Thursday, March 31, 2011

Backyard Birding

binoculars in hand
I am watching birds
watching me!

I have always been an armchair birder. It is fun to step outdoors, equipped with a binocular and camera, not to mention the guide book, and traipse into urban forests and wetlands in search of elusive avifauna, birdwatching, as I have done on many Wednesday’s bird walks. But what really grips me is camping in my verandah and snooping around the garden observing backyard birds. These “garden variety” of birds flit in and out of trees and bushes from dawn to dusk executing aerobatic feats and put up a musical performance, like no other. And unlike the “wild” birds of the woods, this variety is not shy of my intrusive presence, and in fact, preens and prances, and perches openly on low tree tops.

In Nairobi, I wake up to incessant twitter of birds and the first call that greets me at daybreak is that of the Streaky seedeater. Though, I am busy packing off my son to school at that hour, I know it is sitting atop the bougainvillea bush or the frangipani warbling away its sweet song. Back home, in Wellington in the Nilgiris (Blue Mountains) in South India, it was the haunting sweee of the magpie robin that would set the tone for the day.(Nilgiris, incidentally is an international biosphere reserve with over 10 IBA sites). In urban environs, it is easy to miss the buzz of birds due to day-break and day-long cacophony, not so in the Nilgiris and Nairobi where characteristic somnolence underscores bird songs filling the crisp, cool air.

Kite trills in the sky
how can you tell if it’s
Kenya or India?

One of the early birds I encountered in Nairobi was the pied crow. In India, the eponymous house crows are a ubiquitous sight, not so in Nairobi, but interestingly they are also seen in Mombasa. It is said that, centuries ago, this intrepid species crossed the ocean waters, traveling on dhows and ships that harnessed trade winds, and landed on the Kenyan coast! Interestingly, they did not traverse further uphill to Nairobi where their jungly brethren, the pied crows, still hold sway. The rasping caw of the pied crow is a shade different from that of the house crow. Also unlike them, pied crows are averse to loitering low and I often see them scouring the sky or perched on the tall Norfolk pine (Monkey-puzzle tree). Being on ground is beneath them; even the mango tree in my garden is not befitting their “high” status. The mango, though, is the favourite watch-tower of a black kite which settles down in the crook of a branch every evening after relentless sorties in the air.

In my early days in Nairobi, one morning, I heard a fluty trill which seared the heart and brought back memories from the Nilgiris-past - of a whistling thrush - when I would walk the path of pine woods. After a bit of hide-n-seek, I came face to face with an olive-brown bird with an orange beak. The African Olive Thrush, therefore, holds a special corner in my heart. Since then, of course, the bird has been a constant companion feeding at the bird feeder even as I admire him from close quarters. An oddity of a one-legged olive thrush resides in my garden, and I wonder what calamity resulted in its handicap or if it is a congenital defect and whether it hinders its flight in any way.

As I step onto the verandah every morning with a cuppa, I am greeted by pairs of Baglafecht weavers, Rufous- and Grey-headed sparrows creating ruckus at the bird feeder demanding their breakfast. For the lure of millet seeds, bread crumbs or even chappati tidbits they have been coming in droves. In fact, I just have to step onto the patio and the weavers and sparrows leave the comfort of their post of peach or bamboo and descend on the railing, boldly, expectantly. The Northern Pied Babblers with their eternally surprised wide-eyed look chatter their way to the feeder vying for attention. The Holub’s Golden weavers are not far behind, either.

flocking together
at the water bath, birds
of different feathers

The pearl millet seeds which I had asked a friend to get from India (I haven’t found them here yet), brought in surprise parties of Chestnut Weavers and African firefinch in May (during the long rains). They roosted on an Acacia in a glen across the fence and at sunset waves of weavers could be seen winding their way to some distant destination. For a month, the frolicking flocks had us in thrall; it was as though a bunch of holiday-makers had come visiting filling the bower with their chattering and laughter. But just as they had come, unannounced, they departed suddenly without notice! I wonder, if the hacking away of bushes and shrubs of the glen had anything to do with their disappearance. I still do see the firefinch, but, not as often and in as many numbers, as I used to then. My hunch is that the stock of small millet seeds are up and the bajra millet is not to their liking.

I substituted millet with sunflower seeds but was disappointed when there were no takers for it. But look at nature’s mysterious and miraculous ways. I had planted sunflowers in August and within a couple of weeks the shoots shot six feet high sporting glorious sunny heads. When the flowers were spent and the black core stacked with seeds exposed, Grosbeak weavers turned at my door! Having followed the ‘scent’ of sunflowers they were congregating at the feeder snacking on sunflower and even, watermelon and pumpkin seeds!

Mousebird parties
feasting on peaches
tree of seeds

The Speckled Mousebirds, on the other hand, are a permanent fixture in the garden. Like Indian parakeets, these birds come in gregarious flocks, and like them, they party on fruiting trees. At any time of the day, they can be seen flying from tree to tree with their long tails trailing. Munching mangoes, pecking at guavas and peaches, they are feasting all the time. The delectable peaches are particularly devoured, avariciously, so much so that only seeds are seen dangling on the tree where the fruits once were. When they are not eating, they can be seen hanging awkwardly on a telegraph wire, heads lolling, dozing!

On a lazy afternoon, a pair of Hadada Ibis silently stroll the lawns, feeding on subterranean insects or termite larvae, their long beaks digging earth. And when the lawn is mowed, more pairs can be seen hobbling around. The Hadada rivals the crow’s caw with an even harsher grating call as it flies overhead and settles on a rooftop nearby reminding one of the stork statuary of Dutch cottages. A pair or two of Silvery-cheeked hornbills have stopped by for marauding weavers’ nests delicately tied to leaves of the Yucca. We have fobbed them off a couple of times, successfully, but I must say, it has been a treat to watch them glide by.

sitting, waiting, warming
Fiscal mother breathes life
into her brood

With so much of aerial activity around, it is only natural that bird couples play house in the garden territory. A common fiscal parent pair had chosen a crook of a branch on a peach tree to build their nest. For a few weeks, one could observe the life cycle of fiscals – from eggs to chicks to sub-adults, as in a virtual Biology lesson. Four chicks emerged chirruping in a fashion after their parents, tails arching sideways, except in the case of the chicks it was a stub of a tail! In contrast, the olive thrush showed little discretion and set up its roost conspicuously on the verandah.

bursts into song
ventriloquist bird of paradise
Beautiful sunbird

As I cozy myself with a book in the armchair by the verandah, it is time for the bronze sunbird to flit about the bird of paradise shrub. The sparkling variable sunbird too makes an appearance, albeit a little infrequently. Apart from these, I have spotted the Cape and Ruppell’s robin-chat, African pied wagtail, Hammerkop, Grey heron, Yellow-vented bulbul, Cinnamon-chested bee-eater, White-headed barbet, Bronze mannikin, Village indigo bird, Red-eyed dove and keep discovering new varieties as days pass. It is heartening to know that my garden is a veritable “birding site”, no less.

Red-bellied firefinch

Chestnut weaver

Northern Pied Babbler

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

On the occasion of World Water Day

Water wise - Dry Gardening

Today, I went on to a golf course with a golfer friend, a treat I have been promising myself – a non-golfer - for long. Having lived across a golf course in Wellington (in Nilgiris) and having seen avid, never-say-die golfers tee and putt, I have always been eager to witness the sport close quarters. The breathtaking beauty of the pines and cypresses, the tapestry of rolling grass cropped short, sprinklers tending the grass lovingly and the serene atmosphere instantly transported me into meditation zone. But it also set me thinking that if all this ‘exotic’ beauty is at the cost of precious water resources that are running scarce for urban utility by every passing season, then is it worth it?

Many leafy localities of Nairobi are reeling under water shortage and have to depend on water tankers for their daily requirements – for drinking and even, bathing. Swank houses in kosher Karen and Langata boast of sprawling gardens and their cry for water, at times, seems more poignant then that of their human denizens. How can one tend lawns and nurse blooms under the equatorial sun, with rain months away, even delayed further sometimes? I have no idea how gardens survive and flourish under the constraining circumstances, but one person has found a solution, which he has implemented in his five acres. That Barry Cameron is a civil engineer and has worked in the area of urban water supply for four decades in several countries of Africa is no mere coincidence. Chairman of Kenya Horticultural Society, Barry is a votary of “Dry Gardening” and his garden relies on rain water and does away with extraneous watering!

Barry inherited his five-acre plot in Tigoni – 20 kms North of Nairobi – with its eucalyptus plantations and coffee bushes and his wife had planted hundreds of fuchsias in myriad colours along with seasonals in the patio patch. Barry’s own forays into gardening began only after her death, 20 years ago, and as he grappled with the problem of maintenance in the view of water scarcity in drier months, he realized that drastic measures were called for.

In, what I think, was a bold move Barry removed the fuchsias (“they are water thirsty”) that graced his garden and planted succulents and drought-resistant plants in rockeries and pockets around the house. Today, sedums and sempervivums carpet the ground in vivid colours. Not many know but sedums can vie with the best of seasonals in floral competition. And that the fleshy leaves of sempervivum – resembling curled flower-heads – when flushed rosette in hot sun can look astounding. In India, often people confuse succulents with cactus which are predominantly desert plants that sport spikes and thorns and which are rather stark. Succulents, on the other hand, come in mind-boggling variety and look very attractive even as container plants.  Barry has innovatively transformed a satellite dish into a container.
Resilient shrubs of plumbago and tecoma line the edges of the succulent bed, with the added advantage of attracting bees and butterflies. These greens survive, nay flower with gay abandon, in the absence of water, but Barry litters the bed with leaf mulch obtained from his forest floor to prevent excessive loss of water from the soil.  

Altering the forest, itself, was a different ballgame. He knew that the water-guzzlers eucalyptus had to go to give way to indigenous trees. He picked up seeds of native trees from his jaunts in the forests and planted them on his plot. By trial and error, quick-growing trees started jostling for space, the ones that survived and grew tall formed the canopy, others sprouted in its shade, yet others got weeded out. Barry was witnessing an ecological sere develop in front of his eyes and soon the plantations were taking shape of indigenous woods.

Today, he has hundreds of Meru oaks, a threatened species much-valued for its hardwood, “his children’s pension plan”, as he calls it humorously.  Then there is the endangered Prunus Africana whose fruits draw birds and which provides a good nesting site. The flat-topped Acacia (abysinnica) and the ubiquitous Nandi flame are there in good measure, too. That indigenous trees help restore the ecological balance of a habitat is testified by the arrival of Colobus monkeys and greater variety of birds and butterflies in his garden over the years.

Visual beauty, too, can be redefined if we are willing to look deeper. A natural forest may not have the majesty of manicured greens and conifers; it may a look a wee rundown, but that is what keeps the earth in good shape. It is a little like the junk food we eat; we cannot imagine life without deep-fried goodies and snacks, though we know that they are calorie-laden and nutrition-deficient. It is only when we are beleaguered with lifestyle diseases that we mend our ways, by when it is too late. We who are used to seeing classic lines of lawns and streamlined flower beds may take a while to adjust our tastes to a wayward natural garden that tells its own story. But walking through the labyrinthine pathways of Barry’s home-forest brought to my mind settings, from books I read as a child, of summer holidays, brook-side picnics and adventure.

Often we hear it being said that, “future wars will be fought over waters” and we all know that water as a commodity is getting scarce, but we do not have the courage to go the Barry-way. We had better let nature take its own course, with a little tweaking, maybe, if we wish to conserve Water.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

What does it take…?

The saga of Karura

What does it take for a person to bring about a little change on ground? Sheer dedication, of course, but even the smart ability to leverage one's status or position can do wonders as Alice Macaire, the wife of British High Commissioner showed us in Nairobi recently. As the founder of ‘Friends of Karura Forest’ she gave back the city its natural forest that had been held hostage by fringe elements – thugs and loggers, for nearly two decades. 

I used to cross the picturesque arterial Limuru road that slices through a valley of verdure in central Nairobi often as I would go about my city jaunts but had missed the small turnout between the Belgian and Canadian Embassy until suddenly a year back a board appeared proclaiming ‘Karura Forest’. I had been to the forest on a birdwatching trail with Nature Kenya earlier but that was through a roundabout way when I hadn’t realised that the forest was smack in the heart of Nairobi. I recall that when we went birding the askaris (that is what the sentry is called in local Kiswahili lingo) were bewildered by our presence, though we were a 50-strong group, as they were not used to seeing visitors there.

Later, when I did my Masters’ thesis on Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt Movement I got acquainted with her struggle to save the Karura Forest, one of her earliest save-environment exploits much before she was recognised with the Nobel Prize for her work. In the ’90s when the private developers lobby trained their vice-grip to spring skyscrapers on Karura, thanks to degazetting of forest land by unscrupulous government authorities,  Maathai and her loyal band of tree-lovers camped in the forest to plant seedlings on land cleared for construction. For her bravery she was rewarded by being beaten up by the police and was severely injured. Wangari Maathai’s courage paid off and Karura forest was saved from being decimated. Unfortunately, that gain frittered away as Karura became the stronghold and hideout for anti-social elements from nearby slums that strayed in for illegal logging. Thousand hectares of, largely, indigenous trees that served as lungs and a prime water source for the city of Nairobi thus remained out of bounds and even unknown to the man on the street!

So where does Alice Macaire fit in? It took a non-resident foreigner to realise the potential of the forest as a picnic and recreation space, where families could go on nature trails, biking or jogging precisely with the aim of protecting it. Co-opting the Kenya Forest Service and UNEP and taking the nearby Muthaiga residents on board, she got like-minded individuals and organisations to give “Friends of Karura Forest” solid backing. As a measure to prevent underground activities thriving from the base, she came up with the proposal of fencing the entire forest periphery.  Having taken up the challenge, she relentlessly sounded of people in high places and anybody who would listen to her to chip in – many did, some in kind through moral support and some, like corporate companies, through funding. Getting the Minister of Forests on her side was the biggest ace she would come up with. Over two years, Friends… got the fence up, flushed out anti-social elements and even got local youths who felled trees and foraged in the forest trained to patrol the acres providing them employment. In February, 2011, Friends… opened Karura Forest for public with much fanfare, urging families and schools to venture on nature trails and to explore the bounties of the city-forest.

Though I had promised myself another visit soon after my initial birdwatching trip, it was only now that I was stepping into the forest for the second time. My idol, Wangari Maathai was to inaugurate the forest opening and I was eager to meet her and interact with her, if possible. Imagine my disappointment when she did not turn up; she was sick but her daughter and grand-daughter were there on her behalf. The forest was declared open after a small ceremony graced by the prime players who gamely supported and helped Alice and her ragtag troop of “environmentalists”. To this day, Karura had only seen eerie silence and witnessed the tragedy of hacking of its denizens with impunity, and even, hidden the ugly truth of unclaimed dead bodies. But today, it was gurgling with laughter of kids, of young and old by its brook-side and waterfalls. It was as though, Karura had been born again and was in the safe hands of its rightful owners – the citizens of Nairobi.

I am walking in the woods along a path lined by crotons (Croton megalocarpus) and figs (Warburgia ugandensis) and listening to the birds calling out from the canopy. Butterflies wing around soundlessly leading us into a magical world of hidden treasures. There are the historic Mau Mau caves where freedom fighters lurked and from where they launched their tirade against the colonists, and even a chapel tucked away deep within. Sniffing the surreal air, I feel my chest swell with deep contentment as I walk the symbolic path paved by the living legend, Wangari Maathai. It inspires me, as I am sure it does many others - small children - to nurse the faith of protecting forests, our natural wealth, for a better future. Long before the city took shape, Karura forest stood there, as a microcosm of wilderness, a life-giver, and I hope it will be there, forever long as a beacon of life, itself.

Thank you, Alice, for taking the legacy of Wangari Maathai forward, and setting a sterling example, yourself.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Serengeti Shall Not Die

Ngorongoro Crater 

We arrived late at the Ngorongoro gate as nobody - not even the driver-guide who had been professionally doing the circuit for years - had informed us that entry was prohibited after 6 p.m. (welcome to Tanzania!).  After a lot of haggling with the warden authorities and making necessary phone calls we were finally permitted to pass the portals of the park by when it was already dark. Tired after a long drive and wishing for a tot and a tap, we resigned to another hour’s drive on the rugged hilly road through darkness tunnelled by jeep headlights. The ranger accompanying us tells us that not many animals tread this path leading to the lodge as they prefer to stay away from human-vehicular traffic. Suddenly, as though to mock him, an African Cape Buffalo (a Big Five draw) appears in the spotlight, its eyes glittering glass, and we sit up fatigue disappearing, eyes peeled to the lit ground. And then, two lionesses white as moonlight emerge from the forested hills and make to sit by the wayside and we realize we are on a serendipitous night safari! Even as we are all agog with the sightings, our landcruiser halts – an elephant cow has decided to stride in the middle of the road instead of scurrying for cover, asserting its ownership of the land, making sure we knew who had the right of way. It struts as on a catwalk in the glare of the neon even as we follow gingerly in its wake. Crawling behind the humungous apparition for what seems like an eternity we only hope that it desists from doing a 180° turn to face us! Thus begins our introduction to the world-famous natural heritage of Ngorongoro Park. We can hardly wait to see what is in store for us the next day.

 It’s dawn and as I step onto the balcony of our lodge room to unveil yesterday’s inky blackness, I find myself drawn into a cosmic haze, mesmerized by a silence born before sound. I can barely make out the hills rimmed against the crater, but the vastness of the vista and the hush swamps me and steals my breath away. The seemingly barren landscape is absolutely still. Nothing stirs, nothing moves, and no sound emanates from anywhere. You are confronted by a washed out water-colour painting in grey-blue. Just then, magically, the sun peeks out, the sepia tone now etching the panorama in finer detail and the silence becomes more pronounced. An elliptical water-body comes into view in the centre of the crater floor, so do savannah grassland in patches, some thickets and shrubs and the blue-grey gives way to subtle shades of green. You may be forgiven to think that there is no life here and that this is a crater on the Moon, although more evolved! As the sun eases into the sky and the morning settles in, bursts of birdsongs from the nearby thickets – barely audible, suggest a possibility of life.

 We are on our way for a day-long game drive. As we descend a good 2000 feet to rendezvous with the crater we come across yellow-barked acacias, yellow-flowering cassia and giant euphorbia festooning the hillsides. An Augur buzzard is perched on an acacia; the vision augurs well, as thus far, one had seen this bird of the hills only circling the Nairobi skies! The crater floor, 20 km wide, hosts diverse habitats from open grasslands to acacia woodlands and freshwater springs to soda lakes, and by virtue of that, nurtures diverse species. The big orb at the centre of the crater, chalky encrustations of mineral salts at the edge, is the soda or alkaline waters of Lake Magadi. This is the flamingo territory. On the open savannah greens interspersed with wispy tussocks of dry grass, in a sweep of sight we spot lions, buffaloes, gazelles, warthogs, wildebeest, hyenas and even a black rhino (a rare sighting, indeed). Migrant birds, White stork and Abdim’s stork, the size of warthogs or small gazelles mingle with the mammals in a stunning mosaic of wildlife.

In the foreground, where all safari landcruisers stop, two nomadic lions are feasting on a wildebeest carcass – entrails spilled out, eyes stilled in deathly horror and dentures gritting in insufferable pain. From the look of the carcass, the nose nipped off and bottom bitten into, it becomes clear (the guide concurs) that it is a hyena kill that the lions have usurped. The hyenas are waiting in the wings impatiently to get their trophy back. As the lions doze panting hard the hyenas come to grab their meal only to retreat as the lion stirs and looks up. The ungainly scavengers slink away, but not ready to give up yet wait to sneak upon the ‘lord of the jungle’ … it is an unfair game!

 The next stop is a ‘picnic spot’ in the heart of the crater where all tourists (thankfully, not as many as in Mara) congregate to devour their ‘packed lunch’. Ngoitokitok spring is a freshwater pond with crystal clear water; yellow weaver birds are making nests on the rushes and egrets and ibises bunch in flocks on the banks. The tranquil blue waters and the human buzz lulls us into false security, wallowing hippos in the nearby swamp, notwithstanding, and we forget that we are encroaching upon wild territory. But we are only short-term visitors, here. The Maasai tribesmen have been living in this haven of perennial streams and sweet grass - amidst predators - harmoniously, for hundreds of years. They still cling to the traditional way of life, their manyattas clustered in the middle of nowhere. A manyatta of twelve huts indicates a clan where the chief has twelve wives!

 Red-robed stick figures herding black and white specks on the pista-coloured grassy downs of the rolling hills in the distance are a ubiquitous sight. Early morning, herdsmen can be seen - a spear, a stick or a rungu (club) in hand - guiding cattle from the top of a hill - home to elephants, to the valley below. By mid-day they are on the meadow – sometimes, under the sun, at times in the rain – with no tree or shelter in sight for miles! By sundown, they are wending their way to the top again… Children, too, gamely set about tending their livestock. I wonder at their arduous and ascetic life, though it appears facilely, to me, an idyllic existence, peering as I am from over a chasm of lifestyles and cultures. I wonder, aren't cows easy target for predators. Interestingly, the Maasai is the only animal the lions fear! Smeared in cow fat and red ochre, his smell, literally, makes the lions see red and they steer clear of him.

 On our way uphill, we get to see few Maasai men and women closer up; they wear striking vermillion or aubergine chequered stoles or shukas. They may look scruffy and skinny but all of them ostentatiously sport bead jewellery – in their ears, on their necks and even on their ankles. Tiny beads the size of mustard seeds are woven into copper wires to produce stunning designer ensemble! Sandals made of reused rubber from car tyres have become a regular part of their attire, in recent times. You can’t help but marvel at their diminutive carbon footprint!

Today, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) is a unique cauldron where pastoralism, conservation and tourism meet in perfect balance. When the Ngorongoro volcano erupted, 2.5 million years ago, a mountain higher than Kilimanjaro came alive briefly, but the cone soon collapsed forming a crater. This caldera, the largest in the world, is a one-of-a-kind geological monument, rich in biodiversity. It is a heartening thought that the human species constitutes a natural element of this biosphere. Standing atop the mountain, looking over the caldera I feel privileged to be embraced into a time warp, to be able to experience a private bonding with the earth, which is nigh impossible in the rest of the peopled world.

 The volcano, we are instructed through panels at the Orientation Centre, spewed ashes far and wide and this formed the substratum that gave rise to what are today, the savannas of Serengeti! And this is to be our next stop.

Serengeti National Park

The route to Serengeti winds through the NCA and we take a detour to Oldupai Gorge, a Pleistocene era site where the legendary Dr Louis and Mary Leakey discovered the “Homo habilis” or the Handy man. The excavation site is better known to the outside world as Olduvai, but as the guide maintains, it is a distortion of the original, Oldupai, Maasai for sisal. And true to the name, sisal shrubs can be seen clustered especially here and not much elsewhere in the conservation area. The short talk by the guide, by the cliff overlooking the gorge, takes us on an incredulous journey 3.6 million years back where mankind began. Looking at the stone-age tools - hand axes, cleavers, choppers and chisels – in the museum, one can’t help but marvel at the enterprising nature of early hominids. Serengeti, it dawns upon me then, is not only about wildlife, but about origin of life, itself.

The plains stretch endlessly up to the horizon as though it were a golden ocean. To a mind conditioned by cityscape where space is interjected by buildings and man-made structures, the sight is awe-inspiring, its significance incomprehensible. I am standing atop Naabi Hill at the gateway to Serengeti National Park and wherever I cast my eyes, it is this vastness of space that swamps my senses. It is noon, the time when animals prefer to rest, take shelter from the scorching sun, but where is this oasis in the barren treeless savannas, I wonder. In Serengeti, where volcanic debris settled into a hard pan millions of years ago, the soil is shallow, and therefore not conducive to trees; only grass, that too, short grass flourishes here. The savannas look listless, but wait; look closer and you see life coursing through its being. In the absence of trees and branches to perch on, birds sit pert on roadside rocks. For the little bee-eaters, lilac-breasted rollers, wheatears and anteater chats buzzing around, hovering above the ground, it is prime time.

Serengeti changes colour as if an invisible magician is waving his magic wand. On the one side you see honey-hued grass, on the other the shade has changed to olive green as in a double-tinted fabric. Termite mounds of clayey soil and fawn-coloured boulders morph into lions, caracals or impalas, when seen from a distance. And then again, what you dismiss as an innocuous patch of dry grass actually turns out to be a lion reclined on the savannas. One moment the sun is shining bright and the sky is clear, the next, you see clouds gathering over the horizon, there is thunder and raindrops come pelting and you are drenched in the open rooftop shower even before you realise that it is pouring.

Apart from an occasional acacia, we come upon African sausage trees favoured by leopards and doum palms. The monotony of the plains is also interrupted by ‘kopjes’ or granite inselbergs crystallized over five million years. This isolated mountain of boulders, akin to the ones on the beaches of Seychelles, is a veritable botanical garden that supports plant life, and hence wildlife - from agama lizards to hyraxes, and serves as a good hide-out for cats. We are still on a reconnaissance sortie of Serengeti en route to the lodge but soon ease into the ‘manyatta’ cottages of Serena, freshen up and set out for a “real” game drive.

By now the sun has mellowed and the stage is set for wildlife action. We head straight for the “Hippo pool” at Grumeti lake, where for the first time we get out of the vehicle and walk in the wild. Ears, eyes and nostrils dot the pool’s murky waters and there is much snorting, grunting and yawning happening on the surface. Gregarious hippopotami are huddled together wallowing in their own filth - there are young ones, juveniles, the elderly et al. The pool provides camera-toting tourists ample scope for great action pictures. I capture a baby clambering over its mother’s back playfully taking a nip at the sibling’s snout.  It is getting to be dusk and as we head back, I come across a scene that seems a curtain-raiser for the night action to come which we will not be privy to. Marabous are perched like so many fruits on the bare branches of a yellow-fever tree and in dusk’s failing light, they at once, proclaim poignancy and privacy.

Serengeti is Mara compounded many times over, and as such the sightings are often from afar. From the stance, stride or skin, we were able to make out specks of hyenas and lions and we needed the aid of binoculars or telephotos to view them. Therefore, the next day when we get to witness a cheetah hunt in this vast universe, it is a rare experience indeed.

A cheetah was crouched behind a termite mound, unknown to four “tommies” that were grazing unbothered. No clairvoyance was required on our parts to guess that the end was near for one of gazelles. In a trice, the cheetah was sprinting and in the melee that ensued three ran in one direction and the one that blundered in the opposite direction became the cheetah’s meal. Panting by its prey, the cheetah looked over its shoulder constantly for other predators and scavengers that might come by to steal its trophy. Less than a kilometre away, we had seen two lionesses and it seemed daring of the cheetah to hunt in the same territory. But the lionesses were feeding on a wildebeest and couldn’t be interested in the cheetah or its kill for the time being. The lioness too was vigilant, surveying the territory, vulnerable as she was with two cubs. In the savannas, nobody is all powerful and even the cats have their weak moments, we were to discover.

We come upon multitudes of zebras; pairs nuzzling each other in a show of affection. Zebras with their black-and-white stripes and rippling muscles make for superb portraits and if I had my way I would have trapped all of them in my camera with their individual stories. There are birds, the size of mammals – Kori bustard and Saddle-billed storks, baboons, gazelles, buffaloes, elephants, but above all, Serengeti is the province of the superherd, the wildebeest that share a symbiotic relationship with the savannas.  We witness waves upon waves of white-bearded wildebeest in a parting shot as we leave Serengeti behind.

Lake Manyara

Lake Manyara Biosphere Reserve would be a tame affair after the mighty Serengeti, but I was eager to see Scottish biologist Ian Douglas-Hamilton’s preserve where he undertook pioneering research on the behaviour of African elephants. Also known for its tree-climbing lions it would be a different ballgame, we presumed. According to William, the driver-guide, lions climb low onto trees to avoid tsetse flies that bother them during the drier months. Earlier, in Serengeti Serena, we had come across blue-black rags tied to poles like pennants, apparently to attract and trap tsetse flies! Imagine our horror at encountering tsetse flies and not being warned about them. But to get back to Lake Manyara… here was a different habitat, more like the woods of India, albeit with African flora of baobabs, sausage trees, giant figs and mahogany.

Even as we had started on our game drive, two elephants feeding by the roadside blocked our path. I was consternated at the sight of one of them fanning its ears menacingly and for once the cocoon of our vehicle seemed vulnerable. What a contrast, I couldn’t help comparing, with Douglas Hamilton’s bravado in undertaking the hazardous task of photographing elephants with ears spread out, for identification, at times crouching on trees or even on foot! Not wanting to antagonise them, the driver backed off. Finally, they slipped into the thicket clearing our way.

As we left the jungle behind, we came into a clearing of open grassland with its green down and melange of birds – hornbills, plover, storks and marabous. Herds of buffaloes and wildebeests in repose made the park look a Garden of Eden, indeed.

In camera proceedings

Some of the most memorable moments in safaris are often those that cannot be captured on camera. The cheetah hunt at Serengeti was one such episode: the scene was so charged with suspense that I didn’t want to blink, leave alone prepare to shoot.

The Serena properties where we stayed throughout were not fenced unlike many of the lodges in Kenya. In Serengeti, we had to be escorted with askaris to and fro from the dining hall as elephants, buffaloes and even, leopards were known to prowl at night within the lodge premises. During the daytime, though, we tended to forget this fact. A pair of dik-diks would roam around our ground floor sit-out and my son would chase them eager to pet. Imagine our horror, when that evening, the dik-diks were replaced by a pair of buffaloes peering into our room accompanied by a background score of a lion roar warning its territory. We hadn’t had our dinner yet and were not sure if we wanted one now! Interestingly, the askaris who accompanied us did not carry a gun but only a torch, which they flicked about spot-lighting the surroundings only increasing our anxiety. The hotel staff maintained that there had been no man-animal confrontation in all the years of the lodge’s existence.

At Manyara Serena, the hotel staff were emphatic that no game strayed there as the lodge was outside the National Park, though we had seen some bushbuck stroll below our balcony. After the afternoon game drive, the elephant blockade fresh in mind, we sauntered into the lodge chatting away walking up to the room. Fellow lodgers - a couple - stopped to say hello or so we thought; instead they greeted us, saying, “Look there, by the (swimming) pool, elephants!” My heart stopped beating as I saw two grey hulks appear over the curve of the hill walking parallel to us, the lodge rooms dividing our paths. Our friends turned to their room leaving us alone to decide our fate. Silently, we kept walking, praying, and managed to reach our rooms, safely. From our first floor balcony, just in time, we caught a herd of three, including a calf, within whispering distance! I shudder to think, what would have happened if our family of three (me, my husband and son) had come face to face with the elephant trio.


For more photographs please follow this link: