Everyone was up, bright and early with the anticipation of finding our shy leopard still in his tree, hopefully enjoying his breakfast of day-old Thompson gazelle. We loaded into Turtle and made our way to the same tree in the chilled morning air, everyone excited with anticipation for what we may find when we arrived. But first, it would require a drive of perhaps 20 minutes through the valley where our camp sits, not too far from the Sopa Lodge, for those who may be familiar with this part of the Serengeti. The roads were still wet and muddy as the sun had not yet risen to dry the previous night’s rainfall, though the large herds of wildebeest and zebra residing here for the moment were quite happy with the wet grasses that would supply their daily need for water. As we rounded the edge of the small mountains that defined the valley, and were now pointing east, the sky began to lighten with only a hint of the coming sunrise.
Traveling further on and nearing the tree in which we had seen the leopard last night, the sun finally peeked over the horizon with its strong rays of light that shone intensely through the acacia trees that abound here. This is what everyone imagines that sunrise should look like in the Serengeti, and exactly what Dennis and the others had been waiting for all along. As the cameras clicked away to capture the scene unfolding before us, it was truly the mental imagery for me as there is little that can match seeing this in person.
As we arrived at the leopard tree, it was clear that the gazelle kill had been partially eaten, but looking up into the tree, the leopard was nowhere to be found. Or so we thought. As we circled the tree, the leopard suddenly sprang up from where it had been resting before our arrival and began to run seemingly as far away from us as he could. I’m not certain who was more startled by the sudden movement, us, or the leopard, though Dennis clearly had his wits about him as I could hear his camera clicking off some shots of the running cat. We drove a short distance in the same direction as the fleeing animal, though he quickly settled under another tree to gather his thoughts as I’m sure we had frightened him as much as he had us.
At the same time as everything was unfolding, Vitalis spotted a male lion who was not far at all from where we had first spotted the leopard. We drove to where the lion was slowly walking across the grassy area between the trees as he occasionally stopped to let out his low rumble of a roar in search of the females of his pride. He was obviously unhurried and heading nowhere in particular for he eventually found himself a comfortable place to rest and made himself at home.
It was very odd to see both the leopard and the lion in such proximity as all the cats are mortal enemies competing for the same prey. From where we sat, each of them was quite visible to the naked eye, yet neither was paying much attention to the other. Had they decided otherwise, the lion easily outweighed the leopard by a factor of two and would have overpowered the smaller, more agile, animal had it come to a show down. Perhaps it was the beauty of the gorgeous sunrise we had just witness and what the lion also seemed to be taking in, though I think not. It was merely that neither was interested in the other for the sake of conservation of energy as there would have been no benefit to either of them to have tangled with each other.
Shortly after the leopard had vacated his tree, along with the Thompson gazelle that he had been snacking on overnight, a tawny eagle decided to take advantage of the situation and settled themself down on top of the reasonably fresh kill and began tearing at the carcass, enjoying his unfettered meal with a clear sense of accomplishment. As I had mentioned previously, the eagle would not have had to worry about competition from any of the vultures as the prey had been hidden very well by the leopard and out of sight of the scavenger air force.
Having enjoyed a perfect sunrise and found our leopard as well as the bonus discovery of the male lion and the tawny eagle, it was time for us to make our way back to camp for breakfast. I cannot think of a more perfect morning and the day had not even started yet. The crew had been waiting for us at the Dancing Duma and we were back at the specified time, which is never the case here. As we relaxed at breakfast with our fresh brewed coffees, we reminisced on all the amazing things we had seen already this day and wondered what more there could possibly be in store for us.
It was time for to depart camp after breakfast and, once again, the entire camp crew came out to say goodbye and bid us farewell. I had seen them only three weeks ago and knew that I’d be back soon, but this time, it would not be for another six months. With our lunch boxes packed in the vehicle and our luggage secured in the boot, we were once again ready to explore on our way back to Karatu, though we had more adventures in front of us.
Leaving camp, we were heading south in the direction of Moru Kopjes, where we hoped to spot a rhino, though knew that it would be a stretch considering their scarcity and lack of interest in being out in the open. On our way at the river crossing, there were many giraffes and a large herd of zebra, the latter nervously approaching the watering hole, knowing that if a surprise attack by lions was to take place, it would occur here more than anywhere else. Having seen this occur many times, I could easily sense their anxiety and luckily for them, today was not the day for this to occur. As we watched the constant jockeying for position, a savannah monitor that was several feet long decided to appear on the opposite end of the bridge. It continued to sit there until we finally approached it on our way across and it slithered quickly into the riverbed below.
On the way to the Moru Kopjes, we suddenly came upon another leopard, the second of the morning, running along the road holding something in its mouth that looked like a meal. It was hard to make out exactly what it was holding, but it was certainly not entirely happy to have seen us as it scooted quickly into the grass and up a distant tree that was far enough off the road that weren’t able to get close enough to see it well, unfortunately. Regardless, it was amazing to see another leopard on the ground so soon after the other as they are normally only spotted in the trees and sleeping sprawled on a branch. The leopard is a normally shy and solitary cat that prefers to remain far out of site and when it hunts, it does so stealthily such that its prey is completely unaware of its presence until it’s too late to escape. There is rarely a chase involved and the prey, regardless of its size is then dragged into a nearby tree to avoid any challenges that might arise from hyenas or lions.
As we drove through the rhino sanctuary at Moru Kopjes, we kept our eyes peeled for the elusive rhino, that you wouldn’t imagine was that hard to find given its size but failed to spot any. We stopped at the rhino research station where all the black rhinos living in this region of the Serengeti are monitored on a continuous basis. The station continues to be funded by the Frankfurt Zoological Society who had originally done most of the research here and the structures that housed the research teams still remain. The black rhino was nearly poached into extinction through the 1970s and remained decimated until the 1990s when efforts were successful to protect the three remaining individuals in the Serengeti and by the late 1990s, the species began to recover. Today, they are aggressively protected by the park rangers and the numbers have massively increased despite our failure today to find one.
From the Moru Kopjes, we continued south in the Kusini region of the Southern Serengeti, a completely different landscape than what we had seen throughout the Central and Western regions that we’d been to over the last days. The migration comes through here in April and May on their way to the Central after leaving the Ndutu region, so now there are very few wildebeest to be seen. The non-migratory animals, though, such as the impala in the woodlands, and the Thompson and Grant’s gazelle in the plains remain here. We checked out of the Serengeti at the Kusini ranger station at the airstrip to avoid the crowds at Naabi Gate and continued to Lake Ndutu where we would then check into the Ngorongoro Conservation Area for our transit back to Karatu. The parks are all separate requiring that you have permits to each even though they are contiguous. Here, though, the ranger stations for each are far apart as opposed to Naabi Gate where they are side by side.
Leaving the woodlands of Kusini and traveling across the vast flat plains that lead to Lake Ndutu, a small figure is visible far in the distance atop one of the many termite mounds that can be seen scattered throughout the landscape. As we come closer, a lone female cheetah is sitting quietly, scanning the distance to decide where to go for her prey. We sat and watched her for a short while when, somewhat unannounced, she began to chirp like a bird, which is the sound that cheetahs make (they don’t growl or roar) when they are calling for each other. It was clear that she was calling for her cubs that were hidden somewhere in the area. After several minutes, two, tiny cheetah cubs crawled out of the long grass and up the termite hill to be with their mother.
Shortly thereafter, the mother cheetah climbed down from the mound with her two little cubs in tow behind here and continued to walk some distance in the direction of a Thompson gazelle herd that we could barely see without our binoculars, though she knew exactly where she was heading. At some point, the mother signaled her cubs to remain hidden in the grass while she continued sizing up the gazelle for her attack. She sat in the grass for the longest time, with the two cubs still hidden, and eventually started to move forward in what must have been a low crouch as the gazelle still hadn’t seen her. It was very difficult for us to see her at this point, but through the binoculars and long camera lenses, we could see her suddenly take off in a cloud of dust, though it was difficult to tell just where she was in relation to the gazelle due to the perspective that we had. It looked to us that she should have been successful, but when we drove to where we expected to find her with a kill, it took us some time to actually locate her and when we did, she had come up empty. Though we would have liked to have continued following her, we were already running behind schedule and needed to move on.
Lake Ndutu is another of the saline lakes in this region and one of the homes for the many flocks of flamingoes that exist in the area. There were many on the lake to be seen, but little in the way of larger animals as the migration will not be here until March when nearly all the several million wildebeest congregate here for the lush grasses of the rainy season. Now, all that can be seen of the migration are the thousands of bones of the animals that either succumbed to the predators or were trampled to death during one of the lake or river crossings that are many.
We left Ndutu and eventually met up with the new Endulen road that bypassed the terribly rocky and dusty main road that 99% of the vehicles take to get to the Serengeti. The Endulen road, which we had taken three weeks ago is absolutely gorgeous and travels through the most beautiful parts of the conservation area where most of the Maasai are now living. The scenery was just stunning and continued as we climbed higher and higher into the Ngorongoro Highlands and then eventually arrive at Kitashu’s boma, though it was again too late for us to share in the traditional dancing and singing that we normally do with his family. We were again running quite late for the Loduare Gate, which closes at 6 pm, though I think they took pity on us once again and let us through. Either that, or they are beginning to recognize us and expecting our late arrival. We pulled into FAME, and all felt happy to finally be home, though badly missing the incredible scenery of the Serengeti.