Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Rufiji River birdlife

I always take lots of photos of birds – many of which just don’t turn out. However, Selous was great for birds as well as mammals – I saw at least 3 different types of bee-eater, we saw spoonbills, open billed storks, herons, hornbills, Egyptian geese, and lots of different raptors. At the campsite I saw woodpeckers and woodland kingfishers, and one evening I even saw an owl.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Selous Safari

For our October holiday we take advantage of being in Africa by spending time with Bill’s boys in Tanzania. Fortunately they get almost identical school holidays as us, so we are able to spend as much of the holidays as we can with them. Of course, it takes a couple of days to get there – we have to overnight in Johannesburg, as there isn’t a connecting flight through to Dar. And then, the flight isn’t until the afternoon, so we decided we’d pick up the boys the morning after we arrived rather than trying to do it the evening we flew in. Just as well as it turned out, as our flight out of Jo’burg was delayed due to a big thunder and lightning storm & we didn’t get into our hotel in Dar until quite late in the evening. However, the hotel restaurant was still open so we were able to have a curry (always a treat) before crashing. This was our first trip out of Luanda with the “new” system at the airport – the departures section is a big tent, but still a HUGE improvement on the old set-up. We were able to go into the check-in part as soon as we arrived (no more amorphous mobs trying to get through) and despite the lines being incorrectly labelled, we were able to check-in & go through customs relatively painlessly. We’d only got our passports back with our up-to-date visas about 2 weeks earlier (we’d started to get quite stressed) but some teachers weren’t so lucky – we’d supposed to have shared our bus to the airport with Joel and Mara, but Mara’s passport still hadn’t come back! So it was thrilling to suddenly see them in the departures lounge – they’d been able to pick up her passport (with visa) that morning & still make it to the airport in time for their flight! Some other teachers got their passports at the same time, but they had cancelled their flights thinking it wouldn’t happen in time! The whole visa renewal process has been a disaster this year – for the first time, some of the teachers (and administrators) who were renewing for their third (or more) year got “blue stamps” meaning they wouldn’t be renewed for the following year. But these were random – some people renewing for 5th year didn’t get them, others have just one out of a couple getting them & even one teacher just renewing for the second time got one! School is going to try to sort it out as the current situation is about 25 people who theoretically can’t come back next year!

Anyway – the boys arrived at our hotel in time for breakfast. We’d asked them what they wanted to do for the holiday – go to the beach in Zanzibar (like last year), or go on safari. Despite the numerous safaris’ they have been on (they are very lucky boys), they were adamant that’s what they wanted to do with us. They also told us they hadn’t been very impressed with the northern safaris they’d been on, so we decided to take them somewhere closer to Dar. Their mother recommended Selous as being a good park relatively close by, so after investigating a variety of places, we’d booked 3 nights at Rufiji River Camp (http://www.rufijirivercamp.com/)
– it caters for children (which a lot of places don’t) and it had the most reasonable packages (but still expensive – safari doesn’t come cheap!). We’d booked flights to get there & on our second day with the boys we headed off to the airport. The airplane that we were flying with had warned us that only small soft bags would be taken, so we left the bigger & harder bags at the hotel. The check-in was very informal & pleasant & then we were getting on our plane! It was about a 14 seater – and almost every seat was full. Bill doesn’t like such little planes, but it was exciting sitting in the same space as the pilot & we had good seats next to the windows. What I love about small planes is that you fly low – so you get great aerial views. The flight itself was about 35 minutes – long enough to be exciting without getting boring. The best part was as we got close to landing – we flew over the Rufiji River, and as we got lower, Enzo and I spotted a group of elephants getting shade under a tree & we could see heaps of hippos in the river. The airstrip was just dirt amongst the trees and as we were landing we saw a giraffe along the runway! And as we turned to taxi back to the “arrivals hut” we saw baboons casually making their way across the runway. How cool!

We were the only ones getting off at this camp – the others were flying onto to another place. We were met by a very friendly man from the camp, and the arrival formalities only took about 15 minutes. Then we were loaded into a jeep and as we were driven to our accommodation we saw impalas, a ground hornbill, a glossy ibis – not bad for just a 5 minute trip!

At the resort we checked in, shown around the place and taken to our “tents”. It was obvious that we would need to have a child each in each tent as hippos walked around the grounds at night, as well as the occasional elephant. We couldn’t risk the boys sleeping by themselves & forgetting that it was dangerous to go outside. As it was, to go to dinner at night, we needed to signal to one of the Maasai guards to come & get us to escort us from our tents to dinner and back again!

The resort was all inclusive – the cost included 2 safaris’ a day as well as all our meals. The people running the place were fantastic – we’d let them know that Bill & I were vegetarians so they made separate food for us for each meal, and they asked us every day what the boys wanted to eat for dinner, and made special meals for them as well. They also let us eat slightly earlier at night as their regular time for dinner was just a bit late for the boys after a full day.

Our first “safari” was a boat trip the afternoon we arrived – the resort is built on a narrow projection of land out into the river, so it was essentially surrounded by water except at the “back” of the resort. Our tents were right on the edge of a cliff (just a bit scary) overlooking the river and the hippos basking in it. The boat trip was a couple of hours – we went past lots of hippos and over 20 crocodiles – they were all out basking in the late afternoon sun. We saw waterbuck and buffalo on the banks at the side of the river, as well as lots of wading birds. On our way back we saw a lone bull elephant right by the cliff edge – a very exciting end to our trip.

The next day we met our driver and our tracker/guide Oscar who would be with us for the rest of our time. The guys were great with the boys – especially Oscar who made a real point of talking to them directly and taught them so much about what we were seeing. The boys had a short wish list (they had already seen so much) – they wanted to see wild dogs (they hadn’t seen any before & Selous is famous for having half of all the wild dogs in Africa) and also a leopard (which they had seen before, but not up close). We were in a jeep to ourselves & within half an hour we’d seen our first wild dogs and a herd of elephants crossing the road in front of us! It was a great day – a bit later we were along the river’s edge and happened to be in time to see the same herd of elephants we’d seen earlier come down to the river to drink & meet up with another herd of elephants. We were able to get out of our jeep & go down to the water’s edge to see them cross the water & then push each other up the bank on the far side. We saw lots of birds – raptors & lots of different types of bee-eaters as well as water birds. On the afternoon game drive after lunch we found a hippo skull & Oscar very kindly helped the boys remove the gigantic tusks still in place. He said the boys could keep them – they got a long & short tusk each – definitely one of the trip’s highlights for the boys!

The campsite had lots of birds as well – more bee-eaters, kingfishers, hornbills and smaller birds such as weavers. There was also a troop of vervet monkeys that walked though the grounds in the afternoon & again first thing in the morning. They had lots of females with young monkeys and the second morning when Lucca & I tried to walk to Bill’s tent next door, we were attacked by some very aggressive males as we came out of our tent. I managed to scare them away & get Lucca safely into Bill’s tent without either of us being bitten but it scared us both - & I think we must have scared them when we came out of our tent just while they were passing by a bit close.

The second full day we choose to take a picnic lunch & drive out a bit further. This paid off, as we came across a leopard in a tree. We parked right under the tree – we could see the leopard panting we were so close. We’d only been there a few minutes when the leopard suddenly got up & ran down the tree & walked around between it & our jeep – we were so close that it was a bit scary – we were in an open jeep with two little boys & that leopard sure was big and powerful! It just ignored us however, & soon moved off. We followed it for a bit & then lost it – you’d think it would be impossible to “lose” a big cat you knew was close by, but their camouflage is so effective that even experienced trackers like Oscar couldn’t find it again. We gave up on the leopard & not very much later found a group of lions – one male & several lionesses sleeping under a palm tree. Once again we able to get very close – the lion watched us for a bit but then just put his head down – the lionesses never looked up once! As if a leopard & a group of lions wasn’t enough, we then found a big group of wild dogs & watched them for a while. Like the lions, they were mostly lying in the shade resting – a whole mob of them. We also saw a monitor lizard, which Lucca enjoyed (& me – monitors are a favourite of mine). As well as lots of zebra, wildebeest, giraffes and impala, we also saw lots of kudu – which the boys also hadn’t seen before. We saw a black heron using its wings as an umbrella so it could see the fish against the glare – something I’d only seen on TV, so that was another treat for me too. Our picnic was wonderful – a table & chairs complete with tablecloth, glasses for our drinks & lots of tasty food. We’d had such a good day. We came back to camp after lunch & the boys swam in the pool (despite its rather cold temperature).

Our last day we choose to take an early safari - & we saw lots of waterbuck – a rather unfortunate animal with a big white bull’s eye that seems to be painted on its bottom! We also saw an immature bateleur (a type of raptor) playing with what I think was a piece of twig. We saw a spotted hyena – it literally came out of a ditch right in front of us, and more giraffes than you’d think possible. Our flight back to Dar had been delayed until after lunch – mainly so the pilot could have lunch at our resort! We were driven out to the airstrip ( with the pilot) after lunch & much to our amazement, we were shown to a tiny 6-seater plane – the boys had to flip a coin to see who was going to sit in the co-pilot’s seat! Enzo won & sat in the front, Bill & I were behind & Lucca had the back seat to himself – a bit like the back seat of a car. The 35 minute trip went really fast – the pilot even let Enzo steer the plane for a bit!

We had another full day with the boys – Bill went with them to the beach to have some time with them alone while I did some (mostly window) shopping in a tourist complex. Our holiday was over in what seemed like no time at all, but when we stopped & thought back on all we’d seen and done, it also seemed impossible that had been so short!

Bill & I had an early flight back to Jo’burg & once again needed to overnight before we could fly back to Luanda. We stayed in a hotel close to a shopping mall & bought a heap of food & other stuff (lots of cheese) to take back with us. The flight back was uneventful but as always we had a very long wait at immigration & then still had to wait longer for our bags (how they can take 3 hours to unload one planes luggage is more than I can understand). However, the bags did show up (always a relief after losing our bags at Christmas) & we were back home again in good time. We’d had a wonderful holiday with the boys that everyone had enjoyed – you couldn’t ask for more!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Mussulu, Finally

We were invited to have a picnic on Mussulu by Kim and Tomi & as we’d never actually been there, eagerly accepted. We’d read and heard about Mussulu long before we’d first arrived – how teachers would get a boat across to the beach & spend the day away from school. It had sounded idyllic. But once we arrived, we’d been tempted by beaches much further afield and had never got around to checking Mussulu out. Mussulu is a very long sand-spit connected to the main coast a bit south of the slavery museum, but by a very bad road. Most people take boats across. It is very long and runs north parallel to the coast for about 30 – 40 kms. The Ilha in the city is similar, just much shorter.

It is very easy to get to from Luanda Sol, as one of the main “ferry” departure points is less than 15 minutes from school. (The other main place to get boats across to Mussulu is by the slavery museum). Kim and family arrived with Bora and Tina and Tari’s family as well. Also there were some other friends of Tomi and Tari who were coming too. Eventually everyone arrived with all the barbeques and chilly bins (cool boxes) and drinks etc. We needed 2 boats to get us & our gear across – but fortunately, once we landed we only had to carry stuff a few minutes up the beach into the shade.

We set up our “stake” and the guys got the barbeques up & lit. There was a “fish” barbeque and a “vegetarian” barbeque as well. The kids got coated in sunscreen & then they hit the beach. The section of Mussulu that we were on was quite narrow – we headed away from the city side to the other side which was actually facing a lagoon – just a few minutes walk. Unfortunately there was a lot of broken glass lying around in the sand & you had to be very careful where you walked. But the sea was very gentle and ideal for the kids to play in – even Sami.

Bill & I walked around the edge of the lagoon towards a large flock of sea birds. We couldn’t get very close to them without walking a long way around, so we contented ourselves with standing on the beach opposite them, taking photos as they spooked themselves into the air occasionally. There were egrets, herons, sea gulls and lots of smaller sea birds as well. Each species seemed to have their own piece of territory along the stretch of beach they were sitting on.

The barbeque was great – a local man came along & insisted on helping with the barbeque – we rewarded him with a big plate of cooked fish and salad for him & his friends. The kids had a great time & it was relaxing for the adults as well. After lunch Bill & I walked in the opposite direction – away from the lagoon & to a wider stretch of sand where more birds were nesting. The view of the city in the immediate background made the beach scene a bit surreal.

At the time we’d asked, one boat showed up to take us back – we caught that along with some of the other friends who’d come along & before we knew it we were back in our apartment. Although the beach was by far the dirtiest we’d been to, the sheer convenience of getting there & home again was a big factor in its favour. The nicest part really was the getting together with friends and having such a nice day!