Sunday, October 9 – No Big Five today, but how about 32 plus lions…

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Towards the woodlands

It was another very comfortable night sleeping at camp with lots of animal sounds overnight that somehow here seem not to really disturb you. At home, living on the Schuylkill River in downtown Philadelphia, the trains come through every night with the clang of metal and the occasional blare of their horn, but never seem to disrupt my sleep having gotten used to it over the last seven years. Perhaps it’s the same in the Serengeti given the amount of time I’ve spent there over the last thirteen years? You may recall, though, that on my last trip, I did have a very loud hyena that sounded like it was inches from my head wake me up one night, but that was a different matter altogether.

Some wary zebra (hint: there are lions in the area)
A hillside of hungry lions

I was up very early once again, well before sunrise, as I had wanted to get down to the main tent to post a blog and to chat with that special person back in Philly. This is by far my favorite time of the day for so many reason. Going from the pitch black of the night with so little stirring, the world just seems to come alive at a very slow pace as the horizon begins its soft glow of orange with the knowledge that the sun is already up somewhere, but it is just hinting at it here. The birds begin to sing with their morning chatter to announce the coming sunrise and you can just make out the distant plain in front of you extending into forever. There were herds of zebra this morning passing by on their way to some far off watering hole, hoping to evade those ever present predators that stand in their way. The world is coming alive in slow motion and there is some sense of gratitude for having experienced this as it has been for millions of years before.

Surveilling from his perch

If you haven’t listened to Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite, and its opening Sunrise, it is the closest thing that captures this moment that occurs throughout the world, every day, but sitting in nature, it is so entirely different. One has to go back to nature, wherever that may be, every so often to experience this wonder and to rekindle or rejuvenate that sense of mystery in the universe that should exist in us all. We are merely another living thing on this planet and with that comes a responsibility to love and respect all others.

A cheetah on the move

We did not have a predawn departure scheduled for the day, but Vitalis had wanted everyone to breakfast at 6:30 am for an early 7:00 am departure, which was still a bit too early for what some had wished for, though it did seem to work out, sort of. As I have mentioned, I had been up well before dawn and working in the main tent for the WiFi and Taha had come and joined me, also early, to check his emails. Apparently, not wishing to be late, Sara and Ankita had gone directly to the dining tent a few minutes before our appointed breakfast time and had eaten breakfast already, not knowing that we were relaxing in the other tent and in no rush to find them. They were not at all amused as we finally strolled over to the dining tent wondering just where they were, while they were wondering the same about us, having thought that we were late. Despite the miscommunication, breakfast was quite tasty and included freshly made to order omelettes, bacon, sausage, French toast and fruit. And, of course, lots of coffee.

Sisters hunting

One we had eaten breakfast, it was time to depart and say our goodbyes to the camp crew who had taken such excellent care of us over the last two days. The camp had been full both nights, but they had provided wonderful service with no complaints on our part and I would recommend this camp to anyone wishing to have a pleasant experience while enjoying their game view here in the Serengeti. Sure, there are more luxurious camps and, even more so, lodges that are here, but at some point, it can become a bit of overkill. At Tanzania Bush Camps, we were incredibly comfortable, safe, well-fed and well taken care of.

Introductions at Kitashu’s boma. His home with its thatched roof and solar panel sits behind

We departed camp and drove west over the same ridge that our camp was sitting on, through a woodlands area where a few intrepid tsetse flies found us, but weren’t a bother as they were slow and ineffective in the coolness of the morning. We were in an area where only three weeks ago there were thousands and thousands of wildebeest gathered as part of the migration, but now, they had all moved on to another location. Knowing Vitalis’s route through this region, we headed next to drive along the Seronera River and would follow it back towards the visitor center area with the hope of finding some good wildlife. Our first encounter was with a huge family of elephants at the river, mostly munching on the greenest grass clinging to the river banks, many of them leaning forward over the edge for a chance to enjoy this prime food while seeming like they could fall in or the river bank would collapse under their weight.

Kitashu’s relative, Kitashu, Taha, Ankita, and Sara
Taha, now armed with his knife and walking stick

Moving along, we came across a very large herd of Cape buffalo with many of them crossing the road to reach the river for a cool drink. As we drove up, though, it was clear that the buffalo were very alert to some danger in the area and, looking across the river, it was very clear as to why that way.  Sitting just across the river, and very, very close, was probably one of the largest prides of lions that I have ever seen – once tallied, there at least sixteen lions, mostly adult females with some adolescents, and nearly all were very alert and paying very close attention to the buffalos. Most were in a single group, but we then spotted the alpha female, some yards away and looking very intently in a different direction where there some impala and where we had seen a group of zebra earlier as we passed by.

Kitashu describing how his home was made

After some time, the larger group of lions began to move towards the alpha female and were clearly in hunting mode, though they didn’t seem to have an interest in the buffalo, and probably for good reason considering the size of the herd and the fact that these animals can easily kill a lion with their horns (which is why they are one of the Big Five). Cape buffaloes are very protective of their weak and young, forming defensive lines that are impenetrable and manned by the larger males who are frightening enough when they are causally grazing and even more so when in a group shoulder to shoulder and angry to boot. Four weeks ago, while in Ngorongoro Crater, we watched a group of lions chased by only two adult buffalo who were doing their best to protect a weak calf and, though they were ultimately unsuccessful, the lions were giving a very wide berth so as to prevent injury or death. Unfortunately, at least for those of us who wished to see some action, the lions had little interest in tangling with the buffalo and were soon heading away from us across the river to an area that we couldn’t access and were unable to follow them. They were definitely in the hunting mode, but would finding their victims far from our watchful eyes.

A try at making fire

From the river, we made our way past the Seronera Airport, where there many giraffe just outside the fence line and we imaging those visitors getting off a plane for the first time visiting and seeing these animals as they first drove out the gate. We then proceeded to make the long trek to the Maasai Kopjes where we had seen the leopard the night before. Most of the carcass that had been in the tree had been eaten, though there was still some of it remaining. Just a bit further ahead, though, one of the two leopards sat resting on top of a rock trying to get as much of the warmth from the stone as they could while still surveying the surrounding landscape for any potential prey. There were several vehicles already there including two that were with a photography safari as each photographer had a massive lens sitting atop their custom bean bags that sat in their custom windows and on top of the vehicle. I’m sure they were getting some great shots and perhaps someday I’ll be lucky enough to own one of these lenses, but for now, I feel quite lucky to be shooting what I am and having the opportunity to be here seeing what I am.

From the Maasai Kopjes, it was now just a matter of heading south past the Seven Hills in the direction of Naabi Hill and we’d be having lunch. We were still in search of more game on the way, though, and just couldn’t help but find more and more lions along the way as we traveled slowly in the direction of the gate. They just seemed to be everywhere and by the time we reached the Naabi Hill, we had seen at least 32 lions for the morning, a number that I can’t recall ever having seen in one day. We didn’t make the Big Five today, though the consolation seemed to be a reasonable trade. And to add to the wonderful number of cats that we had seen for the weekend, we spotted two cheetah sisters (siblings of the same sex will hunt together) traveling in our direction and clearly hunting. There were no prey that were visible to us within range, so it was clear that they would be traveling far to locate their lunch, something that would not be on our agenda since we need to leave the park by lunchtime or shortly thereafter not only because our permit was ending 48 hours after we arrived, but also because we had a date with Kitashu’s boma and his family this afternoon.   

Preparing to dance

Arriving to Naabi Gate, we had beat the crowds that gather here crossing into and out of the Serengeti, those entering with the excitement of what is too come and those leaving with the memories that will last forever. We easily found a table and brought along our lunch boxes and Vitalis brought his picnic coffee setup that had gone over so well all weekend. Though we were now leaving the park, or would shortly when we crossed the office border, we had a long, dusty and bumpy drive back to the Loduare Gate and Karatu. It would be at least two hours before we reached Kitashu’s family’s boma where we were to visit for a bit before continuing on. I had told him not to roast a goat for us, his usual gesture of appreciation for us, as he had just done that three weeks ago with the other group and goats are precious to the Maasai.

The drive was uneventful (no rocks to the windshield this time!) and I texted Kitashu to let him know when just when we’d arrive as it would be a bit earlier than normal. On the last trip, we had gotten stuck at Naabi Gate waiting to pay for the transit, delaying us at least an hour and we had already been running a bit late. The problem occurs when leaving the boma as it’s about 40 minutes to the Loduare Gate that we need to be through by 6:00 pm, otherwise we can look forward to spending the night in the Conservation Area which would not be a happy situation as it would either be spent uncomfortably in the car or in a lodge for a significant cost. And either way, they would charge you for another day spent in the Conservation Area.

Once in the boma, the residents were treated to a tour of Kitashu’s home, meeting his wife and then being placed in ceremonial robes to enjoy some traditional dances and singing. Having done this several times before, I now stay outside with Vitalis handing out the “pipi,” or candy to the children, or at least taking photos and videos of Vitalis doing this. Given the number of children in the boma, it becomes a bit of mass hysteria when the candy is taken out of the box of gifts that we have brought for the boma, though Vitalis has done well training the children to listen to him and stand in a line to receive their treats. In addition to the candy, we have brought the traditional gifts that one brings when visiting someone’s home here – rice, sugar, tea, and soap among other things. Everyone got a chance to dance with the woman singing and jumping and Taha doing his best to jump as high as the other men and, though not doing too bad of a job, just didn’t get quite as high. The men also demonstrated for us how they make fire using a piece of flat acacia and a wooden rod that is spun between your hands to cause the friction necessary to create a spark and a glowing tinder.

Children from the boma

Once finished with your visit, we packed everyone back up in Turtle including Kitashu, who was hitching a ride with us back to Karatu as we’d all be at work again tomorrow, or “kesho,” for our last week at FAME. We would be having clinic each day and trying to fit in some fun activities in the evenings, not that every day in Africa isn’t already incredibly fun. We rolled into Karatu with plenty of daylight, though everyone was exhausted from the weekend that had been incredibly successful on every level. I’m sure it was a trip that would not soon be forgotten by those that were present. We unloaded Turtle and as I drove Vitalis back to town and to his guest house for the night, the others ordered food from the Lilac Café for our dinners with the knowledge that it would take well over an hour for our food to arrive from just across campus. But then again, this is Africa after all.

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