A Rewilding Journey

Part 2 – Usangu Awakens

Our good friend, Brandon Kemp, who had as much experience as anyone we know across all  the great wildlife areas of Southern and East Africa, had for the past few years been telling us we had to visit a place called Usangu Wetlands. He spoke of incredible habitat, no tourists, wild untouched wilderness and almost unbelievable herds of antelope with ever increasing predator numbers completing the picture.

Brandon had for years headed up Asilia’s Southern Tanzania operations and was now spearheading the field operations in Tanzania for philanthropist Sir Jim Ratcliffe.

His team’s objective, under the banner of Six Rivers Africa, had been to reduce and ultimately stop poaching; educate, empower and integrate former poachers and community members into tourism or sustainable practices; establish a road network within the area facilitating ground anti-poaching patrols; and with Asilia Africa create a research driven tourism opportunity that gave guests a raw, real and truly unique wildlife experience that would be hard, if not impossible, to find anywhere else on this scale.

No easy undertaking I can assure you, as day by day I learnt of or heard of the waterfall of challenges that face those brave enough to take them on. 

For decades the 6000km2 Usangu area had been subjected to hunting; poaching for both bush meat, fish and ivory; and massive cattle encroachment numbering well into the tens of thousands of cattle that all but destroyed any wild animals’ grazing opportunity. Added to this, illegal rice farming had all but dried up any surface waters effectively, drying up the source of the great Ruaha River. Quite simply, all combined were a bouillabaisse of environmental catastrophe.

Predators were persecuted and wildlife annihilated on sight. So why on earth, when we had access to and had photographed most of the greatest wildlife areas on the planet, would I ever choose to visit such a place?

Driving the five hours from Jabali to Usangu on good roads gives you just a small sense of the scale of the area and the various habitats, yet we were amazingly only seeing a tip of the proverbial ice berg.

After about four hours of scenic driving, often along the Ruaha River laden with hippos and crocs, we turned left onto a small gravel road snaking through almost impenetrable dry miombo woodland. Tsetse flies were everywhere and I felt like I was a character in a Jacky Chen film as I chopped and diced at these indestructible aerial assassins that were seeking to dine on Mzungu blood. In the dry miombo, other than wonderful flurries of colors of the passing of millions of trees, there was not much to see, and when we did stop, the fifth fighter squadron of tsetse’s quickly got stuck in.

It was during one of these short stops along the 90 minute drive on the camp’s approach road that the penny really dropped for me.

Who was brave or crazy enough to make this road? How do you even make this road?

It was explained to me that a team of twelve, armed with machetes, had for eight weeks walked, chopped, lopped, stacked and removed these trees whilst all the time donating pints of their blood to the insect world in temperatures that often top 35C.

A land rover then repetitively drove the path open, whilst getting daily punctures on the thousands of sharp tree stumps that needed to be driven flat. This was how you built a road to a new camp, roads that I had never given a thought to as to their creation in so many other parks.

As we drove I could not but help think of the ease of photography in the Serengeti, Mara or Okavango Delta, and what was I doing wasting days of my precious life driving this road going to a poacher’s paradise at the end of it?

After losing my umpteenth aerial dog fight to the tsetse squadron, we started clearing the miombo, and with it the flies from hell rapidly reduced in number. Miombo was replaced by Acacia and Asilia Africa’s Usangu Expedition Camp hove into view.

Being an expedition camp, we were expecting a tiny dome tent for the next week. Instead spacious and extremely comfortable octagonal tents and a simple stylish communal area welcomed us.

Adorning the communal area were war trophies of confiscated fishing traps; meat and fish ferrying bicycles; canoes and cattle skulls, all removed in the daily efforts of the Tanzania National Parks Authority (TANAPA) and Six Rivers Africa anti-poaching team (TANAPA) that were working to restore the wetlands.

Up until this point, save for a few impala, sightings had been slim and I simply set my sights pretty low photographically with more emphasis on enjoying the distinctly different habitat and surrounds. As an added bonus the tsetse flies were now a thing of the past.

With our guide, Bihati, we went on our first afternoon drive.

I had been warned that animals were skittish here due to their torrid past, and so I had packed a mixture of one long lens (which I try to avoid using) and then a few short and medium lenses to shoot the habitat.

Just a short drive from the camp my eyes opened wider, the diversity of trees was amazing. Acacias were everywhere, and not just one or two species as was normal in most areas, but a multitude of different types all visible within short distances of each other. Forests of white thorn acacia with their yellowish stems formed striking and moody backgrounds. Suddenly there were decent sized herds of impala grazing in river beds amongst them, this wasn’t too bad.

Bihati explained that there were no less than 14 species of Acacia here, 14!! Acacias are usually a good indicator of biodiversity and potential carrying capacity. Clearly, with the decades of absence of elephants and other large browsers, these trees had eagerly taken up the slack and it was incredible to see so many virgin stands of them.

Bihati had guided in various other locations, but like us, was new to the area. As we drove his eyes lit up. We, without saying it, realized we were somewhere special but had no idea what lay in store.

The following morning I requested we leave as early as permitted, we had habitat to explore and frontiers to reach. We bounded off along a barely recognizable track through encrusted cotton soil and along a dry river bed as the reds and pastel blues started to paint the dawn of a new day ripe with promise and adventure.

I’m not going to lie to you, it was a bit bumpy and we couldn’t drive fast, it was the way it should be. After about twenty minutes we saw a herd of zebra that watched on from a distance. We bounded on ten minutes more and then I saw a herd of animals in an open acacia thicket.

I looked through the binoculars, 28 Roan antelope. Wow! You don’t see Roan every day, and very seldom so many! When about eighty meters away, they started to move and as the light was still a bit low to photograph, we carried on.

Suddenly, I saw movement in the medium high grass. I picked up the bins and looked. A serval bounded through the grass. I watched it and then a magnificent sable came into view.

I paused at my new ocular dessert, losing sight of the serval. We slowly approached but could get no closer as a small stream blocked our path, full of open billed storks and flanked by two crested cranes, not a bad road block.

We carried on for another fifteen minutes and then scanning the now fairly open floodplain I saw a dark patch of grass the size of five football fields. I looked again. What on earth? The dark patch was at least five hundred topi!

I scanned a bit more, another smaller dark patch, 43 sable!!!

I looked over the sable, no ways you have to be kidding, 250 eland!!!

This was indeed the land of the exclamation mark.

It was about at this point I got this feeling that I have experienced on very few occasions in my life. One was when a friend and I discovered the incredible breaching great white sharks of Seal island South Africa. Another was when Monique I spent four days wandering almost alone amongst close to a million king penguins, elephant, antarctic and leopard seals on South Georgia’s St Andrews beach.

Usangu was a place that was truly raw and special, very special, and one of very few that remained on the planet. As we drove on, hundreds of pelicans and yellow billed storks orbited cyclonically above a natural fish trap being gorged on by other feathered predators below them.

Dozens of nesting pratincoles dotted the marsh flanks. For the next two hours we drove on with little clue or care of where we were going, for there were thousands of wild animals freckling the horizon and all around us.

No, they were not completely comfortable with us, and especially the topi ran from at least two hundred meters. But just a year ago, that distance had been three hundred meters, and a year before that, the far smaller herds had run from even further.

A year ago there had been a fraction of the grass there was today as thousands of cattle had illegally grazed the flood plain to a dry parched landscape. Through the efforts of TANAPA, Six Rivers Africa aerial and ground support, and Asilia’s commitment and presence in the area, more than 7000 cattle had been confiscated and removed from the Park. Usangu was quite literally Africa’s phoenix rising from the ashes. 

For those of us native to Africa we know that getting from A to B is seldom a straight line, and it is complicated. It is not simply a case of chase out the poachers and the problem goes away. I myself used to think that way, as like many others, I detest poacher because nature and wild places are my life. But, I have learnt that few poachers, if given a choice, would not chose to be poachers. It is no easy life, these guys risk being killed by lions, elephants, buffalo, crocodiles, hippos, malaria and more. They seldom get much at all for their spoils and are little more than slaves receiving a pittance of what the middleman or kingpin take home. The reality, however, is that in most cases they have no other option.

As much as I would rather that this area stays devoid of humanity and tourism, this is an unrealistic notion with the pressures of a burgeoning population. What I truly do hope is that those that follow, when the utopia that is Usangu becomes better known, will tread lightly and compliment TANAPA, Asilia, and Sir Ratcliffe’s contributions.

For the next four nights I could hardly sleep as I eagerly awaited the sunrise and what the day ahead would bring. Herd after herd past before us, sometimes a thousand topi or more, sable were plentiful and easy to find.

Zebra were often in herds of fifty or more,

and at least three herds of buffalo, the largest probably five hundred strong, grazed next to or in the acacias. On the woodland edges of the acacias, elephant herds up to twenty strong tentatively peered out at the forests of acacia saplings tempting them.

As for the cats and dogs, they’re there, albeit not in huge numbers or comfortable with vehicles yet, but that time will rapidly come as without the ever decreasing threat of the poachers snare or trophy hunters gun, these animals will no longer see humans or vehicles as a deadly threat and they return to their normal ways of hunting the great herds wherever they may occur.

There is water, there is great diversity in habitat, and there is an abundance of large prey. It is thus inevitable that the great prides of lions will soon form to take advantage of the spoils.  

From a naturalist and adventurer’s point of view, I would say this is one of the most special places I have ever been to. From a conservationist’s point of view, it was like a shot of adrenalin in a time where you are often taking an eight count.

To firstly see such beautiful wilderness is revitalizing, but then to see the efforts of all of those involved to restore it, and the huge inroads they have made in such a short time with dazzling results, is nothing short of inspiring.

Photographically, it already offers many unique images and you can get close enough to many of the herds. Don’t however expect wildebeest and zebra next to your vehicle, or elephants sniffing your bonnet just yet. You will need to use long and medium lenses for now, but I fancy a bet that in a year or two’s time you will be taking out that 20mm lens to get the herds in.

As for the cats, there are a couple lions that are already comfortable with the few vehicles Asilia sends out each day, and there are at least four leopards quite close to camp regularly seen on camera traps, but again don’t expect a Sabi Sands or Luangwa experience just yet.

If, however, you truly want to experience Africa as it should be experienced, where not everything is manicured, where there are not dozens of vehicles at a sighting, and most importantly where you will be amongst the first to experience the awakening of a giant, then Usangu will touch you like few other places in Africa.

If there is one wild place in East Africa I would recommend for those who have experienced the likes of the Serengeti, Masai Mara or Amboseli, and you’re happy to embrace the odd bumpy road, then this would be it. I firmly believe, if the continued effort to restore this wetland can continue, Usangu will rapidly become one of Africa’s great wildlife destinations for the true nature enthusiast.

A Rewilding Journey – Part 1

Copyrighted by Chris Fallows @2020