I have not yet smelled the kerosene of the plane that takes me there, but I is on my way to the airport. This is the place where ditties about my visual adventures therein will pop up.
Well after 2 days of airports, planes and visa ques I am in Tanzania-land, and yes as I was warned the drivers here are all mad. That is good news, as I rent a car tomorrow and mingle with the best of dem. Meantime, insects have already played a small part. Not yet inside the Kilimanjaro National Park, but in little bits of nature outside, I have found a few cuties. Swahili word for insect is dudu. Each one of these shots was literally hard won, with steep slopes, hot sun, spiny Acacias exacting a quantity of blood, rickety bridges, and a modicum of bulldust, reminding me the wet season is not here yet.
Below left is an antler fly, and yes they is eyes on the tips, and yes like deer, the boys fight with the antlers – hard to imagine the visual shock of banging eyes together… on the right is a fabulously poisonous oil beetle, with appropriate warning colours.
Below a blue eyed dragonfly watching me carefully in its territory, and a wild shield spider.
Below an unknown, subtly beautiful butterfly, and a bizzare fly with ‘thunder thighs’
And above a large carpenter bee hoeing into the flowers.
After a few exploratory trips it was time to enter the mountain. The govt of Tanzania has discovered the gentle art of hitting up fair-game whitey tourists big time. To enter through the gate, and walk on the forest path that climbers take, costs about $160 for the day. It was fascinating for me to see what has happened here since I climbed this 6000m mountain in 1975 and again in 1985 – when I was young enough to undertake this hard slog. Then I had a compulsory guide, and carried my own backpack with a small tent, porridge, peanuts, sugar and tea. It took us 3 days to get to the summit, and 2 to get back, through eye watering scenery, and almost no other humans the whole time. So imagine my shock at finding a bazaar atmosphere at the gate, with buses, trucks motorbikes and tut-tuts disgorging crowds of well dressed tourists, standing room only armies of porters and guides, and massive mounds of supplies. It is now derigeur for every climber to have two or more porters, a chef, and a guide, and to take 5 days going up (good idea to acclimatise to low oxygen), and 2 days down. So as I trundled up the forest path, at super slow looking for insects pace, I was veritably jostled by a never ending train of porters, and after the first 3 hours or so, mobs of the climbers, making as much noise as possible (one mob had a ghetto blaster with very nice base). Famous fabulous African montane forest birds must all live on the other side of the mountin now. The age of travel is over.
The everything but ….. and the kitchen sink parade. Fully madly deply hard work for these strong dudes.
So the lodge I is staying at, Kaliwa, is run by a German and a team of fabulous locals, and it works, ja. I chose it for the deck it has that looks over a rare bit of forest with the magic mountain just there. Million dollar view. See the sunrise and the sunset version of the one and only Kilimanjaro. Imagine there is a myself sittin there with a dram of good malt in the evening. Snow on the equator is pretty kooky ja.
A small story
Therein lies a tale…. In 1862 Mr Darwin was shown a weird orchid from Madagascar. It had a long nectar tube, 30cm long !! Like a proper insect man he immediately wandered what could possibly get to the nectar, stored only at the end, and predicted that a moth must exist with a proboscis 30cm long. 20 years later such a moth was found in Madagascar. So here on Kilimanjaro, I have found these cute red flowers, endemic only to the mountain, with a nectar tube about 6cm long. It too I predict is pollinated at night by a hovering hawk moth. But lo and behold, here is a very naughty weevil that is eating a hole in the tube to steal the nectar without the give and take of pollination.
Hold press ! I have found my first African insect. Let me explain. All over the world’s tropics most insect groups have very similar, though not the same species. So far I have only seen these types. But every continent has iconic in-your-face species that to an obsessive like me, ring happy alarm bells. Here in Africa, such insects often have patterns that local people use in ornamentation of shields, cloth, and other objects. What better artisitic inspiration.
Note the top left shield as a possible example…, oh and the beast itself is a shield bug in the Family Scutelleridae, a happy little sap sucker.
Well tomorrow I is off to even deeper darkerer Africa, the Usambara Mountains, which have an older more diverse rainforest than Kilimanjaro. May be offline for 4 days as it is pretty primitive there. So a quick two pics here tonite. First is the next African insect, a chafer in a group that has severially diversified in Africa, and includes some spectacular and large beetles, even the world’s largest beetle. This one is just medium sized and being a boy, has the little shovel nose.
And the second pic is one of my most fav critters on the planet – despite not being an insect. It be a chamleon, the two horned species, so its a boy, as only boys have the horns and use them to fight other boys. Note too the open mouth, as it is hissing at me. So cute.
Oh and one more while internet holds out, a 8cm long longicorn beetle that flew in last nite. Those fearsome mandibles are used to chew into wood whereupon it lays eggs of larvae that burrow through living and dead branches.
oh and one more…. these giant sluggos are engaged in the most x rated kiss I have ever had the blushing experience to see…
Six days later…
I have been slightly away from the real world. Myself and a couple of new friends went to explore the forests along a chain of mountains called the Eastern Arc. Separate blobs in this sequence have unique rainforest habitats, with speciation almost as amazing as the Congo. Alas most of this forest has been cleared, and steep hillsides denuded of all nature, to make precarious gardens, stands of ill-begotten eucalypts, and houses for the madly growing population. We explored two remnant patches, one at 1600m and the other at 900. The wet season is late so the insect activity was not great, but still an amzing experience exploring all day and deep into the nights.
Bit of a before and after, and we can leave this darker mood and get on with oogling what there was to ogle.
Oh and speaking of swarming humans, look at this market scene along the main east west road. Looks like chaos, but walk among it and it all makes sense, just so. I love the motorcycle taxis too, which carry three humans and stuff with ease. Once, alas without camera in hand, I saw one with a full size sofa strapped across the back rack, on a rough 4WD track !
There be several species of chameleons here, and long night walks have resulted in a few happy meetings. First papa chameleon, and next, the only thing cuter than a chameleon, is of course, a BABY chameleon. Dont you just have to huggle it.
One of the weirder finds has been this fly from the Robber Fly Family, Asilidae, which use those big eyes to find flying prey. Note how evolution has been playful with this species by cladding its back legs in feathers. In an infinite universe, with random mutations, anything is possible. Honest I didnt just glue disparate bits together…
Below, a tale of two monkeys. On the left the seriously handsome white colobus monkey, with truckloads of white fluff, attitude, and that bushy tail. On the right an old fart monkey enjoying the sight of the largest buttress system on any tree discovered in Tanzania, here in the Usambara hills – though not really just hills, at 1600m.
Next we have a pair of cutipie grasshoppers doing that thing, and then below a scene of serious life and death. The spider wasp has mesmerised and then paralysed this spider, and is dragging its weight to a burrow it has waiting. There it will lay eggs in it and seal up the crypt.
OK lets get the grizzly bits over and done with in one place. On another night I came upon this lovely forest scorpion munching the forest cockroach, head first of course.
After that lets see a nicer hunter, the very handsome long legged hunting fly, Family Dolichopodidae. And here lies a tale… these beautiful metallic coloured flies prance about on leaf tops, taunting poor photographers with their ace reflexes. Normally between starting to press the trigger, and the image appearing, they manage to bugger off with a giggle. But this time I was just a tad faster and caught this very rare scene of it jumping up before engaging forward flight.
During the night the rainforest comes alive with more critters and more stuff happening than in the day. Also the cooler, more humid air is good for insects to change their skin. All insects have to shed their outer exoskeleton to grow. It is a dangerous time as the new ‘skin’ is soft and ooky, and if the moult results in adult wings, those too are soft and ooky, so a preadtor could have very easy supper. First two katydid species at different stages. In the middle, it is eating the old skin while its new floppy wings dry – waste nuthin. On the right a nice crisp wet cicada, emerging for a few weeks of joyous noise making in the bright canopy, after years of undrground digging, and sucking on tree root juices.
I know i go on and on about chameleons, even though they do not have the requisite 6 legs, but they are fully paid up members of the uber-cool critters club, and always make me smile. So on the last nite in them forests, we found a few more, including the pygmy species, which would fit inside a matchbox ! Look at those tiny little hands, ooooohhh. It is probably about the second smallest lizard in the world. The smallest is also a chameleon, a species from Madagascar. So below this is a picture from my Madagascar trip, with the ridiculously smallest species dwarfed by the hand they happily sit on. They hunt among the dry leaf litter, very camouflaged, stalking insects that may easily be bigger than them.
And just to shut me up, here is one of the other species we hassled that night. They dont seem to mind. Some hiss at first – so cuuute – but then settle into being cool calm dudes.
Well after the last days especially, in a colonial guesthouse where the dry season took away running water, and the gods took away electricity bits, its sooo luverly to be back at the Kilimanjaro Kaliwa Lodge, with mod cons and fabulously nice humans. Long shower later the grime of the tropical slog, and bulldust roads, is a distant memory.
Next day explored the Moshi lowland rainforest, alas still minus the rain. Not many insects, but among them a small gem. There are leaf beetles known as tortoise beetles, which live under shells, the edge of which is see-through. Most original and cute. Myself and my new friend and guide, with the un-African name of Omega, found this one with a pure gold colour from just the right angle. It got away, it got found, it flew away, it was found. Omega would not give up and eventually we nabbed it into a jar and took it home. There in my portable japanese light box, after an hour of trial and error, I managed to reprodue two moods of what our eyes were so captivated by.
Entering the last phase of the sojourn…
It is time to move onto the ‘real Africa’, with savannah woodlands and all the lions and tigers I can eat. Yes four legs are good too.
So who amongst you is old fart enough to have watched John Wayne movies in your callow youthdom ? They were not all westerns and war movies, there was one that stood out for its scenery and drama, and it was called Hatari..
So imagine my shock when I realised when I was invited to stay at the Hatari Lodge, in Arusha National Park, that it did not just take the name in vain, but is THE Hatari lodge of the film. The big man with the fabulous drawl drank at the same bar I is sitting at. And the views break the million dollar mould, because on one side is KIlimanjaro, and on the other, is the second of the three great African semi-ex-volcanoes, Mt Meru. See sunrise thereon on first morning, as my first caff was delivered to my grand bungalow. I could just faint. My fav trees, the African Acacias are just so artistic.
And veranda breakfast is served with giraffe, with a sprinkling of zebras, and a back note of buffalo.
The habitats in this Park are the most varied of any I can think of in Africa. From the open Acacia grassland, to open Acacia woodland, and all the way to full rainforest on the slopes of Mt Meru, and even lakes with flamingoes.
There is a also a crater, that is like a mini version of that famous big crater, Ngorongoro ( a few hundred km from here). It has rainforest sides, and inside a whole ecosystem, with elefants, buffalo, hippos and other animals that actually climb the steep sides sometimes. See below. Much to explore. There be insects here too….
One thing missing here is big predators, so no lions, means very relaxed animals. Giraffes are very common, big families with lots of uber cute babies, and the adults are so cool that they even do something you will not see in other Parks, sit. A very vulnerable position.
I forgot to mention a cute tale from day one here. Near the main Park gate there is this hefalump.
Other hefalumps come to visit it and lean on it, and try to push it to move along, but it staunchly refuses to budge. It is the most realistic animal statue I have ever seen. Fooled me for a while too. Below a little vignette of new sights. A Great Heron, mr Warti, and a saddle bill stork.
On this day 3 here in Arusha Nat Park, discovered the great heights. An emergency vehicle track climbs up to 2600m, where the air is nice and fresh and very cool considering we are about 2 degrees from the equator. The last few moss bedraggled trees sit among the alpine veg. The top is about 4500m, and and in the backdrop is the youngest volcanic cinder cone in the complex, still active as recently as 1910.
oh, and on the way to the heights, a geat surprise. Africa is very festooned with strangler figs, very common in all the forests I visit. But here, one strangler – which grows from the canopy down, not from groud up, managed to entagle two separate trees and naturally formed this fab arch !
And then lo and behold, found another errant strangler, grabbing more than its fair share of one tree per customer. It takes many decades for the baby fig to start in the canopy and work its way, over and over again, to the ground, eventually enclosing the whole tree it has borrowed. It does bring to mind those other slow denizens of deep forests, the Ents, of Lord of the Rings fame.
And then it was the last full day in this pardise. The dudes who run the place went looking for a new location for a hide, where night animals could be seen, and the view should be great. I went with them and lo and behold, as it always seem to happen as I am LEAVING Africa, the rain came. A great wet bedraggled but adventurous trek it was all day, with an armed ranger in case of errant buffalo. We followed elephant and buffalo treks through hill and dale, with generous amounts of their dung all over. Eventually the last bit was a steep slippery slope, something this human does not undertake. So I was left in a clearing with a gal into bones. Together we pieced a story of a leopard killing a buffalo, then hyenas scattered the bones, which we tried to make up one beast with. Found all the vertebrae later…
And lo and behold and it was the last morning. A giraffe looked in quizzicly at this human packing
In fact this Park is really GIRAFFIC PARK, as there is always some about, and they even bring their babies right into the lodge area. Much to be said for a lack of lions. So on the way out said goodbye to the local herd – I counted 12 – and sadly drove out of the Park to Kilimanjaro airport and the start of an almost 3 day slog to get home. Goodnight.