Out There Stories

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Table of Contents:

Story 1: BBC Pride vs Clan – strategies of intent (not more than a 12 minute read)

Story 2: Who’s viewing who? (not more than a 9 minute read)

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Story 1: BBC Pride vs Clan – strategies of intent (12 minute read)

This is a fascinating story involving two very different strategies. A pride versus a clan. Killers vs scavengers. And throw in a mischievous young elephant bull, just for a little diversion and see who will adapt and win in the end?

This is a story spanning about 4 days which started on our second night at the beautiful Mucheni 3 campsite in Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe. Mucheni 3 is probably my favourite campsite of all, being quite remote and unfenced, next to the great Zambezi River and a breathtaking landscape surrounding the campsite. You are fully exposed to the animals in the park, which makes it very interesting and exciting.

The first night in a campsite usually involves getting dinner done early after having spent much of the day unpacking, setting up camp and sorting things out after a long day of driving.  And then it’s a chat around the campfire, planning the next day’s activities, and then early to bed for a well-earned sleep.

The next morning we were up early and excited with anticipation. Water in the kettle, boiled on the fire, coffee in the mugs, and off we go on our game drive. After the morning’s drive, its back to camp, chill, go through your photos, make lunch and prepare for the afternoon game drive. This is the usual daily routine. In the afternoon, we chose to drive along a route which was downstream from our campsite and along the way we saw a magnificent eland antelope on its own, well, not quite, it was accompanied by a small herd of impala.

The eland is Africa’s largest antelope and its beauty is often overlooked. It is a shy animal and so they are not as ubiquitous as the smaller impala standing nearby.  These large creatures are also surprisingly agile, despite their size. A healthy, fully-grown male could weigh around 850 kgs.

Upon return from the game drive and just before dark, while we were preparing for our second night’s dinner, we all remarked at the beauty and size of the majestic creature. It could hardly be ignored. 

We continued going about our various chores and duties and the campsite was a hive of happy and peaceful activity. 3 families going about their business of showering, preparing the fire for our braai (bar-b-que) all before the light fades away completely. And then, without even really noticing, darkness surrounded us. As it turns out on this evening, this was not the only thing that surrounded us.

Mucheni 3 campsite, it situated right next to Africa’s 4th largest river, the great Zambezi. The campsite sits quite high up on the riverbank which provides a sense of safety from the resident hippos and crocodiles that are ever-present, day and night. If you didn’t know, the hippos feed at night and they spend time wallowing in the water during the day. They are quite nervy creatures despite their size, particularly when out of the water, and they can move at some speed when needed, faster than a human can run. They are responsible for the highest number of human deaths by a mammal on this vast continent. So, it goes without saying that they are not to be treated in any way with contempt. 

Tell that to a lion, especially when it is hungry. Back to the goings-on at our campsite and all of a sudden from the darkness upstream, we hear this huge commotion. A snarling lion followed almost immediately by a sound resembling a ship being launched into the water, which turned out to be a hippo dashing into the water at high speed, which our numerous torch lights revealed. On the bank of the river was a lioness standing at the water’s edge, tail flicking, showing us a clear sign that this animal was agitated and probably a little upset at losing its rather abundant dinner.

Now this activity was no further than about 200 metres from our campsite, so of course, we were all instantly filled with adrenalin, and needless to say that everyone around our campsite had eyes the size of saucers. So, we then started shining our torches into the darkness all around our campsite. And then, in the darkness, we saw numerous eyes reflecting back at us like city lights, it was the rest of a sizeable pride right behind our campsite. No wonder the lioness tried her luck on a hippo, there were clearly a lot of mouths to feed. So, without panicking, we needed to practice safety-first.

Now, wheeling around the campsite, was my elder brother, in his wheelchair. One of the more stubborn people I know, and certainly, more often than not, resistant to advice from his younger sibling, yet on this particular occasion, he was surprisingly compliant. Since he was close to where his car was parked, I suggested that he climb into his car and switch on his headlights, so that we could get a better view of what was around us, and also, it would place him in a position of safety too.

In fact, we all decided to climb into our vehicles and switch on lights so that we could see what was going on. But by the time we had all done this, the pride had wandered off past our campsite into the darkness. It was very evident that they were on the hunt, and that fortunately we weren’t on the menu.

Needless to say, this experience was etched in all of our minds forever and the excitement and the liveliness around the campfire that evening was tangible. It really was an exciting and uncommon experience, but it was only the start of what was to unfold over the next few days.

We all agreed before going to bed that night, that the next morning’s game drive would follow the route of the lions which were heading downstream. Lions can cover quite a distance when they are on the hunt, so, truth be told, we would be really lucky to find a kill the next morning, if indeed, their hunt was a success. Lions have a hunt success rate of about 25% so it is not guaranteed that they would have full stomachs the next morning. Although, on this particular night, it was a new moon and the pride was fairly large, so the darkness and numbers of pride members was likely to increase their chances somewhat.

These assumption proved to be correct and our strategy paid off, because on our drive the next morning, about 5 kilometres along the road the majestic eland had met its fate. It was too much of a coincidence. The previous afternoon, we saw the eland about a kilometre from this site and with the lions walking past our camp the previous evening, heading in that direction, everything seemed to have aligned. 

In typical lion fashion, we saw them on their backs with extended tummies, and the parts of what was clearly that magnificent eland. Whilst the kill site was fairly close to the road, abut 40 metres or so, the bush was reasonably thick and did not allow for a clear view. Clear enough though to see the kill. Lions gorge themselves, sometimes able to eat as much as 30kgs in a sitting, and a meal like this will sustain them for a few days and they will protect a large carcass for days until it is basically skin and bone.

For the next few days, this became our regular route. We were extremely lucky to have had the luck of a lion kill within close proximity of our camp and close to the road.

As each day passed, so too did the population of scavengers increase in numbers in the vicinity of the kill. First the vultures, then the marabou storks and then the arch-enemy of the lion, the hyenas. Surprisingly, no jackals. One on one, a hyena is no match for a lion, but they are cunning creatures, and this is the time when strategy becomes evident.

Lions and Hyenas are both predators (and both scavengers too sometimes) and compete for the same food. As a consequence, they will not tolerate each other, especially when either of the species has made a kill. And so, as we arrived at this site on this fourth morning, we could see, about 400 m from the kill site, a few hyenas were making their way tentatively, towards the kill, where the lions were located.

Possession is nine tenths of the law and at this point, the lions had the advantage, albeit that the carcass, by this stage, was little more than skin and bone. The lions had eaten pretty much all the flesh. But instinct informs them to hold on to what they have until they can hold on no more. And so, the battle for possession began.

This pride of lions included some young cubs. We were lucky enough to see them drinking one morning. But the days before this, they were away from view. So, this was a pleasant surprise. But the cubs formed a key part of the activity that ensued around the fourth morning. And we got there in time to witness this event and watched the various strategies unfold.

There was no dominant male at this kill site. He was either out marking his vast territory and did not get there in time, or this pride did not have a large male as a leader. There were the cubs, the lionesses which are the core of the pride, and two young males, who were the size of their female counterparts and almost certainly their mothers. The beginning growth stages of their manes were visible but certainly nothing to boast about. And these males can be full of aggression, but when push comes to shove, they are not quite as bold and brave as their mothers or fathers, their confidence still to develop, but they nonetheless have a role to play in the protection of the pride and certainly will not tolerate any pesky hyena. This becomes clear in a short while. 

In the meantime, the hyenas start to move closer and closer to the pride and the prize. And as they start to scurry and dance around the kill site, the numbers in the group starts to increase, and with it, their collective courage, and so, the typical laughing or cackling sounds of the hyenas begin to echo around the bush as they make their move towards the kill.

All the while, there are occasional burst of flight from vultures and marabou stork in close proximity, which, to the hyenas in particular, are unwelcome participants at this gathering. But the writing is on the wall for the lions, and they know it. Soon they will be outnumbered and if they do not put their exit strategy into swift action, their cubs will be in serious danger. Hyenas will kill a cub given the chance, without a moment’s hesitation.  And so, the pride’s exit strategy began to unfold in front of us, as the hyena’s take-over strategy kicked in at the same time.

Hyena’s will use the strategy to divide and conquer, by creating pandemonium and chaos. Lions on the other hand used a defensive strategy based on a clear plan and a calm execution of the plan, each member of the pride knowing exactly their role in the process. 

The lions knew that they were becoming increasingly outnumbered. They needed to get the pride and specifically the cubs, out of the area and to a place of safety. So, it was the role of the females to find the route of least resistance from the advancing hyenas and to guide the cubs through the thickest bush, for cover and protection, away from the carcass and the advancing hyenas. Instinct informs the cubs that this was a time to obey the rules and uphold discipline. And slowly but surely, the females and cubs slipped further and further away in the undergrowth, out of sight of the hyenas. In the meantime, the teenage males were creating a diversion, doing their best in the havoc to keep the hyenas as bay. They still maintained reasonable dominance of the carcass by pushing the hyenas back every so often with the odd charge, until eventually, the hyenas became too bold and started to inch closer.

But life and business don’t always play to the rules, as we humans, have recently witnessed. There’s always the risk of an external and unexpected intervention. And this is what happened. I’ll digress slightly to set the scene….

We had been sitting in our vehicles for about the past three hours, watching this battle of the warring parties at play. The beauty about Mana Pools, is that there are few restrictions in respect of being allowed out your vehicle, and in fact, it is one of only a few parks where you are able to take a walk without a guide, clearly at your own risk, and so sanity and common sense need to prevail. At this stage, I was sitting on the roof rack of my vehicle, trying as much as possible to get an elevated view of the activities. I was very confident that with all the action taking place, I was at very low risk of danger being on top of my vehicle. I was enjoying the action and the photo opportunities that presented themselves.

And then, the curved ball arrived, not for me however. Along came this young elephant bull, who was very clearly in musth. Now, anyone who knows elephants will know that this (bull in musth), is one of the most aggressive animals you can find in the bush. A grumpy lad, whose hormones are raging and anything in his path will not be tolerated, least of all a pride of lions, and some noisy, irritating hyenas. So, from behind our parked cars, we could see this young bull approach, striding out, as though to exercise some self-appointed authority, even if it was merely to prove a point of who’s the boss around these parts.

I quickly slipped into my front seat of the vehicle through the open window, just in case he changed his focus of attention. Fortunately, the elephant had no interest in us, and fortunately for the lions, not them too, which played to their advantage. He had it in for the noisy hyenas. And so he came rushing in, and like skittles smashed by a well-aimed bowling ball, the hyenas scattered in all directions. But, by this stage of the ensuing chaos, the hyenas had started to gain access to the carcass, and so each hyena had some morsel of the broken up carcass. The hyenas felt they had to defend what they had, and so, once the bull had completed his cheeky charge, he turned his back on the hyenas and ambled off. The hyenas wanting to make sure he was leaving for good, chased after him to move him off.

Clearly, this dented the young bull’s  ego somewhat and he promptly turned around and came in with a second charge more aggressive charge, trumpeting with more intent, as if to prove a point. Again, the hyenas dashed off in various directions and again the bull turned around and ran off and continued moving off, not to return again. He’d done his bit to add to the chaos. It was as if he had satisfied his need to bully something and went off untouched and probably pleased by the fact that he had done what young bull elephants in musth should do.

So, this was pretty much the end of the party for us. The lions exited the area unscathed and with the cubs in a safe place. We could see that after the scuffle with the elephant, the hyenas needed to change their plan slightly and the lions used the bulls activities to their advantage and exited more hastily. The hyenas managed to get what they wanted. And the other scavengers, the vultures and marabou stork saw that their opportunities for more scaps were disappearing, and off they flew, looking for their next pickings or to do some pruning and grooming, I’m not sure which?

And so, this was an incredible morning of entertainment and to witness how animals in the wilderness use strategy to achieve their specific goals was a real treat. And we, as humans, could do well to implement strategy as with warring parties did and to take advantage of unexpected interventions along the way.

Everyone walked or flew away from that site, satisfied. Even our strategy, to follow the direction of the lions that first morning, paid dividends, and such is life in a wilderness area in Africa.

I hope you have enjoyed reading this story as much as I have recalled this amazing experience. Let me know what you think, I’d appreciate some feedback. And if you have any of your own stories to share, send a mail to  me as follows: john@outhtereoverlandtravel.co.za

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Story 2: Who's viewing who? (9 minute read)

 Many of our overland journeys have been planned from start to finish, others have been a little more organic to allow for some flexibility and spontaneity. On this long journey from South Africa to Tanzania it was largely unplanned. Less pressure to be at a certain place by a certain time, equals less stress, so if you happen to like a place you have discovered, stay for an extra day or two. As it turned out, on this occasion we were lucky and managed to stay where we chose to.

We had done a few long days of driving since leaving Tanzania’s Ruaha National Park. We were heading for the Ngorongoro Crater. When we arrived in Moshi, the town which is the entry point for Mount Kilimanjaro, we found the Kindoroko Hotel.

The Kindoroko Hotel is very basic. Don’t expect the Ritz Hotel in London, but the rooms were spotlessly clean. And the bar and dining area at the top of the building has a beautiful, clear view of Mt Kilimanjaro and the rest of the town. Sadly though, on this day, it was overcast and so we could not see the iconic snow-covered cap.

For those who plan on visiting Moshi, we ate dinner at the Indoitaliano Restaurant, which, as the name suggests, serves mostly Pizzas, Pastas and Indian Curries. The food was delicious without exception. There were eight of us who dined there and nobody was disappointed with their choice of dish.

The next morning we awoke early and headed for the dining room on the top floor to enjoy a good breakfast. And here’s a little anecdote which I’ll share which added a little light humour to our day. We were sitting at our table, ready to place our breakfast orders when our waiter, who was attending to each person’s order, one by one, reached my wife. She enquired about the eggs that were being offered and so, she asked, “What eggs are you serving here today?” Now this may have been quite a straightforward question according to my wife, expecting to hear, “scrambled, poached or fried eggs” etc. Clearly, not quite interpreting exactly what my wife was asking, as I suppose it was a somewhat open-ended question, with a contorted face and a slight sideways cocking of the head, the waiter responded politely in his local accent, “isss chicken eggs, Madam”. Well, without trying to cause any embarrassment to the waiter, it was difficult to suppress our urge to laugh, and when the waiter left the room, we all burst out laughing, pointing fingers at my wife for asking the question in such a dumb way! The joke lives on to this day.

After a very decent breakfast, we packed and left the Kindoroko Hotel, still with the odd tear in our eyes from the egg question. One had to be there to fully appreciate what happened. So, we were back on the road, heading for the Ngorongoro Crater. It was my younger son’s birthday, so while passing through Arusha, we needed to buy a few groceries and so we luckily found a coffee shop and ate the most amazing birthday cake to honour the occasion. What a treat! And we had a happy son too.

As mentioned earlier, our trip was rather organic instead of planned, and so, once we had got through the town of Arusha, we had about a 200km journey to travel to get to the crater. The roads were in good condition and so it would have taken us only a few hours to get there, even allowing for stops along the way to look at the various curio shops etc. Just beyond halfway along on this leg, we started approaching a picturesque mountainous ridge which towered above Lake Manyara National Park. We pulled over and parked to take a look at the entrance and have a good look around. It also gave us a chance to stretch our legs. Always a good safe-driving habit.  It was a stunning entrance, well maintained and with stunning large acacia and fig trees, among many others. Very inviting indeed. After a brief chat, there and then, we decided to stay over for 2 nights in this park. We decided that the Ngorongoro Crater can wait for another couple of days. And we were most definitely rewarded for this decision.

Lake Manyara is well known for its spectacular flamingo and pelican populations and they are well adapted to the high salt content of the water. But there’s another reason why this park is well known. It is because of the tree-climbing lions. There are many theories as to why lions have relatively recently started to climb and rest in trees, which was a behaviour not really associated with lions until relatively recently, but we will not get into the debate here and now. We did see lions while we were there, but they were not in the trees as their reputation would have us believe.Hopefully, we’ll have better luck next time.

So, around lunchtime, we reached our campsite, after a bit of an encounter of a rather aggressive herd of elephant which caused us to take a slight detour. Fortunately, we were able to book an exclusive campsite, an area to ourselves without other campers around us. Not that we are unsociable, but sometimes it is wonderful to enjoy the solitude of an area. The campsite was unfenced. There were no ablution facilities and so, a spade became a necessary ablution tool. We also had to be vigilant about our surroundings, especially because of the predators which tend to be a lot more active at night.

This campsite, which was right on the edge of the bush, had a magnificent view of the lake with a 300 metre stretch of grass between our campsite and the water’s edge and a 180 degree panoramic view looking over the lake. And in the distance, we could see the tip of Mount Meru, the less famous cousin of Kilimanjaro.

We spent the early afternoon unpacking and setting up our camp before going on a short evening game-drive, keen to get back to our campsite to enjoy a rewarding sundowner. Who wouldn’t want a sundowner in our campsite with such an impressive view in front of us.

It was a relatively uneventful drive and so we returned to our campsite in good time before dusk. We started getting ourselves ready for the evening, making the fire, preparing the salads and meat for the bar-b-que (we call it a ‘braai’ in South Africa) and most importantly of course, G&Ts with ice for the ladies, and a bitterly cold, refreshing lager or two for the men. The National Luna fridge / freezer in our vehicle was doing a fine job keeping the drinks at the perfect temperature.

No sooner had we sat down in our camp chairs and began to sip on our sundowners and patting ourselves on our back for making this great decision to visit this park, when we noticed a large herd of zebra walking in single file from the right hand side of our campsite view. As we were marveling about this scenario, no more than 150 metres away from us, we were in for another pleasant surprise. From the same direction, a tower of about 30 giraffes began appearing one by one and were following the same path as the zebra herd. And then the wildebeest followed the giraffe. It was like a procession of animals had been set up for us as a reward for choosing to stay here. We all sat in our chairs, in silence, witnessing this impressive spectacle.  All three species made up a mixed herd of natural beauty. You will often find these species together, forming a symbiotic relationship. But what really made this spectacle so special and memorable, was that the giraffe walked past us and then they did a little loop and turned back towards us, stopping close by. They stood there for ages. It seems, at that particular instant, as though the tables had turned. Who was viewing who? It was as though the giraffe were on safari and we were the interesting creatures to be viewed. We were being watched with clear fascination by these gentle giants. It was an immense feeling. Incredible. In fact, somewhat spiritual for us. It was as though there was a mutual understanding and appreciation of each other’s presence: we allowed them safe passage to pass us, uninterrupted and unthreatened, and in turn, they allowed us the privilege of witnessing  their elegance and gracefulness at such close range.

We were all so over-awed by this encounter. In fact, I don’t recall much of what we did for the rest of the evening, other than chatting excitedly about what we had seen. I do recall thinking that this was one of my special moments in my overland travels and that this was a great pre-amble for the rest of our time at this special place in Africa.

I would most definitely recommend this park to anyone.