Trip to: Yankari National Park
Date: 1–4 May 2008
Trip leader: Phil Hall
The Yankari NP is an area of about 2,244 km2 of predominantly savannah woodland situated in Bauchi State in the mid NE of Nigeria. There has been no human habitation in the park for over a century, but it was first opened to the public as a Game Reserve on 1 December 1962. Two years ago the management of the Yankari Game Reserve was taken over from the Federal Government by the Bauchi State Government when the State Government invested significantly in the infrastructure.
Most of the 23 of us arrived at the splendid entrance gate to the park (which is in fact 3 km outside its boundary) late on the Thursday afternoon. Up until then the journey had gone pretty smoothly: we only had to wait an extra hour at the quaint old domestic terminal at Lagos, Arik Air had provided a modern plane and light refreshments for the flight, and at Jos we were whisked away in a shiny new air conditioned bus. The area around Jos had lots of interest: flame trees in full flower, cactus hedges, a serviceable looking railway line, and of course lots of people going about their business. After a while we gradually dropped down from the Jos Plateau onto the Bauchi plain; in this rural area there are more thatched roofs, rather than the corrugated zinc ones seen all around Jos, the people appeared to be more predominantly Muslim, whereas there had been a lot of churches around Jos; additional scenic interest was now provided by large granite outcrops, by Fulani looking after their herds of white cattle and by a sighting of a sign for the “Horizontal Hotel”! At a stop along the way we learned the hard way that shrivelled old dates being sold by the street vendors are more palatable than fresher looking ones.
However maybe that was all about to change: having completed some formalities at the park entrance the driver was unable to restart the bus – the general amusement that it was about time something had to go wrong (after all this is Nigeria) was tempered by the general opinion that the 40 km walk through the park to reach the camp might be a bit much. However, a quarter hour of huffing, puffing and pushing to jump start the bus gave a few of the party some welcome exercise, and gave the rest of us some welcome entertainment (allowing Susan to play peek-a-boo round a tree with some children); fortunately after a quarter of an hour or so the bus recovered from having had its engine flooded and off we went again.
The journey continued without further mishap, the tarmac road passing through parched savannah forest growing in dark red brown soil. Even from the bus, tearing through the park at 90 km/hr, John B sighted a Woodland Kingfisher (these eat insects and so are not necessarily found near water); no lions yet though! Arriving at the camp we were confronted by what looks like a sea of tarmac punctuated by grassy verges and obviously new adobe style buildings, including what we were later told were corporate villas and conference rooms, as well as a new Yankari research centre for APLORI (A P Leventis Ornithological Research Institute). However the area around the older buildings was less stark and the many families of warthogs and baboons, while not exactly forming a welcoming party, give the camp a more natural feel.
We had come to Yankari to see the wildlife, and the next morning we were up with the lark (more accurately with the swallows) and ready to go at 6am. We only had to walk a few yards from the camp to see a handful of elephants browsing in the trees in the forest area above the Wikki spring, where earlier they had been spotted bathing. These elephants appeared completely unbothered by our presence, watching them from only a few tens of yards away: one larger specimen was making a good job of destroying a good sized Baobab tree – they like the moist fibrous tissue found just beneath the bark and have no respect for the great age of such Baobabs.
After this diversion we piled into open sided game viewing trucks and set off for our first expedition round the reserve; generally we stayed in or near the vehicles, but we also had a number of opportunities to stretch our legs; at an early stop a fox kestrel obliged by repeatedly doing circuits in front of us, showing off its magnificent physique, and it was here that we saw the first of many flocks of startlingly colourful Red-throated Bee-eaters and the first of many fabulous kingfishers (over the weekend we saw numerous Woodland, Blue-throated, Grey-headed and Malachite kingfishers, but every sighting still seemed to be a special privilege). In the marshy areas around the river there were many water-loving birds to be seen, including Abdim’s and Woolly-necked Stork, Lily-trotter (aka African Jacana) and several species of heron. We also had a short woodland walk by a stream past the Marshall Caves, which reputedly were used as a refuge from slave traders; they are now a refuge for pipistrelle-like bats and their pongy guano. The caves, excavated from the sandstone, present themselves as a reasonably regular row of circular entrances, prompting much discussion regarding to what degree they were man made. An elusive Aureole Warbler was observed flitting between the aerial roots of a Sisygium guiniensis: unfortunately another tree with (Priscilla:) “an interesting bark” prompted the dodgy riposte (Dave:) “where’s the dog”, not auguring well for the tone of the rest of the weekend.
During the course of the drive we saw many tens of species of bird: hornbills (not forgetting the bizarre Abyssinian Ground Hornbill), eagles, herons, rollers, parrots, starlings etc. We had our first sightings of Waterbuck and Tantalus Monkey and we even saw a large Monitor Lizard crossing the road in front of us. According to Phil the Yankari is unusual in that animals are most easily viewed in the middle of the day rather than in the morning – the reason for this behaviour, which has evolved only over recent years, is a mystery. Another less welcome bit of wildlife was our first encounter with the dreaded Tsetse – patches of these drove everyone completely demented, with them biting us even through our clothing.
We returned to the Camp at 10am for a welcome breakfast of omelette, baked beans and chips: what a lot we had seen already. What a privilege it was to have Phil and John with us as guides, unhesitatingly spotting, identifying and talking about all the many birds and animals we encountered!
Many of us participated in two further game drives during the day, and we saw our first Bushbuck as well as several more species of bird. During the afternoon some of us went out looking for elephant at the salt lick; no elephant were to be seen but we were rewarded with the dramatic sight of a large crocodile struggling to swallow a huge catfish, looking faintly ridiculous with the fish’s whiskers sticking out of the sides of its jaws (understatement of the trip, by May: “I wouldn’t like to be caught by him!”).
Others spent the afternoon swimming in pool fed by the Wikki Warm Spring situated at the bottom of a flight of steps just behind the camp. The pool is invitingly clear and warm, maintaining itself throughout the year at a luxurious 31°C. The spring emerges from under a huge hunk of granite, forcing a fair flow of water through the pool, swimming against which was surprisingly difficult. However the water was very shallow, such that there was no real danger of being dragged unawares through the greenery at the other end and down into the crocodile infested river below! Instead many hours were spent splashing around or just lying on one’s back and enjoying the chirrupings and rustlings from the birds and other animals going about their business in the branches of the overhanging trees (and perhaps wondering if one of them, or maybe something larger, might be about to join one in the pool).
Later in the afternoon many of us were to be found relaxing on the patio area outside the bar, which has a view looking out into the distance over the reserve. Keeping us company were a number of baboons, one of which pinched a tube of Pringle crisps from under our noses and another was seen to be enjoying the contents of a can of anchovies: said can of anchovies it had actually opened itself using the ring-pull, earlier having pinched it from Robin and Hugh’s bungalow. Robin and Hugh appeared remarkably composed following the earlier rearrangement of their bungalow by baboons (the bungalows are unfortunately not designed sufficiently well to ensure that the baboons can be kept out). Rumour has it that Kay saw a baboon actually remove a suitcase from the boot of somebody’s car (though the owner had thoughtfully opened the boot).
During the evening drive, between 4:30pm and dusk, our persistence reaped its reward: we found two or three large groups of elephant, with maybe fifty or so in each group. The elephants came in all sizes from moderately big ones to pretty small babies, which looked incredibly cute trotting along with their mothers. Most of the elephant had only modest tusks, and they all appeared to be in good health, with no obvious sign of any diseases or injuries. Again they did not appear to be too disturbed by our presence, even when our vehicles crossed between two halves of a herd crossing our road.
On Saturday morning we split up into three groups. One group went for a walk – these got plenty of exercise, not only walking but also swishing leaves around to get rid of the tsetse. Another group got up indecently early to see the surprisingly elusive buffalo: fortunately their efforts were well rewarded with sightings of a male lion as well as buffalo. The third group went in search of lion, but were not so lucky, though a lion had been spotted the previous day by small group of us.
The rest of the day continued with lots of interest, with the game drives being rewarded by numerous sightings of interesting birds including numbers of species of eagle and other raptors. Vultures are notable by their almost complete absence here, though we did see a Palm-nut Vulture, which with its predominantly vegetarian diet doesn’t really count in my book. We had more encounters with large groups of elephant as well mammals such as Waterbuck, Bushbuck, Western Hartebeest, Tantalus monkey, Warthog, Baboon and the more elusive Roan Antelope and Patas monkey. Disappointingly, the odd footprint and some poo was all that was seen all weekend of hippo, local populations of which have suffered drastically due to poaching. A highlight for some of us was the sight of one elephant sitting on top of another in a pool, the second elephant almost completely submerged and snorkelling for air with its trunk – after a while the first got bored with that game and they both got up and nonchalantly sauntered off!
After dinner, the usual choice of spaghetti and/or rice and/or chicken, this evening accompanied by some wine which thoughtful souls had secreted in their suitcases, we were treated to some local entertainment: drumming, dancing, tumbling and other impressive acrobatics, atmospherically backlit by a large bonfire provided an excellent finale to celebrate the end of a wonderful trip.
Many thanks are due to Phil and Carolyn Hall and to John Barker for their hard work in organising this most enjoyable trip
Sam and Steve L; Susan and Kevin K; Leonora and Charlie L; Robin and Hugh C; May and Ockie M; Kay T; Steve C; John B; Heike H; Berwyn R; Phil and Carolyn H with niece and nephew Louise and Harry; Priscilla T; Gareth B; Mary and Dave S; Harry (visiting Jos as part of his work related to bio-fuels) joined us on the Saturday; Talato, researcher working for APLORI, helped with the guiding and lion searching (not in group photo)