cheetah

Onward From The Serengeti To Lake Masek

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On the road again

All good things must come to an end, and so it was with our time on the Serengeti. As our trip began to wind down, the reality of leaving Tanzania in a few days time began to weigh heavy on my heart. An African safari, like a trip to the Galapagos, is one of those things people call a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The sad truth of it is, though, that I had left the Galapagos wanting to return, and the same thing was feeling true of Africa. Still, we had two days of exploration left, so I tried to shut it out of my brain and live in the moment.

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I can’t decide if it’s their tiny ears, they dark eyes, or the face markings that get me

On our way out of the park, we stopped to watch our cheetah friends one last time. The momma in me stood in solidarity with this momma and recognized the hard work she had done to raise these four cubs. Cheetahs have a tough go of it on the Serengeti. While they are fast, they are not as formidable as other big cats and often lose their prey to other predators and scavengers. So, I took a minute to be proud of this momma for all she had done to help ensure the survival of her family. I took a video of them so I would always have them, and on we went, passing some reedbucks who posed for us on a termite mound as they kept watch for predators.

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In the national parks in Tanzania, tourist vehicles pay for an allotted time in the park. We had two days in the Serengeti. We had to be out of the park at a specific time or we would be charged for another day. Day passes for tourists are not cheap, so guides have to plan carefully to keep you on schedule for your departure. Ammy was working to get us out of the Serengeti on time that morning but, as we passed a rocky outcropping, we spied on top of a rock a momma lion and her cub. It was our Lion King moment. I imagine Ammy, silently defeated, was doing the math in his head, trying to determine how long we could sit and watch these lions. But, come on. Lion King.

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Little Simba on top of Pride Rock…am I right?

As soon as Ammy was able to pull us away from this scene, he began hauling it out of the Serengeti. I’m talking like 45 miles an hour on dirt roads for an hour. The top was still open, as were some windows in the heat of the late morning sun. After a while, it occurred to me that the breeze I was enjoying in my hair might not be such a bright idea. I tried to cover my head with a scarf, reminiscent of the women in movies in the 1960s riding in convertibles. Still, later it would take me 20 minutes of painful and painstaking work to comb the knots from my hair. For the record, Ammy did get us out of the park in time…with six minutes to spare.

We were headed towards two lakes in the northern part of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Lake Ndutu and Lake Masek, the latter of which would be our home for two nights. This is where the wildebeest migration is at this time of the year, and we were hoping to witness some of it. As we grew closer to the Ngorongoro region, we began seeing more wildlife, cape buffalo and elephants, along with wildebeest and zebra.

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Take a picture. It’ll last longer.

I never stopped being amazed by the elephants. African elephants are massive. It’s hard to get a sense of exactly how big they are until you are right there with them. This photo offers a little perspective. This big guy was crossing behind the Land Cruiser. Imagine if he had been next to it.

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We humans are tiny

We finally wound our way back into the conservation area. While we were confined to roads as much as possible in the Serengeti, Ammy was free to go off road here to get us into the wild and closer to the animals. This was our first opportunity to approach the migration and witness it first hand. It’s hard to get a scope of the migration on the ground. It’s even more difficult to capture it with a lens or even a video. Still, we tried.

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Driven by purpose…a need for water

The numbers of wildebeest and zebra are unimaginable. You’d think you’d seen the last of them and then you’d round a bend and there would be a line of hundreds upon thousands more. This was our first taste of the great migration and our first understanding that we would not be able to grasp its immensity, no matter how hard we tried.

Our travels off road through the savannah eventually took a toll on our ride, and we ended up with a flat tire in the bush. The day before we’d stopped multiple times to assist another safari vehicle by providing spare tires. This day it was our turn to be stricken with a punctured tire. Ammy worked quickly to get us back up and at ’em, though. I enjoyed that bit of time on the ground in the bush a lot more than Ammy did. Joe and I found a huge snail shell while out looking for rocks to keep the Land Cruiser from rolling off the jack. Never miss out on the opportunity to enjoy unexpected downtime. You never know what you might find.

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Hazards of off road travel

We were back in hillier territory now where the foliage was more abundant. We began to see impala and dik dik and giraffe again. It was a welcome change from the endless plain. We drove past Lake Ndutu and saw flamingos and other shore birds before climbing up a hill and landing at our next lodging, Lake Masek Tented Camp. This was the final stop on our grand tour, the largest of the camps where we would stay. It was also the most modern of our lodgings, with rooms equipped with telephones (you still have to call for your nightly escort to and from your tent) and bathtubs. We joked that, after where we had been, this was on the level of the Disneyworld Animal Kingdom Lodge. It had every luxury a westerner would want in a resort room. We were back in the land of hairdryers. To me it felt a little bit like someone was trying to break us back into our cushy lives back home. And I wasn’t sure I was ready for that.

On our way to dinner, I caught this marabou stork perched upon a dead tree near our tent. These guys are something else. Can’t wait to tell you about them tomorrow.

IMG_6803 2Once it was dark and we were settled back in our tents, I thought someone turned on an ambient creature-noise machine. We were up on a hill with the lake below us, and the sounds coming from the surrounding bush were magnified. I spent about fifteen minutes standing in my pajamas on the screened-in deck trying to capture the yips and cackles of hyenas on my phone, but the darn hyenas became shyenas each time I pressed the record button and they stopped their vocalizations. They were mocking me. You’ll have to trust me, though. I’d travel to Tanzania again just to hear them sing me to sleep.

 

 

A Day In Serengeti National Park

This day we awoke before sunrise to get onto the endless plain early. We packed breakfast along with us and loaded into the 4×4. Of course, none of this would have been possible if pre-dawn coffee hadn’t been delivered to our tent.

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Another gorgeous morning in Tanzania

The first things were saw as the sun rose were giraffe eating from the acacia near camp. But, we’d seen giraffe. We were in search of cats so we carried on. We drove in exhausted, early morning silence as Ammy listened for radio chatter. Finally he spied a couple vehicles and we found what we had been seeking…a large male lion.

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Sweet face but those paws, though…

Nothing can prepare you for the size of these beasts. They look innocent enough as they are just waking up, but we decided we were happy for our enclosed vehicle. We hung with this guy for a short while until he decided it was nap time again. There’s not much fun in staring at a sleeping lion.

We drove without much luck for a bit so we decided to stop for our breakfast. The beautiful thing about the Serengeti is that it is wide open. When the grasses are short, it’s easy to see a good distance. So, after Ammy made sure the coast was clear of predators, we took our breakfast outside the Land Cruiser and once again felt the immensity of the plains and our relatively small place on them.

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More coffee in the chilly early morning

After closing up breakfast and moving on, we came upon our cheetah friends from the day before, the momma and her four growing cubs. Even when these guys were doing nothing, I still enjoyed watching them. Maybe because there were four of them. Maybe because I was impressed with their mother. Maybe because they are just too cute. Maybe because I kept waiting to watch one sprint off, the fastest land mammal on the planet. Or maybe simply because I love things with dots.

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Dotty things

Later Ammy was able to find us a pair of male lions guarding their kill. Ammy explained that both males and females hunt. They guard their kill in the same way. A pride will bring down an animal and then take turns feeding and guarding their prize. Some members of the pack will go off in search of shade or water and others will stay to protect what is theirs. Lions are rarely challenged for their meals. We watched as hyenas, jackals, and vultures stood at a safe distance, patiently waiting for the lions to decide they were finished. This was a fresh kill. Scavengers would have to wait a while.

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The reality of life on the Serengeti…lions are king

The lions were relentless in their desire for the shade afforded in the areas around tourist vehicles. They were completely unfazed by engines and the movement. When we would have to move on, Ammy would start the car and we would slowly edge away from the lions and they would be exposed to the sun once more. I imagined them mentally cursing us for denying them their shade.

 

A healthy respect for the wildlife in Tanzania is important. It’s easy after days on safari to get a false sense of security being around these creatures because they seem to care not a whit about your presence. You pull up near them and they cast a glance in your direction and go on about their business unperturbed. Still…they are wild creatures and, although they seem unimpressed and uninterested, you are the interloper. Only once on safari did we witness an animal become aggravated by human presence. And that instance was enough to remind us to watch our behavior.

A couple from England, who were also staying at Namiri Plains camp and with whom we’d had dinner the night before, were viewing a pair of male lions when we pulled up to observe them as well. The lions by then had settled in the shade of their open-air safari vehicle. And for a period of time they lie there, peaceful and still. The woman was taking pictures with her iPhone and, feeling a bit emboldened by the lions laissez-faire attitude, leaned out of the vehicle a bit more to get a closer photo of the lion less than a few feet below her. Without warning, the young male lion abruptly leapt to his feet and let out an impressive, sonorous roar in her face. It happened so quickly none of us were able to get a photo of the incident. The woman later recounted her story and said the lion was close enough to her face that she felt and smelled his breath. Yikes.

Ammy explained that almost all animals you encounter on safari will give you a warning. That lion was letting her know her intrusion was not welcome. He easily could have taken a swipe at her and caused much greater harm, but there was no need. She had gotten his message and probably had the heart rate to prove it. The only animals, Ammy cautioned, that are unpredictable and will not give you a warning are the cape buffalo.  They may look like mellow cows with large horns, but they have a short fuse and will attack when they’ve reached their limit. This reminded me of the bison in Yellowstone and how nearly every year some naive tourist is gored when they get too close. Wild animals are wild, people.

As we left the lions behind to head on to our next wildlife adventure, my son asked if I could help with this epic photo. How could I say no to his meta moment?

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A lion saunters off in Africa while Toto sings Africa

While big cats are the highlight of the Serengeti, there are birds to enjoy as well. We saw a flock of lovebirds resting on a dead acacia tree among its thorns. We also saw several kori bustard birds. These are the largest flying bird native to Africa, weighing up to 40 pounds. They are something else.

The rest of the day was filled with female lions. Five of them lounged around their recent kill while scavengers lurked nearby. They effectively surround their food, making it impossible for the scavengers to invade without risking peril. You simply don’t mess with the lions. Here is a video these five lionesses with their kill on the windy Serengeti, vultures watching from the background.

As we headed back to camp late that afternoon, rains were on the distant horizon. Bit by bit we watched this rainbow form from the two sides and eventually meet to create this wonder. My sister-in-law captured this panorama photo of incredibly Mother Nature.       I know, right?

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On The Road To The Serengeti

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The next morning we headed out to Serengeti National Park. It takes several hours to reach the Serengeti from the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Along the way, we passed many Maasai. The Maasai are the only people allowed to live within the conservation area, and these people originally called the Serengeti home but were relocated to the crater area when Serengeti National Park was created. In order to protect the area, only the Maasai are permitted to graze livestock and they are allowed to cultivate only the foods they need to subsist. Tourist-savvy male Maasai youth adorn their faces with white chalk used traditionally for a coming-of-age ceremony and stand along the roadside willing to pose for photo ops if you offer cash. While the Maasai have been forced to abandon their pastoral, nomadic ways so that their children can be educated in accordance with Tanzanian law, the government has made some concessions to allow them to continue with many of their traditions. Contemplating how the Maasai have been treated in contrast with how the Native American tribes have been treated in the United States gave me something to do on the drive. My son found another way to shorten the drive.

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As you get closer to the Serengeti, the vegetation decreases substantially. Shrubs and trees are few and far between, while grasses dominate the landscape. Serengeti means “endless plains.” It’s a fitting name. After what seemed an eternity, we arrived at the photo op entrance to the park, took a few quick shots, checked the tire pressure, and resumed driving into the park office and gift shop.

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While Ammy was off conducting official tourist business, the six of us followed a short trail up a rocky outcropping to get a view. Along the way, we happened upon several mwanza agama lizards. Who knew?

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How amazing is this little guy?

Once we’d had our requisite picnic lunch, we pointed ourselves in the general direction of our camp for the night, hoping to spy some big cats along the way. The Serengeti landscape took some getting used to after all the lushness of our previous locales. We joked that it reminded us of Wyoming or eastern Colorado, which is to say it was familiar but not in the best way. After a while, we began to hear radio chatter from other guides and Ammy started off towards them. I had no idea how Ammy knew where to go. I mean, sure, he’d been doing this sort of thing for 20 years, but the rough dirt roads were not marked in any way. There were no landmarks by which to guide yourself. I started to wonder if we would get lost and pondered how many Lara Bars I had in my pack for emergency sustenance. Finally we saw a few other Land Cruisers and drove to them to get a closer look at what they had discovered. Lions!

I’m not sure what I expected when I thought about seeing lions in their natural habitat. I suppose I imagined they would be more entertaining. Aside from the fact that they are potentially lethal, lions are not all that interesting. Once you accept that they aren’t going to break into the vehicle and eat you, you settle into the reality that they are cats. They sleep. A lot. When they’re not sleeping, they’re resting. When they’re not resting, they’re lazily eyeing the horizon for their next bite of fast food. With a proper meal, they can go days in between hunting. And so they sleep. Without an abundance of trees, they find relaxing in the shade under safari vehicles a welcome respite from the African sun. After a while, all their yawning was making me yawn. We moved on to see what else we could find.

Because it was migration time, we began to see large herds of wildebeest and zebra. We finally got the opportunity to observe some hyena too. They are much more reclusive than I expected and went out of their way to avoid us. Perhaps they should be called shyenas instead? While we continued along the road, we looked for ways to amuse ourselves in the vastness of the endless plain. Karen did some tree posing with a tree.

At long last we found what I had been waiting for…cheetah. As big cats go, cheetah are my favorite. They are long, sleek, fast, and cute as the day is long. And, let’s face it, they are not nearly as terrifying as other big cats. That afternoon we found a mother with four cubs. Ammy said she was a good mother because it is hard to keep four cubs alive. We watched her begin stalking, considering taking off after some potential dinner, but in the end she decided against it. Cheetahs know their limits, and they won’t waste their energy chasing something they don’t stand a chance of catching. With four cubs to feed, this momma had to make wise choices to ensure their survival.

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Winners of the prize for Cutest

As the sun began to slip towards the western horizon, we drifted into our next camp. Namiri Plains is another camp run by Asilia Africa, the same company that operates Little Oliver’s. Unlike Little Oliver’s, however, Namiri Plains is a mobile camp that changes locations as the migration moves through. The tents here were traditional tents without thatched roof coverings and stone floors. I could not wait to check them out. After a quick meet and greet with the staff, we were guided to our tents.

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Are you kidding me?

I haven’t spent much time extolling the virtues of glamping in Africa. It is something else entirely. It was hard to fathom that you were in the middle of the Serengeti. The hot water came courtesy of solar panels, and the water was always Africa hot. The tents were private, incredibly spacious and comfortable, containing a bed, a seating area, a desk, a vanity with two sinks, a flushing toilet, and not one but two showers…indoor and outdoor. There was plenty of indoor lighting and even power strips for charging cameras and phones. And the views. Sigh.

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Our sleeping quarters in the Serengeti

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The view from our bed

We finished settling in and headed off to share dinner with the other camp guests. This camp was bigger than our last one, so we had the opportunity to dine with other tourists. Again the food was delicious and in no short supply, and they went out of their way to cater to my gluten sensitivities. I remain awe of how the Tanzanians can provide this level of hospitality in a mobile camp in the midst of an endless plain.

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By the time we finished our meal and had some campfire time, it was nearly dark. One thing you are not allowed to do while on safari is walk without camp staff to or from your tent between dusk and dawn. At night, we were escorted back to our tents by a member of staff and a Maasai warrior. There were a couple Maasai tribesman who patrolled the camps at night, keeping an eye out for potential danger. They did not carry guns, only walking staffs. They understand the animals, and the animals understand them. We were told that the lions know that they Maasai are danger to them. It was easier to drift off to sleep at night in the land of big cats knowing the Maasai had our backs.

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