Saturday, September 17 – The Big 5 before noon, a new record…

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A nice start to the morning

Having arrived rather late in the evening and not yet having seen our camp in the daylight hours, it was rather ironic that we decided to leave before sunrise for our game drive this morning, but that is what we did and whether it had anything to do with the incredibly successful day that was to follow is anyone’s guess. The plan to leave early was courtesy of Vitalis and, having been on many a game drive over the years with him, I have always trusted that he knows best in regard to what it takes to make it a successful day. So, it would be both breakfast and lunch in the bush and the camp would pack those up for us well before our departure time of 6 am. Prior to leaving, though, we would have to be sure to caffeinate those members of the party who required it and shall go unnamed at the present.

Loving sisters

The semi-seasonable tented camps that are dotted throughout the Serengeti are all very similar and are typically designed with two main tents in the center of camp, the mess tent and the lounge tent, and then a number of tents fanning out on both sides in a very shallow semi-circle so that one can see the furthest most tent from the center. Our camp had seven tents on either side for a total of 14 tents for guests to stay in with a few larger family tents that were multiroom. To describe this as “glamping” would not give someone the full sense of the comforts that are afforded the guests who stay here. Alex and I stayed in one tent that had two queen-sized beds and Moira, Alana and Cara stayed in a triple room with three beds. The tents are incredibly roomy, even with the three beds and have sitting chairs and a desk. Each tent has its own complete bathroom with a sink and vanity, a shower and a flush toilet in its own little stall for privacy. The tents are solar powered for lighting, though charging stations are available back in the lounge tent for phones and camera batteries. There is WiFi that is also provided in the lounge tent, though its performance would vary depending on the time of day and given we were in the middle of the Serengeti, one really couldn’t be disappointed.

The camps provide full board meaning three meals per day and since we’ll be staying for two nights, that will include our dinner last night, three meals for today, and then breakfast and lunch for tomorrow with us arriving home tomorrow night and no need for dinner. Last night, we had a wonderful buffet dinner and will be looking forward to another lovely dinner tonight once we complete our full day of game drive. Leaving camp with our breakfast and lunch and no need to return to camp, we have much more freedom to travel wherever the game and no matter how far that might be, as long as we can make it back to camp before nightfall. To say that the Serengeti is immense is putting it lightly as we will only scratch the surface during our full day today looking for game.

A kori bustard in its full glory looking for a mate

The mornings are quite cool before the sun comes up and, thankfully, everyone dressed accordingly as having the top up with most of your upper body exposed to the wind can be pretty exhilarating at times though it is well worth it for what you will see. In the low light before sunrise, you can often see some of the more nocturnal animals, such as the hippos traveling back to their pools after a night of grazing on grass, sometimes miles from their home. You can also see one of my favorite animals here, the bat-eared fox, which is an incredibly cute smallish animal with massive ears that live in underground dens and typically travel together. They bound when they run and are easily spooked, so are often seen scurrying back to their dens when you’re very close to them.

One of our first sightings this morning was a bit gruesome as it was a dead hippo floating in pool with a very huge (probably eight feet or more) Nile crocodile still munching on it from inside its hide and underwater, coming up with large chunks of flesh in its jaws only to flip its bounty up and then guzzle it down its throat with nary a chew. It’s unlikely that this croc killed the hippo, but rather the hippo may have been old or succumbed to previous injuries as the hippo is typically the most dangerous animal and able to chop a croc in two with its jaws. Either way, this hippo was now someone else’s meal and the croc was quite happy to oblige whatever the reason. I think there was a Marabou stork monitoring the situation from a nearby tree, being perfectly ready to swoop in at a moment’s notice to enjoy whatever scraps were left after the croc had its way with the carcass.

In search of anything feline this morning, we did come upon a pride of lions with two females close by to the road and actually looking hungry while their male was sleeping with the remainder of the pride and catching up on his beauty sleep. The two females, though, seemed to be most interested in some prey, though without an obvious target in the vicinity, we decided to move on. Later, we had heard that the females of this pride had tracked down a baby giraffe and killed it, something that would have been tough to watch given everyone’s love of the giraffe (it is the national animal of Tanzania, after all) and being a baby to boot. Several years ago, I watched as a group of four female lions successfully ambushed a small group of zebra at a water hole, only to find that they had miscalculated somehow and were going to come out entirely empty handed until they spotted a baby zebra that they quickly caught and immediately tore to pieces in front of it. Reminding yourself that it’s the circle of life and also that this performance was not for our benefit, but rather for their existence and would have happened were we there to watch or not.

We had our picnic breakfast at one of the few spots in the park that are set up for this – mainly a bathroom and picnic tables that sits atop a hill and allows for an incredible 360° view of the entire area, looking far off to the east and across the endless plains and to the west towards the low mountains that mark the entrance to the Moru Kopjes and then further on to the Western Corridor. We probably stopped at around 8:30 or so to enjoy our box breakfasts with the only complaint for the weekend that we didn’t have coffee sent with our picnic and it was dearly missed. The groups caffeine level was quickly diminishing. As we finished our breakfast, vehicle after vehicle began to pull up for the same purpose and we were very happy with the choice of time that we had made given the crowds for we were leaving on the hunt as everyone else were just setting up for their breakfasts.

After our morning meal, it wasn’t very long until we ran across one of the more remarkable things I’ve seen on my trips to the game parks and it unfolded very slowly. There were several vehicles already watching what appeared to be two cheetahs sitting atop a termite mount in the far distance. Cheetah will typically lay on the termite mounds to survey their surroundings as they have amazing eyesight and can spot game from very long distances. Watching the two cheetah with our binoculars, one of the got up and seemed pretty restless, circling the other one on top of the mound several times before finally settling down and clearly looking off in the distance towards a very large group of Thompson and Grant gazelle, their usual prey for the Thompson is the fastest gazelle and can only be caught by the cheetah, the fastest land mammal.

A family of cheetahs on a termite mound

We patiently watched as finally the cheetahs started to move on the hunt, but what appeared from behind the termite mound were not only the two cheetahs we were watching, but a total of four of them! Cheetah are typically solitary animals who hunt alone, though you can run across larger groups that are always siblings of the same sex and typically multiple brothers. This, though, turned out to be a mother and three of her juvenile children for the mother was clearly in charge at the front and the three others were lagging behind in a far less determined and less organized manner. The herd of gazelle had finally spotted the four cheetahs moving towards them and the stampede began with hundreds of gazelle flashing past the mother cheetah and what, in itself, was truly an amazing site to watch through our binoculars.

On the hunt

After what seemed like with an eternity, though there were still plenty of gazelle running for their lives, the mother took off into the herd charging past and first cut off a small group of them, before finally singling one out to attack. At this point, though, the mother didn’t immediately kill the gazelle, but rather seemed to be playing with it. What became very clear in short order was that she had maimed the animal so that she could keep it close to her which allowed the three children to finally come in for the kill. What she was doing all along was teaching her full grown children how to hunt! They eventually came in to kill the gazelle and then begin eating it as the mother walked a short distance away and simply sat there watching her children, obviously quite pleased with the turn of events for in addition to feeding the children, she had also given them a good lesson on hunting so that each of them would be able to fend for themselves as the family eventually split up and formed families of their own. This entire scene, something that was entirely unexpected from the start, was so remarkable that even Vitalis stood up in his seat to watch as it was something that he rarely saw despite his probably many hundreds of trips to the Serengeti.


A researcher following the cheetahs

Finally moving away from the cheetah, we headed off in search of more animals and very shortly spotted a group of vehicles parked near a tree which is almost always an excellent indication that there is a leopard sleeping in its favorite place. Leopards are entirely solitary animals and the only time you would see two adults together would be when a pair is mating, though mothers will keep their cubs with them for extended periods of time, training them to hunt and survive. Sure enough, there was a solitary leopard sleeping in the tree, waking intermittently to reposition themselves or to coif their spotted fur.

Our male leopard

Male leopards have a larger and broader head, but the telltale sign here that this is a male is the fact that he is not straddling the tree limb he’s sleeping on with his rear legs, a position that would be very uncomfortable for him. We later saw a female at one of the kopjes up in a tree, happily and comfortably straddling the tree branch just to prove the point. Cheetahs hunt with speed, lions hunt with strength and leopards hunt with stealth in the darkness of the night, sneaking up on their prey silently until they are essentially upon them. They then drag their prey up into a tree to consume it away from the hyenas and other scavengers. Lions can climb trees as well, but rarely challenge a leopard off the ground as their agility in the trees is nothing compared to the leopard.

Rhinos in the high brush

By now, we had seen four of the big five this morning, the elephant, Cape buffalo, lion and leopard, and it was only 11 am, though the likelihood of seeing the fifth member of this selective club, the rhino, was very unlikely here in the Central Serengeti as the rhinos here are primarily in North, West and Moru Kopjes most likely due to the fact that the majority of game drive traffic occurs here in the Central, something not very appreciated by the very shy rhinos. As we left for our game drive in the dark this morning and were asking Vitalis what to expect, he promised us everything other than the rhino as there had not been any radio traffic regarding the rhinos here in the central to date.

Three rhinos in the brush

So, you can imagine our surprise as we were driving along in search of whatever we could find, when Alana shouted, “hey, what are those?” Sitting in the high brush, not 25 yards away from us, were two massive grey beasts that almost looked like they were laying down only because of the height of the grass and brush, but they were just standing there chilling directly in front of us. It was a mother and a grown calf who were definitely hiding from us as best they could, but trying to make a body that large invisible is not an easy task. Their shapes and horns, though, were clearly unmistakable to us and the distance was not great. Mother and child were noticeably nervous and weary of our presence, but given it was only our vehicle for the longest time, they weren’t incredibly spooked for the time being. Shortly after our spotting them, a third larger rhino appeared who was clearly a male and traveling with the two others. For some time, we were able to view all three of the rhinos, undisturbed by any others as were the rhinos. After about 15 minutes of our solo viewing of these truly magnificent animals, Vitalis finally announced our find on the radio, virtually assuring that there would be a rush of vehicles to this area in a matter of minutes. The significance of the fact that there had been no radio traffic of a rhino sighting for days prior or even that morning should not go unnoticed as Alana was the first to see these rhinos in the Central Serengeti for a least a period of days. As the other vehicles began to accumulate, the rhinos became spooked and began to run off into the distance and deeper brush, making it harder and harder to spot them. That was fine with us, though, for we had our time alone with the rhinos and it was simply marvelous.

A female leopard straddling the tree

The fact that we had seen the big five before noon was something of a miracle as it is very rare to see all these animals together in one place. In the Crater, the other location where rhinos can be seen and where we saw one last weekend, has everything including the leopard, though I have yet to see the leopard there. The Big Five, by the way, is the group of animals that were most sought after by the Great White Hunters of the early part of the last century looking for trophies that would signify their manhood and skill, for these animals needed to be tracked and hunted at great risk for physical harm to the hunter. A great many very experienced hunters and guides were killed or severely injured by these animals that make up the Big Five, though to be honest, they deserved anything that came to them as I certainly cannot condone the “sport” of big game trophy hunting and the loss of one hunter pales in comparison to the near extinction of the black rhino from hunting for its horns or the millions of elephants taken for their ivory and the smooth feel of ivory piano keys that were sought after for so long.

After such an incredible and productive morning, thanks mostly to Vitalis and his fantastic guiding, we put our sights on the eastern plateau in hopes of finding more cats, though in the end, the animals were far sparser in these areas. We stopped at around 2:00 pm for lunch under a wonderful acacia tree, spreading out our Maasai shuka on the ground and everyone sitting to enjoy the delicious lunches that were supplied by the camp. On our drive after lunch, we continued searching for cheetah as Vitalis had received information from one of the other guides on our drive that there was a mother and cubs somewhere along the road we were taking back towards camp. We drove along pole pole (slowly) for quite a time, but were unable to spot them until somehow, Vitalis, with his eagle eyes, spotted the mother and her two adolescent cubs who, in very short order, go up and moved onto the road where there was some standing water in order to have a drink. Mom looked like she may have been interested in hunting, but there was no road heading in the direction she was walking, so we eventually decided to drive off in the direction we had been heading which was back to camp.

En route, we ran across a very healthy looking male lion relaxing by himself not far off the road, though no other members of his pride were visible nearby. Shortly after that, we also ran across an interesting scene of three hyenas, two silver-backed jackals and several tawny eagles who were feasting on the sparse remnants of a Thompson gazelle who had likely been killed and mostly eaten by a cheetah. The skull was one of the remnants that a hyena was munching on, likely seeking its brain, while there were other smaller pieces that the other animals were enjoying. At one point, one of the jackals swooped in to steal a piece of flesh from one of the eagles, running off only to be chased down by a hyena, dropping the meat he had that was then recovered by one of the hyenas who then went back to join the others, though not to share his booty. It was just an odd scene to see these three species to be scavenging in the same place, though mostly for the fact that I hadn’t seen tawny eagles scavenging before.

We arrived back to camp around 6:00 pm, quite dusty and exhausted from the long day on the road and wondering just how Vitalis had done that for the entire day, though also super energized due the huge success that we had on the drive seeing so many animals and, most importantly, having seen the often elusive Big 5 in one place all prior to noon time. This is a feat that will not very likely be repeated in the near future and something that all in our group could feel was a major accomplishment. Showers were arranged as was a time for our dinner. Last night, the camp was completely full and we had a buffet dinner, but tonight would be ala cart, with a choice of pork chop or chicken, both of which were equally delicious. Tomorrow, it had been decided that Cara and Alana would both be going up for a balloon safari early in the morning (5:15 am pickup) and the rest us would have breakfast at camp, check out with their bags as well, and then pick them up at 10 am at the visitor center before beginning our departure game drive out of the park and on to Kitashu’s boma. What a day!

As a parting comment, here is the list of animals that were seen during the day today:

Hippos, crocodile, Cooke’s hartebeest, wildebeest, zebra, elephant, Cape buffalo, Thompson gazelle, Grant gazelle, topi, reedbuck, dik dik, rock hyrax, spotted hyena, silver-backed jackal, lion, serval, cheetah, giraffe, Marabou stork, secretary bird, kori bustard, black-bellied bustard, lilac breasted roller, buffalo weaver, oxpecker, love birds, superb starling, grey-headed heron, tawny eagles, martial eagle, a host of various vultures, and countless birds that are far too long to list.

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