By Martyn Bowen
Martyn Bowen, born and brought up in Tanzania, now visits Africa as regularly as possible – his job in Europe with a sports company encompasses Africa in his area of responsibility, and he always takes the opportunity to combine business with what he sees as his obligation to bring both the magic and the precariousness of Africa to the attention of his own small universe. With the aim of raising awareness in the developing world, it is the least he could do for a continent that has given him so much. Here he shares his recent experiences at Kwihala Camp with us.
Lorenzinis Ampullae are sensors that sharks use to sense the presence of other animals in their vicinity – supplementing the other senses such as sight, sound and smell. The use of all senses other than the obvious one of sight is a huge advantage when looking for game in the wilds of Africa. When the haystack you are looking for a needle in is the size of Ruaha National Park, then you take all the help you can. Kwihala guides Festo and Pietro and indeed the eponymous Lorenzo possess these additional senses in abundance. It is no myth to relate that the leopard Festo found was sensed rather than seen. While driving in the early morning looking for a totally different species of cat, the alarm call of the baboons immediately set off the ampullae in Festo’s sensors. Baboons don’t bark like that at nothing, and as a professional guide, one is well advised to heed the call of the wild. Firstly locate the baboons (up in the trees clearly keeping something in sight) and then switch on the other senses. When the leopard did eventually come into sight, crossing the road at a trot, the sense of satisfaction was similar to solving a particularly difficult cryptic crossword clue. The cause of the noise was a slightly built young female leopard, clearly on the move, checking scent marks at every bush, possibly scouting for evidence of the territorial male.
Years of observation tell one that the vultures are not roosting, nor just resting but indeed waiting for the lions invisible from the road, to move on… the speed at which a vulture comes out of the sky will indicate whether he is looking for a roost or a snack. What is the instinct that tells us the buffalo may well be coming down to drink but are not alone – someone is watching them, even if we can’t see them? The behaviour of the buffaloes themselves is the best evidence.
I was lucky enough to revisit this park with my two sons having first visited as a seven year old some time in the seventies. And I have to realise that much like language skills which get rusty if not used, so are the observational skills, but constant use and observing the guides brings the old skills back to life, as well as opening up new ones. It was just as exciting to analyse a hole in the riverbank and hear the two guides conclude it was a pangolin, not an aardvark, despite no sign of the animal in question. The birds are similar – if you can’t get a clear view, then maybe the way it is flying will tell you whether it is a Bateleur (balancing like the tightrope walker it is named after, as its tail is too short to add stability) or a Tawny eagle or even if you are lucky, a martial eagle. The latter has a favourite food, a tree hyrax, and their favourite mode of attack is to come straight out of the sun, where they can’t be seen. Fascinating however, is to learn that scientists have discovered a special lens in the Hyrax’s eye to be able to look directly into the sun.
And finally a word must be reserved for those great grey pachyderms which populate Ruaha seemingly everywhere – and under threat from those around them – I refer to the Great Baobab, majestically withstanding drought, elephants, and most importantly of all, time. How old a tree can get is a subject of some debate, but the myths of 10 000 year-old trees are probably just that – myths. They probably can live for up to 1500 years, and of all trees, are the only ones which can survive ringbarking by foraging animals – they survive the elephants who splinter off the pithy flesh using their tusks, and seemingly are never in leaf. For an untrained eye, the bare branches reaching up to the sky are dead. So many are the unique properties of this tree that some have contended it cannot be classified as a tree at all. But the memories as a kid of finding their fruit lying on the ground around the massive trunk, up to 30 40 metres in circumference, finding a stone to crack open the hard wooden shell covered in a soft fur, to reveal the white mint-humbug sized seeds inside – a treat for any kid to suck on and wince at the tart but sweet taste, full of ascorbic acid which also encourages the uptake of other nutrients in the bloodstream. And so it acts as a magnet for other species from fruit bats (who pollinate the blossoms which only bloom at night) through baboons all the way to elephants – and in Ruaha you will even find leopards in a baobab…
And the elephants of Ruaha? Worth a blog all of their own, but suffice it to say – when we talk of using extraordinary senses the elephant is the king – a dry river bed is for them simply a challenge – for they forget the evidence of the eyes and smell which says water has not been seen here for weeks. They sense it running underground, and possess the skill to dig perfectly formed sinkholes, lifting out the sand until they reach the water far below, and sucking it up with their trunks to squirt into their mouths. They too as a result act as a magnet for the other wildlife of Ruaha – without the elephant many other species would fail to find water, and so once more the extraordinary extra-sensory ability of one species to solve the puzzle benefits other lesser species – that is how the guides of Ruaha are to be judged – if you like Sherlock Holmes, you are just going to love Ruaha and its guides.