My Life in Motion

Archive for the tag “lion”

Ngorongoro Conservation Area

The sky had turned from black to blue as we arrived at the entrance gate. As with the previous parks, we had to get permits checked before entry, so in the freezing cold we sat watching the colours of the sky change from the top of the crater. The blues progressively lightened, and a rim of yellow appeared, before pink and purple tinges popped up. There was a decent bit of light by the time we were waved through and as we began the descent down the crater side, the road quickly deteriorated into a pitted and crevassed mess which we bounced over and round. It made for relatively slow moving. But on reaching the bottom, we almost immediately found the road blocked by a few other safari jeeps in front of us and with no way of getting round them, we stopped. There was a good reason for them being there though, because off to our right was a lion. As we waited, he gradually moved closer before cutting through the line of traffic and finding a rest spot off to our left. Not long after, two more male lions appeared out of the forest, one of them sauntering towards and past us to join their brother whilst the other hung back. In the early morning light, with the sun’s rays just reaching over the crater edge, they glowed as they walked and they were stunning for it. Another male appeared and as he approached his brothers he started to call, a low guttural noise that sounded haunting. The roaring male greeted the first lion, and eventually the last lion, scarred and dirty and with the biggest mane, joined them. These male alliances seemed rather common, as we’d spotted several on our various safaris in Tanzania.


As the jeeps ahead pulled away, we spent a little more time with the couple of lions that remained in view, but as we drove through the vegetation that bounded the rim of the crater floor, we didn’t have to go far to find the full-maned lion who had settled down in a patch of grass not far from a herd of antelope. From here, the expanse of the crater floor opened up, and we could see herbivores off in the distance, the nearest ones eyeing up the resting lion as it glowed in the sun. From the crater rim viewpoints, the crater floor had looked devoid of life, but now that we were down here, the place looked huge and there was life visible everywhere we looked. In fact we barely had to drive far to find more carnivores, this time a couple of jackals out on the hunt. They camouflaged well against the dry grass, but they skipped about, noses to the ground, occasionally looking up to look around. A nearby eland, huge in comparison, gave them no regard whatsoever.


A hazy waterhole housed a plethora of flamingos. The road never went near enough to see them in focus, but the blur of pink bodies meant there was no shortage of them. In the grasslands around it, the grazers congregated, and we drove past zebra and gazelles and wildebeest. There were several small groups on the near side of the waterway but in the distance we could see herds, and as we skirted round the water we spotted not only some impala but also a couple of black rhinos. This was the last of the Big Five that I had to see. I had in fact spotted a rhino from the view point when we first drove past on the way to the Serengeti, but it had taken the full zoom of my camera to see it and even then it was only just discernible as a rhino. I wasn’t going to be satisfied enough with that, so now seeing them from ground level, I was much happier. That being said, they still were some way away, and they were ambling away from the road, meaning I was still reliant on zoom to see them well. We gradually followed the road, stopping every now and again to watch the rhinos further, but nearer us we were among the zebras and wildebeest and I was loving watching them just as much. It was hard to know where to look, with animals mulling around on both sides of us.


There was a noticeable amount of juvenile zebras here, just like in the Serengeti, and the herds milled around, crossing the road in front of and behind us. We were gradually moving towards the centre of the crater as we watched, and at one point when we stopped to look at something on our right, I noticed that there was a sleeping hyena immediately to our left that no-one had noticed. I don’t think we would have parked so close had we realised ahead of time that it was there, but after initially raising its head to eye us up, it simply plopped it back down again and closed its eyes. We clearly weren’t worth worrying about, nor was it interested in the Thomson gazelle nearby. Another hyena appeared and drank out of a puddle on the road, but clearly a hunt was not even on the agenda.


We found ourselves by a large wildebeest herd, and unlike in the Serengeti, there was a plethora of calves among them. As odd looking as the adults are, the calves were utterly cute and fun to watch. The driver knew we had a lot to see, so although he stopped often, we encouraged him to move on once we’d got our fill of photographs. The zebra and wildebeest appeared to be everywhere, small clusters spread out across the plains of the crater floor and at one point we found some ostriches wandering among them. Even a hyena den didn’t keep the grazers away and with much excitement, we spotted a couple of hyena pups pop up from the hole in the ground and hang out with the adults. It’s really difficult to know which hyenas are male and which are female because for some random evolutionary reason, the females have a pseudopenis. They live in matriarchal groups so presumably most of the ones we saw were male, but it was weird to see them wave their pseudopenis about and when its presence results in infant mortality during birth, you have to wonder what on earth is its evolutionary advantage.


A change in vegetation as we drove meant bigger congregations of both wildebeest and zebra. It almost looked like there was a wetland behind them and some large trees were evident behind that. As the road rose up a little and came around a corner, a lake came into view and as we parked up next to it, we were given the opportunity to get out and stretch our legs. It was a gorgeous spot and initially looked innocuous but on closer inspection we could see rings appearing in the water nearby and every now and again a pair of nostrils would break the surface. Further away a group of hippos were just visible, and we realised that just metres away, below the surface, was one of Africa’s most dangerous animals. We were apparently safe to mill around the water’s edge here, within a few metres of the jeeps, and it was a great photo opportunity. I wandered along the road a little towards the other end of the lake but I was called back hastily. You never knew what wild animal was lurking about, I was told, and it was safer in a group. It was too easy to get complacent. Not long after I returned to the vehicle, one of the hippos came out of the water and stood on the bank staring at us. It was a juvenile, but it was still a chunky animal. It stared us down for a bit before walking back to the water.


Back among the herds once more, we came across a wildebeest creche with multiple calves feeding simultaneously. The number of calves was incredible but as we moved our way through them, we soon realised we weren’t the only ones interested in them. Some hyenas appeared and at first they looked like they were just out on patrol, but as we stopped to watch them, we could see the moment they appeared to lock on a group within the herd and the next thing we knew, a hunt was on. The hyenas worked as a group, a pair taking one flank as another took a different approach. The herd began to scatter and the calves ran for their lives. The hunt moved away from us, making it harder to follow the action, but I was torn between wanting to see a successful hunt and not wanting to see them kill a calf. It was difficult to take my eyes off it though, and all too soon the hunt was over. The selected calf lived to see another day and the hyenas regrouped and retreated.


We stopped to watch a stunning tawny eagle in a tree, the nearby wildebeest having no idea about the chase that had happened further up the road. Here, the calves chilled out as if they had no care in the world. The eagle was constantly on the lookout, and this was the same species that had swooped on us for food up at the picnic spot on the crater rim, and potentially could have been one of the exact birds that did it. Unsurprisingly given the vast herds down here, there was no shortage of predators about.  Not all of them were big enough to kill a grazer though, and I was excited to see another serval cat creeping through the grassland near a small pool of water where a hippo was hanging out. We even spotted a male lion walking out in the open too.


The hours had been ticking past and I could see as we drove that we were working our way back towards the crater edge to leave. As usual, some jeeps ahead signalled the presence of lions, and we found a beautiful male lion resting in the shade under a tree. It was panting, displaying it’s huge canine teeth, and like most lions, it bore a multitude of scars across its face. We spotted another serval cat not far away and nearby a female lion lay fully exposed on the open ground. Some grey cranes wandered near some buffalo, and I wondered whether either of the cat species was eyeing them up. Both the serval and the female lion moved away, constantly being watched by the nearby gazelle. The buffalo seemed less phased by their presence, munching away on the grass with barely a look in their direction. Looking at them in the daylight with their sheer bulk and the broad horns, it was hard not to think about the one that had used our tent as a scratching post in the middle of the night. It could have flattened us had it wanted to.


The lions were the last wildlife we were to spot on safari, and once past them, we began the ascent up the winding track through lush green vegetation back up to the crater rim. As we gained altitude, the crater floor once again looked sparse of animals and all that we had seen blended into the background, an entire ecosystem enveloped within the walls of the crater. We stopped at the same picnic site on the rim for lunch, as we had done on route to the Serengeti. With most people having learned from the last time and choosing to eat in the jeep, I was keen to stretch my legs and get some fresh air so once more sat on the same logs and ate my lunch rapidly as I watched the sky for circling eagles. The giant maribou stork paraded around looking for scraps, and after successfully eating my lunch without attack, I watched an eagle swoop down and grab food from someone else at the site as I moved off from my seat.


We had a long drive back to Arusha, the only break being the same tourist site we’d stopped at on the way out west. To make it worse, we hit rush hour, and the approach into Arusha was chaos, our driver trying to find a quieter route down backstreets, only to meet more traffic jams. We were shattered by the time we got back to the same hotel we’d stayed in previously. The group split up, some staying elsewhere, others due to leave in the darkness of night for the airport. I enjoyed a cold swim in the pool before dinner, but then our depleted group had a last meal together with some local beer. I’d shared my entire Tanzania trip with one of them, and I couldn’t believe I was heading home the next day after what had been the most incredible experience. I was on my own for the morning, sunbathing by the pool until it was my turn to head to the airport. When I arrived it was utter chaos, a queue of people streaming out the front door. It took so long to get into the airport building, and so long to get through the various baggage and customs queues, that I actually had little time to wait to board my plane. Before I knew it and with very little fanfare, my African adventure was over.

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.

Serengeti National Park

I was raised on David Attenborough documentaries, with Sunday nights spent watching the television, ogling over creatures I never imagined I’d see in the flesh. I didn’t spend my childhood thinking I’d ever travel or see some of the things I’ve seen, but as an adult I’ve had the privilege and excitement of some incredible wildlife exposure. The African Plains in the Serengeti National Park has always been a regular backdrop to these BBC programmes, and last February at the age of 35, I found myself bouncing up and down in the back of a safari jeep, sending a cloud of dust behind us as we went in search of Africa’s animals in that exact location.

Initially there was a dearth of vegetation but it wasn’t long before we came across a male lion who was just chilling out next to some abandoned man-made structure. He seemed a million miles from anywhere, but in the late afternoon, he just sat there, ignoring the presence of the couple of jeeps that had stopped to look at him. He had a few scars on his face and his mane was pale, and he barely moved. When we pressed on deeper into the park, we found a lioness asleep on top of a rock. Clearly hunting was not on any of their minds at this time of the day. As we continued, small pockets of acacia trees appeared and dotted in random places were rocky outcrops which broke up the otherwise vast expanse of the plains. In the far distance, hills were on the horizon, and they grew closer as we continued on the road in search of wildlife.


These rocky outcrops with their trees were potential wildlife hot spots, but with the coverage of the vegetation, spotting anything there was difficult. Luckily our driver guide was an expert at spotting things that our naive eyes couldn’t see. It also helped that we’d occasionally come across another jeep that was parked up which would allude to an animal’s presence, so when the word went out that there was a leopard in a tree on top of one of the rock piles, I was beside myself, straining my eyes to see it through the vegetation. I was grateful that my camera had a decent zoom on it, as this was pretty much the only way to spot it aside from binoculars. If I hadn’t been told it was there to know where to look, I’d have never spotted it on my own. The camouflage was incredible.

As we continued on our safari, the acacia trees grew taller. At one large singular tree we found a few jeeps parked up near its base, and we were quick to learn there was a lioness up in the branches. As we once more strained to see it through the foliage, we became suddenly aware of another couple of lions approaching from the other side of the jeep. As we watched, the numbers of jeeps grew and as the lioness in the tree climbed down to join her pride, I experienced my first annoyance about the management of safaris in this popular park. As the lioness walked on our right, and her pride walked on our left, the drivers of the jeeps ahead of us were so intent on their clients getting the ultimate view that they actively moved and blocked the path that the lioness was taking. She stopped to re-evaluate, her chosen path suddenly gone and the pride found themselves divided by several jeeps that kept jostling among themselves for a better view. We hung back where we were and I was grateful our driver was more respectful. Eventually, the lioness walked in front of the melee and joined the others.


The bulk of the jeeps drove off shortly after, leaving just our two jeeps behind. We stayed where we were, watching the social interactions from a distance. Suddenly my attention was drawn to a figure moving through the long grass towards us and I realised it was another lioness. She stood on a little mound right by my window and as I shamelessly took a selfie through the window, a juvenile appeared behind her, shortly followed by another one. Although the lioness left, these two older cubs hung around by us for quite some time, before the pride gradually joined together and began to move away. For a first safari in the Serengeti, it had been a magical start.


The cloud looked a little ominous as we headed towards our accommodation for the night. We had to pop into one of the local offices for me to pick up my ticket for an add-on that I’d booked onto the following morning. The office building had a bar and small shop attached to it, but wandering around the site were lots of little rock hyraxes, a peculiar looking creature that live in large groups. They ran fast making them difficult to photograph as they popped up and around rocks and logs. We didn’t have far to drive from here to where we’d be spending the night, and as we watched the sky grow dark and rain move across in the distance, we pulled up and unloaded our stuff. As someone who usually travels independently, I’m used to being responsible for the choices of where I stay, but probably because it was an organised tour, I either hadn’t bothered to read the itinerary or hadn’t really understood it if I had, but we found ourselves at an open campsite, our tents already pitched and waiting for us. I have no idea where this campsite was in the grand scheme of things, but here we were completely unfenced in the Serengeti, and at our briefing we were informed that there was no guard and nobody would be patrolling for wildlife through the night. For all intents and purposes, we were wild camping in Africa.

Another group had bagged the campfire, so we had a quieter dinner before watching the most stunning sunset that faded to a gorgeous purple sky as the rain clouds sweeped past us a little way off. We’d passed some kudu not too far away so knew at least that there were herbivores near by but what we found out was that hyenas patrolled the campsite at night, and as such there was a no-food-in-the-tent policy, and all food had to be securely locked in the jeeps. As darkness fell, we were given strict instructions not to wander further than the toilet block on the edge of camp, to always walk with another person and to have a head torch on at all times. In pitch black, as we readied for bed by visiting the toilet block, our headlamps picked up the sparkle of animals’ eyes not far away. On our walk back to the tents we discovered that a hyena had just run into the group by the campfire and stolen some of their dinner.


There was a nervous excitement as we nestled into our sleeping bags within our tents. In the darkness as we tried to sleep, the cries of hyenas reached our ears. I wouldn’t have knowingly chosen to camp in such a manner in Africa, but this was an experience like no other. I would sleep for a bit then get woken up by the sounds of something outside. Occasionally a hyena’s cackling laugh would pierce the air, and I would lie there still before eventually dropping back to sleep again. When my alarm woke me the next morning it was still pitch black outside. I had paid extra for an add-on activity, but I was the only one in my group doing so, meaning against advice, I had to walk to the toilet block on my own to ready myself for the day ahead. The toilet block had a security gate meaning it was possible to lock yourself in the building should an errant animal follow you there, and I had to hover nearby with just my head torch for company, waiting for my ride to pick me up. I was joined by another person who was part of the other group and before long, the two of us were collected and driven off into the darkness for an activity I’d never done before.

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