The Serengeti Part II
Serengeti means “endless plains” in the language of the Maasai people, a group of pastoral Africans in Kenya and Tanzania that are known for wearing colorful patterned robes and an assortment of jewelry, including heavy earrings that stretch the earlobes of the older and more revered members of a tribe. The camera-shy Maasai live in straw huts and herd their sheep and cows outside the Serengeti National Park.
There couldn’t be a better name for the expanse of grassy plains that seem to go on forever. The sandy-colored grass of the Serengeti National Park covers about 12,000 square miles, scattered with occasional acacia trees, ponds of sleeping hippos, and rock formations where lionesses hide their cubs from the jealous fathers.
The goal of any visitor to the Serengeti is to spot each member of the “Big Five,” a term game hunters concocted (back in the day before it became unacceptable to hunt endangered animals) to describe the five animals that are the most difficult and dangerous to hunt on foot and also produce the best “trophy”: cape buffalo horns, African elephant tusks, lion teeth, leopard coat, and black rhinoceros horn.
We had seen buffalo, elephants, and even the rare black rhinoceros in Ngorongoro Crater. We’d probably see some lions in the Serengeti, although they might be partially hidden in the grass or far away so we may not get a great view of them. Much more unlikely were we to see the elusive leopard, a beautifully exotic animal that is said to make its appearance only for the very lucky Serengeti visitor.
Our first morning exploring the Serengeti National Park began with an exciting glimpse of a mother cheetah with her two cubs. They were far from the road, but it was still amazing to see the gorgeous silhouette of their broad muscular shoulders and the goofy cubs chasing each other and trying to climb the trunks of small trees (which they couldn’t do as cheetahs cannot climb trees).
Next, our driver guide Isaiah (“ee – SIGH – ah”) told us to be on the lookout for lions. I stuck my head out of the car roof and refused to come down until I saw one. We cruised for what seemed like miles along the endless plain, seeing nothing more than a few gazelles eating a grassy breakfast.
As frustration was beginning to set in, I finally saw in the distance what looked like an amber lion’s mane waving through the tall grass. We got as close as we could – about ten feet away – and there he was! A male lion was crouched in the grass as his companion, a regal lioness, sprawled next to him. They were on their honeymoon, according to Isaiah.
Well, he wasn’t lying – they were definitely making the most of their “honeymoon!” Every ten minutes or so, the lioness would rub her head against the lion’s mane, he would crouch behind her “lion style,” then thirty seconds later she would collapse in the grass, and he would raise his head, looking very proud of his lionliness.
The lions repeated their mating sessions every fifteen minutes or so. At one point, the lioness actually took a lazy stroll behind our cruiser to rest on the road for a while mere feet from our car. It was unbelievable to see such a majestic and beautiful animal laying casually so close to us. She seemed to be blind to the row of land cruisers, staring human eyes, and flashing camera lights just feet from her.
After viewing several Discovery Channel-esque honeymooning moments, we decided to move on. Our afternoon was filled with sightings of gawky giraffes crossing the road in front of us, an extended family of elephants chowing on the grass in a field next to the road, and countless zebras, buffalo, wildebeest, impalas, hartebeest, warthogs, ostriches, and gazelles.
Observing four out of the five Big Five seemed like a legit achievement, and I would have been content to leave the Serengeti having only seen the amazingly cool things we’d seen. As the sun began to set over the hills in the distance, we prepared to jet back to our campsite.
Then, on the road about a five minute drive away, we spotted a traffic jam of about twenty land cruisers. “The leopard must be out,” Isaiah told us. “Too bad we have to go back to the campsite before we get fined by the park rangers for being out past closing time.”
I looked at him incredulously. We’re so close to a leopard, and we don’t even get to see it?! I tried to hide my disappointment (after all, Isaiah had shown us some ridiculously awesome things already).
Jokester Isaiah just laughed at me, then hit the gas toward the mob. We arrived at the snarl of cruisers less than five minutes later, and hope again seemed lost. How were we going to get through this mess?! What if the leopard leaves before we get to see her?!
The experienced Isaiah delivered again and expertly maneuvered his cruiser through the bottleneck. Through the gleam of the metal of the cars in front of us, the dazzling spots of the dignified leopard appeared, the stunning animal nonchalantly sunning herself five feet from the side of the road. We drove slowly past, in awe of the mesmerizing creature.
The day was a great success – we had seen each member of the Big Five posse!
Our trip to the Serengeti was complete the next day as we saw two more prides of lions and a hyena eating breakfast to an audience of patiently waiting vultures and a mischievous, thieving jackal. At this point, these amazing sights of nature were starting to seem normal.
We returned to Mto Wa Mbu for a tour of the village to learn about the convergence of African tribes that have made the small area their home, earning a living by cultivating bananas, making beautiful artwork and intricate wood carvings, or teaching at the local school. I was blown away by talent of the artists and farmers, not to mention completely charmed by the dozens of children waving and yelling “Jambo!” (Swahili for hello) who loved to get their picture taken and then see it on the digital camera.
On we go through Tanzania, heading to Zanzibar!