Tanzania 1990: Lions in the camp
Near Lake Natron we met these Masai boys, wearing elaborate head ornaments, adorned with ostrich feathers, bits of brightly coloured cloth, and small birds, which the boys themselves had killed. This ornament indicates that soon the boys will go through initiation ceremonies to become morani (warriors). One of the boys seems to make fun of us with his club! (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The rate of Tanzanian Shillingi is not high, and the amount which we must pay to rent a Landcruiser and a driver on a 4-week safari in northern Tanzania, takes up a large part of our night table in our hotel room in Arusha. Torbjørn Eriksen, Frederik Brammer, John Faldborg, and I have been sent to Tanzania by the Danish section of ICBP (International Council for Bird Preservation – today called Birdlife International). We have spent seven weeks mapping and ringing birds in Tanzanian coastal forests. Our work has now come to an end, and we would like to make a round-trip to some of the country’s famous national parks: Serengeti, Ngorongoro, Lake Manyara, and Tarangire.
John, scowling at the many Shillingi we had to pay to rent a car for our 4-week safari in northern Tanzania. The money took up a large part of our night table in our hotel room in Arusha. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
During our long stay in Tanzania, our driver, Nuru Benedict Sanga, developed a keen interest in birds, and as time passed, he became quite adept at identifying them. Here he is admiring a bearded scrub-robin (Cercotrichas quadrivirgata), which was ringed in Msumbugwe Forest. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Fierce wind and dust
An almost constant wind is blowing on the flat plains between Lake Natron, a huge soda lake, and Ol Doinyo Lengai, sacred mountain of the Masai people. The air is filled with fine dust particles, finding their way into almost anything – car, food, ears, nose, and mouth. When the wind finally subsides, it immediately becomes intolerably hot.
The land here is a harsh and inhospitable semi-desert with scattered vegetation of grass and trees. Nevertheless, there are people living here. No matter where we make a stop, a couple of Masai warriors, or morani, will appear, armed with long spears as a means of defense against lions, or a herdsman will pass with his herd of cattle, heading for a small patch of greenery along one of the area’s few watercourses.
Lake Natron is a huge, shining expanse, dotted with rocky outcrops, which shimmer in the intense heat, assuming unreal shapes. Spread out across the lake, large flocks of lesser flamingos (Phoeniconaias minor) are feeding. The lake shore is a crust of hardened mud, mixed with soda, and along the shore are huge salt marshes, in which lots of waders are feeding, along with pink-backed pelicans (Pelecanus rufescens), glossy ibises (Plegadis falcinellus), yellow-billed storks (Mycteria ibis), African spoonbills (Platalea alba), and other birds. In grassy areas, we observe plains zebras (Equus quagga ssp. boehmi), white-bearded wildebeest (Connochaetes mearnsi), and Thomson’s gazelles (Eudorcas nasalis).
In a rocky area near the swamps, a few beautiful desert roses (Adenium obesum) are blooming – the only flowering plant we observe around here. This species was described in 1763 by Swedish scientist Pehr Forsskål, who participated in a Danish expedition to Egypt and the Yemen, 1761-1767. Because of the plant’s low, but very fat trunk, he named it Nerium obesum, meaning ’the obese oleander’. (More about the life of Pehr Forsskål can be read on this website, see People: Pehr Forsskål – brilliant Swedish scientist.)
Near the lake is a spring, which is utilized by Masai herdsmen to water their cattle. Here we meet two young boys, wearing an ornament on their head, which consists of thin branches with colourful bits of cloth, ostrich feathers, and stuffed bird skins attached. The birds have been killed by the boys themselves. This ornament is worn during the Masai circumcision ceremony, indicating that the boys will soon become morani.
Lake Natron is a huge, shining expanse, dotted with rocky outcrops, shimmering in the intense heat and assuming unreal shapes. Large flocks of lesser flamingos (Phoeniconaias minor) are feeding in the lake. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The beautiful desert rose (Adenium obesum) was described in 1763 by Swedish scientist Pehr Forsskål, who named it Nerium obesum, meaning ’the obese oleander’. The plant has a low, but very fat trunk. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
It is late in the day, when we pass the entrance gate to Serengeti National Park. Many antelope species are grazing here, e.g. topi (Damaliscus jimela), kongoni, or Coke’s hartebeest (Alcelaphus cokei), and the ubiquitous impala (Aepyceros melampus). Two honey badgers (Mellivora capensis) cross the road in front of our car, and we also observe an Egyptian mongoose (Herpestes ichneumon).
Driving is not allowed in the national park after dark, but nevertheless our driver, Nuru, is of the opinion that we should head for the camp site near Lobo Lodge. When we arrive at the lodge, a staff member directs us to his quarters, where his boss informs Nuru that he has violated the regulations of the park and must pay a fine of 2000 Shillingi. When we have pitched our tents, Nuru drives to the staff quarters to pay his fine, but as it turns out, the chief ranger is very drunk, now calling the whole affair a trifle and informing Nuru that he doesn’t have to pay any fine. The following morning, however, when we are about to leave Lobo, he has once again changed his mind, and Nuru must pay his fine!
Lobo is a beautiful place. The lodge has been built among a group of kopjes – isolated rocky outcrops, which, somewhat wantonly, pierce the savanna here and there. Incidentally, they are the remains of ancient, eroded mountains. To the Boer, when they migrated to Southern Africa in the 1700s, these outcrops resembled heads, so they named them kopjes (‘head’ in Dutch). Two Verreaux’s eagles (Aquila verreauxii) are soaring above a kopje, on which two Masai klipspringers (Oreotragus schillingsi) are resting, enjoying the morning sun. The outer keratin layer on the hooves of these small antelope is rubber-like, causing them to have a tremendously firm grip on the surface of the steep rocks.
A Masai klipspringer (Oreotragus schillingsi), enjoying the morning sun on a kopje near Lobo. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Leopard and cheetah
On our way towards the national park headquarters at Seronera, we encounter two Masai giraffe bulls (Giraffa camelopardalis ssp. tippelskirchi), engaged in a dominance display. Taking turns, they bang their head against the neck of their opponent. It is not quite obvious to us, which of them is victorious, as they, after a few minutes, go their separate ways. We encounter many other animals, e.g. a small antelope, named steenbok (Raphicerus campestris), and the rather rare side-striped jackal (Canis adustus).
Nuru makes a brief stop to talk to a driver he knows, learning that in a tree near Seronera, a leopard (Panthera pardus) is busy eating a cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)! We race to the spot, but when we arrive, a large male leopard is slumbering peacefully, sprawled on a thick branch in an acacia tree, the remains of the cheetah draped over a nearby branch. We remain in the area, hoping that the leopard will soon wake up to continue his meal, but he just sleeps and sleeps. For many hours we wait patiently, and finally, when the sun is low, the leopard wakes up, stretching and yawning, baring his formidable canines. He then returns to his prey and proceeds to eat, illuminated by the setting sun, while in the east, behind the tree, a Full Moon is rising. A spectacular event indeed!
Two Masai giraffe bulls (Giraffa camelopardalis ssp. tippelskirchi), engaged in a dominance display. In turn they bang their head against the neck of their opponent. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The large male leopard (Panthera pardus) was slumbering peacefully, sprawled on a thick branch in an acacia tree. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Finally, when the sun was low, he woke up, stretching and yawning, baring his formidable canines. He then returned to his prey and began eating. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A Full Moon, rising behind umbrella acacias (Vachellia tortilis), Seronera. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Our camp at Seronera is teeming with birds – especially at cooking time. Speckle-fronted weavers (Sporopipes frontalis), grey-capped social weavers (Pseudonigrita arnaudi), Kenya rufous sparrows (Passer rufocinctus), Rüppell’s starlings (Lamprotornis purpuroptera), and d’Arnaud’s barbets (Trachyphonus darnaudii) flock around us, showing no fear at all. One night, because of the heat, Torbjørn opens his tent to let in some cool air. Later in the night, he spots a spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta), peeping into his tent. He manages to scare away the hyena – but during the rest of our trip, he does not open his tent at night anymore, heat or no heat!
Driving south towards Naabi Hill, we see lots of larks along the road, mostly red-capped larks (Calandrella cinerea) and Fischer’s sparrow-larks (Eremopterix leucopareia). Masai ostriches (Struthio camelus ssp. massaicus) and kori bustards (Otis kori) are also fairly common. An East African wildcat (Felis silvestris ssp. ugandae) commences to roll in sand, oblivious of our presence. It is mobbed by numerous rosy-breasted longclaw (Macronyx ameliae). Every evening, our camp at Naabi is paid a visit by a striped hyena (Hyena hyena), but we fail to find its den.
There were many birds in our camp at Seronera – especially when we were preparing our meals. Here, grey-capped social weavers (Pseudonigrita arnaudi), a speckle-fronted weaver (Sporopipes frontalis), and a Kenya rufous sparrow (Passer rufocinctus) flock around a tray with rice, showing no fear at all. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This striated heron (Butorides striata) seems petrified, looking for fish in a small stream. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Two superb starlings (Lamprotornis superbus), locked in battle, one of them having a tight grip around the other bird’s head with its claws. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
An East African wildcat (Felis silvestris ssp. ugandae), rolling in sand, oblivious of our presence. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
An abundance of wildlife in Ngorongoro
We stay a few days inside the fantastic Ngorongoro Crater – a giant, long extinct volcano. This caldera, more than 600 metres deep and c. 15 kilometres across, is today one of Africa’s best wildlife areas. Inside the crater, a mixed herd of plains zebras and white-bearded wildebeest is crossing a large soda lake, while a couple of black rhinos (Diceros bicornis) nearby are so massive that they resemble tanks. Two zebra stallions are engaged in a fierce battle. They bite and kick each other, trying their best to topple their opponent and bite his testicles.
During the following days, we encounter several courting pairs of lion (Panthera leo), which may mate as many as fifty times in a 24-hour period. A lioness is sprawled on a branch, five metres up in a tree, probably to escape biting flies. We spend some time observing life around a large complex of spotted hyena dens, where several young are playing. A half-grown, pale-grey pup, gnawing on a bone, is ‘attacked’ by a much smaller, black pup, which bites its ears, trying its best to steal the bone.
Birdlife in the crater lakes is very rich indeed. Lesser flamingo is numerous, and, among others, we also observe maccoa duck (Oxyura maccoa), Cape teal (Anas capensis), avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta), chestnut-banded plover (Charadrius pallidus), and Kittlitz’ plover (C. pecuarius), the latter with tiny chicks.
A mixed herd of plains zebras (Equus quagga ssp. boehmi) and white-bearded wildebeest (Connochaetes mearnsi), crossing the large soda lake in the Ngorongoro Crater. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
After sniffing a lioness’ urine, this male lion (Panthera leo) is grimacing in what is called flehmen. A sensitive area in its mouth is able to detect whether the female is in heat. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
During a 24-hour period, a courting pair of lions may mate as many as fifty times. Jumping off the lioness, this male is ejaculating, while the lioness becomes very aggressive, ready to slap him in the face. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Fighting plains zebra stallions, biting and kicking each other, trying their best to topple their opponent and bite his testicles. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A grey crowned crane (Balearica regulorum), feeding in front of a plains zebra. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Young spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta), playing outside their den. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
An immature black-winged stilt (Himantopus himantopus), feeding in a small freshwater pond, Ngorongoro Crater. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Lions in the camp
Tarangire National Park is a very beautiful place, especially at dawn, when a thick mist envelops the savanna. Along the numerous streams, flowing through the park, large herds of animals come to drink, e.g. elephants (Loxodonta africana), impalas, and African buffalos (Syncerus caffer). For a long time, a herd of buffaloes seem petrified, trying to catch our scent. Suddenly they turn around, disappearing in a dense cloud of dust.
Near the river, a female leopard has dragged an impala up into an acacia, in which its half-grown cub is lying, gorging itself on the carcass. We observe the daily life of a pack of dwarf mongoose (Helogale parvula). These small carnivores live in family groups, comprising up to twenty individuals, dominated by a matriarch, who will only mate with the strongest male in the group. The pack often lives in termite mounds, the males acting as guardians on top of the mound to warn the group against enemies like eagles, snakes, and jackals. For this reason, more males than females are killed by these enemies.
It is the lion, however, which makes the biggest impression on us during our stay in Tarangire. In a dense scrub, four lionesses and four large cubs have gorged themselves on a wildebeest and are now resting, their distended bellies pointing into the air.
One night, our camp is paid a visit by a pride of lions. A lion is roaring just outside John’s tent, while others lie down close to my tent. I hear a strange noise, like ’toc-toc-toc’ – it must be a lion’s tail, knocking on the canvas! I’m scared stiff, lying absolutely still, waiting for them to disappear. The strain on my nerves makes me so tired that, against all odds, I fall asleep. The following morning, we discuss the events of the night.
”The lion was roaring so close to my tent that the canvas was flapping!” says John.
”Yes,” says Torbjørn. ”They were indeed very close!”
I also give an account of my adventure with the lion’s tail – but Frederik hasn’t got a clue what we are talking about. His only comment is: ”There were lions in the camp?”
Tarangire National Park is a very beautiful place, especially at dawn, when a thick mist envelops the savanna. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This herd of buffalos (Syncerus caffer) seemed petrified, trying to catch our scent, but suddenly they turned around, disappearing in a dense cloud of dust. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The dwarf mongoose (Helogale parvula) lives in family groups, often in termite mounds. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This female leopard (Panthera pardus) is on its way up into an acacia, where its half-grown cub is lying, gorging itself on the carcass of an impala. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Satiated lionesses, resting after having eaten a white-bearded wildebeest. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
(Uploaded February 2016)
(Revised October 2017)