Saturday, September 30 – A game drive at dawn, a breakdown, and lots of animals….


When traveling to the Serengeti, I always recommend staying in a tented camp, if possible, as it allows you to experience more of nature without the discomfort of having to sleep on the ground in a pitched tent. There is just nothing like sleeping in a soft-sided structure with the sounds of all the animals as if they were just outside (and they often are). In a lodge, you just disconnected from nature. I have done both, and there is nothing quite like the tented camp. Last night, it sounded like the entire migration was just outside our tents – the zebra and the wildebeest were definitely the loudest and most vocal, but the hyena and occasional lion were participating at times as well. The whooping of the hyena is very distinctive, and the low rumbled roar of the male lion can sound like they are just on the other side of the thin fabric of the tent, yet they are often a kilometer away. The male lion’s call at night is to let the females know where they are and it’s quite effective as we sure know where they are.

Baboons sleeping in a yellow barked acacia

A pre-dawn game drive is perhaps my favorite as all the animals are just stirring for the day and the soft light is marvelous for photos. It is very cool in the mornings, so standing up in the vehicle is hit or miss depending on one’s tolerance for having a cold wind in the face but is something that I love. After having coffee and a snack or two, we were all ready to pile back into Turtle and to hit the trail looking for whatever animals were to come our way. Our camp was in a bit of a canyon with a river along the bottom and the road followed the natural contours as we were heading towards the Central Serengeti, or the Seronera region. Baboons were still asleep in the trees and the wildebeest and zebra were still mingling where they had likely spent the night.

A mighty warthog

Coming out of the canyon, though, we immediately came across a small group of lions with two in the tree and one on the ground – all females. They were part of a group we had spotted the night before while driving in, though had been quite a distance aways for any photos. The older of the group was quite comfortable with her perch in the tree, but the younger one decided to descend and immediately began to play with the one that had already been on the ground. This was quite likely a hunting group consisting of the older female and two younger ones who would be the perfect number to stalk a group of zebra or wildebeest, looking for an old or injured animal that they could cull from the herd. Watching lions hunt in the morning can be a lengthy proposition as you could watch them an hour or more before they decide to do anything and, even when they decide to attack, they are the least successful of the big cats, and will frequently run out of steam before the kill is made. The female in the tree, though, did not appear at all interested in leaving the tree, so there was no imminent hunt in the cards for this morning.

We left our lions behind and continued until it was time for breakfast which had been packed for us by the camp and was in the car. There is a lovely lunch spot that was very close and would be perfect for our breakfast, so we made our way there and proceeded to have our morning meal on the top of a small hill with a panoramic 360° view of the Serengeti. There was little question that the food was going to be good, but it was even better than that. Eggs and vegetables, sausage, delicious hash browned potatoes, pancakes, and toast. All served with hot coffee, tea, and juice. Breakfast also included a tub of peanut butter and a jar of jelly – the same exact items that we had given the Maasai women yesterday at Shifting Sands. It was almost as if there was some karma or something and they came back to visit us. Sitting there with our breakfasts and looking out across the vast distances that make up the Serengeti Park, it is impossible not to feel like the luckiest person in the world to be here while it also makes one realize how small a part of the universe we really are.

We were now on a quest to find the other large cats here in the Serengeti – the cheetah and the leopard – and hopefully find them hunting, though it was unlikely we’d find a Leopard hunting as they do so primarily at night and quite stealthily at that. We were heading in the direction of the Seronera river with the airport just in the distance when the vehicle rolled to stop with the engine off. As Vitalis didn’t say anything to us initially about a problem, it was unclear to us whether he had spotted anything for us to see or stopping for some other reason. Well, this turned out to be another reason as we had no ignition when he tried repeatedly to start the vehicle – there was plenty of juice to power the starter, but it just wouldn’t turn over and didn’t seem to be getting fuel. The fuel pump was my first thought as far as a third-row diagnosis was concerned, and though that wasn’t initially clear to everyone, it ended up being pretty much correct.

Black-faced vervet monkey (with baby underneath) at the staff quarters

It took only a matter of minutes for us to have collected a crowd of other vehicles and, more importantly, their drivers to help. This happens whenever there is a stopped vehicle with its hood up as there are no other services here to count on for a rescue and certainly no AAA. Over the course of the next half hour, I would guess that at least two dozen vehicles had stopped to help and a great many of the drivers got out to see if there was anything they could add to the situation. It was found after a short while that the problem was not the fuel pump itself, but rather its power connection so that it wasn’t getting any juice. After multiple trials to find where the problem was and without success, the pump was eventually directly wired to the battery (which, in the Land Rover, sits under the front passenger seat), and we were at least able to start the vehicle which would get us to one of the fundis (expert car mechanics) working for one of the companies in the village.

Thankfully, Vitalis knew exactly where to go and who to ask to get the job done, though we were in the middle of the housing for the Serengeti staff of all the lodgings. There was shade for us to relax, bathrooms to use and there were occasional animals that came through to see us while we were waiting – a marabou stork, a tree hyrax on a windowsill, a pack of banded mongooses (two of them deciding to mate in the middle of the parking lot for a little extra pizazz), and a few black-faced vervet monkeys, one of whom decided to drop into our car and ran off with pocket sized pack of tissues. Guess he may have had a cold and needed them. The fundi worked on the car for quite a while trying to figure out the issue with the power to the fuel pump, though finally figured out that our ignition switch (where you put the key in) was not functioning properly. He was eventually able to fix this problem enough to get us home, but he did not have the parts to completely fix the problem and we would have to do that after we got home. He had spent at least an hour diagnosing the problem and then temporally fixing it and, in the end, charged us only 10,000 TSh for the entire report ($4) which was obviously a fraction of what it would have been at home had we even been able to get someone to look at it.

We finally departed the staff quarters to resume our game drive and headed off to an area south of the airport where we ran into a huge herd of elephants and one that was lagging behind as it had an injured leg. The rest of the herd seemed to be moving slowly to allow the injured member of their family to keep up with them. When we ran into the same herd later in the evening, sure enough, the injured one was still with its family. Elephants anywhere are incredibly majestic, but seeing such a large family in the immenseness of the Serengeti is really an amazing site. Though they are little affected by the vehicles watching them, they do get a bit testy if they feel threatened and will occasionally trumpet a warning to keep one’s distance from the family and especially the babies.

We ran across a huge pride of lions (about 15 in all), though they were sleeping, which is what lions usually do in the midday sun, and certainly after they’ve made a kill as all their bellies will be quite full. Some of the largest prides of lions exist here in the Serengeti given the density of their prey, especially in the midst of the migration. Shortly after running across this large pride, we also found a group of six adult, though younger, male lions lounging in the shade of an acacia tree. A group such as this would be quite formidable and could easily challenge for dominance of a pride should they put their minds to it along with their brute strength. Males of a pride must always be on the lookout for alliances such as these and when ganged up on by several younger males, can easily have their hands full. The structure of the pride can be in constant flux and depends significantly on strength of their leader. If another male or several male siblings manages to take over a pride, their first course of business will often be to kill off all the cubs of the previous leader to prevent its genes from moving on to the next generation.

Nile crocodile

We were still on the hunt for the other two big cats when we came across a cheetah that was far in the distance and could only be made out with the binoculars and a very steady hand. You could just make it out under a tree and see its tail twitching and, even though it was clearly a cheetah, it didn’t quite feel like we’d found one. Luckily, though, we did find a leopard as we were about to head home and, in fact, there were two leopards in the tree, a mother and adolescent. Leopards spend most of their days in a tree and will often come down late in the day to go on the hunt. They will usually sneak up on their prey and pounce on them given the chance. Leopards also drag their prey up into the trees to prevent them from being stolen by a lion, or even more frequently, several hyenas. They can drag an adult wildebeest up into the branches of their tree to feast on it over several days without the risk of losing it to one of the other top predators.

As we began to make our way back to camp, we encountered an increasing amount of rain that finally turned into a proper thunderstorm with lots of lightening and loud booms. We dropped the top on Turtle, but unfortunately, she leaked a bit and, though it wasn’t much, it was enough to be annoying. Thankfully, the downpour stopped just as we pulled into camp so we could unload without getting soaked. We were greeted by the camp crew with wet washcloths (I can’t recall if they were warm or cold) and we immediately made for our tents to get some nice showers before heading back to the main tents for dinner. Dinner tonight was delicious beef fillet, skewers of chicken, vegetable skewers, and lots of vegetables. We had a delicious cream of broccoli soup beforehand, though, and I made sure to have seconds of it this time. Dessert was scrumptious beignets that were slightly glazed. Everyone was pretty exhausted from the day, and we had decided not to leave at the crack of dawn, but to enjoy camp a little before heading out in the morning. Tomorrow would be another day and we still need to find a closer cheetah.

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