Thursday, November 29, 2012

Those dirty dogs . . .

Spotted Brown Hyena
Of all the animals I thought I feared encountering, the hyena came in first. Remember all those movies where hyenas yipped at night, hunted in packs, and charged helpless explorers, their toothsome, gaping grins predicting a ferocious appetite for human flesh.

In Tanzania, more comforting local folklore suggests that witches ride the spotted hyenas at night; if a child is born while a hyena cries, that child will grow to be a thief; or, if a bit of hyena dung is wrapped in an infant's clothing, that toddler will walk faster (Wikipedia). But the truth remains: the hyena is a wily scavenger, versatile, and definitely not a picky eater. In the summer, if bush fires are common and prey difficult to find, and if people sleep outside, the spotted hyena may just snack on an unlucky human.

We spotted several hyenas in the Serengeti and Norongoro Crater, an idyllic gigantic crater so large, the animals here do not have to migrate. The rains come and grasses are plentiful.

A spotted brown hyena's fearsome grin
But those hyenas still have voracious appetites. They eat anything, and they eat all of anything, using their teeth to crush and eat even the bones. Those slivered up bones move through the stomach, the upper intestine, and the lower intestine, to give the hyena a modern complaint -- hemorrhoids.

We saw hyenas with their butts plopped in mud to ease the pain. It's rather difficult to fear an animal who suffers from hemorrhoids!

Warthogs also enjoy a mudbath now and then. That's the topic for tomorrow's post.

Solace at last!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Zebras are smarter . . .

Zebras on the Serengeti
We were lucky to be in the Serengeti just as November's short rains began for they mark the start of the Great Migration, when thousands and thousands of wildabeest and zebras head out to greener grasses. Note in the picture above that these look like brown zebras; apparently those stripes turn black as the zebra hits maturity.

I came to appreciate the mostly tranquil co-existence of an amazing diversity of life in the Serengeti. To my relief, we missed the gory crossing over the Grumeti River in April and May, where crocodiles leisurely sample from the massive herds of zebra and wildabeest. This 40 second video shows a small section of the migration in November (the noise you'll hear is the herd and comments from my fellow travellers):

Ombeni, our guide, told us that the wildabeest, grass-eating herd animals, have a limited sense of direction, and so rely on the zebras to guide them. We were amazed to see zebras acting just like herd dogs, keeping those thousands of wildabeest on track with nudges and snorts.

Read more about the Great Migration at the very informative site by Paul Gross (helpful map) or Wildwatch

Tomorrow's topic:  What do mudbaths have to do with hyenas and warthogs?

Monday, November 26, 2012

I saw a lion in a tree . . .

Today's entry will be short as I have the grandmother of all colds (pounding sinus headache, no stamina). But we were rather fortunate to see these lionesses simply perched up in a tree, taking an afternoon siesta.
Lions resting in tree, TarangireNational Park, Tanzania

You can see in this next picture how the lioness's tummy just hangs over the branch. That means no body has to worry about the lions hunting just yet. Apparently, the lions take life easy about 20 hours a day, but once the sun goes down, they become active. If a lion is hungry, males and females can hunt at any time, but the most common time to hunt is at dawn. We heard their coughs/calls (marking their territory?) in the early morning when we slept in our very comfortable tent city at Lake Burunge.

The lions we saw were in social groups, from 3 to 5 to a pride, mixed male and female, or loners (which our guides called losers), typically males who were not part of a family pride. In east Africa, according to Wikipedia, just in the last 20 years, the lion population has been cut in half by expanding human population. In Tanzania, the only sure survival of a lion is within one of the national parks which make up 30% of the country.

Still it was marvelous to see the lion taking its ease up in a tree. Tune in tomorrow to see what zebras and wildabeest have in common.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Lions and Tigers and . . .

We've all been to the zoo. Seen the lions and tigers pace back and forth, occasionally fixing their eyes on a small child. In our two week safari to the Tarangire National Park, the Serengeti National Park, and the Ngorongoro Crater, we saw lions and cheetahs and jaguars differently. Co-existing mostly peacefully in the wild, sweeping plains and grasslands, the lions near other animals -- zebras, impalas, Cape buffalo, wildabeests, and giraffes.

Up at 4:30 am for the morning game drive, we rode 4 to 6 in a jeep. We called these open air jeeps "meals on wheels" after we came around a bumpy dirt road in the Serengeti to find this lioness waiting for us. She looked us over and casually sauntered back into the waist high grasses, invisible within moments.

Curiously, all the animals seem to cohabit quite contentedly -- until the lion starts hunting. Then the herd animals get antsy, alert. They call to each other in reassuring snorts and whistles.

At a small waterhole, we spotted first a cub, then another, and another frolicking along a river bank. Their mother slept nearby, then awoke and cuffed the cubs until they followed her back into the tall grasses.

Tune in tomorrow for an answer to the question:  Do lions sleep in trees?

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Baobab Tree

Baobab Tree, Tarangire National Park, Tanzania

As we drove through the Tarangire National Park, we were spellbound by this amazing tree, the Baobab tree, also called the upside-down tree and sometimes, as you will see, the elephant tree.

These big trees dominated the landscape wherever they appeared, stretching sometimes as high as 80 feet. We learned they can live thousands of years. Just the diameter (that's across the tree, not around) can be as large as 50 feet.

This massive tree, crowned with green during the rainy season, is dubbed the "upside down tree" for during the dry season, its limbs look like giant roots. One folk tale tells that during the days of creation, the baobab tree begged to be the prettiest, largest, most fruitful tree of all the other trees. Annoyed, God threw the tree down from heaven and it landed upside down. Some believe that the "roots" of the tree link it still to the heavens and that the tree has special powers.

We came upon an elephant eating the heart of a baobab tree, for its soft wood tastes like sugar cane. This elephant paid us no attention but kept tearing and pulling the bark away, grunting softly. I was surprised to see the landscape is littered with downed trees, for elephants pull great limbs down to eat their leaves, leaving a path of destruction as they pass through the grasslands. Here is the video I took of that elephant in Tarangire.

Note: The comments you hear are of our guides talking to each other. "Sowa, sowa?" means "Are you ready to go?" in Swahili.

A Maasai told us that if you touch the Baobab tree (also called an elephant tree), you can make a wish. Once you touch the tree, one day you will return to Tanzania. We did not touch the Baobab.

NOTE: Children might enjoy The Tree of Life: The World of the African Baobab by Barbara Bash (excellent watercolor illustrations), while you can read more in the online book The Baobabs (540 pages) by Gerald E. Wickens and Pat Lowe.

Friday, November 23, 2012

We are home, still reeling from that long journey home, 46 hours in transit from Arusha in Tanzania to Spokane, a journey of some 9,000 miles -- perhaps as the crow flies.

Arusha is just about 10 hours ahead, so when it's morning here, it's evening there. My body can't quite make up its mind: Is it morning or night? Rachel says that when you make a long journey, your soul must catch up. But of all we experienced over the last three and a half weeks, so much learned and yet to learn, I hope to share some pictures and impressions here.

Africa is much more diverse than I expected; yet poverty remains an issue. People are rightfully concerned about potable water, education, and jobs. But we also saw optimism everywhere in the welcoming smiles of the people we met.

We saw a very brief slice of everyday life in Africa; our wonderful tour through OAT Overseas Adventure Travel led by the witty and knowledgeable Ombeni, did take us to home visits, a Masai family, and a school, but the main focus was experiencing the national parks. 30% of Tanzania is set aside for natural preserves or parks.

The thrill of seeing these wild animals in their natural setting is unforgettable. I have heard the cough of lions hunting at night, seen a leopard with its prey dragged up into a tree for safekeeping, watched ostriches mate, and danced with Masai women. We learned to watch the skies for rain, for this was the short-rain season, that time when the trees and grasses shimmer green on the plains and the wildebeest and zebras begin their Great Migration.

I will try to post an entry a day about some aspect of this amazing trip. For now, I begin with a video of these graceful giraffes on the Serengheti Plains.