My Life in Motion

Archive for the tag “elephant”

Serengeti Safari

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.


Lake Manyara National Park

There was no rest for the wicked, despite returning from the Roof of Africa, Mt Kilimanjaro, the day before. There was one last chance to see the Kibo Massif from the hotel before leaving it behind to start the cultural part of the tour. I had combined two of G Adventures tours together to allow me to experience some Tanzania highlights. With the physical part of the trip behind me, things were going to get a lot more sedate, but no less exciting. There were five of us that headed into Moshi to visit a local co-operative known as the Moshi Mammas, an enterprise giving local women the chance to earn a living through selling their crafts. They showed us how to make the bracelets that they sell in their store and we were able to make our own too, which we wore with pride alongside the bracelets that we’d received as part of our summit celebrations, having made it to the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro just two days prior. Then we had the nearly 2hr drive west to Arusha where we’d be meeting the rest of our group. Of the five of us, four of us had been together hiking up the mountain, and the fifth, whilst also tackling the mountain, had summited on a different route. We were a combo of North Americans and Europeans, although two of us were expats now living abroad.

Our hotel in Arusha was down a back street, low key and nestled amongst tall trees which made it feel like we were on the edge of a jungle. There was a swimming pool and a bar and it had a very different vibe to the lodge near Moshi. After the lengthy process to get into our room, three of us headed into Arusha for a wander around. Like in Moshi on the first day, we were approached often by locals, but unlike in Moshi, I didn’t feel so overwhelmed or uncomfortable, and in fact, feeling much more relaxed post-hike, I was more willing to reciprocate the interaction, and briefly chatted with one gentleman who walked with us for a bit. Rather than feeling like he was trying to sell us something, he did instead just seem genuinely interested in talking to us, and although the city itself didn’t really stand out as offering much for a visitor, I preferred its vibe. Perhaps if I’d visited here first it might have been different, but who knows.

Back at the hotel we met our new guide and the rest of the group that would be travelling with us: a mixture of nationalities that had come down from Kenya and were pursuing safaris in different national parks. After dinner and the meet and greet, it was time to sort out our belongings, ditching the no longer-needed hiking gear in favour of safari clothing. As myself and my roommate spread our stuff around, out the corner of my eye I saw something dart across the floor. This was of course Africa, so my immediate response was to cry out. This startled the creature, which turned out to be a rat, and what ensued was the two of us giggling and running around whilst filming the performance as we failed miserably to shoo the thing out of our room. I sought out a member of staff, but he was no better, and in one of those surreal moments that will stick with me for some time, we found ourselves as a trio, failing to get rid of the poor creature who was terrified. Great woops came out when at last it headed to the open door and happy that we could sleep without fear of rodents in our beds, we said goodnight to the porter, closed the door and went to bed.


It hadn’t quite been the African wildlife encounter I’d envisaged, but it was a funny story to regale at breakfast the next morning. However we had bigger creatures in sight, and before long we were off, heading west towards the national parks. As we drove, we left suburbia behind, and the land opened up before us. We saw Maasai people wandering with their cattle herds at the side of the road, we saw belongings balanced precariously on bikes, women carrying baskets on their heads, and small houses and the occasional business were dotted about the landscape. After about 2hrs of driving we pulled into a walled campsite in Mto Wa Mbu, a settlement who’s name translates as ‘River of Mosquitos’. It is an area rife with farming and cultivation and we were taken out with a local guide to show us around.

Down the road from our campsite was large rice paddies, something I’d seen on television but never seen for real. It’s a staple food source that I’ve always taken for granted, so it was interesting to me to see it in situ. We visited some carvers who sell their wares, and I was given the chance to do a bit of carving myself, being presented with some wood that was being fashioned into a giraffe. I was so worried about ruining the man’s hard work, that I didn’t try for very long. Out the back of the village on the far side, we were led past a beautiful white temple building, across a stream and through more grain fields to a banana plantation. The guide was a local woman, and I’m always pleased to see women being given the opportunity to become independent and earn their own wage. I’ve taken my childhood privileges for granted but as an adult, I’ve realised how lucky I am to have been born into a progressive society where I can work, and be independent and have choices. I’ve seen how women can be suppressed and held back in so many countries and I’ve witnessed first hand the attitude differences between myself and male companions when I’ve been abroad at times. Even in 2020, in my home country of New Zealand, I still get people surprised that I travel alone, a surprise that I never hear exclaimed to a solo male.


After wandering through the cultivation sites, we were lead into a local art gallery, effectively a walled area among some palm trees where local artists displayed their incredible work. It was absolutely stunning, and I would have loved to have bought something. I’d already bought a painting of a giraffe in Moshi, and neither have the wall space at home, nor the desire to own too many possessions, to entice me to purchase something, but that didn’t stop me being jealous of the stunning lion painting that my companion bought. When we were eventually dragged away, we were led to someone’s garden to be fed a banquet of local foods which were utterly delicious. Several of us went for seconds, including myself. I’m really prone to gut problems when travelling, having had several bouts of poisoning whilst abroad, so can at times be over-cautious, but despite knowing I’d be on a jeep for the rest of the day, I couldn’t deny how good the food was. Thankfully, it did not come back to haunt me.


Lake Manyara National Park was only a little out of the village, so it was a relatively short drive that led us to our first safari. I wasn’t really sure what to expect, having never heard of this park before booking the trip. The road headed into tall trees initially, and we spied some warthogs through the foliage. After a short while, the road cut down to a small river and suddenly there were monkeys everywhere: males, females, and youngsters. A large troupe lounged around, occasionally looking our way or casually walking around, displaying their colourful butts. These fully grown olive baboons were a decent size and ended up being the most plentiful monkey that we spotted. A little further along the road were a small number of blue monkeys, well hidden within the foliage. I had missed out on seeing them on the slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro so was ecstatic to see them here. A little further still we found a small group of vervet monkeys, including a small number of adorable babies that looked stunned among the foliage, watching us fascinated as we watched them.


The deeper into the park we drove, the more the sightings came. Impala, warthogs, and wildebeest started to pop up everywhere, and the closer to the lake we got the more the birds began to appear, including large hornbills and storks. We reached a wetland area, which aside from the bird activity, was surrounded by many large cape buffalos, a hefty-looking, and potentially dangerous herbivore. Their reputation precedes them, and they are notorious for charging, and using their bulk to cause great injury and damage. But here they were so busy munching on grass, that they barely batted an eyelid in our direction. The occasional one lifted its head to stare as it chewed the cud, but they seemed more bothered by the flies buzzing around them than of us, so we were able to watch them for a good bit without upsetting them.


When I spotted the zebra beyond them, it was hard not to get a bit excited. For me, lions, cheetahs, giraffes, and zebra are what I think of when I think of Africa, so to see a small herd in the wild for the first time gave me a thrill. Little did I know how spoiled I’d be over the next few days, but among the gazelles wandering about in between the zebra, I spotted a baby zebra through the crowd. We had to move on though, passing more blue monkeys, more antelope, and more birds I didn’t recognise, until a raised area overlooking Lake Manyara gave us the opportunity to spot flamingos, and then suddenly, some giraffes. They were so far away, I needed all the zoom of my camera to appreciate them, but it was enough to make me happy, until we turned a corner and were greeted with a couple of giraffes right by the road. Their heads bobbed up and down, watching us initially, then deciding they wanted left alone, they wandered off and left us behind.



We saw more monkeys, more warthogs, more cape buffalo and more birds as we retraced our steps back towards the entrance of the park. As we reached the waterway where we’d seen the baboons earlier on, we got stuck behind a stationary car that was looking at something to our left. I couldn’t see what it was, so started looking around, when all of a sudden I spotted something grey moving to my right, and quickly exclaimed ‘ELEPHANTS!’ to attract the attention of those in the jeep with me. Everybody whipped round to where I was looking and we all watched in silent awe as a herd of elephants came out of the trees and down to the water’s edge right next to us. They kept closely bunched together, at least eight of them, but every now and again we got a glimpse of a very small baby that was being shepherded and protected by the adults as they moved. After having a good drink, they moved on, disappearing back into the trees as silently as they had arrived.


The safari was supposed to be over, but round the corner as we headed back to the entrance gate, we were quickly met by two full-grown elephants. They seemed unfazed by the audience as they ate, swaying gently on their feet, their large ears flapping away the incessant flies. The driver graciously gave us a bit of time with them, and even stopped once more when we came across more baboons as we drove out the park. It had been a successful first safari, and after dinner back at the campsite, we were able to enjoy some beer under the cooling sky. Little did I know how much our tents would mean to us the next few nights, as we went to sleep ahead of another push west the next day. After a lifetime of being glued to every David Attenborough programme as a child, I couldn’t quite believe that I was actually heading to the Serengeti.

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