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July 5, 2013 / samwilson60

Happier than pigs in shit

From our baobabs south of Dodoma we made a beeline for Iringa and our favourite café in Tanzania. We knew the internet was probably still down (our only real excuse for going there), but they had been lovely on our first visit and they sold the second best scotch eggs Sam’s ever tasted so we really had no choice but to pop by.

We ate well, got no internet access and stocked up as best we could before heading back to the riverside campsite we’d stayed at on our way north. The firewood still left a lot to be desired but it was at least plentiful. More importantly, from here we knew we could get to the outskirts of Ruaha National Park, via our not-so-beloved post office/internet café in town.

The track from Iringa to Ruaha is long but starts out promisingly. Just as it was starting to deteriorate into one long corrugation we turned off into a campsite we’d had recommended to us. They were in the midst of a two-day convention (apparently, we later learned, a meeting of village chiefs to discuss elephant poaching) so we were pretty much left to our own devices, until the staff of a small NGO based at the campsite took us under their wing. Their focus is also on elephant poaching and their tactics refreshing. They help set up bee fences in the surrounding villages (it having been recently discovered that elephants are scared of bees) but they also take groups of locals into the park (when the car’s running that is). As a result, they know the park pretty well and gave us a tonne of helpful tips about routes to take, places to stay and things to look out for. We had a really fun evening around the fire, plotting a scheme to help them out and finish our Africa loop, then a really frustrating morning killing time before entering the park. Because of the park fee system it made no sense to go in before lunchtime but by about 11 we were packed up and itching to go. Good job too because it took a lifetime to drive the last stretch to the gate. We thought we’d seen corrugations before but these nearly had us both in tears and/or in the ditch.

Wow was it worth it though! Just getting into the park proper we could see we would like it here. The main feature was the Great Ruaha River, a beautiful, hippo-filled stretch of water, but the surrounding hills were so appealing too that we wouldn’t have known where to start if it hadn’t been for our bee-fencing friends.

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We followed the river round to the campsite we’d be staying at to check it out and check in. We’d been told to stay in the bandas, which are inexplicably cheaper, but they were full so the campsite it was. Initially we were outraged at the price tag but we soon forgot about the money once we’d seen the place. We bagged the prime spot for the tent, cooed at the hippos over a cuppa, then dashed off out again to see what else we could see. This basically amounted to more hippos, a tonne of quite stroppy elephants, more giraffe than ever before and some fun birds, as always.

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The now familiar fish eagle

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An oh-so-stylish crested eagle

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Saddle-billed stork

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Lilac-breasted roller

Oh, and quite a lot of ex-buffalo – gruesome but surely a good sign! To be fair, we really didn’t do too badly for a first afternoon. On our way back to camp we also stumbled across a pair of adorable jackals.

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Back at camp we’d been joined by a couple of other overlanding Europeans, but they were respectfully camped at the far end and quite fun company when we wanted it. For the most part, though, we huddled round our little fire listening out for big cats. All we heard were the hippos, and the army of baboons who blasted through the middle of the campsite. We were slightly bemused by the complete lack of staff or guardians but, Sam’s close encounter with a pair of hippos aside, were perfectly happy fending for ourselves. Our permit said we were allowed back out at 6am but though the sun didn’t rise until gone half past, so we split the difference and were at a nearby picnic spot just as the sky was getting colourful. We had just enough time to pour ourselves a cuppa before hearing some ominous roars. They were coming from back towards the campsite but were clearly not far away so we jumped back into the car with our cups and drove a few metres back to another viewpoint on the bank of the river. Within minutes, if that, we could see where all the noise was coming from. A big male lion was walking straight towards us.

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He walked bold as brass up to the truck, looked us up and down, then sauntered off behind us. As soon as we lost sight of him, we saw another, and this one had a lady in tow. They took exactly the same approach and came just as close to us, but unlike the first decided we looked like quite nice company. She lay down in front, a metre or so from the driver’s window, and he behind. Completely alone and completely hemmed in, shock and awe are the only words to describe our emotions, and that’s before they started roaring!

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Beauty’s in the eye of the beholder

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Even the first male, now at more of a distance but not much, joined in the chorus. Our couple were so close we could see their breath in the cold morning air and we could feel the roars cutting right to the core. It’s so hard to describe but will never, ever be forgotten. The lioness was actually the most vocal but her companion the most photogenic 🙂

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Eventually, Cat wigged out. We were parked in such a way that to go forwards would mean falling off the bank and to go back running over a large lion. Before we could do either we had to turn the engine back on and if you’re not supposed to beep your horn around wild animals, what do they do when you make twice as much of an unexpected noise starting up? With hindsight, without lions roaring alongside us, we can both say they’re used to people and engines, neither of which are particularly mouth-watering even when you are a hungry lion (and these two obviously had other things than food on their minds). But at the time it was a little overwhelming. Once we’d successfully extracted ourselves from their little gathering, even Cat could have stuck around, but we had cheetahs to find so left the lions in peace.

As it grew lighter and hotter we were almost kicking ourselves for leaving our lion friends. The birds were still awesome and provided lots to speculate about (novice identifiers that we are) but we were after cheetahs and finding none. Frustrating as this was, we soon agreed the scenery alone was value for money. As always when we stop whinging, we are rewarded. These lions were a little further away and much less vocal but absolutely adorable in their own right.

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From here we were minutes away from the confluence, where a now dry river meets the main one. It was a magical spot and an awesome drive from there across the dry river into the cheetah-friendly plains on the other side.

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There were no cheetahs here either and our 24-hour permit was rapidly running out. Without much discussion we decided to drag our heels just enough to force us to extend. We both knew we couldn’t give up that quickly. So instead of heading back to the gate we swung by the park HQ to get the all clear to continue and to book into the bandas for our second night (saving a fairly insignificant sum in reality but making us feel better about our extravagance), only to then remember we had no food. We wasted another hour or so of the hottest part of the day checking into the bandas and seeking out a restaurant of sorts that provided us with shade and meat, then continued our independent exploration of the park. We had previously agreed that if we had no luck by ourselves and wanted to keep trying we’d be better off paying a bit extra for some assistance but after our earlier lion encounters, and having met no guides that had seen any cats at all that day, we were starting to get a bit cockier about our skill/beginners’ luck and agreed we’d have more fun on our own.

The rest of the day was pretty uneventful, although we did see our first dik-diks (cutest buck to date) and we had a great cruise around the depths of the park.

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The views from this side were awesome but the biting flies were the dominant feature so we turned back feeling a bit hot and bothered. It was getting later and would soon be getting cooler, increasing our chances with the cheetahs, but we were running out of ideas and less confident in our cat-spotting skills, so you can imagine our amazement when Sam spied a spotted bum disappearing behind a hedge.

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Actually we both saw the whole thing but we were so thrown by it this was the only photo we got. For a split second we thought it was a cheetah but knew deep down it wasn’t. The following day, when we were showing our photos to our bee-fencing friends back at Chogela camp, they identified it instantly (and surprisingly easily) as a serval. They also told us this was a much rarer sight than a cheetah, making us feel quite smug 🙂

Once we’d got over the excitement of the spotted bum and kicked ourselves for not photographing first and puzzling later, we realised it was nearly dark and we were supposed to be back at the bandas. We made it back on time in the end but didn’t think much of being a few minutes late, given the complete lack of supervision at the campsite. As it happens, we were greeted by multiple members of staff and an armed guard. We thought this was a little overkill until a family of elephants, complete with baby, ploughed straight through where we’d have been sitting if our guard hadn’t forced us to move. We also spotted a lion’s bum disappearing into the hedge on our way to bed so were a little less complacent the next morning. We wanted to be out at first light again but this meant getting up in the dark, and our trusty guard was nowhere to be seen. Still, we both made it across to the car without getting trampled by any elephants (a closer call than Cat realised at the time) and were ready to resume the safari by 6am again.

First stop was, of course, where we’d been joined by the lion couple the previous morning but this time there really were just hippos so we carried on in search of somewhere more cheetah-friendly.

On our way we spied yet another male lion in the tall grass. We almost dismissed him as a termite mound but he gave us just enough of a nod to confirm his existence.

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And minutes after that we found a pair of bat-eared foxes (also identified as such by our bee-fencers), lounging by the side of the track. Apparently as rare a sight as the serval!

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After that we spent the morning dodging elephant herds and spotting as many kudu, waterbuck and dik-dik as we could, plus possibly our first sunbathing crocodile. We carried on along the river on the other side of the exit, dragging out our time as best we could but without any real hopes of any more cats. So we really did a double-take when we spied this one wandering up alongside us…

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He seemed so content walking along with us it felt almost rude to leave but our time was up. There’d been little doubt at any point but certainly none now, wherever the cheetahs were hiding, we’d had an amazing 48 hours in Ruaha and were happier than any pig in shit could hope for.

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One Comment

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  1. Peter Cullen / Jul 5 2013 7:56 am

    What an experience and what great images. Also I love the phrase “but this time there really were just hippos so we carried on”. Sorry about the cheetah.

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