Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Irony of Natural Resources


This wasn't the first time I'd been to Murchison Falls National Park, and I certainly hope that it won't be my last. 

The park is Uganda's largest, and is home to 76 species of mammals and 451 species of birds. It is also the site where an estimated 2 billion barrels of oil has been found.

I don't particularly want to get into the oil issue of Murchison Falls, but I can recommend some reading in addition to this blog post for you all to form your own opinions on the matter.

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On a beautiful May weekend in Uganda (I know I'm a bit behind on my posts), I went with Flan, his cousin, and her bestie for a weekend getaway to Murchison Falls, located about four hours north of Kampala. 

We left on Friday afternoon, and spent our first night at the beautiful Nile Safari Lodge's sister site, Shoebill Campsite. Lucky for us, Nile Safari Lodge has amazing food, so we didn't have to cook for ourselves that night having arrived late. 

Since we were staying on the south side of the delta, we opted for a relaxing morning (i.e. taking our time instead of joining in with the ferry rush to cross to the north side of the Nile where most of the charismatic animals are). Of course, our relaxing morning included a splendid breakfast at Nile Safari Lodge, while overlooking the magnificent river. 


(Aside: Most lodges are located on the south side of the Nile - only Paraa and Chobe Lodges of the Marasa Group are located on the north side; therefore, there is almost always a mad rush to get to the ferry to get in the early morning game drive, when some animals are most active.)

Once we crossed the Nile to the other side, and started doing the safari thing, it was like nothing else mattered. There is nothing like being so close to nature and wild animals (nevermind the steel door of the car), with nobody else for miles. We saw some beautiful Ugandan kob, the obligatory elephants and buffalo of the big five, giraffes, and warthogs! 




One of my surprise favourites of the day were the northern carmine bee eaters - how could you not fall in love with their beautiful bright colours! 


After a quick but rewarding game drive, we headed back to the Nile for a launch ride to get a closer look at the actual Falls - also a filming location of Katherine Hepburn & Humphrey Bogart's "The African Queen," and crash landing site of the remarkable Mr. Ernest Hemmingway. 


(Aside: ladies beware - those pesky baboons know the difference between male and female simply from your clothing. They have grown accustomed to women who wear skirts in typical East African fashion and will not be intimidated by skirt-wearing females. HOWEVER. If you choose to wear pants, they will not know the difference. Baboons assume that if you are wearing pants, you are a man, and will run away. I say this because the baboons guard the toilets near the ferry pier and it is therefore imperative to know that you have one of four options 1. wear pants, 2. throw rocks to clear a path to the toilets, 3. be brave 4. have someone who is wearing pants accompany you to the toilets.) 

While I personally enjoy the Queen Elizabeth National Park launch trip more simply because of the greater diversity and density of animals the Kazinga Channel offers, the Murchison Falls ferry ride offers some spectacular views of the Falls. Some people like to actually get off and sit on a rock with the Falls as the backdrop. It is also possible to hike to the top of the Falls. BUT, since we were getting ready to camp that night on the delta, we had to pick up our ranger and set up before dusk! 


Once back on land, we picked up our guide who brought us to our campsite. On our way, we spotted a couple of lions, a hyena whose mouth was sewn shut with a wire trap :'( and a leopard. 


That night, we made a fire, cooked some rice, beans, and sausages, opened a bottle of wine, chatted into the night by the fireside, and fell asleep to the sound of utter and complete silence. 


In the best part was waking up in the morning - to this:

Talk about glamping! 

As it always is, it was very difficult to know that we had to head back to crazy Kampala, but we managed to convince Flan to take the scenic (longer) route back, through the eastern side of the park. We found this old abandoned hotel - a relic from the Amin regime. 


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Could you imagine all of these beautiful animals having to share a home with oil wells? Is there a way in which drilling could be done sustainably?

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Recommended reading:

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Cats Climb Trees

Lake Manyara in Tanzania and Ishasha in Uganda might be the only places in the world where you can see tree-climbing lions. This blog entry is about Lake Manyara. 

I guess if there is one thing that you want to see in Lake Manyara then, it would be a lion in a tree. Yes, it is the big draw, said our guide, but you can never ever guarantee an animal sighting. He told us that in fact, all cats climb trees. He theorized that at Lake Manyara, it was warmer, and with the topography, the trees there were better for lions to stalk their prey from above. Unfortunately, the lions we saw were all napping, so I couldn't see the theory in action. But, I also did hear somewhere sometime later, that lions' and leopards' paws and writsts are built differently, allowing leopards to climb trees faster and drag their prey into trees easily. I still don't know why it is that Lake Manyara and Ishasha seem to be the only places to see lions in trees; nevertheless, they are there. 




Of course, lions in trees isn't the only thing worth seeing at Lake Manyara – there are elephants, flamingos, antelope, more lions and lots of other animals and birds, but most of all, I loved the beautiful views and the baobab trees. 



Baobab trees are often called upside down trees because they look like their roots are pointing into the sky instead of drilling into the ground. Being so large and sometimes hollow, the trees are home to many living things – bushbabies, birds, and sometimes even people!


Around the park, the vegetation varied as well. There was, of course the lake, and savannah, wooded areas, and more hilly and shrubby areas.

I love landscape and scenery photographs, and the pictures I took at Lake Manyara turned out to be some of my favourites:








Saturday, September 22, 2012

Pride Rock Exists

The Serengeti, like the Maasai Mara, needs no introduction. That is because they are part of the same ecosystem. The Serengeti is on the Tanzania side, which holds a much larger portion in square milage than the Kenyan Maasai Mara side. 

The two parks also hold the only border crossing between Tanzania and Kenya that remains closed – for economic reasons (tourism dollars), I have been told, explaining the roundabout route we have taken.


After leaving Ngorongoro, my family and I drove through the East Serengeti Plains, through Olduvai Gorge, the "Cradle of Humanity," a famous archaeological site where Mary and Louis Leakey discovered hominid fossils. Unfortunately we didn't get to spend as much time here as I would have liked (which means again, I will have to go back!). 



Anyway, driving through the Plains was an experience in itself. There was literally nothing but sand and dust as far as the eye could see (which, upon writing this sentence I realize is probably not very far, but you get the point). 



We came across a sand dune, which, our guide pointed out, had just been blown and blown and had moved this far in the past eight years: 


The spot on the horizon is our safari truck - and a marker of how far the sand dune moved

When we reached the Serengeti park gates, there was an instant change in vegetation and landscape. Serengeti is dotted with koppies (or kopjes or rock outcrops) that you may remember from The Lion King. 



Within minutes, we spotted a pride of lions lounging in the late afternoon sun without a care in the world. 



Other animal highlights in the Serengeti included two leopard sightings – one on the side of the road, and the other napping in a tree. 




We saw towering giraffes, hungry hyenas, itchy elephants, curious mongooses, wildebeests of the famed migration, more lions, mounds of hippos, and evidence that there may be peace on Earth. 


A towering giraffe

A hungry hyena


Itchy elephants

Banded mongooses

Dwarf mongooses

Wildebeests


Mounds of hippos

Crocodiles & hippos living in harmony

Though we were unable to time our visit for the annual wildebeest migration (arguably, it is getting harder and harder to predict), the Serengeti is really an other-worldly experience. The park is so vast it is easy to lose yourself as you imagine what it would be like to live a feral life. 

What I wouldn't give.... ;)


Sunday, September 2, 2012

Ecosystem or Snow Globe?

The next stop on this family vacation was Ngorongoro Conservation Area and the enormous crater that lies within it. 

We crossed the border from Kenya and headed straight for this incredible caldera, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of the most incredible places I have ever visited. 



When we arrived at Ngorongoro, we stood at the top, the edge of the rim, overlooking this gigantic caldera. I couldn't see any wildlife because we were so far up and it was so big, it was difficult to fathom that entire communities of animals could be down below. But, because it was already late, we decided to just go to the lodge, relax, and get up early the next morning to go exploring at Ngorongoro. 

The first thing we saw the following day was an male ostrich in heat, evidenced by his bright pink legs and neck, followed by another really cool bird, the kori bustard (below). 




Then, as we drove, deeper into the crater, I spotted a rainbow and wondered - we are in a crater! We could most definitely find the end to this rainbow. Alas, nobody else was into the idea, so I guess I will have to go back some day. 


As we drove around the crater, we spotted so many different kinds of animals – a couple of black rhinos way off in the distance, buffalos, warthogs, a hyena, hippos, golden jackals, flamingos, baboons, guineafowl, and more!







One of the coolest things we saw at Ngorongoro was this pride of lions. We sat and watched them for a long time, hungrily stalking... 



Eventually, a zebra came prancing along, and we watched as the lionesses got into hunt formation, the dominant female leading the way and signalling her peers with a discreet twitch of her ear. 


Unfortunately, this zebra was too healthy and too far away for these lionesses; I suppose they decided to cut their losses instead of risking a bucking equid. 


I would have really loved to see a kill, but lions rolling around being cats was just fine too. Maybe when I come back to chase the rainbow, I'll see a kill. 


Before we left the park, we came across some more lions, again, just being lazy cats. 



I think beautiful Ngorongoro is one of my favourite parks in East Africa. All within this one caldera, there are so many different zones – forest, savannah, marsh... and so many different animals. Driving around in a safari vehicle, kicking up dust in this bowl of a crater, where very few animals ever leave, is a surreal experience. It was like being inside a giant snow globe, with the clouds not too high overhead; being in Ngorongoro was being in a place that felt so big, it made you feel like a speck of confetti. Yet, you knew exactly how big it was, judging by the rim of the crater protruding upwards around you, and so at the same time, it wasn't so vast after all. And because of the rim, everything inside this crater stays inside this crater, and lives perfectly as this ecosystem/snow globe should.