Category Archives: 2018 East Africa

Travel Report on Nairobi National Park, Sept. 21, 2018

I am at the beginning of a 3 month visit to Madagascar and Kenya for wildlife and bird photography.  After leaving my house in Tucson I endured four flight legs and one long taxi ride, covering 30+ hours, to get to my hotel in downtown Nairobi (my return trip is scheduled to be 4 hours longer).  From Nairobi it is several hours more of flight time to Antananarivo, capital of Madagascar.  Because I could not book flights directly all the way to Madagascar, I spent 5 days in Nairobi before flying on (I will return to Kenya after 6 weeks of travel in Madagascar).

Nairobi is a sprawling city of over 5 million, and includes a huge shantytown only a little smaller than Soweto in Johannesburg. Threats of street crime and terror attacks have been somewhat reduced with new security measures in the last 4 years.  Entering the international airport from the city has one navigate 3 different security checks.  First, almost a mile from the airport all vehicles are stopped and searched, and all passengers must exit the vehicles and form a huge line which passes through a building with dual metal detectors.  At the terminal, vehicles must park some distance from the entrance, where a second full security detail now has all luggage pass through huge belted scanners, and all passengers, after showing identification, pass through full body-scan machines.  At this point one checks in and acquires boarding passes.  Then one goes through the final security checkpoint where, again, after removing all metal, computers, etc. bags again are scanned and one walks through the third set of body scanners.  My hotel in downtown Nairobi had guards fully inspect all vehicles before they could pull up to the hotel entrance.  At the entrance one passed through a scanner and luggage went through an x-ray machine.  Upon exiting the elevators, one needed the electronic room card to open steel doors to exit the elevator lobby and approach one’s room, which of course also required the key.  On major roads, overhead cameras constantly monitor traffic and photos are snapped of all occupants of the vehicles (they operate like speed cameras, but photograph everyone).  I suspect the people who operate all this security probably stop paying much attention, but the effort certainly is impressive and a little oppressive, and I am told attacks and crime has been much reduced.

My downtown hotel, the Ibis, had a lovely rooftop bar where I enjoyed my late afternoons with the most popular local beer, the Tusker, in imperial pint bottles.  Marabou Storks flew in small groups overhead returning to their roosting grounds, as Black Kites circled together with Pied Crows.

As I had 5 initial days in Kenya I opted to spend just 2 nights downtown then was transported into the Nairobi National Park, the only large game park in the world located literally bordering a large city.  The Park contains all the dangerous Big Five animals except elephants, as well as many antelope species, giraffe, hippos, zebra and hyena among countless others.  An electric fence is all that separates many miles of the northern park boundary, and its lions, buffalo and rhinos, from busy Nairobi streets and apartment buildings.  The southern boundaries of the park are open and permit the animals to migrate out and into other parks.  I stayed at the only tented safari camp permitted in the park, the Nairobi Tented Camp, a semi-luxury camp with solar power, large private tented accommodation with private baths, good food and excellent service.  Although the park is separated from the city, the camp deep within the park is open and unprotected.  After sunset one must be accompanied by staff to walk to and from the tents, group dining and gathering areas.  Wild animals routinely walk through the camp, including bushbuck, suni, warthogs and buffalo, although I was told lions and rhinos are relatively rare.  Nights under the trees were pitch black, and the cries of the many animals “interesting” – especially the Tree Hyrex, which were located around the camp, one directly over my tent.  Their nightly communication involved an extraordinarily loud series of creaks, as of two huge tree trunks grinding against each other in a storm, followed by loud wails that invoked images of a large grazing beast’s (or person’s) last cries while being slaughtered by a lion. The spotted hyena’s ascending whoops also were a little chilling.

I spent early mornings and late afternoons on game drives throughout the Park.  We encountered many zebra, giraffe, buffalo, impala, hartebeest, eland, ostrich, hippo and lion.  This is one of the few Parks in all of Africa with large numbers of both species of endangered rhinos, the Black and the White.  We watched a number of small social groups of white rhino.  The Blacks are fewer in number, solitary, and stay within the shrubbery which they consume, and so are quite rare to see.  I lucked out my last hour of the last day in locating a large male, which slowly moved to cross the dirt trail right in front of us.  Below I have posted photos of many of the animals, as well as some of the wondrous birds, including two species of the tiny iridescent sunbirds, the Scarlet Chested and Variable, and the Grey-crowned Crane, Superb Starling, Little Bee-eater and Speckled Mousebird, among others.

On Tuesday I was transported to the airport, passing eventually through the onerous security previously described, and flew onward to Madagascar to spend the next 41 days, mostly with a private vehicle and driver traveling throughout the island’s various habitat zones to visit around a dozen National Parks and private reserves. I look forward to viewing the unique and mostly endemic wildlife and birds.  I currently am spending a few days in the capital city, wandering the over-crowded, traffic-jammed narrow streets which wind throughout the hilly region.  My hotel, the Sakamanga, has nice rooms filled with unique local artwork, and one of the best French restaurants, along with an outdoor bar area around the pool.  Wandering throughout the pool area is the semi-pet resident bald parrot, slightly crazy, and constantly accosting guests.  My first day, he would not leave me alone, climbing up my legs and chair to get on the table and opening my backpack.  It knew precisely how to open various plastic snaps and straps.  Then it would sit in a corner brooding and make the most wondrous whistling noises and songs.

Later.  Dave

Report on Ankarafantsika National Park, Madagascar, Sept. 27, 2018

My private car and driver picked me up Sept. 22 from my lodging at the Sakamanga in Tana at 7am for the 8 1/2 hour drive north to Ankarafantsika National Park, my first adventure in Madagascar.  The park is large, consisting of dry thorn forest in gently rolling hills near the Northwest coast of the island.  The trees often grow to a canopy of 100 plus feet, and below are thickets of vines and dry bushes.  All Parks in Madagascar require a fairly steep daily entrance fee, and none have access for vehicles.  Local guides must be hired at preset prices to enter each Park, and all exploration is done on foot on the fairly well maintained trails.  Ankarafantsika also boasts a fairly large, crocodile infested lake which is accessible by small boat (for an additional large fee, and still requiring one be accompanied by a guide).  My first day I met and arranged three days visit with Modeste, a young local guide who is an expert on the local birds.

My legs were a little sore at the end of three days of hiking, starting each morning at sunup and going for 4 hours and then that again each afternoon.  I probably downed a gallon of water after trudging through the mid-afternoon heat each day (something about mad dogs and Englishmen).  My lodging, the Blue Vanga, located in the nearby village from which the local guides came, was in the usual “rustic” style, meaning thatched roof bungalow with mosquito netting sort of forming a ceiling below the thatch.  The windows were shuttered with wood – no glass or netting.  The shower, which ran from an outside raised water tank through 5/8 inch plastic piping above ground, put out blazing hot water at mid-day.  Electric power was available from banks of batteries solar recharged during the day.  Power only was available from 6pm to 6am, just enough to power extremely weak compact florescent lighting.  A small fan over the bed, along with many geckos, held off the flying insects and helped sleep during the sweltering night.  The only staff stayed in and walked over a kilometer from the nearby village.  Evening meals could be prepared as long as orders were put in well in advance.  No problems waking up, as the resident rooster started crowing each night on the half hour from 1:30 am on.  When the rooster missed, the three resident dogs were certain to take up the slack by barking outside the door by 2am.

The local villagers just north of the park specialize in a product from the local mango trees – this time of year the small pot-holed highway is lined with wooden stalls selling combinations of hot mashed chili mixed with finely julienned green mango or lime, sold in reused plastic water bottles in liter or half liter size.  It might not look great, but this is some of the finest condiment I ever have tried.  I purchased 4 half liters to take with me on my further journeys, as I was told it  is only a specialty of this region.

My hikes with guide Modeste, plus time on the lake, resulted in a number of fine bird and other wildlife sightings.  We found most of the extremely rare and endangered endemic species resident only around this area.  This included the fabulous Madagascar Fish Eagle, a magnificent large rust colored eagle with whitish tan head – an estimated fewer than 120 mating pairs are in existence.  Also on tap were the gorgeous Schleger’s Asity, Madagascar Kingfisher, Madagascar Pygmy Kingfisher, Sickle-billed Vanga, White-breasted Mesite, Long-billed Tetraka, Madagascar Crested Coua, Coquerel’s Coua and Red-capped Coua, along with the dazzling Madagascar Paradise Flycatcher.  At least a dozen more endemic birds were photographed, along with the endemic mammals and reptiles, including the Brown Lemur, Coquerel’s Sifaka and Milne-Edwards’ Sportive Lemur along with the Green Gecko and Oestalet Chameleon.

I spent late afternoons trying to develop and caption my photos in the hot bungalow.  Without power this inevitably would exhaust my laptop battery power with Photoshop Lightroom running very hard and read-writing twin half Terrabyte flash memory banks.  I was able, in the capital Tana, to find 3 liter casks of Spanish red table wine, and so happily sat outside on the shaded porch sipping wine and smoking my pipe while the computer was running its tasks and overheating (in the tropics I usually have to turn the laptop upside down to keep the internal temperature within range).  At 6 pm with the solar bank power turned on I could recharge my computer and camera batteries overnight.

Basically all my expenses, other than lodging and transport which I pre-arranged, have to be paid in cash, the Ariary, the local currency.  As my Park entrances and guide fees are quite high, this creates issues with obtaining and carrying enough cash.  The largest bill is 20,000 Ariary, but the largest generally obtained and used is 10,000 – sounds like a lot but that translates into a $3 bill US.  Many days, with entrance fee, guide fee, boat fee, meals and tips, paying out 250,000 to 300,000 per day ($75 – $90) is common.  This requires 25 to 30 notes of the largest bill.  A week’s worth of cash can be a stack of bills 2 1/2 inches thick, which cannot be carried conveniently in a wallet, but stored in a plastic bag within my backpack.  To make matters worse, ATM machines are not available outside the larger cities, and the largest ATM withdrawal per transaction is generally 400,000 Ariary, or $120, so multiple withdrawals must be made daily while in Tana to fill up my plastic bags, in order to have sufficient cash for the excursions.  I ran into similar problems in Leticia, Colombia on the Amazon River.  One needs to plan, and stay several days in the large cities with banks, to organize enough cash for travel into the boondocks (I did wire $1,000 via Western Union from the US for starting cash, and was greeted at the airport with a stack of currency over 3 inches thick).

I am now back in Tana for a few days, getting ready for a 21 day excursion throughout the southern half of the island.  Later.  Dave

Travel Report on Ranomafana, Isalo and Zombitse National Parks, Madagascar, Oct. 9, 2018

After leaving Ankarafantsika and reconnecting for 3 days with the capital, Antananarivo, I met with my new driver, Miary, and headed south for the longest loop of my visit to Madagascar.  I was somewhat incapacitated for a couple of days in Tana from a lower intestinal bug (probably virus), but recovered sufficiently to continue my journey south; I suspected my green mango chili sauce might be the culprit, although I had been adding it to my food for 5 days by then – perhaps the viral incubation period was that long.  I figure now I am immune, though I have suspended use of the sauce for a while. The first stop on the journey south was an overnight in Ambositra.  We stayed at the L’Artisans Hotel, a nice oasis in the middle of a very crowded dusty town.  The area is famous for its wood carvers, who do entire panels, balconies, statues or anything to order, by hand.  The small bungalows were a little dark, but the entire upper outside walls were carved dark wood panels – very ornate.

After a 6 hour drive the first day, the second leg should have been shorter but was lengthened somewhat by two events.  The first, we passed a small forested area which my driver told me was a new private reserve owned by the local village of Ambotovaki, created just 3 years earlier to protect the critically endangered Red Lemur (aka Rufous Brown Lemur).  I paid for entrance and services of a local village guide and we spent a little over an hour hiking up the forested hillside to ultimately encounter two small families of the lemurs.  I was able to capture some decent photos, although all birdlife escaped my lens as the undergrowth simply was too thick to permit the camera any chance of achieving focus.

Shortly after the stop at the reserve we were halted by a long line of vehicles extending up and around a hill.  I walked along the line and found the cause – a tractor trailer had overturned on a corner, unleashing a load of newly cast concrete power poles along the roadway.  They had temporarily shut the road in both directions to try to right the trailer with steel cables, but ultimately failed, and eventually traffic was re-opened but took some time to pass the roadblock.

Ranomafana National Park is the most famous and expensive of the Madagascar Parks, and the small town near the entrance has a number of hotels with a number of foreign tourists.  I stayed in the Centrest, with very nice rooms, mine with a balcony overlooking the greenery of the town below.  It at least had power, in theory, 24 hours a day although it seemed often to go off for short periods.  My first full day I headed out with car, driver, chief guide and 2 finders, only to have fog and heavy drizzle continue all day ending any viewing whatsoever.  Rotten luck – they kept telling me this was the first precipitation they had had in over a month – little consolation as the rainy season was not to start for another month.  It is, however, a rainforest.  The second day started overcast, but cleared by mid-morning and we took full advantage with a 6 hour trek in the am and another 3 ½ in the afternoon.  The park consists of very steep hillsides with creeks running in each valley, all covered with dense rainforest with the hardwood canopy reaching 150 feet.  While the upper story is ablaze with sunlight and clear sky, at the bottom it is near full dark.  For those who know camera settings, for a single lemur jumping from double shade understory into a shaft of full sunlight, the appropriate setting would go from ISO 6400, f5.6 at 1/60sec to ISO 400, f8 at 1/1000s – that is a 9 stop difference, which is huge.

The Park was created after the major discovery in 1984 of a new species of primate, the Golden Bamboo Lemur (which I vaguely remember reading about at the time). The Park has over a dozen species of lemur, including now 3 species of Bamboo Lemurs, the Grey Santel, Greater and Golden – all three critically endangered, living only within this Park.  The Greater may have as few as 60 members left.  We spotted all 3 species of the Bamboo Lemurs on the same day, pleasing me to photograph so many endangered creatures.  The price paid for getting the photos, other than some luck, was a drudging hike through and over a number of very steep mountain trails on the south side of the Park to get into the bamboo forests.  Also in the park are families of the Edward’s Sifakas, another beautiful deep brown and snow-white lemur, which we twice encountered on the north side of the park, along with a beautifully colored Leonartus Gecko and a super camouflaged Devil’s Gecko (a must see photo to determine if you can make out which parts are gecko – the answer is almost all).

To give an example of the problems facing the protection of these species, the day we drove into the Park, I noted with some disgust a small forest fire on the hillside which my driver and I assumed was caused by a careless cigarette.  Two days later my driver reported to me the full story – residents of a small village outside the Park were making forays into the Park to gather wood for making charcoal; Park rangers caught them and 2 people were jailed – in retaliation the villagers set the forest fire the day we arrived.

My guide in the park, now 55 years old, worked with the small group of scientists who camped for 2 years in the forest in 1984 studying the lemurs and making the Golden Bamboo Lemur discovery.  He now apparently is the senior bird guide, and although long on bravado is not one of the better guides I have experienced over the years, although he prices himself way above any normal Madagascar level.  Unfortunately, the beautiful rainforest also seemed very thinly populated with birds, though we found a good mix of lemurs, reptiles and insects.

From Ranomafana we drove west across the great plateau to Ranohira to visit the Isalo National Park.  On the way we stopped at another village reserve, the D’Anja, where they have a small forest of Lilac Trees with a dozen or so families of the Ring-tailed Lemurs.  The villagers dig water holes to assist in maintaining the relatively high concentration of lemurs through the dry season.  On to Ranohira where I stayed at the Hotel Isalo Ranch, 5 kilometers from the town, with bungalows scattered throughout a large area planted with all forms of tropical trees and shrubs.  The restaurant was known for its quality of food and lived up to expectations.  The rooms were a small step above rustic, with 24 hour electricity and solar heated hot water tanks.

After some inquiry at the Park headquarters we met with Roland who turned out to be one of the best guides I have had anywhere.  The Park is amazing – One heads from the town across almost barren grass covered plateau to a line of rising granite massifs and cliffs.  The cliff wall is broken every few kilometers by gorges, the entrances to which appear green from the distance.  As one hikes into the gorge the trail follows a running stream through a verdant wonderland of towering Pandamus and larger and larger trees until deep within it is a narrow lush tropical forest.  A number of bird species inhabit this area, along with a large number of the most unusual insects, spiders and reptiles.  Included in my favorites were a ‘twig-mimicking’ preying mantis (you must see the photo) and a ‘snout-nose’ bug (also a must-see), which appears to have a sawed off twig nose extending well beyond the eye, which is near the legs.  We found three roosting owls, including the Madagascar Scops Owl and a White-browed Owl, as well as the beautiful Forest Rock Thrush (considered in the Park a separate species – the Benson’s Rock Thrush) and the elusive Madagascar Buttonquail.  The owls were in very dense dark understory, and required a lot of work in very low light, as well as inching through the undergrowth in search of the little windows through the branches to permit some kind of decent photos.  Though viewed at a distance, we also saw the sole surviving Verreaux’s Sifaka (a lemur) left in this Park, who now has joined with and been accepted by a family of Ring-tailed Lemurs.

From Isalo we drove the couple of hours further west to Sakaraha to visit the nearby Zombitse Park.  En route we passed by Ilakaka, a booming frontier mining town where 20 years ago deposits of sapphires were found – the population since has grown from 40 to 60,000.  The red-earth gravel is dug up manually from pit-holes 30 to 60 feet deep, into which the diggers are lowered by ropes; the dirt gravel then is washed in the river to find the sapphires.  The entire portion of Highway 7, crossing the southern  part of the country from Fianarantsoa in the east to Toleara on the west coast, is still considered dangerous, with bands of thieves at night – the long distance public transport, the taxi brousse (mini buses or vans), often travel in convoys with special flags and armed guards on board (for me this was reminiscent of travel in most parts of Egypt some years ago, permitted only by convoys with armed military vehicles leading and following).  We have avoided staying in certain towns, and certainly do not travel at night.

Zombitse National Park is a last remaining isolated section of interzone dry forest among relative barren rolling hills where all other trees have been felled.  It is renowned for a handful of endemic species, especially including the Zombitse Sportive Lemur and the Abert’s Tetraka, both found nowhere else.  The Sportive Lemurs are nocturnal only, but they tend to come out of their tree holes to investigate annoying humans.  This also is where I finally got a few decent photos of the hawk size (and sounding) Madagascar Cuckoo-Roller with its green and gold wings, as well as the terrestrial Giant Coua.

From Sakaraha we drove the short remaining distance west to just outside Toleara on the Western Coast to stay one night at the Aboretum, before continuing south by boat to a wetlands park.  Dave

 

Travel Report on Toleara and Southwest Coastal area, Madagascar, Oct. 18, 2018

One very full day was passed at the lovely bungalow in the Arboretum, outside Toleara, where an amateur Swiss botanist collected and planted almost 1,000 species of exotic plants from southwestern Madagascar.  With dripping water faucets, and surrounded by native dry forest, the site is excellent for birding as well as night walks.  At night we encountered the nocturnal Rufous-grey Mouse Lemurs, about the size of chipmunks, which scamper among the trees in search of insects on which they feed.  These lemurs are the tiniest primates on earth. They didn’t like my flashlight, shutting their eyes when I used it to acquire photos, but the flashlight was much kinder on their eyes than the camera flash some people use, and I can manage some very low light photography if close enough.  Also encountered at night, a very tiny Lesser Hedgehog Tenrec (Telfairi), ensconced inside a tiny ¾ inch crack in a tree trunk – when the guide stuck a small twig inside, the hedgehog bit it viciously – I did not stick my finger inside. Common on low twigs were the Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches – my driver and guide laughed when I said some kids kept them for pets; they said in Madagascar they are squashed when encountered. Finally, we discovered the most exquisite Warty Chameleon on a small tree branch – a must-see photo.

During the early morning I got good shots of the Green-capped Coua devouring a Madagascar Hissing Cockroach, as well as a pair of nesting Madagascar Kestrels, a gorgeous Male Souimanga Sunbird and a flame colored Madagascar Red Fody.  We moved on into Toleara, second largest city in Madagscar, to a first class hotel for the evening.  The following day we took a boat south about 35kms across the St. Augustine Bay. The boat ride was most unusual in that no deep inlets or port exist on the coast.  Therefore, even the flat bottomed boats such as we took cannot get right onto the beach but must be out in a few feet of water.  To load onto the boat a series of bullock carts are driven by young boys onto the beach to collect the luggage and passengers, then head out into the shallow waters by the side of the boat to off load the cart.  At the arrival points in Anakao to the south, groups of young men wade out to gather the luggage onto their backs to carry from the boat to shore; passengers must do a “wet” landing, simply wading to shore (lots of sand in the sandals, which hopefully one has been advised to wear).

In Anakao we were met by a driver with 4X4 to continue our transport south along the dirt and sand single track another 45kms through very unusual dry scrub, into territory with no paved roads. My accommodation, at the Le Domaine d’Ambola, is the home and guest house of the regional head of the ABC Domino, a French NGO which has built schools around the southwest coast for the villagers who live in the middle-of-nowhere (see the photo of the 4X4 “bus” below).  We were on a beautiful white sand beach coastline, had running water turned on for parts of the day, took bucket baths in the bathrooms, and relied on rather dependable solar power which periodically was turned on for the rooms. The first late afternoon after arrival a booming thunderstorm and downpour passed over us, flooding much of the property, and was pronounced most unusual by the owner.  It cleared quickly and that evening the sunset was beautiful.  This was the only spot within easy 4X4 access of the Tsimanampetsotsa National Park, my reason for coming.  The Park consists of marshes and a shallow soda lake full of unusual water birds with the surrounding dry spiny forest full of a different set of birds.  Barely 1,000 tourists a year visit the Park as it is rather difficult to get to.

Because of the very heavy thunderstorm of the first day the difficulty level increased the next 2 days; even the 4X4 could not reach the Park, so alternate transport by bullock cart was arranged for the 6 kilometers passage through shallow standing water in the briny pans to reach the main lake and Park areas.  The previous day I had sought out the only guide with knowledge of the birds and arranged for him to accompany me for the 2 days.  At the Lake edge we encountered three species of small plovers, the White-fronted, Kittlitz’s and rather rare Madagascar, as well as Greater Flamingos, and two more species of Coua, the Running and Verreaux’s.

The second day by bullock cart, in order to get deep into the Park on the far side of the lake, we crossed a number of deep water depressions, and twice got stuck, once with one of the bullocks tail down into a deep hole.  Both times required the driver to release the bullocks to extricate themselves, while my driver, guide and cartman then man-handled the cart wheels to extract the cart from the muddy depression.  You may have read that cattle contribute very significantly to global warming by emitting greenhouse gasses consisting of methane, CO2 and nitrous oxide, which together are worse than all auto emissions combined, as the methane is over 20 times more heat-trapping.  The two bullocks pulling my cart had achieved superstar status in this regard.  Needing to sit down in the cart, to avoid falling out, I was low enough to endure some really noxious emissions – effused heavily with aerosol particulates and vapors that only bullock bacteria apparently can produce – odiferous is way too polite a term.

For those who may think this travel sounds rough, well it is, in fact, adventure travel.  All the better hotels in this area have no running water.  At the Safari Vezo, in Anakao, they daily brought me a small bucket of very hot water, dark brown and briny, into which some palm leaf had been steeped to a tea strength, which bathing solution was reputed to have many medicinal qualities to heal one’s aches.  The bath was taken sitting in the nicely tiled bath chamber, with huge plastic buckets of briny water from which one poured a mixture of the hot and cold via a large plastic cup.  Electricity all was via solar power, and generally was supplied to the rooms for only a few hours in early evening.  Getting up daily at 4am, I was reliant on flashlights to get around.  All battery recharging, in order to get my computer work accomplished, had to be undertaken within a 4 hour window.  For coffee in the early morning hours, I often relied on borrowing a thermos filled with hot water in the evening, with which I then could make instant coffee in the morning.  Mosquitoes were not so bad this time of year around most of the rooms, though DEET or nets are advised.  Mosquitoes could be horrid in the Parks, as was the mid-day sun.

My one full day in Anakao, I hired an outrigger (with tiny motor) to visit the nearby island of Nosy Ve.  Most tourists go, if at all, for the completely deserted white sand beaches.  I went because it has the southern-most breeding colony of Red-tailed Tropicbirds.  One finds the scattered nests under brush, inland a distance from the beaches – somewhat reminiscent of the many nesting birds in the Galapagos.  We also encountered a number of shorebirds, Grey heron and Newtonias on the island.

On Monday we returned by boat across the Bay to Toleara, and after stocking up on a few supplies, traveled north to the small village of Ifaty on the coast, surrounded by more spiny desert and some rare endemic birds.  The next day I spent 5 hours in the private Reniala Reserve, with a young university educated guide, and was rewarded with great photos of two rare local endemics; the Subdesert Mesite and the Long-tailed Ground Roller.  Both are found only in a roughly 10 by 35 kilometer stretch of coastal thorny forest centered on Ifaty – nowhere else on earth.  Both provided very nice colorful photos, presented below.  We also were fortunate in locating two somewhat rarely seen birds at their nests; the Madagascar Harrier Hawk, a very large magnificent bird of prey, and the Hook-billed Vanga, which was presenting its young a headless lizard at its nesting hole in a Baobab tree.  Incidentally, this reserve provides protection to a number of amazing Baobabs, some 1,200 years old (see photo of yours truly), plus the fantastic Octopus tree, a towering collection of very spiny leafy poles reaching into the sky. The vegetation in the spiny southern forests is some of the most exotic on earth – I never have seen so many really strange dry forest type plants – and most indeed are spiny.

The following day I arranged a different guide to visit some shallow soda lakes south of Ifaty, where we photographed more plovers, as well as a bedraggled looking Madagascar Swamp Warbler (I pictured it just to show the meaning of “bedraggled”), and a Baillon’s Crake, very difficult to see as it never leaves the thick reeds.  We return by vehicle to the Capital Tana over the next two days – each will require 11 to 12 hours of driving.  I will then spend 5 days back in the Eastern rain forest to try to pick up a number of final endemic birds and lemurs.  Later.  Dave

Travel Report on Andasibe National Park and Surrounds, Madagascar, Oct. 28, 2018

Hello all.  My driver/guide Miary and I drove 2 very long days to return from Ifaty, north of Toleara on the southwest coast, to Antananarivo, the capital.  We stopped for one night at the nice Zomatel Hotel in Fianarantsoa, and then I stayed 2 nights at the Petite Flower Guesthouse north of Tana.  Last Monday we headed east to the rainforest parks and private reserves around Andasibe, a small village by the large Andasibe National Park entrance.  I stayed at the Feon’ny Ala Hotel in a rustic but nice large cabin with balcony right over a small stream at the very edge of the Park’s primary rainforest.  Every afternoon and evening the haunting songs of the Indri, serenaded my room. The Indri are one of the largest lemurs, completely black and white, with fluffy ears and bright green-yellow eyes, and do look like furry teddy bears sitting on the sides of tree trunks.  They live in family groups (as do all lemurs), fairly high in the rainforest canopy, and their calls or singing is one of the unforgettable sounds of Madagascar – they make a high pitched cry that rises and falls, very loud, and very reminiscent of recordings of Humpback Whales singing.  I made good recordings by using camera video.  Also almost every afternoon, the local family tribe of Common Brown Lemurs would cross the little stream via tree branches, and sit on the embankment below the cabin balconies – unfortunately many guest had learned to throw them bread or bananas to attract them.  This band of lemurs, unlike all others I encountered in the deep forest, were overweight, some just plain fat.  They had to rely on larger branches than most because of their extra weight although they still could launch themselves goodly distances.

The first day I hired a self-described bird expert to visit the neighboring primary forests in Mantadia National Park, an hour and half drive by 4X4 north to the start of trails.  Unfortunately, the expert was not so expert, and not a very good guide and we encountered no birds new for me.  We did however encounter 5 species of lemur, including the Grey Bamboo Lemur, Black and White Ruffed Lemur, Red-bellied Lemur and the extremely rare and critically endangered Diademed Sifaka, a large white and deep golden lemur with handsome black face.  Photos of all are included below.  The second day I visited a small NGO Reserve, Matsinju, which was mostly secondary forest, but where we achieved an up-close view of an Indri, as well as an encounter with the Common Brown Lemurs.  I also got my first viewing of the Parson’s Chameleon, large and spectacularly colored green and orange with horns and neck shield.

Day 3 saw us on an 8 hour trek through the primary rainforest of the private village reserve of Maromizaha, where with a village guide we encountered the sought after Red-fronted Coua, the Velvet Asity and the White-throated Oxylabe, though great pictures were not obtained.  Day 4 I finally visited Andasibe National Park, with another “expert” bird guide, and now realize that for the most part the Madagascar “experts” simply do not measure up to anything close to the abilities I am accustomed to in Central and South America and Asia, though they all charge comparable prices.  Some lovely photos of the unusual Nelicourvi Weaver were possible, both male and female beautifully colored.  Also we encountered a female Indri with an extremely boisterous young one – video was possible of this little one simply leaping from limb to limb going in rapid circles around his mother, who paid no attention.  He was practicing his travel techniques, and often somewhat miss-timed his jumps and barely held on to the target branches.  It was extremely amusing and I will need to find some way to present videos and sound recordings in my website.  The final morning I visited another local village private reserve which covers half the Andasibe Rainforest which is not operated by the federal government as National Park.  There we sought the Madagascar Crested Ibis and ground rollers, with little luck except for a brief viewing of the Pita-like Ground Roller.  I got a decent view of a Madagascar Long-eared Owl roosting high in a pine tree, and a juvenile Madagascar Scops Owl in its nesting hole.

From Andesibe my driver returned me to the Sakamanga Hotel in central Tana, where I am spending my last 2 nights in the country.  On Monday the 29th I will fly back to Nairobi for 45 days of adventure in Kenya.

A parting comment on the Madagascar road system – it truly is terrible – I have seen as bad only in Mozambique, Malawi and Nepal (and, unfortunately, only here exaggerating a little, in parts of my hometown, Tucson).  The major highway in the country runs from the capital Antananarivo south and then west 1,000 km to Toleara on the southwest coast; the other major road heads north and then west from Tana to Mahajanga (just beyond Ankarafantsika National Park where I started).  We have driven both.  The roads never are more than single lane each direction, and often not that on narrow curves and where the edges have crumbled.  Most bridge crossings reduce to one-at-a-time single lane.  Large stretches present huge potholes, often impossible to drive around, requiring all vehicles practically to come to a complete stop to pass.  Huge, very slow moving trucks ply the road, exuding black clouds of diesel exhaust, as they inch up the inclines at a cool walking pace.  In our days of travel I believe we encountered 4 recently overturned trucks, where unsecured loads inside shifted when the trucks outer wheels encountered a deep gap in the edge of the pavement – the shifting loads broke through the cheap sides of the semi-trailers and the shift would overturn the truck.  Trucks also broke down in the middle of steep ascents, taking up most of the roadway as no shoulders exist.  Mini-buses, called taxi-brousses, form the backbone of all public transportation, plying all roads between all towns.  These travel packed so full of passengers that breathing room is difficult.  The roofs are often packed 4-5 feet higher with luggage and transported goods, often huge bags of charcoal, and sometimes wicker baskets with dozens of chicken or duck heads sticking up through the holes.  These taxis are broken down so often I suppose we would pass one each 10 minutes or so – the 20 plus passengers sitting on the embankments in the sun, while driver and aide would be underneath trying to repair something.

One comment also on the politics of Madagascar – I have read about the history since independence from France in 1960, and am utterly confused, with which reaction most of the Malagasy people I have spoken with agree.  The same names appear in each presidential election over many years, and this year is not different.  The election for President will occur just after my departure in a few days.  The national law allows just one month of campaigning (oh how I wish the same existed in the US).  36 candidates have been in full swing for the last 3 weeks. Due in part to the sheer number of candidates who will be on the ballot, but also to illiteracy and overall confusion, the candidates now are each ascribed a number, No1 through No36, which number appears in bold on all campaign posters with the candidate’s picture, and which number will be used on the ballots to identify for whom the vote is cast.  I am told that Madagascar’s disappearing endangered mature rosewood trees, which only grow in the far northeast, a rather inaccessible part of the country, have their protections lifted by the crop of perpetually high-level candidates running for President.  Large numbers of irreplaceable trees (requiring 100s of years to mature) are cut and the wood shipped to China where it is prized.  Thus have campaigns been financed for decades.

A fond farewell to Madagascar; at last count I photographed 88 species of birds new to me, almost all of which are endemic to Madagascar, and 17 species of Lemurs, all of which are endemic and so of course new. The next travel report should be on Kenyan Parks.  Later. Dave

Travel Report on Amboseli National Park and Selenkay Conservancy, Kenya, Nov. 10, 2018

After an uneventful flight back from Madagascar and 3 nights in Nairobi, I took a bush flight to the dirt airstrip in Amboseli National Park. The small single engine plane carried 8 passengers, and after taxiing to the runway at the Wilson Airport, we were told we had to exit the plane and walk back to the terminal.  The plane was towed back manually by the crew.  One of the foot pedals apparently was stuck.  Thirty minutes late, we again boarded and took the 50 minute flight to Amboseli.  There I was met by the 4X4 vehicle from the Selenkay Conservancy, and with 3 others we spent 7 hours touring Amboseli National Park, about which I will write more below.

The Selenkay Conservancy is a private reserve north of Amboseli, consisting of about 25 square miles of bush land held in trust for about 50 Maasai villages.  The local villagers basically provide all the employees, drivers, guides etc.  Only one tented camp has been allowed in the reserve – the Porini Amboseli Camp, with 16 large private tents.  While I was there for 4 nights, the camp never had more than 6 guests, as the high season now has ended.  I was provided access to my own jeep, driver and bird guide while there, and spent every morning for about 6 hours on game drives.  The conservancy has most of the large Kenyan game animals, including elephant, lion, leopard, buffalo, giraffe and 8 species of antelope, including the elegant long-necked Gerenuk, the rarely seen Lesser Kudu and the tiny Kirk’s Dikdik – Dikdiks are the smallest antelope in the world.

The tents were very large canvas rooms with huge bathrooms.  Showers were anytime, involving a room assistant bringing large buckets of hot water, lifted with pulleys and ropes high enough for the water to gravity drain into the inside shower.  It worked great, but one must keep careful track of the water use, or it runs out before you rinse the soap off.  I learned to wet, turn off the water, soap and shampoo, then turn the water back on to rinse.  The tent was generally rather well occupied by not only yours truly, but a number of black crickets, black tent spiders and a lovely young toad which lived just under my shower’s raised wooden slat floor.  During the day, the heavy canvas over the large windows and the 6 X 10 foot entrance was rolled up and all openings were covered by just light insect netting.  At night all the heavy canvas was rolled down and zipped up tight over all entrances for security and privacy.  The camp was in the middle of the reserve and had no protection from the wildlife.  We had to be escorted at night to our tents, as on occasion buffalo, elephant or lion wandered through camp.  My third night, someone forgot to roll down and seal my canvas coverings, and I went to bed with just the insect netting over all openings.  I initially preferred that, with the fresh air passing through and stars visible; then around midnight a male lion started roaring every half hour from the waterhole about 200 meters away.  I realized I had nothing but bug netting all along the side of the bed, 6 inches from my head, and I faced the large front opening onto the “veranda,” where, I had been told, a lion once had strolled through.  I didn’t sleep as well as I would have liked that night, but learned later to make a passable impression of the lion’s roar (which I didn’t practice after dark, as the others told me it sounded real enough, and I didn’t wish to attract the lion to a perceived intruder).

The camp was all-inclusive, (except, of course, tips), and the meals too frequent and large.  The second day in the afternoon I joined 4 others to visit the closest Maasai village; the visit was a real treat, and due to the association of the villages with the reserve, no crafts were offered for sale and no tipping was expected.  The young warriors escorted us into the village, which comprised a group of thatch and cow dung circular structures with no windows for light, and single doors opened first going through a narrow passage one way, then turning 180 degrees and passing the other.  The entrance blocked all light and allowed smoke and local herb vapors to fill the hut keeping it free of flies, mosquitoes etc.  The warriors did a number of dances, including those with the famous high leaps, and the ladies sang and danced.

I photographed a number of birds and animals, including the huge roosting Verreaux’s Eagle Owls, largest of Africa’s owls, the Tawny Eagle, Secretary Bird, and very colorful Von der Decken’s Hornbill and White-headed Buffalo Weaver.  We spent about an hour one day by an old high termite mound which was occupied by a very large clan of Dwarf Mongoose.  They all would mingle on top, chirping and cleaning each other. Any unusual noise and all would instantly turn their heads in the same direction.  The most common bird in this part of Africa probably is the most beautiful also – the Superb Starling is an iridescent metallic gun metal blue and orange.

My 5th day I was met by a private car and driver who will escort me for most of the rest of my days in Kenya.  We drove south to near the northern slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro at the southern edge of the Amboseli National Park.  There I stayed in the Sopa Lodge for 3 nights.  Daily we drove into the park and along the shores of shallow soda Amboseli Lake, which this time of year appears pink from a distance as it is practically covered with huge flocks of both Lesser and Greater Flamingos.  Along the edges are numerous species of plovers and sandpipers among many other shore and water birds.  Around the lake stretch endless grassy plains, interspersed with occasional small wooded areas.  Large herds of Blue Wildebeest, Grant’s Gazelle, Impala and Zebra mingle here, and large families of Elephants pass through the marshy areas around the lake.  Lions, buffalo and giraffe also are common.  I could endlessly watch the families of African Elephants pass from one forested area to another – parking along their route provided unforgettable views of them in single or double file majestically marching toward or away from us.  The Park is full of raptors, and after photographing a huge Martial Eagle on a tree top in the morning, at noon we passed by again and the Eagle did a stoop from on high, dropping straight to the ground onto a young warthog – the pig dodged at the last instant and the Eagle missed.  That same day we sat and watched two lionesses finishing off a Blue Wildebeest carcass; one spent the entire time delicately removing parts of the animal’s face, which was a little gross.  The largest Wildebeest bulls and Grant’s Gazelle males, in their prime, often were seriously sparring with clashes of horns as mating season approaches.  One lion couple was mating every 10 minutes or so – I was informed this could occur in any season, and when the female was in heat, the mating would continue day and night for several days.

From Amboseli we drove west to the Tsavo West National Park, down in the south eastern corner of Kenya, just east of the slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro in neighboring Tanzania.  Here I am staying in the lovely Serena Lodge from where I can post this report.  Later.  Dave

 

 

Travel Report on Tsavo West and East National Parks, Shimba Hills Conservancy and Mombasa, Kenya, Nov. 18, 2018

We drove from Amboseli, on the northern flanks of Mt Kilimanjaro, south and east to Tsavo West National Park.  There I stayed in the wonderful Serena Lodge inside the Park.  My room, No. 14, was on the second floor directly overlooking two large water holes where I counted at least 10 different species of mammals which came to drink, both during the day and all night.  Large families of African Elephants would wade into the waters, followed by herds of Zebra, Impala, Waterbuck and Giraffe.  Occasional Buffalo and Black-backed Jackal also frequented the water along with Yellow Baboons.  Outside my room I had orange-headed Agami Lizards.  We drove game drives every morning where I picked up a number of interesting birds, including the Black-faced Sandgrouse and 4 species of hornbill – the Eastern Yellow-billed, Red-billed, African Grey and Von der Decken’s.

From Tsavo West we drove further south and east to the Tsavo East National Park, with pretty rolling forested hills but far less animal and birdlife.  The Park is famous (or, infamous) for its pair of Man-eating Lions; back in the 1890’s the railroad was constructed from Mombasa, the main seaport on the East coast of Africa, to Uganda.  Apparently 30 to 100 Indian workmen were stalked, killed and eaten by a lion pair during bridge construction, causing many workers to flee the area.  A British soldier finally killed the lions, which now are on display in the Chicago Field Museum.  Man-eating among lions is almost unknown, but this history gives the area quite a mystique.  Satao Camp was a tented camp, so once again I was in a semi-luxurious huge tent bedroom, with large bath area, and insect netted openings on all sides.  Here the nearby waterhole was further away, but every evening just after sunset the Hippos would exit the water and march slowly by my tent, which was well away from the dining – registration area.  Guests had to be escorted to and from the tents when dark, as the hippos are the most dangerous animals in the country.  I found here the beautiful Golden-breasted Starlings, and the super-strange looking Vulturine Guinea Fowl with huge dazzling bodies of electric-blue and silver stripes, pencil thin high necks which become completely devoid of feathers near the head, except for a ring of rust-red fluff around the back, and a small head with barren black skin and beak.  The head does for all-the-world resemble that of a vulture.

From Tsavo East we traveled to the Shimba Hills Conservancy south of Mombasa, where I spent two days in the lovely Shimba Hills Lodge, overlooking a small stream and pond, both ruled over by a gorgeous pair of immense African Fish Eagles.  The eagles were visible at all hours of the day, sitting on high branches of trees on all sides of the pond, and often loudly crying as they would simultaneously swoop to the pond, passing each other and ritualistically exchanging the tree branches they sat on.  Strange behavior, but fascinating to watch.  Unfortunately, the Shimba Hills, although beautiful forested hills, contain very few birds and very few species of birds.  The one ranger I spoke with told me the Park had 111 species – this is less than half the number of species we have just around my desert town of Tucson, and as Kenya has more species of birds than any country in Africa I simply cannot understand the dearth of birds in this area.

While dining, overlooking the small lake, we entertained food beggars, both at noon and evening meals; noon produced a bushy orange and grey squirrel which would come under our chairs looking for intentionally dropped food.  Evenings we were visited by a Bush-baby, one of the nocturnal primates of Africa – this one would not just beg, but climb the outer railing by the table or an empty chair and steal food off the table.  I lost a roll the first evening, and barely managed to salvage an egg roll the second.

Wednesday morning I left early to take care of a nagging problem I have had since arrival; Kenya has for years provided 90 day tourist visas upon arrival, but the week before my return from Madagascar the Director of Immigration issued a directive reducing all such visas to 30 days, and requiring a return to an Immigration office near the end of that period for any extension; my total time is 44 days.  I tried but could not convince management in the Nairobi main office to grant me an extension while I was there just days after the visa was issued.  It looked like I would have to break my safari travel for a day or more while in the West of Kenya to return to Nairobi just to get the extension.  I had my driver leave early and traveled to the Mombasa Immigration Office Wednesday morning, where the lone officer, after reviewing my flight tickets for returning to the US, granted me an extension of 14 days to extend my visa to my departure date.  This now leaves me worry free to enjoy the balance of my safari travel to the north and west of the country.

The Mombasa hotel I had booked months in advance had me wait a couple of hours for room cleaning, then the manager told me they had no rooms available as they had unexpectedly agreed to house an entire German Delegates meeting which required special security.  They booked me in another hotel for which I had to pay twice as much and endure a location much further from the Old Town for which I had come to Mombasa – basically the Voyager Resort comprises a beach and pool destination for Eastern Europeans and wealthy Kenyan families with little kids.  Oh well, the food was good and the ocean view terrific.

Mombasa has the major seaport of East Africa; it was visited by the earliest Portuguese explorers, starting with Vasco da Gama in 1498.  In the 1590s the Portuguese built the huge Fort Jesus (now a World Heritage Site) to protect the port.  Nevertheless, control of Mombasa has changed at least 9 times.  For long periods Mombasa, along with Zanzibar, were under the control of Oman or Omanis in Mombasa.  For centuries it was the major African seaport for trade in spices, gold, ivory and slaves.  I visited the Fort Friday morning, traveling there by the wonderful tuktuks (3 wheel motorized taxi bikes) which ply the city’s narrow alleys, and break every decent traffic law – if there are such laws.  A highlight of the Fort was walls with intricate drawings (graffiti) left by Portuguese sailors around 1600 – most are of various types of ships and boats.

Saturday I returned by air to Nairobi for two nights, again in the Meridian Hotel, after which I start the long stretch of my safari, going north and west for a total of 21 days, visiting 10 different Parks and Reserves.  Later.  Dave

Travel Report on Samburu, Mount Kenya, Aberdares and Great Rift Valley Parks, Kenya, Nov. 29, 2018

My driver picked me up from the Meridian Hotel in Nairobi on Nov. 21 and we drove the long 6 hours to the north of Mount Kenya to Samburu National Park. There I stayed at the Sopa Lodge, deep inside the wooded grasslands dotted with rocky hills.  Just to the south side was the heavily wooded river basin.  Along the dry lands and riverside we encountered a number of African specialties found nowhere further south in Africa.  These included the Reticulated Giraffe, Beisa Oryx, Gerenuk and Grevy’s Zebra, along with lots of African Elephants, Lions and Olive Baboons, all of which are included below in photos.  The first afternoon a pride of lions near the river killed a full grown giraffe – very unusual to take on such a large and formidable prey (a kick or head butt by a large giraffe will easily kill or disable a lion).  Around the lodge a number of dryland bird species were encountered, including the Von der Decken’s, Eastern Yellow-billed, Red-billed and Jackson’s Hornbills.  One particular encounter was memorable – an Eastern Yellow-billed Hornbill caught a huge grasshopper and spent the better part of 5 minutes trying to swallow it head-first.  The grasshopper was too big for the bird’s throat, and it kept choking it back out.  I did get a series of remarkable and humorous photos, a couple of which are included.

After three days in Samburu we headed back south to the southwestern flanks of Mt. Kenya inside the Mt. Kenya National Park, a high altitude lush forested landscape.  Mt. Kenya is the second highest mountain in Africa, just a tad shorter than Kilimanjaro, and is also an extinct volcano.  The wet heavy forest covering its lower slopes provide habitat for a number of unusual bird species, but most are very difficult to see as they remain deep in the heavy bushes and trees, and it is not possible to walk the trails as the area is home to large families of African Buffalo and Elephant, both of which are deadly when encountered in deep forest.  I did some walks along the single track entrance road, accompanied by a professional guide and an armed ranger.  There the birds encountered included the Hartlaub’s Turaco, Cape Robin-Chat and Cinnamon Bracken Warbler.  At night, from my room’s balcony overlooking a swampy water hole, I recorded the high cries of a Spotted Hyena as it passed on the far side of the marsh at 3 am.

From Mt. Kenya’s slopes we drove West across the valley to the Aberdares Mountains and National Park where I stayed at the rustic lodge named just The Ark.  It is situated on another marshy watering hole, which in evening was surrounded by Elephant and Buffalo uneasily jockeying for space to pick up the mineral salts in the red muddy soil.  A number of shorter and less expensive safari tours visit here and watching many visitor’s reactions and joy at seeing families of Elephants arriving at dusk helped me relive my first such encounters decades ago.  The hills also brag an exceptional number of birds, and just walking the board walk, safely located high above the forested floor, I captured a number of new bird species, including the Golden-winged and Eastern Double-collared Sunbirds.  I also for the first time saw a Giant Forest Hog, immense with a huge wide disc face, similar to a huge Asian Wild Boar.

We drove next around the Aberdares down into the Great Rift Valley, part of the Great Rift of Eastern Africa which runs 5,000 kilometers from the Red Sea south to southern Tanzania.  This is one of the rare spots, outside ocean trenches, where two tectonic plates are pulling apart.  This also is the area where for over 2 million years human’s ancestors evolved.  Olduvai Gorge, made famous by the Leakeys, is just to the south.  In central Kenya the Rift Valley has partially filled with a series of large lakes, some of which are soda lakes, filled with Flamengos and other crustacean-feeding birds, while the others are fresh water lakes filled with hippos, cormorants, herons and kingfishers.  Most are within large National Parks or private conservancies.  I stayed at the delightful Sunbird Lodge, overlooking Lake Elementaita, a soda lake.  The huge grounds of the Lodge provide a large number of flowering plants and fruiting trees which attract a number of beautiful birds, including the Bronze, Variable and Amethyst Sunbirds, Blue-cheeked Starling, Red-cheeked Cordon-bleu, Purple Grenadier and Fischer’s Lovebird.  My cottage, a small house itself with a huge front porch overlooking the lake, sat about 80 feet below the lodge, requiring a stiff walk up or down a steep hillside.  Behind me were rocky cliffs with a large family of Rock Hyrax, which fed on the grasses and leaves around my house, with younger ones looking silly climbing the shorter shrubs and trees.

The first day in the Rift Valley I hired a local bird expert to visit the Soysambu Conservancy on the western shores of Lake Elementaita, where we encountered a number of birds including two Tawny Eagles which just had made a kill of a Great White Pelican – the Pelican is many times the size of the eagles and the evidence of the struggle was obvious.  The second day I hired a boat and bird guide to visit Lake Navaisha, a fresh water lake filled with hippos; Three months ago, upon my arrival in Nairobi, I read in the US news media of the Chinese tourist killed on this lake.  According to reports from local rangers I understand the Chinese rented a kayak and without guide attempted to approach the hippos in the small boat – very unwise.  The third day we just drove around Lake Nakuru, all part of the national park of the same name.  As White Rhino recently have been poached here, we encountered armed rangers wherever a Rhino was visible.  The lake shores supported huge herds of African Buffalo, many with new-born calves, and large families of Olive Baboons, also with many new babies.

For the most part my lodging has been adequate to superb, and the food almost always excellent.  From the Rift Valley I head further west to the Kakamega Forest near the border of Uganda.  Later.  Dave