Spending the night in the Serengeti is just magical. The nights are cool, though even with the tent flaps open, the soft billowing of the fabric and subtle breeze running through lulls me to a sound sleep beneath the cozy comforter. The zebra herd just outside my tent continued with their commotions, mostly eating, but occasionally braying, barely disturbed my slumber at first and was then a distant sound as I slept through the night. There were other sounds, of course. The frequent whooping of the hyena and honking of the wildebeest herds further down by the river. The laughing sound that the hippos make both in the river and during their nighttime excursions grazing in the grass, often a mile or more from their home. I didn’t hear the elephants, though, who apparently visited our camp during the night, one of them deciding to puncture the water tank with its tusk. Elephants can be troublemakers and are very aware that they are doing something they shouldn’t be doing. The low growl of the male lion, searching for the females of his pride during the night, sounds as though they are right outside, though I know their calls can travel a great distance. It is all a movie soundtrack, but one that you’re in and living through real-time.
Having worked with Vitalis over the last seven years, I know the typical schedule that he likes. Saturday is for our long drive, and we don’t return to camp until dinnertime. The kitchen prepares us both a picnic breakfast and lunch and we plan to depart camp at 6 am sharp after a quick cup of coffee and cookies. The sun isn’t up yet and as we drive through the valley where our camp is located, the line of sunlight on the hillsides slowly descends towards us until the we finally encounter the sunrise through the trees with its initial soft glow and then the intense warmth that follows. It’s quite cool before the sun comes up, especially standing in the vehicle as we all are to get the best view of the amazing scenery unfolding before our eyes. Everyone is wearing a light jacket or sweater to stay warm.
Before we know it, we spot four cheetahs walking across the plain and it’s immediately apparent that these are the same four individuals that we had seen three weeks ago when they made a kill right in front of us. It’s a mother with her three grown offspring that she has continued to train to ensure their survival. Having successfully raised these three cubs is a miracle for the life of the cheetah can be very tenuous at times. They are not aggressive like the leopard or lion and are unable to defend their kills from their larger cousins or from the hyena, who will often steal their prey after it’s been caught.
The cheetahs were clearly on the hunt and there was prey virtually everywhere. Similar to what we had witnessed three weeks ago, the mother walked purposefully, constantly studying the nearest herd of Thompson gazelle to select the individual that she would have the best likelihood of running down in a chase. A nearby termite hill served as an excellent base for the four cheetahs during this process. There was little question that she was ready to begin her hunt and expected her children to follow her. We continued to watch intently as the drama unfolded before our eyes.
In the distance to our right, we were also watching two of the Serengeti balloons in the distance as they were slowly moving in our direction. I have had the good fortune of flying on these balloons twice in the past and it is a remarkable experience. The balloons launch before sunrise and, after a flight of about an hour or so, will come in for a landing on the open plain, where they are met with safari vehicle to pick up the passengers and bring them to a lovely area to enjoy a full breakfast with champaign to toast their successful flight. My two flights in the past were with a good friend of mine who is a pilot for one of the balloon companies, but the balloons that were approaching were from another company.
The cheetahs remained on the termite hill, continuing to study the gazelle, though it was quickly apparent to us that they were directly in the flight path of one of the balloons as it was attempting to land. The balloon soared silently over the termite hill, clearing it by what seemed like only several feet, but must have been many meters. The balloon’s shadow preceded it and crossed over the termite hill, initially spooking the cheetahs, and completely distracting them from the hunt. When the balloon itself passed over, they had had enough, and were quickly on the run, having abandoned their hunt. Trying to imagine the odds of us having found the same four cheetahs, who were also on the hunt again, only to be foiled by a landing balloon who could have chosen virtually anywhere else in the Serengeti to land this morning, was just a bit mind boggling.
Disappointed, we watched as the four cheetahs slowly wandered off, their prospect of a hunt having been dashed by the landing balloon, though I’m sure they would pick it up again shortly, but not soon enough for us as we were heading out towards the Western Corridor and needed to move on in that direction. Within minutes, we came upon a large group of vultures sitting around a young wildebeest kill watching a single hyena working tirelessly to devour as much as it could and as quickly as possible for it wouldn’t be long before other hyenas it the area would locate the kill. Hyenas locate their food by smell and sight, but also from watching the sky for the circling vultures. As we watched the hyena slowly dissect the wildebeest, easily identifying the abdominal organs in our binoculars. Within minutes, though, several other hyenas began to descend on the kill, all from different directions, and had soon joined in the dining.
Having taken in these two scenes of the circle of life, it was now time for us to begin our trek into the Western Corridor. This is a portion of the Serengeti through which the Grumeti River flows and the topography is very different than that of the Central Serengeti as it has rolling hills and is heavily wooded with scrubby trees and bushes. With the woodlands, though, come the tsetse flies with their nasty bites as they look for their blood meals. Thankfully, there is no sleeping sickness, or trypanosomiasis, for the most part here in Tanzania. The tsetse flies can be very stealth, but they are quite slow and easy to swat. Killing them is a different story as they have a very hard exoskeleton and merely slapping them with your hand fails to harm them, immediately bouncing back for another attempt at a meal. They must be crushed, or, as I describe in a more technical term, “smooshed” between your hand and a hard surface or dragged under your hand to make sure they are good and dead. They are nasty, and killing one gives a certain satisfaction of a job well-done.
The Western Corridor which, for some odd reason, I had never been to in the past, was absolutely spectacular. It follows the Grumeti River, the importance of which has to do with the migration, for when the wildebeest herds are here in huge numbers, result in their crossing the river to head north. The significance of the river crossing has to do with the huge Nile crocodiles who inhabit the river and very much enjoy having wildebeest for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, or even all three. The Grumeti is not as wide as the Mara River, which is on the border between Tanzania and Kenya to the north, where the crossings are much more spectacular as the herd has a long distance to swim, making them tremendously more vulnerable to the crocs. Though there were lots and lots of wildebeest in the Western Corridor, they were not on the move north so there were no crossings that were seen today.
After several hours of travel to the west, and halfway to Lake Victoria, we arrived at the Grumeti Airstrip, a tiny airport for those travelers who prefer not to endure the bumpy and dusty roads, though I cannot imagine having missed the scenery that we’ve seen so far. As we ate our delicious lunch that had been prepared for us, it was clear that Dennis had one thing on his mind, and that was somehow figuring out how to one day land a plane on this runway. At one point, a plane came in for a landing that was from one of the companies that fly to the more remote places in Tanzania. Though none of us knew anything about the plane, Dennis assured us that it was the nicest, and most expensive, plane of its kind that one would fly here, and we all took his word for it.
Before arriving to the airstrip, we had come across one of the largest groupings of giraffes that I have ever seen and, even more importantly, more baby giraffes than I have ever seen in one location. Baby giraffes are incredibly cute and are just miniature versions of their parents. Giraffes give birth standing up due to the size of the offspring, and though I’ve been told that many babies are injured by the fall, I could not confirm that. The infant mortality from predation, though, is about 50% by one year of age. Having survived the adulthood, the mortality rate for giraffes is very, very low at about 3%.
At the airstrip, we were a very long way from the Central Serengeti and, rather than taking the same route back, we drove north through the private Grumeti Reserve to exit the park and reach the highway (I say that very liberally as there are no paved roads here) that we’ll take for some time until we reach the gate to re-enter the park once again. Back in the Serengeti, we drove the river circuit just north of Seronera where we found more huge wildebeest herds as well asl elephants and a lion pride. We ended up in the central area Seronera where the fuel station is and Vitalis decided to fill up tonight so that we wouldn’t have to return tomorrow before our departure. They had been out of diesel the day prior, so there was a significant line which took us at least 30 minutes to get through, though the holdup had less to do with line and more to do with the mechanism of pumping fuel here.
As each vehicle’s tank was essentially filled the owner would spend another ten minutes trying to get every last drop into their tank, rocking the vehicle back and forth numerous times in an attempt to get the last few drops that the tank would hold. This was the same for every vehicle that pulled through, including the large bus that took extra-long for this procedure. When we had finally finished getting our fuel and I told the others why the drivers were rocking their vehicles, we all immediately agreed that having done the same thing in Philadelphia, in the same overcrowded situation with people waiting in line, would have likely ended in getting shot by a disgruntled driver waiting in line. Things happen at a much slower pace here and that doesn’t seem to bother anyone. I’m not sure there’s a lesson to be learned there or not, though it’s just an observation rather than a commentary.
As we were heading back to our camp (some ways from Seronera), we spied two vehicles sitting near a tree that looked like it would be tempting for a leopard. Sure enough, there was a very fresh and barely eaten Thompson gazelle kill that had been dragged into the tree by a leopard. Looking through the branches, though, there was no leopard to be found. That is until someone spotted the leopard sitting way up in the very top branches of tree in what seemed like a very precarious position. Leopards carry their prey into the tree not only to keep it away from hyenas and lions (though lions can climb the tree if their desperate), as well as vultures, who are then unable to spot the kill from the sky.
The leopard was huge and clearly a male, with massive paws (from what we could see given how hidden he was) and a large, round head. It was getting very dark now and we really needed to make it back to camp soon, so decided that we’d come back first thing in the morning as it was very likely that the leopard would still be in the same tree.
It began to rain on us as we were heading back to camp, and the roads muddied very quickly so that we were slipping and sliding as we went. The visibility was also very poor, though we could see the herds of zebra and wildebeest as we drove by and eventually back to camp. The staff were waiting for us with cool, wet washcloths and hot showers in each of the tents that were very much appreciated. Our dinner that night was of a more African flare as it included ugali, the stiff corn porridge that is a staple here and lots of vegetables. Bolts of lightning flashed in the distance. We were to leave at 5:45 am the following morning in search of our very shy leopard and would then return to camp for breakfast. It was a perfect plan to start our last day.