I’ve been dragging my feet on this article because of the holiday season, and also because I was too busy stuffing my face. I am making up for it with a very long post! Without further ado, here are the photos from our second and third day in Africa, where we headed into the endless plain of the Serengeti, a massive wildlife park that spans across 12,000 square feet extending from northern Tanzania into Southern Kenya (that’s about the size of Maryland or Belgium if you’re interested). In the Serengeti we got to experience the migration of the wildebeest, witness the feast of the lions, and appreciate nature in it’s rawest form – where predators and prey fight for daily survival.
Unlike other popular tourist destinations that tend get over-developed, it’s refreshing to see this place preserved. While time marches on for the rest of the world, it seems to have stood still on this flatland. Being out here feels like we traveled back to a time when life was more simple and your only survival goal was to eat, sleep, and avoid getting eaten by a bigger animal. Each day the sun goes up and comes back down, and the cycle repeats. Witnessing the savagery of an animal tearing into their prey is something you don’t get to see at a zoo. Being out here in the open gives you a feeling of awe, like we are only here for a brief moment to be a a part of something bigger.
It’s possible to drive around the Serengeti by yourself, but it’s a lot easier with a professional guide/driver. The land is flat and stretches as far as the eye can see, looking mostly the same in every direction. Without knowing where you’re going, it’s very easy to get lost. After awhile, the boulders and trees all look the same. When night falls and it’s pitch black outside, it’s easy to fall prey to the wild animals, if you are not careful.
Our accommodation while visiting the Serengeti was a luxury camp, set up in the middle of the park. The layout of the camp site is open and integrated into the surrounding nature. There are no barriers or fences, which means animals are not shy about coming into camp, especially at night. Our tent was quite spacious, with 2 full size beds, a sitting area, a porch, and a full size bathroom. We even got hot water and a flushable toilet! Since there is no TV or WiFi, we let the symphony of animal sounds lull us to sleep every night. From the high-pitched laugh of the hyenas to the low growling of the lions, to the guttural grunting of the buffalo, danger was always right outside, well-hidden in the tall grass nearby. That’s why we were never allowed to leave the tent unescorted.
Out there in the middle of the Serengeti you can see the sky lit up with a million stars. At night the Milky Way is perfectly visible, strewn across the inky black sky. After dinner we brought out our camera gear and sat in the open to take pictures. Nearby, we could hear the hyenas moving in the tall grass. Then came a low growling sound in the distance. We were told by the guards that it’s lions and they were on a hunt. We quickly packed up our stuff and headed inside to the safety of our tent.
Early in the morning we headed out into the plain. Out here, there are many gazelles, impalas and antelopes prancing across the grassland. They are quite small, about the size of a medium dog, not a deer like I initially thought. Their size and agility helps them move quickly at any sign of danger. There are 2 types of gazelles, the bigger ones called grand gazelles and the smaller ones called Thompson gazelles. You can tell the impalas by their straight horns and the gazelles by their twisty horns.
Tanzania’s oldest and most popular national park is famed for the largest terrestrial mammal migration, when hundreds of thousands of animals trek across the open plains in search of fresh grazing. These animals journey from Ngorongoro crater to the Maassai Mara reserve, traveling a distance of 600 mi (1000 km). The pilgrimage begins around June to July when they head up north to Kenya, where they mate and eat the mineral rich foods that helps them nurture healthy offspring. They usually head back down to the Serengeti around November to give birth. Each year, millions of hooves pound the ancient plains in their instinctive quest for survival.
While there was an abundance of zebras, gazelles and wildebeests, other animals like leopards and cheetahs are harder to spot. Their fur giving them the perfect camouflage in the high grass of the Serengeti, making it possible for them to stalk their prey, but impossible for us to find. Solitary leopards usually haunt the acacia trees lining the river, while cheetahs usually prowl the southeastern plains. The little hills and rock outcrops are where the cats like lions and cheetahs make their dens.
Usually we drove around aimlessly until our guide heard of a leopard sighting on the radio. We, along with other cars sped across the plains to congregate at the place where the leopard was last spotted. Then it’s a waiting game where we sit patiently and wait for the animal stir from its afternoon siesta. Finally, after some time we were rewarded with a nice photo op when it sat up on the branch posing for all the admirers before slinking off to stalk two impalas. We thought we were going to witness a kill, but alas, it was not meant to be.
Later that day, we saw another cheetah. This one was pregnant, looking pretty heavy around the belly. We were able to drive right up to it to see the majestic creature up close and personal.
The spectacle of predator versus prey dominates Tanzania’s greatest park. Golden-maned lion prides feast on the abundance of plain grazers. We saw two lionesses and their cubs resting by a tree. While the cubs were playing around with their mother’s tail, the other lioness feasted on the guts of dead wildebeest nearby. We were so close, it almost felt like I could reach out and touch them. The lioness were looking at us and keeping an eye out for their cubs.
It’s not unusual to see only the lioness with her cubs. When they are ready to to mate, they give off a pheromone that attracts the male. Often times after mating the male lion moves on leaving the female to raise the cub by herself. The problem is, when she attracts another male, that lion will try to kill her cubs before allowing her to join the pride. The instinct to kill their rival’s offspring has kept the lion population low.
Later that afternoon we saw another pride of lioness eating a zebra. We were only about 10 meters away, so got to see the feast up close. The lions were fighting amongst themselves trying to get the best piece of meat. They were growling and snarling at each other. It was chilling to watch. At the end, all that was left was the rib cage.
When the lions are through, the smaller scavenger animals join in and finished the rest. Even though these scavenger animals are smaller, they can be quite terrifying. From the mean, spotted hyenas to little jackals, they all move quickly across the plain, keeping a sharp eye out for any sign of death. Even with their uneven gait and sloping back, hyenas can move up to a speed of 35 miles per hour. The little jackal looks deceptively small and adorable, but is a cold-hearted, calculated killer. These animals usually stalk the plain for any signs of impending danger before descending on their target prey.
Down by the river there is a pod of hippos floating in the water. Hippos have soft skin that easily cracks under the hot sun, so during the day, they usually stay submerged in the water. These enormous creatures, weighing more than 3 tons (that’s about two times the weight of a car), don’t move around much. Even when they poop, they merely lift up their butt, used their tail to flick it around then sit right back down. But don’t be fooled by their inactivity, these sedentary creatures can be extremely aggressive when they feel invaded. They are quite territorial and will make loud honking noises when anyone gets too close. Even though they are not carnivores, their massive jaw is capable of inflicting serious damage to anyone that crosses their path.
Every time we go on a game drive, it is a completely different experience, never really knowing what we’ll see. Nature at its most primal is a thrilling experience, it also has a way of making us feel incredibly small. It forces us reflect on our footprints on this world. As humans we are are not as strong or fast as some of the animals out here. The only protection we have against the rest of the animals that could very well stomp us, rip us apart, or ram us is a small metal box. It’s an oxymoron to think that we are so small yet we wreak so much destruction on this fragile planet. It’s not enough to survive, we also dominate. Our needs are insatiable. We build bigger and bigger houses to hold more and more stuff, probably stuff we never use or even need. No other animal in the animal kingdom does this. When we die, we are just the same as these animals, disintegrated in the ground, dust to dust, the inescapable cycle of life.