There can really be little dispute that the Serengeti is one of the most spectacular locations on the planet Earth and a sight that should not be missed if humanly possible. The word “Serengeti” comes from the Maasai word “siringet” which means “the land that goes on forever,” and it is an accurate assessment of the landscape here for it is truly an endless plain. Everyone’s introduction to the park last evening was only a small sampling of enormity of this place and we would be spending our second day in only a very small portion of this enormous park that embodies the true essence of Africa. The Serengeti contains the majority of the greatest land migration of wildebeest that travel in a circular fashion throughout the year in search of grass, stretching from the Southern Serengeti, thought the Central and then crossing the Mara River in the Northern where they calf in the Maasai Mara of Southern Kenya only to travel back into the Serengeti to complete their migration. The Southern Serengeti is the place to be in the wet season for all of the herds are there feeding on the luscious grasslands. The crossing of the Mara occurs in early September in most years, but it really depends on the weather.
So, the second day of our trip began waking up in our tents that are more like a small house. The tented camps here can be semi-permanent or seasonal and typically consist of anywhere from 10-20 tents that are divided on either side of a central tent that contains areas for lounging, a bar and a dining area where there are tables set up for all the guests and are available for three meals a day, though most eat only two or even one meal in camp with the rest of them being eaten on the game drives and prepared by the kitchen. Overnight we had heard the sounds of hyenas and, in the morning, the lions, all of which sounded like they were only feet from our tents. We had decided to have breakfast at 7 am given the long and tiring drive the day before, though Mike and I were up early to have coffee and watch the sunrise. Everyone gathered on time for our breakfast which consisted of various fruits, cereal, yogurt, muffins and fresh juices. At the table, the staff took our orders for eggs however we desired them cooked along with bacon, sausage and toast. It was an incredibly filling meal that was easily going to last us the better part of the day, yet it was now time to pack our lunch for the road as we would be out game viewing for the entire day and not returning to camp until dinnertime.
Leaving in the morning for a game drive is always so exciting for you never know what the day will hold. Dodo had decided to take us by the hippo pool for the early morning since some would be out of the water and we may be able to see a few crocs in the area. There is a very nice viewing area nearby where you can get out of the car without fear of being attacked by the hippos as the edge of the pool is steep enough to prevent it. There is a wooden rail at the viewing area that is meant to keep guests from getting too close to the pool, but of course there are always those who don’t seem to understand the significance, and possible danger, of these situations, thinking perhaps that this is a zoo. While I stood taking my photos of the hippos, there were those who just had to have those selfies as close as possible, putting themselves, and perhaps others in danger.
We left the hippo pool to drive along a wooded river area looking for leopards, though what we found were tsetse flies and lots of them. These flies are rather infamous in East Africa for carrying trypanosomiasis, or sleeping sickness, but luckily there are only very rare cases of this in Tanzania, and none in this region. They aren’t harmless, though, as they have a terrible bite and feed on the blood of their victims. They are incredibly slow, but are like heat seeking missiles when they find your vehicle, flying alongside at whatever speed your traveling until the enter through the top or the windows looking for a meal. It’s almost impossible to feel them when they land on you, that is until you realize that they have bitten you. Their bite is significantly more painful than a mosquito and can create a welt much more uncomfortable and long lasting. Thankfully, that is all they leave and there is no worry here for sleeping sickness.
As we came closer to one of the main roads, we noticed in the distance that there were a number of vehicles concentrated in one area and that can only mean one thing in this region – a large cat. As we drove closer we could see a very large pride of lions lounging in the grass and under a large tree. Lions sleep most of the day except when they are hunting and that is only done by a few females at a time. The males, a great number of females and many younger lions will all be lying in the shade for most of the day, resting and readying themselves for their larger nighttime hunts. We watched the lions for only a little while as they didn’t appear to be interested in doing much else other than sleeping.
As we drove around the river areas we saw plenty of wildlife that included small herds of zebra, lots and lots of birds, baboons, elephants, giraffes and just about everything in between. We were still trying to make a sighting of a cheetah or a leopard and, at one point, we did run across two cheetah, but they were lying under a tree a fair distance away and, although you could certainly see them with the binoculars, they didn’t appear to be planning to hunt anytime soon. We were near the park visitors center where there is a picnic area, but we weren’t quite ready for lunch, so decided instead to head further out and find another picnic area in which to eat our lunches. We head out along another line of trees where there are often leopards, but not were to be found today in this area so we continued on. Once again, we could see a number of vehicles next to a kopjes far off in the distance and, as we approached, it was quite clear that there was something to see here. It was a leopard that was resting well-hidden behind some bushes and under a large rock, resting in the shade. It was barely visible and you certainly could not take a photo with all the bushes around it. We queued up behind several other vehicles, each taking its turn to pull up alongside the leopard. There wasn’t much to see at this time.
We moved on to the picnic area where tables were at a premium as we were still in the high season here. There was also one of the large participatory camping vehicles there that usually have around twenty guests so this also occupied several tables to accommodate everyone on the tour. These companies usually provide tours that can be a month or more in length and travel through several countries in a large half truck, half bus-like vehicle where all the travelers are up high in a compartment that usually is open on the sides, with lower bins that pull out to provide all of their camping and cooking equipment. They set up their own tents and everyone shares I the cooking. I had looked into this for our trip back in 2009, but there wasn’t enough cost savings to justify it for me and even though I love camping and the outdoors, I just couldn’t see sitting in such a large vehicle for such a long time. In the end, had I chosen that style of trip, I wouldn’t have found fame and would certainly would not have been on my 20th trip back to Tanzania at this point in my life.
After lunch, we drove through an area that should have been ideal for cheetah as the grass was tall and there was plenty of small game for them to hunt, but they were nowhere to be found. We drove a big loop so ended up driving back by the rocks with the leopard, though it hadn’t moved and was still nearly invisible behind the bushes and under the rock. As we drove off and were a few hundred meters away from the Kopje, Dodo spotted a shape laying under a distant tree. With the binoculars you could clearly see another leopard resting there. As leopards are purely solitary animals, this was the mother of the one we had seen under the rock and she had stored her cub away while she had gone hunting. She was really too distant for any good photos, but it was great to know that there was a healthy mother and cub nearby.
We continued our drive with the intention of finding a closer cheetah to view, but it just wasn’t to be this day. We were moving pretty fast alongside one of the many rivers that course through this area when I suddenly spotted the dark backs of two lion ears off in the distance amid the green bushes of the riverside. Dodo was able to eventually stop the vehicle and reverse and, sure enough, it was a lioness on her haunches and she was clearly scanning the opposite riverbank for distant prey. We decided to watch her for a while and in five or ten minutes, two other lions slowly came into the picture from our right. When they were finally together, they moved off as a hunting party traveling as a unit with one walking in front and constantly checking for prey. At one point, two of them climbed onto a small hillock which was rather odd as they were very visible from there, but we later determined that the group contained a mother with her adolescent daughter and son and it was the two less experienced animals that had exposed themselves.
There was a small herd of zebra on the opposite side of the river that were aware of the lions and moved a good distance away, but we knew that there were a number of other animals still at a watering hole far off to the left which was where this trio of lions was heading. At this point, we were the only vehicle watching these lions as they slowly moved through the tall grass, now in an incredibly stealth fashion, and seemingly more determined with every minute. Dodo continued to move our vehicle for the best possible view while the lions slowly moved in the direction of the watering hole, still completely undetected by the animals at the watering hole. On several occasions, the lions were so concealed in the tall grass that we had difficulty spotting them even though we knew they were there right in front of us. We had now watched the lions maneuvering for an attack for probably 20 or minutes, but we were quite sure that our patience was going to pay off in the end.
Finally, the attack was on as the mother lion sprung from the grass to the other side of the river where there was a small beach and all the zebra in the pool began to scatter in all directions. I’m not really certain that her children contributed at all other than to perhaps block the passage of some escaping animals, but in this case, all it took was the one determined lioness to make the kill. When she leapt to the other bank which was a huge distance, she seemed to collapse with the impact, but very quickly righted herself and was immediately on the run again with a zebra in her sights. In a cloud of dust, she caught the zebra and very quickly had its throat in her jaws to suffocate and kill the animal prior to eating it. The zebra struggled for several minutes, kicking up more clouds of dust, but eventually succumbed to the more powerful attacker and lay still. The two adolescents strolled over to their mother still latched on to her prey and began to eat the zebra. Hopefully the two had learned something from their mother’s example, but at the moment, they seemed more interested in devouring the kill.
Just prior to the kill, another vehicle had pulled up on the opposite side of the river having either spotted us watching or possibly the lions, but either way, we were now sharing our lions with someone else. Once the kill was completed, though, Dodo very quickly drove us to the other side where the view of the lions with the zebra was a bit closer and we would be able to watch their behavior feeding together. On a previous kill that I had seen with four female lions all of similar age, there had been a tremendous amount of jostling for position, snarling and general poor behavior between them with lots of growls and roars. These lions today, though, were much more civil to each other, if not to the zebra, as it was a mother and her offspring. Each lion alternated between sitting and standing as they began to feed and there were absolutely no harsh words that could be seen spoken between them. We continued to watch for some time until finally, one at a time, they walked away from the kill having filled their stomachs to the brim. It seemed as though the young male was the last to leave the carcass and I was surprised that there were no vultures yet on the scene as they are typically incredibly efficient in this process, but the African vultures rely entirely on their keen eyesight and not their sense of smell as do the American vultures, such as the turkey vulture.
We eventually left the lions, who were now in their post-prandial stupors resting comfortable nearby their kill, and continued on our game drive hoping to see cheetahs if we could find them. As we drove near the small airport we saw a few vehicles looking at something, but as we approached they began pulling away. They informed us that a cheetah had been walking across the road which we had just missed by a matter of minutes. It was surprising that we were have so much difficulty finding them as they are usually very easy to spot and fairly numerous, but the Serengeti has been extremely dry and the grasses rather short for the most part which is not conducive to cheetahs hunting. They’re around, but just not readily apparent in the regions we’ve been scouring.
It wasn’t exceptionally late, but between our exhaustion from being out all day and our excitement of the kill we had witnessed, everyone was ready to begin heading back to camp. As we were driving back and were only a short distance from camp, we came to a culvert under the road and, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a tail and then a spotted body just to the side of the road in the grass. I yelled “leopard,” and then “cheetah,” not having been totally sure of what I had seen, but when we backed up to see, it was gone, but Dodo felt very strongly that it had been a leopard as one was living in this area and may well have been hiding in the culvert. We backed up to see if it would come out again, but there was the steady traffic of safari vehicles traveling in both directions, heading to their respective camps at the end of the day and it was very unlikely that the leopard would surface. We eventually gave up and made our way the very short distance to camp. Shortly after we arrived back to camp, it began to rain, so it was excellent timing for us having missed the need to put down the top while on the road and it was so relaxing for Mike and I to be sitting under the edge of the main tent drinking our Safari beers and listening to the softness of the rain as it fell and struck the tent. We had an excellent day on the trail, having seen a lion kill following a long hunt, an event that is not always seen when coming to the Serengeti regardless of effort.