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A life changing experience in the Serengeti

Alis B. Kennedy
January 16, 2004

My adventure in the Serengeti deeply affected my life in ways that were not realized until several months after my return.

Our group of 19 persons participated in a photographic safari (journey in Swahili) that took us on a trek that traveled through six African countries. The members of the party came from Canada (where I am from), Argentina, Australia, England, Germany and New Zealand; a nice mix that caused some friction on occasion. We were on our way to a three-day outing in the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater National Park. Our Land Rover was one of three; of course, I was in the “no one wants to be with you” vehicle, as the others had already partnered up. So here we were, four misfits in the same means of transportation, and for three whole days!

We left our base camp of Arusha quite early in order to observe some animals and to be able to reach our first campsite by late afternoon. Our guide was very nice to recognize that we “misfits” were actually a group of people who had come to Africa to see animals; he made sure that our vehicle was, for most of the time, leading the mini caravan. Because of this, only the “misfits” were able to see the last of the “Big Five”, the mighty leopard. We briefly admired that stunning big cat before she went for cover. The entire group had been trying to see that feline since the beginning of the safari!

We stopped for lunch at a very small outdoor shop that sold food and souvenirs on the side of the road. After my meal, I wandered around and found a tame chameleon. I picked him up -- a very odd looking animal; he probably thought the same about me! We spent some time together, time truly enjoyed. I showed him to the rest of the group. Several were interested and took pictures, while others just continued socializing, completely ignoring my new friend. After a meagre, but healthy lunch, we were on the road again.

On our way to the Serengeti Plain, we stopped at the top of the Ngorongoro Crater -- what a view! It took four pictures just to cover the whole panorama. With the help of binoculars or camera zooms, we were able to see animals moving around at the bottom of the crater. This was a very good “sneak preview” of what we were going to see on our way back to base camp, as we had planned to spend a day inside the crater upon our return. After the “oohs” and “ahhs”, and for some of us, full or near full rolls of pictures, we moved on to our first destination; the vast plain of the Serengeti.

We had to drive up a lonely road to reach the Serengeti Plain. On that road were some white mini vans, with all the gadgets that one can dream of, stuck in the mud; many did not have four-wheel drive. For some, it was amusing to see groups of “millionaires”, faces purpling, while pushing their vehicles up the road! We were lucky enough to pass them and reach the Plain at a decent hour.

Imagine a vast area with nothing but tall grass and, in the distance, some rock formations. There was only one road cutting through the vegetation – it was surreal. This immense land seems to be a super self-managed zoo, but without zookeepers. The animals are responsible for their own survival.

Along the way we saw cheetahs, giraffes, hyenas, warthogs, lions and impalas -- not bad for a first glance of the two days ahead. The idea was to give us the “movie trailer” view of the whole expedition.

On the way to our temporary home, we had a brief encounter with a spotted hyena. I’ll bet that he was as surprised to see us as we were to see him. After setting up the tents and having dinner, we admired the equatorial sky. Just visualize a clear sky, without clouds, not even a moon, and no light pollution for at least one hundred kilometres! We fell asleep with the sound of lions roaring in the distance in search of mates, with some hyenas cackling close by.

The next morning, those of us who had actually slept, woke up well before sunrise. The rest had either been too excited or too afraid to sleep and had been up all night. We had a small but enjoyable breakfast. Next we took the tents down and prepared ourselves for a full day exploring this great land.

Our guides cautioned us to remain in our vehicles at all times, unless they judged that it was safe to get out. Two weeks earlier, a lion attacked and killed a German tourist. He had gotten out of his vehicle without the guide’s permission, insisting that he wanted to take a close-up photograph of the feline’s head.

You should have seen the beautiful African sunrise; it was breathtaking. The picture that was taken pales in comparison to the original splendour! As we proceeded on the second leg of our journey, we saw two lionesses relaxing with their cubs. It was strange at first to see wild animals not paying much attention to us, with the exception of some cubs; but their attention span lasted a very short time, and soon they lay back again, soaking in the early morning sun, as if totally uninterested in seeing so many humans invading their privacy and territory on a daily basis, sunrise to sunset.

After that, we saw many zebras and a large number of wildebeests; they were starting to gather for the long and risky migration to the Masai Mara, the Kenyan continuation of the Serengeti in Tanzania. Again, they did not pay much attention to us; some even remained lying down while others continued grazing. Still, it was amazing to see so many animals gathered in such a large group. After a while, we noticed that there were several other species that we had not observed at first: several types of gazelles and other predators.

Then, our guide noticed a cheetah at a distance. As the three Land Rovers approached, it became apparent that she was not alone; five majestic cubs, almost as big as her, emerged from the tall grass. It was astonishing that she was able to raise so many cubs and that so many had survived. As some of you may know, 90% of cheetahs do not make it past the first year of life, due to disease, inbreeding, infections and predators (mainly lions and hyenas). So to see five of them, almost old enough to leave their mother was simply amazing! As soon as we came close to the mother and her cubs, she stood up and stared off into the distance; they can see up to five kilometres straight. Then, she took off like a bat out of hell, leaving her youngsters behind; a cheetah can really sprint, up to 110 kilometres per hour in three seconds flat. What a majestic and athletic feline -- it was a pure delight to see her going after the family dinner! Our guides were truly animal lovers. They let her go after her prey, and then we followed behind, at enough of a distance not to alert the herd of Thompson gazelles that a predator was after one of them. The cubs seemed confused and lost at first, their mother having left them behind with humans. But it seemed that she knew what she was doing, and as soon as we drove off to catch up to her, they followed us! None of us saw the actual killing, as we were still too far behind, but none of us in our vehicle objected to that. It was far more important for the mother to get the kill than for us to see a pursuit that could have ended up in a lost meal, as we would have interfered in the hunt by scaring off the prey. The skilled mother was able to single out a young gazelle, luring him away from the group, thus making the killing easier. The chase was a very short one; the young gazelle was no match for the fastest land animal on earth. But she had to pay a price to hold on to her catch. Two male cheetahs tried to fight her to steal the dinner, but she fought back and was able to push back the coalition. Quite often two males from the same litter will pair off for life, while females live a solitary life, with the exception of mating periods and the raising of cubs.

By this time we almost reached the killing field with the cubs in tow. However, the battle scared off the cubs, as they hid behind the Land Rovers. The drivers were especially careful not to move their vehicles in order to avoid hurting or killing a young cheetah. Many deaths of young animals are caused by careless drivers too eager to satisfy their customers for a closer look at animals, consequently putting the animals’ lives at risk. The mother called her youngsters to the feast -- she sounded like a chirping bird. After some hesitation the young adolescents came to her and gorged themselves. Here another unusual event happened. She and her cubs seemed to take their time eating. Usually they eat very fast and rarely have their fill, as vultures, hyenas and lions are well known to steal the cheetahs’ catch. Vultures will fly in circles over the location of a kill, hence advertising that dinner is served to the hyenas and lions. The cheetahs, knowing this, will devour their meal as fast as they can before the uninvited guests make their appearance at the “table.” Several other vehicles soon joined us, encircling the cheetahs whilst their occupants were taking tons of pictures. After having photographed the scene we left the cheetahs alone to enjoy their meal, though by this time not much was left of the gazelle.

This whole sequence of events with the cheetahs was the turning point of my attitude towards wild animals. Like many people, I did not give much consideration to their intelligence, as I thought that their thinking was mostly driven by instinct. It was only a few months later, after a great deal of research, that I realised this mother cheetah “used” us, at first as baby sitters. It is rare to see a predator leaving her cubs with other predators, especially from another species! Secondly she utilised us as protectors. She knew that she and her cubs were safe to enjoy their dinner, as vultures, hyenas and lions will not come near humans. Her knowledge did not come from books, but only from life experience.

Because of her, I became a strong advocate for the survival of wild animals. The following year I volunteered in South Africa for two months, helping cheetahs with their right to share this planet with humanity. Subsequently, I wrote my doctoral dissertation on developing a model program to increase the retention of qualified volunteers in wildlife rehabilitation centres, while working as a volunteer wildlife rehabber myself.

The rest of the day was not as eventful, but still interesting. After eating some sandwiches, we saw a large column of elephants, with the old matriarch leading the herd to a new location. We stopped at a safe distance to admire them. An elephant flanking the column left the formation, marching toward us with her ears flapping and her trunk swinging threateningly. So we backed off and let them alone. Who will argue with an elephant!

After that episode, we encountered ostriches, a black jackal and a rabbit. We also met some of our not so distant relatives, the baboons. It was quite surprising, to some of us, to see that the troop’s social structure so closely resembled our own. There were some females gathered together attending their young, mostly nursing or playing with them. Some of the males were parading in front of receptive females, behind the back of the alpha male who was sitting, relaxing on a rock with his arms resting on his knees, looking everywhere except behind him. I guess some people before us fed them, as they were looking for handouts. Our guide discouraged that practice and most of us agreed with him.

On our way to the lodge for our evening meal, we saw many herbivores settling in for the night. It was amazing to see giraffes drinking water. They have to spread their front legs apart a good distance in order for their mouths to reach the water, thus putting them in a very vulnerable position. Other animals were gathering in “secure” areas to spend the night, some bunking up with other species, thus combining their survival resources and skills.

As the day came to a close, we encountered some hippopotami getting out of a water hole where they had spent the day, searching for succulent vegetation to put between their teeth. In the water, they do not look so big, but outside a pond, wow what a massive animal!

We enjoyed our dinner while watching animals moving to their night “quarters”. Then we drove to our own lodgings. On our way in, we came across some hyenas and lions. It was astonishing to see their brilliant eyes scanning the land in search of food. As long as the food was not us, we enjoyed looking at them!

At camp, it was so dark that we needed the vehicles’ headlights to assist us in putting up the tents and getting ready for our last night in the African wilderness. What a silent night with, of course, the exception of some nocturnal animals doing their thing!

Again, we awoke very early to take advantage of an early start. After breakfast and having packed our gear for the last time, we headed off to the majestic Ngorongoro Crater, leaving not a trace of our presence behind, except for our footprints.

On our way to the crater, we saw some African buffalo; one of them had a partnership with a bird. The bird was eating small bugs from his ride’s ear while the buffalo was getting rid of the pests, thus working together in a perfect symbiotic relationship.

Between the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater, there is a small Masai village. Here we witnessed the Masai villagers jumping up and down, some very high above the ground. They also had some camels and other domestic animals. We saw even more wildebeests and zebras gathering together for the long journey to the Masai Mara.

As we drove around the top of the Ngorongoro Crater to reach the only road leading in and out of the mini ecosystem, our Land Rover’s passengers were the only ones to see the mighty leopard. We just had a glimpse of her, but what a sight. She looked at us, and then very elegantly went for cover. It was astounding to see so many animals living together in such a relatively small “enclosure”. The first group that we encountered was a cheetah and her cubs, relaxing and grooming each other, totally ignoring us invaders. Then we came across some more African buffalo and springboks, as well as some Thomson gazelles.

We stopped by a lake to admire some hippopotami swimming and playing together. At that time we were on foot, but remained vigilant, as these animals are the leading killers in Africa. Do not let their size fool you, they are very fast on their feet and can outrun any human!

We had to leave the crater sooner than planned, as threatening dark clouds were moving in. If you are unlucky enough to be caught in the crater during a heavy rainfall, it is not unusual to be stuck there for three to four days in order for the ground to dry out. It is impossible to drive off the site when the ground is still wet. So we left fairly quickly.

On our way back to base camp in Arusha, we did the usual tourist stops along the way to purchase souvenirs. Upon arrival at the base camp we were surprised to hear that our main guide was stricken with a bout of malaria and was totally out of commission. Luckily we had with us a guide-in-training and he conducted the rest of the safari.

We left Tanzania the following day and reached Nairobi, our final African destination in Kenya, and bid our adieu to Africa.

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