Mar 21, 2015

Close Call

3.30 pm, Saturday afternoon.

“Oh gawd – bloody TANAPA.  Here we go again…’

A kilometre to the north, inside Arusha National Park, a plume of dense smoke is curling skywards.  TANAPA (Tanzania National Parks) often carry out controlled burning to manage encroaching bush, and they have a habit of not warning the neighbours first.

For the rest of the afternoon, we watch the fire spread along a broad front as it burns ever closer to our boundary.

Jules: ‘You just watch - it’ll reach us around sunset.’

Sure enough, at dusk, the roar and crackle of burning bush is now loud and close; the billowing smoke is glowing a lurid red, lit from within by the flames.  A group of us ranges along the park boundary, armed with pangas (machetes) and leafy branches for beating the flames out.  There’s a bit of a carnival atmosphere – this won’t be a big deal: there’s a gentle breeze blowing against the fire, helping to slow its advance.  And the fire is impressive as it comes, the leaping flames strangely beautiful in the gathering dark, lighting up the columns of smoke overhead.  I even have time to shoot some video.  A team of park rangers arrives to lend a hand.

When it becomes obvious that the fire will not die out of its own accord, we start back-burning: lighting fires along our firebreak.  These burns are small and easy to control; they burn away from the firebreak, back towards the oncoming fire, consuming all the fuel as they go.  When the two fires meet – pffft, no more fire.  We then work our way along the boundary setting more back burns as we go until the fire goes out of its own accord.  Everyone heads home, chatting and laughing – a good evening’s work.

Sunday, 10:30 a.m.:

‘Uh-oh: see that?’

Smoke again, further to the East: the bit that didn’t burn last night.  Worryingly, there’s a high wind today, gusting and swirling, blowing the fire our way.  We head to the boundary, where a gaggle of our Tanzanian neighbours are monitoring the fire’s approach.

‘Are they mad, setting a fire on a day like this? This wind's a killer.’
‘Remember the last one, when a couple of folk lost their houses?  It was just like today.’
‘Yup, It’s going to be a biggie…’
‘The bad thing about the wind is that the fire jumps...’

Hmm, that sounds worrying.

We head back to the house to get ready: a big drink of water, hats, sunscreen (it’s a scorching day today, pun intended) and getting the cows in.  By the time we get back, the fire has already hit.  It has crossed the firebreak in several places and teams of people are frantically beating out the flames before they can take hold.  Our neighbour Charles is there, wearing a motorbike helmet as insulation, shouting orders; his hay barn has already gone up in smoke.  Another neighbour has lost her wooden cow byre: they let the cows out first, so they’re fine.  Worryingly, these structures were well back from the fire: burning debris is being hurled over the firefighters’ heads, mini firebombs, so we are fighting it on 2 fronts now.

There’s dense choking smoke everywhere, making us cough and our eyes stream.

Soon, the worst of it is under control.  Women are bringing buckets of water to douse smouldering stumps; people are taking it easy… then a cry goes up and everyone grabs an implement and races along the boundary: another fire has taken hold.

We hurry to Mark’s plot.  Again, the fire has jumped the firebreak in several places and people rush to put these new fires out.  A small structure has been burned down, but again there’s no serious damage.

The fire continues making it’s way along the boundary, with teams beating out the flames every time they cross.  The fire takes hold in a densely wooded patch in a valley and the flames leap skyward with a deep roar as they devour the extra fuel.  It’s way too hot now to approach: all we can do is watch helplessly from a distance.

Back burning was very effective last night, in more open terrain and no wind.  But today…?  It might just make things worse...  But things can’t get much worse: trees crowd along both sides of the firebreak, plus there’s a house ahead, right by the boundary: it is brick-built, but the outlying buildings are of wood.  The whole lot could go up… We decide to start bad-burning: the heat is intense, but nothing like the monster that is bearing down on us, just 30 yards away.

There’s a frenzy of activity: men leaping in to beat back the flames, until they’re driven back coughing and spluttering; women carrying buckets of water to the front – luckily, there’s a shallow well close by.  After a half hour of intense work, the worst of the fire passes. The house is safe, although a grass store has partially burnt down.

By now, Jules and I are too tired to continue; we can hardly lift our arms.  It seems as though there are plenty of folk on hand and the fire looks as if it’s under control… then my phone rings.

Mzee, a tree is burning, right by the house!’ 

This is terrible news: everyone is here, fighting the fire.  There’s no manpower at home to help with a new fire there.  How the hell did that happen?  The house is way back from the boundary!

When we get there, Nnko has managed to contain it; it’s just smouldering, but a bucket of water soon puts paid to that.  The thing is, this tree is in a patch of forest, about 200m back from the front – and nothing else has been touched.  Somehow, a ball of burning leaves must have been blown all that way and lodged in the branches, igniting a bird’s nest or similar.  So how come it didn’t spread?  I don’t know.  But if it had, we would have been up the proverbial creek: there’s no way we could have got a team there in time.

A very close call.

Dec 3, 2014

Life's A Beach

Getting there - the Rufiji Delta from the air

Getting there part 2: transport across Songo Songo Island to get to the boat that will take us to Fanjove

Got there! Fanjove Island

Warm, crystal-clear water laps at a white, white beach fringed by graceful coconut palms.  The colour palette ranges from palest turquoise to deep, deep blue as I gaze out to sea.

At night, we set off in search of coconut crabs, monsters straight out of a really bad sic-fi movie, capable of scaling a palm tree, cutting down a coconut then climbing down and eating the prize.  (If you’ve ever tried getting into a coconut, you’ll know just how big a deal this last bit is, even if you gloss over the tree climbing and the rest of it.)

And they’re huge: up to a metre (over 3 foot) from leg tip to leg tip, and weighing in at over 4kg (9lbs).  (For an idea of just how big they get, click here)

We wander around in suitable habitat, shining our torches – there!  We find one in the act of peeling a coconut, thrusting its claws between the nut and husk to push the husk off.  It doesn’t mind our presence too much, and we see that it is a gravid female, with lots of eggs under her tail.  November is spawning time in this part of the world,  so with luck she will make her way down to the water in the coming days to release all those eggs into the waves.

She isn’t huge: a couple of pounds at a guess, but what an extraordinary creature, and what a privilege! 

Underwater, more marvels await.  Before this, I’d only ever seen such oddities as Shrimpfish, Leaf Fish and Snake Eel in books or documentaries, but here they all were.  (Click to see what a Shrimpfish looks like...)

There were also decent numbers of live shells, a rarity along much of the Tanzanian coast these days.  I saw several Tiger Cowries as well as Spider Conch, Helmet Conch and many species of cones and Money Cowries.

We get lucky with scary stuff too: there’s a pair of Leaf Fish hiding in plain view, exactly the same colour and texture as the coral around it; under a nearby coral overhang, there’s a pair of Lionfish, all floaty fins and long, elegant spines.  A Scorpionfish lies on a chunk of coral, pale blue just like his background (some species can change colour to match their surroundings).  Later on, poking around in the shallows, I spy a rapid movement.  I can’t make anything out at first, just a curved line, an oddity of texture.  Then it leaps into focus - a Stonefish looking just like the coral rubble it lives in.  This gives pause for thought: I’m barefoot and these things are all but impossible to see.  I tiptoe gingerly back to the beach…

But it’s not just about the scary venomous critters: we see several Decorator Crabs, who 'plant' tufts and drapes of algae on their carapaces as camouflage.  This works just fine until they start walking across the bottom, an unlikely mobile patch of weed.  (In some parts of the world, they stick bits of rubbish onto their backs to achieve the same effect.  A very modern adaptation...)  

A shoal of squid hovers in the clear water, keeping a wary eye on me.  When I move my hand they zoom off into the blue.

A pile of broken mussel shells near a hole alerts me to the presence of a bandit.  As I fin closer, a lump detaches itself from the seabed and tiptoes bashfully into the hole, blushing at being discovered: an octopus surrounded by leftovers.

All is not entirely well though: a dearth of larger reef fish (Parrotfish, larger wrasses, Sweetlips and Groupers) is an indication of overfishing over the years.

Later, on a dive on the outer reef slope, I drift over a magical kaleidoscope of different corals, a mesmerising array of colour, form and texture – a gorgeous, healthy coral reef. 

All of a sudden, the fairytale underwater garden is no more, replaced by rubble, the majestic architecture laid low, all colour gone: a drab wasteland in beige. 

This is what dynamiting does.  Fishermen trying to make a quick buck blast the reef.  Stunned and dead fish float to the surface, where they are easily harvested; a great way to earn a living, no? EXCEPT that there is enormous collateral damage: the blast kills the reef, which is a living organism, vital for future generations of coral fish; it also wipes out large numbers of fish fry, the basis of those self-same ‘future generations’; and effectively kills off the current parent stock so necessary for regeneration.  So, not exactly a model of ‘sustainable utilisation’ – yet another example of how our species mistreats marine environments worldwide.

The owners of Fanjove are working with local communities to try to bring an end to dynamite fishing and overfishing, to bring the reefs surrounding the island back to their former glory.  This will be a long process, but a vital one.

Sadly, my camera shuffled off its mortal coil while diving, it becoming rapidly apparent that the waterproof housing wasn't totally, err, waterproof. I was inclined to be a touch miffed, until kind Jenny pointed out that it was rated to a mere 5 metres depth.....

In the meantime, do yourself a favour: grab your snorkelling gear (or a bucket and spade) and get yourself to Fanjove - you'll love it!

Island living

Sep 2, 2014

Vijana Challenge 2014; or, 'Hooligans on Safari'

I'm half way up the 2nd hill - we've only just started, and it's clear that I just can't do it.  This is ridiculous!

Somehow I puff and pant my way to the top, and a lovely view opens up below: in the distance, the steep escarpment of the western wall of the Great Rift Valley; ahead the track swoops down to a broad plain, a patchwork quilt of maize and sugar cane fields; to the right glints Lake Babati, our destination for today, some 50 kms (30 miles) away.

1st Aid training - D on an improvised spine board... T is empathising
This is Part 2 of the Vijana Challenge (vijana = boys in kiSwahili) , a 3-week voyage of learning and adventure for my 4 young charges from Switzerland and Canada.  We have already completed a short bush mechanics course and an introduction to wilderness 1st Aid; yesterday evening, we hiked up to view the ancient rock art of Kolo in the caves and rocky overhangs that dot that part of the Rift.  We are just starting a 120-kms bike ride and the we are getting into our stride.  Our guide for this section is Julius, a lean young man with dreads and a great sense of fun.  For back up, we have Juma, a biking legend: he can fix anything on 2 wheels, under any circumstances.

Free wheeling downhill with the wind in my face, my early sense of despondency quickly wears off and I soon start to enjoy the ride.  This is easy!

Cycling through a village near Bereku

From now one. it's all fun: we pass through rural villages, where people smile and wave at the wazungu (white folk) on their bikes; through patches of airy forest, and through acres and acres of sugar cane.  At the end of the day, I spot my chance: on the slope leading up to camp, I stand up on the pedals and push hard, blasting past Julius and the 4 teenagers, who, not suspecting that the old fuddy duddy bringing up the rear has it in him, are completely taken by surprise.  (T will no doubt challenge this version, but in his heart he know's it's true.)

Camp is a lovely spot in a grove of tall fever trees right on the lakeshore; fishermen come and go and some cows graze peacefully nearby,  D and I go on a short bird walk, which yields fruit galore: highlights were a Purple Swamp-hen, a couple of hippo, a dik-dik and a Scarlet-chested Sunbird feeding above us.  And lots of waterbirds...

Next day we are, unsurprisingly, saddle-sore as we mount our trusty steeds once more.  We have a little over 60 kms ahead of us, but I have no doubt that I can manage.  Sure enough, we arrive in time for a late lunch at Magara Campsite, a pretty location on the edge of a sand river set about with big sycamore figs.  A short distance away are the Magara Falls, where we go for a wallow in the chilly water and to be pummelled by the full force of the main waterfall.  Hugely reinvigorating!

Afterwards, a young local boy, Musa, demonstrates his gymnastic abilities, with a series of somersaults and back flips in the sand.  D does his bit too, while M gives a karate demonstration.

Next morning, it's an early start: we're off to nearby Lake Manyara National Park.  We have the option of a full day in the park, or a half day followed by another bike ride.  The lads are unanimous: time for some seeeeeerious game viewing!

Almost immediately we are in the middle of a group of elephant, feeding peacefully in the forest in the new southern extension to the park.  Soon after, we emerge onto the lakeshore, where herds of wildebeest and zebra wander, with warthog and impala dotted around.  As we approach the Maji Moto hippo pool, we come across throngs of water birds: storks, herons, ibis  - and thousands upon thousands of pelicans.  They are everywhere, swimming in vast flotillas, sailing majestically overhead, squabbling in the trees.  Can there really be enough fish in the rapidly dwindling lake to support this many birds?  The answer is clearly yes, but surely not for long?

Next morning, it's time to move on.  We say goodbye to Julius and the crew and head off with our new best friend & guide, Kilerai; we will spend the next few days with the Hadzabe, some of Tanzania's last hunter-gatherers, who somehow make a living from the harsh, jutting landscape of rock and thornbush around Mongo wa Mono and Yaeda Chini. It's an austere place, especially in the dry season, as now: the colour seems to have bled out of the world, leaving a palette of ochre, olive and grey.  It is strangely beautiful.

One of the Hadza women has spotted a herd of elephant in the distance

The next couple of days pass in a blur of wonderful times spent with the Hadza; a morning spent with the women as they dug up edible yam-like tubers; finding honey in a beehive high in a baobab tree; making arrows, Hadza-style; hiking across the Yaeda Valley; and heading out at dawn each morning on hunting expeditions, each boy accompanying a Hadza hunter.  Each day is packed with fascinating incidents on their treks

through the bush, covering many miles on each outing.  One day, Jenerali notices that a nearby marula tree is fruiting and that many animals - kudu, bushpig, duiker - are visiting each night to hoover up the fallen fruit.  After a brief discussion, we all set out to build a blind 20m from the tree and the boys wait up to try their luck.  It is a beautiful full moon night.  Towards morning, the clatter of a displaced pebble alerts them - there in the silvery light stands a herd of Greater Kudu; they are wary, their delicate ears twitching back and forth, searching for threats.  They sense that something is wrong and they melt into the night once more.

All too soon, this part of the adventure draws to a close, and we have to say goodbye to our Hadza friends.

The final leg takes us to Tarangire for more big game; this park is excellent in the dry season, with large numbers of game dependent on the permanent water sources - the Tarangire River, Silale Swamp - now that the rest of the ecosystem has dried up.  Elephant and large buffalo herds are everywhere and each night we are treated to a lion chorus as the different groups roar to each other.  D is on a wild dog mission - there have been some reports of late, so we check out all the best places, but no joy.  No luck either with oryx, but we score with lesser kudu, terrific cheetah and leopard sightings as well as some memorable views of lion.

May 14, 2014

Swimming with dolphins, Kizimkazi, Zanzibar

Who knew dolphins crapped so much?

We are a short way offshore, near the southern tip of Zanzibar island, a place called Kizimkazi.  It's  a calm morning, and we have just found a pod of around 17 bottle-nosed dolphins. Dula, our skipper, manoeuvres the boat into position and gives us the go-ahead to jump in. I'm already kitted up - mask, snorkel, fins - and I jump in. There they are, a few metres away.

They are amazingly relaxed, happy to swim right up to me. For the next hour, there are dolphins all around: under me, next to me, behind me - and when I dive down, over me.  All the time, they keep up a continuous chatter, with much squeaking and clicking.

Two females are clearly on heat. Maybe this is why they ignore us so completely, the males are far more interested in the girls, and what their male rivals are up to. There is great deal of sensuous rubbing and some of the males are visibly aroused.

At the end of a magical hour, they head off and, without visible effort, quickly disappear into the blue.  The end of the show...

We were incredibly lucky with our encounter - these dolphins are a well-known tourist attraction and, in high season, it can get hectic, with boats vying for position, lots of people in the water and some pretty atrocious behaviour.  There are concerns about uncontrolled visits stressing the dolphins (web link here.  If you catch it right, though, it's pure magic

If you're lucky enough to see the Kizimkazi dolphins, try to do your bit: take a bit of time to find a reputable skipper, someone who won't push too hard and put undue pressure on these wonderful creatures. And spend a bit of time learning about the do's and don'ts of dolphin viewing. You'll have far more fun as a result... I did!

Oh, I nearly forgot about the poo: it's true, they were voiding all the time. I suspect it was to do with  the level of sexual excitement. Any marine mammal experts out there who can shed some light?

Here's a link to a Kizimkazi dolphin video - not mine, sadly!

May 8, 2014

Ndutu in the green...

It's been very wet, with trucks getting stuck and the gulleys full of water. But the sun has been blazing for the last 5 days, a strong easterly wind has been blowing and the plains are drying fast.  There is a haze of dust in the air, the sky bleached to the palest blue. Long lines of wildebeest are trudging across the plain, heading west in search of water. But it won't be long now before the rains break, the grass greens up again and the plains will be dotted once more with animals as far as the eye can see.

We're in the woodland, photographing a Woodland Kingfisher, gorgeous in aquamarine and black and a long red bill. In the crotch of an umbrella acacia, a smear of russet. In my binoculars, the image resolves itself - a leopard sprawled on a branch, paws dangling languidly. It is a large male, but shy. As we try to approach, he fixes pale green eyes on us and then comes down from his perch in one fluid motion. 

In a gulley lie three lionesses, flat on their backs, paws in the air, utterly oblivious to us a few metres away.  A herd of wildebeest and zebra approaches, feeding in the dense grass along the valley bottom. The lions aren't hungry - sleek bellies show they've fed recently - but one of them gets into position, a perfect ambush. One by one the zebra move past at a safe distance, unaware of the danger lurking nearby. A wildebeest wanders closer, head down and munching. There is a bush obscuring his vision and the lioness uses the chance to move, closing the gap to about 12 metres. She crouches, then charges forward, a tawny blur. The wildebeest swings around and runs - straight at her. This isn't in the script and she turns tail and flees. The moment is gone, her chance blown. She wanders back to her friends and settles down once more to sleep

Out on the plains, the cheetah are doing well. We find 2 mothers, one with 5 tiny cubs, less than 2 months old, the other with 3 well-grown youngsters in tow.

These young cats are very playful and are intrigued by the car. They try chewing on various bits of it, then one jumps up on the bonnet and peers at us, amber eyed, through the windscreen.

We watch a fascinating interaction when another cheetah moves purposefully towards them. Is he interested in the mother, or possibly a threat to the cubs? It turns out to be a young male, maybe a litter mate that got separated from them, or possibly one recently  turned out by his mother and is feeling confused and lonely. There are some tense moments when they all meet, with growling and flattened ears, but no violence, and eventually the family continues with the hunt, leaving the newcomer alone once more.

It's our last morning. We make our way slowly along shore of lake Ndutu. There are hundreds of baby wildebeest carcasses on the waterline - a herd has crossed the lake, and the babies, some no more than a week or 2 old, became exhausted struggling in the mud. A disreputable looking marabou stork  picks at a carcass in a bored way.

At the end of the lake, a crossing! But not your standard crossing, with hundreds of wildebeest flailing through the mud - instead, a family of banded mongoose runs to the water's edge. They are nervous, some of them standing up on their hind legs to scout for danger. Eventually, one trots into the water and they all follow, bounding through the shallows like tiny otters. Is this the first recorded mongoose crossing?

Jan 23, 2014

Village Meeting, Loliondo

‘But why can’t you employ more night watchmen this year?’

It’s 3pm.  I’ve been sitting on a hard bench since 11 this morning, without a break for a drink of water, let alone lunch.  This particular question has been worked over for at least 45 minutes, with no end yet in sight, and we haven’t even touched on what I consider to be the crucial issues facing the assembly.   It's going to be a log session...

The village elders are an interesting bunch: a group of Maasai men, with a smattering of women, for the most part dressed in red shukas (Maasai blankets), with lots of stretched earlobes and bright beadwork on show.   They are the elected officials of the village government, the people who decide what can happen in this part of Maasailand, adjacent to Serengeti National Park.

It can seem pointless and frustrating at times.   I’m a guide, so I spend most of my time (lucky me!) introducing visitors to the wonders of the African bush.  I don’t relish the long hours going through the minutiae of village contracts - always dealing with the same issues, year in and year out. 

 And yet, these village meetings, where we sit together a few times a year and talk about all the ‘stuff’ of running a safari camp on community–owned land can be of great significance to wildlife and conservation.  And besides, it’s all part of the job description.

Across much of Maasailand (and elsewhere in East Africa) wildlife numbers, which have done remarkably well over the years, are now in decline – largely due to recent increases in human and livestock populations.  Predators are routinely killed because they are a threat to cattle and goats, while vast herds of domestic stock roam across the land, consuming all the available forage, leaving nothing for wild herbivores.

The Maasai themselves are struggling: overstocking means that they suffer big losses every time there is a dry spell.  There is much talk about climate change, but increasingly, people are realising that the land just can’t support all those cattle, the backbone of their economy for hundreds of years.

Which all seems terribly gloomy.  But there is a silver lining: some communities, especially those bordering national parks, are living on a gold mine, in the form of tourism dollars.  But how to unleash that potential?

For a would-be investor, there is a complicated bureaucratic and political landscape to navigate.  Anything to do with land is a potential minefield, so village leaders are rightly very cautious about any commitments they sign up to.

Luckily, there is a growing band of safari operators across the region who believe in community-based tourism and who are putting in the time to talk to the owners of the land - the local communities - and are investing.  Success means a win-win-win situation: a great safari experience for camp owners and visitors; a steady source of precious income for villagers; and a safe haven for threatened wildlife populations, a precious buffer zone for beleaguered parks and reserves.

It’s dusk by the time I get back to camp.  A pregnant moon is hanging low in the east.  A herd of wildebeest is walking across the plain in front of us, their demented grunting (mooing? honking?) fading to a distant oceanic rumble as they move away.  In the distance, a hyena calls.

Later, we're sitting around the campfire enjoying a pre-prandial drink. Jenny, a first-time visitor to Africa, says: ‘Can’t we cancel the rest of our trip, and just stay here instead?

Suddenly, the tedium, the hours in a dusty village office, my aching back, the overly sweet tea – it all seems hugely worthwhile.

Jan 20, 2014

Skeleton Coast Safari

NamibRand landscape
 Namibia.  So familiar, yet so utterly different.  As we drive into Windhoek from the airport, we could be in Maasailand: the same scrubby, thorny vegetation, the same low, dry hills.  But the city is immaculate, the traffic runs like clockwork - all very unTanzanian!

We head out to the NamibRand Nature Reserve, an area of huge views, stunning sand dunes and unexpected wildlife.  Easiest to see are the oryx and zebra: the oryx in particular have a wonderful habit of standing on top of the dunes to catch the sea breeze and cool off.
Oryx catching the breeze
Oryx bulls fighting

But we are soon captivated by the tiny stuff: Toktokkies, Dancing White Ladies, Barking Geckoes and Armoured Crickets.  (The first 2, by the way, are Tenebrid Beetles and a very cool Trapdoor Spider… while the gecko and cricket just stepped out of a sci-fi blockbuster).
Dancing White Lady (Trapdoor Spider)
Armoured Cricket
All around us, tracks tell a story about the denizens of the dunes: Cape Cobras and Golden Moles appear to dive and 'swim' through the sand from time to time; once we see where a cheetah has passed by.

But the real treat is yet to come: one day, a small Cessna buzzes out of the blue and taxis to a halt on the small bush strip. Out gets Andre, a soft-spoken man with twinkling eyes in his weather-beaten face, our pilot, guide and host for the next 3 days.  Without mucking about, we are soon taxiing out again and we set off on our adventure.


We buzz the giant dunes at Sossusvlei, then fly west over an ocean of smaller dunes, the wave-like forms marching to the horizon.  Then to the Atlantic coast, where we spot seals and (once) a pod of dolphins and circle over a shipwreck half submerged in wind-blown sand.
Flying flamingos
Salt works
First sight of the Atlantic!
We land on a shingle beach: Andre produces a picnic, simple but delicious, which we eat with our fingers.  Then we're off again, landing this time in a canyon, where we see Bushman artefacts and strange rock formations.
Bushman art

Later, we float over an enormous landscape, range after range of weirdly sculpted hills and ridges.  The sun is sinking towards the western horizon by now, so the drama of the scenery is amplified by huge shadows.
Alpha Alpha Charlie's shadow as we land at sunset
Oryx standing on his shadow

Tectonics, Namibia style

We sleep that night in a simple bush camp overlooking a huge stretch of desert.

In the morning, we head out on a short drive looking for desert lions. We find instead a dodgy-looking desert lion researcher and his even dodgier-looking vehicle. This turns out to be the legendary Dr Philip Stander, who tells us a little about his project over lunch. (One male lion recently walked 90 kms overnight, an unheard-of feat of endurance in our East African lions.  He then proceeded to cover 75-80 kms on the 2 following nights!)

Reluctantly we take leave of the Good Doctor, climb back into Alpha Alpha Foxtrot and set off once more.  When we land, there is a totally clapped-out looking land rover, all rust and bulging tyres, parked by a shed.  This turns out to be out trusty steed.  Low pressure tyres mean that we float on top of the sand rather than ploughing through it, as we swoop and glide through the endless dunescape.  It is a magical ride: we lie flat to peer through a magnifying lens at the sand, which turns out to be a jewellery-box of garnet, quartz and other gorgeous crystals.  We surf down the face of a dune on our bottoms, setting off a slo-mo landslide, the flowing sand moaning like an orchestra of didgeridoos.
Sliding down a sand dune
Jewellery-box sand dune

It is a day of huge fun - we all revert to childhood, howling with the sheer pleasure of it all.

There are many ore spectacular moments: the desert ellies in a gorge; the rhinos spotted from the air, the stall warning squealing as Andre banks hard overhead; but nothing else quite matches up to the fun we had in the dunes that day.