Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Wild Things Tanzania Safaris Birding on the Kilombero River

Having spent the night in the Udzungwa Mountains we watched the sunrise over the Kilombero from the top of Sanje Falls. The valley stretched out before us, first sugar cane fields and a mist shrouded hint of the game planes beyond. This was our destination today.

We drove through the villages and colourful shambas until we reached Ifakara. This dusty town has a real wild-west feel to it. We stopped at the vibrant market and explored it with our guide whilst our cook bought fresh provisions. The stalls were packed with fresh vegetables and it was obvious that the farms in this area were very productive.

Leaving Ifakara we drove the 8km to Kivokoni where we crossed the Kilombero River by ferry. As we crossed we saw a pod of hippo blowing downstream and heard their distinctive grunt. The banks were lined with reeds and many brightly coloured weaver birds.

We picked up some tasty fried fresh water shrimps on the other side and drove into the heart of the wetland. The Kilombero Valley is the largest seasonal wetland in East Africa. The river is fed by the catchment from the Udzungwa Mountains and the Mahenge Escarpement and in the rainy season it bursts its banks flooding the plains. The Kilombero is the main water regulator of the Rufiji ecosystem and has been gazetted as a RAMSAR site (a wetland of international importance). It is also home to the only viable population of Puku (a specialized wetland antelope) and their associated large lion population.

We left the main road and drove into the bush, the shamba giving way to wooded savanna. As we headed towards Boomer-Ulanga Forest saw a group of heartebeest in the distance and a snake eagle hunting. The miombo gave way to riverine tangle with numerous elephant signs. After a short while (with a minor delay caused by a fallen tree that was blocking our path) we emerged into the grassland. Here the track was barely discernable and out local guide Saidi ranged ahead of the car checking the route. This was about as off the beaten track as it is possible to be!

The long grass gave way and we were on the side of the river. We arrived at the community campsite next to a picturesque village. The local children were out in force to greet us. A striking difference was that here they greeted us respectfully, “Shikamoing” us rather than asking for pens or money (which happens far too often in touristy areas). The camp was swiftly erected as we enjoyed a cold soda whilst our guide explained about the village.

The majority of the people here are Wandamba (People of the Valley) and make their living through fishing. The size of the catch has declined in recent years due to over fishing and the use of mosquito nets (thoughtfully provided free by a well meaning NGO) for fishing Dagar (small fish). The community campsite was started in order to try to supplement the reduced village income.

After a pleasant lunch and a relaxing rest on the tree-top viewing platform we headed towards the river with Saidi. He beckoned us to a large Mitumbwi (dugout canoe). This was so large that we could place 2 of our camping chairs in it and still have excellent stability. This canoe was used for transporting the dried fish from the entire village to market in Ifakara. The fishermen themselves use much less stable smaller canoes and are occassionaly lost to hippo and crocodile.

We glided silently upstream, the only sound other than the chatter of birds the dip of Saidi’s punt and Suliman’s paddle. We were able to approach very close to many colourful birds and basking corocodiles. I counted about 50 species of bird in one hours canoeing on the river. The diversity was incredible. My favorite site was approaching close to a large colony of White Fronted Bee Eaters, these vibrant birds make nests in holes in the mud of the bank. We were directly below them when they took fright and with a rushing of wings a multicoloured cloud passed about a metre over our heads.

We returned at sunset, seeing the sun sink behind the Udzungwa Mts Range turning the water shimmering turquoise was something truly memorable. After hot showers we had a superb fish diner. Fried talapia caught that morning accompanied by stewed tiger fish. After dinner we adjourned to the local bar with our guide, here friendly fishermen beat us repeatedly at Bao (a board game involving many stones which you try to take possession of – based on sheep steeling apparently) and Drafts!

The hustle and bustle of the village woke us early and we enjoyed a full breakfast. Sated, we immediately went down, clutching our fresh coffee, to the riverside to see the catch come in and look for the endemic Kilombero Weaver and Cisticola. It was a timeless site seeing the Mitumbwi returning from a nights work. We watched our cook acquire us some more fresh fish.

There was time for a village tour before we departed and we saw the smoking racks, local brewery (making Teka from millet) and fish net making. The net makers showed proudly the large mesh size – designed only to take the big fish. I hope that this trend is common to all of the fishing villages on the Kilombero and that it is not too late for the fishery.

We signed the vistor’s book before saying our thanks and goodbyes to the elders. I had enjoyed my stay next to the Kilombero River and resolved that the next visit would be for longer. This was some of the best bird watching I have experienced in Tanzania and combined with the unspoilt local culture the Kilombero is simply magical. I’m currently looking forward to visiting next January when a couple of new lodges are going to open, this will mean there is an alternative to camping and will hopefully increase the popularity of the Kilombero Valley. Tourism can clearly benefit the people of the valley but it must be conducted in a sensitive manner.