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Tanzania: Tusks and Trunks in Tarangire

elephants jousting

Packed tightly together, forming a gently shuffling circle, they rest, waiting. The African sun burns at its zenith – a piercing white-orange in turquoise sky. A trunk sways and an eyelid bats downwards, as they shift beneath the wide branches of a gnarled acacia tree.

Sheltering from this assault of heat and light, the elephants huddle under the scant protection offered by the tree. Dust clings to their grey-brown skin, as the mixture of shade and sunshine dapples their broad backs.

elephants under tree in Tarangire

Almost hidden from sight, a smaller trunk swings a rhythm of its own; legs more tottery than the others scrape the flattened grass that has been trodden into dirt. A pair of wide eyes looks out from a forest of legs. This young elephant surveys the world from beneath an umbrella of leathery protection. A caring trunk extends downwards and strokes its low back – reassuring, yet controlling.

baby elephant at the centre of the huddle

Suddenly, I hear thudding footsteps to my left. There is a low, crashing rasp and a series of powerful exhalations. I turn to look at the source of this rumbling commotion. Two young bulls are locked in an aggressive display of testosterone-fuelled jousting. Their tusks crossed, they sway as they slowly tussle.

elephants fighting in Tarangire

Bizarrely – at odds with this macho display – an errant trunk flicks slowly outwards, coming to rest in the mouth of the opponent. For a moment they pause together like this, before backing slowly away. The joust is over. I wonder if this is an underhand tactic – the elephant equivalent of foul play.

However, what amazes me more than the sight of these under-trunk tactics is the sheer number of elephants that surround me. I’m in Tanzania, a country that recently lost 60% of its elephants in just four bloody years. But Tarangire National Park doesn’t seem to have got the memo – some of its herds number up to 300 elephants.

Lots of elephants in Tarangire

I turn my head to take in every direction; I look further out over the rich, green grasses that are punctuated by tusk-scratched baobabs and patches of brick-red dust. Everywhere I look, there are elephants. Some are unmoving, relaxed. Others continue on a slow amble towards the mud and water of the Tarangire River.

Of course, the reality is not quite as paradisiacal as it seems. Tarangire’s elephants are under threat. They have escaped the rampant slaughter that has affected the larger parks, particularly Selous and Ruaha, but remain hunted animals.

Elephants under a tree

And I know, in part, why this bloodshed has been kept at bay. As my eyes rest on every animal, they cast a protective gaze – a gaze that simply does not exist in the vast, unvisited parks of southern Tanzania. The eyes of tourists are valuable weapons in the fight against poaching – almost as valuable as their wallets.

The need for tourist eyes and money is a brutal truth. No matter how much we romanticise elephants and their majestic, intelligent nature, we keep killing them. Tourism places a value on these, otherwise meaningless, romantic notions. Every pound, dollar or Tanzanian schilling spent in a park like Tarangire gives its wildlife value. And it gives the park rangers funds with which to fight the war – and it is a war – against ivory poachers.

Elephants in the Tarangire River

But tourism, economics and bloody realities aside, the romantic inside of me wishes this were not the case. As I cast my gaze back towards the young eyes that hide amongst the forest of thick legs, I smile. The beauty of new life is captivating, as is the intelligent gaze of a creature that we respect so much, but seem to value so little.

One day there may be no elephants left. But for now there are. They roam the grasslands, copses and hillsides of Tarangire as if the apocalypse were not upon them. They clash their precious, cursed tusks and tend their young in blissful ignorance. Seize the chance to see them before the crash of ivory on ivory and raucous trumpeting are mere sounds of the past.

Get in touch to learn more about our Tanzania safaris. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.

elephants head to head

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Solar Eclipse of the Heart (of Africa)

The best places to see the solar eclipse in 2016.

On the morning of 1st September, 2016, an annular solar eclipse will cut its way across the heart of Africa. The last time that central and eastern Africa witnessed an event like this was almost thirty years ago – before I was born. This captivating continent abounds with great sights and fantastic wildlife; why not combine these with one of the greatest light shows that the heavens have to offer?

What is an annular eclipse?

For the uninitiated, the term ‘annular eclipse’ might not mean very much. It certainly does not mean an eclipse that happens on a yearly basis, as many people might assume. In fact, ‘annular’ derives from the Latin word for ring – ‘anulus’. It is best not to ponder other words that might share this origin.

It is the ring-shaped nature of this eclipse that makes it such a unique phenomenon. Whilst a total solar eclipse leads to the sun being fully obscured by the moon, an annular eclipse occurs when the moon is too distant to fully obscure the sun. Perceived as too small, the moon crosses directly in front of the sun, but a ring of fire forms around it.

The sun’s fiery rays burst from around the edges of the moon’s blackened surface. An image that conjures apocalyptic thoughts, this mesmerising spectacle will visit the skies of Africa for a just few hours this year. To see the path it will take, visit NASA’s interactive webpage.

Where is best to see the eclipse?

This is hard to predict. It will depend on a number of conditions. These include your proximity to the exact path of the eclipse, the conditions overhead, the topography of the surrounding land and the angle of the sun above the horizon.

Furthermore, accommodation and logistical arrangements also play a part. For example, the Democratic Republic of Congo plays host to this spectacle for the longest period of time. But the vast tranches of inaccessible jungle that it crosses are not ideal eclipse-viewing territory.

Similarly, whilst the Congo is slightly more accessible, accommodation options within a few hundred kilometres of the eclipse are limited, to say the least. With this in mind, and considering a number of factors, here are some of the places that are best for witnessing this magical astronomic occurrence.

TANZANIA

Clear skies and stunning, wildlife-rich surroundings drive Tanzania to the top of my list. September is an excellent month to visit the country, whilst both Katavi and Mahale national parks are almost perfectly positioned for viewing the eclipse.

The eclipse will reach its zenith at around 11.30am, with the sun high in the sky to the northeast. This means that even the Mahale Mountains should prove no impediment to witnessing the sight. And, in spite of the remote locale, accommodation choices are not lacking. Stay at either Greystoke Mahale or Chada Katavi. Both beautiful camps offer an array of activities, with the former renowned for its chimp trekking and the latter offering excellent lion encounters.

The pick of these for eclipse viewing is probably Greystoke Mahale. Its beautiful beachside location sits bewilderingly close to the perfect point for witnessing the eclipse. Watch as the sky darkens above the Mahale Mountains and fiery sunbursts dance around the edges of the shadowed moon.

HT.TZ044.View from Lake, Greystoke Mahale, Mahale National Park, Tanzania(0000020881)


MOZAMBIQUE

This offers a beachside alternative to Tanzania, with the country’s largest coastal park lying either side of the perfect point to view the eclipse. With the eclipse peaking at around 11.20am, the sky will darken over the idyllic Quirimbas Archipelago as the shimmering Indian Ocean grows briefly dull. And, just like Tanzania, the beautiful surroundings will undoubtedly be overlooked by clear skies at this time of year.

Two beautiful island properties steal the best spots for this late-morning show: Azura Benguerra Private Island sits just to the south of the perfect viewing location, whilst Ibo Island Lodge is just to the north. Watch in awe as the sun, high in the sky and almost due north, is obscured above this tropical paradise. After the show is over, spend time exploring the archipelago by land and sea.

HT.MZ002.Benguerra Island, Azura Benguerra Island, Benguerra Island, Mozambique(0000040299)


Reunion

This forgotten French overseas territory is located so that the entire island will witness a partial eclipse, at the very least. But those on the southern coast will have the best seats. With the eclipse occurring at around 2pm, whilst the sun is in the northwest, the seafront boulevard of Saint Paul is the place to be. Watch as the endless waters of the distant ocean grow dark, with the sun sitting above an unbroken, watery horizon.

Alternatively, take advantage of Réunion’s volcanic landscape and climb to the island’s highest point, the towering Piton des Neiges, for an excellent vantage point. Or ascend the only active volcano, the Piton de la Fournaise, for a surreal, eerie experience. Marvel in the mesmerizingly apocalyptic landscape, as the ash-streaked rocks darken under the shadowy, fire-tinged sky.

2016-01-18 14_37_50-Eclipse Blog


MADAGASCAR

Bisected by the path of the eclipse, Madagascar ought to be a great place to observe this event. However, although the skies will be clear, so will the land. For the eclipse’s path takes it through a region of largely uninhabited wilderness. This means that viewing options are limited by accommodation choices.

However, with the maximum eclipse not occurring until around 12.45pm, there will be plenty of time to get into position. Both Le Palmarium and Anjajavy offer excellent bases, within easy reach of the path of the eclipse. For unobscured, over-the-ocean viewing, the latter is by far the best choice. Located on an isolated stretch of Madagascan coast, this collection of villas sit in front of a wildlife-rich forest reserve.

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GABON

An easy choice for last place, Gabon only sneaks in by virtue of the beautiful Loango National Park’s perfect positioning. Almost as inaccessible and lacking in tourist infrastructure as the aforementioned D.R.C., this country is not for the faint hearted. However, there is little doubt that watching the eclipse from the magical coastal rainforests of Loango would be an experience to behold. Whilst nearby Omboue and Evengué Island offer even better vantage points, looking out across the vast Nkomi Lagoon.

P.GA006.Animated forest elephants, Loango, Gabon(0000045460)

Start your Journey

All of these destinations (with the possible exception of fickle Gabon) are fantastic choices for viewing this year’s annular eclipse. Whether it be exploring the Mahale Mountains of Tanzania or hiking across the volcanic landscape of Reunion, any trip that incorporates such a captivating, once-in-a-lifetime event will undoubtedly be memorable. And we can make it happen.

Enquire now if any of these destinations have captured your imagination.
Talk to our Africa Travel Experts to start your privately guided tour and see the annular eclipse in 2016, call us on 01285 601 753 or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

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Guiding Lights: Aziza Mbwana

Giraffes

Aziza Mbwana has just been promoted to Assistant Head Ranger at Ngorongoro Crater Lodge. She is the only woman working in Tanzania as a Ranger at the moment. With International Womens Day around the corner we celebrate her dedication over the years, ensuring guests share in her passion for nature and fellow Rangers learn from her mentoring them.

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Aziza started with &Beyond as a Ranger 10 years ago at Lake Manyara. Looking back now, she can only laugh at her first couple of days at the lodge, still trying to compete with the boys.

Growing up in Tanga (a town at the Tanzanian coast, close to the Kenyan border), she had started working as a historical city guide and also guided tours on the Pangani River for guests to see Crocodiles and birds before she entered the field guiding world.  It wasn’t easy in a man’s world. With a lot of male competitors at the first interview with &Beyond in Arusha, remembers Aziza. “You are supposed to stay in the office and not in the bush”, was the first comment she received from fellow interviewees. “We will compete until the end” was Aziza’s response and she was the one to pull through the East African Ranger Training course at Mwewe with only 3 other Rangers qualifying with her.

Ten years later, Aziza is living the &Beyond values every day and has a passion for the Caring for our Land, Wildlife and People. “The values all belong together, she explains excitedly. “Not caring for one is like driving a car with 3 tyres. I am lucky to be able to have a job where I can share my passion with my team and guests”.

Q & A with Aziza

A moment to be proud of?
One day I gave a young lady a lift from Arusha and we got chatting. After she told me she was studying to become a guide I asked her how she had decided on this, especially as a woman. “There are a lot of female guides she said. I know about this Aziza, if she can do it, I can do it” the young girl answered. I asked if she had met this Aziza? She was yet to find out that I was the one she had been referring to. This was a very proud moment for me to find out I had inspired someone to take up a career as a guide.

What is the most important thing in your life?
My daughters Leils & Loema.

What is the biggest challenge?
To balance the two most important things for me in life. The passion for my job and the love for my family. My youngest daughter will be in school soon and I have not figured yet how I will be able to balance everything.

What is your favourite animal?
Definitely Giraffes, they are very prehistoric, the tallest, they don’t attack anyone and I love their eyelashes. They walk like models on a cat walk.

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Journey with Aziza on a tour of the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater – which in the right seasons offers some of the best wildlife viewing in the world with breathtaking vistas to match. Call us now on 01285 880980 or email us inspire@steppestravel.com.

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Ruaha: Stout boots required

For those who think that a safari is a safari is a safari, chances are they have not visited Ruaha. This vast untouched wilderness forms the core of a 150,000 sq km ecosystem, the second largest National Park in Africa and home to incredible wildlife and intrepid explorers.

The Udzungwa Mountain range effectively cuts this tract of wilderness off from casual tourists and marks the change in topography as you fly west to land into this high altitude arid landscape. The pilot and I were the only two on board and we were ahead of schedule having dropped other passengers in the Selous a couple of hours earlier. The giraffe loped off the airstrip as we came into land and we quickly slid back the windows to get a breeze through the cockpit.

The pilots here act as bush telegraph, so with a wad of letters and a brown paper parcel for the camp I climbed out the cockpit and headed for the shade of an acacia. I had the feeling the pilot’s smile and wave goodbye through the window were more a good luck message than being just friendly. The Cessna took off, dipped his wings on a fly past and climbed into the white blue sky. A fly buzzed lazily past and the heat was magnified by the silence.  A minute passed with surreal languidness. From deep in the distance came a gradual rumbling and soft clacking that slowly developed into the familiar noise of a Land Rover. The camp had seen the plane coming in early and sent a guide to meet me. This was to be the only vehicle I saw for the next few days. Our destination was the Mwagusi dry river – an area home to a huge population of lion that specialise in hunting giraffe, a land of massive Baobabs and untamed antelope.

You get the feeling this is how the wildlife would like to interact in the rest of Africa if only there were fewer humans. Ruaha feels remote, borne out of the silence and the lack of tourists. Here is a constantly moving panorama, small birds zip between the low bushes whilst overhead larger birds of prey circle on thermals. The big game is a huge draw here and the predators are voracious, feasting on the plains game which is understandably skittish. Home to a huge variety of antelope, oribi, eland, kudu and sable which you are unlikely to see elsewhere in East Africa, I was delighted to get close to an unsuspecting eland before the wind shifted, the big bull caught our scent and trotted surprisingly daintily into the miombo (woodlands).

Walking safaris here rival the household names of the Luangwa Valley safari circuit but the difference is that you won’t have heard of them. Fly camp, walk between escarpments and watersheds following ancient dry sand rivers and immerse yourself in this living diorama where wild dogs and sable antelope roam. As dusk falls the theatre comes to life, leopards saw and rasp in the gloaming and competing prides of lion vocalise their dissent. I feel very human, almost vulnerable. This is a place for proper safari-ists and proper guides – no armchair box-ticking parody of a safari you might encounter elsewhere.

Top tip:  Watch out for the sollifuges which glow under ultra-violet lights, the lyrate horns of the lesser kudu and brown parcels containing strawberry jam. Oh and you need good boots because otherwise the sand gets in your socks.

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Tanzania Safari – things change and things stay the same

My love affair with Tanzania is an old one now and I have seen it in all weathers, seasons and extremes.

On my most recent trip I was reminded how huge and powerful the Serengetisystem is and that, my time there was just a drop in the ocean to the time it has been there. From the footsteps of the early hominids near Oldupai gorge to the ancient migration routes of the wildebeest and Zebra, time has been influencing the Serengeti. Although I think most people can appreciate its size, I was struck again by the area’s strong seasonality.

In February you can visit the short grass plains at the foot of Ngorongorocrater and be staggered by the sheer number and diversity of animals calving, eating, hunting and nesting. In May those same plains will offer you only the occasional grants gazelle or lonely elephant. No sound at all, no movement except the long grass and the odd ear or tail. Similarly the stunning Musabi plains of the western corridor are teaming with rutting wildebeest in June and July and are otherwise silent with only distant journeys of giraffe hinting at life. Although I have seen up to 68 giraffe on this plain in November. Delve into secret valleys (only the best of guides know them – and we know only the best of guides) and you will find waterbuck, large herds of elephant and perhaps the shy serval.

Seronera in the centre of the park on the other hand is an anomaly as it offers year-round water and the best leopard sleeping trees in the Serengeti. If you are in this area you have to look up! Always! As there you will see either a twitching tail or a descending vulture – both worth taking note of. Similarly the life sustaining Grumeti river which plays host to the migration in July is a small haven for all wildlife throughout the year – shhhhh don’t tell everyone.

I visited the far northern wagukuria area in May this year and had to catch my breath. It is so beautiful with endless views over the Masai Mara, broadleaved woodlands (unlike anywhere in the Serengeti) and high stands of golden Themeda grasslands. Grasslands in wait for the animals who flock to the Mara River in August through to October. Don’t go looking for them on the short grass plains then and I am not sure how many people are aware of the fact that the Mara river bisects the far north western part of the Serengeti enabling you to enjoy scenes of the migration crossing the Mara river from your camp in Tanzania.

So, I have to reiterate that you really do need an expert to help you plan your Serengeti holiday as there are such great differences throughout the year.

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A guide to the Great Migration

The Migration is truly one of the wonders of the animal world; a million and more animals playing out their lives in the Serengeti ecosystem, watched all the way by lions, hyenas and crocodiles looking for a cheap dinner. So what is the best time and where is the best place to catch this spectacle?

Disregard any pretty map you may have been shown that has a nice flow of animals going round in an annual circle. The Migration does not work like this. It is driven entirely by standing water and grazing, and created by local weather conditions. The wildebeest want to be in the short grass plains of the southern Serengeti (in Ndutu / Gol / Southern Loliondo) but the water and grazing cannot support them all year round. This is where they choose to give birth to their young (usually February – March), with the rich grass to support them. Within a relatively short space of time, perhaps 4 to 6 weeks, several hundred thousand calves will be born and this is where we see much of the dramatic predator action. The Migration will move off in search of sustenance in response to periods of dry weather, but they will leave this area as late as possible and come back as soon as they can. This means that every year is different and, in fact, every week can be different.

The Migration is also not a continually forward motion. They go forward, back and to the sides, they mill around, they split up, they join forces, they walk in a line, they spread out, they hang around. You can never predict with certainty where they will be; the best you can do is to suggest likely timings, based on past experience – but you can never guarantee the Migration a hundred percent.

So, soon after the short rains start, we would expect them to be in, or close to, the short grass plains area (centred around Naabi /Ndutu / Gol) from December through to April. Depending on local rainfall, they might be anywhere from Moru Kopjes through to the slopes of Ngorongoro. From May, the rains stop and the herds gradually start moving: generally, as the plains of the south and east dry out, there is a movement to the north and west, where there is more grass and more dependable water. Not all the wildebeest and zebra will follow the same route: this means that, while part of the migration will head to the western corridor and the Grumeti River before proceeding north, significant numbers may also go up through Loliondo, or via Seronera and Lobo.

In a dry year, the first wildebeest could be near the Mara River (the only decent permanent water source in the ecosystem) in early July; in a wet year – mid August. If conditions are very good, i.e. there is plenty of grass and water, the herds will be spread out all the way from Seronera to the Mara River. The Migration as a whole need not all pass into Kenya and many stay behind or cross and re-cross the border areas. This carries on through till October / November, when they will start thinking of heading back. Again this will be dependent on the rains. The river crossings happen at any time during this time of year, but are elusive, rapid and unforgettable experiences.

The areas the wildebeest cover are vast, even when crossed in a 4WD car. The groups may be spilt over a wide area and finding one on the brink of crossing is not a given. The wildebeest are also easily spooked by real or imagined threats. They fear crossing the river, as they have an inkling that something lurks there. Patient waiting near a herd by the river may only produce a puff of dust as they turn on their heels and run away. Or maybe the herd is just not ready to cross the river and they are milling around contentedly. But if everything is right then, there is utter and extraordinary chaos as the herds struggle to get to the other side of a major river filled with crocodiles.

Where are they now?

There are still large herds in the Western Corridor, but the migration is on the move. There have been good sightings all the way across from Bologonja through the Nyamalunbwa Hills. The first brave souls are probably getting close the to the Tabora B ranger post, on the western edge of the park.

This account was written by Richard Knocker, a private guide with Nomads Safaris in Tanzania.

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Turtles hatching in Mafia Island

July is the perfect month to watch turtles hatching in Mafia Island. Sea turtles have been nesting on Tanzanian beaches for over 150 million years.

Between June and September hundreds of baby turtles make their instinctive scramble from the white sandy beaches to the warm Indian Ocean waters. After 30 years, the female hatchlings will return to the very same beach to lay their own eggs and start this incredible cycle all over again.

Those travelling to Mafia are fortunate enough to be able to witness the start of this beautiful journey from the East facing beach of Juani, an
island bursting with nature from the tiniest of butterflies to the large, majestic baobab trees.

This exceptional experience is made possible by a Tanzanian NGO called Sea Sense. Set up in 2001, they have been working in partnership with the local communities to promote the importance and protection of marine turtles and their habitats through various projects.

For those lucky enough to join Sea Sense the adventure starts with a lovely Dhow trip across Chole Bay to the breathtaking western side of Juani Island. On arrival, a 40 minute walk across the island passes through a quaint Swahili village teaming with smiling faces and polite greetings from all encountered. During this walk nature’s true beauty becomes more apparent in the form of towering trees and acres and acres of green foliage leading up to turtle nests hidden below African sand.

Sea Sense assist the turtles by removing sand and other debris that have protected the delicate eggs from various predators. The moment everyone has waited for arrives, and the little hatchlings emerge from the sand, scrambling out of their nest, flapping their fins vivaciously, racing to reach the surf and begin the next step of their incredible journey. With the image of the baby turtles crawling across the beach the return home is accompanied by a beautiful Mafian sunset, a nice drink and smiles on all faces.

For more information on holidays to Africa, or holidays to see turtles hatching, please contact our Africa experts on 01285 650 011.

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Primate Conservation – Hope 4 Apes

Jarrod and I were lucky enough to be invited to the Hope 4 Apes event at the Lyceum last night as Steppes Discovery were donating travel vouchers as the top raffle prize to raise funds and awareness of Great apes and other species.

All the leading luminaries on primate conservation were there, including Ian Redmond, Jane Goodall and Birute Galdikas. Sir David Attenborough hosted the evening and introduced each speaker – and each one gave an inspiring speech focussed on a species.

What struck me however, was the common theme that seemed to flow through every passionate plea – and that was the urgent need for habitat protection and the success this can mean for a primary species and for all flora and fauna.

Carbon offsetting and tree planting aside – it is simply makes no sense to replant samplings in rainforests that products like palm oil so readily deplete and level. Why not protect these ancient forests and many of the field work on these primate projects does just that with regular census and anti-logging/poaching patrols.What has happened in Borneo is now a real threat to Africa.

So I urge you to think twice before buying products with palm oil that aren’t sustainably sourced and if you join one of our primate tours you are helping efforts being made both locally and internationally to support these fragile ecosystems and our distant cousins.