13 januari 2011

Wuthering Xmas at the Biosphere…

Forty degrees Celsius… in the shade… and in the morning time only fifteen. They call it the ‘Harmattan’, I call it the sub-Saharan autumn. It’s so hot and the air is so dry that many trees let their leaves fall unto the ground. Walking in the lane to our homestead, is like walking through a European forest in the fall. Leaves crisps under the sole of your shoes, and the wind makes them whirl up and down and fourth. It’s hot – 40°C – but it doesn’t feel like it’s hot… you don’t sweat, ‘cause the air is so dry. Tasty, sundried tomatoes… in only a few hours… Mie’s specialty. If we can keep mice and lizards away from this appetizer.
For Xmas we went to the Pendjari Biosphere… in search for animals living in the wild. Mammals, birds, reptiles… the whole lot that survives in this Park, surrounded by 23 villages, where people try to make a living out of the benefits of the Pendjari Biosphere (but that’s another story, we’ll tell later). A 40 km dirt road – that leads us through Tanougou (Cascades), Sangou and Batia, leads us to the main park entrance. Another 40 km – leading us through burned savanna – brings us further into the park, and a first stop at Mare Bali… apparently a calm water pond, but in reality a pool with hippo’s and crocodiles, grazing and swimming around. Some antelopes and warthogs risk their live to get a sip of water. An hour later we take a little rest in the Pendjari Hotel and go for a first ‘game drive’ in the late afternoon. Fatima, a friend of Grâce, who came with us to see her first ‘elephant’… sees also for the first time wild monkey, Kob and Waterbuck. So many, so close… so beautiful. They stare at us, as we stare at them… shoot pictures… one is not enough. Undisturbed they behave as if we weren’t there… young male cob fighting head to head, to impress, to play… the winner takes it all. A female feeding her offspring… vulnerable… hidden in the higher grass. Lions were not at the ‘rendezvous’, although lots of cobs indicate there’s enough food in the savannah to feed these predators. Near the Pendjari river we see cobs crossing the border – Burkina Faso is just on the other side of it – risking their lives, since many crocodiles live in the Pendjari... locals will tell you, they host the spirits of their ancestors.

Next morning we leave around six, for an early game drive... and Fatima sees her first elephant – a solitary male. Cobs – what else – baboons, warthogs... and a symphony of awakening birds. We are not alone in the park... and the driver in front of us... indicates with his break lights that there is something to see. On the track we see lots of elephant manure... and all of a sudden we hear cracking trees and heavy respiration... elephants at about 30 meters from the track. A mother elephant with two young ones. We hold the car and cut the engine to enjoy the relative silence of the forest... only the noise of elephant respiration, whilst breakfast grazing and eating. After a while the mother elephant finds we saw enough and warns us with a little charge... trumpeting and waving with her ears wide. Our guide panics ‘Drive away, drive away... she’s attacking!’, apparently it’s his first time he saw an elephant, that close... and instead of staying calm – an elephant doesn’t see that clear – he loses control. I started the engine... and drove slowly away. Fatima has a story to tell her friends and family... her first elephant and already a ‘charge’ of one of them. We stop at the ‘Mare sacrée’ – where the spirits of the ancestors house. A Hammerkop made his huge nest in a tree near the outlook... it resembles a swallows nest, but hundred times bigger. Driving through the savannah, we are looking for Roan antelope, but find Hartebeest... and a solitary buffalo... a Gambian sun squirrel... and all kinds of birds... from sparrow to eagle. On our way back to the hotel we see in the far a herd of elephants. An enormous elephant stands under a tree, waiting for the herd to pass... fifteen of them... little ones, grownups and adults... moving away from us. A bit further we see where they’ve crossed the track... manure everywhere, and huge footprints in the mud. An evening drive finally brings us to a herd of Roan antelope... a solitary Red-flanked duiker, Tantalus monkey... and more Kob. We also found the worst track in the park... apparently only used by elephants in the rainy season, but now the footprints are dried out and we hobble & wobble through the scenery. Shake, baby shake!

By the end of December the night are really cool, only 15°C... so you don’t need air-conditioning, but a pullover.

When we leave the Park next morning the Harmattan is blowing hard over the savannah… no trace of animals in the plains of Pendjari… only around the ‘Mare Bali’ we find crocodile, hippos and some storks and cormorants.

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