Tuesday, 24 November 2020

The grass is greener...

The Kenya border at Namanga is about 90 mins drive north of Arusha and a whole new country with interesting national parks awaits. On Friday we drove across into Kenya to visit Amboseli National Park for the weekend. This park is is the rain shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro and is quite dry except where water seeps out from the mountain into large lakes and swamps. We stayed at Ol Tukai Lodge for two nights - very pleasant!
I had no expectations regarding new birds although Northern Yellow-billed Hornbill is recorded there from time to time. From the Meshanani Gate you drive through woodland for about 15 km then come down into the lakes and swamps. Other areas are low shrubland and simple grasslands. There is one hill you can walk up - Observation Hill - and have lunch while taking in the view.
There was lots of activity in all areas at all times so we spent a couple of days just taking random tracks to see where they led us. The tracks were well maintained and signposted and the landscape was so flat you could nearly always see Observation Hill and the trees hiding the lodge.
Overall we saw 159 bird species in the park and a further 6 outside the park. We totalled 118 and 113 species on the two days. We also saw a diverse range of mammals including 2 new ones - African Civet and Egyptian Mongoose. There were Hippos, Elephants, Gazelles, Impala, Reedbuck, Buffalo, Zebra, Wildebeest, Hyaena, Squirrels etc.
The highlight was really the wetland complex with open ponds and lakes and flooded marshes. Waterbirds were abundant from Saddle-billed Storks to ducks to tiny Sandpipers. There are obviously few fish in the system as there were no cormorants or pelicans. New bird species for me were Garganey, Marsh Owl and Black Cuckoo. I heard many Black Cuckoos in Uganda but never did manage to see one. Other highlights were Red-necked Phalarope, Terek Sandpiper, Secretarybird, Kori Bustard, Grey Crowned Crane, Goliath Heron, Martial Eagle, Rufous Chatterer, Beautiful Sunbird and Taveta Weaver.
The only sour note was the agression of the women selling craft at the park gate. When leaving Jenny made some purchases but they weren't satisfied and would not take no for an answer. We always support the local women with purchases but this was over the top.

Thursday, 19 November 2020

A visit to catch up with projects I helped to establish

When I was working with ECHO-East Africa (April 2019 - March 2020) I applied to many organisations for funding to do all sorts of development work.  Most applications were unsuccessful but yesterday I was invited to a training day to see the fruits of my labour with a couple of successful grants.  The first was a large project to plant trees in degrading farmland on the mountain slopes in the Arusha area.  This is in conjunction with Treedom - an Italian company.  It will run for the next 5 years at least and will result in hundreds of thousands of trees established.  Tree planting for the first year has just begun and I was able to see the ECHO team loading a truck load of seedlings to take up into the hills.

The main event today however was capacity building training. This was funded by the Australian Volunteers International and the Planet Wheeler Foundation under its Community Grants Scheme.  Donkeys and bullocks are used as draught animals commonly in the Arusha region.  They are often required to pull heavy loads with poorly designed harnesses and yokes and have shortened, painful lives as a result.  ECHO and a couple of other NGOs have put together week-long training programs where farmers can learn how to make equipment to better suit their animals.  Over the week they learn how to make padding, yokes, neck harnesses etc. from local and cheap materials and with minimal tools and how to ensure these suit the age and size of their animals.

Hessian and plastic bags stuffed with straw

Nicely padded to spread the load across the donkey's back.

Attaching straps.

Early stages of yoke manufacture.

Neck harness made from tire sidewalls.

The curved polypipe is used as part of the neck harness.
Q. How do you bend a piece of polypipe?

A. Fill it with sand and heat gently over a small fire.

Today was day three and everyone was so busy at their allotted tasks.  I consider myself fortunate that I have been able to return to see how my past efforts as an AVP volunteer have helped in some way.

Tomorrow we cross into Kenya and will spend the weekend at Amboseli National Park.

Sunday, 8 November 2020

... and we're back!

Eight months after our rather hasty departure from Tanzania we have returned.  We felt we were sitting around in Hamilton doing very little and had a choice.  Peter Dutton gave us his blessing to travel and we consulted with family and friends who were also mostly supportive of our plans.

Getting here was very wearying this time.  A long day in Melbourne catching up with our son David and my dad in Melbourne before nephew Callum drove us to the airport.  Then the usual long Qatar flight to Doha where we had a 20 hour layover before our flight to Tanzania.  Normally we would leave the airport for a hotel in the city, sleep and freshen up, do some touristy things and then return to the airport.  This time we were not allowed to leave the airport.  This was most unpleasant as there is little to do and mask wearing was compulsory.  The same mask gets a bit manky after 30 hours.

We had been advised twice by Tanzanian Immigration that we would need to provide a negative COVID test certificate on arrival so we were tested by our GP in Hamilton the day before we flew.  The results were to be emailed to us so we could show them on arrival.  As I write it is 9 days and they still haven't come.  Of course - no-one asked to see them at the airport in any case.

Arriving at our Arusha house felt like we had been away 2 weeks.  The staff were so happy to welcome us back.  Rooney the dog forgave us for leaving him so abruptly in March and the new dog Soxy seems friendly - if a bit neurotic.

The house and car were looked after well and we quickly settled in although the exhaustion of the trip took a while to pass.  It is the beginning of the wet season here with a few mornings of rain since we arrived.  The garden is still very dry however.  One change since we left is the shelter over the picnic table.  I sat here quietly yesterday and a small flock of Hadada Ibis ignored me as they foraged and sunbathed.

We have ventured out for shopping and have visited our old workplaces.  We have new neighbours in the compound - an Italian couple working for the anti-poaching PAMS organisation which has its office in the grounds as well.  Hopefully landlord Paul will be back from lockdown in the UK in a few weeks.

On Friday we had a long day in Arusha NP and nursed our RAV up the mountain track as far as the waterfall picnic ground (2150 m).  There are some birds here and higher that I still want to find.  We will need to either go with someone in a more suitable vehicle or do a guided walk with an armed ranger to get higher.  Buffalo occur up this high so it is not safe otherwise.

My first European Honey Buzzard in Tanzania.

Harvey's Duiker

Striped Skink.

The COVID situation here is weird.  There has been no coordinated testing since April and the official line is that it doesn't exist here now.  Life is essentially back to normal - except the provision of hand washing facilities outside even the smallest shop.  Almost no-one is wearing masks.  We did see one chap on a motorbike wearing a mask but not a helmet - clearly he is confused about risk management.  The lack of tourists and departure of many expats has seen a number of businesses (bars, sporting clubs, restaurants etc.) close down at least temporarily.

Whatever the reality, COVID has had little impact apart from economic.  The hospitals were never overwhelmed and there are no coffin manufacturers along the highways.  Two theories are being examined: other COVID viruses have been through the population regularly so there is a degree of immunity; or native African people have no Neanderthal genes (common in European people) and this protects them from more severe infections.  Hopefully one-day we will have answers.

We have planned a safari to Ruaha, Udzungwa and Mikumi National Parks starting on December 1st.  Our friend Stanley from Zorilla Safaris is going to take us and it will be great to be with him in the parks again.

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 were 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 (www.treedom.net) 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.