly vegetated river banks nervy at times with them hogging the large shade trees along the narrow roads. After the Mwagusi causeway it was in to the Baobab forest - a section of the park where the density in Baobab tress is extraordinary.

Baobab forrest
Imps follow the tracks across a crossing point

We were back on the Ruaha river for the evening chasing another mating pair of lions. A sighting of Grant’s gazelle, the first outside the Serengeti for us, was a surprise but apparently Ruaha is the southern extend of their range. The mating pair were next to the river and close to the National Park Cottages but we left them to chase leopard at Kimilamatonge Hill. Another 5 km/h crawl around the rocks with eyes on the rocks and trees and ground and road but still nothing. Chasing leopards requires intense concentration and a keen eye and we were all focused but as always the leopard was elusive.

Zeb photo bombing the Grants Gazelle family portrait
White Crowned Lapwing
Crested Francolin
After shooting some bee-eaters close to the camp we arrived in camp aware of the mating couple from this morning. What’s more there was no one around in the camp which was good and bad. Good to be alone in the bush which is always special, but bad in that we didn’t have the extra eyes in the camp with animals around and all angles open. Then the roaring started and it sounded like it was from just on the edge of the camp and it wasn’t the mating pair as they kept going on which would be unusual for a mating pair. The roaring didn’t stop and it wasn’t moving and this was a night for getting sorted immediately and getting up to the roof tent as soon as possible.

Little Bee-eater
The lions roared all night from the edge of the camp with sporadic responses from across the river and we fell asleep and woke up to lions roaring who hadn’t stopped all night. In the morning we picked out the culprits who had moved into the dry river bed. The target for the morning was to head to the pride on the Mwaguisi river and see what they were up to so after getting sorted with the morning rituals we were on the quickest route to the pride, getting another bird lifer on the way in the form of a Hildebrandt’s Francolin.

Hilderbrandts Francolin
We only reached the pride by 7.30 and was surprised not to see another car. They had moved all of 25 yards in to the dry river since we last saw them which was convenient. All the females and cubs were out in the sun so the hope was they would drink from the small puddle on the road which would have given us awesome reflections and sun positioning for shootings. All was set but as luck would have it, the lionesses got up and moved to the shade without drinking and the cubs followed suit. There was still a lioness in the riverbed and we decided to wait and take our chances, having our coffee with the pride in the meantime.

Lioness in the morning light
Patience finally paid off

In between the long wait, birds came and drank at the puddle and a whole flock of Helmeted guineafowls kept us occupied for a while before the remaining lioness finally got up and repaid our patience by drinking at the puddle, but unfortunately not at the angle we were hoping for. Happy with the show we headed down the river to explore this area of the park a bit as we hadn’t spent too much time here other than hanging with the lions. We turned in to check out the ‘breakfast picnic site’ which is probably one of the best picnic spots in Tanzania.

While waiting for the Lions

Helmeted Guinea Fowl

Set on the Mwagusi river, with a huge rock that slides down in to a water hole and with water seeping to the surface on both sides of the bend in the river, this was a spot worth spending some time. There were kudu, impala and giraffe on the river bed and it was too early for other tourists so we had the spot to ourselves for an early lunch and to check out the birds. After being entertained by a tree squirrel for quite a while, we decided to move as the others started to arrive for lunch.

Breakfast point picnic site, probably one of the best in Tanzania's parks

A lone Giraffe readies for a drink in the remnants of the Mwaguis river
We decided to spend the hottest part of the day checking out the Ifaguru area and the opposite side of the Mwagusi River. The Ifaguru special camp site was located in a nice spot but it was noticeable the park authorities had cleared an area for the campers away from the shade which is kind of strange. (but surprisingly predictable…) The drive towards the ‘little Serengeti’ was uninteresting mainly because of a recent fire that had burnt out everything, so we crossed the dry river bed at the last picnic site before the confluence.

Red-billed Firefinch
It was another run down the Ruaha River for the evening but this time we gave ourselves more time to spend at Kimilamatonge rocks including the small rock. More crawling around rocks straining at every rock and tree and corner but still no leopard. After another failed search we were back to an empty camp pleasantly surprised to have the camp to ourselves. That night we had 2 Jackals running around the camp and genet show up for a short time. Genets are really cool, but we are yet to get a clear shot at this nocturnal chap.

Most of the Zebs had left the river
While we could hear the odd lion, it was a relatively quiet night. Early in the morning there was a roar close to the camp and we decided to check it out before yet another mission in search for leopards. As we were leaving the camp we spotted two lionesses that were walking from behind the toilets we had just used! We decided to leave the two in our quest for leopards but it was more of the same, intense search with no luck and we decided to head to Mbagi where the greatest concentration of animals in the park were.

Price for begging for milk

For the third day in a row the pride hadn’t moved and we spent a short time with them contemplating our next move. We had come across a cool spot for birding on the opposite bank where the sand river had a pool of water. En route we came across our first buffalo of the trip, a couple of dagga boys giving us the stares as we stopped for shots. As we got to our birding spot, a massive herd of buffalo broke through the bush heading for a drink in the sand river. It was a perfect set up for us as the pool was in the middle of the river and we could comfortably shoot from the opposite bank.

Small strip of water for a huge herd 

After the drink the buffalo started heading down river in the direction of the lions and we got all excited about a possible interaction between the two even though it was blazing hot. The chatter in the car was where to position ourselves in the unlikely event of a hunt and we decided to wait on the opposite side to the lions in the hope the buffalo would run away from the lions across the river. The buffalo got close and the lions had a good look but just at the critical moment, the buffalo headed off the river and vanished in to the bush and lions stayed put.

The pride didn't move for 3 days

The cubs were already comfortable with vehicles
Rather appropriately timed, a large herd of elephants were heading for a drink in the river and we were off to our shooting spot. Strangely the elephants preferred to dig holes in the river rather than drink from the shallow water hole the buffalo had drunk from. The elephants are great to watch near water and this was no different. The highlight was a tiny baby elephant, still unable to use the trunk, insisting on sticking his head in to the ground to get a drink, and then refused to leave, despite his mom pushing her along with her leg. He really was tiny even for a drink of water.

Digging for water under the sand
The elephants then moved to the mud wallow on our side of the river were the road is too close to the wallow and disturbs the ele’s so we decided to go the long way around heading for the picnic site for a spot of birding and relaxing. No luck as the crossing point had another small herd digging holes for water and we weren’t ready to drive between them on a sandy track. So it was back tracking to the main road where we came across a tourist car with news of lions and buffalo. Given there was a local guide we asked if we could follow them without realizing they were referring to the lions we had been watching earlier and we ended up having to guide them to the spot.

We headed for the breakfast picnic site to bird and shoot and it’s a pretty cool spot to hang out. Something always seems to be around for a drink and this time there were zebra, impala and giraffe. After having lunch and a spot of birding we crossed over to the Ruaha River for the afternoon. The park has plenty of Yellow-collared lovebirds but getting a clear shot of these beautiful birds eluded us until the afternoon. We were actually chasing a lifer in the Holub’s golden weaver when a couple of lovebirds settled obligingly on an open stalk.

Holub's Golden Waver
Yellow Collared Lovebird 
Further down the river, we stopped to check out a couple woodpeckers when a White-capped black chat made an appearance. This bird is soon to be pronounced as a Ruaha subspecies along with the Red-Billed Hornbill. The story we gather on the Ruaha Hornbill is that a keen eyed ornithologist noted the Red-Billed Hornbill in the Singapore Zoo had a white eye as opposed to a black eye. The follow up of this event has led to the discovery of a new Subspecies soon to be named after this park.

Ruaha Hornbill

Ruaha Black Chat
As the evening drew to a close it was back to Kimilamatonge hill looking for leopards with the same result as before. We had a bit of time up our sleeve and decided to set up camp earlier for sundowners at the camp. There were two new arrivals, a tour group and a local guy who had his family in the village and presumably had no room for him (or he wanted to camp and his family had said no way!). The tour group were in an unhappy mood upon realizing that they would be left alone in the night. Frantic calls were being made to their tour operator about the lack of a ranger at the campsite and on the condition of their tent. They soon showered and left for meals presumably in the village. We warned them about the animal landing right in front of their tent and the lions in the vicinity for the last 3 nights, which probably didn’t help their situation but we felt they had to be told.

Giraffe family
It was quiet night compared to the previous nights and the plan for the next morning was to check the small rocks for leopard and head to the Ruaha River for the morning for a change. Still no leopards but we got a nice sighting of a bat-eared fox taking in the morning sun. The river was quiet and what little action there was in the form of elephants turned out be in a spot we couldn’t get to the edge. With nothing to keep us occupied, it was back heading to Mbagi through the Baobab forest.

Bat-Eared Fox
We crossed the Mwagusi River at the causeway to start the run up from the opposite side where the road appeared closer to the river. We saw first a few giraffe that were looking tense and then some impala. This led to what I consider some great guiding work by Cheryl who wanted the engine cut in order to listen. There was the unmistakable alarm call from the impala so we crossed the river to investigate. Both the impala and the giraffe had certainly seen something and the alarm calls kept coming from further ahead and following them led to a lioness across the river, then another two on our side of the river. It was great to at find our own lions who were close to the breakfast picnic site where there was water.

The lions that we found

We needed a toilet break which was only less than a kilometer up the road where there was a bull elephant with a collar having a drink at the water hole. There was other game about too and we felt there were possibilities but as luck would have it nothing transpired and the lions settled down and did what they do best during the day - sleep. A herd of elephants arrived and interesting they too opted to dig in the sand river water rather that the numerous water sources in the river including the sizable water hole the bull drank from.

This squirrel kept us occupied at the picnic site
It was lunch time and no one was about the picnic site so we decided to pull up under a tree and have lunch and check out the activity in the river bed. When the tourist cars started to arrive for lunch we decide to move along the river. There was nothing overly interesting to keep us occupied so it was just driving around till it started to cool down enough to head for the rocks in the desperate search for leopard.

Violet tipped Courser

Ashy Starling is a common sight in the park

We seem to be seeing African Painted Snipe all over this year
After seeing fresh leopard spoor at small rock the plan was to get there and stop and wait and hope something happens. When we arrived it was kind of disappointing to see a herd of impala and kudu walking around the rocks all relaxed. The kudu were all males with beautiful horns and kept us occupied but didn’t ever looked alarmed. We made a few rounds of the rocks and more waiting and more rounds and finally it was over. The last day at Ruaha was upon us with no leopard and it was down to the campsite. A big bull elephant made a beautiful pose in the setting sun close to the campsite and we were done.

Ruaha mascot - male Kudu 

The crew from previous night were there too but they had their meals in the village so disappeared soon. We had a hyena around the camp which was cool as we heard it at night but never saw it. He walked right up to the car and seemed really calm and we were surprised it wasn’t around before. The genet also made an appearance close to our car but otherwise it was a quiet night.

A Vervet Monkey searches for grubs under Elephant dung

Piglets at play
The next morning was one last shot at small rocks and Kimilimatonge hill looking for leopards with no luck again. Oddly there were others out before us but were spending time watching the sunrise while we were desperately trying to find a leopard. The plan was to head towards Ruaha River lodge area for the morning until it was time to head out. This side of the park is not conducive for game viewing with thick bush and very little river access. When we turned around and were heading back, fresh lion spoor on the road meant luck was just not with us as they must have been on the road by just minutes.

African Hawk Eagle

Goliath Heron
We had brunch by the bridge by the exit and our trip was done. This was an old fashioned trip where the game viewing was relaxed without the maddening crowds of the Northern circuit or the wild chase for sightings. The game driving by the rivers was relaxing and we had to find our own game and in the process we had counted 104 birds, the first time we had crossed the century mark on a single trip. The roads were a breeze and the camping was quiet with plenty of animal activity in the camp site.

Black Capped Night Heron

Water Dikkop

African Openbill
We had a few days up our sleeve and our next destination was Udzungwa National Park which required re-stocking for a few days from Iringa and an overnight stop. We had tried to get tips on where to get ice in Iringa ahead but with the only lead was a telephone number of a guy spoke no English. The fuel station attendant guided us to the Babanusa restaurant as a possibility. They had no ice but the helpful guy in charge asked the chef to accompany me to find ice. A back street stroll through the streets of Iringa and a knock on a door which looked suspiciously like a drug den also revealed no ice. The guy in charge was willing to talk to the person of who I had a number but there was no answer so we were out of options.

Grey Headed or Swahili sparrow
Babanusa did have some great local cuisine which was perfect for lunch and we got more directions to possible ice locations which we couldn’t even find. We did stumble across the Sokoni to stock up on food and a chance sighting of a Farmers’ Choice freezer in the shop solved all problems including ice. So if you are in Iringa and need to stock up get to the mini supermarket opposite the Police station next to the Sokoni which has alcohol, frozen meats and ice blocks. 

Rufiji River, Crocodile camp
Given we had the time we decided to head to Crocodile Camp which is about 120 kms from Iringa and an opportunity to check out a new area. Crocodile camp is kind of odd in that it’s in the middle of nowhere between the river and the road. Apparently elephants are known to cross the river at this point from the bordering western side of the Udzungwa national park. The camp ground here is rather stark and right next to the chalets and toilets and uninteresting so we opted for a chalet.  The place is full of monkeys so keep the car closed to avoid raids.
Crocodile camp
Next morning we were up and over the pass into Mikumi town and heading towards Kilombero en route to Udzungwa. This is a relaxing drive through agricultural land dotted with forest patches and streams draining off the mountains. The one side of the road is dominated by the Kilombero sugar cultivation. Kidatu, what must be the longest village in Tanzania finally comes to an end when the tarmac ends and the dusty track leads to Hondo-Hondo camp which borders the Udzungwa National Park.

Road to Kilembero
The camp site is perfect for roof tenters with space to get the car in and shade and excellent facilities including an open kitchen with running water. After the formalities of checking in we checked out the nature walk around the camp. The restaurant and bar is a great location to chill out with a spectacular view of the mountains. Back at the camp site, we were rewarded with a first time sighting of a Magpie mannikin in the camp site but otherwise it was a case of an infestation of bulbuls.

Hondo Hondo Camp Site
In the evening we went to check out the surrounding area and ended up at the government run Twiga Hotel which is advertised along the way. The highlight here were the huge old mango trees but otherwise a clean but old fashioned place with very little to get excited about. There is a large camp grounds to get your car in to but all in all we were not impressed. We drove around the villages looking for a possible biding spots but in the end decided it was best to check out the Hondo-Hondo grounds. We were amused along the way by a baboon being chased through the fields by villagers and their dogs.

Brick Kiln in the village
At the Hondo-Hondo camp, the place to be was relaxing with a beer on the sun chair with an awesome view of the mountains. The birds are hard to pick as they are high up in the trees at a distance from where were sitting. The hornbills are easy to make out as are the Black and White Colobus Monkeys. Late evening the star of show, the Udzungwa Colobus Monkey showed up. They are similar to the Zanzibar Red Colobus except these don’t have red on their back but only the head.

Hondo Hondo sundowners
We were up early next morning for a bird walk with a guide at the Magombero forest, an island of forest patch surrounded by farmland. This is a community owned forest has somehow managed to survive the logging around it. Like so many of the tourist rip off agendas around, apparently we needed two guides to accompany us in to the forest! This is also the reason we hadn’t bothered to go in to the Udzungwa national park where you need to be accompanied by a clueless local calling himself a guide. The Zebra waxbills was the first significant sighting en route to the forest and the target for the day was the Narina trogon.

Narina Trogon
Cooked brunch at Hondo
Entering the forest is exciting with huge trees and the sound of birds and elephant dung all over the place. We were told when the rains arrive, the elephants shelter in this forest after nightly crop raiding. It was noticeable and a relief that the dung was old, probably months and the rains were yet to arrive. The Red-capped robin was the next highlight followed by Peter’s twinspot. Both variety of Monkey were also in the trees and then the guide drew our attention to the call of the Trogon. It was here and now needed to be tracked which required hacking through the bush at times to track it down. Finally, we spotted the reason we were in this forest, the brilliantly colored Narina Trogon high up in the branches.

Udzungwa Colobus Monkey

Blue Mantled Flycatcher, Dark Forest Weaver and the Square Tailed Drongo made up our list of lifers for the forest walk and we left with plans to return to track down the elusive African Pitta which is apparently a resident in the rainy months. We were informed of a New Year’s Eve party with a bonfire and traditional drummers from the village to take place that evening in the campsite. This was simply not our cup of tea and we decided to pack up and head towards Mikumi National Park looking for a quiet evening, which was highly unlikey but anything seemed better than what was at store at the camp site that evening.

Black and White Colobus
We noted another ‘mad man’ walking along the road in the middle of the national park. Last time we found another walking amongst lions inside the park. At the entrance gate to Mikumi we were pleasantly surprised to be told the camp site was unoccupied and the lions were spotted close to the airstrip. Already this was sounding like an excellent plan and we were immediately off to check out the lions. It was Scruffer, one of the pride males, roaring in the middle of the day which was most unusual.

Scruffer...we think!
After walking around in the bush Scruffer disappeared in to the ravine and we went out to have a look around. The water levels at both Hippo Pools and Jacana Dams were surprisingly low for this time of the year. In fact it had receded since we were last here earlier in the month despite it being the short rains. The plan was to get back to the lions later in the evening and check out whatever else was around till then. Then rather unexpectedly, we came upon a scene of the pride females being closely watched by 4 Jackals and a bunch of vultures. They were at a distance but the presence of cubs meant this was Milky, Shorty and the pride. 

Vultures waiting for an opportunity
Given it was New Year ’s Eve, we decided to retire early to the camp but on the way back there was a vicious fight between two Superb Starlings closely watched by 3 others. It appeared one was pegged down and being beaten up by the other, but the 3 birds closely watching were also having a go at both fighting birds. It looked like a fight to the death and at one stage the fighting birds just seemed to have gone quiet when everyone suddenly flew away still chasing each other.

Superb Starlings in a pitch battle

The culprit is pinned down

In a desperate move the culprit gets the attackers beak in its foot
It was a perfect New Year’s party as far as we were concerned. The lions roared a few times and we were alone in the bush. We did have a visitor in the form of a honey badger in the camp site. This was a seriously rare sighting and to have one in the camp site was really special. Interestingly, we have only even seen one other honey badger in East Africa and that was also at Mikumi.

The very loud Crowned Lapwing
Next morning’s plan was of course to chase the lions of course and the hope was the pride had caught up with Scruffer. Just on the edge of elephant running plains, Super Sub was eyeing up a huge male buffalo with one of the cubs. This was the dream start to a new year – lions on the road first thing in the morning! As the two youngsters moved in to the veldt we could see the rest of the pride scattered on the plains and as hoped, the pride had caught up with Scruffer.

First shot 1 January - Super Sub on the road with the pride

It was time for coffee with the lions and the pride moved around the plains till suddenly from nowhere a herd of elephants started to charge through the bush trumpeting. Even the lions seemed stunned as were we and this is now probably the fifth time we have witnessed entire herds of elephants running on what we call “elephant running plains”. We still cannot work out why this would be the case but this keeps happening in this part of the park time and again. We are not talking about an odd elephant running around but entire herds running and trumpeting and it’s now too many times to be considered a coincidence and is now a mystery.

The lions watch the ele's run on elephant running plain!
Members of the pride relaxing in the veltd
After the elephants calmed and moved off the plans, Shorty stalked an Impala for a while before the pride settled down under a bush away from the heat and we decided that was as good a start as one could hope and got back to the camp site for brunch and pack up to leave. On the way back we drove past the lions again who had all vanished in to the bush except Super Sub who was eyeing up Wildebeest in the distance. Again, yet another herd of elephants were running for their life on elephant running plains. This was crazy, for no apparent reason at all, entire herds were running through the plains and will need further investigation.

A distant Impala caught her attention
Finally, we were on the tarmac heading back to Dar after a great road trip that took in Ruaha, Udzungwa and Mikumi over Christmas and New Year. The car had held up except for the new clutch which seemed a bit lethargic but it got us in and out of the bush. The good news was we were planning to get back to Mikumi within a couple of weeks over the next long weekend…

Yellow Billed Ox-Pecker 

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