Climbing Kilimanjaro via the Lemosho Route, Tanzania – March & April 2017

Mount Kilimanjaro towers above the campsite

Mount Kilimanjaro lurks behind a gigantic boulder as seen from the Karanga Valley campsite

Mount Kilimanjaro, a dormant volcano in northern Tanzania, actually comprises three volcanic cones – Kibo, Mawenzi, and Shira – and it’s the highest mountain in Africa, rising to 5,895 metres (19,341 feet) above sea level at its summit. The mountain and its shrinking glaciers are protected within the Kilimanjaro National Park, which generates over US $50 million per year in revenue, while trekkers create seasonal employment for an estimated 15,000+ mountain guides, porters and cooks.

Trekking routes on Mount Kilimanjaro

Official trekking routes on Mount Kilimanjaro

The first successful ascent of the mountain was achieved by Hans Meyer and Ludwig Purtscheller in 1889. Wishing to follow in their footsteps 128 years later, the senior management team of the Singita Grumeti Fund – www.singitagrumetifund.org – set off on 1st March 2017 with a shared desire to emulate their feat. We enlisted the services and skills of Shah Tours – http://www.shah-tours.com/treks/mt-kilimanjaro/ – in order to get our group to the summit of Uhuru Peak.

There are seven official trekking routes by which to ascend and/or descend Mount Kilimanjaro: Lemosho, Machame, Marangu, Mweka, Rongai, Shira, and Umbwe. After much research and careful consideration, we opted to climb Kilimanjaro via the scenic and less trammelled western flank approach, known as the Lemosho Route, using the Mweka Route for our decent.

SGF team

Happy teammates at the top of the Barranco Wall

Many experienced Kili climbers rate the wilder Lemosho approach as their favourite of all the routes on the mountain – and we would certainly have to agree. Our eight-day Lemosho trek, which began below Shira Ridge, afforded us a spectacular start to our climb as we walked through the pristine indigenous forest that blankets the lower western slopes of Kilimanjaro. Inside the cool forest, we were treated to regular sightings of troops of acrobatic black-and-white colobus as well as inquisitive blue monkeys. The primates thrived in this idyllic and undisturbed environment.

Exiting the trees, the trail then took in some stunning scenery and sensational views, while providing plenty of time for our weary climbing crew to acclimatize properly with a gradual ascent that included a highly memorable crossing of the wild Shira Plateau.

Dinner time

Refuelling in the mess tent after a solid day of hiking

Having traversed the plateau, we detoured to Shira Ridge and Cathedral Point, which marks the summit of Shira Peak. Standing atop the ridge and gazing at the route ahead, we were left under no illusion that the real ascent would kick off the following morning, as we continued our assault on the imposing summit of lofty Uhuru Peak via Barranco Wall, Karanga Valley, Barafu and Stella Point.

Because Lemosho is the longest route on Kili, you not only get to see and enjoy more of the mountain, but your body also gets the best opportunity to acclimatise and adapt to the altitude-induced challenges. Consequently, the Lemosho success rates for summiting Kilimanjaro is significantly higher than for pretty much every other Kili climbing route.

Karanga Valley Campsite

Mount Kilimanjaro bathed in silver by the moon with Karanga Valley Campsite in the foreground

It is worth clarifying that the Lemosho route ultimately merges with the Machame track on day four just below Lava Tower, and at this point the serenity and privacy of the preceding days gives way to a much busier and noisier trail. This loss of tranquility and eroding sense of wilderness continues all the way to the summit and for the duration of the decent on the popular Mweka trail too.

While our experience climbing Kilimanjaro was rewarding and enjoyable, galvanizing the team with every passing day until we all stood together atop the summit on day seven, there were two factors that detracted from the ‘Kilimanjaro experience’…

SGF team on the summit

Singita Grumeti Fund team celebrating on the summit

The first was TANAPA’s seeming complete lack of interest in cleaning up the abundant litter and squalid toilets that are a never-ending nightmare when trekking on Africa’s highest and most popular mountain. It is unfathomable to me that those entrusted with caring for the ‘crown jewel’ of Tanzanian natural heritage are not doing a better job of cleaning up and safeguarding this iconic natural asset for future generations to enjoy.

The second disappointment was the large groups of loud-mouthed foreign louts that were drawn to Kilimanjaro to tick ‘summiting Kili’ off some imaginary list of machismo.

The relentless decent and vistas from Stellar Point

The steep decent from Stella Point back to Barafu Camp

We experienced this phenomenon firsthand during the final stages of our trek when a large group of inconsiderate Welsh yobs – along with their grossly insensitive guides – wrecked all sense of natural serenity and destroyed the wilderness vibe with their late night singing, shouting and general hooligan behaviour. Sadly, there is currently no code of conduct to police and control these types on unwanted visitor who degrade Tanzania’s wild places.

Those two small gripes aside, the week we spent climbing Kili was a highly rewarding and extremely motivating experience that will undoubtedly stay with the entire SGF team for many years to come. I would go a step further and say that conquering Kilimanjaro is a worthy accomplishment that should be included on the bucket list of every Africa addict.

Summit in sight

Mount Meru pokes above a sea of clouds on the left, while Kilimanjaro casts its shadow to the right

Southern Africa’s Leading Conservation Programs, Zambia – Jan & Feb 2017

Sunset over the wild Luangwa River

A fiery sunset in Zambia’s flagship national park turns the Luangwa River gold beneath a blood red sky

In mid-January 2017, I headed to Zambia with Grant Burden, Head of Special Projects at the Singita Grumeti Fund – www.singitagrumetifund.org, on an educational visit to share ideas and learn from some of the premier non-profit conservation organisations currently operating in Southern Africa. We spent two weeks getting to know the ins and outs of Conservation South Luangwa (CSL), North Luangwa Conservation Program (NLCP) and Conservation Lower Zambezi (CLZ), as well as attending some informative and collaborative meetings on how to enhance intelligence capabilities to promote greater law enforcement effectiveness.

CSL Detection Dog Unit training

CSL Detection Dog Unit training

Our first stop was Mfuwe, where we stayed at the cheap and cheerful Marula Lodge – http://www.marulalodgezambia.com – while spending our days in the company of the dedicated team from Conservation South Luangwa. It was a productive couple of days spent observing the hounds from the detection dog unit undergoing their training drills, engaging with the CSL senior management staff to learn from their collective experiences, while also finding time to catch up with Dr. Matt Becker from the Zambian Carnivore Program (ZCP).

Under the long-standing leadership of CEO Rachel McRobb, Conservation South Luangwa – http://cslzambia.org – recently underwent a facelift and rebranding exercise to revamp what was formerly the South Luangwa Conservation Society when last I visited Zambia and shadowed the SLCS and ZCP teams on their de-snaring operations and carnivore research projects.

In collaboration with the grossly underfunded Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW), formerly known as the Zambia Wildlife Authority (ZAWA), CSL was established to stop poaching, eradicate wildlife trafficking and protect South Luangwa’s beleaguered wildlife populations. The organisation actively engages with the surrounding communities, recruits and trains local staff, and focuses on developing and implementing sustainable Zambian-driven conservation solutions.

North Luangwa sees no more than a couple of hundred adventurous tourists per year

True wilderness: North Luangwa receives at most a couple of hundred adventurous tourists per year

From South Luangwa, we took a spectacular two-hour flight in a four-seater Cessna, tracing the Luangwa River all the way up to the Mwaleshi confluence where we swung west and followed this tributary into the very heart of North Luangwa National Park. The Mwaleshi is an absolute Eden with large herds of buffalo and elephant lining its banks as well as big prides of lions and excellent general game frequenting the verdant floodplain.

FZS Base Camp

FZS base camp in the heart of North Luangwa

Our flight into North Park in the Cessna, and again daily at sunrise in the Frankfurt Zoological Society’s two-seater Husky, were highlights of our time in Zambia, allowing us to use the telemetry device fitted to plane’s wing struts to locate and observe a number of the black rhino reintroduced to Zambia after they were poached to local extinction in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.

Founded in 1986, the ground-breaking North Luangwa Conservation Program (NLCP) – https://fzs.org/en/projects/north-luangwa/ – is a protected area management and law enforcement partnership between Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS) and DNPW that aims to sustainably conserve 22,000 square kilometres of the greater North Luangwa ecosystem. It is in my humble opinion the leading conservation initiative in Zambia and I would go a step further and say that NLCP ranks amongst the very best protected area restoration programs in all of Southern Africa.

The Conservation Lower Zambezi Dog Unit in action at a road block heading from the park into Lusaka

Conservation Lower Zambezi Dog Unit in action at a road block en route from the park into Lusaka

After three days of productive Lusaka meetings with Vulcan Inc. and members of the top conservation organizations operating in Zambia, the final stop on our Zambian sojourn took us down into the idyllic Zambezi Valley. Having spent three years living and working on the mighty Zambezi, the park remains very close to my heart. I hadn’t set foot in the valley since late 2008, so it was with much anticipation and no small measure of excitement that I returned to my old stomping ground.

Over one hundred elephants were lost in 2016

Over one hundred elephants were poached in Lower Zambezi in 2016

During our time in the Lower Zambezi, we were hosted by Ian Stevenson: an old friend and the CEO of Conservation Lower Zambezi (CLZ): a non-profit organisation committed to the long-term protection of wildlife in the Lower Zambezi valley.

CLZ – http://www.conservationlowerzambezi.org – was set up in 1994 when local safari operators and other concerned stakeholders recognised the need to provide organised support to the Zambian Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) to help combat the poaching pandemic that was decimating the wildlife populations of the Lower Zambezi. From its humble beginnings, CLZ has grown and diversified its support activities and protection efforts throughout the wider ecosystem.

Today CLZ assists DNPW with its mandate to protect the natural resources and wildlife of the 4,092 square kilometre Lower Zambezi National Park, while also providing logistical and law enforcement support to the adjacent community-owned Chiawa, Luano and Rufunsa Game Management Areas (GMAs) within the much larger 20,000 square kilometre Lower Zambezi Area Management Unit.

Flying over the Zambezi escarpment and along the swollen Zambezi with its lush green floodplain was a very special experience, although spotting a couple of elephant carcasses from the air also hammered home an important message about the scale of the ongoing poaching challenges facing difficult-to-protect conservation areas like the Lower Zambezi. During our visit, we also had the opportunity to spend time with the new LZNP Canine Unit at an active road block, watching the determined dogs search vehicles for ivory, bushmeat and other contraband.

Throughout our time in Zambia, we took advantage of the knowledge and expertise of our hosts, brainstorming and debating the best ways to identify new opportunities and embrace technological innovations that might help overcome the ever-increasing challenges confronting Zambia and Tanzania’s iconic protected areas. There is no question that our time in Zambia was rewarding and worthwhile with new relationships forged, exciting collaboration opportunities explored and valuable new information gleaned that will help to enhance our Tanzanian operations.

A small breeding herd of elephants feeds on grass on a flooded island in the midst of the Zambezi

A small herd of elephants feeds on grass on a flooded island in the midst of the Zambezi River

Island time on Pemba and Zanzibar, Tanzania – Nov & Dec 2016

Vumawimbi Beach in the northeast of Pemba is amongst the very best beaches in East Africa

Vumawimbi Beach in the northeast of Pemba must rate amongst the very best beaches in East Africa

The grand finale for 2016 was a month-long exploration of Pemba and Zanzibar islands in the azure Indian Ocean off the coast of Tanzania. After a hectic couple of months in the Serengeti, twenty-nine nights on the islands sounded heavenly. However, our exploration of Pemba got off to rather ignominious start at the tired and dilapidated Kervan Saray Beach Lodge – www.kervansaraybeach.com – on the northwest coast of the island.

Southern Pemba is an idyllic beach destination

Southern Pemba is an idyllic beach destination

Kervan Saray bills itself as “the birders, divers and kayakers lodge: a simple affair with superb food and service”.  I certainly can’t argue that the kayaking at sunset was a highlight and a daytrip to the superb white sand expanse of Vumawimbi Beach was also paradise, but the ‘lodge’ (and I use the word ‘lodge’ in the widest sense of the word) was a disaster. While it quite likely began its operations as a rustic, cheap and cheerful dive camp, Kervan Saray (AKA Swahili Divers – www.swahilidivers.com) has degenerated into a run down operation with the undesirable claim to fame of being the only place I have ever left early, forfeiting four pre-paid nights in the process. With water shortages, broken toilets, electric problems, ceiling fans that no longer whirled, and more creepy crawlies inside the rooms than an active termite mound… this was not a spot to linger. After a couple of scuba dives and kayak sojourns we bailed and never looked back.

Boys riding a seahorse

Charlie and Ollie riding a ‘seahorse’

By contrast enchanting Emerald Bay Resort – www.emeraldbay.co.tz – on the south coast of Pemba was nothing short of spectacular. Emerald Bay sits in exactly the same price bracket, but in stark contrast the food was sensational with delicious fresh seafood prepared by a chef of an exceptional calibre. While the Arabic-influenced hotel design with just six rooms was absolutely delightful, the food superb, and the staff ever so accommodating and friendly, it was our daily boat jaunts out to the white sandbanks amidst cobalt-blue waters of Emerald Bay that truly stole the show. Emerald Bay was so amazing that we stayed for 12 days!

Emerald Bay sand banks

The daily boat trips and picnic lunches out on an Emerald Bay sandbar were an absolute highlight

 

After two glorious weeks on Pemba, during which time we only saw 14 other tourists in all, we took the short hop back over Mnemba to Zanzibar. Having felt like we had Pemba and Emerald Bay all to ourselves, there was some nervous trepidation for our transition to touristy Zanzibar. We kicked off with a really good, guided exploration of Stone Town and its rich history, which my culture-craving wife absolutely adored.

Pongwe Beach splashing

Sandbar splashing at Pongwe Beach

Our two little boys are more beach-bum than culture-vulture, so it wasn’t long before we were headed back to the seaside. Matemwe Beach – www.matemwebeach.net – proved a comfortable place to stay in the northeast of the island with two great swimming pools and a lovely sandy outdoor dining area and bar. The beach itself was long, wide and sandy – perfect for hot and humid runs first thing in the morning – but the ocean here is no good for swimming and there was also a fair amount of harassment from touts and villagers on the public beach. I also got to do a bit more diving on the reefs off nearby Mnemba atoll. The visibility was excellent, but the sites were heavily overfished and a pale shadow of a decade ago when last I visited.

Kayaking

Zanzibar kayaking with Charlie at Pongwe

Pongwe Beach Hotel – www.pongwe.com – was the final stop on our island extravaganza and it more than lived up to its billing. Situated on its own private, picture-perfect, powdery white-sand beach peppered with shady palm trees and lapped by turquoise water, Pongwe Beach Hotel is the ultimate Zanzibar holiday destination! Val, Heather and the Pongwe team pride themselves on running one of Zanzibar’s most relaxing, stress-free and friendly hotels, and they certainly did not disappoint. Our beachfront room spilled out onto the sand and where we built sandcastles with the boys, kayaked together as a family, swam in the sea and infinity pool, drank ice-cold Safari beers at sunset, and generally just revelled in the carefree beach-dominated lifestyle. Pongwe Beach is certainly a special place to which we will have to return in the future.

Mutemwa Beach Hotel

We had Mutemwa Beach Hotel and its swimming pools all to ourselves except for the occasional cow!

 

Christmas at Singita Grumeti, Tanzania – 25th December 2016

Present time

Present opening time

Upon our return from the Spice Islands, Katherine’s mother joined us at Sasakwa for our first Christmas with the boys in the Serengeti and it was awesome. Although having to work over Christmas and New Year is not everyone’s first choice, it turned out really well for us. Because so many people are on holiday at this time of year, the email was considerably quieter than usual and I was actually able to catch up a bit and get a decent amount of work done. It also afforded Katherine and me the opportunity to spend some quality time with grandma and the boys.

Christmas day kicked off with opening presents from under our ‘African Christmas tree’ – provided courtesy of the elephants that pushed it over a couple of days earlier! The boys and grandma beautifully decorated the tree and room. After a couple of hours of work, during which time Katherine and the boys took toys down to the kids at Makundusi, we made our way to a friend’s house where Nadine had put together a veritable feast for the five thousand… Spit roast lamb, turkey, duck, roast potatoes, veg, dips, cheeses and even malva pudding. The table groaned under the weight to the banquet she had prepared! We also set up the pool on the lawn and the kids swam and ran riot. Christmas in the Serengeti certainly didn’t disappoint!

IMG_0009

Charlie and Ollie enjoying their first Christmas in the Serengeti

The migration returns to Singita Grumeti, Tanzania – Sept & Oct 2016

Long columns of wildebeest plod steadily southwards into Singita Grumeti

Long columns of wildebeest returning from the Mara plod steadily southwards into Singita Grumeti

I strongly believe that 2016 will go down in the history books as one of the best years on record for viewing the migration at Singita Grumeti. After a spectacular May and June with dense concentrations and large columns of wildebeest heading north, July and August then delivered record zebra numbers across the concession area before the wildebeest returned again in September. The September/October migration window – as the wildebeest head back south to calve on the short grass plains of the southern Serengeti – has traditionally been far more variable and unreliable to the point where in some years the wildebeest bypass Singita Grumeti altogether on their return through the western corridor.

Regurgitating (9)

Wild dogs denning on the edge of Nyathi Plains

The year 2016 was, however, not one to disappoint. Not only did the wildebeest return in large numbers, they lingered far longer than previously. A few early season rain showers had greened up the concession nicely, ensuring water and plentiful grazing for the colossal columns of transient herbivores. When the clouds vanished the wildebeest loitered, waiting for more rain to drive them further south, but a very poor short rainy season this year has meant that the big thunderstorms didn’t arrive and the wildebeest hordes remained scattered across the Sasakwa, Sabora, Nyathi and Kawanga plains for months (instead of the usual weeks) with the migration only finally moving on again in November!

Celebrating World Rhino Day with a fun run on 22nd September

World Rhino Day Fun Run on 22nd September

While the unseasonably low rainfall experienced throughout the Serengeti in late 2016 ensured a spectacular and lingering second passage of the migration at Singita Grumeti, it does not bode well for the months ahead. A few more showers will see us through January 2017, but without meaningful rain in the coming months, we will be in for a very dry and challenging start to 2017. Not only will the wildlife populations suffer with limited food and water availability, but our neighbouring communities also are at risk: crops fail, human-wildlife conflict escalates, bush-meat poaching and snaring skyrocket… Everyone and every animal will have a tough time of it, so lets hope for some late season rains even though the forecast remains rather bleak.

Wildebeest scatter across the western plains in high densities

Hundreds of thousands of wildebeest returning from the Mara lie scattered across the western plains

MN Boundary Waters and North Carolina beaches, USA – July & Aug 2016

Giraffe are one of the many mammal species counted during the Singita Grumeti aerial survey in August

Giraffe are one of the mammal species counted during the Singita Grumeti Aerial Census in August

Every second year during the months of July and August, a Riparian Survey and Aerial Census is conducted across the 350,000 acre Singita Grumeti concession area. The counts are done from a helicopter with the Riparian Survey focusing on all the major drainage lines and river systems within the concession area. Species of key interest that are recorded during the survey include the black and white colobus monkey, vulture and marabou stork nests, bushbuck, lion and leopard.

Helicopter

Preparing to take off and begin the count

The Singita Grumeti Aerial Census follows directly after the Riparian Survey and follows a more conventional approach of flying transacts over the entire concession area in order to record all sightings of resident wildlife species to assess the overall population trends and health of the game reserve.

The results that emerged were encouraging overall with most wildlife species showing fairly stable or increasing populations. The elephant numbers were especially gratifying because this was the first count at Singita Grumeti to exceed 1,500 pachyderms and considering the way they have fared in the rest of Tanzania in recent years, these numbers provided irrefutable evidence of what a conservation anomaly and success story Singita Grumeti really is. The lion and leopard numbers were also the highest on record, suggesting a very healthy ecosystem.

Black and white colobus

Black and white colobus monkey on the move

A few species did reveal concerning trends that will require follow up research work in 2017. The number of marabou stork nests has collapsed for no obvious reason. We still see large numbers of these birds, so perhaps they have moved to new nesting sites outside of the concession or perhaps their nesting/breeding time has shifted slightly? Roan numbers also remain perilously low and a dedicated masters research study starting in 2017 should hopefully shed light on why these beautiful antelope are not faring too well. The populations of most other species surveyed remain healthy and robust.

Find out more at: http://www.singitagrumetifund.com/blog/conservation/counting-wildlife/

A handsome leopard spotted from the helicopter during the Singita Grumeti Riparian Survey

A handsome leopard spotted from the helicopter during the Singita Grumeti Riparian Survey

 

Boundary Waters and Figure Eight Island, USA – August 2016

We took our usual family holiday to America during the month of August. Undoubtedly, the two highlights here were spending a week in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota and a family escape to a beach house on Figure Eight Island in North Carolina.

Paddling across a glassy lake at sunrise

Paddling across a glassy lake at sunrise

The Minnesota Boundary Waters Canoe Area – www.bwca.com – encompasses over a million acres of protected lakes and river systems. The Boundary Waters is in fact part of a far larger wilderness area that extends into the wider Lake Superior National Forest and up into Canada’s Quetico National Park in Ontario. Once you have acquired an inexpensive permit, you can quite literally lose yourself in this magnificent North American aquatic wilderness for weeks or even months. Simple campsites on the edge of lakes have a pit latrine toilet and fireplace. You need to pack everything else in and back out with you. This provides the recipe for an active nature experience second to none.

Enjoying a classic Boundary Waters sunset

Enjoying a classic Boundary Waters sunset

We left the boys with their grandparents in Saint Peter and Katherine and I escaped into this canoe wilderness for a week. It was our fourth foray into the Boundary Waters and it didn’t disappoint… Paddling on glassy lakes and rivers, off-the-beaten-track wilderness camping, a real chance to reconnect with my wife, spectacular sunsets and lots of downtime to catch up on sleep!!

I would unreservedly recommend the Minnesota Boundary Waters Canoe Area to any and every nature enthusiast who enjoys active multi-day excursions into expansive wilderness areas and camping in the great outdoors.

The final stop on our American sojourn for 2016 was a weeklong trip down to the spectacular and exclusive Figure Eight Island – www.figure8island.com – near Wilmington on the coast of North Carolina. We spent a weekend catching up with the Penry family and then stayed on for the week at their idyllic beach house. It was quality family time for the four of us with a typical day seeing us go for a run around the island first thing in the morning, followed by a swim and a morning beach session, then lunch at the pool and naps followed by the afternoon beach session and ice creams before finishing off in the evening with a braai and few cold local beers. It was heavenly.

Quality family beach time playing in the tidal pools of Figure Eight Island

Quality family beach time hanging out and playing in the tidal pools of Figure Eight Island

Rampaging through the Richtersveld, RSA & Namibia – May & June 2016

Within the space of less than two weeks Wildebeest numbers swelled to around 400,000 on the Singita Grumeti concessions

In two short weeks wildebeest numbers swelled to over 400,000 on the Singita Grumeti concessions

The world renowned wildebeest migration in the Serenegtei-Mara ecosystem is a spectacle like no other that rightly takes pride of place on many an avid African safari goers’ bucket list.

Wildebeest as far as the eye can see

Wildebeest stretch as far as the eye can see

Colossal columns of ungainly wildebeest invaded Singita Grumeti in mid-May on their annual pilgrimage north to the Mara. Within a matter of days our verdant 350,000 acre concession was overrun by hundreds of thousands of hungry wildebeest. After a good rainy season, the huge herds thrived on the nutritious green grass blanketing the wide-open plains. The cacophony generated by these massive aggregations is almost more spectacular than the sight of this surging mass of hungry herbivores. Almost. But not quite.

By all accounts May 2016 saw one of the densest concentrations of wildebeest to grace Grumeti in the past decade. And to sit atop a rocky koppie and watch this epic spectacle unfolding – as far the eye can see – in every direction around you must be one of the greatest safari experiences in all of Africa.

 

The Rishtersveld Wildrun averages a marathon a day for five days across inhospitable desert terrain

The Rishtersveld Wildrun averages a marathon a day for five days across inhospitable desert terrain

June marked a rather less glamorous milestone for me personally, as I entered my fifth decade on this planet. It’s not everyone’s birthday wish to spend five days running 200km across the stark and often inhospitable desert terrain of the Richtersveld, but I nonetheless chose this challenge as a memorable way to celebrate the milestone of my fortieth year… But in hindsight perhaps it was more of an attempt to prove to myself that I wasn’t getting old just yet!

Running wild in the Richtersveld

Running wild in the Richtersveld

The arid Richtersveld is unquestionably one of the most elemental landscapes on the planet. Few landscapes on earth can rival the Richtersveld for arid beauty, big skies, sizzling sunshine and absolute desolation. Hauntingly beautiful and scorched by an unrelenting sun, the screaming silence of the Springbok Vlakte and gargantuan boulders of the Tatasberg Mountains are the holy grail of trail running for true wildrunners.

Richtersveld Wildrunners are best described as a diverse and determined cohort of modern day adventurers and I was fortunate enough to spend five days getting to know this intrepid group of desert duellers. Accompanied our Richtersveld Tours support staff, fifty determined trail runners took on the new transfrontier route: a two country desert extravaganza that was designed to expose competitors to the very best the Richtersveld has to offer – on both sides of the border – with deep canyons, rocky ravines, boulder-strewn mountains and stony desert plains.

So, if exploring off-the-beaten-track desert wilderness and shooting the breeze with fellow adventurous souls around a campfire under star-studded night skies sounds appealing to you, then I wouldn’t hesitate in recommending you don your running shoes for the Richtersveld run of a lifetime in June 2017.

For further info on the Richterveld as well as this incredible annual event, check out the magazine story links below:

http://www.stevecunliffe.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Wild-Richtersveld-TFCA-Final.pdf

http://www.stevecunliffe.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/SA-4×4-Richtersveld-Wildrun.pdf

http://www.stevecunliffe.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Sawubona-Richtersveld-TF-Wildrun.pdf

Running across the parched desert landscapes of the ancient Richtersveld desert is a primordial experience

Running across the parched desert landscapes of the ancient Richtersveld is a primordial experience

Kicking back on La Digue and Mahé, Seychelles – March & April 2016

The warm Indian Ocean surrounding the Seychelles beaches

The warm Indian Ocean produces decent waves at Grand Anse on La Digue’s southern coast

You know life is treating you well when you get to spend an entire month with your family, enjoying the postcard-perfect beaches and azure seas of the idyllic Seychelles.

Villa Verte

The aptly named Villa Verte

As our Kenya Airways flight touched down at the quaint Mahé International Airport, I realised – with some surprise – that it had been 23 years since my last visit to these captivating islands!

The island nation of the Seychelles is spread of an enormous oceanic expanse. There are three main islands – Mahé, Praslin and La Digue – with the latter being the least developed and most alluring of the trio. The large and populous island of Mahé is the commercial and political capital of the Seychelles, but we had our hearts set on escaping to something smaller and quieter, so we boarded a ferry and set sail for La Digue.

Until recently there weren’t even any cars on La Digue and all transport was done courtesy of bicycles and ox carts. Sadly, this has all started to change and – in the name of development – the government has authorised 55 vehicles to operate on the island.

The ultimate way to see the island

Bicycles provide an easy way to explore the island

These buses, taxis, canter trucks and private vehicles have inevitably begun to change laid back La Digue from a sleepy island backwater into a more developed and mainstream tourist destination. And there is no mistaking that the number of small hotels, guesthouses and self-catering cottages has exploded on the island.

Despite these changes and the increased development, the island of La Digue remains an unbelievable family holiday destination. The island is small enough that it can be explored by bicycle with ‘pedal power’ enduring as the primary means of island transport. Every morning we would load our beach bags, along with our two little boys, onto the back of our bikes and head for the beach. Whether you are looking for a picture-perfect beach, such as Source d’Argent, or a quiet little cove of powdery white-sand, such as Anse Caiman, there is a beach to suit all tastes.

Source d'Argent beach

Picture-perfect Source d’Argent beach on La Digue

Can there be a better place for a one-year-old and a three-year-old to spend a month hanging out with mom and dad; I doubt it. The fact that some of our extended family joined us for the first and last weeks meant the boys had grandparents, aunties and cousins to add to their idyllic beach holiday mix. Charlie and Ollie thought they had died and gone to heaven.

Spending the first half of our vacation at the self-catering Villa Verte on the much more tranquil eastern side of the island was an amazing experience. Bimal and his lovely wife ensured that the house was always clean and that we had everything we needed. The ocean view from the front veranda was nothing short of sensational.

The view over Praslin from the Eagle's Nest

The view looking over Praslin from the Eagle’s Nest

When our extended family departed, it was with some reluctance that we relocated to Ylang Ylang (www.selfcateringylangylang.sc) on the western edge of La Passe. This move gave us easy access to a host of new beaches, such as Source d’Argent and the postcard bay of Garand Anse in the south. Although this part of the island was busier, we enjoyed the change of scenery, close proximity to restaurants and shops, and time together with just our family. I have many treasured memories and photos from this special time.

It wouldn’t be right to blog about La Digue without making mention of Chez Jules: a restaurant beyond compare. Tucked away towards the end of the road at Anse Banine on the far eastern side of the island, gregarious Jules serves fresh line-fish, a ‘to-die-for’ calamari salad and ice-cold Eku beers.

A family stroll along an empty stretch of beach on Isle Conception

Taking a family stroll along an empty stretch of sand on Isle Conception off the coast of Mahé

Seychelles beaches are perfect

All Seychelles’ beaches are stunningly beautiful

Mahé is not for everyone. It is the biggest and busiest Seychelles island by far, especially around the commercial hub of Victoria, but it does have some exquisite stretches of sand. My dad and stepmom, along with two of my sisters, flew out to join us for the final week at world-renowned Beau Vallon Bay on Mahé. We were accommodated in fine style, staying at the luxurious apartments of Sables d’Or (www.sables-dor.sc). Not only were the spacious apartments fully kitted out and tastefully decorated, but they also enjoyed an enviable location right on the beach.

Beau Vallon Bay is a busy beach, but it is one of the most idyllic beaches for young children: no rocks, no corral, just sand and a warm Indian ocean. Perfect for swimming, lounging about on a lilo, or paddling a sea kayak at sunset. A nearby marine park – easily reachable by boat – provides an opportunity to snorkel with an abundance of marine life hidden just below the surface.

Seychelles, rest assured, we will be back again soon!

Extended family enjoying playing in the warm water

Hanging out and catching up with the extended family in the warm shallow waters off Mahé

Singita Grumeti Fund Restructure & Kili Marathon, Tanzania – Jan & Feb 2016

Singita Grumeti Reserves 350 000 acre concession area is a scenically spectacular and wildlife-rich paradise

Evolving structures and specialised departments will more effectively preserve Grumeti’s natural riches

January saw a major restructure of the Grumeti Fund take place as well as the start of a consultive process to develop a much closer relationship with the Singita brand and management company.

Unsurpassed beauty with the short rains

The short rains create scenes of mesmerising beauty

As with any restructuring process there were some tough decisions to be made with certain departmental units shut down and staff transferred or retrenched. There was also a major reorganisation of the existing wildlife management department, which was split into three smaller and more specialised departments: conservation management, law enforcement and Grumeti relationship management.

The conservation management department carries out all habitat management and core conservation work, including the key focus areas of fire management, alien plant control and wildlife reintroductions.

Fund game scouts on patrol

Grumeti Fund game scouts on patrol

The newly created law enforcement department specialises in anti-poaching work along with policing all other illegal activities taking place within the concession area, including illegal tree cutting, charcoal production and illegal cattle grazing. In tandem with poaching, these are the most serious law enforcement challenges confronting Grumeti. Bushmeat poaching, using snares, poison arrows, dogs, torches and motorbikes is increasingly inventive and widespread, especially during the migration. With Tanzania having suffered catastrophic elephant losses over the course of the past five years – the country is estimated to have lost around 60% of its elephant and continues to lose in excess of 10,000 pachyderms a year – ivory poaching is an omnipresent and growing threat in the Serengeti. These challenging times necessitated the creation of a dedicated paramilitary style anti-poaching force to more effectively counter the poaching pandemic at our doorstep.

The Grumeti relationship department concentrates on all levels of stakeholder engagement with a focal area being continuous and effective communication with all our government sector partners. This is a vitally important department without which Grumeti would be stymied by bureaucracy and cease to be able to operate.

A newly formed special projects role will necessitate employing a multi-talented generalist to fulfil a crucial inter-departmental role that identifies and drives new projects and innovative joint ventures, thereby also ensuring that the specialised structure being enacted does not become too siloed.

Singita Grumeti Fund Logo_Final (Crop) (1)The community outreach and research & monitoring departments remain unchanged for the time being.

Bedding down the new structure, getting buy in from all the Fund heads of department, and ultimately support from field staff is a mammoth undertaking and not for the faint-hearted. We have concurrently rebranded as the Singita Grumeti Fund and will be under-going a full revamp of all marketing collateral during the course of the coming year. From brochures and business cards to a new Singita Grumeti Fund website and communications strategy, there is a major push underway to market ourselves as a bona fide non-profit and diversify our donor funding base. It’s an exciting year ahead for the Singita Grumeti Fund.

During the annual migration hundreds of thousands of wildebeest and zebra swarm across the Grumeti grasslands

Grumeti’s rich grasslands attract hundreds of thousands of wildebeest and zebra during the migration

 

The Kilimanjaro Marathon – 28 February 2016

Two very happy Kili Half-Marathon finishers

Happy Kili half-marathon finishers

The final weekend in February saw a team of Grumeti staff head to Moshi to take part in the annual Kilimanjaro Marathon (www.kilimanjaromarathon.com).

Thankfully the race does not involve going up and over the highest mountain in Africa, but rather skirts the foothills sticking to paved and gravel roads. An impressively large contingent of Tanzanian runners bumped elbows with a handful of very swift Kenyan competitors, and a sizeable field of foreign runners from around the globe. The altitude ensures it’s a lung-buster, but the spectacular volcano views along the route more than make up for the travails of oxygen deprivation and aching legs.

The true highlight of the event was not crossing the finish line in front of a big cheering crowd in Moshi stadium, nor was it the prestigious medal they drape around every finishers’ neck… it was undoubtedly the ice-cold beers and refreshing swimming pool celebrations that followed immediately after completion of the race. In my book the pool party is in itself a good enough reason to return on 26 February 2017 to do it all again!

The Singita Grumeti team that successfully completed the Kilimanjaro half and full marathons

The Singita Grumeti team that successfully completed the Kilimanjaro half and full marathon events

Black rhino revival and Christmas in CPT, Tanzania & RSA – Nov & Dec 2015

Grumeti has witnessed an incredible recovery in the buffalo population of over 900% in the past 12 years

Grumeti’s buffalo population has witnessed a remarkable recovery of over 900% in the past 12 years

The first few months on the ground at Grumeti have been the proverbial baptism of fire. Arriving at the end of the dry season and with the migration returning south, it was all action from the word go. Poaching spiked with the unexpected return of the wildebeest herds. Our challenges were compounded by the fact that much of the game reserve’s grazing had burnt due to runaway wild fires and arson fires. The late arrival of the rains didn’t help matters. The shortage of food forced the wildebeest to move further west into the communal village lands as they went on a fruitless search for grass.

The wildebeest herds in search of grazing

Constantly on the move in search of fresh grazing

Local villagers – who consider the animals arriving in their backyard as free meat – butchered the hungry herbivores day and night. This caused a major law enforcement dilemma for our Grumeti Fund game scouts, as their authority and mandate to engage poachers officially ends at the boundary of the game reserve. By seconding police and conducting joint ops with government anti-poaching unit officers from KDU Bunda, we were able to engage and arrest a number of these bush meat poachers. The fact that a number of key management posts within the Grumeti Fund stood vacant added to the sleepless nights of those who remained to carry the workload. It was a very tough couple of months, but the experience immersed me into Grumeti Fund operations and will no doubt stand me in good stead for the future. It was also highly instructive in informing and developing my restructure plans for the Grumeti Fund, which will be enacted in 2017.

John is an old rhino at 38 years old

At the age of 37 John can be considered old for a rhino

But it certainly was not all poaching doom and gloom at the end of 2015, there were also a number of successes to celebrate. Undoubtedly the highlight of this period was the arrival of John the rhino. After years of negotiation, painstaking bureaucracy and never-ending red tape, Grumeti was finally rewarded with the translocation of a big bull rhino of the East African michaeli subspecies from the Ngorongoro Conservation Area to our rhino intensive protection zone (IPZ) at Grumeti. After spending the first few days in a holding bona for observation purposes, John was released into a larger paddock where he will settle in and acclimatise to his new home before being released into the heavily guarded rhino sanctuary where we hope to see him mating with the young adult female, known as Laikipia.

Despite John’s advanced age, we remain cautiously optimistic that we will see some mating behaviour and breeding success upon his release. With East Africa’s wild black rhino population down to the hundreds – most of which reside in Kenya – this small satellite population and its breeding success are integral to the long-term survival of the michaeli sub-species of black rhino in the Serengeti ecosystem, Tanzania and East Africa.

With only an estimated 800 East African black rhino remaining the michaeli sub-species is considered critically endangered

With a mere 740 East African black rhino remaining the michaeli sub-species is critically endangered

 

Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens

Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens

After an intense first three months, we were due for leave in December. All senior staff working at Grumeti are employed on a three months on (working seven days a week) and one month off rotation. This 3-1 system is fantastic in that it provides large chunks of time off in which to travel to see family in South Africa or America, or to go exploring.

For our two little boys the main attraction of being back in South Africa in the middle of summer was the beach. Sandcastle building and bashing, swimming, and running through the shallow tidal pools on the beautiful beaches of Cape Town were the order of the day.  We then traveled a couple of hours up the coast to spend a week holidaying in the quaint seaside village of Arniston where we rented a huge beach house for the whole extended family and thoroughly enjoyed catching up, braaing and beaching with my siblings and their partners. On the way back to Cape Town we detoured into the Hemel en Aarde valley above Hermanus where we shared a cottage with friends, although our combined contingent of four small kids seriously cramped our wine tasting style!

December is a very hectic – but also a very special – time to be home with family converging on Cape Town from London, the Serengeti and Johannesburg to celebrate Christmas all together, as well as to enable all the young cousins to get to know and play with one another. Special family times indeed.

From London to Tanzania, Christams in Cape Town gathers the family together from

Celebrating Christmas in Cape Town is a good excuse to gather the family from from far and wide

Gonarezhou and relocating to Grumeti, Zim & Tanzania – Sept & Oct 2015

The Hilux made short work of crossing the Runde

Sunrise is a very special time to be crossing the mirror calm Runde River in northern Gonarezhou

September was a month characterised by dramatic change. With my MBA completed and our family holiday in the USA done and dusted, it was time to return to gainful employment. With a couple of exciting SA4x4 photojournalism assignments on the cards, my old friend Duncan Gutsche agreed to accompany me on a three country mission to test drive the new Toyota Hilux. What followed was an action-packed two week adventure through northern Kruger, into Mozambique at Pafuri, before entering Gonarezhou National Park via the Sango border post.

Spotted hyena

Predator numbers are resurgent in Gonarezou NP

Rather than tackle the stereotypical northern Gonarezhou safari circuit to see the Chilojo Cliffs and Runde-Save confluence, we opted instead for more adventure and set out to explore the whole of this enigmatic park that I had last visited 19 years previously. The wildlife in the central region was sparse and skittish, but so were the vehicles, giving us the feeling of being properly immersed in a genuinely wild tract of African wilderness. There is no denying that the less visited south-central region of Gonarezhou provides an ideal landscape for true 4×4 exploration.It is the perfect place for anyone who enjoys their overlanding to be wild and soulful.

The view from the top of the Chilojo Cliffs is unsurpassed

The view from atop the Chilojo Cliffs is unsurpassed

Gonarezhou National Park is a scenically stunning protected area and – under the guidance of Frankfurt Zoological Society project manager Hugo Van der Westhuizen – the park’s infrastructure and wildlife have both experienced a dramatic resurgence. With FZS looking to sign a co-management agreement with park authorities during the months ahead, the potential for Gonarezhou to reclaim its mantle as one of the foremost protected areas in Africa is no longer a pipedream. For the sake of its rebounding wildlife, re-energised ZPWMA conservation staff, wilderness-loving 4×4 enthusiasts and safari aficionados from around the globe, lets hope this far-sighted agreement is signed without delay to unlock increased funding and technical expertise for more effective management of this amazing national park. Find out more about the park and our overland adventures at:

http://www.stevecunliffe.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/SA-4×4-Gonarezhou-Final.pdf

Hilux

The new Toyota Hilux on the charge

After a week of self-guided Gonarezhou exploration and top quality camping at the sole-use wilderness sites of Chumulavati, Chilojo and Runde Gorge, we existed the park through the main northern gate at Chapinda Pools, traversed the wildlife-rich Malilangwe private game reserve and braved an inordinate number of police roadblocks and shakedowns en route to the relatively untrammelled eastern reaches of Botswana. Most people know very little about this unpublicised region of Botswana so – for anyone interested to learn more – the link below will educate you about a tourist-free destination of lush green gorges, large vulture colonies, great day hikes to San rock art sites, and so much more. There are a lot more reasons than Northern Tuli Game Reserve to venture into Botswana’s oft ignored eastern reaches, and this SA 4×4 cover feature is sure to enlighten and delight you in equal measure:

http://www.stevecunliffe.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/SA-4×4-Eastern-Botswana-Final.pdf

This tightly bunched herd of elephants speaks to the increased poaching pressure that Africa's pachyderms are encountering throughout the continent

A tightly bunched herd with trunks raised speaks to the poaching threat confronting Africa’s pachyderms

 

The Grumeti Fund is responsible for a

Responsible for 350 000 acres of the Serengeti

October marked the start of a very exciting new chapter in my life when I accepted a position with the renowned Singita Grumeti Reserves. After attending the annual Singita management conference in Cape Town, Katherine and I packed up and rented out our house before boarding an aeroplane and relocating with our two little boys to Tanzania. Sasakwa Hill in the western corridor of the world famous Serengeti ecosystem is where we will be based for the foreseeable future. I will be managing the Grumeti Fund: a dedicated conservation and community non-profit that oversees all conservation, law enforcement, community outreach, research and monitoring, and stakeholder engagement activities for the 350 000 acre Singita Grumeti Reserves concessions.

Community upliftment projects are an integral part of the strategy

Community upliftment projects are integral to success

Grumeti – one of the standout conservation success stories of the 21st century – is the brainchild of eco-philanthropist and US hedge fund owner Paul Tudor Jones. Having committed the next three years of my life to building upon the successes and hard work of my predecessors, I hope to see Grumeti continue to evolve and develop into one of the most widely recognised and respected conservation projects on the continent. The model of eco-philanthropy in combination with delegated reserve management – a form of conservation outsourcing if you like – to a well-resourced private sector partner may well be the saving grace and future of protected area management. It’s a model that offers a viable solution and ray of sunshine in the face of the relentless poaching onslaught currently confronting cash-strapped African governments that are woefully unprepared for dealing with it.

There are no shortage of challenges operating a complex conservation project of this nature, but being right at the coalface with an unequivocal mandate and  the necessary resources to truly make a difference is a very exciting place to be, so watch this space for further details as the Grumeti conservation story continues to unfold.

Singita Grumeti Fund 079 (Manchira)

An elite Grumeti Fund game scout team from the Special Operations Group conducts a training drill

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