Waking up in the Serengeti is an experience unlike any other. Though the animal sounds continue throughout the night with the “whoops” of the hyena or the low rumbling growls of the male lions trying to attract their females, there is a sense in things intensifying prior to sunrise. It reminds of one of my favorite musical pieces, Grand Canyon Suite by Ferde Grofé, written in the late 1920s and perhaps more familiar than people realize, but the opening movement, Sunrise, certainly captures the same sense of increasing intensity leading towards a crescendo as the sun emerges from below the horizon as an orange glowing orb and with its rays beginning to penetrate the coolness of the morning.
We had decided to leave camp well before sunrise to experience those animals that are only out at dusk and dawn. Before we could even get out of sight of our tents, we ran across a large family of hyena around their den which was just off the road. In addition to the adults, there were many young hyena cubs playing with each other in the road and completely oblivious to the presence of our vehicle despite its size. We sat watching them for some time, with the sky slowly becoming more and more orange as we waited. Eventually leaving the hyena den and heading east, we could see in the distance several balloons that were slowly rising into the sky, their passengers undoubtedly in awe at the incredible sights they were experiencing and would continue to experience over the next hour during their flights.
I had taken a balloon ride here some years ago on a trip with Danielle Becker and thought it one of the most incredible and exciting experiences of my life. Leonard’s brother, Jones, has been a balloon pilot here in the Serengeti for his entire career and offered to have us fly with him for a greatly reduced price as neither of us would have considered it. Sitting out on the Serengeti, after that flight, with its wonderful breakfast that was served to everyone who had flown together, I quickly realized that had we paid full price, it would have been well worth the cost. Floating silently among the thermals and only the occasional sound of the burner supplying what was needed to rise, there were herds of wildebeest and zebra running directly below us as well as the occasional hippo in a pool or elephant grazing through the acacia. This was paradise.
Shortly after sunrise, with the temperature slowly rising, we quickly ran across a mother cheetah and her adolescent child feeding on a recent kill, a baby wildebeest, common a prey during this time of the migration with the calves having arrived during the herds trip south from Kenya. Nearby, there was another mother cheetah with her two adolescents sitting in what shade they could find on the side of a termite hill, looking very satisfied and likely having recently eaten themselves. It’s not often that you see cheetahs this close to each other, so I suspect that they were related in some fashion.
We eventually stopped for breakfast sometime in the late morning, simply parking the vehicle and preparing our picnic meal on the hood of Turtle. It was a smorgasbord of breakfast items – eggs, chapati, crepes, sausage, bacon, toast, bananas, fruit, coffee, tea, and juice boxes, though I’m sure that I’ve forgotten a few of the items along the way. Sitting in the middle of an endless plain with absolutely nothing around in all directions as far as the eye can see certainly brings things into perspective as you realize just how incredibly small and insignificant each of us are in this grand scheme of things, we call life. One can easily imagine simply being swallowed up, never to be seen again, and would anyone really notice?
Over the next hours we saw many, many lions, some with kills and others just chilling during the heat of the day, looking for whatever shade they might find. One group of them consisted of four quite healthy males and we were told that this was the group that had recently killed a fairly famous dominant male who had lived and ruled in this region for many years. Bob, Jr., as the older male was known was killed last week by his sons in a very brutal attack that had been captured on video with the news having been big here in Tanzania and elsewhere. Whether these were his sons and killers or not, we really had no way to tell, but it was certainly a distinct possibility given the location, the circumstances, and the very healthy look of these four males.
Throughout the day, we continually ran across vast herds of wildebeest, often with a small contingent of zebra in the lead almost guiding them. Wildebeest and zebra have a symbiotic relationship as they protect each other from the constant pressure of the big cats with the large numbers of wildebeest protecting the zebra and the sharp eyesight and hearing of the zebra acting as sentinels for the large herds should lions, cheetahs, or leopards approach uninvited for a meal. The scene was incredibly dramatic to see these herds stretching for such great distances and moving slowly in the direction of the greener grass.
We made it to the visitors center for lunch and the bathrooms as it had been some time for everyone and everyone was paying particular attention to being well hydrated, certainly not helping the issue. Patrick and I left briefly to refuel Turtle at one of the two fuel stations in the Seronera as even though we had used a surprisingly small amount of our fuel on board, it’s aways best to have more than you need never knowing what emergencies may arise during our travels.
After lunch, we started to look more seriously for leopards, hunting for them in the lines of trees that sit along the rivers, or sources of water in the area. Leopards live in trees when they are not in search of their prey, and when they find something and are successful, they’re dragged up into the tree, no matter how big they are for the leopard is not only incredibly strong but is also a natural climber. You can often spot old prey in their trees, but the best way to look for them is to spot their tails hanging down from the branch they are sitting on. Females will straddle the branch, with both their rear legs on either side of the branch, while males will have both rear legs on one side or the other for obvious reasons. Leopards hunt stealthily and will get very close to their prey, almost on top of them, in fact, before pouncing, or ambushing them in a very quick action. We saw several leopards, one of which was on one of the very many kopjes in the area, the rock outcroppings that are interspersed throughout the central Serengeti and where all life exists.
Late in the afternoon it began to rain very heavily, and the roads became incredibly slick as the water here has nowhere to go and the clay does not absorb it well. We were heading in the direction of camp, but suddenly, and without warning, Turtle decided to completely swap ends in a slow-motion pirouette that thankfully did not end in us flipping on our side. It took a bit to get us back on the road and in the right direction, but Patrick did eventually get us going in the right direction again. We were all just a tad shaken in the process, though I think was more so than the others as I had been stranded in the mud several times in the past and it is not a good feeling to say the least. There is no AAA here, and, in the low season, cars pass by very infrequently. Furthermore, though we did have a winch on Turtle, we had nothing on which to anchor, so it would have been up to shear muscle power to get us back on the road had we gone off in a bad way. Despite a bit of fishtailing here and there, Patrick kept us going forwards after and, even though we had planned to get back to camp earlier to enjoy some drinks and the sunset, we ended up continuing our search for leopards which put us back to camp just in time for showers before dinner. We did manage to enjoy the drinks, though, and after quite a long day (12+ on the road) of game driving, we all enjoyed a moment of relaxation. I’m sure that Patrick enjoyed it even more than the rest of us, though.