After a night time visit from the hyenas, and a wakeup call from the zebras grazing their way through the campsite, it was time to say a slow goodbye to the Serengeti as we travelled onwards to the Ngorongoro Crater our next destination. Given its vast size and the state of the tracks, leaving the Serengeti was always going to be a slow process, and with so much wildlife to see no one was going to be complaining.
We passed the early morning “post hunt hyena breakfast”; their bloodied faces meeting our stares and their bodies too full to move. Ironically later in the day Erellah spotted a leopard kill hanging from a tree which turned out to be a hyena. It was a lesson in life: you’re not untouchable. This hyena made a mistake; it forgot to its cost that there’s always someone out there who’s better than you.
It was still and quiet as we headed towards the exit gate, so it seemed fitting that it was the gentle giants the giraffes that dominated our view from the truck for a while. To watch a giraffe is like wearing rose tinted glasses to look back on a world that seems so much slower than today. The methodical way their tongues wrap around the unforgiving thorn laden branches of the acacia trees before breaking them off to eat, is like watching a crafts person at work with their hands rather than machines: thorough, unrushed and with attention to detail. Their height does not intimidate, and their commanding presence is soothing; their slow and deliberate movements creating a meditative effect in the observer who, reluctant at first to draw their eyes away from the scene, does so eventually refreshed and calm.
Becalmed by the giraffes we passed a group of marabou storks; hunchbacked like frock coat bedecked clerks, or like undertakers respectfully waiting outside the church as the funeral service is taking place. They never fail to fascinate and never get any more attractive. Shortly afterwards someone’s sharp eyes spotted the rich chestnut chest and distinctive crest of the African Hoopoe bird. It seemed crests were to be the headgear of the moment, and clerks the analogy, as shortly after this the truck stopped so we could photograph two Secretary birds.
The secretary bird gets its name from the quill like crests on the back of its head that resemble 18th century clerks with pens tucked into their wigs. Although it looks more like a stork or crane it is a raptor or bird of prey with some nasty killing techniques to its name. It is famous as a snake killer, and tackles adders and even cobras using its powerful legs, which are heavily scaled to protect it from snake bites, to stun or stamp its prey to death. It is preferable perhaps to be small if you are caught by a secretary bird as then you get eaten whole: final but at least quick. Should have spotted the psychopath in that narrow evil eye set in a blood red face.
We passed a vast herd of water buffalo who grazed in the heat unaware that a lioness, perhaps diagnosed with ADHD and unable to relax with the snoozing pride nearby, was stalking them. Maybe she was playing a game or thinking about tactics as any attack would be unlikely and anyhow fruitless on her own. We were more scared about the dik-dik whose chose this moment of all moments to emerge from the undergrowth with its lifelong mate. The truck moved on; their fate unknown in the circle of life that is the Serengeti.
The Marabou Stork, hyena, wildebeest, vulture and warthog are known as Africa’s Ugly Five, and as always there were plenty of warthogs making their presence known on our drive out of the Serengeti. They are the Jack Russell terrier of the African plain, sharing their huge character and attitude, which is also squeezed into a small body too small to hold it. Warthogs are smart enough to run rather than attack whenever possible, and always depart a situation in a line with their tails bolt upright insulting or defying any would be attacker. As members of the pig family they are skilled foragers and prefer to take over empty burrows rather than go to the effort of digging their own. The young piglets are the stars of the show with their red brown colouring and go fast black stripes.
The Serengeti had given so much, and we were more than grateful, but as our drive was coming to an end it had one last treat up its sleeve as a departing gift. Erellah stopped the bus and pointed to a solitary tree in the open plain, he did not have to speak it could only mean a leopard.
It was sitting with its back legs astride the branch licking a paw just like its domestic cousins. It is simply so beautiful it does not have to try. Leopards are the smallest of the big cats, which makes them vulnerable to lions, but they are very adaptable and multi-skilled: good swimmers, excellent climbers and unfussy eaters. When hunting they rely on stealth and their beautiful camouflage to get as close as possible to their prey before attacking. This one seemed too sleepy to be stealthy, although there was a definite movement in her head towards the truck…
Finally, we exited the Serengeti through the park gates, and stopping for a while we climbed the nearby hill to look down on the endless plains which had given the Serengeti its name. In front of us a vast barren landscape and then upwards to the rim of the Ngorongoro crater where we would camp that night. The crater is a huge caldera or collapsed volcano surrounded by 600m high walls which we would descend into the following day for a game drive.
The campsite location was cold but spectacular, and as the sun set the views were stunning. We were told not to stray beyond the cut grass, and with the failing light the guards patrolled the site. Gathered close to the fire in the darkness we joked about what we thought was the noise of an indignant donkey safe in its “Masai built” acacia thorn enclosure. We were soon put in place by the guard who approached the fire. It was no donkey but a zebra, which understandably was unnerved by the lion the guards assured us was very close. For some reason we decided that now was the time to go to bed…
Start the adventure from the beginning: