Remarkably, there are still wilderness areas where you can visit and observe large African animals roaming free.
The Great African Migration on the endless plains of the Serengeti of Tanzania and Kenya host an annual cyclical movement of over a million and a half animals, mostly ungulates, (hoofed mammals) that typically travel over 1,500 km in a quest for fresh grassland. When you drive out on the Serengeti the fauna are so plentiful, in all directions, as far as the eye can see, there are thousands of animals. The majority are wildebeest, followed by groupings of zebra and a sprinkling of Grant’s and Thomson’s gazelle. As Safari goers, we want to visit the Serengeti of Tanzania in late January, in between rainy seasons when grasses are abundant, covering the land in a pleasant green.
We have also come to observe the birth of newborn wildebeest and their initial struggle to stay alive. It’s an extraordinary accomplishment, as immediately after the baby drops to the ground; it is angling its legs to stand up on all four, to be beside its mother. This awkward challenge of standing up involves many topples over onto the ground again and again, but finally, stability is achieved and the young wildebeest is aptly able to trot off with its mother and the rest of the herd. Unfortunately not all baby wildebeest survive, as many get stuck in the birthing chamber, resulting in the deaths of both mother and progeny. It seems cruel to watch helpless mothers, but in reality this is part of the cycle of survival, where misfortune benefits another species and their young.
Our experienced guide Adam takes us on daily Game Drives in a large land cruising vehicle which has a push up roof so we can stand whenever it stops, to observe and photograph the animals. The whole Serengeti environment has a symbiotic coexistence, where animals benefit from grazing and the grasses are enriched with the natural fertilizers that are left behind. Even small agama lizards benefit by tagging along beside the herds to eat the swarms of flies. The migration is a physically arduous journey covering the distance and there are many perils along the way. One of the main dangers are the four-legged predator cats; cheetah, leopards and lion, that follow closely behind, stealthily lurking in the shadows and longest grasses surveying the horizon for the young, aged or mortally injured.
Surviving and evolving over millennium in this world of ‘eat and be eaten’, the two most numerous species, wildebeest and zebras, have developed a remarkable relationship. The wildebeest have the better sense of smell and eat the shorter grasses, while the zebra have the better eyesight and eat the longer tufted grasses. Another method of survival against the odds of being taken down by a hungry cheetah or lion pride is by flooding the population. Mothers of the same species will have their babies all together within weeks of one another and as only so many babies can be eaten at once, an adequate quantity will survive to maturity to reproduce. Zebra also have the fortuitous camouflaging of stripes which can distract the concentrating eyes of marauding cats. Most of the ungulates all sport white underbellies which gives them a slight temperature advantage, deflecting the sun’s severe heat as it radiates off the scorched earth.
Traveling on the Serengeti we are advised away from staying overnight in tented camps as the large wildlife are ‘on the move’ at night dodging marauding predators. Happily, we chose to stay at the particularly exquisite Ndutu Safari Lodge, with substantial rock walls for protection, a comfortable and charming ambience and set beside the picturesque Lake Ndutu. No fences enclose the lodge’s buildings and we are forbidden to go outside our ‘one room’ stone under thatch house once we have been escorted back after dinner. Night watchmen are stationed about every 20 meters, along the lodge’s pathways, from early evening until midnight, but once they have gone home, animals can and do freely wander everywhere. Night-time sounds in Africa are particularly exciting, with continuous calls of nocturnal creatures; from courting frogs and birds to hyenas, roaring lions and trumpeting elephants. They all seem to be right outside, even though they may be a distance away. One night, lying awake trying to distinguish the different sounds, I hear something munching and snorting unpredictably in the sand just outside our screened window. I know it is not one of the watchmen and I am curious to know what it is. As I peer out in the moonlight, just three meters away, are six massive black cape buffalo greedily feeding on the succulent flowerbeds. I feel my heart pumping as adrenaline flows, how exciting to experience seeing these huge beasts, in close proximity, that seem so gentle in the evening calm. It is a good thing, I recall, that we had been on our walk down the hill to Lake Ndutu, with the armed ranger, earlier in the afternoon or I would be looking over my shoulder with a little more angst tomorrow.
This morning we arise at 5:20 a.m., in preparation for our pre-sunrise departure, on a dawn game drive especially to look for BIG cats. The anticipation of this adventure, not knowing what we are going to see or encounter is what makes a safari so fascinating. Our guide has the tracking knowledge and experience to lead us right to where these remarkable predators will be in the savannah thicket and beyond. First we find an impressive pride of lions; two spectacular male bothers, with their three healthy lioness girlfriends. All five have recently eaten as their bellies are round and heavily laden. I am speechless as we watch them strut along the well-worn pathway in the soft pastels of early morning coolness. We watch their warm breath misting out of their mouths during the long roars at one another and we sense their ferocity, observing their intermittent courtship sparring. Several hours later we see them again, lazily passing away the warm afternoon, snoozing up in the trees.
Before we head out onto the open plains, we swerve through a section of sparsely treed savannah, inhabited by a tower of graceful, ambling giraffe, then suddenly, approaching a small mundane water pond, we abruptly stop as our guide points out; “Look over there”. We are impressed at the timeliness of this incredible sighting of a grown cheetah, crouched drinking at the water’s edge, impeccably camouflaged amid the earthen rubble. It is not long until her replica, a mini version, four month old cub, comes leaping into sight by her side. For the next five hours we follow this awe-inspiring duo, through their daily ritual of hunting on the Serengeti. We learn that her second cub was been killed by the lions only two weeks ago, so this young cheetah is at a critical crossroads of learning how to successfully stalk and slay, or likely lose its own life. We watch from a distance, through binoculars and camera lens as they plan their attack strategy; first climbing up on dead trees to view into the distance, then lingering in long grasses and the deep green shade of trees, to plot for their prospective dinner. We are uncertain if the mother is eyeing a wildebeest or the baby zebra, but once she times her strike, swiftly runs and grasps her prey, it is all over in instant, for the young zebra.
Our vehicle approaches the kill site slowly and it seems like forever that the mother holds the baby zebra lying down on the ground, by the neck. About 20 minutes later, as its legs relax and straighten, it has expired. We wait still another length of time while the animal’s blood cools and is prepared inside before the actual feeding starts. We watch them feast for at least an hour, noticing that every few moments one of them takes a turn sitting up on its haunches keeping a vigilant watch all around to see if another animal is coming to challenge ownership of their kill. We return to the same site several hours later, seeing a few members of the cleanup committee of vultures, storks and bone crunching hyena pecking away and crunching up the remains, all of which will be gone by the next morning.
Later that day we witness a second kill, two full grown cheetah brothers take down an older wildebeest. This scene is horrific as the two literally gorge and snort voraciously as one could imagine while consuming their prey. They are extremely hungry as both feed in a frenzy, with bouts of heavy panting in between, until they are bloated like they would explode. It is a bit unnerving as one of them keeps staring straight at us in our vehicle, but our guide humorously reassures us that even though only a few meters away, we have nothing to worry about as their bellies are full and we are only measured as a big object. These two experiences give us a definitive understanding of the reality of survival for cheetah on the Serengeti.
Our last night beside Lake Ndutu the Serengeti has one final treat for us. Well into the night’s darkness we hear the roaring lions again. This time we witness only an auditory background of the ongoing major ruckus of lions attacking somewhere outside. At least an hour later, through roars, brawls and bouts of softer growls, peace and stillness returns. Finally we see them saunter past our little thatched stone house, one by one, parading in the moonlight, heading off into the night with full bellies. I have a hunch these five must be the pride we saw earlier that morning. These are treasured moments of farewell; just to reassure us that this lion pride will survive, quite adequately, here on the African Serengeti.
Story And Photography by: Wilderness Traveler, Cynthia Percival