Tanzania 1990: Lions in the camp



Near Lake Natron, we met these Masai boys, wearing elaborate head ornaments, indicating that the boys will soon undergo 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 for 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 the International Council for Bird Preservation (ICBP) to count birds, and to ring as many as possible, in various Tanzanian coastal forests.

[Later, the International Council for Bird Preservation changed its name to Birdlife International.]

After working in the forests for seven weeks, we would now like to make a round-trip to some of the country’s famous national parks: Serengeti, Ngorongoro, Lake Manyara, and Tarangire.



During our long stay in Tanzanian coastal forests, our driver, Nuru Benedict Sanga, developed a keen interest in birds. In this picture, he is admiring a bearded scrub-robin (Cercotrichas quadrivirgata), which was ringed in Msumbugwe Forest. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



John, scowling at the many Shillingi on our night table, which we had to pay to rent a car for our safari. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Fierce wind and dust
A strong wind prevails on the flat plains between Lake Natron, a huge soda lake, and Ol Doinyo Lengai, sacred mountain of the Masai people, situated in extreme northern Tanzania. 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 grasses 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 few watercourses in this region.

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 taurinus ssp. mearnsi), and Thomson’s gazelles (Eudorcas nasalis).



Numerous lesser flamingos were feeding in Lake Natron. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




An obese oleander
A freshwater spring near the lake is much utilized by Masai herdsmen to water their cattle. Here we encounter two young boys who wear an ornament on their head, consisting 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.

Among rocky outcrops, we find a few beautiful desert roses (Adenium obesum) in bloom – 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. Flowers of this plant resemble those of the oleander (Nerium oleander), but its trunk is very fat, causing Forsskål to name it Nerium obesum (‘the obese oleander’).

Forsskål’s fascinating, albeit short, life is related on the page People: Pehr Forsskål – brilliant Swedish scientist.



The desert rose has a low, very fat trunk. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Around Lobo
It is late in the day, when we pass the entrance gate to Serengeti National Park. Many antelope species are grazing here, including topi (Damaliscus lunatus ssp. jimela), kongoni, or Coke’s hartebeest (Alcelaphus buselaphus ssp. 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. As it turns out, the chief ranger is now very drunk. He calls the whole affair a trifle, 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 the 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 striking black-and-white Verreaux’s eagles (Aquila verreauxii) are soaring above a kopje, on which two Masai klipspringers (Oreotragus oreotragus ssp. schillingsi) rest, 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.



Masai klipspringer, 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 observe many other animals, including a small antelope, the steenbok (Raphicerus campestris), and the rather rare side-striped jackal (Canis adustus).

Nuru makes a brief stop to talk to an acquaintance, and he learns that a large male leopard (Panthera pardus) is busy eating a cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) in a tree near Seronera!

Naturally, we race to the spot, but on our arrival, the leopard is slumbering peacefully, sprawled on a thick branch in an acacia tree. The remains of the cheetah are draped over a nearby branch.

We stay 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!

The leopard is described in detail on the page Animals – Mammals: The spotted killer.



Masai giraffe bulls, engaged in a dominance display. Taking turns, they bang their head against their opponent’s neck. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



The leopard 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, returned to his prey, and began eating. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



A Full Moon was rising behind umbrella acacias (Vachellia tortilis). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Confiding birds
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 hot night, 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 it away, 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 observe 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. We observe a South African wildcat (Felis libyca ssp. cafra), rolling in sand, oblivious of our presence. It is mobbed by numerous rosy-breasted longclaws (Macronyx ameliae).

Every evening, our camp at Naabi is paid a visit by a striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena), but we fail to find its den.



Grey-capped social weavers, Kenya rufous sparrows, and a speckle-fronted weaver, eating rice from a tray in our camp, showing no fear at all. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



This South African wildcat is rolling in sand, oblivious of our presence. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Looking for fish in a small stream, this striated heron (Butorides striata) seems petrified. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Superb starlings (Lamprotornis superbus), locked in battle, one having a tight grip around the other bird’s head with its claws. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




An abundance of wildlife
We camp a few days inside the fantastic Ngorongoro Crater – a giant, long extinct volcano. This caldera, about 15 km across and more than 600 m deep, is today one of Africa’s best wildlife areas.

On the crater floor, a mixed herd of white-bearded wildebeest and plains zebras is crossing the large soda lake, and 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 lions (Panthera leo). Lion pairs are diligent lovers, mating as many as fifty times in a 24-hour period. A lioness is sprawled on a branch about 5 metres up in a tree, probably to escape biting flies.

When we encounter a large complex of spotted hyena dens, we spend several hours here to observe their social life. Two pups are engaged in playing. A half-grown, pale-grey one is busy gnawing on a bone, but 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 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.



White-bearded wildebeest and plains zebras, crossing the large soda lake on the floor of the Ngorongoro Crater. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



These fighting plains zebra stallions bite and kick each other, trying their best to topple their opponent and bite his testicles. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



After sniffing a lioness’ urine, this male lion grimaces, 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)



Mating lions. Jumping off the lioness, the male ejaculates, whereas the lioness becomes very aggressive, ready to slap him in the face. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Young spotted hyenas, playing outside their den. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Grey crowned crane (Balearica regulorum), feeding in front of a plains zebra. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



This immature black-winged stilt (Himantopus himantopus) is feeding in a small freshwater pond. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Animals in Tarangire
Tarangire National Park is a very beautiful place, especially at dawn, when a thick mist envelops the savanna.

Large herds of animals come to drink from the streams, including 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 spend some time observing 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 a termite mound, and the males act 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.



Tarangire National Park is a very beautiful place, especially at dawn, when a thick mist envelops the savanna. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



These buffalos seemed petrified, trying to catch our scent, but suddenly they turned around, disappearing in a dense cloud of dust. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



This female leopard is climbing an acacia, where its half-grown cub is lying, gorging itself on the carcass of an impala. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



The dwarf mongoose lives in family groups, often in termite mounds. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Lions in the camp
It is the lion, however, that 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, with their distended bellies pointing into the air.

One night, our camp is paid a visit by a pride of lions. One 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.

Frederik, however, hasn’t got a clue what we are talking about. His only comment is: ”There were lions in the camp?”

The lion is described in detail on the page Animals – Mammals: Lion – king of the savanna.



Satiated lionesses, resting after having eaten a white-bearded wildebeest. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




(Uploaded February 2016)


(Latest update March 2024)