Serengeti balloon ride (& more, of course)

This was our first ride in a balloon, and I loved it! Steve was just “ho hum”.

_DSC4712.JPG

The basket is on its side for loading, and you are in “astronaut position” for takeoff and landing.

IMG_20190619_064229.jpg
IMG_20190619_064534.jpg

That’s our heads/hats you see near this end of the balloon. We were supposed to stay seated after the balloon righted, until our pilot told us it was ok to stand up. We were the second of two balloons taking off that morning.

_DSC4715.JPG

We didn’t have a clear sky for sunrise, but the light later in the morning was sure pretty.

_DSC4723.JPG

In case you’re wondering, balloons are usually flown in the morning when winds are calmest. The pilot has to essentially go where the winds blow, but can change elevation to catch potentially slower or faster winds, or even somewhat different directions. There was some kind of pocket at the bottom of the canopy that our pilot could control, so that the basket was able to turn:

As you could hear, the flame blasts were really loud, and we found that they really scared the animals on the ground. We definitely didn’t sneak up on them, and in fact, a herd of elephants below us trumpeted loudly and ran off into the forest, terrified.

_DSC4752.JPG

Not necessarily the peaceful floating I envisioned. Overall, however, the entire hour’s ride passed in a flash for me, and I just loved the sensation.

We generally followed the Grumeti river in Western Serengeti -

_DSC4756.JPG

…and when we dropped down some, I found an interesting set of tracks:

Momma and baby hippo

Momma and baby hippo

_DSC4779.JPG

We landed in a clearing that a herd of buffalo had recently evacuated:

_DSC4787.JPG

This is moonset one morning -

_DSC4471.JPG

…in contrast to the same morning’s sunrise:

_DSC4472.JPG

This is the interesting tale of that day -

Our guide got the report that there were a pair of lions mating, so we headed in that direction. On our arrival, we found:

_DSC4594.JPG

Our guide informed us that lions will mate 400 times over the 4 days they’re together. So we waited.

After an hour (when other vehicles came, watched and waited, and left) we saw the male get up and were hopeful…

_DSC4618.JPG

He just wanted a sunbath.

He then came back and showed off for her:

_DSC4651.JPG

…but he was tired -

_DSC4653.JPG

…and she wasn’t very impressed -

_DSC4642.JPG

So we waited, and waited…

Over 3 hours after we had settled in, we got this video:

Darn. We must have caught them on the fourth day.

Now, I must include pictures of the primates we saw. First, the Black-and-White Colobus Monkey (we first saw them in the tops of the trees along the river as we soared over) -

notice the fluffy white tail hanging well below him

notice the fluffy white tail hanging well below him

Vervet (or Black-faced) Monkey:

_DSC4854 Vervet (black-faced) Monkey.JPG

and last, but least, Olive Baboons. First, creepy old man -

_DSC4819.JPG

very young one -

_DSC4849.JPG

…and of course, The End.

_DSC4553 crop.jpg

More animals??

Here’s a collection of different animals to show the tip of the iceberg of diversity we saw.

Thomson’s gazelle

Thomson’s gazelle

Grant’s gazelles (longer, backward curving horns and no dark body stripe)

Grant’s gazelles (longer, backward curving horns and no dark body stripe)

_DSC4306 male Impala.JPG

This male Impala looked like he was posing at a show.

_DSC4309.JPG
Coke’s Hartebeest (Kongoni) - native to Kenya and Tanzania

Coke’s Hartebeest (Kongoni) - native to Kenya and Tanzania

Reedbuck

Reedbuck

Eland

Eland

_DSC4417.JPG

Defassa Waterbuck (female above, male below)

_DSC4451.JPG

Now to the smallest members of the antelope family. These pictures aren’t the greatest. I have better ones in the next National Park we went to, after Serengeti. Note the grasses - they are about knee-high.

Dik-dik

Dik-dik

Klipspringer

Klipspringer

And now for our favorite “animal we had never heard of” - Topi.

_DSC4484 Topi.JPG
Topi with female Impalas

Topi with female Impalas

Well, that was all the “ungulates” that I captured, but I just discovered that these are ungulates too!

It took over 6 minutes of videoing before I got their vocalizations.

I was surprised at the pink:

_DSC4913.JPG

Again, the feet are so interesting -

_DSC4916.JPG

Here was a shot from an earlier day that made me smile:

_DSC2562.JPG

The animals just keep coming!

You’ve only gotten a tantalizing view of our largest friends (one of the butt shots), so now I’ll treat you to more. At first we were seeing them at some distance -

_DSC2546.JPG

On another day, a large herd passed right by us.

_DSC3357.JPG

Later that same day (!) we were driving by a water hole where another (or the same?) large herd of elephants was really enjoying the coolness…

…and a convenient rock for that annoying itch -

Ok, on this same awesome day, I captured a fascinating interaction between two predators. Our story starts with a Saddle-billed Stork:

_DSC3461.JPG

…that caught a fish -

_DSC3475 Saddle-billed Stork.JPG

An African Fish Eagle tried to seize the opportunity -

_DSC3489.JPG

…and they both lost out.

_DSC3495.JPG

This same day we were treated to a leopard lounging in a tree:

_DSC2893.JPG

He decided to get down -

_DSC2912.JPG

…and walk along the road,

_DSC2937.JPG

…before settling in another tree.

_DSC2994.JPG

Now, we’ll finally go on to the next day. So far, all the pictures you’ve seen have been from our first 2 days!

Besides this darling baby giraffe, I also managed to capture a number of Lovebirds flying right in front of him.

_DSC3869.JPG

His escort appeared to be saying, “you can’t see me”:

_DSC3878.JPG

“peek-a-boo”

_DSC3881.JPG
_DSC3889.JPG

We found the same lion pride we’d seen the past 2 days -

_DSC3944.JPG

and PaPa had decided to join them.

_DSC3972.JPG
_DSC3979.JPG

So, then, we finally saw some Cape Buffalo -

_DSC4321.JPG

and this hippo appeared to enjoy photo bombing -

_DSC4326.JPG

Check out the relative sizes:

_DSC4350.JPG

I’ll close with some pretty friends:

_DSC3615.JPG
_DSC3619.JPG

More Serengeti

I just have so many pictures that I want to share, but it’s so hard to choose…

Today, we’ll shift to lions.

_DSC2406.JPG

This pride of 2 females (one wearing a tracking collar) and 7 cubs were enjoying a breakfast of wildebeest.

It was amazing how close our vehicle could come to any animal without disrupting their normal behavior. They definitely became accustomed to the large metal box that rolled along the roads next to them. We were not perceived as danger, or humans, as they couldn’t see our upright forms, or smell us. Shutters clicking weren’t distracting either, but our voices would catch their attention sometimes, so we tried to be silent when we’d stop to observe and photograph.

“awww Ma, I don’t need a bath”

“awww Ma, I don’t need a bath”

And despite the gorging on fresh meat…

_DSC2450.JPG

…some still wanted a milk top-off.

_DSC2519.JPG

The next morning, we found the same pride enjoying the early morning sunshine.

_DSC3262.JPG
_DSC3263.JPG
_DSC3288.JPG

That same morning, we had started just after dawn, enjoying the cool air with a spotted hyena family.

_DSC3085.JPG

Babies of any species are just so cute!

_DSC3104.JPG

The youngsters are usually quite curious -

Now, just some random, but neat shots I got on this same day.

Our sharp eyed guide saw these young lions on a kill, well off the main road, so we did a little non-sanctioned off roading to get closer.

_DSC3137.JPG

These hyenas were hoping for leftovers:

_DSC3158.JPG

Down the road aways, we saw our only cheetah of the entire trip, and he/she wasn’t interested in giving this paparazzi any really good shots.

_DSC3180.JPG
_DSC3218 crop.jpg

Warthogs are so ugly, they’re kinda cute. (they were really hard to get pictures of, because they usually ran off, with their tails sticking straight up, as soon as they saw the vehicle, or the engine turned off.)

_DSC3124.JPG
_DSC5092.JPG

I liked the mud/water line on these guys:

_DSC4996.JPG

This male ostrich (check out his feet) was at the same water hole, trying to scare off the resident hyenas…

_DSC5027.JPG

…without much luck. (He’s in his pink breeding coloration.)

_DSC5018.JPG

This water hole tableau was pretty cool -

_DSC5030.JPG

The bird in the center is a Secretarybird - a “terrestrial bird of prey”.

_DSC4999.JPG

Steve was impressed with this fact - according to the counter on my camera, I took 4700 pictures on our two week safari alone. Obviously, I kept only a small percent. Hoping to keep your boredom to a minimum, I’ll close with this Serengeti sunset (that Steve actually took!).

IMG_20190616_181918.jpg

Serengeti safari

We stayed at 4 different camps during our 15 days on safari. Our first one was in the central Serengeti, and we were blown away by the wildlife - quantity and variety. Just on our drive from the airstrip to our camp, we saw ostriches, giraffes, lions, elephant, hippos, jackals, wildebeest, zebras, impalas and even a leopard with her cub!

_DSC2276.JPG

Interestingly, we had a private flight from Kilimanjaro airport to the Serengeti airstrip (luckily, didn’t have to pay for private!). Our initial landing had to be aborted, and we pulled up and flew around again for another approach, due to a warthog on the runway! The pilots say wildlife on these isolated airstrips is a common occurrence.

Black-backed Jackal

Black-backed Jackal

We were thrilled to discover that the Wildebeest migration had arrived in central Serengeti 2 days before we did.

_DSC2286.JPG
_DSC2239.JPG

It was interesting to watch their behavior. It wasn’t rutting season, but there were always a couple of fellas sparring…

_DSC2724.JPG

…and they’d get down on their knees to do it.

_DSC2658.JPG

The following video helps share the immense expanse of the Serengeti, as well as the enormous numbers of animals involved (estimates peg it at over 1 million - wildebeest alone). Our guide called the grunting of the wildebeest “bush music”. (please forgive my jerkiness as a videographer, as well as my trying to avoid the supports of the elevated roof of our vehicle)

_DSC2732.JPG

I marveled at the patterns created by a mass of horns -

_DSC2692.JPG

…and smiled at the baby ones.

_DSC2662.JPG

As you’ve probably already noticed, there were quite a few zebras mixed in amongst the wildebeest. At midday, they commonly rested their heads on each others’ back, facing in opposite directions to keep a watchful eye.

_DSC2700.JPG

Their stripes are mesmerizing.

_DSC2614.JPG

It’s particularly cool how they continue up into the mane:

_DSC3653.JPG

Then I became obsessed with butts -

_DSC2730.JPG
_DSC3426.JPG

If I come across some others, as I continue to peruse the hundreds of pictures I have, I’ll be sure and share!

Rwanda vs DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo)

I wrote down a number of notes comparing and contrasting the two countries, and thought I’d share that with you, along with photos.

Leaving Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, just after dawn -

_DSC1805.JPG

Rwanda is known as the Land of a Thousand Hills, and it was truly beautiful, and very clean.

_DSC1826.JPG

Nearly every inch of land is farmed and terraced, including way up some pretty steep peaks.

_DSC1824.JPG

All along the road were various species of eucalyptus, and I loved the different shades of green.

_DSC1835.JPG

The sides of the roadway were swept clean by “little old ladies” with short brooms made of tree branches or twigs. We drove along this road for 3 hours from Kigali to Goma, DRC and never saw any trash, and even very few leaves in the gutters. We passed many people walking to or from market (it was Sunday) dressed in very colorful clothes and carrying their bundles on their heads. (forgive some of these pictures for being blurry, as I took them out the window as we were driving)

_DSC1845.JPG

Tea plantation below with eucalyptus trees marching up the hill -

_DSC1848.JPG

We passed many bikes being ridden or pushed up hills with huge loads of charcoal:

_DSC1850.JPG

The contrast between the Rwandan countryside and the urban sprawl of Goma, DRC was shocking:

_DSC1864.JPG

Mount Nyiragongo, the volcano that we climbed, erupted in 2002, and destroyed about 50% of Goma. Today, it looked like they still hadn’t cleaned much up.

_DSC1869.JPG

I had noticed that in Rwanda, almost all dwellings were built of concrete or brick and had wooden doors. In DRC, the buildings were constructed of wood and had curtains at the front door.

Along this main street in Goma, you can see how colorfully dressed the people are for Sunday, and the packages they carry on their heads - including plastic chairs to take to church so you have somewhere to sit:

_DSC1863.JPG

Leaving Goma, we had to stop at this Ebola check station, where you had to leave the car, wash your hands from the taps dispensing bleach solution, and have your temperature taken at your temple by the people in the small building -

_DSC1873.JPG

The barrier across the road:

_DSC1874.JPG

The ranger station just inside Virunga National Park,

_DSC1876.JPG

…where we picked up our armed escort to our lodgings.

_DSC1880.JPG

Along the way, we passed the Congo version of “cheap” transportation -

_DSC1882.JPG

…and on the side road up to our lodgings, roadside deals:

_DSC1890.JPG

Throughout the Congo countryside, kids would run out and wave, yelling “Muzungu” which means “white people”.

_DSC1891.JPG

Once we went up the hill, the patchwork of colors associated with farming was quite soothing after the noise and grime of the city.

_DSC1901.JPG

Taking a walk through the nearby village attracted a large following (and reminded me of our village walk in the Solomon Islands) -

_DSC2139.JPG

It’s common for the little ones who can’t walk yet to be carried on their mother’s backs in a cloth sling, but we occasionally saw older siblings helping out also:

this picture was actually taken  in Rwanda, but fit the narrative here

this picture was actually taken in Rwanda, but fit the narrative here

These wooden bicycles carried huge loads from farms to markets (and don’t have brakes) -

_DSC2137.JPG

To close this portion of the blog, I’ll finish with sunset over Mt. Nyiragongo - the volcano that we hiked. Next post begins the safari portion of our trip.

_DSC2149.JPG

Nyiragongo volcano, DRC

Since the largest lava lake in the world was within Virunga National Park (where we communed with the gorillas), we figured we might as well hike up to it. We started at 6,560 ft elevation and climbed to 11,385 ft over 4.25 miles. Our track was essentially straight up. They estimate that it will take you 4-6 hours to reach the summit, and we were confident that after all our training throughout May, we would complete it on the shorter end of the estimate. However, an older couple in our group caused us to complete the hike in a little over 5 hours. To be honest, we were the only 2 tourists in our group. :)

on a deceptively “flat” part of the trail

on a deceptively “flat” part of the trail

We were extremely lucky with the weather, as we didn’t get rained on during the climb (and the descent), as this is a common occurrence. This was my worst nightmare, as I HATE being cold and wet.

There were 4 rest stops along the way, and the climbing and pitch became progressively harder, the closer we got to the summit. I was able to take medication to avoid altitude sickness, but Steve is allergic to it, so couldn’t. Since he didn’t have any troubles when we were hiking the Andes in Peru, we didn’t think we’d have much difficulty with this. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to acclimatize like we did in the Andes. Our pace up the mountain felt glacial at times, but we just kept putting “one foot in front of the other”. About 2 hours in, Steve started feeling cramping in his legs, that progressed to full on cramps in his thighs and near muscle exhaustion. We would walk up about 5 minutes, then rest 2-3, then continue on. (we had porters carrying our bags, water, camera, lens and tripod, but Steve had his usual backpack on for our water and jackets.) I borrowed his phone to take a quick picture of the terrain, and the path. Loose volcanic rock (scree) is the pits to walk on - up or down.

IMG_20190611_144339.jpg

When we got to the fourth (and last) rest stop, Steve called for a longer break.

IMG_20190611_144424.jpg

That was Adolph, our lead guide/park ranger, who kept us safe, along with the 5-6 other armed guards who accompanied us up the mountain.

This was our goal - the huts at the summit:

IMG_20190611_144519.jpg

…and then up close:

_DSC2169.JPG

The far hut pictured was the kitchen hut, which even though having the open side, was thankfully warm from the charcoal fire in the decrepit metal brazier over which our amazingly tasty dinner of steaks (!), vegetable medley and potatoes was cooked.

Ok, ok… pictures of this “world famous” lava lake…

IMG_20190612_060356.jpg

Our first views were during day light, and were quite breath-taking, but nothing compared to after dark.

The caldera (that forms the crater around the central lava lake) is 1.2 km across, and we had great views when we first arrived.

_DSC2183.JPG

But it was after dark when the real show began. Unfortunately, it was cloudy and starting to sprinkle after dinner, so I gave up after 1/2 hour of waiting for it to clear, hoping that before sunrise, it would clear up enough to get some good shots—which it did:

_DSC2187.JPG
IMG_20190611_185124.jpg
_DSC2194.JPG

On our way down, Steve took this reminder shot of where we’d been. Our thighs are still screaming at us, 36 hours later.

IMG_20190612_074425.jpg

Next stop - safari in Tanzania, where we may not have Internet, so you may not hear from me until July.

Gorilla family time

First, some info about the family we saw. They have a total of 34 in that particular troop and we saw 28 of them! We found out later that we were quite lucky to come upon them just lounging around and grooming (and this may have been helped by us being the only 2 on the trek that day) We were also told that we were the first tourists to see a newborn that the rangers were seeing for the first time. We had to wear masks because we don’t want to risk passing any human diseases to the gorillas.

IMG_20190610_100944.jpg

This next video that Steve shot of toddlers in a tree shows just how close we were -

In this next video, at first you’ll see the silverback grooming another gorilla (which was very surprising to Steve and me - we figured the “chief” didn’t do anything except eat, sleep, mate and ward off usurpers). Then you see the youngsters playing and acting just like human kids. Then the focus goes on a gorilla in the back, which was the new mother grooming her baby’s stomach and the baby hanging upside down over her arm (this part’s hard to tell - I’ll have some stills later).

Just above the silverback’s head is the newborn’s upside down face -

_DSC2059.JPG

When I zoomed in, at first I thought it was nursing, but it looks like it’s sucking its thumb!

_DSC2063.JPG

Momma holding the baby foot:

_DSC2069.JPG

Baby fingers:

_DSC2070.JPG

Peek-a-boo!

_DSC2071.JPG

Time for another video - watch the youngsters at play; see just how massive the silverback is compared to the others (he can weigh more than 400 lbs, while females are often half that size); note the downed branches and leaves that we were standing on.

Interestingly, each gorilla’s nose is unique. Now for some more candid shots -

_DSC2030.JPG
_DSC2003.JPG

Looks like a hug to me (!) :

_DSC2105.JPG
_DSC2036.JPG

Next post is about our hike up Nyiragongo volcano. Until next time…

_DSC2016.JPG

Eats shoots and leaves

With some trepidation (and much fear on the part of our families), we went to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to see Eastern Mountain gorillas up close and personal in their own habitat. And we got them in spades! I wanted to get out a quick blog and share just a few of the amazing pictures we got, while we still had WiFi. Amazingly, we had WiFi deep in the jungle in the Congo!

We hiked about 3 miles over 1 1/2 hours, up and down the mountains and through the jungle. At first, it was a well worn packed mud path -

(yes, we had 10 armed guards accompanying us)

(yes, we had 10 armed guards accompanying us)

that quickly turned to jungle.

_DSC1922.JPG

This was my first picture of our new friends and was taken with my regular lens -

_DSC1926.JPG

as was this one of the dominant silverback:

_DSC1930.JPG

Then I really went to town with my long lens:

_DSC1946.JPG
_DSC1955.JPG

Their hands and feet were almost as interesting as their eyes -

_DSC1962.JPG
(check out the various feet in this picture)

(check out the various feet in this picture)

I need to keep this post short, as we have to get up early to go hike up a volcano tomorrow. I’ll leave you with a promise of videos in a future post, as well as a few more of the highlights.

_DSC1968.JPG
_DSC2027.JPG

I’ll end with The Thinker:

_DSC2080.JPG