The name Serengeti is said to have been derived from the Maasai word for “endless plains”. There is something wonderful about being in a place that is essentially unchanged for thousands of years, apart from the modes of transportation we use to cross it. I can only imagine what Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas would be like if we hadn’t slaughtered all of the bison, wolves and bears, to plant corn and build suburbs. A scene that can now only be experienced in the Lamar River valley of Yellowstone National Park once played out all across the Great Plains of North America.
But here we are on the ancient endless plains of Africa.
Early on day two we came across a pair of young lions relaxing under a tree. Rick said they were probably brothers, young enough that you could still see the spots in their coats, but old enough that their manes were starting to fill out. As with most of the lions we saw, the poor things were harassed by flies on their faces. Not terribly, but it looked really annoying. It reminded me of the time I tried to fish a high lake one summer in Montana, but the flies were so bad that I couldn’t wait to get my helmet on and ride out of there.
It reinforces how savage it must have been in Ngorongoro in 1962 when something like 50 lions were bled to death by a plague of biting flies. Mother Nature don’t mess around.
As we drove in a northwesterly direction, the landscape changed from smooth grassy plains to slightly rolling hills, dotted with large rocks and the occasional clusters of trees. The flat grasslands were scattered with increasingly large herds of wildebeest, the approaching rainy season was encouraging them to gather for the great migration. Rick reminded us that even though it seemed like a huge amount of animals, in a month or so they would increase many times over.
The terrain became more bouldery as we came up a low rise to where another truck was parked by a large tree. We got up close to a beautiful leopard that was snoozing up in the tree, casually spread across one of the huge branches. Though I’m glad I didn’t lug a bunch of expensive camera gear halfway around the world, there were moments where I really wished I had a long lens. I had chosen a Fuji Finepix XP80 for the trip, a waterproof and rugged little camera that still had a 5X optical zoom. Many times, it wasn’t nearly enough. Here’s a few examples where I wanted more…
It’s worth noting that Rick was great at spotting and naming every bird within range. Too many really neat birds didn’t get photos for lack of a longer zoom.
We crossed this interesting old bridge around mid-morning. I don’t have any notes about it, but the timeline of the photos says it was approaching the Mara River. So I went to Google Maps and scanned the satellite view of streams on the southeastern side of the Mara until I found it.
Pretty amazing, and you can pop that map out to a larger version and scroll around the Serengeti, imagining you were there. Could you zoom in and locate any other other spots we photographed? Can you find the leopard’s tree? (I think it is this spot here.) I was unable to pinpoint the spot where the Bologonja tent camp was setup, there were just no suitable landmarks to set it apart.
We had a lunch break at a camp near the Mara River that had an arrangement with our hosts. Kibo Guides was the group that Africa Travel had selected for the Tanzanian portion of our adventure, and all of the logistics they handled went smoothly. From being picked up at the airport until they dropped us off for the flight home, no issues at all. 10/10.
The action on the Mara was slow at mid-day, the hippos were hauled out and sleeping on an island, the crocs were sunning themselves with open jaws, looking for helpful birds to do some dentistry? At the peak of the migration, this spot on the river is where you’ve seen film of herds of wildebeest and zebra plunging into the water, the crocodiles picking them off and dragging them under in death rolls. But not on this day.
On day three, Rick was determined to try and put us within sight of a cheetah, and we drove a long way off to a different area that had promising reports.
One of the things I noticed on our Serengeti drives, the guides were mandated to stay on the established tracks. Looking at the satellite pictures, it is easy to understand how a few trucks going off to see a leopard in a tree can end up with a new permanent two-track worn into the earth. Before long there is a whole new set of tracks, and where does it end? Big fines could be levied if guides were busted off track, but you could see the tension between trying to give the guests the best experience and sticking strictly to the code.
We saw fewer hyenas at Serengeti than we had at the Ngorongoro crater. You may imagine that hyenas are pretty smelly animals, and you’d be right. But even they have to wash off the stink now and then, and we found a trio going for a dip in one of the many small creeks that wind around the plain.
We covered a lot of ground and saw many memorable vignettes of life on the endless plain, but we did not see a cheetah. It’s OK. It’s good to be reminded that this isn’t a zoo, and the animals are not just lined up waiting for you to arrive. It is also important to remember that all of this could be gone in a heartbeat, if good people do not stand up and fight for it. The poachers, the inconceivable number of terribly small men that create a market for the organs of the greatest predators on earth and the horns of the vegetarian rhinos… We learned that the poor pangolin is the most highly trafficked animal in Africa, for what? (We did not see a pangolin either).
I hate to end this adventure on such a sad note, and I won’t. At the end of our last full day in Africa, Rick found us a pride of lionesses with their cubs. There were three momma lions with four or five little kittens each, bouncing around and playing in the fading light. One lioness laid back with her hind leg raised to make room for her babies to nurse, and they barged each other aside, competing for the best spot.
It was one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve ever witnessed.
I’ll wrap up in the next installment with a few images from our last day of travel, and some tips we gleaned along the way.
(Click any image for larger versions and captions…)