Ruaha 2014

Dawn over the Great Ruaha River

New page started here to cover our operations in Ruaha

November 14th Friday

After having spent an extra night more than I had intended in the Park, (Not entirely unwelcome - see below), I was definitely leaving this morning at 11:45. But first, I had to see Adam off, who was flying the Savannah back to Zanzibar. All the previous day he had been carrying out a major servicing on the aircraft, oil change, spark plugs, the lot, as I had notched up around 85 hours on it, and it was due for the 100 hours service. He was ready to go around 10 am, so I drove down the airstrip to help clear any animals which might have been congregating there (they frequently did).

It was with some regret that I watched the Savannah disappear into the distance, as it had been a faithful aircraft, even if it was a bit rough and ready.

The Savannah disappears into the distance...

After coming back to the Bandas to finish some last minute packing, it was now my turn to head off to the runway to pick up the Coastal Air Cessna Caravan to Dar Es Salaam via Selous. I arrived back in Dar at 2:30 pm and was picked up by the driver Mark & Karina, (my friends from London), had sent me. After the wilds of Ruaha, it was nice to indulge in a bit of luxury for a change, and they had a very nice apartment near the beach at Oyster Bay. The next night there was an '80's party at a friend of theirs, and they had very thoughtfully provided me with a "Top Gun" flying suit to wear.

Myself as "Maverick" or err "Tom Crudes" along with Karina.

November 13th Thursday

I was supposed to be leaving Ruaha today but the flight was cancelled. The initial disappointment was tempered by the fact that Trevor took me for a final game drive, much further afield than any drives I had done before. Ostensibly, we were out to look at elephants, but of course, saw much more than that. There had been reports of twins born to an Elephant (highly unusual), near Mwagusi Lodge, so we went there first to see if we could find them, but had no luck. However, saw a cow/calf group where a cow had a very young calf, (only days old), who was just learning how to use his trunk, and was extremely cute.

Unbearably cute!

For such a young fella, he was very active, considering it was the heat of the day! Constantly getting under mum's feet, running backwards and forwards, picking up any scraps that she may have dropped from her trunk. Not that he knew what to do with them! Then we continued on to "The Confluence", where the Ruaha and Mwagusi rivers meet. At the moment there was not much water anywhere, being just before the wet season, but the actual point where the two rivers meet, is still a very beautiful place and extremely popular with the birds. By now, it was starting to get dark so we started heading back to Msembe and the Bandas. However, just on dark, we came upon a group of lions who had just just killed a giraffe, probably only hours before. There were 6 lionesses and three cubs in the background, who were all busily feeding.

The lion kill, cubs in background

It was a truly magical day (obviously not for the Giraffe), and a fitting farewell to an amazing, beautiful and wild place.

November 11th Tuesday

Just as I was all set to tie everything up and ease my way out. Guess what? A puncture! Not on the car but on the aircraft. Aircraft punctures are a bit more of a pain in the neck, coz each aircraft type has a different way of attaching the wheel and the the tyres are different too. In this case, even after we had taken the wheel off, it was impossible to get the tyre off the rim as the rubber had bonded to the aluminium. I spent all Sunday on this fruitless task with no luck. Tried all sorts of things, WD40, and even putting a plank to the rim then driving up the plank with the front wheel of the car. Absolutely no luck. Being Sunday of course the garage was closed. However, on Monday, the guys there used the tyre press on it and managed to get the inner tube out. I hate punctures with a passion. Never met one which wasn't a pain in the ass to fix. This one had 4 separate punctures no less! Mainly due to thorns that the aircraft had picked up.

Sure punctured my equanimity for the weekend!

November 7th Friday

I am now easing into my last week here. It has been quite an experience, but tiring nonetheless. Temperatures here have been slowly climbing and it is a lot hotter than when we first arrived. Apparently that is the case here, temperatures keep creeping up till the wet arrives in Late November to December. After about 10:30 in the morning, it becomes very hot and too bumpy to fly, due to all the thermal activity. Temperatures of 42 Deg C and higher are not uncommon. In other news, the airborne Elephant census team has arrived, with three Cessnas and they are now flying transects, counting elephants every day. They are usually airborne by 6.30 am for this very reason. I have sat in on a couple of their briefings, and though I have read up on aerial censuses, I was still surprised at how technical the whole process is. Each aircraft flies with 3 observers and (of course) a pilot, and they have a radar altimeter to keep exactly at 350 Ft. Ranging rods are affixed to the aircraft struts so that they can work out exactly how far a particular animal or carcass is. Obviously, this demands accurate flying. Being a few feet high can alter the distances observed dramatically.

The census aircraft arrive and all of a sudden the parking area is crowded. To extreme right is the Savannah I was refueling as the aircraft arrived.

After totting up the hours flown so far, it seems that the Savannah will need a 100 hour service in about 10 hours or so, which leaves me with only about 4 days of flying. I had planned to head off to Dar next Friday but it seems that I will finish flying on Wednesday, so might head off earlier. Amazingly, we have some friends in Dar that I can stay with, who used to live across the road from us in Mantilla road, London, over 10 years ago! Now they are based in Dar Es Salaam for the next 3 years. Ain't it a small world! I will stay with them for a few days to chill out, and then catch the flight back to Belgium from Zanzibar.

However, there are still 10 hours left to fly, so it ain't over yet!

There is a strange tree over here which is called the Euphorbia. It occurs elsewhere in Africa too, notably Namibia, where it can be poisonous if is lit and inhaled. There is a story where a group of Africans stopped overnight in a minibus in the desert and used one of these trees for firewood. They were found later. All dead, after inhaling the fumes. Not sure if these are the same variety but not game to find out! The tree starts off at the base looking like every other tree, and then suffers an identity crisis halfway up, as it forms branches, changing into a cactus. Very weird. Photo below:

The Euphoria of Euphorbia! The tree on the left is a Euphorbia....

October 26th Sunday

I woke up this morning (sounds like the words to some "Blues" song), to the sonorous sounds of a Jabiru six cylinder engine. Perspicuous readers may remember that originally I was slated to fly the Bathawk aircraft (owner of said Jabiru engine) around the park. However, after having myself checked out on the aircraft in South Africa, it all came to nought. First, another pilot had been contracted to fly it, then, whilst the aircraft was parked here at Msembe, the canvas and metal hangar that it was parked under collapsed due to high wind. Initially the park management thought that it had been "destroyed", but it just turned out to have some minor damage to the rudder and a very ordinary puncture. Now, as I made my way over to the airfield, it was flying again, doing steep turns over the runway. Nice to see another aircraft back on line!

In what I can only explain as reverse evolution, I now appear to be spending an inordinate amount of time recharging batteries for various electronic gadgets that appear to have multiplied during my time here. it does appear that these aforementioned gadgets are now using me to provide them with electrons and demand to be fed at all hours. In truth, most of these gizmos have to do with the aircraft. Just to give you an idea af the scale of things, I have listed them below:

Aircraft Radio - This doesn't have a battery level indicator so I just recharge it every night.

Gopro Camera - Again, no battery level indicator so recharge every night. (This is attached to the wing and records all of the flight)

Aircraft GPS - Has a charge level indicator but is usually half flat by the end of the flight (as is the Gopro) Also, this is in fact my Nexus tablet so I use it for emails etc

Ranger GPS - This is used by the rangers I am flying with to mark the location of things of interest, Elephant herds, Waterholes etc. No charge indicator. Recharge nightly

Other gadgets:

Mobile phone - again, recharge nightly

Computer - Battery on way out, needs recharging all the time

Camera - Turns out every time there is something interesting to photograph, the bloody thing is flat. Recharge every three days

Head Torch - Needed to find the banda from the kitchen after dark. Mind you, as wild animals routinely wander through the bandas, supposed to get a ranger escort.

Image stabalised Binocs - Thankfully, Anne has taken these home, as they need to be recharged every couple of days or so.

It goes without saying that all of these electronic thingos have different plugs, power points and batterries, so I wander around all the time with my bag variously full of AA batteries, AAA batteries, USB charging cables of three different types, and of course the Camera charging cable which id completely unique and fits nothing else, and nothing else fits it. There now, I have had my bitch, and I feel a lot better!

October 20th Monday - Home alone in Ruaha

Anne headed off home from Joberg on Friday, 17th. I remain here in Ruaha to continue flying. Originally, it was intended that we both would leave for Joberg on the 10th, and head up to Louis Trichardt to take off Skubies wings and leave a bit more room inside Ant Scott's hangar. However, due to the eons of time it took to become operational here in Ruaha, Trevor asked me to stay on an extra month to ensure that we had surveillance coverage until the rainy season arrives. Anne sadly, could not stay, as she has work organised and at the moment we need all the pennies we can get. She has a week back in France, then she heads off to Poland to deliver some workshops there. I remain here in Ruaha, operating solo, until Nov 14th, then down to Dar for a weekend to chill out with my friends Mark & Katrina, who have a very nice pad near the beach, thanks very much. Mark has a membership at the Yacht club, so I am looking forward to some hard earned beers there, for the weekend, then heading home on 18th November out of Zanzibar, with a ridiculously cheap charter flight (180 euros one way, Zan - Brussels!). From there, I will catch the TGV to Paris, where Anne will meet me for a very pleasant dinner! Can't wait!

Not that I am not enjoying myself here, but it is not a lot of fun operating totally on your own, cooking for one is a bit boring and you always get stuck with the left-overs the next day. I can manage for the next month though, especially as I can see that my presence is doing some good. Today, for example, I was asked to help find a humongous buffalo herd that we inexplicably lost, as there is a collaring team operating here this week collaring some of the animals. You would think it would not be easy losing several hundred buffalo, but with recent rains, they have been able to move away from the river and thus have further to range. We found them eventually, but miles away from their last reported sighting. That sort of thing is really satisfying, as it is something that could not have been accomplished without an aircraft.

Closer to the camp, well, actually in the camp, we have lately been entertained by George the Giraffe, who has taken to hanging around, snacking off the higher trees and bushes around. He even hangs around at night, I suppose because he feels safe with all these people around. Late the other night he settled down in a dust bowl on the edge of the Bandas, and his lanky silhouette could clearly be seen in the moonlight. It is somehow comforting having such a large docile animal hanging around the place.

George & Anne

October 7th Tuesday - A typical day

Now we are into a routine, a typical day goes something like this. Anne and I get up at 6:15, and have a quick (cold) shower, then cornflakes for me and porridge for Anne, washed down by a mug of hot instant coffee. (Ah for the espressos we have every morning in Sarlat!). We usually sit on the side of the river (see above), to drink the coffee and to contemplate our good fortune to be able to work in a magnificent place like this. The birds are out already, and it is magical to watch them at this cool, quiet time of the day. Then, at around 6:50, its off to the airfield, a five minute drive away, to prepare the aircraft. We untie it, and drag it out into some clear space, while Anne plugs in the headsets and radio. (we do not leave these in the aircraft). During this time, I am preflighting the aircraft, and generally preparing it for departure. Anne slots the GOPRO video camero under the wing at this point and prepares to turn it on after I get the engine started.

Most of our flights entail taking up one of the park rangers, and he arrives around 7 am. We brief quickly, as to which area he wants to go to, (usually along one of the park boundaries), then strap in. Flights usually last around 2 hours, so that means we will have about an hour "on station" to look for anything out of the ordinary. Before take-off, Anne takes the "Landy" for a drive along the dusty airstrip to clear it of any Impala or Zebra which may be snacking on the grasses there. There usually are a couple of Giraffe hanging around too, but normally just beside the strip, so not a problem.

On my return, Anne usually hears the engine note as I arrive overhead, and is waiting for us as we taxi in. Then, it's a cup of coffee back at the tourist bandas along the river, and a bit of a natter about the flight. We don't always see much, but when we do, it counts. Then I head off to the library where there is a decent WIFI, and download the tracklogs from the GPS and file them, whilst Anne stores the GOPRO videos, and deletes them from the GOPRO. A two hour flight will generate 30 Gigs of video, so we can't just leave them on there. That's pretty much it, though we used to fly in the afternoon as well, it has lately got too windy to do that. This aircraft is not good in crosswinds and we nearly always have a crosswind! Any spare time, we usually spend bird and creature watching beside the river at the tourist bandas where we are staying.

Banda bird watching - late afternoon

October 6th Monday

African names can be an endless source of amusement and confusion. Shortly after we arrived at Ruaha, We brought out a tourist map (unbelievably, that is the only map that is available!), and spread it out on the table so we could orientate ourselves. I was discussing points of interest with someone and what followed was right out of an Abbott and Costello sketch.

"See ma finger?" he said, prodding his fore finger at the map,

"Sure I see your finger" said I,

"No no, ma finger!" he continued on

"Yes, I see your finger, what of it?", I said, getting somewhat puzzled,

"No, ma finger over here!" now he was starting to get annoyed,

"yes, yes, I see your bloody finger!" (beginning to get a bit annoyed myself),

"No no, ma finger right here!"

Yes, I said under my breath; I see your blasted finger and will tell you what to do with it presently!

"No, no, ma finger over here dammit!", then he moved his finger slightly and I could see that there was indeed a small town called "Mafinga" right there on the map....

GPS log of one of our flights. (Click to enlarge). Sharp eyed bunnies will note the dot denoting "Mafinga" just to the left of the "lake"

(which doesn't exist at the moment being dry season).

October 5th Sunday

The pressure of the dry season now means that we are getting nightly visits from the elephants as they search for greener branches and bushes to eat. The camp is still a small oasis in what is becoming a very dry region. The rains will arrive late November, but until then the river, which is becoming a meager stream in parts, and a few springs, are the only source of water.

Apart from the cracking of branches and gentle rumblings at night, we can hardly hear them as they move from one 'banda' ( our accommodation) to another.They are now being joined by the lions who seem to enjoy seeing who can roar the loudest.It is perhaps apocryphal, but the Masai are said to believe the lions say: "Who's land is this? It is mine, mine, mine". Despite telling myself to sleep through it, I always find myself at the window straining my eyes to see all the action. However, without a full moon it is impossible to see anything, even if you are looking them in the eye!

Taka Taka raiding the garbage. He has now been moved to a more distant location, but while the garbage is easily accessible,

more Elephants will be tempted.

However,during the day, one of the regular visitors is Taka, Taka, (pictured), a young bull elephant who keeps raiding the rubbish bins. Not good, but who is going to argue with him? Sadly you can see plastic in his dung.Just as well elephants pass 70% of the food through their body undigested. This enables them to eat a lot of food that other animals can not,such as Acacia thorned branches, dried twigs, bark etc. Many people who do not understand the ecology of the parks, regard the elephant's eating habits as destructive, but the fact is they are the 'mega gardeners' of the forests and savannah. Without their ability to clear the bushes and trees, the grasses and saplings. on which many other species survive, can not get established. They are also responsible for dispersal of many seeds, dropping them kilometres away in their very own fertilser of dung.So there you go!

Anyway back to the computer and some more elephant identification.Certainly beats working for a living.

October 4th Saturday

It now looks like I will be here longer than planned. Originally, Anne & I were due to return on 17th October to France from Jo'berg. However, due to the excessively long time it has taken to establish ourselves here, (due to monumental bureaucracy issues!), Trevor, our director of operations here has asked me to stay on to keep flying until mid November, so that we can establish ourselves better here. However, Anne has to go back on time as she has work planned, and can't change those commitments. Hence, the requirement for a new page, as I am sure there will be much to add in the coming 4 to 5 weeks! So, from now on, keep checking this page as it will have the latest info.

October 2nd Thursday

Last weekend we entertained our sponsor party from Sweden, from the WWF. These are the people who made all this possible by providing the funds for the aircraft. The party included Alan, who was here on behalf of our actual donor, Roland, who was a Swedish Journalist, and Joakim a leading wildlife photographer and documentary maker. On Monday morning, I took Alan for a flight down to Jongamera camp and back again, viewing game along the river.

Our sponsor Alan from WWF and myself before flight

I have now pretty much covered most of the park, up to the north east corner, across to the western boundary and down to the south eastern corner, where there are mainly swamp lands. It was in this area where we saw two herds of cattle. The ranger said that they really shouldn't be there and sometimes poachers use herding as camouflage for their poaching activities. We reported the GPS position, so hopefully something will be done. Initially, I was doing 2 flights a day, 7 am and 1600, for two hours each. Apart from being a bit tiring, considering how hot it is here, we were also using up our flying hours at quite a rate, so now, we are doing the one flight, either morning or afternoon, for about 2 hours each.

Anne's Yacht race in Dar Es Salaam

In between Udzwunga and Iringa was a short stay in Dar es Salaam where I took in a bit of sailing. As our Field Manager Jo, had a bad back she could not join her Mother for a sail, so I was asked if I would like to try a sail. Slight problem was that, I have never sailed. “No problem”, says her mother Belia, who was built like a racing greyhound, “I will teach you”. Great I thought, a casual sail on a beautiful day, taking in the sea air and feeling at one with the universe. However, when we arrived at the yacht squadron, there seemed to be a lot of other people gathered, wearing sailing type attire. Nevertheless, I innocently donned the wet suit and other gear and followed Belia to the podium. Oh! yes”, says Belia nonchalantly, ”This will be an attempt at a Guinesss Book of Records to see which squadron in the WORLD!! - can get the most boats on the water at one time for a RACE!” Oh, thought I, no drama, I will just sit this one out. No way Jose. The Dutch Fuhrer stomped off towards the 2 man Catamaran, with me in tow like a lamb to the slaughter. Well we floated out to see and I had a thorough 10 minute lesson about port, starboard, black ropes, white ropes, the jib, the boom, oh yes the little beggar that is likely to knock you out of the boat with concussion, and so on and so forth. So now that I was totally on top of the situation -NOT -we went out to join the other 140 odd!!!! boats to race. Well the next half an hour or so, was full of me pulling on any rope I could grab, sliding on my stomach to avoid the boom, being thrown around the boat like a cork, almost killing Belia, Belia almost killing me, the cat almost capsizing, drinking a lot of salty water, Belia cussing a lot and me just hoping that I was not responsible for destroying thousands of dollars of boats that were whipping by us with a coat of paint in between. Thankfully the wind became too strong even for wonder woman and we had to retreat to the shore, having completed only one of the 3 legs of the race. The wind had great pleasure in turning a number of boats over after that, so I was pleased to be back onshore with my first, and probably my last, yacht race under my belt. The news came in shortly afterwards, that Dar es Salaam, came 9th in the world for number of boats, with 2 more than Italy…so I can now say that it was partly due to me that they achieved their position. Go Annie!! As I now sit in Ruaha National Park counting the new bruises that seemed to appear daily, I fondly remember my casual day at the sea side in Dar.

For those who are interested eg the Boaty people, the details of the race were as follows: Bart’s Bash was a global sailing race organised by the Andrew Simpson Sailing Foundation. Andrew Bart Simpson was an Olympic Gold Medallist who was killed in preparation for the World Cup Yacht race. Bart’s Bash became the new Guinness World Record for the Largest Sailing Race (24 hours). 768 venues took part globally, beating the threshold of 2,500 boats sailing in regattas. In fact, 3,600 boats, sailed over 10,000,000 metres in total.