Thursday, 26 March 2020

A virus arrived and we left

  • We were booked to go back to Melbourne and Hamilton for a holiday over Easter
  • The coronavirus started spreading and killing people
  • We were told we would have to stay in isolation on arrival in Australia for two weeks
  • The first case was announced in Tanzania
  • The police appeared on the streets wearing face masks
  • A second case was confirmed
  • Wednesday a week ago both our workplaces closed indefinitely
  • Another volunteer who lives in our compound self-isolated because she had flu-like symptoms
  • Someone reported her to the authorities
  • Health department authorities arrived and took a sample for testing

Not what you want to see in your compound

  • AVP announced that all 400 global volunteers were to go home to Australia as soon as possible
  • We got the AVP travel agent to book us flights for Monday - so now we had two options
  • One by one - various flights on our two options was cancelled and new options found
  • A couple of farewells with AVP colleagues who left earlier than us
  • Our original holiday flights home became impossible to use
  • Early on Monday our AVP booked flights were cancelled
  • By 1000 we were on our way to the airport with new Qatar Airlines tickets
So happy to see this chap arrive at Kilimanjaro airport to start us on our journey home.

  • Safely home Wednesday via Dar es Salam, Doha and Perth (41 hours door to door)
  • Now 14 days in isolation in Hamilton

Our sick volunteer colleague didn't have coronavirus and flew home on Tuesday.

Wednesday, 26 February 2020

Work, safaris and daily life


Busy at work in recent weeks with several project funding application deadlines since the start of the year.  I think I've sent off two applications and have another one due in a week.  Hard to remember what proposal I'm working on sometimes.  Several others are coming up in the next few months.

Out of the blue we were approached by an Italian company, Treedom ( to work on a tree planting project.  They obtain funds from large corporations who want to offset their carbon footprint and use the funds to buy trees for planting all over the world.  They currently have on project in Tanzania and want ECHO to be their second partner in the country.  I spoke to their project manager for East Africa by Skype a few weeks ago, put together a proposal and he has just been to visit us. It looks highly likely that we will have a 5 year contract with them.  Very exciting on many levels: many trees will be planted in heavily eroded catchments, ECHO will get a nice injection of funds and security and we can use this relationship to leverage new projects.

This huge hole in a village road leads to the primary school and is a direct result of erosion
that tree planting will help to reverse.
Despite a reasonable number of trees in this scene there are erosion points in the grazed pasture and few trees above to slow down water during a storm.

In November ECHO hosted a conference in Rwanda and one of the speakers presented information on a form of compost for providing highly diverse populations of fungi and bacteria to soils.  Soils here are run down in terms of nutrients and micro-organisms so we thought we'd have a go at building our own bioreactor.  I did some research and found an instruction video and manual.  Last week the planets aligned and the whole team plus visitors helped to build the beast.  Unlike ordinary compost it will not need to be turned over at all.  The only maintenance now is to keep it moist.  In 12 months we will see what we have and if it can help grow food here.

Start with a pallet and some shade cloth.
Erect a wire mesh cage and check the aeration tubes for a snug fit
Shade cloth around the outside
Faith bringing in the first load of mulch and woodchips
Filling the bioreactor - now we water daily and wait for 12 months.


On Sat 8th I went with Per Holman and some of the local bird club members to Mererani and Shamburai Swamp.  We'd had a great day there in October so time for another visit.  There is a competition underway with Tanzanian birders to see the most species in 2020 and we all needed water birds.  We got bogged, twice, for a total of 2.5 hours and there were no water birds on the swamp.    After extracting Per's car from the bogs (he wouldn't let me take photos) we decided to spend an hour or so in nice acacia woodland hills well away from any water.  I got three lifers in that time - Scaly Chatterer, Mouse-coloured Penduline Tit and Pygmy Batis - great names all of them.

Somali Bunting
Red-winged Starling

Scaly Chatterer
On Sunday 23rd Jenny and I, with Alex Rees and three of the local lads went back to the woodland and I got another three lifers: Golden-breasted Starling, Eurasian Nightjar and White-throated Robin. The starling is one of the most spectacular birds in East Africa.  Nightjars are always special as they are so hard to see.  The Robin is a serious skulker and we stalked several for ages until one finally sat in plain view for a few seconds.

Delonix elata
Common Rock Thrush
European Nightjar
Unstriped Ground Squirrel
Pygmy Batis
Blue-capped Cordonbleu
? Butterfly
In between these trips Jenny and I went to Arusha National Park for a day.  Fairly quiet for wildlife and tourists so pleasant enough.  I managed some nice shots of Blue Monkey and Olive Baboon and Jenny captured a Cinnamon-chested Bee-eater beautifully.  One lifer was a Black-fronted Bushshrike high in the trees on the Ngurdoto Crater rim.

Cinnamon-chested Bee-eater (photo by Jenny)
Common Buzzard drying out after a thunderstorm

Blue Monkey
Olive Baboon

Daily life

Our landlord Paul Oliver came home for a few weeks after many months having cancer treatment in the UK.  He looks quite fit and is enjoying catching up with his friends here.  He also took clients on a two week Tarangire/Serengeti NP safari.  We've had a couple of great chats with him - he has been here running safaris and lodges since the early 1980s so has many stories.

I tried again to register my SIM card with VodaCom yesterday (attempt no. 10).  I failed again.  Apparently my fingerprints taken by immigration on our arrival in April are out of date - they need to be less than 3 months old!  I think I've exhausted all my options now and Jenny has also given up.  If they cut off our phones we will sort something out then.  Maybe we can redo our fingerprints when we fly back from Australia after Easter.

Our CommBank visa cards were hacked recently.  Probably someone tampered with an ATM we used and got enough information to bypass the security on our cards.  They removed 200,000 and 300,000 TSh (about $Aus320).  The cards have been cancelled and we hope to get the money back.  We'll collect the new cards after Easter.  In the meantime we are using our emergency backup cards.  If they are compromised we will have to sell some of Jenny's ever increasing collection of curios.

We joined a team at a quiz night for a new rotary club a few weeks ago.  Great fun with lots of discussion between tables as to the answers - there are some very pedantic people around.  We came third out of maybe 20 teams.

Our car is going really well but we have had a few tyre issues of late and even though the treads looked fine we thought the rough roads were taking their toll on valves and sidewalls.  We bought four new tyres a month ago and have had no more problems - touch wood.  They should last for the rest of our time here.  We have had brake squeaking and then a disturbing thunking noise from the front somewhere also recently so I took the car to the bush mechanic adjacent to ECHO and he fixed both for 160,000 TzS ($Aus100) and his labour was only 20,000 TzS.  Such a relief to have a trustworthy mechanic close to work who can fix these problems.

I arrived to see if the car was ready to go home - nope!
Otherwise we lead fairly quiet lives.  We get home quite tired and are in bed by 9 pm at the latest.  We are watching Season 2 of The Crown, Season 3 of The Money Heist and Season 1 of Chernobyl.  All excellent.  Netflix is watchable most nights but our internet is occasionally too slow and there are times when the power goes off mid-episode.  We listen to the ABC radio news and either AM or PM every day so know far more about the goings on in Australia than is probably good for us.  I should probably stay off Twitter as well...

Footy is back this week with a pre-season match between Essendon and West Coast on Friday.  How long before my early enthusiasm and confidence is tempered?  Surely this is the Bombers' year!

We head home via Addis Ababa and Singapore on the 4th April, stay in Melbourne near Dad's until after Easter, catch up with all the kids and other family.  Then we have a few days in Hamilton before heading back here on the 18th.  Looking forward to the break!  Hope to see some of you.

Friday, 7 February 2020

Sim card saga

About 6 months ago the Tanzanian government decided that everyone’s sim card for their mobile phone had to be registered with their thumbprint and their National Identification Authority (NIDA) card number.  The cutoff date was extended several times but Jan 20th was eventually THE DAY when unregistered sims would begin to be cancelled.  The reason for all this was to make it harder for organised crime to flourish.
All Australian Volunteers are required to have a functioning mobile phone, charged up, switched on and with credit at all times.

Our in-country manager sought advice from one of the main telcos and assured us we didn’t have to do anything as our sim cards were registered with our passport numbers and we’d had photographs taken.  So we did nothing.  Then as Jan 20th approached the telcos started sending warning messages to everyone (including non-residents) that their phones would be cut off if they didn’t re-register.

Rumour and misinformation have been abundant - from telcos, other non-residents, residents, media and government agencies.  Some 20 million citizens have been unable to get NIDA cards in time and are being progressively disconnected.

The situation for non-citizens seems to be:
  • If you are going to be in the country less than 6 months you can re-register with passport and thumbprint
  • If you are going to be (or have been) in the country more than six months you must re-register with NIDA card and thumbprint
NIDA cards are notoriously hard to get, even for citizens.  People we know have been waiting 1, 2 and even 3 years.  It is apparently a legal requirement for all non-citizens to get a NIDA card if they have been in the country for more than 6 months (as we have).  

So far neither Jenny nor I have had our phones disconnected but some of our colleagues have.  Some have re-registered their sims successfully with passports and thumbprints.  Two did so on Monday.  Jenny and I have tried three times now to re-register.  The first time the computer systems were down.  The second time we were told NIDA was one option but for a bribe we could register with the VodaCom staffer’s NIDA card number (seriously illegal)!  The third time was Tuesday morning after the success of our two colleagues on Monday.  We both gave thumbprints and but they didn’t match with the ones we gave immigration on arrival in the country in April.  So we couldn’t re-register.  

We were told that attempts were being made to identify foreigner-registered sims and to exempt them from disconnection.  So it is entirely possible that we will never be disconnected.  If we are then we will go in to the shop and try again…

Today I have had more phone calls and messages advising me to come in and re-register!

An issue for us certainly but a huge one for nearly half the population in a country that is so heavily dependant on mobile phones.  What is the economic cost of all this time wasting and being without phones? 

Monday, 27 January 2020

Safari part 3. Western Serengeti to Ngorongoro Crater

On Tuesday 7th January we left Speke Bay Lodge and Lake Victoria and re-entered Serengeti NP at the Ndabaka Gate.  It was a relatively short drove to our next overnight stop - Mbalageti Lodge.  On the way to the lodge we spied small numbers of Wildebeest and Zebra but not yet the large migration herds we were hoping for.  We saw over 50 species of birds including Silverbird, Steel-blue Whydah, Black-winged Kite, Grey Kestrel, Dwarf Bittern, Pygmy Falcon and Grey-breasted Spurfowl.  Some large crocodiles were loafing on the bank of the fast-flowing Grumeti River.
Yellow-throated Longclaw.
Grey-breasted Spurfowl.
Nile Crocodile.
Wildebeest with Western Cattle Egrets (and a Zebra).
Mbalageti Lodge was high on a hilltop with spectacular views over the plains.  To reach it we had to leave our car on one side of the Mbalageti River and get taken across in one of the lodge vehicles as the river was deemed to be running too high for clients to cross by themselves.  For once we had plenty of time once at the lodge for swimming and birding in the afternoon.

Changing vehicles for the river crossing.
Sensational view from the bar area.
Martial Eagle over the bar.
Black-headed Oriole.
Next morning we headed off to the eastern side of the park and our beds for the night in Kananga Tented Camp.  This was a long day and we spent quite a bit of time looking unsuccessfully for a Karamoja Apalis, a small grey bird with white wing patches that is occasionally found in areas of Whistling Thorn Acacia.  Over 90 bird species today with the highlights being: Eurasian Hobby, Black Coucal, Lizard Buzzard, European Bee-eater, Pallid Harrier, African Crake, White-headed Saw-wing, Chestnut Weaver, Rosy-throated Longclaw, Tanzanian Red-billed Hornbill and Abyssinian Scimitarbill.

Rosy-throated Longclaw.
African Crake.
Yellow-winged Bat.
Bat-eared Fox.
Kirk's Dikdik.
Black-backed Jackal.
Zebra and Common Ostrich.
Kananga Tented Camp is a series of tents on the edge of a treeless grass plain.  The grass was about a meter high except immediately around the tents where it had been slashed.  The lions that we were told were lurking close by apparently know not to enter the slashed area.  We had this camp to ourselves.
Kananga Tented Camp with the lion-proof grass slashing.
Next morning we left before dawn and soon came across a group of lion cubs.  There were three half-grown ones and four quite small ones.  We found their mothers a km or two away where they had presumably been hunting in the night.

Lion struggling to stay awake.
Lou shooing a Superb Starling that kept coming too close for Rob to photograph.
Superb Starling.
Hartlaub's Bustard.
We drove to the Naabi Hill gate and exited the park there into the adjacent Ngorongoro Wildlife Management Area.  Along the way we finally caught up with migration and were treated to Wildebeest and Zebra herds from horizon to horizon.  Another long day saw us reach Rhino Lodge just before dusk.  An astonishing 120 species of birds were recorded that day.  Highlights were many: Cape Crow, African Stonechat, Greater Kestrel, Rüppell's Vulture, Speke's Weaver, White-bellied Bustard, White Stork, Tree Pipit, Lesser Kestrel, Amur Falcon, Common Rock Thrush and Black Saw-wing.

Rüppell's and White-backed Vultures and a Marabou Stork on a Zebra carcase.
Thompson's Gazelle.
Lappet-faced Vulture.
Black-winged Stilt.
Rhino Lodge was the first busy lodge we had stayed in.  It is situated on the Ngorongoro Crater rim at  2,270 m (about 20 m higher than the highest point in Australia - Mount Kosciuszko) and it was quite chilly.  The rooms had fireplaces and hot water bottles available.

Next morning we were on the road before dawn (again) for the drive down into the crater.  Stanley said "watch for lions" as he pulled out onto the sealed road.  This is a populated area with people, farms, cattle etc.  We had only gone a km or two when a male lion walked across the road in front of us and disappeared into the bushes.  The drive down the the crater floor (at 1750 m) was very steep and a bit scary in the semi-darkness.  The crater was marvellous with animals everywhere you looked.  We saw Golden Jackals, many Lions, several Rhinoceros, a couple of Eland, Thompson's and Grant's Gazelles as well as the usual Wildebeest, Zebra, Elephants and Buffalo.

Golden Jackal.
Cape Buffalo.
Black Rhinoceros
Birds were plentiful and we saw over 70 species including Anteater Chat, Caspian Plover, Black-winged Lapwing, Abyssinian Thrush, Abdim's Stork, Grey Crowned Crane, Lanner Falcon, Cinnamon-chested Bee-eater, Abyssinian Wheatear and Great White Pelican.

Black-winged Lapwing.
Pin-tailed Whydah.
Ngorongoro Crater.
Our last night was spent in the quite busy Eileen's Trees Hotel in bustling Karatu.  Back in civilisation!  Our safari was a long time in the planning and anticipation and then it went so quickly.  We collected the Rav from African Safari Glamping lodge where we had left it ten days earlier, farewelled Stanley and his trusty safari vehicle, fixed a flat tyre in Mto Wa Mbu and drove home without further incident.

Total bird count was 328 species with 11 lifers for me - several new mammals as well.