The Safari Advisor

 

Kwintessential Kwihala:  A Gem in Rugged Ruaha   

 

by Steve Brynes

 
“Go West,”American journalist Horace Greeley famously advised young men looking for personal success in mid-nineteenth century America. Lounging at the airport in Arusha, I mused that the same advice appeared to be in play for the majority of visitors to Tanzania as they waited to fly west to such iconic places as Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti in pursuit of safari success.
 
I’m not a young man, but my faculties are still reasonably intact, so I instead headed south to Ruaha, a park known for its large elephant and buffalo herds, as well as its lion prides that can include twenty-plus members.  This course was set after much research, including extensive reading and speaking with those in the know, all of which presaged a world-class safari without that major distraction of the northern venues…..people.  And in much the same way, I decided on Kwihala, a camp located near the Mwagusi River, an area renowned for its outstanding game viewing, as my base for a 7-day stay in October 2012.
 
After being led from Coastal Aviation’s terminal to the waiting aircraft, I was delighted to see not one of the usual Cessna work-horse planes that buzz visitors through African skies, but the sleek, 9-passenger Pilatus PC12.  With a higher service ceiling and cruise speed than the Cessnas, the Pilatus made the trip to Ruaha comfortable, quick and smooth.
 
Upon deplaning at Ruaha’s Msembe airstrip, I was met by Johannes and Nicolas for my road transfer to Kwihala.  After a brief stop at the park HQ for paperwork, we set off across the rugged Ruaha landscape, made all the more austere by the lingering dry season.  Grass and brush were sere and yellow, and leafless Baobab trees stood out in sharp relief. In the distance, bolts of sunlight shot through some late afternoon clouds, which held only the promise of rain, imparting an almost biblical aura to the scene.
 
   
 
The car ride from airstrip to camp takes 45 minutes, but rather than taking a direct route, Johannes conducted a brief game drive.  Ruaha is known for its lions, which often will hunt larger animals, and soon we came upon a pride that was lazing around a downed giraffe.  From the condition of the body, it looked as if the giraffe had been taken earlier in the day.  It was a classic scene of Africa:  sated lions with bulging bellies drowsing in the afternoon heat, a black-backed jackal standing about 15-20 feet away, waiting for an opportunity to sneak in for a taste, and an occasional low growl from the lions advising the jackal to mind its manners.
 
   
 
But the scene was not entirely grim.  As I snapped away with my camera, I could hear Nicolas softly bantering with Johannes and then some restrained laughter.  I asked, “Why are you guys laughing?”
 
“Johannes is looking everywhere, checking to see if Grumpy is nearby,” Nicolas replied.
 
“Grumpy?”
 
“Yes, this pride has two large males, Grumpy and his sibling, whom we call Brother. Johannes once got too close while Grumpy was mating and he made a menacing move to the car.  Since that time Johannes does not want to be near him.”
 
“I hate that lion,” Johannes sheepishly intoned as he squirmed in his seat.
 
Johannes’ experience is not unique.  Pietro Luraschi, one of Kwihala’s Rotating Field Guides, gave this account of his encounter with Grumpy:
 
“Some lions you will never forget.  We heard roaring…, so we drove straight down and we found a female with three cubs on the bank and a big male [Grumpy] with another female close by the road.  Probably at the beginning of a mating session.
 
“We approached the two and as we were still more than 15 meters far the male stood up, his face full of blood from several wounds on his face, the worst just below the left eye, that was swollen and completely closed. The big boy did not think twice and as we were still moving charged me
straight, I immediately stopped the car and shouted at him but he kept coming....it was a mighty vision, a lion growling and running towards  me, the teeth bared, one eye wide open and the other dripping blood. I started banging the car's door with my hand and he stopped, less than
two meters from the car. It kept looking at me, I was talking him off, he went on snarling for a good ten seconds before our vocal session was over and he went back. MAN-O-MAN, it was scary.”  (See August 6, www.adventurecampstz.com/kwihalagamediariesaugust2011.htm)
 
With sunset approaching, we headed to camp.  On arrival I passed through the mess tent, the social heart of the camp, and, with just one look, knew Kwihala was in-your-face Africa.  With only six well-spaced tents and no other camps nearby, Kwihala immediately promised exclusiveness and intimacy, both with other guests and the surrounding wilderness.  There were no signs of concrete pads or raised wooden decks for the tents to rest on, so the footprint was very light and the impact on the natural fauna and flora minimized.
 
Kwihala is defined by simple excellence, its straightforward nature its beauty. Tents are furnished in an understated manner, but clean, spacious and comfortable (including the beds!), with an ensuite bathroom with flush toilet and shower. The shower is the bucket type, with cool water during the day and hot water at night (though the camp will arrange for hot water at any time if you request it).  Free laundry service was available and, at least in my experience, if I left clothes in the hamper in the early a.m. they were dropped off clean and pressed at day’s end.  Though public areas at night will be lit mostly by camp fire and lanterns, the tents have electricity, a bonus to those of us who are forever recharging spent camera batteries.
 
However, it’s wildlife that most focus on when they come to Africa, and Kwihala didn’t disappoint, even in the camp.  Each night lions could be heard roaring in the distance while a couple of nights hyena and jackals hair-raisingly cried out much closer (actually in the camp, I was told), making for much animated discussion among the visitors in the morning.  A couple with whom I shared a car and who had grown up in Tanzania (and were therefore capable of tracking) told me they found leopard tracks outside their tent one morning.
 
Kwihala rightly prides itself on its high standard of guiding.  My guide for most game viewing rides, Marc Weiner, drawing from extensive experience as a professional guide in Southern and East Africa, resembled an animal Wikipedia. I probably picked up more bits of information on animal behavior than on any other safari I’ve made over the last ten years.
 
During the dry season rivers such as the Great Ruaha and Mwagusi are the main sources of water and animals (and, naturally, safari vehicles) are drawn to them.  Mwagusi is a sand river that carries water only during the rainy season; during the dry season, even though the river bed is dry, water flows just beneath the surface.  For lovers of elephants, spending time at the Mwagusi pays bountiful dividends as the elephants can be observed using their front feet or their trunks to drill for the water.  If they’ve done an extra good job, their digging can result in some pooling of water which the elephants will use to mud themselves to get relief from the fierce sun and insects.  The elephants even find the exposed boulders along the river bed or river banks useful:  if one had an itch on rump, flanks or chin the boulders serve as convenient scratching posts.
 
   
 
Besides elephants, Ruaha is home to cheetah, leopard, wild dog, hyena, giraffe, hippo, crocodile, impala, jackal, bat-eared fox, zebra and a host of antelope including Grant’s gazelle, impala, dik dik, eland, kudu (lesser and greater), sable and roan.  With more than 571 species of birds, some migrating from Europe, Asia, the Australian rim or Madagascar, the park is also a birder’s paradise.  Though birds can, of course, be seen all the year round, the best time for bird watching is during the wet season.  But in the doldrums of the dry season I came away with several photographic firsts including the pink-lidded Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl, African Hawk-Eagle, Long-creasted Eagle, Nubian Woodpecker, Yellow-collared Lovebird and the endemic Ruaha Hornbill.
 
              
 
But it is lions that provide high drama on game drives in Ruaha, especially their interactions with buffalo, and my last day was adrenaline packed.  About mid-morning we came across a pride of 11 lions lazing on a flat expanse dotted with Baobab trees. To my untrained eye it appeared to be just another encounter with resting lions conserving their energy as the day heated up, a typical and oft-witnessed portrait of leonine inactivity.
 
But Marc said, “Something’s up.  They seem to be focusing on something in the distance.  Look at the ear movements on this lion.  She’s communicating with the others.” 
 
We searched the landscape, but if there were prey out there we couldn’t see them.  Marc suggested, “Let’s stay with them, perhaps we’re in for a hunt.”
 
Sure enough, within five minutes one lion rose and began to move in the direction they had been focusing on. A second lion quickly joined the first and they strode off shoulder to shoulder; in turn the other members of the pride rose and followed, discretely tailed by our vehicle.
 
   
 
After about a quarter mile, we were able to see what the lions had remarkably sensed:  the flat expanse fell off into a shallow valley and on the opposite hill giraffe and zebra were grazing. Watching the lions now was a lesson in their hunting strategies.  Several of the lions found Baobab trees and either crouched or stood next to them, effectively obscuring themselves.  Others found some brush and lay down.  A single lion then moved off to the left and headed through the heavy bush.  It appeared that this lion might try to use the flank to come around the still unsuspecting prey and drive them toward the rest of the pride for an ambush.
 
   
 
We sat very still, wondering if that one lion would succeed.  Suddenly, from that same flank we heard the raucous squawking of guinea fowl that were raising the alarm.  We peered across the valley and saw the zebra and giraffe begin to vacate the hill.  The game was up.  Only 30% of lion hunts are successful but witnessing one of the other 70% proved to be an extraordinary lesson.
                
Shortly after beginning our afternoon drive, we found ourselves once again overlooking the dry bed of the Mwagusi River.  As we scoured the vista in front of us, we heard a high pitched yowl that had me and my car mates looking at each other questioningly.  Marc immediately said, “That’s a buffalo, hold tight.”
 
We shortly came upon a bull buffalo that was under attack by a pride of nine lions in some heavy bush.  The lions had already cut tendons in the buffalo’s rear legs and, struggle as he might, and though he could get his front legs under him, the buffalo could not stand.  The lions repeatedly launched themselves at the soft rear undersides of the buffalo, which bellowed with fear and pain.  The lions steered clear of the bull’s horns, which despite the buffalo’s weakening state, remained formidable and dangerous weapons.  The assault continued for approximately 45 minutes. Finally, as the bull’s strength ebbed away, a lion clamped its jaws over the mouth of the buffalo, and, holding for what seemed an eternity, applied the coup de grace and suffocated the bull.
 
 
There are sights and sounds of safaris that etch their way into our memory banks, able to be recalled in an instant.  Lying in bed I often recollect the pleasant trill of frogs during a warm Botswana night or the munching of a hippo just outside my tent; sometimes I picture that cheetah in Kenya gracefully flying through the air as it crossed a stream.  But the awful and haunting sounds of this poor buffalo being taken will stick with me too, a reminder of the harsh reality of life for some animals in the African wilderness.
 
As those in the know had predicted, Ruaha indeed proved to be a world-class safari destination and I find myself reflecting on its vastness and remoteness, its abundance and variety of birds, animals, and plants.  Some say, “You’ve got to be lucky to be good,” but I prefer “You’ve got to be good to be lucky.”  The combination of a remarkable park like Ruaha with a camp committed to guiding excellence defines the recipe for safari success.  And, I beg the reader’s indulgence for taking liberties with the spelling of quintessential in this article’s title.  But look it up and you‘ll find quintessential defined as “pertaining to the most perfect embodiment of something.” Spend a few days on safari in Ruaha at Kwihala and it’s likely you’ll conclude swapping ‘qu’ for ‘kw’ makes perfect sense.
 
               
 
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