October 29, 2013
Most of us have probably seen Fantasia, or at the very least, a clip of the hippos twirling around in tutus and nearly overwhelming their crocodilian escorts.
But the real prima ballerinas in Africa aren’t pirouetting through the rivers and ponds, they’re traipsing daintily across the plains, graceful necks and long, whippet-thin legs extended in a sort of antelope arabesque. They’re gerenuks!
If you haven’t heard of these bush ballerinas, it’s not only because gerenuks (a name that derives from Somali, and means, aptly, “giraffe neck”) are a rare sighting on safari; it’s because of the gerenuk’s notoriously humble nature. Biologists have noted their unfailing willingness to help other gerenuks in need, and in African folklore, the gerenuk is regularly referred to as the “Queen of Humbleness.”
Basically, they’re probably not launching too many personal PR campaigns.
But if you are lucky enough to spot one, you’ll be glad you did; when the gerenuk feeds, it rears up on its spindly hind legs, stretching its already long neck further into the branches to reach the most tender leaves, shoots, and fruits, looking for all the world like a very elongated dancer en pointe.
Feeding requires grace…and some seriously good balance!
As timid as they are delicate, gerenuks run away at high speeds when threatened. Often, though, they instead choose to stand very still behind a tree or bush, then slowly tiptoe away, heads lowered.
…which you’d be forgiven for mistaking for a scene from a new, African-themed version of Swan Lake.
October 24, 2013
There are over 120 different cultural groups living in Tanzania today, but perhaps one of the most unique (or old-fashioned, depending on how you look at it) is the Hadza.
There are right around 1,000 Hadza left in Tanzania (the only place this group lives), and some 300-400 of them live as true hunter-gatherers, sharing meat when they can find (and kill) it, and living off foraged tubers, berries, fruits, and honey when they can’t. As far as oral histories of the Hadzabe and anthropological research on the tribe can determine, their practices have barely changed in thousands of years.
Foraged tubers like the one seen here make up a large part of the Hadza diet
One of the most effective ways the Hadza live with the land is their symbiotic relationship with the honeyguide bird. When they hear its whistle, they’ll whistle back, the bird and the human calling back and forth to one another as the honeyguide flits through the trees. Following these birds can lead to very sweet rewards; they lead people to hives, and, after the honey has been conveniently cleared out, feast on the remaining larva and wax.
Most hunting is done with hand-fashioned bows and arrows. Some of the most commonly hunted animals include dik-diks, warthogs, monkeys, and occasionally larger antelope such as impala and eland. The bowstrings are generally made from animal ligaments, arrow heads are pounded out from nails and attached to wooden shafts, and the arrows are hand-fletched with bird feathers.
The Hadza still hunt game with bows and arrows.
The Hadza are also unique for another feature: their clicking language.
A linguistic isolate, the Hadza language—which involves unique (and, for a westerner, nearly impossible to replicate) glottal stops and click sounds on consonants—doesn’t fit into any larger language families. Fortunately for linguists, the language remains in use, and though the Hadza population is small, most Hadza children learn to speak Hadza fluently.
A Hadzabe shelter. During the dry season, even structures this simple might not be made.
Photo: Thomson Safaris guest, David Rush
Perhaps most surprising to a westerner, the Hadza have little if any concept of personal ownership. While they will make (and keep) hunting implements, leather bags from the skins of animals they’ve killed, and stone pipes, they tend not to accumulate many other possessions. If a Hadza does somehow accumulate more possessions than he or she needs, he or she will distribute them equally among the group, with no expectation of receiving anything in return. This sort of communal lifestyle is fundamental to their belief system.
Various attempts have been made to “settle” the Hadza, both by missionaries and by the Tanzanian government (the most recent government attempt was in 1990).
October 23, 2013
We’ve all heard that there’s nothing more important than a good night’s sleep (unless you count breakfast, or family). But on Kilimanjaro—where each day means physical challenges and adjustment to a new altitude, and your nights are spent in a sleeping bag instead of on a feather bed—getting all the sleep you need in order to reach the summit can be difficult.
Luckily, the Thomson team has learned a few tricks on their treks that will help ensure you have more restful nights:
Tip 1: Use an inflatable pad
You may not be able to haul your mattress up Kili with you, but you can make nights on the ground more comfortable. An inflatable pad not only acts as a cushion; as Michael notes, “it keeps the damp away.”
Tip 2: Pack a soft, comfy hat
One of the biggest barriers to a good night’s sleep on Kili is the colder temperatures further up the mountain. Rachel combats this with “the warmest, softest, most comfortable hat” she can find. Not only does it prevent you from losing heat, it can act as another “pillow” layer!
Tip 3: Just get up and go pee
It’s the middle of the night, the air outside is freezing, and you think, if you just hold it, you’ll be able to fall back asleep.
Think again. As Amy notes, “a full bladder isn’t just uncomfortable, it’s a heat suck.” You’ll feel warmer (and sleep more soundly) if you just get up as soon as you realize you have to go.
Tip 4: Shake up your sleeping bag
Your sleeping bag says it’s good down to -30°…so why are your toes so cold?
Maybe you forgot to shake it out when you unpacked it. Since your bag will be tightly compressed while you trek, the insulation might not be evenly distributed when you pull it out for the night. But Michael found that simply shaking it a little helped even things out, keeping him warm from head to toe!
Tip 5: Change your clothes in the afternoon
After a full day of trekking, cleaning up and putting on fresh clothes will help refresh you.
But there’s an added bonus to changing up your look right when you get to camp; if you sleep in those clothes, like Katie recommends, you won’t have to start your morning with a serious case of the shivers as you try to change for the day.
Not exactly a sleeping tip, but it might buy you a few minutes of sleep—and more than a few degrees of body temperature—in the morning!
Tip 6: Upgrade your tent
Paul had a very simple response to how to get the best night’s sleep on Kili: “upgrade to the fancy tent with a cot and pillow in it!”
He was kidding, but only a little; on the Grand Traverse, hikers spend more nights in the lower elevations where it’s a bit warmer, and they also have the option to upgrade to our solar-lit, walk-in luxury sleeping tents.
So while most people will conk out easily and sleep soundly if they follow the first five tips on this list, if you know yourself to be an especially light sleeper, highly susceptible to cold, or just not a “roughing it” type, consider whether your trek—and most importantly, your chances of summit success—might be greatly improved with with the Grand Traverse and a “fancy” tent!
October 22, 2013
Medieval notions about African animals are interesting (and often amusing), in large part because most of the people writing about these strange creatures had never seen one up close, and were largely imagining their features and behavior.
One myth that persisted long after the dark ages ended, however, was the theory that hyenas are born hermaphrodites.
Sound implausible? Let’s take a look at the (confusing) evidence.
Fact 1: male and female hyenas show no real size difference
This is stranger than you might think; in most mammal species, if you lined up the males and females side by side, there’d be a fairly clear-cut size difference, with the males significantly larger than the females. To give you an idea of just how big the gender gap is in other species: male wildebeest weigh 550 pounds on average, while females weigh in around 400 pounds; male lions average around 400 pounds, while females hover around 275 pounds; male African elephants weigh around 12,000 pounds, females weigh nearer to 8,000 pounds.
In fact, hyenas’ lack of size dimorphism is even stranger: if anything, it’s the females that tend to be larger.
Fact 2: hyena societies are female dominant
Of course hyenas aren’t the only matriarchal species, but (like it or not) more species are male-dominant than otherwise.
Some scientists believe hyena society developed this way because of hyenas’ notorious ruthlessness, even amongst themselves. “Sharing” isn’t a concept hyenas believe in very strongly; in order to compete with males effectively for food, and get enough to produce good milk for offspring, female hyenas may have evolved to be both larger and in-charger than the males.
Fact 3: male and female genitalia appear identical
“C’mon,” you’re thinking, “there’s a pretty quick way to separate the ladies from the gentleman. Ahem. Cough.”
Well with almost any other species you’d be right; male mammals usually have a pretty obvious calling card.
It just so happens that female hyenas are also…card-carriers.
From afar, this “pseudopenis” looks almost identical to a male hyena’s member. This may be why some scientists claimed, well into the last century, that hyena couldn’t be sexed without an autopsy (they can, it just takes pretty keen eyesight).
Don’t believe us? See how well you do: which hyenas in this video are the boys and which are the girls?
October 17, 2013
Tanzania’s stunning, unspoiled landscapes and impressive wildlife are truly a national treasure, but it’s a treasure that, too often, Tanzanians don’t get to share in. The majority of Tanzanians are still living on just a few hundred dollars a year, an income that puts the expenses of a safari—costs like park fees, the expense of paying guides and drivers, and travel to a national park—out of reach.
That so many Tanzanians have to miss out on the very things that make the country so exciting for tourists just doesn’t feel right, which is why Thomson Safaris recently partnered with Project MEMA (Make Education in Moshi Accessible) to provide four students with their first ever safari.
Emanueli (11), Beatrice (11), Asha (8) and Gifty (8) get ready to start their safari.
The students—Emanueli, age 11, Beatrice, 11, Asha, 8, and Gifty, 8—spent the day at Arusha National Park, spotting a wide variety of plants and animals.
The students were on the lookout for animals from the very start!
Among the many creatures they spotted were these olive baboons.
Over the course of the day, the group also enjoyed snacks and a picnic lunch, so that they wouldn’t have to stop the wildlife viewing early.
The kids take a break for lunch.
Some of the many animals they spotted were zebras, warthogs, giraffes, buffalo, and baboons.
While Emanueli trains her binoculars on a flamingo flock, Beatrice looks up more information about the birds.
This is the first time Emanueli and Beatrice got to see a wild giraffe!
All in all, it was an exciting trip for the students. Maybe a little too exciting?
All that wildlife viewing fun will wear you out!
October 16, 2013
When you’re planning and packing for a trek, it may feel like you’re juggling a lot of moving parts, trying to make sure dozens of “must have” items make it into your bags, and up the mountain with you.
But what you bring as a trekker is just the beginning.
Porters carry not only trekkers’ luggage, they carry the sleeping, dining, and toilet tents; the chairs trekkers rest on in camp; the gear needed to cook up meals, and the food that goes into them.
So how much does all that extra stuff come out to?
Keep in mind, the numbers will vary from trek to trek—a trek with fewer people might have higher “averages” than a large-group trek, for example—but based on a few recent trips up Kili, we can tell our trekkers that for one person to get up the mountain, he or she will need:
6 porters: Porters on the mountain don’t just carry bags, they haul everything required to make a trek happen. On a trek with 10-12 people, that works out to about 6 porters to every trekker.
84 pounds of gear: Camping gear, cooking gear, toilet tents, chairs—on an average trek, the gear required works out to around 84 pounds/person.
81 pounds of food: Don’t worry, you won’t come back from Kili with a new spare tire. The food “required” for one trekker takes into account the guides and porters that stay with the group on the mountain.
5 pounds of sugar: Again, this number reflects the tea, coffee, and cooking needs of a trekker plus all the porters on the mountain helping him or her out. But that’s still a serious sweet tooth!
20 eggs and 2/3 lb. of breakfast sausage: Gotta start the day on Kili with a hearty breakfast, after all!
1 whole chicken and 1 pound chicken breast and thighs: You also have to finish the day with a hearty meal.
½ pound of cashews: After all, if there’s ever a trail you’re gonna need trail mix on, it’s this one.
All in all, it works out to about 200 pounds/person of luggage, gear, and food going up the mountain with each trekker.
One might say numbers like these lend a certain weight to your achievement in climbing Kili, no?