Dynasties- the demise of David, and where to see his fellow chimps in the wild

Sob! If you were (like us) gripped by Sunday’s episode of Dynasties, the latest David Attenborough documentary, you’ll be saddened to hear that David (alpha male chimp, not the presenter) has been killed, beaten to death by the younger males in the group. Watching the documentary, it was hard not to cheer this strong, brave, chimp. Desperately wounded in an attack under the cover of darkness, he battled his way back to leadership of the troop. Sadly, this was not to last. He was killed 7 months after filming finished as the males in the group battled it out for dominance and the chance to mate with the female chimps.

Chimp from Kyambura Gorge Lodge

Chimp from Kyambura Gorge Lodge, Uganda

Watching Dynasties, it is all too easy to recognise the politics at play. Chimpanzees are our second closest relatives (the closest are bonobos, found only in the DRC) and perpetually push the boundaries of what it means to be human.

Once it was thought that only human beings used tools, and then chimps were found to use twigs for fishing termite mounds and rocks as weapons. For a while it was thought that only humans could smile, but now we know that chimps also smile. Equally, it was once thought true that only humans were self-aware, but chimps (and also magpies) have been shown to recognise themselves in a mirror. Chimps share 95-98% of our DNA, can catch our diseases, and have, in captivity, learned simple sign language.

Baby Chimp at Greystoke Mahale

Baby Chimp at Greystoke Mahale, Tanzania

The best places to track chimpanzees

Chimps are found only in Africa, living in the patches of forest which once made up the equatorial rainforest belt. Seeing them in real life can be as moving, fascinating, and at times, as terrifying as Dynasties showed.

The Mahale Mountains in Tanzania is one of our all-time dream destinations for chimp trekking- not only does it have chimpanzees, but the setting is glorious- mist covered mountains tumbling down to the azure waters of Lake Tanganyika. The downside of Mahale is that it’s remote and can be costly to get to, so many more people go to see the chimpanzees in either Rwanda or Uganda.

Greystoke Mahale

The Mahale Mountains, with Greystoke Mahale

Rwanda’s chimps are found near to Nyungwe Forest, a mecca for birding and hiking and a nice add-on to a few days of gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park. In Uganda you are spoilt for choice- probably the best-known place for chimp trekking is Kibale Forest, where sightings of the chimps are usually very reliable. Here, you can also take part in chimpanzee habituation, heading out for the full day with the park rangers to try to acclimate chimps to human presence. Further north, just outside Murchison Falls National Park, you can track chimps in Budongo Forest- many of the excellent guides here were trained by Disney, so they’re excellent at really capturing the magic of the chimpanzees. For those visiting Queen Elizabeth National Park, you can also track chimps at Kyambura Gorge, making chimps in the morning and elephants in the afternoon an entirely reasonable possibility.

If you’re not sure which option would suit you best, we’ve tried them all, so just ask us to point you in the right direction!

Kyambura Chimp

Kyambura Gorge Lodge Chimp, Uganda

The Carmines are Coming!

As the heat builds in the South Luangwa, September offers one of the valley’s more colourful sights- the arrival of the Carmine Beeaters.  During this dry hot season the water levels in the rivers are low, exposing the banks for the bee eaters to excavate a tunnel to build their nests. The annual movements of the Luangwa River channel means that each year the nest chambers are dug anew, and there’s a stiff competition for the bee eaters to stake their claim to the steepest part of the riverbank.

The sheerer the drop, the greater the protection from predators like the water monitor lizard, a fearsome climber and notorious egg thief. While eggs are lost each year to the monitors, their large bodies often can’t access the further reaches of the nest chambers- some of which can be up to three metres deep, and the carmines nest in such numbers that just a small proportion of eggs are stolen. Colonies can often contain hundreds, if not thousands of birds, providing safety in numbers from other predators, including fish eagles, who’ll cheerfully pick off a bee eater or two if the opportunity presents itself.

Carmine Bee Eaters South Luangwa

The Carmine Bee Eater Hide at Tafika

Zambia’s South Luangwa Valley is certainly one of the best places to see this phenomenon, and most of these photos were taken in and around the hide at Tafika, however, if you are keen to see the carmines en masse another fabulous spot to visit is King’s Pool in Botswana’s Linyanti Reserve. Here the carmines nest in the ground, rising in huge clouds every time a predator approaches or a squabble erupts- it’s an extraordinary sight, and one that our own photos just don’t do justice to, so many thanks to the pros for showing us how it should be done!

Carmine Bee Eaters at King's Pool

Ground nesting carmine bee eater colony near King’s Pool

Want to know what to expect on a gorilla trek? This is what: A full, detailed and honest report (with the writer’s own fuzzy photos)

You start with the sunrise, driving at dawn to the Volcanoes National Park headquarters. Here you’ll see guides, climbers, drivers and porters, getting ready for the adventures of the day- gorilla trekking and the various other treks that happen within the park. Tea and coffee is served in a small rondavel, and there are clean but simple loos. Your guide will head off with your passport and permit to negotiate your gorilla family allocation. Please just let him know how athletic you’re feeling- serious mountaineers and ultra-marathon lovers will be well rewarded by the challenging climb to the Susa group towards the top of the mountain, while those who prefer a gentler hike can request a gorilla family a little lower on the mountain. If you have an interest in a particular gorilla family- now’s your time to speak up!

As the guides negotiate, local Intore dancers normally perform for the visitors. It’s worth keeping a little cash handy if you feel you want to tip for this- we certainly did, not least for such an impressive feat of athleticism so early in the morning. Once negotiations are made and deals are done, you’ll be assigned your gorilla family and head into the gardens for a briefing. Our guide introduced us to our gorilla family- the Giraneza group- until recently a research family and only just opened up to visits from the public. We were told to expect one big silverback- in fact, one of the biggest- and two young babies as well as their mothers and some teenage black-backs.

Gorilla Trekking Rwanda breifing

Pre-gorilla trek briefing

 

We also introduced ourselves to fellow trekkers- this is usually a group of eight. Gorilla trekking, like much in Rwanda, is egalitarian- all permits are equal, so no matter if you’re staying in the $2,000 a night lodge or backpacking, you’re all united by an interest in the gorillas. Your group are also a great support- a gang whose intriguing conversation makes you forget the steepness of the mountains and who will (hopefully) cheerfully rest alongside you if you are in desperate need of a gulp of water or a breather.When you leave park HQ most trekkers drive for 20-40 mins to a designated starting point on the edge of Volcanoes National Park. We rumbled up a bumpy road into a village, where numerous blue uniformed porters were waiting for us in the car park.

If you trek during the rains, or aren’t an enthusiastic hiker we’d strongly recommend taking a porter- they’ll add hugely to your comfort and your enjoyment of the gorilla trek. In our group porters were helping to carry day bags, lending a steadying hand on slippery paths, and providing firm shoves when the path became too steep. And while it’d be easy to see having a porter as a luxury, anything you pay your porter is providing much needed income not just to the porter, but their dependents (who could easily number as many as 10) too. There’s a rotation to make sure that different porters benefit from the income from each group of visitors, so this does a huge amount of good in the community.

As we left our car park, we took our sticks and marched up through fields where the villagers were growing potatoes (locally referred to as “Irish Potatoes”, presumably to distinguish them from “sweet potatoes”) and pyrethrum flowers for insecticide.  This took around 20 minutes. Next, we clambered over the stone wall that separates Volcanoes National Park from the farmland, and from here on in it was steep and sometimes slippery terrain up to the gorillas. Our guide was in constant radio contact with trackers who’d followed the gorillas since they woke up that morning. The Giraneza group was considered to be a “medium” level of difficulty to reach and it took us around two hours to reach them. Our guides and porters found the trek pretty easy, but while we trekkers enjoyed friendly conversation, some of the less fit members struggled and we stopped several times for everyone to catch their breath. The path was a couple of feet wide between shoulder-high plants and nettles (and my goodness- the nettles!!!). These nettles are something else. They’re shoulder height and a brush past, or a sit down, even wearing jeans, resulted in some fairly ferocious prickles. I would definitely recommend wearing lightweight, water/thornproof long-sleeved shirts and trousers.

Gorilla Trekking Volcanoes National Park

Walking from the car park to the start of the trek

Just before you see the gorillas you will meet up with the trackers who have been following them since they left their nest at dawn. Here, you take out your essential valuables and leave your day bag behind with the porters- this is to stop the gorillas from being tempted to investigate the contents of your bag too closely!  You’ll also leave your sticks behind at this point- we were told this was because many gorillas had bad memories of poachers with sticks. Now we knew we were close, we were all tremendously excited. Following our ranger, we headed straight into the thick bushes, using a sharp panga to clear a path through the last 200m till we reached the gorillas.

First we saw Giraneza himself- the huge, placid silverback who was far too busy chewing leaves to let us disturb him. He was perched a little further up the hill than the rest of his family, keeping an eye on them all.  It was roughly at this point I wished I’d spent a bit more time setting up my camera in advance- my first gorilla photos were dark, or blurry, or out of focus (or more probably, all three).  We could quite easily have spent our allocated hour with the gorillas watching Giraneza alone, but our guides gently tore us away to where the two mothers and babies of the group were playing and feeding- seeming so human it almost felt intrusive to watch. The babies tried to climbed trees and fell off, scrambled over Mamma like she was just another rock, and treated big, strong, (and frankly rather impressive) Dad like a large and boring climbing frame.  Although we’d been briefed that that the Giraneza group also has some young black-backs, in typical teenage style they were far too busy having fun in the forest to pay attention whatsoever to their visitors, so we barely saw them.

Our hour passed in a flash, we reluctantly headed back to collect our day bags, saying goodbye to our trackers and tipping them. Afterwards it was around an hour’s downhill hike back to the car, and then our porters said their goodbyes and returned to the village, while we returned to our lodge for a hearty lunch.

 

A few recommendations from our gorilla trek:

  • If your budget stretches two gorilla treks are absolutely worthwhile, and that doing one is a bit like doing one game drive. Great, but definitely room for a lot more.
  • Stinging nettles sting hard. Even through jeans, so look out!
  • During the rainy season it can be very, very wet, with deep mud up to knee height- waterproof trousers would be essential at this time.
  • Learning how to use your camera and setting it up for shooting in the rainforest before you arrive will save you valuable time during your precious hour with the gorillas. It’s also worth turning the sound off so that you don’t disturb them.
  • Seriously consider taking a porter!

Christian, a remarkable lion

Africa is full of big animals, big characters and big landscapes. It’s where you’ll find the world’s largest land mammal, legendary explorers and the Great Rift Valley. Yet even amongst such well known, if not always illustrious company, some stories stand out. One is that of Christian the lion.

Christian’s was no mere common or garden lion. His story begins as a young cub in Harrods. In 1969, he was spotted by John Rendall and Anthony “Ace” Bourke who bought Christian and swept him home to Chelsea, where he lived in the basement beneath their furniture shop. He took walks in a local garden, and charmed visitors to John and Ace’s furniture shop.

Born FreeHowever, dear Christian, though a remarkable lion, was becoming rather large, and began to startle visitors to the furniture store. Fortunately, two such visitors included actors Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna who’d recently starred in Born Free- the true story of Elsa, the orphaned lioness raised by George and Joy Adamson.

And so Christian moved from the King’s Road to the wilds of Northern Kenya (via a stint in the Traver’s country garden). He was released from George Adamson’s camp at Kora, far from the dangers posed by hunters, tourists, or local villagers. However, Christian still had wild lions to contend with who resented the male interloper smoothing in on their territory. He formed an alliance with “Boy” (a semi-tame male who’d starred in Born Free), and eventually became the head of his own pride. He left George’s camp for longer and longer periods of time, until he was seen for the last time, headed in the direction of Meru National Park.

.And while it seems elephants may never forget, lions too must have a long memory. For when Ace and John returned to Kora, there was Christian, running up for what looks remarkably like a bear hug. Or should that be a lion hug?

Our dirty secret: we think twitching is really rather cool

It took a journey of nearly 2,000 miles before the secret came out. We’d travelled through the Pyrenees, the Atlas Mountains and crossed the Sahara. We’d been impossibly drunk in Marrakech, and crossed a minefield into Mauritania, but we still hadn’t talked about it.  Then, as we were ducking down a back road to the Senegalese border, one of the girls in our vehicle muttered “Actually, I quite like birds…”

Birdwatching safaris in Zambia

Bee Eaters in Zambia (with thanks to our ever-talented friend Katie for the pic)

Somehow being a birdwatcher (or, that rather dodgy-sounding alternative, “twitcher”) still carries a certain stigma. Say you like birds and people assume that while you might be able to wax lyrical about wattled cranes, you probably aren’t all that much fun at parties, and they strongly suspect that you might find it a bit tricky looking members of the opposite sex in the eye. But birds are utterly marvellous.  As we drove through no-man’s land that day, each of the four passengers in our vehicle slowly admitted that twitching was pretty damn cool.

Malachite Kingfisher on a boat safari from Selous Impala Camp

Malachite Kingfisher spotted near Impala Camp in the Selous

The first thing you learn when you go on safari in Africa is that everyday birds aren’t limited to the typical LBJ’s (Little Brown Jobs) that frequent British back gardens.  Take a boat safari in Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve for instance, and you’ll see the bright blue flash of malachite kingfishers diving in and out of the water, and hear the endless call of fish eagles overhead. I was instantly seduced.

Later, in Kenya’s Meru National Park I watched, traumatised, as a Bateleur Eagle swooped down and took a baby dik-dik (a tiny, impossibly sweet antelope). Later, in Kafue in Zambia and South Africa’s iSimangaliso Wetlands, I met the African Jacana. Better known as the “Jesus Bird”, the blue-headed Jacana seems to actually walk on water. It skiddle-skaddles across the surface at a remarkable, if comedic, speed- who could fail to be impressed? However, my all-time favourite bird is the black egret, which cunningly tricks fish into thinking its night time and floating close to the surface. Perfect timing for a black egret evening snack, though this spoonbill doesn’t seem too impressed…

So- if you do just one thing on your African safari- take your binos, you might just be surprised…

The signs of modern South Africa: A Road Trip around Kwa Zulu Natal

We love visiting Africa, especially on a self drive trip- it’s the best way to experience a country as locals do, rather than flying into remote luxury resorts and never seeing a local village or experiencing an elephant firmly blocking the road. Sometimes it can be exhausting, at others frustrating (a huge thank you to our wonderful client Calynne for putting up with crackly phone calls from deep in the bush), but generally, it’s just wonderful. Most recently we took a road trip around Kwa Zulu Natal and felt as if we’d finally discovered the soul of South Africa (as someone else said- “KZN is where Africa starts…”) Rather than droning on ourselves, just click to let the signs of modern South African speak for themselves…

 

The man-eating lions of Tsavo

The British Government began building a railway at vast expense in the face of significant local hostility. Yet despite huge practical obstacles and opposition in parliament the plan soldiered on. Sound familiar?

Yet this was 1896. Building what later became known as the “Lunatic Express”, the British colonial Government in Kenya stuck unrelentingly to their plan. A railway from the Kenyan port of Mombasa to Uganda, was required, and a railway there would be. Even one that included a siding next to the High Commissioner’s mansion so he could head out on hunting parties in privacy. (Thank you Wikipedia, please let that be true). Attacks by local tribesmen, malaria, and huge geographical obstacles wouldn’t get in the way.

Lion on safari in Africa

Lions, not man-eaters. As far as we know.

In 1898 the railway workers hit an obstacle. They needed to build a bridge over the Tsavo River. While building bridges by day was hard work, by night the worker’s camp was troubled by something far more terrifying. Two maneless lions, later known as the Ghost and the Darkness, were killing and eating the Indian railway workers. They built campfires to scare off the lions. They built thick thorny bomas in the style of the local Maasai to shelter their tents. The leader of the project, Lt. Col John Patterson hid out in a tree with his trusty Martini-Enfield rifle. But to no avail.

Hundreds of workers ran away in terror, but still the lions kept coming.  Eventually Patterson shot one huge lion, 9ft 8 from nose to tail. He escaped wounded and returned to camp to stalk Patterson, before eventually dying. It took 8 men to carry his body back to camp. 20 days later the second lion was shot. He was shot 9 times over 11 days before he was eventually killed. They were found to have eaten 10.5 and 24.2 humans respectively. (What happened to the other 0.3 of a person, we can’t possibly comment).

To this day there’s no answer as to what made the Tsavo lions man-eaters. It could’ve been that one was suffering from appalling toothache, than an outbreak of rinderpest meant they had no cattle to prey on, or that they’d grown used to the taste of human flesh by preying on slave caravans heading overland to the coast. The lions ended their days as rugs on Patterson’s floor, and can now be seen in the Chicago Field Museum.

** Please accept our apologies for any inaccuracies. Like all good campfire stories, we’ve told it to the best of our abilities, but we’re prepared to be corrected!

Where to spot… Leopards

There’s something about spotting a leopard on safari that sets people’s pulses racing.  It’s often men that fall passionately for this slinky cat (sorry boys!)- it’s the ultimate predator, perfectly designed for the silent stalk, the stealthy hunt and the efficient kill.

Luxury Safari in the Sabi Sands

Leopard at Singita Sabi Sand

It’s possible to spot leopards on safari all over Africa, but they’re notoriously elusive. Stories abound about leopards successfully disguising themselves, even amongst large human populations. Legend holds that when a lone leopard was spotted on Nairobi railway station, the storyteller was rubbished. 3 years later, the bones of a recently deceased leopardess was spotted under a rarely used platform… Well, so the story goes.

For those who want more reliable leopard sightings there are a number of places to visit in Africa where a safari of two or three days should give you a very reliable chance of seeing a leopard. We’ve put some effort into personally checking these out, so do ask us if you have any questions.

Okonjima Safari

Okonjima Leopard

3. Okonjima, Central Highlands, Namibia

The AfriCat Foundation at Okonjima is utterly absorbing for anyone who’s ever been fascinated by the big cats. It’s important to stress- these cats aren’t wild. They’ve been collared and are closely monitored by the research team. This makes it possible to get up close to leopard (also cheetah and wild dog) in a way that’s just not possible elsewhere, and learn more about hands on research and conservation than you would in 10 safaris.

2. South Luangwa, Zambia

I’ve had phenomenal sightings in the South Luangwa and a colleague who (though good at rather tall tales) claims to have spotted 7 leopard in one night drive. The leopard here are often spotted on night game drives with spotlights- this is the time of day when leopard are most active, as they’re on the hunt for fresh food. By day, look for the flicker of a tail up in the sausage trees, where leopards like to lounge on long flat branches.

Luxury Safari in the South Luangwa

Leopard spotted with Bushcamps on safari in the South Luangwa

1. Sabi Sands, South Africa

Without a shadow of a doubt, of all the places I’ve done safari in Africa (and there have been a few) the Sabi Sands has been by far and away the best place to spot leopards.  I’ve tracked adults through the grasses at Lion Sands, watched leopards lounging in trees from Nottens, and most satisfyingly of all, clocked a spotted face stalking me through the reeds over breakfast at Singita Ebony. If you’re a leopard lover, go tomorrow, take my camera, and never look back.

Where to watch elephants

Ellies have a special place in my heart. You can keep your lazy lions, and boring buffaloes (though I’m sure anyone who’s been chased up a tree by an angry dugga boy would say they’re far from boring), it’s a sighting of an elephant that makes my safari.

Walking Safari with Elephants, Okavango Delta, Botswana

Ellies have by far and away the most character in the animal kingdom, though I make an honourable exception for monkeys – anyone who’s ever had the sugar swiped from their morning coffee, or a triple-zipped tent miraculously burgled, can’t fail to admire their cunning. Back to elephants though. Watch an ellie for ten minutes, and we’d challenge anyone not to start anthropomorphising. I’ve seen them wipe their eyes when they’re tired, and stayed in camps where elephants drank from the outside shower. I mean, why would you bother going all of the way to the lake to drink when the water was suddenly on, and right there? In spite of their huge size, an elephant will tread delicately to avoid the smallest, most irritating stone, and frankly, when the hustle of the wildebeest migration‘s around, you’re unlikely to see too many elephants- why hang about with all of the noise going on?

Best of all, elephant memories are indeed long, and it’s not unusual for an ellie to recognise a familiar face from years ago. While safari guides tell the occasional tall tale (especially when a beautiful girl’s involved) I know at least one straight-talking bush lover who has sat in a vehicle and watched, astonished, as an elephant came racing forward, plunging straight into the vehicle with her trunk. Instead of attacking she felt gently round with her trunk to greet the guide, and returned minutes later, gently nudging her young calf forwards to meet a familar friend.

Have I won you over yet? Ooooh, I do hope so! I once planned a safari for an elephant lover, and if I could do so again, these would be my top picks:

Elephants Crossing the Zambezi, near Chongwe, Zambia

Selous Game Reserve, Tanzania & Lower Zambezi National Park, Zambia
These two glorious parks are both dominated by their rivers, and a late afternoon boat safari is one of the great joys of a visit here. More particularly, the chance to witness elephants crossing the river. Several years ago, on a Tanzanian safari, I watched a family crossing the Rufiji River in the Selous. First came the naughty teenagers- rushing forwards to fill their trunks with water and spraying each other. Then, the nervous babies holding their trunks high to keep breathing. Finally, the mummies, hustling everyone forwards with their trunks and keeping the whole show on the road.

The Nairobi Elephant Orphanage, Kenya

This comes with a serious warning. If you’ve never fallen in love, this could be your moment. The young elephants here have all been tragically orphaned, many by poaching, and all have heart-rending stories. We can add a day in Nairobi into any Kenyan safari, and at 11 each morning you can visit for an hour, watching the ellies as they come out for their morning play. Our top tip? We’d seriously consider fostering an elephant. Not only are you helping to support these tiny, brave little fellows, but also, sponsors are often given the chance to visit again in the afternoon, without all of the other tourists.

Walking with Elephants on a luxury safari in Botswana

Stanley’s Camp, Okavango Delta, Botswana
It’s fair to say that a safari in Botswana doesn’t come cheap, but the chance to walk hand in trunk with an elephant as he goes about his day? Well, as MasterCard might say, priceless. As an added extra to a stay at Stanley’s (if you talk to me, I’ll tell you it’s mandatory), you can spend a morning wandering through the bush -or having lunch- with orphans Jabu, Thembi, and Morula, and their adoptive human parents, Doug and Sandi.

Still not sold? Try reading the autobiography of Daphne Sheldrick, a woman who’s devoted much of her life to elephants.