Serengeti balloon ride (& more, of course)

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


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


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.


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


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.


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 -


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

Momma and baby hippo

Momma and baby hippo


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


This is moonset one morning -


…in contrast to the same morning’s sunrise:


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:


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…


He just wanted a sunbath.

He then came back and showed off for her:


…but he was tired -


…and she wasn’t very impressed -


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 -


very young one -


…and of course, The End.

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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.

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

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






Defassa Waterbuck (female above, male below)


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.





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:


Again, the feet are so interesting -


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


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 -


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


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:


…that caught a fish -

_DSC3475 Saddle-billed Stork.JPG

An African Fish Eagle tried to seize the opportunity -


…and they both lost out.


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


He decided to get down -


…and walk along the road,


…before settling in another tree.


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.


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




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


and PaPa had decided to join them.


So, then, we finally saw some Cape Buffalo -


and this hippo appeared to enjoy photo bombing -


Check out the relative sizes:


I’ll close with some pretty friends:


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.


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…


…some still wanted a milk top-off.


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


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


Babies of any species are just so cute!


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.


These hyenas were hoping for leftovers:


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.

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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.)


I liked the mud/water line on these guys:


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


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


This water hole tableau was pretty cool -


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


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!).


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!


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.


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


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


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)


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


…and smiled at the baby ones.


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.


Their stripes are mesmerizing.


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


Then I became obsessed with butts -


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 -


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


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


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


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)


Tea plantation below with eucalyptus trees marching up the hill -


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


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


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.


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:


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 -


The barrier across the road:


The ranger station just inside Virunga National Park,


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


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


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


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


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


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


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) -


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.


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.


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


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:


…and then up close:


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…


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.


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:


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


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.


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 -


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


Momma holding the baby foot:


Baby fingers:




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 -


Looks like a hug to me (!) :


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


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.


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


as was this one of the dominant silverback:


Then I really went to town with my long lens:


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

(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.


I’ll end with The Thinker: