Everyone had gotten a good sleep, though for some, hearing all the sounds of the wild animals so close to camp for the first time was probably a bit unnerving. As much as you might think that we would all make easy prey for a pride of lions given the only surface between us and the outside world is the canvas of a tent, easily shredded by their sharp and powerful claws, but that just doesn’t happen. The roars of a male lion at night or the frequent “whoops” of the hyenas chatting among themselves does little to keep the imagination from wandering too far from reality and in those moments of semi-consciousness, drifting off to sleep, one becomes easy prey to these machinations of the mind. Amazingly, though, everyone survived and the order of appearances at the mess tent was quite predictable – I had my cup of tea mostly down as the girl’s tent appeared, followed by Paul and Kelley, and, eventually, Akash and Phillip decided to grace us with their presence. No worries, though, as the sun hadn’t quite arisen yet and we had the who park to ourselves it seemed.
I had stayed in this cluster of camps before and was familiar with the route we’d be taking, traveling far beyond Maasai Kopjes in mostly a southeast direction and our main object was to look for big cats, though had we spotted a caracal or serval, we would have taken those as well. The balloons had launched from near Seronera and were already afloat, though they were too distant for us to hear the intermittent blast of their burners as they would rise and fall to ride the thermals. I had taken a balloon ride with Leonard’s brother, Jones, who is a balloon pilot in the Central Serengeti, back in 2015 with Danielle Becker as we only paid the concession fee of $50, far less than the $500 or more normally charged for the experience. It was truly the experience of a lifetime, though, and, to be totally honest, would have been worth the $500 had I known before.
We wasted little time in spotting a number of vultures circling above and as we drove to the area, spotted several hyenas near a den that had little concern of our presence. As we drove by them in the direction of the vultures, though, we came across remnants of a hyena carcass that had likely been killed by the hyenas themselves and was eerily staring off into the distance with empty sockets as the eyes are a delicacy for the vultures. It had most likely not only been killed by other hyenas, but also eaten by them before the vultures had their turn at the table, a common occurrence among these scavengers.
After traveling a short distance, we came upon our first pride of lions that consisted of a few females and three small cubs, all of the same age and very likely immediate siblings. They were resting, but were active enough for our purposes, although had they been hunting, that would have been extra special. Watching a pride of lions hunting is always an amazing experience, but you just have to be lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time. You also have to be very patient and willing to follow the lions for some time as they are obviously very methodical. Lions have a much worse kill rate than the cheetah and the leopard as their stamina is poor and they must be very close to their prey to deliver the final blow. I have watched many a lion hunt that ended in a failed attempt for one reason or another. Leopards are totally stealth when they hunt and cheetah are, as we all know, the fastest land animal and capable of amazing acceleration that I can attest too first hand.
We watched the lions as they all got up and eventually made their way to a nearby kopjes where they had a watering hole on top of the rocks that had obviously collected rain water from the day before. The male positioned himself up higher on the rocks while the two females and three cubs made their way to a depression in the rock that we were unable to see, but it was clear they were rehydrating. The sun was intense, but the temperature was quite cool even though we were approaching 10 AM and breakfast time. We continued for a bit until we found a very nice place to all have breakfast, under an acacia tree, where there were no animals nearby, at least that we were aware of. The camp had made us all very nice breakfast bags, but hadn’t included any vegetarian meals for Akash, a strict vegetarian, or Cat, a pescatarian. Cat could make do with what they supplied, but Akash did have to sort through to make sure he had enough to eat.
After breakfast, we were back on the trail of big cats and ran across many more lions, including a pair of brothers, who looked like Mufasa and Scar from Lion King, though it became very clear in the right wind, that the one who looked most like Scar was, in actuality, a relative of Fabio, as he must have just come from the hairdresser and wanted to show off his gorgeous coif. Regardless of whether we were in a Disney movie or at a fashion show, the brothers took very little notice of us and we eventually moved on in search of more sightings.
Another pride of lions popped up not long after, though it was unclear if they were related to these males or not, but there was a radio collared female with two juveniles sitting on a termite hill who we watched for a few moments, only to spot another five or six of their pride lying in the grass a short distance away who were originally well camouflaged. They all eventually got up and slowly made their way along with the collared female and two juveniles off towards one of the close kopjes, most like to rest in the shade of a tree or find a watering hole.
Somewhere in here, we found a nice place to eat lunch in a similar fashion to our breakfast and shortly thereafter found our first cheetah. He had a full tummy for sure and looked like he was originally just chilling under a tree digesting his lunch, as were we, but he wasn’t happy with our presence and eventually trotted off to find another tree to chill under.
So now we were in search of a leopard, as this would complete the Big Five for the entire group. The big five are the traditional animals that were hunted as big game and the most dangerous to go after as each one would present a challenge in that they could easily charge the hunter killing him. The traditional Big Five consists of the leopard, lion, elephant, Cape buffalo, and the rhino (both the white and the black rhinos). If you are searching the Big Five in southern Africa, you’re in luck as the larger white rhino is far more numerous easy to find compared to the critically endangered black rhino of East Africa. Being able to spot the Big Five in a single weekend is therefore rather challenging in Tanzania.
Leopards like to live near the water which is vitally important for them in their hunting strategy which is to sneak up on its prey and pounce rather than chase them. The most common place to find them during the daylight hours is in the trees along the many streams and rivers of the Central Serengeti, though I have also seen them on the ground on a number of occasions and once on the rocks of a large Kopjes. When the leopard walks through the grass, it does so with its tail held high in the air and it is often easy to spot and follow that way.
They are massively strong and agile in a manner much different than the lion and probably closer to the tiger. They will drag their prey into their tree after killing it, keeping it from the hyenas and the lions, the latter of which will rarely climb a tree to challenge a leopard for its prey. Driving through leopard areas during the calving of the wildebeest, you will often see old carcasses in the trees that were left by the leopard after devouring the majority of the meat.
Driving through a typical area to spot a leopard with the sun getting low and our time running out for the day, we came upon several vehicles looking into the trees and, sure enough, there was a large, male leopard in the bottom branches of the tree, lounging in the late afternoon sun. Our group had seen their big five in less than 24 hours! We watched the leopard from several angles for some time as it moved around in the tree from time to time, but did not come out of the tree. Had we stayed and watched it for some time, we may have been able to see it begin a hunt, but leopard kills are very rare and I’ve never seen one. Having completed our “hunt” for the leopard, though, while there was still daylight, we decided to get back to the camp with time to walk around a bit.
It’s great to maximize your time game viewing, but it’s also nice to relax a bit at camp where they will typically have a fire going for the evening to watch sunset and eventually the stars. Here it’s called “bush TV” and it’s far more interesting than watching anything that may be on the television and certainly a respite from watching cable news. Lydia, our camp manager, walked us over to view a huge female crocodile that had a nest and had laid eggs just on the other side of the stream from the back of our tents. She was easily ten feet long and huge, but was busy protecting her nest and had no interest in us. Besides, she was a tad bit closer to the girl’s tent than mine. In reality, though, she was probably only fifty feet from the back of the tents. Tomorrow morning, since we weren’t going out at sunrise, we’d walk to see the hippos.
Today was also Kelley’s birthday and the camp, of which we were the only guests, by the way, had a birthday celebration for her with a small cake that they baked and they came out singing the Swahili birthday song with everyone dancing and banging pots or clapping. The other exciting news is that Jones, Leonard’s brother, had secured two seats for us on the morning balloon flight, and since Paul and Kelley are getting married in March, I decided to have them use the two seats as their wedding present. They would have to get up at 4:30 AM to get to the balloon launch area as it goes up before sunrise, but I knew it would be well worth it for them.