Ngorongoro Crater and Beyond: Birds

A lot of time spent in the crater was looking at birds. The most obvious one was the ostrich, which looked stunning against the backdrop of the crater wall.

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The black and white males stood out dramatically against the brown and green background. And this particular one seemed to be in heat.

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Muba pointed out its swollen pink neck, indicating that it was on the lookout for some amorous activity. Too bad the two dull brown females in his vicinity were too busy picking at grass to notice him. What a letdown.

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We stopped for lunch at the only designated picnic area in the Ngorongoro Crater. The place was a letdown compared to the well-run picnic spots in the Serengeti. Here, there weren’t any picnic tables for tourists to sit at. The toilets were horrid and there were just too many people there. We had to stay in our vehicles for fear of kites stealing our food. We witnessed a kite divebombing some tourists and almost getting away with a good meal. It was a pretty awesome sight.

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Then there were the peculiar looking guinea fowl pecking around anxiously, quite like primeval chickens. They’re probably my favourite bird of the trip because of the clownish seriousness of the way they go about their business.

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When the tourist crowds finally cleared, we made it to the edge of the lake…

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… and enjoyed the view of the hippos and pelicans in the distance. The hippos were shy and hardly ever put their heads out of the water, only leaving their domed backs peeking coyly out of the water.

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The pelicans, however, were far friendlier and sailed closer by for a nice shot or two.

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We then followed another kite out nearer to the soda lake…

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… and saw the last of the season’s flamingoes in the lake. Too bad they took off just after this shot, so nothing at close range. We’re surprised that Muba managed to find them in the first place as they were overdue for migration at this time of the year.

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Then Muba introduced us to Tanzania’s national bird, the gold-crested crown heron.

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They were beautiful in flight, taking off with long beats of their wings.

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Up close, they were even prettier, with the blue-grey top feathers contrasting dramatically against the cream underside. The gold crown gave an elegant touch to its slightly finicky walk.

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Watching Tanzania’s national bird was a lovely way to round up the last of the safari drives of the trip.

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Ngorongoro Crater and Beyond: Entering the Crater

Ngorongoro Crater is beautiful. It’s a very unique setting in that you approach it from the top of the crater and all of a sudden you look over and see the valley below. Then you look around and realise that the valley is round!

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Within the valley, every landscape shot ends with the edge of the crater as the backdrop. There’s no escaping it. Most of the animals within the crater never leave it, though zebras and some of the wildebeest cross the 600 or so metres of crater lip with no problem. As for streams, they build up within the crater to form soda lakes. This one in the distance is a bit dried up and the white dust is from the bicarbonate of soda eroded from the volcanic crater walls and deposited on the sides of the lake.

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Things looked really parched as it was the dry season. The dirt tracks were more like dust tracks but it wasn’t as hot as it looks.

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The animals here were even more used to humans and their cars than elsewhere in the trip. They let us get quite close…

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… Close enough for pretty portrait shots, like this baby zebra. It doesn’t have black stripes, they’re dark brown. Baby zebras are really cute because the fur is so thick and fuzzy. It was a joy to get up close with them…

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… especially to observe how each zebra really does have a different pattern of stripes!

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With all the frenetic Big Five spotting behind us, we relaxed a bit and sat back to enjoy the scenery. Here two Grants’ gazelles pick their way across the crater floor…

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… One of them stops to check us out, and DC gets a nice picture.

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We saw lions, elephants and hippos in the crater, but not leopards (too open for them to show themselves) or rhinos. Muba spotted one, but it was too far away for us to be sure that the black blob in the binoculars belonged to a rhino. It was just our luck, really. We contented ourselves with lazy shots of easy targets, like this hyena enjoying a bask in the sun.

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And we were very happy to come up quite close to a golden jackal. The picture doesn’t do much justice to its beautiful coat.

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The Serengeti: The Fifth of the Big Five

It was in the Serengeti that we saw the fifth of the Big Five, the elusive leopard. Boy were they hard to spot! The first one Muba and DC saw was a young one that flitted away from sight as soon as Muba gave the alert. It was on one of the larger kopjes that we were driving over. Later, we spotted an adult one high up on a smaller kopje. It was a bit too far away to observe properly. The only other interested tourist was one with a large telephoto lens. It was funny seeing only the large lens sticking out and nothing of the human controlling the lens.

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What was way more exciting was our prolonged sighting of not one, not two but three leopards! Can you spot this one slinking in the grass?

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It headed towards a tree and climbed up.

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Before long, it was joined by another. Muba commented that leopards never tolerated having strangers in their territory, so this meant that they must be brothers.

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They seemed to be playing a sort of Bollywood dance routine on the tree, changing places and jockeying for the best position. I like how this one is showing off its tree climbing skills. Leopards are true cats with retractable claws, unlike cheetahs, whose claws are always out – all the better to run with. Here, the leopard’s retractable claws come in very handy to show off its full prowess on the tree.

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Soon, the gambolling was over and they decided to go down the tree, out of sight. Muba said that leopards never let themselves be spotted unless they wanted to. They could wait for hours in hiding until they were out of danger, and were far more patient than the tourists. It seemed like there was no further chance of observing leopards for the day as dusk was rapidly falling. We had to make it back to camp in time for curfew.

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A few metres away, we were surprised by another leopard, this time with a kill hung up on a tree. Muba explained that leopards are ambush hunters, waiting for an unsuspecting moment, then pouncing from behind. It used its retractable claws to puncture the prey’s neck and get a firm hold, then with its powerful shoulders and front paws, it gave a quick twist to the neck and all was over. The leopard would then drag the prey up a tree to be safer from other predators, although some lions and hyenas could still get at up the tree to steal the carcass. Muba speculated that this was probably the mother of the leopard brothers hunting for her offspring.

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We drove off as darkness started to fall around us. It was clearly past curfew and we were stopped by the park rangers. Muba explained that we had been delayed by a leopard on the road and that we had to wait for it to move away before we could get past. The ranger waved us off impatiently. Get back to camp quickly!

Muba smiled and we continued on our way.

The Serengeti: The Racy Cat Edition

It was in the Serengeti that we got to see plenty of cheetahs up close. There were so many that there was a point where we even asked Muba to move on because we wanted to see something else! It’s almost inconceivable, isn’t it, wanting to see something else aside from these magnificent creatures?

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Most we saw were resting in the grass not far from the trail. It was almost strange that they got so used to the cars, yet not surprising since some of them have even cleverly started using the positions of the cars to quarry their prey. It was almost surreal to see the cheetahs chasing the gazelles towards the waiting cars so that they hadn’t any escape. No wonder hardly any of those we saw were on the chase. Most were resting after having had a good feed. Check out this one’s blood-stained muzzle.

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You may be wondering how these beautiful cats hunt. On the face of it, it looks like a simple matter of being faster than their prey. The reality is slightly more complicated. First, they scan the area by sitting up very straight on their haunches to look for prey. This one below is obviously doing it very half-heartedly because it’s only just had a meal, it’s still got gravy dripping from its mouth!

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Now when it spots a worthy target, the usual of something young, old or infirm, the cheetah gets up and starts running straight away. It doesn’t stalk the prey, and this point is important: The prey needs to know straight on that a cheetah is on it and it needs to run to escape. Here’s why the cheetah needs to choose something young, old or infirm – it runs its prey till its heart is pounding to the maximum. The prey either dies of a heart attack straightaway (if old or infirm especially), or the cheetah catches up in its burst of speed and trips its prey. The sudden fall stops the prey’s heart; if that doesn’t do it, the cheetah simply stands on the heart. And the show’s over. No nasty ambushes or gory jugular chewing. Just simply, elegantly, death by heart attack.

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And here we have our cheetah very simply and elegantly having its favourite meal: rump of Thomson gazelle.

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On to something even racier.

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We came across this couple in the grass, having a rest between amorous bouts.

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To be honest, the male looked like its ego was badly bruised as the female seemed more interested in snoozing than in his magnificent mane. Poor fella.

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But appearances are indeed deceiving. Muba explained that it was probably the second or third (!) day of mating for this couple. Lions apparently spend several days procreating and on the first day, could mate up to 50 times. On subsequent days, the frequency goes down quite a bit, but remains rather regular. We waited only a short while more before they started up again… and yet again. It was mainly the male doing all the action, though the female did occasionally give a roar (of approval? ecstacy? pain? who knows) and then flopped over when the male was done. Apparently flopping over helps to increase the chances of insemination. With all that explanation done, I bring you what could possibly be the world’s least exciting sex video. Enjoy.

The Serengeti: Families

Being in the Serengeti allowed us the space to observe the family units and their interactions. I never expected to find hyenas cute (especially not after the retching incident), but they won me over when I saw how tight-knit the family was. The adults always made sure that the pups were well looked after (yes they regurgitate food for the young). I especially liked how they lolled about relaxedly at the end of the day nuzzling each other, while the dark-coloured pup gambolled around. We had to wait quite a bit before the pup came back into the family circle to snap this pic.

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More famous for being in a family are the elephants, who travel in herds of females and their young. They make a stunning sight against the savannah.

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At first I wondered why there were so many males in the herd, then I realised that unlike Asian elephants, females have tusks too.

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Elephants are highly protective of their young, and won’t think twice about trampling anything that could threaten the young ones. Muba told us that no one he knows has seen an elephant give birth. Elephants would do all they can to protect the birthing mother that no one could get close, let alone witness the happy event. We had to content ourselves with looking at the cute babies run alongside the herd.

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It’s hard to describe the majesty of observing a herd of elephants walk right past. I hope the video below will help to give the tiniest impression of it.

 

Notwithstanding the majesty of the herd, we couldn’t get over how cute the little calves were. They were so young yet looked so old and wrinkled.

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And they hung out in little groups of young ‘uns, alternately playing catch and holding on to the leader’s tail.

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I was quite surprised that elephants have breasts, a pair each like humans, rather than udders like a cow. Muba taught us that that was the way to identify females rather than attempt to look at the size of their tusks. Here’s a rather grown-up baby (about 3-5 years old) still not yet weaned off mother’s milk.

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The Serengeti: A Rather Special Birthday

It was DC’s birthday. We set out early in the morning excited about what this new year would bring. Not far from camp, Muba slowed down the car and we came across a hyena. Eagerly we looked out and not-so eagerly, we realised that the first sight of the day was a hyena throwing up. Not quite the most auspicious start to being a year older.

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We were horrified to be faced not only with the hyena retchnig up its breakfast, but it also eating its vomitus afresh. Check out the video where I exclaim about how gross it all is. Muba is in the background trying valiantly to explain that hyenas gulp down their food so fast in case of being chased off the food that they often get undigestion and have to re-eat what they ate.

We moved on after the rather grisly start to the day. Toward mid-morning, we came across another land rover stopped at the side of the road. There was an impala lying in a thicket all alone. We wondered what the fuss was seeing as impalas are rather common in the Serengeti. Sure, she was a fine specimen, but why stop the vehicle for so long? Then the penny dropped. This impala was giving birth! Look carefully below and you can just about make out the baby, still dark from the birth fluids. Its ears are down and it’s facing its mother’s rump. The mother has a beautiful and vulnerable expression on her face, all the time watching that those large metal animals watching her weren’t going to come any closer.

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We were enthralled by the baby’s head flopping up and down in its effort to wriggle out from the birthing canal. Soon it was out completely and the mother got to her feet as soon as she could, afterbirth dangling between her legs. First, she turned round and licked off all the blood and tears from the womb from her baby. Then, she reached her head behind and consumed the bright red orb of the afterbirth. It was such a natural thing to conserve and recycle her resources.

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Just a few minutes had passed and it was already time for the baby to stand. It helped that it had to stand to start suckling and after a few false starts, it successfully stood and had its first meal.

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Then it was time to start walking. The mother walked away from the kid, doing its best to induce it to take its first steps. It is crucial for an impala, or any antelope for that matter, to start walking within 15 minutes of birth. An impala about to give birth would go away from the herd, mainly to avoid leading predators to the herd. The smell of blood attracts predators and not being able to walk quickly for a newborn means a it is easy game.

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The baby needed a little coaxing and the mother went back to give it a few more encouraging licks.

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And finally, after a few false starts, the baby is ready to go off to face the world.

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It certainly was a special birthday for DC, going in a strange cycle from death to birth. How many people can say they witnessed an impala’s birth on their birthday?

The Serengeti: Ruminants

The most common animals we saw were the ruminants. In the antelope family, there were the elands, impalas, bucks, dik diks and gazelles. Most ubiquitous were the Thomson’s gazelles, who always seemed to be running away from something. I like how starkly they are coloured, with clear lines separating each colour. It was almost as if an anal primary school student wanted to show how well he could colour within the lines.

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But what I loved most about the Thomson’s gazelles was how their tails flicked from side to side. Check it out in the video below.

The bucks were somehow much harder to spot for first-time safari people like me. It didn’t help that they were also rather shy. This reedbuck was taken from pretty far away. Muba spotted it and had a hard time pointing it out to us without going in any closer.

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Waterbucks were similarly shy. They probably realised that they didn’t run very quickly and were better off keeping a safe distance than risk having any big animals like our land rover get in close. Sadly, this is the closest we ever got, we’ll probably have to go to a good zoo if we want to get any closer.

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At least the zebras aren’t shy, which was great for us. Muba was telling us about how zebras are the scavengers of the savannah and you’ll never see a skinny zebra because they eat pretty much every kind of plant out there. This makes their meat really acidic and they aren’t very good for eating at all. He then went on to say that zebras have orange “fahts”, it was very characteristic. I immediately started looking out for clouds of orange smoke coming out from the zebras’ behinds and was very disappointed not to spot anything at all, no matter how faint. One morning, I confided my disappointment at the lack of orange zebra clouds to DC and he fell about laughing because Muba had all along been talking about zebras having orange fats. Oh.

Never mind, here’s a cute photo of a zebra taking an enthusiastic dust bath. No, it’s not fallen down, it’s having a good roll on the ground to get the ticks off.

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And last in the ruminant spotlight is the cape buffalo. I can’t decide whether its stare is vacant or intense, there’s somehow a bit of both in it. I think it’s the bushy eyebrow effect that helps it look rather stern and serious, as of course do the centre-parting horns.

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Of course, cape buffalo look a heap less serious when licking their noses…

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… and when young, are positively cute. Check out this youngster below letting a red-billed oxpecker bird have a go at the parasites on its hide.

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