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Friday, 12 March 2010

What's happening at Ndutu? - News Update

Ndutu Tanzania
The much anticipated rains finally arrived and in December some good thunderstorms drenched the plains and woodlands of Ndutu.

Shallow Lake Ndutu turned overnight from a white, dusty open space into a proper lake, Lake Masek took a bit longer to fill. How amazing to suddenly hear the sound of shorebirds, to see some flamingos appear out of nowhere and to have to pay attention to where to drive near a lakeshore!

Before we realised, the High season was upon us. It turned out to be an unusual busy month culminating in the middle of December with a record number of guests.

An incentive group of French visitors – having arrived at KIA Airport with a hired Boeing 747 – ‘did’ northern Tanzania in 5 days, booked the entire Lodge for one night, with overflow of their group in a tented camp set up nearby! We were asked to cater for 145 and an additional 28 drivers on the 15th both for dinner and breakfast.

The Rain God smiled on us as the day prior and after, the heavens opened but THIS one night we were spared! In the end we set up an extra dining tent next to the main building to be able to accommodate all, with two more tents for the buffets on each side of the campfire. Luckily all went well and it certainly clicked us all into gear with a vengeance!

On the 21st, we received a phone call to announce that the President of Tanzania would come to lunch on the 24th. It was a great honour to welcome His Excellency President Kikwete and his family. It proved a bit of a ‘tour the force’, as we were fully booked that night – Christmas Eve – and due to the weather the entire party of more than 40 could only arrive around four in the afternoon. But all went well and the staff was so happy and proud to welcome their President to Ndutu again after his previous visit in 2008.

Two good bouts of rain turned the dry scorched spaces green very quickly and it did not take the wildebeest long to arrive! They streamed onto the plains in great numbers and with them came the zebras, the Thomson’s gazelles, Grant’s gazelles and a host of other followers. All of a sudden, many different sounds filled the air, often out of nowhere and overnight! The so familiar call of the Didric’s cuckoo, woodland kingfishers in an duet call, and the busybody noises near the workshop, where the weavers are frantically finishing their nests and trying very noisily to lure lady weavers to their waving masterpieces.

Once the waterhole in the front filled up, we started to see small groups of elephants visiting during the day and drinking and playing in the water.

Just before Christmas, we noticed that a little calf was dragging a wire snare along and as luck had it, the same herd returned to the Lodge several days running. We managed to send a message to the resident Veterinarian in the Serengeti NP, who asked us to make sure we sent a car to stay with the family so Hamisi went out to follow the small herd until Richard and his wife Sian flew in from Seronera later in the morning. We set off with 4 cars, and found Hamisi not far from the Lodge.

Both the mother and the calf were darted and luckily the others in the group went off and hovered a small distance away. Meanwhile Richard clipped off the snare and we were relieved to see that it had not yet harmed the calf. Water was poured over the elephants to keep them cool.

Then the calf was given the antidote and was quickly on its feet and soon found the ‘auntie’ group nearby. Meanwhile mum was still on her side and she too was then given the antidote. After getting up within half an hour she had found and joined her group and was reunited with her calf!

We were all so relieved and happy to see them all return to the waterhole the next day, still relaxed and in good form. They have since come and gone several times!

December will also be remembered as the month of the Blue Moon! And clear it was too! As an absolute extra, New Year’s eve not only featured this once every 2-and a bit year phenomena, but we were also rewarded with a beautiful part-lunar eclipse on the last day of the year. What a treat out here, where the dark sky often brings so many rare experiences!

While on celestial topics, halfway into the new year on January 15th, we marvelled when we witnessed an annular partial solar eclipse. We were well prepared with bits of welding glass from the workshop and my old eclipse glasses I had kept and contrary to many other parts of East Africa, we had a long (the entire exercise spanned more than 4 hours) complete clear view of a more than three-quarter covered sun. Somehow it was an even more spectacular event after the BBC announced that the next annular eclipse was ‘scheduled’ for the year 3043!!!

During most of January, all the action seemed to be concentrated around the marsh areas. The Marsh lions are doing very well, and many a daytime meal they have had to share these past two months with scores of tourists following their every move. By now they must be one of the most photographed lion pride in the southern Serengeti.

The Marsh pride alternate in attention with the three residential Cheetah brothers, Mocca, Espresso and Latte for continuous undivided attention, and by the way: these three brothers the other day feasted on three young wildebeest which they each had killed simultaneously!
Occasionally, guests reported to have seen a serval cat prowling along the reed’s edge, which is the perfect habitat for these solitary and often elusive cats.

And while we are at the Marsh, to our surprise our most invisible ‘Ndugu Snap’, the crocodile, was seen not long ago hovering as always in the little open water pool under the viewpoint. So keep an eye open when scanning from above, as with a bit of luck, you may pick up our most elusive resident!

I reckon he sometimes watches with great interest and a chuckle how many Tour Operating vehicles with too-over-confident drivers are still mistakenly trying to negotiate the marsh crossing….. getting hugely and permanently stuck there… After the early January massive rain stint we had to spend long, exhausting hours digging, jacking-up and pulling top-heavy tour vehicles out of the sticky soda mud. It seems no amount of elaborate notes at the Lodge warning drivers has much impact at all these days!

Once the six really wet days in January were over, it was followed by a long windy, sunny spell. When the waterholes in the surrounding plains dried out, the wildebeest moved off in great numbers, massing in the woodlands.

First we had a huge Masek crossing which ended in disaster and more than 150 wildebeest drowned, their bodies lining the western shore.

This in turn attracted vast numbers of vultures and marabou storks and of course hyenas. After day two, photography was only for the not so fainthearted!
When the huge concentrations of wildebeest moved through the woodlands and passed through the Marshes it provided the keen photographers with some spectacular material, and there were several bigger and smaller Lake Ndutu crossings too.

Maybe it is good that this year the calving seems to be on time, it has started just now, but will no doubt continue through to the end of February. And hopefully not too many lake crossings will happen just when most of the calves are born which in the past has often caused great loss of young lives around the lakeshores!

Right now these are occupied by hundreds of European storks. They come to roost in a corner of the lake in the shallow water.

Take off is during early morning and late afternoons, an impressive sight. Apparently the army worms have arrived again and those provide a tasty meal for all those European travellers! Actually, the influx of all manner of insects provides a feast for many small animals on the prowl! This morning I photographed our very tame local agama lizard on the little bridge to my house with one of those nice fat fearsome black-red-spiky caterpillars that turn into silk moths. Not my idea of a snack but the lizard looked very happy with breakfast!

I have kept the most exciting news to the last!

A few days ago Wild dogs were found at Lake Masek! Seven adults were resting on the shore and what a treat to have Wild dogs back in the Ndutu area after so many years! They used to be common in this part of the Serengeti in the seventies and eighties and often denned somewhere nearby.

This pack spent most of the afternoon resting and sleeping on the sandy shore. As soon as word got out cars from every direction homed in and at some point I counted 19 cars. Not surprising, considering it is nearly 25 years since they were seen in this area!

Based at the Lodge, wildlife camera man Hugo van Lawick and his wife Jane Goodall spent a lot of time in the late seventies-early eighties with wild dogs here. They produced a famous wild dog film called Solo, and during the time they also wrote a book called Savage Paradise. In it they pointed out that dogs should not be labelled as “vermin” (they used to be shot, also in the Ngorongoro Crater), but are valuable contributors in the ecosystem, and have every right, just like hyenas and other predators, to “BE”!!!

Nevertheless, the dogs have since had a very hard time, due to diseases, poisoning, competition from other predators (hyenas and lions in particular), human intrusion and disturbances in their former habitats. They were almost extinct from the Serengeti.

Then more recently reports and sparse sightings of small packs of wild dogs and sometimes one or two individuals roaming around started to filter back. They also denned again on the short-grass plains. Although numbers are still very down let’s hope that their future here can be safeguarded enough so that these highly social and fascinating carnivores remain part of the Serengeti fauna.

Of course, the sighting of the dogs is THE HIGHLIGHT of this month!
We hope they will surprise us again with their beautifully coloured appearance, but as they appeared out of nowhere the other day, they vanished overnight, and have not been seen again since…

We wish them luck and good times roaming these teeming Serengeti woodlands and plains and above all: GOOD HUNTING!

Please visit the Ndutu website www.ndutu.com

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