Safari to Tanzania – January 2012
Well, we are finally back from Tanzania! What an amazing trip this was, and what a special way to celebrate the New Year. I feel rich! I have come back with a treasure trove of precious memories, as tangible to me as a suitcase of souvenirs. The color of the Serengeti sky is still fresh in my memory, along with the warm feel of the African sun against my face and the smell of earth and rain in the air. I can still hear the grunting sounds of a thousand wildebeest all around me, interspersed with the distinctive brays of hundreds of conversing zebra.
As much as I love coming home after a long journey, it is always a bittersweet return. I already miss the solitude of the open plains and the delightful decadence of losing complete track of time. Even knowing what day of the week seems like superfluous information out there in the African wilderness, unnecessary and too tedious to track in a place where time is measured only by the daily rising and setting of the African sun. A stark contrast to the demands of daily life here in the US! But the memories shine on in my mind like polished gems, each one sparkling with the colors, sounds and feel of Tanzania’s wilderness.
Day 1: The first day we arrived in the Serengeti was a joyous one! Our plane landed at the Seronera airstrip and we met our guide Arnold, who greeted us with a beaming smile and a big hug that exuded all the genuine warmth and graciousness that is seemingly inherent to all Tanzanians. With a few minutes of exchanging pleasantries we were off in the Landcruiser!
I so love the beginning of a safari, ripe with unknown adventures immediately ahead of us. It certainly didn’t take long for them to start unfolding! After initial sightings of large elephant herds, buffalo and giraffe, we found our first leopard of the trip! A beautiful male leopard lounging in a sausage tree along the Seronera River. Shortly afterwards, we spotted two others, one in a nearby tree and one in the tall grass. Three leopards!!! We concluded the three were together, perhaps an adult female with her two subadult cubs. The female treated us to a very close encounter, walking through a stretch of short grass straight towards our vehicle and getting quite close to us before melting into the long grass near the river. What a treat!
Day 2: On the second day of our safari, we saw many (many) more elephants – huge matriarch elephants, teenie tiny baby elephants, young adults and all sizes of teenager elephants, as well as some large bull elephants with impressive tusks.
We also had many sightings of many gazelles, warthogs, baboons, klipspringer and many different varieties of beautiful birds, including an interesting interaction of a lilac breasted roller battling with a large dung beetle!
One of the most memorable sights was a huge python slowly inching its way across the road in the Lobo Valley. I’m amazed at how slow and lethargic these giant beasts seem to be on a casual encounter, but still knowing they are capable of lighting quick speed when they are hunting their prey. I was glad we weren’t on the menu!
An impressive sighting for sure as pythons are rare to see, but the animal sighting that took the cake for me was back at the Seronera Valley when a gorgeous female leopard walked right up to our vehicle and rubbed her head against the front bumper of the Landcruiser in a move that was not unlike my own domestic housecat at home when she rubs up against my leg looking for affection. It was amazing to be so close to such an elusive and beautiful creature!!!
We had an appointment with the onsite researcher for the Serengeti Lion Project at their research station, Daniel Rosengren. It was a real pleasure to meet him! We discussed recent activity of the Serengeti Lions, especially our own “adopted” prides, as well as the challenges and successes of their ongoing camera trap study. We are excited to get the periodic lion reports going again. More on this later! We also met briefly with Helen, the onsite cheetah researcher, who lives in a house nearby and currently writes quarterly cheetah reports for Africa Dream Safaris. It is a real honor to be involved with these dedicated research projects, we so admire the hard work they are doing to understand and preserve the precious wildlife of the Serengeti.
We drove through a huge herd of Cape Buffalo on our way back to Sametu camp, and were treated to an especially beautiful Serengeti sunset along the way. What a day!
Day 3: Today we launched into an early morning game drive to one of my most favorite places in the entire Serengeti ecosystem – the Gol Kopjes. The Gol Kopjes consist of a wide expanse of open plains in the Eastern part of the Serengeti ecosystem. Endless plains spilling out to the horizon in all directions, broken up only by “islands” of rocks spaced several hundred meters apart, or “kopjes” as they are called, which are simply large piles of granite boulders, all shapes and sizes, which are piled on top of one another in impossible positions. The nooks and crannies where the boulders intersect make cozy homes for all sorts of creatures, including lion and cheetah dens.
We saw several gazelle grazing the short green grass that is characteristic of this region before finally spotting our first cheetah! She was “in a hunting mood” as our guide Arnold articulated. She certainly did look like she was on a mission, trotting through the short grasses for several yards, stopping periodically to lay down and “roll”, a way of “stretching her muscles” Arnold explained, as any top athlete would need to do. She had spotted a lone gazelle in the distance. Our guide positioned the vehicle so we could watch the action ensue. The cheetah approached the gazelle carefully, stopping and crouching when the gazelle looked towards her and stalking quickly closer when the gazelle would look the other way. In heart pounding anticipation we watched as she finally got close enough to commit and launched her full-speed assault, running towards the startled gazelle at full throttle!
The chase took only a few moments. The gazelle spotted the cheetah just before it was too late, and zigzagged herself away from the cheetah’s deadly paws – just inches away – and spurted off to safety while the cheetah gave up and sat panting in the dust. We weren’t sure whether we should be happy for the gazelle who could live another day or sad for the exhausted cheetah, who had worked so hard but would still be forced to go for another day without a meal. The day closed with sundowners around the campfire at Sametu. What an incredible day!
Day 4: Today we headed south towards the Ndutu woodlands and the Great Migration. We perused past the Maasai Kopjes marsh and found a lone lion cub (we were sure there were more lions in the marsh grass, we just couldn’t see them!), before we headed down 7 hills road towards Simba Kopjes. We found a serval cat stalking mice near the gravel pits next to the main road, which was a very nice find as servals are rare to see! As we passed through the Triangle (a large expanse of open plain that lies between Naabi Hill and Ndutu), we entered the first big herds of the Great Migration. Wow. Countless migratory animals, wildebeest, zebra and gazelle, were on all sides of the vehicle and spanned for miles to the horizon, well past the distance our human eyes could see. The sheer mass of animals was nothing short of staggering.
We were driving and enjoying the views when our guide suddenly exclaimed with excitement “Hey! Look at that gazelle! She’s birthing!!!” Sure enough, a lone Grant’s gazelle stood by herself in the distance. At first glance, all seemed normal, but upon a bit of closer observation it became apparent something unusual was going on. Her stance seemed a bit awkward, and you could see something (which we were able to identify later as the head of the baby gazelle) starting to emerge. We watched the entire birth from start to finish.
Over the course of 45 minutes or so the gazelle struggled and strained with great effort until the baby’s two front legs appeared. The mother gazelle laid down and finally gave complete birth to a beautiful gazelle fawn! We watched in quiet wonder and awe as the baby gazelle bonded with his mother and then quickly struggled to his own two feet. He staggered very close to our vehicle before collapsing from exhaustion into the grass after his first big walk in the new world! We left the two together, mother and baby, and were very touched by the beauty of the miracle we had just witnessed. Before departing, we named the tiny gazelle “Tuemeni”, which means “Hope” in Swahili, or “To Breath”. When observing the Great Migration and such massive numbers of animals together at one time, it can sometimes be easy to forget how special each beautiful animal is as a unique individual.
Later on that same day, we had another special encounter with a baby zebra that is worth it’s own post in the future, so stay tuned for more on this later! We closed the day with countless sightings of many other animals including lions, cheetah, and some adorable bat-eared fox kits. What an incredible day!
Day 5: Today was filled with countless animal sightings, including giant herds of migration, lions and cheetahs! One highlight was seeing a mother lioness drowsing in a the low branches of an acacia tree, accompanied by her tiny and adorable 5 week old cub!
But the most special sighting of all was watching a coalition of 3 cheetah brothers hunt. I will write a separate posting to describe this later, it was a very memorable event and one that I won’t soon forget, so stay tuned for a future post and pictures!
Otherwise we saw several lions squabbling over a zebra carcass, a tawny eagle with at bat-eared fox kill, and the cutest most tiny baby warthogs ever. Yes, in spite of their less than appealing adult appearance, baby warthogs ARE cute! This was a really incredible day.
Day 6: We left the lodge early in the morning to game drive the Ndutu plains, looking for the 3 cheetah brother we had spotted and watched hunt the day before. Unfortunately we never did find them again, but still the game drive did not disappoint! In addition to spotting a ratel very close to our vehicle (aka “honeybadger”, which are extremely rare to see during the day), we had many other exciting animal sightings!
We found a huge pack of cackling hyenas who had just chased 4 lions away from their breakfast, which was the remains of a recently captured wildebeest. The 4 lions scampered away, casting spiteful glances back at the motley crew, while a flurry of hyena teeth and claws absorbed the rest of the wildebeest carcass. The hyenas cackled and argued and crunched bones in a chaotic frenzy while a parade of different characters, marabou storks, jackals, and all types and sizes of vultures, arrived one by one to join their grisly party. We watched them for a while as the lions made their way towards another huge herd of migration. We watched the lions halfheartedly hunt until they gave up to rest underneath a tree. Their bellies were full and it was obvious they were not hungry, and they seemed content to let the migratory herds graze in peace for the moment.
We found another pride of lions near the Ndutu marsh – large males, gorgeous females and several sub adult cubs. One of the young males came and laid in the shade of our Landcruiser for a very “up close and personal” encounter!
As we drove along the shores of LakeNdutu, we were lucky enough to observe a large herd of wildebeest and zebra gallop across the glittering waters of Lake Ndutu! Epic.
We enjoyed our last Serengeti lunch in the shade of an acacia tree and relished our last few moments in the bush. Sadly, the time had finally come for us to leave the Serengeti. My heart filled with bittersweet emotion. The unknown adventures waiting for us at the beginning of the trip had been played out now, but in their place a treasure trove of memories remained! I felt a deep satisfaction for all we had experienced, but a deeper longing to return to Tanzania had already taken hold of me, and I’m left wondering what new and exciting adventures await us next time!