Posted by: ahaertzen | February 12, 2012

A Night at the Creek

Time and time again I am reminded of how lucky I am to be on such an adventure. Bird banding the other night was the premise of my most resent revelation into how amazing the world really is.

It is once in a half moon that the volunteers and staff of Mwamba descend on the creek for an overnight stay of bird banding and no sleep.  The build up to the night makes it seem as though us new volunteers are going through some A Rocha initiation and only the strongest will survive the elements of the creek.  And while I can’t see most people being able to sit through a night of handling birds followed by stumbling through the water in the dark and repeating it ten times through a night, for some- myself included- it sounds like paradise.

Immediately after chai time, an occasion never to be missed in Kenya for any reason, we hopped in the pick-up truck- six of us in the back with the gear- and headed for the creek.  Chai time put us back a bit, so we moved quickly to set up all of our bird catching nets before nightfall, then had some more chai.  

The first few hours were pretty slow, only a couple birds, but we had visitors to entertain and dinner graciously brought to us to pass the time.  It wasn’t until about hour six or seven hours into the night that the tide had come in all the way and the birds started to roll in.  Mida Creek is what Americans would call a lagoon actually and is surrounded by mangrove forest on all sides, rather than being a small stream.  It makes for some interesting night time walks.  

We trudged through knee deep water, sometimes higher if you fell in a hole, without any light except that of the moon in order to check for birds.  The only souls in that creek were about six of us trying to untangle birds from the nets and and about ten thousand birds making noise from the shadows of the mangroves.  One only guesses as to where the nets might be and hopes they don’t fall over the stakes keeping them in the ground, especially when carrying ten bird bags up and down your arms.  It is also always in the back of your head that what happens if there is a bull shark, or a crocodile, would I be able to run to land or would it get the guy next to me?

Things got even more interesting when the tide went back out that night, or morning rather.  All of our guests had left and it was just Mwamba staff and volunteers, and not many of them, present for the most grueling part of the night.  In fact, John and George who are two Kenyan volunteers were on about knap number three whereas the rest of us had not slept a wink.  The two of them are notorious for taking an exceptionally long time to release birds back into the creek so this was no surprise to anyone that they would be asleep again.  

I was in for quite a surprise when I walked out there the next time.  I hadn’t expected what I was about to see at all, and initially I was still in awe at the amount of stars thrown across the sky now that the moon had gone down.  The sand between my toes hurt a bit, so steps where choreographed very carefully until I saw what was happening on each of my steps- scattering of bioluminescent algae everywhere.  My friend Maggie and I in hysterical joy jumped up and down many times just to see the green fluorescent spots sparkle beneath us.  It was like some disco party beneath my feet with every single step I took.

It wasn’t until 8 am the that morning that we left the creek and headed back to Mwamba after having left at 4 pm the day before.  It was successful night of banding, with 77 birds in total banded and released back.  I have also discovered in the time since then that bird crap comes out of cloths a lot easier than Kenyan red dust, and my cloths are about one more wash away from having no hint of that night left- it has only taken about three so far.

Posted by: ahaertzen | February 1, 2012

As much as my Minnesota upbringing taught me to like snow, or at least tolerate many months of it combined with frigid temperatures, it has come as a nice relief this year to not have to deal with it- exception being that very cold trip to the Middle East.  Now, things are how they should be in the beginning of February, humid, hot and tropical!

Mida Creek

My home for the past week, and the next two and half, is a place called Mwamba Field Station.  Mwamba is the product of a Christian organization, A Rocha, that promotes the conservation and research of nature through community based programs around the world.  For instance, Mwamba’s location is ideal because it sits very close to one of the most important migrant bird wintering sites in the world, known as Mida Creek.  The coastal forests that surround the Watamu coast are some of the most unique and biodiverse places on Earth.

One program run here at Mwamba is the ASSETS program which aims at giving local communities the chance to become protectors of the surrounding Arabuko-Sokoke Forest, rather than destroyers.  This is done by providing a portion of the school fees for local students to attend secondary school, provided they and their family obide by certain guidelines such as not chopping wood in the forest.  In return, ASSETS families also have access to a number of the programs run by Mwamba to encourage sustainable development in the area.  The school fees that Mwamba pays are raised by tourists visiting places like Gede Ruins and Mida Creek.

Tidal pools of water in the sand.

My role here is not so groundbreaking, rather my main job here is to work on some interpretation materials for Mida Creek, calling upon my six years as a zoo volunteer and my visits to maybe fifty different zoos and nature centers over the past ten years.  In addition, I help out with some of the data collection on the wildlife in the area.  Birds are the main focus here, and for good reason since many are migrants, endemic, endangered, or a combination of them.  Now, unfortunately, I don’t know a ton about birds, but I am learning a lot about them very quickly.

Just two days into my stay I found myself with a bird in my hand.  There are many shorebirds that live along the beach and the staff at Mwamba carry out surveys and ringing operations on the birds on a regular basis.  I had seen ringing done before on songbirds in Colorado last spring, but never thought I would be setting it all up and doing it myself, let alone at 2 am on a Kenyan beach with no lights.  That night we caught twelve birds and put rings on ten of them (two already had rings and were recaptures).

View from the Mwamba flat roof.

It is hard to think about the thought of leaving in only a short time from now and going back to school seeing as I have made my work space a table on top of a roof that overlooks the reef and gets the nice ocean breeze as well.  Two weeks ago in Jordan I could only dream of paradise, now it is nice to finally be in it.


Posted by: ahaertzen | January 27, 2012



I felt quite a bit of culture shock when I crossed the border from Aqaba, Jordan to Eliat, Israel on the shores of the Red Sea.  For starters, being grilled with questions at the border was a real treat.  Elizabeth caused the commotion of the day there when the passport patrol agent found out that she is studying Arabic at the University of Jordan.  Apparently, studying animals is not such a security concern since my interview pretty much ended at that answer.  I was slightly disappointed that I did not get to tell the woman how much I love giraffes and elephants in a very mazungu way, but happy to be across the tensest border I have been through yet.

Walking the cobblestone path of Via Dolorosa in the old city of Jerusalem.

The first of the many crazies we met was waiting at the bus station in Eliat for us.  The woman was dressed in her finest slippers and a big puffy blanket which apparently made her feel at home anywhere in the world.  As I talked to her, or more so watched her greet everyone in the bus station and praise everything ever created, I contemplated what combination of drugs could make a person this happy- cause I really doubt just one would do it based on her antics.  After about a half an hour of hearing in a high pitched voice what a wonderful job the trash man was doing sweeping I decided it was enough.  The woman wondered to congratulate the store keeper on a job well done standing behind a counter and we decided to make a break for it.  Luckily in the end she was placed on the other bus to Jerusalem, although we were stuck with crazy #2, the bus driver who believed he was driving a go cart across the Negev Desert instead of a giant bus and was perfectly fine to drop frustrated Americans in the middle of the desert at night.

We wondered the Old City of Jerusalem, meandering our way through the Muslim, Jewish, Armenian, and Christian quarters.  We walked the Via Dolorosa, saw the Western Wall, par oozed through the Dome of the Rock plaza, and found falafel for just five shekels (truly our greatest find, in the end we left Israel on account of no cheap food or accommodations anywhere).

It was at our hostel in Jerusalem that we met crazies #3 and #4.  #3 was a very old man, blind and nearly deaf, but was an apparent expert in all things medical and mathematical.  According to him, the number line does not start at 0, starts at -0, a right angle is not actually 90 degrees, and AIDS comes from tainted weed.  All of this has been discovered through his own research that has caught the attention of both the United States and Israeli governments.  He prefers to ‘do his own thing’ rather than be told what to do by any government.  He found a good friend in crazy #4, a person we referred to as the ginger Jesus hippie.  On our way out of Jerusalem we found the two of them at a coffee shop discussing secret documents.

The plaza that surrounds the Dome of the Rock.

One night, on a quest for ice cream, we met the last of the real crazies.  Upon exploration of the New City we were harassed in a way by a very musical man on the street.  Every time we walked by he would blow through his conch attached to a trumpet (definite points for creativity there).  However, it was not any of the craziness that drove us to the Mediterranean coast in Tel Aviv, rather the need for vitamin D.

Once there I was blown away by how much it looked like a coastal Florida town.  People there hold hands, they hug, they show some forearm, and even some legs.  They even allowed PDA on the beach.  But still food was expensive and so was the cheapest place to stay, so we promptly left after one night for the homey feeling of Amman.

For the next couple days I ate all the falafel and sharwma I could eat and hardly paid anything for it.  Elizabeth’s friends were starting to arrive back in Amman for the upcoming semester so we got to hang out with them too.  Beyond that, the only real eventful time in Amman was our attempt at cooking brownies- a food I hadn’t had in months and was in desperate need of.  So desperate in fact, that when the oven didn’t work we resorted to scrambling the batter in a frying pan like eggs.  Worked pretty well too.

Now I am on a beach on the coast of Kenya.  Ahhh to be in the hot, humid, sunny tropics again!


Posted by: ahaertzen | January 13, 2012

The Hashemite Kingdom

It has been about a week since I left the bustling life East Africa for the likes of Jordan.  Well, to sum things up it has been freezing.  In fact, from what I am told it has been colder here than it is in Minnesota.  My year of no snow, with the exception of that which falls atop Mt. Kilimanjaro, will have to wait.

I started my travels in the white city of Amman.  Limestone is about the only natural resource that Jordan has to use so it is pretty much used everywhere (Jordan has no oil actually).  My Denver University friend Elizabeth, who is studying for a year at the University of Jordan in Amman, met me at the airport and treated me to dinner at a very well-known spot- Hashem’s.  It is rumored that falafel was actually created at this place and, even if it wasn’t, it lives up to its reputation of being the best food you will eat in an alley way, off of cheap patio furniture.

The Citadel with views of the rest of Amman

On my first full day I came to fully understand the nature of Amman.  It has the relaxed nature of East Africa that I am used to but with some social rules attached.  I ate my lunch on the steps of a Roman amphitheater and climbed all around it like a little kid.  As I understand such acts aren’t really allowed at the Coliseum in Rome.  Later that day Elizabeth and I got my first tsk from an old woman when walking around the university, the equivalent of an evil glare, due to my accidental falling into her and touching her as I tried to maneuver through the crowds so haram!

There are so many things to see in Jordan and I got right into the mazungu spirit to explore.  We took a tour to Madabajust south of Amman to look at the mosaics.  Then we traveled to Mt. Nebo to look over the Moab valley just as Moses did centuries before.  Our last stop that day took us to the Dead Sea where I floated my way a few meters out.  Swimming there after dark is apparently at your own risk not because of any risk of drowning but more so the country on the other side.  I think the day, and where I was, sank in when Elizabeth turned to me and said, “look at this, it is a valley of nothing and yet we fight over it so much.”  The Valley of Moab has caused so much turmoil in the region, and for the world, and really its past according to two books is what sets it apart from say Iowa.

Mosaic from Madaba

No trip to Jordan is complete without a trip to the famous city of Petra.  There is really nothing like it in the world.  You walk for a good while before a sliver of the great Treasury appears through the canyon walls.  All you can do is sit and stare in awe.  The Treasury is the most famous and best preserved of the buildings, but what remains of the ancient city is either Roman or for the most part royal tombs everywhere you look, so many of them open for exploration by visitors. The monastery, the other well-preserved and impressive building, is up a cliff side with about 900 stairs.  A few more stairs beyond is the ‘End of the World’ that overlooks the Great Rift Valley.  We spent the whole day in Petra, exploring its tombs, wandering through the canyons, and for sunset we sat on the top of the canyon another 300 stairs up.  As we departed the ancient city we were nearly alone.  It was dark and silent in the canyonof tombs.

Petra- The Treasury through the Canyon

Today was another spectacular day.  We took a car to the desert cliffs of Wadi Rum.  It was in Wadi Rum that Lawrence of Arabia describes many of his stories.  It is filled with camels, which made me a bit homesick for all the ones I worked with this past summer, and the cliffs look like they are melting away.  It was a freezing day, but well worth it to be in the back of the pick-up truck.  One of the highlights was when our driver dropped us off at a bedouin tent for lunch.  Well, it happened to be his aunt’s complex and Elizabeth believes that if her translation of the conversation is correct the aunt was telling her son something along the lines of, “Why does he always do this to us.”  I am sure she was so happy when he dropped us tourists off and came back for us an hour later after telling her he would be back in only half an hour.  There is nothing like bedouin tea though and to have it in the middle of the desert is something else in its own.

The cliffs of Wadi Rum

On our way back the snow started and visibility dropped to about 15 meters.  It prompted our car driver to stop by the side of the road and let us get out to have a small, probably very haram, snowball fight.  It snows very infrequently here and even a snowflake could cancel all business for the whole country.  For me, I just hope I make it to the Red Sea because I have never been so cold for so long in my life.  Heating is not such a big thing here, so even the room at night is no relief.


Posted by: ahaertzen | January 9, 2012



So, it is my New Years resolution to blog more.  I realized it has been a while, but so much has happened lately and so many places in Uganda didn’t have internet that it has been hard.  Things in Jordan might be a bit better.  I thought to sum up the last couple weeks I would share some stories from the most interesting of the places that I have been.


It was another bus ride out of Kigali to the town of Gisenyi in Rwanda’s most northern reaches.  This time though the ride was quite beautiful as the bus strolled through the tea fields and hills for only three hours.  Although the place has seen a troubled past, even serving as a landing place for Congolese refugees as recently as a few years ago (Congo was 1.3 km from my hotel), it is known by Rwandans as being one of the country’s gems.  Gisenyi sits on the shores of Lake Kivu and was the first chance for me to go swimming in a lake that wouldn’t give me a disease on my trip.  Jenny and I strolled around the beaches of the lake and decided that the best one was probly at the Serena Hotel.  To put things in perspective the Serena Hotel in Nairobi would set one back about $600 a night; the one at Lake Kivu is not so expensive but still where all the high end tourists stay.

Needless to say Jenny, myself, and the Swedish girl Quena we met in Kigali do not fit into the high class sector of tourism.  Still the allure of a private beach and good food was too much for me to pass up after months of rice, spaghetti, and heat with no relief.  Jenny and I figured that our normal street cloths just weren’t going to cut it so it was time to pull out our best- a skirt for Jenny and a polo shirt for me.  We slipped right past the reception on our way to the pool and then to the beach.  I think our giveaway was when we started talking in Kiswahili to all the staff members and we were not thrown out but a small payment was requested for our stay.


The remaining building at Karisoke Research Center- the staff quarters.

I can hardly describe what it was like to hike in the forests that drape the Virunga Volcanoes.  The forest itself was so incredibly strange in appearance.  It was like some creepy, Holloween-like forest, but with a bit of tropical flare to it.  The moss and lichen hung from the branches and the leaves and the trunks of trees were hardly visible through the tangle of epiphytic vegetation.  In the saddle area between Mt. Karisimbi and Mt. Bisoke the land plateaus.  The trees in this area are spread far from each other yet little light penetrates the canopy.  Still, small plants blanket the forest floor in the most deceiving of manners.  One would be led to believe that any place that has grass must therefore be sturdy enough to step on.  I was fooled many times when I trudged through the forest and sank to my knee in mud.

The Gorilla Graveyard

The hike to Dian Fossey’s gorilla research center ends ubruptly when you realize that you are standing on top of the ruins of the camp.  There is no grand entrance or even any sign that designates the camp.  Only one building remains, the staff quarters, and it is being quickly engulfed by the forest.  I reckon in ten years there will be no remains of the camp left but the graveyard that has been so immaculately preserved; it is the only location in the complex not covered in moss and lichens.  It was absolutely surreal to be standing at the tomb of a woman I have read about since I was a child and all of her gorillas whose names I recalled.  I think I was in fourth grade when I first saw the movie Gorillas in the Mist and it changed my life.  That next year my fundraiser to follow up the one I worked on for the Galapagos Islands was funding mountain gorilla conservation.  From then on I don’t think there has been a moment in my life that I have thought of giving up on my crusade to conserve wildlife and here I was standing at the grave of my inspiration.

Lake Bunyonyi

On Christmas day I boarded a bus with my new found friend Quena and found my way to Uganda.  Our destination was an island, Byoona Amagara, in the middle of Lake Bunyonyi- the chillest place in Uganda.  The bus was passing through Kigali on its way to Kampala, Uganda from Bujumbura, Burundi.  I knew it would be an interesting day when I loaded my backpack into the bus luggage compartment that served as a chicken coup as well.  The bus ride was short but sort of luxurious in a way since there were hardly any people on it.

Sunset on Lake Bunyonyi

Shortly after crossing into Uganda the bus left the two of us in the town of Kabale where we took a taxi, that was maybe little more than a metal frame, to the lake.  I was actually pretty surprised that this car was able to make it all the way up and down the hills to the lake since the bottom was lined with cardboard and there were towels in the doors for whatever reason I can’t imagine.  The taxi was then followed by a canoe trip in a dugout tree barely the width of me and sitting pretty low to the water.  I was told oddly enough that most of the people in the area don’t know how to swim.  There are drownings each year because the people use their canoes till they are breaking and when a small wave comes the canoe topples with little effort.  It took us one hour to paddle our way across this strange lake of islands and freezing cold water but it was well worth it for the days of complete relaxation I was able to achieve.  Plus it was so incredibly cheap after having been in Rwanda the two of us, and later our friend Patty, stayed out of neccessity.


After marooning myself on an island for a week I decided it was time to get my adrenaline pumping again.  Luckily in Uganda there are many ways of doing such and the town of Jinja is a typical stop for those with my same desires.  Jinja is located at the junction of Lake Victoria and the start of the Nile River.  It had been nearly ten years since I had tried white water rafting, and at the time I was too young to go on any rapids above a grade 3, but Jinja above all else is known for having some of the best white water rafting in the world.  Even so I figured the chance to swim in the Nile, diseases aside, would be an adventure in itself.

The route ran along 30 km of the river and over seven different rapids of varying grades, mostly 4 and 5.  The Nile is surprisingly warm so when I fell out of the boat on three of the rapids and rode them through on only my life jacket it was more refreshing than it was shocking.  I was not only lucky enough to swim in the Nile though, the guides would let us drift out of the boat between rapids, but to drink a good portion of it.

My life runs on East Africa time these days and that might explain the absence in blogging as well.  Leaving Kenya for Amman, Jordan was difficult, but now I am in the midst of a whole new world I didn’t think I would be exploring on this trip.  One of the best parts about it though is that when I leave the Middle East I go back to Africa for another month before school.



Posted by: ahaertzen | December 19, 2011

And the Journey Continues

So, we made it to Rwanda about a week or so ago and since then have become regulars at every bus station in the country.  We spent a couple days in Kigali getting ourselves together again, the road from Arusha is a long and bumpy two day ride.  We even got a chance to meet our first blood diamond dealer, he was pretty much an awful person all around.

We departed from Kigali and made our way, by bus again, to Cyangugu in the South of Rwanda.  We arrived at our hostel and had the most incredible views of Lake Kivu at sunset just as the fishermen were starting to go out on the lake for the night.  The next morning we took a bus into the rainforest and hiked around the place.  It felt good to use our legs again.  To get back we flagged down a large bus headed for the congo.  We were told later by the hotel staff that to do such a thing is pretty much unheard of and they laughed histeracally at the thought of two mazungu sitting on the floor of a bus they found in the rainforest.  The hotel staff knew it was my birthday and for my twenty-first I got sang to twice and my own chocolate cake by people I had met only the night before.

We boarded another bus the next morning for the nine hour trek to Gisenyi on the Northern Kivu Coast.  The place we are staying at is a real hotspot for young people and having been a party weekend it was busy all night.  Jenny and I decided to head to the beach for a small walk.  The beach and lake were incredibly nice and we were even treated to the dancing festivities from a wedding going on.

Today is a day to relax at the beach and try to live nice by trying to pass through the Serena Hotel gates without being noticed- it worked last night at least.  Then it is on to hiking in the volcanoes and visiting Dian Fossey’s grave if possible.


Posted by: ahaertzen | November 24, 2011

What’s Your Favorite Bushmeat?

Time here in Tanzania has slowed down considerably, enough to count nearly every single animal and animal sign that exists in the Manyara Ecosystem.  My time spent in the Serengeti feels like it was months ago.  In the time since my last posting everyday, with exception of one day when we traveled to the elephant caves, has been dedicated to some aspect of our research projects.

My projects is to look at the density and distribution of large herbivore species across the ecosystem in relation to the protection status of different land parcels.  Some are working to understand the importance of tourism to the area and others the effects of the bushmeat trade and consumption in the area.  The field work portion is an exhuasting nine day process followed by data entry, analysis, and a quick but thorough write-up.

The elephant caves by Ngorongoro Crater.

Much of the field work portion involves counting animals, this includes the incredible amounts of livestock owned by the people of the region, for hours upon hours each day.  My car mates Laura, Sarah, Adam, Mitch and myself have been together this whole time and shared some unique experiences.  In order to complete the research SFS rented another car- the one that I have been riding in most often- and a driver to go with it.  We have to take a GPS point for each settlement, surface water, animal sign, and animal we encounter.  Well, I don’t think that our new driver Boni was filled in on what he would be doing each day- stopping and starting sometimes every couple meters.  I would bet that he has never had clients so enfatuated with the sight of broken branches and elephant dung.

Another part of our research collection has been to do interviews in the town of Mtu wa Mbu where the entrance to Lake Manyara National Park is located.  I was paired up with Laura and a local guide/translator LaTiffe.  Pretty much by the end of the two days we felt like we had completed the Islamic pub crawl without drinking a drop.  There are small local brew pubs about every half kilometer or so and the people who frequent them are very receptive to our questions on what type of bushmeat they like most.  Hippo was a favorite for some, others really liked zebra.  On occasion we were told by a Maasai man that he liked to eat lion.

The long days will continue even after Thanksgiving, although only one more day of field work if the roads hold up against the storms we have been having.


Posted by: ahaertzen | November 13, 2011

Finding Pride Rock


Our caravan of land cruisers set out from Rhotia bound for the Serengeti at the break of dawn.  We drove north along the highland forests, looked over the great Ngorongoro crater, and finally descended onto the open plains.  We made our first stop about mid-morning at the cradle of mankind- Oldupai Gorge.  For over fifty years the Leakey family called this place home as they searched for the origins of man and their camp still sits overlooking the exposed layers of Earth’s history.  We stayed only for a little bit, because the land that pretty much could have inspired The Lion King was only an hour drive away.

We found this topi wandering in what we dubbed the enchanted acacia forest.

Our eventual destination were the woodlands surrounding Seronera River close to the center of the park.  From the southern end where we entered it was endless grassland as far as we could see.  Black shapes of termite mounds or lone animals played tricks with our eyes for many hours until the storm and subsequent fog rolled in.  Even in the rain though we were able to make out a pair of lions sharing a kill.

We waited until the rain subsided to set up our tents, which, unlike in Lake Nakuru, were not placed in a fenced in area.  Rather they were free for any scavenger to take part in the festivities.  When the sun went down we had to be escorted to the bathroom by one of our guards; lions have even been known to drink from the toilets  Our first night was by far the most exciting in terms of wildlife encounters.  Hyenas were surrounding the bathroom and lions were calling near the tents.  They were close enough that it was no longer safe to sit at the fire any longer and we were put in our tents or in cars.

Two young giraffes gazing off in the distance.

Our game drives were part field exercise and part leisure while animal watching.  The mission us students had come up with, one in which we did not complete, was to find a pack of wild dogs- the only major mammalian predator we had not seen.  In this seemingly endless search we found countless lions, some leopard families, and a few cheetahs.  Finally on this trip reptiles were able to make a strong showing for us with sightings of both crocodile and savanna monitor near the river.  Nearly every pool of water contained a family of hippos and most acacia trees were dotted with a bird of prey.  At one point we realized that we had seen babies of nearly every species we encountered which prompted us to think that maybe the Serengeti is just one big baby animal themed park.  One exercise we did involved recording giraffe behavior and we learned it is much more fun to name your subjects- we found dolly, dina, homer, and baby in one group, another group of brad, angie, their children and a nanny, and finally the cast of Jersey Shore made an appearance in the woodlands.

There are two game drives that stick out in my mind from the rest.  The first one was during our first afternoon game drive in the park and there was an impending storm on the horizon.  What stood out about this storm was the incredible frequency and vibrancy of the lightning that lit up the plains.  I recall there being no other cars for as far as we could see in any direction.  The roads were muddy with a clan of hyenas trotting alongside, and the signs of the growing migration were evident when we stumbled upon a massive herd of wildebeest.  It was one of those times when nature just consumes you.

The other memorable drive was a few days later.  This time we had asked our driver Livingston to take us to the migration.  For seven hours I stood on the seats of the land cruiser with my upper half out of the hatch looking for whatever wildlife I could find.  We must have driven three hours in one direction, nearly to the Kenyan border I think, with the wind blowing the whole time.  I am actually still feeling the effects of that drive on my face right now.  The landscape of where we went was extremely odd.  The trees were all acacia, they weren’t too tall, but not short and they looked as if a bunch of Japanese bonsai tree pruners went out there and shaped every tree.  It was dubbed by the group as the enchanted forest.  It is after all where we found the three week old lion cubs.

Our farwell to Serengeti was graced by this mother cheetah and her two cubs.

We left the Serengeti in our grand caravan just as we had entered.  This time was a bit different though.  It was like the Serengeti had been holding on to her greatest secrets until the very end.  It was on this drive out of the park that the whole group could finally say they saw a cheetah, and better yet a mother and her cubs playing.  We all got to see lions take apart a kill, and finally, as we closed in on the gate we were treated to the massive migration of wildebeest and zebra that I have been watching and reading about since I was young child.  The irony of seeing it though was that the day before during our time in the enchanted forest we were actually going in the opposite direction of the migration.  The sheer amount of life moving together across the endless plains is nearly unfathomable.  The entire car was silent as we bisected the grand movement life.

Now the focus is on our research projects that we will work on for the next month.  There are no more labs or field exercises, but instead this will be the real thing, and for some it could result in being able to publish research.  Long days in the field counting animals await!

The beginnings of the Great Migration.



Posted by: ahaertzen | November 6, 2011

Holloween Crater


The highlight of the week was by far our day trip to Ngorongoro Crater. It is claimed to be the 8th wonder of the natural world with its unusually high densities of predatory animals and is the largest caldera in the world not filled by water. The descent into the crater is a movement into another universe, one that exists under different laws- not just eat and be eaten, but chase it, eat it, and try not to get eaten yourself in the process.

We made our trip to the crater on Holloween, and the massacre we witnessed to the animals of the herbivorous kind was ever so fitting. The day’s theme was predators everywhere and in massive quantities. Our first encounter was a golden jackal digging up its cache of mice from the barren earth. She was un-phased by our caravan of land cruisers looking after her.  But, our first major encounter of the day awaited us up the road.

As always, a line of stopped land cruisers of all types of luxury on the road means something big, and the one we saw in front of us after our jackal encounter was just that.  A clan of hyenas appeared to have taken down a large ruminant about twenty meters from the road and a frenzy had since ensued.  Hyenas, black-backed jackals, and meat-eating birds descended on the kill from all sides until a pair of liones crossed the road through a maze of land cruisers and claimed the kill as their own.  Seven jackal and twenty-four hyenas scampered away from the kill with little hesitation and congregated in small groups facing the lion brothers.  The brothers weren’t particularily hungry and didn’t even touch the carcass in the time we watched them.  After an afternoon retreat to the hippo pool, where lions have been known to guard the bathrooms from tourists, we returned to the kill site and found that after four hours little had changed.  The only real difference was that one of the lions chose to get some shade using one of the land cruisers.

Our introduction to Ngorongoro was more than welcoming, an inspiration for some students even, but we were in store for many more surprises up the road.  On the otherside of the park we drove up to a fresh buffalo carcass on the road, in fact as we listened to a lecture by the tourism director for the area this pride of lions was taking down its kill for the week.  The lions in Ngorongoro are so habituated, maybe even more so than some animals in the zoo I have worked with, that the movement of cars surrounding them don’t even warrant a reaction.  We watched and listened as two lioness and their four yearling cubs began to demolish the buffalo, starting with its face.  All members of the pride were clearly exhausted from the hunt to the point that a lioness came to sit beside our car and a cub went one step further- he got under my car (windows were all promptly closed at that point).  We must have stayed around that kill for over an hour.

The next experience of our day occured shortly after lunch.  Some groups left the hippo pool early to go see the lions and a rhino or two; my group was on the hunt for something a bit smaller, but much more elusive…duma!  The fastest land animal on Earth blends all too well into its surroundings making it one of the most desirable and hard to find species of large mammal on the plains.  We found a rhino, we joked around, and continued our drive when I looked out and saw a tree stump.  Well, others were not so convinced of the tree stump theory so we stopped and sure enough we had actually found our first cheetah!  The animal sat regally gazing across the savanna before getting up to walk.  We all stayed quiet hoping it would walk closer to us, but were not so fortunate in the realm of distance.  Rather, we waited, seeing no real point in venturing off unless we thought we would find a leopard.  As we all sat around on the hatches recounting the days events we were treated to one of the truely amazing sights of nature.  The cheetah showed off its allure of being a speed demon when it chased a cape hare for all of twenty seconds until the animal was in its mouth.  At that point we all decided that Livingston our driver was going to be bought a beer on us, that this was hands down the best crater we had ever been to, and generally began congradulating ourselves on being awsome at life.  Things only got better when we found a second cheetah up the road- no big deal though.  I refrained the rest of the day from answering ‘which one’ when other groups asked if our car had seen the cheetah.  It is also a bit of a car secret that we saw it chase and kill something.

Tanzania continues to exceed expectations. We are relieved to be out of Kenya, though we were in no danger of the new war the country has entered.  The excitement is growing around camp as our expedition to Serengeti National Park draws closer. For the last two months all we have heard from people is how spectacular Serengeti is and come Sunday we will get our chance to witness it for ourselves.



Posted by: ahaertzen | October 30, 2011

Life is Greener on the Otherside


A couple days ago I left the sight of Mt. Kilimanjaro and all of my Kenyan friends for life in Tanzania.  My new camp is on the escarpment that overlooks Lake Manyara and the Ngorongoro Hills.  Moyo Hill where my camp is much greener than KBC and even has grass growing everywhere.  Unfortunately the jiggers will get you if you walk around barefoot.  It was a great relief to see all the green again for many in the group, for others it was shorts and sandals that can be worn into the night because of the lack of snakes, and for some still it was knowing that if you had to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night you don’t have to leave the confines of your banda to go.

Maasai giraffe on the road.

On our first full day we got to know town and walk around for a while in Rhotia.  The primary school is across the street and a couple of us wasted no time in starting up a soccer game with the local school children.  For being only like ten years of age they gave us mazungu a run for our money.  They didn’t know our names so instead to get us to pass the ball to them they would just yell ‘mazungu hapa’ meaning here white person.  The soccer field here is bigger and the edge of the escarpment is not to far beyond so the view goes on for kilometers as the land dips down and up again.

We have wasted no time in making it to national park nearly on our doorstep, Lake Manyara.  The lake itself is not all that spectacular, mostly since it is drying up.  In fact, of the local officials we have talked to so far, most believe the lake will no longer exist in twenty years.  The park has still managed to retain many of the popular large charasmatic species so it is a frequent stop for tourists on the safari circuit that runs across northern Tanzania.  We were luckily treated to many of these popular sights on our visit to the park.

Male lion in Lake Manyara National Park descending from tree.

For my car on the first afternoon of safari the major highlight was seeing a lion climb down from a tree.  Lakes Nakuru and Manyara are two of only a handful of ecosystems in Africa where lions are known to climb trees.  They seem to be pretty good at getting up the tree, but getting down is a bit of a challenge for them.  Another highlight were the elephants, which because of hunting selection are noticably smaller than the ones in Amboseli.  One morning two bull elephants feasted on dates that had fallen to the ground and promptly blocked one of the main roads in the park.

One of our field exercises was dealing with baboons in the park.  The baboons in the Lake Manyara area are at the highest density in all of East Africa, so naturally we would find them everywhere in the park.  The interesting thing about these animals though is that many of them have syphilis and it is very noticable.  During part of the observation time my group watched as a few baboons climbed into a palm tree and dropped fruit to the male below who hoarded all of them and nearly got himself hit in the head with them.

African Elephant Blocking the Road

Elephant blocks the road while foraging on dates.

Tanzania is just a much different place compared to Kenya.  The people here speak mostly Kiswahili, whereas in Kenya one can get by with English.  Hunting of wildlife is allowed here in Tanzania too.  And, to remind us in this green paradise of where we really are in the world, Tanzania is subject to rolling electricity blackouts and we have come close to eating with our headlamps on for dinner.

Activities for the coming week include exploring both Rhotia where we live and nearby Karatu, the famous Ngorongoro Crater on Holloween and lectures around the entire ecosystem before taking our final examination.



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