Serengeti National Park (Part Two)
Northern Circuit, Tanzania
This morning I hear the frightening news that both Richard and Danny heard a lion roaring nearby in the middle of the night. Richard says that lion calls can travel several kilometres, but thinks this one might have been only a single kilometre away. Danny had put off a toilet run for a long time during the night, and was relieved when daylight eventually appeared.
There were clear skies overnight, creating cold conditions in the morning. I am reluctant to leave the warmth of my sleeping bag. How am I going to survive on Kilimanjaro?
After breakfast, we hit the road for another full day in the Serengeti. The wind blowing into the car is so cold I have to pull out my borrowed puffy jacket, which I was adamant I wouldn’t need on this trip. Lucky I listened to the experts.
Due to last night’s soundtrack, Richard sets out looking for lions. Within 300m he identifies lion paw prints on the road, heading towards our campsite. In the adjacent grass is a bloody patch, probably a late-night snack. A hyena lurked nearby, picking up leftovers. I don’t ask how many humans have been attacked by lions here, but the thought runs through my mind repeatedly.
Wildlife sightings are frequent in our first hour of driving, before the numbers begin to dwindle. I wonder if this is because animals are more active in the morning, or because we start in the central, more populated area before heading to the less dense regions. This morning’s tally:
Buffalo. Right by the side of the road, our first close-up view.
Baboons. Watching the babies ride upright on their mother’s back is adorable.
Elephants. A huge herd, eating as usual. The massive beasts need eat up to 300kg per day to fulfill their energy requirements, requiring them to eat almost continuously.
Zebra, impala, topi and wildebeest having a social catch-up. They are all petrified of cars, and run when they hear us coming.
Vultures and maribu storks, a sizeable flock feasting on a wildebeest carcass.
Waterbuck. As the name suggests, waterbuck are always be found near water, as they need to drink around 60 litres per day. They must pee non--stop.
Ostrich. Still nowhere near the road.
Grey lumps (hippos).
I’d say it was a successful morning of wildlife viewing.
As we drive west we pass through a greener, slightly hilly, tree-filled area, where it’s hard to spot the animals. I'm happy with the variation in scenery, but before we know it we are out the other side and back to the plains. There’s a bit of traffic on the main road, but it’s mostly rangers and other workers. As tourists we feel like an anomaly, whereas I’m sure it’s the other way around in normal years.
Out in this western corridor we see herds of wildebeest and little else. It takes some time but we finally come across what we set out for: the great wildebeest migration, one of the highlights of the park. Crossing the road right in front of us is the longest line of wildebeest you can possibly imagine. Thousands upon thousands of the large antelopes are lined up in single or double file, the ends of which stretch off towards the horizon. When there’s a slight pause in the procession we think that this must be it, but then another herd starts up.
When I first heard about the migration, I pictured massive packs of animals, dozens across, stampeding across the plains, leaving plumes of dust in its wake. This clearly isn’t how it works, and in this regard it is a little bit of a letdown. Overall, though, I’m glad I have the opportunity to witness the spectacle.
It would take all day to wait for them to pass. We give them 15 minutes before pushing our way through.
Not much further down the road we look over at another mammoth file of wildebeest, running across the land beside us. It is unfathomable how of them there are, the line spreading out over many kilometres. And this is only one quick glimpse in one tiny section of one park in Africa - imagine how many wildebeest exist across the continent. We see more wildebeest here than all other animals over the week combined.
Lunch is eaten at an airstrip, where black vervet monkeys are confidently checking out our food and our transport. More than once they creep up close, waiting for any lapse in concentration by us to steal our food. They also pile on the car, and would happily crawl in if there was an open window or roof.
Our lunch spot is roughly 100km from where we started, but we are only halfway through the western corridor. After eating we start the return leg, making a loop to bring us back us to the main road. Almost immediately we cross over a river that is filled with wildlife. Vultures and maribu stork sit on the upper banks, a monitor lizard lounges on a log and crocodiles occupy the sandy edges. Hippos are found both in and out of the water, and slowly plod through the scrub to splash their way into the river. A wildebeest carcass floats nearby, no doubt adding to the stink that fills the air.
It is a fast drive back to the centre, zooming past zebra, wildebeest, warthogs, impala and baboons. We don’t stand up in the open roof for this trip - the resulting windburn wouldn't be worth it. Richard slows down once we are nearer to camp, signaling the start of serious animal hunting. We spy more zebra, monkeys, hippos lying on top of each other in a pond, and a sizeable family of elephants spread out across the road.
The greatest excitement comes with seeing four lions and a cub lying under a tree. Three of the lions suddenly stand up and walk off, and we soon discover why. A buffalo has wandered over, and the lions are ready to take it on. That is until they catch sight of a second buffalo, not far behind the first. The lions retreat quickly, but then start fanning out around the buffaloes to encircle them. A few moves forwards and backwards are made by both parties, until everyone gives up and returns to where they came from. I’m secretly glad it isn't a vicious, bloody affair.
By this stage I’m becoming more comfortable undertaking the lengthy drive to search for the less common creatures. There comes a point where you wonder how many more photos you can take of gazelles, zebras, wildebeest and the like. To compare it to running, I’m over the quick dopamine hit of finishing a 5km and I’m after the more sustained challenge of an ultramarathon. There are small victories on the way (another animal! Another checkpoint!) but you need to hold the endpoint in mind to keep you going.
Just as I’m thinking this, Richard announces that we are hunting for leopards again. We drive from tree to tree over the empty plains, driving by the usual suspects. Incredibly, Richard spots a leopard ahead of us, running up a tree with a fresh kill in its mouth. As we near it drops the carcass, and runs back down to retrieve it, disappearing from our line of sight in the tall grass. We stop the car and wait, Richard assuring us that leopards never leave their food behind. An eternity passes but nothing happens. In a slightly illegal manoeuvre, Richard leaves the road and drives right up to the tree where we last saw the leopard. The remains are there, but no cat. I am petrified at this point, certain that the leopard will jump out from some unseen hiding spot to attack us. We speedily pull back, returning to the road to wait.
After some time a hyena comes along, which should send the leopard out to protect its prize. It doesn’t. The hyena enjoys a wonderful feast, no predators in sight. Half an hour later we give up and drive on, thinking we must have scared it off.
On the return journey a few minutes later, we find the hyena has left the carcass and is watching on from a distance. The leopard must be nearby, reclaiming it’s property. Another 15 minutes of watching on reveals no answers. Giving up, we start the car and drive for all of five seconds when Richard spots it, right in front of us. It has picked up its prey and moved to a different tree, 100m away. As soon as I pull the camera out it disappears again, back into the grass. More waiting ensues. It doesn’t reappear. We concede defeat.
It is 6.30 p.m. before we return to camp, the fading sun bathing the landscape in a gentle golden light. I am starving, having not eaten since lunchtime, and I’m ecstatic to find popcorn waiting for us. It vanishes within a few short minutes, as does the wonderful dinner Dickson has prepared. The Germans show up while we are eating, and we swap safari stories. It’s interesting to hear what others have seen, but I hate feeling as though I’ve missed out on something.
As we are getting ready for bed, I spot a few hares and a dik-dik running around. I am glad this is all I see, after Richard telling us earlier that one of the special campsites in Serengeti is home to a pride of lions. The lions don’t tend to attack humans, he assures me, but they will do everything they can to scare the crap out of people and force them out. Guides are well aware of this and don't stay at that site, but tourists are often unaware. I wonder if the Germans have been told...
It's an early start for us, heading out before breakfast for a sunrise safari. The boys throw back a coffee before we leave, Richard pouring sugar AND four sweet biscuits into his, stirring it until they dissolve. It's the weirdest way I've ever seen coffee prepared. As we drive off the sun is just coming up over the horizon, a burning orange orb in a perfectly clear sky. I’m mesmerised by the effect on the grassy plains, transforming from a dull, pale green to a shimmering sea of gold.
There aren’t as many animals as I am expecting as we again go searching for cats. We find zebras, a solitary wildebeest hanging out with a pack of gazelles, elephants, a hyena, two attractive lilac-crested rollers, hartebeest and a jackal. Most are not within photo distance. I’ve learnt that I prefer to see a high concentration of wildlife early on in the drive to satiate my animal-spotting craving, then I’m happy to settle in for the long game.
After a lengthy, animal-free period of time, Richard catches sight of a cheetah. It is sitting motionless, far from the road, staring down a pack of gazelles. I have no idea how Richard sees it, given its distance from us and the blinding sun behind it. All of a sudden the cheetah starts creeping forward, joined by a fellow cheetah that was lying hidden in the grass (they are usually found in pairs, Richard says). The chase is on. The gazelles start fleeing our way, meaning any action is likely to take place right in front of us. I am slightly disappointed but mostly relieved when the cheetahs give up the hunt, and instead lie down out of view. Game over.
I presume that this is the end of our cheetah experience, but Richard has other plans. He pulls another forbidden move and heads off road, right up to where the cheetahs are lazing about. The cheetahs eye us cautiously before deciding we aren’t that interesting, then take off through the grass. We do the same.
A little further down the road we find a male lion, standing all alone in the middle of a field. He walks up to a grassy mound and perches himself there, as though he is sitting on a throne, presiding over his kingdom. He gazes intently at a jackal, while not far away zebras, hartebeest, gazelles, wildebeest and ostriches all go about their day. Eventually the lion becomes bored and walks off down the road. We follow him for some time, leapfrogging ahead then watching him saunter past our car. He is not at all fazed by us.
We aren’t the only ones following him. The gazelles also stalk the lion, but from a much greater distance. They want to see where he goes, Richard informs us, and to know if it is safe to relax. The lion finally collapses under a tree, clearly done with exercise for the time being.
Returning to camp we pass by a pregnant hyena (at least she can't run away from us), topi jumping across the road in front of our car, and another lion sleeping in the shade 100m away. To me it looks like any other tuft of grass. Richard really does have some sort of animal-sensing superpower.
Although it was a long drive and the animal count wasn’t high, it was absolutely worth the effort. Every rare sighting renews my motivation to continue the search for elusive creatures.
As we leave the campsite for the final time, we drive right over a chameleon, thankfully leaving him unharmed. Richard reverses around him so we can take a photo, his head bobbing away on the dirt road. Other than the lizard, all we see are a few hippos and numerous gazelles as we travel through the central Serengeti area.
Driving towards the gate we lookout over virtually treeless plains, the bright blue sky and fluffy white clouds providing the perfect backdrop. Animals clearly don't love this section, as we see nothing for an extended stretch of time. A little while later, though, we hit a hot spot, where we see a male lion sitting beside the road, a female lion not much further away, warthogs, ostriches, giraffes, hartebeest, hyenas, vultures and zebras.
As we exit the park, Richard takes a look at the visitor logs, comparing last year to this year. On the 8th of July, 2019, 1168 visitors entered the park. Exactly one year later, on the 8th of July, 2020, that number is down to 11. A 99% drop off. The coronavirus has had a significant impact on the tourism industry.