There’s no shortage of animals in the Serengeti. In fact in no time at all of me rejoining the rest of my group after a delightful hot air balloon ride were we in the company of giraffes. I enjoyed seeing so many of the animals roaming around Africa, but for me, the giraffes were something special. They don’t particularly do much, but their gait and their stature is just marvelous. Had I been left to my own devices, I would have hung around with them longer, but the rest of my group had already had a close encounter with them without me, and the park was huge, and we had so much to explore. It was really difficult for me to get my bearings, and I had no idea where we were, or where we were headed, or how it all related to where we camped at night. Our driver guide obviously knew where some of the wildlife hot spots were, and we just sat back and let him take us there. We passed zebra and spotted a well camouflaged leopard up an acacia tree next to a rocky outcrop, pausing briefly below it waiting to see if it would move. It just stared right back at us, an occasional flick of the tail its only movement.
In what might as well have been the middle of nowhere, we found a lioness hidden among some long grass. When it came to spotting lions, it was often the presence of a parked jeep that caught our attention. If you were a lion in the Serengeti, it was very difficult to be left alone, and sadly they would often be surrounded by multiple safari jeeps which regularly irked me. On this occasion, it was just us, and frankly she just looked hot, showing us little interest as she flapped away the ever present flies from her face. Two more lionesses were making the most of some shade under a tree. Even in that cooler spot they looked like they were struggling and one of them was fully lain out whilst the other sat up as if on guard. I spotted a tracking collar on one of them as we moved to the side before leaving. The vegetation grew sparser as we drove deeper and deeper into the park, so it was unsurprising to find yet more lions in the shade of a solitary bush, resting in the intense heat of the African day.
After a while we found ourselves on the true plains and this is where the herbivore herds seemed to be hanging out. In fact, the zebra herds stretched for miles into the distance, as the individuals spread out in smaller groups to feed. Visiting in February of last year, we were just a little early for the great herd migrations, but there was a ridiculously large number of them there already, and among them we could spot the odd juvenile. In the midst of them all, we pulled up on the track and sat listening to them bickering and barking, whilst watching them milling around, occasionally jostling with each other, and just generally meandering about. They walked in front of us and behind us, and the odd oxpecker bird flitted among them looking for a feed of flies. The odd zebra looked our way from time to time, but most of them didn’t care that we were there.
We drove for some time across the plains, a mix of deserted sections and those with zebra dotted around. On the horizon there were no landmarks visible, and it felt like we could drive on forever. Occasionally we would be aware of the odd other safari jeep but for the most part we felt like we were out here on our own. Serengeti National Park is a very popular place for safaris, and it has led to crowd problems at times. On a few occasions I hadn’t liked how many jeeps were parked up by some of the animals, especially the big cats, and wasn’t comfortable being part of the problem. Out here though, it was great to get away from the crowds, and our guide explained that they weren’t allowed to drive off the established tracks, meaning there was plenty of undisturbed land for the wildlife to wander. This all changed though when a flurry of chatter came over the radio. The conversation was in Swahili, but we’d learned the odd word to know what animal was being talked about. This time though we had no idea, and our car suddenly took off, meaning it was potentially something good. As we got nearer we could see a line of other jeeps, and we quickly turned off the track, taking a wide arc over the land to join the other jeeps. I was silently annoyed that we’d broken the rule about off-road driving, but immediately conflicted as I spotted what we had driven so hurriedly to see: a cheetah. I had been hoping to see one whilst in Tanzania, and this was to be the one and only cheetah sighting that we had out there. It strolled past us all, fresh blood smeared across its face: it had killed recently. Shortly finding a small rise in the land to stand up on, it surveyed its surroundings as the multitude of jeeps formed an arc behind it, complete silence falling on us as it stood there. Within minutes of its arrival, it slunk off into the tall grass, and we left it there, cutting back onto the road as if nothing had happened.
After the excitement of the morning, we pulled up in the shade of a large tree and bundled out to stretch our legs. Then, in a surreal moment, a picnic was presented to us, and we tucked into a feast of cold but delicious foods as we surveyed our surroundings for any wildlife. You never knew what could be sneaking through the long grass, but all we could see was the odd topi and gazelle in the distance. Thankfully there was some shade, because the heat outside the jeep was oppressive. With no toilet in sight, it felt like we were all marking our territory as the only spot to get some privacy from the rest of the group was behind the back wheel of the jeep, and one by one everyone took their turn to relieve themselves, thanks to all the water we’d been drinking in the heat. Not a single bit of litter was left behind by us, but just like hiking up Mt Kilimanjaro the week before, it was another eye-opener to the effect of tourism in nature.
Initially we took a similar route back, passing once more through a large herd of zebra. This time we could see more juveniles, and we could spot the odd pregnant female. At some point we cut off on a different road and this took us to a rudimentary water hole where a number of zebra were congregating at one end. Amusingly, a hyena slept in the muddy margin in full view of the herbivores, and even though it didn’t flinch, it was given a wide berth and many eyes remained on it whilst they drank. As we sat and watched, a warthog and piglet came running to get a drink as well, simply fitting in among the many legs of the zebra. When we eventually left here we spotted a large eland wandering through the herd of zebra, and a topi beyond that.
After some time of driving we spotted a well camouflaged lioness in the long grass. She was barely visible so we left her behind, eventually finding a solitary male lion. He wasn’t in great shape, his spine poking up dramatically behind him as he lay in the shade of a tree. His face and ears were marked, and as he opened his eyes to pant, a broken canine became visible. As he rose to his haunches, he looked pained and it became clear as he struggled to walk, his back left leg weak and almost dragging behind. This was the great circle of life in action. As a vet, I’m acutely tuned in to the suffering of animals, recognising it and feeling it more than the average person, my entire career being built around being an advocate for the welfare of pets and a voice for the creatures that can’t talk. But whilst the rest of my group struggled to see the sight in front of them, pleading with our driver to contact someone to get a wildlife vet out to treat it, I stayed silent, much more accepting of the fact that nature was doing its thing. At their prime, the lion kills other animals, and in its decline, it will feed other animals. I have a very different opinion when a human has caused the animal’s suffering, and am very opinionated about the myriad of animal cruelty that goes on in this world, but playing out in front of us was nature. A snapshot in the great circle of life on the Plains of Africa.
Only a short distance away, we found a trio of much healthier males, and our guide informed us that the four were brothers. It was likely they would keep the injured male fed where they could, but as he was unlikely to be able to keep up with them, I suspected he would eventually be left behind to starve. I’ve seen enough wildlife documentaries to know that a hunt can go wrong, and it is possible the injured male was kicked by his prey, or thrown off during an attack. These other three males were beautiful, the typical colour and mane of every lion you ever see on tv, and they had no cares in the world right then, one of them completely rolled on its back to expose its belly as it slept. We stayed with them for a while, watching them do nothing, before eventually we pushed onwards. As we gradually worked our way back to our campsite, the acacia trees began to pop up more and more. A couple of vultures were spotted on the top of one, and at some point we spotted a dikdik in the long grass. They are one of the smallest antelope and would be easy to overlook were it not for the keen eyes of our guide.
As the sun was on its downward arc, and as the acacia trees grew taller, I was excited to see some elephants wandering through the long grass. The herd was a little spread out, but there was a mix of size of elephants, including a couple of youngsters who were only just visible above the grass. We’d seen some in Lake Manyara a couple of days prior, but seeing them here in the much more open landscape was just a little bit more magical. The landscape evolved constantly after leaving them behind, and as we returned to familiar looking surroundings, we circled round a small pond which had a hippo in it. It eyed us up with an evil-looking glare before we left it too behind, passing warthogs and lots of antelope before eventually finding ourselves at the office block with the bar that we’d stopped at the night before. Like last time, the rock hyraxes were running around everywhere, and as this was to be our last night in the Serengeti, we all got some booze to take back to our campsite.
The sunset was just as spectacular the second night. This time round we were getting prime spot by the fire pit and we gradually congregated in the lowering sunlight to soak up the alcohol in an incredibly stunning location. Some little birds bathed in the dust by our feet, and in the rocks behind camp I spotted more hyraxes jumping about. We ate as the light lowered, but while no hyenas rushed in to steal our food, we could occasionally spot the eyes in our headlamps just beyond the nearest bush. There was a nervous excitement knowing they were there, and I for one wished that we’d get the thrill of one coming in to camp, but they remained just out beyond the boundary while we sat there. Again in our tents with no security or fencing to protect us, we slept in bursts, intermittently disturbed by the calls of the hyenas, and the sounds of things we couldn’t recognise. It had been a thrill to camp wild in Africa, but even though we were moving locations the next day, we didn’t yet know that the next campsite would provide an even closer wildlife encounter.