A glorious sunrise heralded the start of our full day in the Serengeti and we were eager to be off as early as possible. Maybe it was this haste to be off, or perhaps our relief at surviving the night despite the visiting hyenas, that made us forgetful of the golden rule of safari that says never leave the truck door open; baboons never sleep…
Erellah’s shouts alerted us, we looked up to see his figure at full sprint and armed chasing after a baboon moving at speed despite the presence of a large container nestled under his one arm. Erellah returned empty handed having chased the baboons to a safe distance, and we boarded the truck to inspect the damage. Apparently in the world of “baboons on safari trucks” we had fared well; interrupted as they checked out the food they had not had enough time to use the truck as a toilet too which is the usual thoughtful touch.
The baboon or baboons (we never established if it acted alone or not) had thoughtfully decorated the table and some seats with the skins of the small bananas bought at the roadside for us that we snacked upon on our epic road trips, and on one table was a carefully opened but discarded bag of “Bombay Mix”; such a fiery mixture obviously not to a baboon’s taste. The only food casualty appeared to be the tub of ginger nuts now somewhere in the bush, although later in the back of your mind when snacks were shared around the truck you did wonder if it had already tried by baboons.
One reason for our early start was to try to catch a hunt, chase or kill. It is the irony or contradiction within going on a safari that you love and want to see the animals, and at the same time you also want to watch them kill each other too. Our first sighting was a jackal trying to chase down a Thomson Gazelle; only to be joined and then pushed out by hyenas ever alert to an opportunity. The Thomson Gazelle bounced feet together to safety, and the hyenas slouched off implying that they had not really been chasing them so had not actually failed. I was reminded of our Jack Russell who would head off in fruitless pursuit of a hare, and when realising the futility of what he was doing, would curl elegantly away like a dancer or skater to lap the field as if that had been his intention all along.
Our next sighting was of a Dik-dik; a dwarf antelope whose huge cow like eyes and diminutive stature score it high for cuteness. Dik-diks are monogamous; with the death of one partner followed not long after by the death of the other. Our first chance sighting was of them deep within a bush, and with their diminutive stature that was a wise choice. Their common name comes from the breathy toy trumpet noise they make to harass predators and alert them to the presence of a mated pair.
The large eyes of the Dik-dik, a preference for staying undercover and its small stature give it an air of tension and heightened stress in response to the constant threat of predators. It looks cute but does not seem happy with its lot. The Thomson Gazelle on the other hand, despite being the favourite fast food available on the African plains, seems to have a very positive outlook on life.
Affectionately called “Tommies”, the Thomson Gazelle was named after the 19th century Scottish explorer Joseph Thomson. Perhaps they appear chilled despite their formidable list of predators because of their fitness and agility; the gracefulness which this gives to their flight when attacked masking their desperation. Their lightweight bodies also allow them to sprint for extended periods when pursued and to turn or bounce; making it more difficult to be caught or brought down by a predator. Happy in large herds, their excellent sense of hearing makes them alert to sound, and confident in their ability to outrun an approaching attacker they often bounce and arc (pronk or stott) to demonstrate their fitness and agility. Not jumping for joy then as I thought.
Fortunate enough to have our own amateur ornithologist on board, we had already seen many of the beautiful birds Kenya and Tanzania had to offer, and it was lovely to see them in such great numbers in the Serengeti. Our old friend the Marabou Stork was there encircling the water holes with its gloomy presence; their hunched back appearance casting an air of disapproval over the activities of the other birds. Ironically the previous day Erellah had bought a newspaper (stapled together to prevent free reads), and we had read about Marabou Storks on rubbish tips in Nairobi being killed and sold as meat to restaurants! They were joined by great quantities of pale brown and grey Egyptian Geese with their distinctive dark eye patches. After seeing so many it finally dawned on us that they were the birds in the papyrus painting we had bought in Egypt in 2004, and which now framed hung on the wall back home. Every so often the truck would disturb a covey of grouse feeding close to the road and they would rise in an indignant flapping mass to find a quieter spot.
Signs on the sides of the track told us repeatedly that animals have priority and soon we were to be putting this into practice as Sam halted the truck to let a very large python move off the road. It was our first snake sighting and caused pleasure and uneasiness in equal measure, especially when we saw the large swelling half way down its body which we knew had until recently been enjoying life in the Serengeti just like us. Our arrival had disturbed its sunbathing; snakes are cold blooded, and the hot road baked by the sun must have been warming it up lovely before we arrived. It showed its annoyance by taking its time to move off to digest its victim somewhere else. Safe on the bus we still shuddered as we watched it and some confessed to feeling afraid even though they knew we were out of danger; evidence that apparently, we are born with a fear of snakes.
Hippos, elephants, giraffes, ostriches, zebras and mongoose were on show in all their splendour, and particularly impressive were the large herds of water buffalo that we saw. One of the “Big Five”, the water buffalo is a very dangerous animal that counts only the lion and the largest of crocodiles as threats. The characteristic adult buffalo’s horns are fused at the base creating a continuous cover of bone across the head. These distinctive horns look like fixed hair bunches with their flicked ends held in place against gravity by hairspray; this light-hearted observation slightly (only very slightly) softens their appearance. They are immense and formidable animals who do not need to do anything other than stare back at your camera to intimidate.
We lunched back at the campsite; afterwards hanging our washing out on lines slung between trees festooned with water buffalo skulls and unforgiving acacia thorns. We read and dozed trying to avoid the heat of the midday sun; some of the group who decided to walk their dinner off around the perimeter of the camp were quickly shouted back to safety by Erellah. By late afternoon it was time to game drive again, and as always, the Serengeti did not disappoint.
The afternoon tea accompaniment provided by the Serengeti was a leopard filled lion wrap; a perfect coupling of a tree bound leopard sighting with a spectacular male lion garnish sandwiched between two prides of lionesses and their young that made the heart sing.
Our first sight of a lion was that of a solitary male. He was resting under a tree; obviously irritated but resigned to all the attention he was getting and the incessant clicking of cameras. But the last laugh was on us, as we joked about his laziness he must have had a light bulb moment, or maybe it was a well- practiced technique. He stood up, walked around the other side of the tree and sat down again out of our sight. The trucks promptly moved off.
Sam stopped the truck next close to some low trees at the top of a bank that fell away towards the water. The area was grassed, and our eyes scanned the area for signs of life. We were too keen, and so ignored the obvious. In response to Erellah’s requests we brought our eyes back so that we were almost looking back inside the truck, only then did we realise that we were within touching distance of a pride of lions. Slowly as our eyes scanned the scene below the long grass revealed more and more lions, until we realised that a carpet of dozing lions in various attitudes and poses lay below us. The sleeping mass was guarded by two matriarchs, who while watching the pride also monitored another lioness that had stretched her legs stalking a wildebeest by the riverbank below. One of the lionesses went down to the mass to groom a juvenile male lion; it was reminiscent of the comments about washing behind your ears, or the seventies child’s nightmare of the parent or grandparent spitting on a handkerchief before moving in to clean your face.
We moved away with difficulty; watching those lions made you start to understand how naturalists can spend their lives in the study of just one species. All day would not have been enough parked up there. As we drove off everyone resumed their additional activity beyond that of scanning the horizon; looking for leopards in trees. We were still to see the cheetah or leopard, and knowing leopards both store their kills and rest up in trees (they are the largest cat to climb trees) we looked at the trees as we drove by in hope and desperation. The leopard is the smallest of the big cats, and as a solitary nocturnal hunter it was not going to make it easy for us.
Erellah would chat to the drivers and guides in the vehicles we passed asking about sightings or what they had seen. One such exchange prompted Erellah to ask Sam to change direction, and we drove down towards a collection of vehicles that appeared to us to have stopped on the roadside for no reason. We should have known better than that, especially as Erellah did not appear to hear our questions about where we were going and why. Our truck stopped, and Erellah took out his binoculars; we frantically looked around us knowing that something must be there but what? Erellah put down his binoculars and calmly pointed out a tree where he said a leopard was sitting. It was the cue for a frantic panic on the bus as cameras and binoculars were focused, followed by a symphony of delighted cooing and then a quiet contemplation of this magnificent animal.
Apparently, it was a female as it was sitting astride a branch, as males programmed to reproduce swing their legs to one side to protect the equipment necessary for this task. Although aware of our attention, the leopard seemed unconcerned as it alternated between lazing on the branch and encircling the tree; gracefully climbing up and down with movements seemingly without beginning or end. Then, without warning and as if deciding our time was up she slid down the tree, dropped into the undergrowth and was gone.
The truck moved off; buzzing with our excitement and pleasure at the sheer beauty of the creature that we had just observed. The leopard is really beyond words unless you are a poet; gracefulness and understated are my poor offerings. Its smaller size makes it graceful; its strength hidden within a streamlined body covered in a luxuriously indulgent coat. The leopard’s movements appear light and deft; dropping to the ground by appearing to encircle rather than touch the tree. This grace understates the power, and even when it shows itself, as with the teeth revealed by the yawn or the menacing flick of the tail, it is all elegance.
The truck headed off towards a vast igneous (volcanic) rocky outcrop where our first sighting was the rock hyrax or “rock rabbit”, which despite looking more like a guinea pig or an overweight mongoose, is closely related to the elephant. The hyrax lives amongst the rocks where they can hide from predators, and like the meerkat there is always one on guard ready to sound the alarm call at the first sight of danger.
It was just after this that Disney arrived in the Serengeti as atop this outcrop on the highest possible point was a solitary male lion sitting and surveying the land stretching out below him. It appeared that we had arrived at Lion King’s “Pride Rock” where Mufasa or Simba was taking their role very seriously indeed. The truck circled the rock, but the lion never moved or altered the direction of his stare like a great spiritual leader awaiting the arrival of those seeking answers. We were under a misapprehension; as the truck turned away he lay on his side to have a doze and the moment was lost.
Just like Christmas, over full but still eating our final dish of the day was to be another pride of lionesses and their young. Crashed out in the heat under a tree so close to the side of the road meant you got a real sense of how utterly helpless you would be in the face of such power. They sit watching as the sun highlights the muscles under their golden fur; no room for fat here. Yet they are so delicate in how they treat their young, and so hauntingly reminiscent in their actions of the domestic cats left at home that for a moment you cannot believe them a gang of killers until a sight of teeth or a show of strength shakes you back into reality.
Back at camp with dinner eaten, the fire blazing and a beer in hand it was time to reflect on just how generous the Serengeti had been to us in sharing its treasures, and to look forward to what we would see at our next destination; the Ngorongoro Crater.
But first there was just the question of surviving the night …
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