Posts Tagged ‘Tanzania’

Grumeti Camping, Chem Chem and Zanzibar, Tanzania – May & June 2018

Sunday morning runs with the boys on their bikes enjoying the wide-open Serengeti plains

Sunday morning runs with the boys on their bikes enjoying the wide-open plains of western Serengeti

Even though we live inside the game reserve, it is important we take the time to get out with our children and go camping inside the protected area. At four and two years of age, camping is one of Charlie and Ollie’s favourite things to do. We have the option of a rustic tented camp called Bangwezi in Ikorongo – a beautifully remote part of the concession – as well as a couple of great wild campsites on the banks of the Grumeti River.

Swimming and camping next to the Grumeti River

Swimming and camping next to the Grumeti River

Wild camping on a sandy beach next to the Grumeti is everyone’s absolute best. We typically drive out mid-afternoon, arriving at the river in time to go swimming on a shallow sandbar before lighting a fire and setting up our tents. After an active afternoon of swimming and playing in the river, a braai really hits the spot with the grand finale being cooking marshmallows over the fire. It doesn’t take long for the boys to collapse into bed in the tent, leaving the adults to sit around the fire chatting and enjoying a civilized beer. It is at this time of night that the Serengeti really comes to life. And it isn’t uncommon to hear hyena, lion, leopard, elephant and buffalo in and around the camp at night!

Chem Chem game drive

Elephants are a big hit on Chem Chem game drives

It is not just the western Serengeti that we endeavour to make a point of exploring, whenever we get a rare opportunity in amongst the busy Singita Grumeti Fund (www.singitagrumetifund.org) conservation projects, we try to take a gap and escape for a few days to recharge the batteries. The opportunity to return to Chem Chem in June. Situated between Tarangire and Manyara, Chem Chem is a special place and conservation project on the up. I had some meetings and discussions scheduled with the enthusiastic local conservation manager, and the Chem Chem folks generously invited Katherine and me to bring our boys along to test out the new exclusive-use Chem Chem Forest Camp (www.chemchemsafari.com/article/announcing-forest-chem-chem) as part of their soft opening. My mom joined us to take care of the kids during our meetings and it proved a winning formula for everyone involved!

Forest Chem Chem lounge and dining area

Forest Chem Chem lounge and indoor dining area

Nestled in a pocket of fever trees next to the Tarangire River with two vintage tents and one four-person family tent, the beautifully appointed camp sleeps up to six adults and two children. Inspired by fever trees in blossom, the design and feel of Forest Chem Chem is resplendent with hues of soft yellow, gentle grey and rich black. Designed to bring people together whether sitting around a giant outdoor wooden table or crackling campfire, exclusive Forest Chem Chem provides is a luxurious bush camp in the heart of Tanzania. With its understated luxury, delicious food and privacy, this is the ideal place for families and friends to reconnect with the nature, with each other and with themselves.

Eating on the beach with sand between your toes

Dinner on the beach with sand between your toes

Leaving the giant tuskers of Chem Chem behind, we flew across to Pongwe Beach (http://pongwe.com) on the east coast of Zanzibar. The beachfront rooms of Pongwe Beach Hotel are situated on a picture-perfect private beach with white powdery sands, turquoise waters and shady palm trees. In stark contrast to the rest of the frenetic island, Pongwe Beach is one of Zanzibar’s most relaxing hotels with a stress-free environment in a stunning location. A beautiful infinity pool means swimming sessions can alternate between the azure Indian Ocean waters and the wave-free swimming pool. The food is also outstanding and the menu child-friendly. All in all, the place is great.

Quality family time at Pongwe Beach

Quality family time at Pongwe Beach

It is very seldom that I return somewhere I have travelled before… The world seems too big and has too much new to offer for me to be revisiting places I have already seen and experienced. There is also that nagging suspicion in the back of my mind saying ‘what if the place doesn’t live up to my last visit or meet my expectations?’

So perhaps the greatest accolade I can pay the friendly, laid back Pongwe Beach Hotel is that we enjoyed our second stay here even more than our Christmas visit 18 months ago!

The magical infinity pool at Pongwe Beach Hotel

The magical infinity pool at Pongwe Beach Hotel on the east coast of Zanzibar

New SGF Canine Unit and Chem Chem Safari, Tanzania – Sept & Oct 2017

DJ searching

Radar searches a building for hidden ivory as part of a canine unit training exercise

On September 11th four very special rescue dogs – Tony, DJ, Radar and Popo – arrived at Singita Grumeti. Carefully selected and rigorously trained by Montana-based Working Dogs for Conservation (https://wd4c.org), the two Belgian Malinois and two chocolate Labrador mixes were painstakingly transformed from a ragtag bunch of mutts into a formidable quartet of highly-driven law enforcement canines.

Tony prepares for detection work

Tony prepares for detection work

After their lengthy travel ordeal from Virginia to Tanzania, the dogs quickly settled into their new African surroundings and state-of-the-art kennels. Through continuous training and regular field operations, the high-functioning dogs have formed inseparable bonds with their primary handlers, working happily and tirelessly to protect the Serengeti’s unparalleled wildlife.

The new Singita Grumeti Canine Unit is a great example of a successful collaboration between aligned conservation organisations and generous donors with a shared desire to safeguard the threatened wildlife resources of the western Serengeti ecosystem. Guided by the expertise and experience of Working Dogs for Conservation, the Singita Grumeti Fund (www.singitagrumetifund.org) created the new canine law enforcement unit to complement and enhance existing anti-poaching efforts and technologies.

Dj is the most formidable tracking dog

DJ and Radar are the most formidable tracking dogs

The Singita Grumeti canine handlers and their relentlessly determined four-legged law enforcement recruits are a potent team that supports a network of game scout patrol camps, strategically-located observation posts, rapid reaction anti-poaching teams, reconnaissance drones and covert cameras.

The dogs have been taught to detect wildlife contraband – including ivory, rhino horn, pangolin scales, bushmeat, weapons and ammunition – as well as to track poachers. Further target scents, such as poison and even wire snares, will be added in due course. And it is expected that illegal incursions and poaching incidence within the protected area will drop as word spreads of the dogs’ detection skills and seemingly psychic tracking abilities, creating a powerful deterrent effect to would-be poachers.

For further info check out: https://wd4c.org/tanzaniaantipoaching.html

The Singita Grumeti Fund Canine Unit dog handlers

The Singita Grumeti Fund Canine Unit dog handlers ably led by Mgoye Rugatiri

 

Conservation collaboration with Chem Chem

Omo is Chem Chem's most famous and adored giraffe

Omo the leucistic giraffe

Building upon my mid-year visit to Chem Chem and an invitation from the owners, Katherine and I took our two boys with on a ‘working holiday’ long weekend to Little Chem Chem and Chem Chem Lodge (http://www.chemchemsafari.com) in late October.

The purpose of this visit was to engage with Fabia, Nicolas and the rest of the Chem Chem conservation team to share ideas, experiences and best practices in an effort to learn from each other and to support like-minded conservation organizations.

The Chem Chem team really pulled out all the stops to make us feel welcome and I believe our three days together laid a very solid foundation for greater collaboration and idea-sharing in the future. It was also reassuring to see how much of our conservation and community development thinking aligned – albeit on a slightly different scale – and I have no doubt that the relationship will continue to strengthen over time. We now look forward to hosting Nicolas, Fabia and Riccardo at Grumeti in early in 2018.

Lake Manyara with its rich food sourceis a seasonal haven for flamingoes, storks and pelicans

Lake Manyara with its rich food sourceis a seasonal haven for flamingoes, storks and pelicans

Northern Safari Circuit and Isla Mujeres, Tanzania & Mexico – July & Aug 2017

The Rufiji River must be home to one of the most impressive concentrations of crocodiles on the continent

The Rufiji River is home to one of the most impressive concentrations of crocodiles on the continent

Towards the end of July, I met up with old friends from North Carolina who were on a month-long East African safari extravaganza. Having finished up in Kenya, I joined them for the Tanzanian portion of their safari adventure, which included forays into the Selous, Manyara, Grumeti and Serengeti Lamai.

Open-air accommodations at Kiba Point

Open-air accommodations at Kiba Point

Our first port-of-call was the 50,000 square kilometre Selous game reserve. Kiba Point (http://www.nomad-tanzania.com/south/kiba-point-selous), situated a mile downstream of Sand Rivers, is Nomad’s flagship private safari camp in the Selous. It’s an idyllic family-friendly retreat on the banks of the perennial Rufiji River in the heart of the Selous’ main tourism area. Boasting four impressively large, open-air rooms – each with its own deck and plunge pool – we were able to appreciate the thrill of swimming and sleeping within earshot of hungry hippos and enigmatic elephants.

Although the Selous is famed for its enormous elephant herds, poaching has inflicted catastrophic losses on these giant pachyderms with the elephant population collapsing from 110,000 to 43,000 in five years. First-hand evidence of the elephant genocide that has ravaged the Selous was evident from the fact that during our five days in the heart of the game reserve, during a peak wildlife-viewing month, we never actually saw a single elephant. The stomach-churning magnitude of the slaughter defies belief.

Stiegler's Gorge

The raw wilderness of Stiegler’s Gorge

By contrast the picturesque Rufiji River must have one of the highest densities of big crocodiles for any waterway in Africa! And it is the river, along with spectacular Stiegler’s Gorge, that is the modern-day highlight of any Selous safari. What a shame that Tanzania’s thirst for hydropower will rob the world of this iconic natural asset and quite likely cost the Selous its precarious World Heritage Site status in the process.

After exploring the beleaguered wilderness of Selous, we climbed aboard our Cessna Caravan and flew to Manyara airstrip and transferred to the ‘slow safari’ destination of Chem Chem Lodge (http://www.chemchemsafari.com) on the eastern edge of Lake Manyara. Aptly known as ‘the sunset camp’, it’s luxurious without being lavish, blending in with the unfenced wilderness of the Burunge Wildlife Management Area and forming an important wildlife corridor between Lake Manyara and the wildlife-rich Tarangire National Park.

Emilio

Chem Chem super-tusker Emilio

Chem Chem has much to recommend it: top quality guiding (with Alex), attentive management (from Kelly), outstanding food, friendly staff and a diverse range of safari activities. From gawking at the giant flocks flamingos and enjoying sunset drinks overlooking Lake Manyara to Masaai-guided bush walks and game drives on Little Chem Chem, there is something to appeal to everyone. But for most visitors, Chem Chem’s greatest drawcard is its staggering concentrations of elephants – and especially its giant tuskers.  They are indeed a sight to behold when jostling and cavorting at a busy waterhole on the Little Chem Chem concession.

Our next stop on the itinerary was no more than a stone’s throw from home for me at the exclusive-use Singita Serengeti House (https://singita.com/lodge/singita-serengeti-house/) at the base of Sasakwa Hill. Completely refurbished in mid-2017, the newly appointed Serengeti House embodies sophisticated safari living with a relaxed family-orientated atmosphere in the Grumeti Game Reserve: one of Africa’s most iconic conservation areas. Thanks to the outstanding work of the Singita Grumeti Fund (www.singitagrumetifund.org) the 350,000 acre concession has been secured and rejuvenated to once again harbour wildlife populations and animal densities that rival the very best in Africa. Singita Grumeti is a genuine conservation success story and a beacon of hope for what can be achieved with an effective public-private partnership.

Female leopard

The Mkomre female leopard prepares to hunt

In amongst a plethora of quality sightings, we enjoyed excellent leopard, lion and cheetah viewing. A procession of thirsty animals queued up to slake their thirst at the waterhole in front of the camp and we notched up sightings of elephant, buffalo, giraffe, zebra, hyena and cheetah without even climbing out of the swimming pool! Add to this ultra-luxurious accommodations and attentive service, and Serengeti House is one of those rare safari lodges where you quite legitimately feel that you don’t even need to go out on game drive, because the animals come to you.

The grand finale – from a wildlife perspective – was a short plane hop away in Lamai where the wildebeest migration was in full swing already. We stayed at Nomad’s self-contained Mkombe House (http://www.nomad-tanzania.com/north/mkombes-house-lamai). Beautifully styled, the private house has a fresh contemporary feel, although the lack of an outdoor fireplace and heavily chlorinated swimming pool were a disappointment.

Wildebeest dominate the Lamai landscape

Wildebeest dominate the Lamai landscape

Designed for families and thoughtfully built around the rocks of the Kogakuria Kopje, it is conveniently located in the midst of one of Serengeti’s richest wildlife habitats with magnificent views across the Northern Serengeti towards the Mara River.

Sadly, the Lamai is no longer the safari backwater it once was and after the privacy and seclusion of the Singita Grumeti concessions, sharing our wildlife sightings and avoiding the safari hordes took some getting used to again. But, with careful planning and sensible route choices, we managed to notch up some sensational sightings of a female leopard and her cub on a wildebeest kill, lions taking down a wildebeest, a gigantic crocodile snatching a wildebeest during a river crossing, and carpets of noisy wildebeest that stretched as far as the eye could see. The ungainly gnu dominating the Lamai action!

Lamai

Elephant sunrise on our final morning game drive: a fitting finale to an epic Tanzanian safari experience

 

Isla Mujeres – Mexico

Dinner on the beach

Dinner on the beach

Picture-prefect Isla Mujeres (http://www.isla-mujeres.net) – The Island of Women – is a beautiful, peaceful paradise lapped by warm, turquoise waters. Known for its beautiful white-sand beaches, calm crystal-clear waters, and the friendliest people in the Mexican Caribbean, the island is a sun-seeker and beach goer’s paradise. Just five miles long and half-a-mile wide at its widest point, and located a mere eight miles across the Bahia de Mujeres from Cancun, Isla Mujeres couldn’t be any more different to its more illustrious and horribly over-developed neighbour.

For hundreds of years Isla Mujeres was nothing more than a sleepy fishing village and even though it has evolved to embrace a tourism-driven economy, the charming island still retains its laid-back vibe and tranquil atmosphere. A rich Mayan heritage further infuses the vibrant island life and culture.

The boys celebrating another day in paradise!

The boys celebrating another day of island life!

As we explored the island and strolled through the narrow streets, we saw local families gathered together in Caribbean-style homes tucked between small hotels and lively restaurants, giving the island a small town feeling that’s light years away from the high-rise hotels and designer stores of Cancun on the Mexican mainland.

Playa Norte – AKA North Beach – is considered by many to be the best beach in all of Mexico. With soft white sand, idyllic palm trees and water so blue that the sky looks pale, North Beach is the quintessential place to relax and destress. To ensure we were able to maximize our beach time, we opted to stay at the super-relaxed and kid-friendly Nauti Beach – http://nautibeach.com/en/ – adjoining this iconic strip on bone-white sand in the north of the island. The self-catering hotel proved an inspired choice and when our week was up nobody wanted to get back on the ferryboat for the short return cruise to the Mexican mainland and back to reality.

Idyllic Playa Norte on the northern tip of Isla Mujeres is picture-perfect

Lapped by gin-clear waters, idyllic Playa Norte on Isla Mujeres is the quintessential island paradise

Climbing Kilimanjaro via the Lemosho Route, Tanzania – March 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

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

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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