East African Landscapes
By Stuart Butler
Golden, sun-blessed grasslands spotted with flat-topped acacia trees might be the common image of East Africa, but this huge region contains an endlessly diverse array of landscapes that range from beaches of snowflake white sands to high altitude glaciers, lakes the breadth of oceans and humid rainforests haunted by the echoing yelps of chimpanzees.
The following images reveal something of East Africa’s extraordinary range of landscapes and wildlife habitats.
This picture of rolling grasslands and an acacia tree essentially fills most peoples image of the classic East African landscape, but even in East Africa itself such a landscape is surprisingly rare. The best example of such an open savanna landscape is the Mara-Serengeti eco-system which, with its huge quantity of large mammals, is the focal point of East African safari tourism. Asilia has several camps in both the Serengetiand Maasai Mara regions.
The definition of a savanna landscape is one of a warm, tropical grassland ecosystem characterised by trees that are widely enough spaced so as not to form a closed canopy. This open canopy means that herbaceous plants and grasses can easily grow. In reality most of East Africa’s savanna landscapes do not match the classic image but are instead scrubby, and fairly, non-descript acacia and thorn bush landscapes. Kenya’s northern regionsor Tanzania’s Ruaha National Parkwould both be good examples of this sort of landscape.
There are many factors that influence the landscapes of East Africa. In savanna regions perhaps one of the most important, alongside the actual impact of wildlife and cattle grazing, is fire. Most people might, quite naturally, assume that fire is bad news for both the grasslands and the wildlife, but quite the contrary is true. Fires slow the advance of trees and burn off tall grass (which most wildlife often finds tough and not very nutritious) allowing the growth of fresh, much more nutritious grasses. The ash left by fire also creates a natural fertiliser for the soil. In the Serengeti the park authorities set off controlled fires such as this one in the Lamai Wedge close to Sayari Campfor these very reasons.
Naturally enough the availability of water plays a big role in the life of a landscape. Tanzania’s Tarangire National park (the best base for this park is Oliver’s Camp:is a good example of this kind of landscape and eco-system. During the wet season rivers flow and standing water is common throughout the Maasai steppe surrounding the park and much of Tarangire’s wildlife leaves the park at this time, but during the dry season, when the surrounding area is parched and hot the wildlife returns in spectacular numbers to the huge permanent swamps such as this one that form the heart of the park.
Many people would be surprised to hear that deserts can also be found in East Africa. A large proportion of northern Kenya consists of barren, burnt rock desert at the heart of which is Lake Turkana, the worlds largest permanent desert lake. Three rivers (the Omo, Turkwell and Kerio) flow into the lake but with no outflow water is lost only through evaporation. The lake has one of the worlds largest populations of Nile crocodiles and around the lake shores have been found some of the oldest hominoid fossils. There are fears that a major damn project in Ethiopia will have a serious impact on water levels in the lake.
Bursting off the searing desert floors of northern Kenya are a series of volcanic mountains which capture moisture and are covered in dense forest. Known to scientists as ‘Sky Islands’ these are unique, self-contained ecosystems that provide a home to buffalo and migratory elephants as well as a number of birds, reptiles and smaller animals that are endemic to their particular sky island (an example of this would be the Kulal white-eye, a small bird found only in the montane forest of Mt Kulal near Lake Turkana). This picture shows Lake Paradise in northern Kenya’s rarely visited Marsabit National Park.
Lakes come in all shapes and sizes in East Africa. While Lakes Turkana and Paradise are both surrounded by wilderness, Rwanda’s Lake Ruhondo is quite the opposite. This small lake is dotted with little islands terraced from top to toe with tiny plots of farmland, but even in such a heavily farmed region wildlife survives. Just a few kilometres from here is Volcanoes National Park which is home to the famous mountain gorillas. Occasionally groups of these gorillas emerge out of their forest home into the surrounding farmland to munch on the crops.
Much of highland East Africa is cool, wet and very fertile. It’s in these regions that the majority of the people of East Africa live and farm. This picture is of Kenya’s Cherengani Hills. Located in the northwest of the country, the Cherengani’s are little known to most Kenyans and are even less visited by international tourists. Even so they offer fabulous hiking and lots of friendly rural encounters.
One of the big cash crops of East Africa is tea. Large parts of the wetter highland areas are carpeted in neat lines of glowing green tea bushes. With afternoon thunderstorms being common in such regions most picking of the tea leaves takes place early in the morning, which means a dawn start for those who want to see where the worlds favourite cuppa comes from.
No visit to East Africa is complete without gazing in awe across the Ngorongoro Crater. The crater is the world’s largest inactive, intact and unfilled volcanic caldera and was formed two to three million years ago. Approximately 25 000 large animals live in the natural enclosure formed by the 300km² crater, while the greater conservancy surroundings are home to wildebeest and zebra which migrate in and out of the area depending on the rainfall. Asilia have recently opened a ground breaking new lodge here called The Highlands, which gives easy access to the crater itself as well as some of the best hiking in east Africa.
Jungles aren’t normally associated with East Africa but each country in the region has areas of dense forest filled with colourful birds and butterflies and mischievous monkeys. Uganda and Rwanda have the largest tracts of rainforest and in these countries it’s possible to visit habituated groups of chimpanzees and gorillas in such forest parks. This picture shows a river in Rwanda’s Nyungwe Forest National Park. This is one of the most important rainforest reserves in eastern Africa and has excellent walking trails, habituated troops of colobus monkeys and semi-habituated chimps.
Many visitors to the region finish off their safari with a few days relaxing on one of the beautiful Indian Ocean beaches of Kenya or Tanzania. The most famous beach destination is the magical island of Zanzibar off the Tanzanian coast, but stunning stretches of palm backed sands are to be found up and down the coast. This picture is of Takaunga creek in Kenya.
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