We are gently awakened at 6:00 AM by a camp staffers’ “Hello, hello” at our tent flap. He is carrying a tray of coffee and cream. Our true wakeup call though are the thousands of birds that begin their day before dawn and grow louder and louder as the sun comes up. The air is cool and still, and we dress in layers. At 6:30 AM, and still dark, we meet with our Tanzanian-born guide Chedi at our Toyota Land Cruiser for our first full day of game driving. Dark green with rust spots, canvas upholstery and equipped with fold-open top, winch, two fuel tanks, four-wheel drive, both VHF and HF radios, but no cup holders, this is not your average soccer mom’s Land Cruiser.
We drive through a small wooded area headed toward the plain, stopping to take pictures of the gorgeous sunrise. Our first animal spotting is a large, solitary bull elephant. We get amazingly close to him; so close we can hear his breathing. After our elephant encounter, we drive past herds of zebra and wildebeest. Between 7:30 AM and 8:00 AM we stop on the open plain and spread a picnic breakfast on the hood of the Land Cruiser. Due to the high elevation of the Serengeti Plain, it is still quite cool, and we are happy for our fleece pullovers. The fried egg sandwiches, cereal, fresh fruit, juice and coffee taste like heaven on earth. I take this opportunity to ask our guide Chedi some questions. He is quite patient and answers them all with openness and grace. The subjects range from the local people’s opinion of tourism (quite favorable) to the perspective of colonization from different generations (very interesting with points I had not thought of). Quite an enjoyable conversation, and helpful too. I am gathering research for a term paper for my Peoples of Africa university course.
Chedi speaks to us about his family and his home, and how things have changed over the generations. He recalls stories from his grandfather’s time, and we discuss the effects of colonization and how it changed their world. There is absolutely no looking backwards here. The people’s thoughts are only of the future. There is so much to do in Africa they cannot afford to spend time on the past.
After breakfast we drive further into the plain observing zebras and wildebeest. We see another camp vehicle at a standstill, a near guarantee that something has been sighted. We drive over to see a pride of lions, all sleeping, either fully exposed or covered by long grasses. They hardly move at all, only lifting their heads and swishing tails at the many flies. We are told that the lions are fat and happy because of the abundance of prey due to the birthing season. One cub pops up and looks around, and we are delighted. We are within fifteen feet of the pride, but they do not seem to mind the vehicle. We watch them sleep for about thirty minutes. The big male lion stands, walks two steps, and lays back down. Chedi says “Well, that’s the action for the day.”
We leave the sleeping lions to drive back into the heart of the plain where you can see herds of zebra and wildebeest stretching from one end of the horizon to the other. One lone acacia tree stands out and makes a lovely setting for photos. I ask if I can get out of the vehicle to take some pictures. After checking the areas of high grass for predators, Chedi says it is okay, so I walk a distance from the jeep to take some pictures. Immediately the zebra stop and watch me with their ears up. Jeeps they do not seem to mind, but people moving about outside the jeep agitates them.
We continue our drive and spot three jeeps in a half circle. This is a sure sign of a sighting. We drive over and see two cheetahs walking toward the large herds.
The jeeps keep their distance, following the unwritten safari guide rule that animals on the hunt are observed from a distance. We watch the cheetahs, stalked by camera-toting tourists as they hunt for breakfast. We are told that cheetah hunt during the day, while the other cats hunt mostly in the evening and at night. Cheetahs do not like to tangle with the other cats and will give up their prey to almost any other predator. They are the most delicate and lightest of the cats and cannot afford to be injured. They stop for a rest and the herds move away. The guides decide they are no longer hunting and the vehicles all move closer.
The cats don’t appear concerned, but it gets a bit comical when nine jeeps form a semicircle around the two cheetahs. They practice the art of catness by lying still for long periods, with only an occasional flip of the tail. One rolls onto its back and we see only four paws in the air. The grass is long on the plain and at times the cats are completely concealed. Finally they get up and move again toward the herd, so the vehicles all back off. We decide to give them their space and we head right into the middle of the wildebeest herd. We spot fresh afterbirth on the ground and scan the herd for the baby. We see the calf next to its mother. It is possibly only an hour old, tottering around on unsteady legs.
Continuing our drive we see two more newborn calves. These are what the cheetahs are hunting. We also see many pregnant zebra, and new baby zebra. They come to this part of the Serengeti to give birth because the grass is plentiful and full of the nutrients the babies need. The plain is greener and the grass taller than we expected. It is dotted with many yellow, white, and purple flowers. Chedi tells us that it has rained more than usual in the past few months. We drive back to camp for lunch.
We arrive back in camp at 12:30 PM for a lunch served at 1:00 pm. The dining tent is quite nice with one long table we share with the other campers. There are only six guest tents in the compound. As we sit down for lunch one couple arrives chattering excitedly. They have seen a leopard, the most elusive cat and the rarest sighting. After a lunch of vegetable pizza, potato salad and green salad, we retreat to our tent to rest during the hottest time of the day.
At 4:30 PM we again meet Chedi at the vehicle and head in the opposite direction from the morning drive. We pass a soda lake, climb a hill and drive into a small forest. Here we spot hartebeest, Thompson’s gazelles and impalas. There is a skirmish between two of the impalas. One chases the other away, while Chedi tells us that the victor is guarding his harem.
We also see a herd of nine or ten giraffe, including some young. A little further and we encounter our bull elephant from the morning. He is giving himself a dust bath. He sucks the dirt and blasts it all over himself, and us, as we are that close. We get within about fifteen feet of him and watch for quite some time. It is fascinating. He slowly moves off.
The light is turning perfectly beautiful now at about 6:15 PM. We reluctantly turn towards camp for the drive back, stopping to photograph a dik-dik and many different types of birds. As we make our way slowly along a dirt track, my sister and I stand with our heads out the top of the Land Cruiser. We are approaching the soda lake we passed earlier. Suddenly there is excited chatter in Swahili coming over the radio. Chedi is speaking with another guide. Our pace quickens, but he tells us nothing. Throughout the day Chedi has been driving slowly and carefully, inquiring at each bump if we are okay. Now we start to race down the dirt road along the shore of the lake, faster than we have driven before, ignoring potholes. We are standing so our legs cushion the shocks. My sister and I exchange glances. We know something is up. Now we are careening along the shoreline bouncing with the wind full in our faces. The sun is setting over the lake and it is beautiful. I yell down to Chedi to stop so I can take a picture. He slows down, we stop and he calmly says, “You might want to make it quick, there was a leopard sighting near camp.” I snap one quick photo and scream “Go!” He hits the accelerator and we are off again at breakneck speed.
Now we know the reason for our mad dash. We fly along the lakeshore sending up a cloud of dust in our wake. We race by a pack of hyenas so fast they don’t have time to be startled. We spot the other camp vehicle waiting for us. They had just seen the leopard coming toward them along the side of the road. It headed into the tall grass, bushes as high as the vehicle. It is twilight now, the cameras useless. The guide points down a ravine and says the leopard had headed downhill. We stop both vehicles. Then Chedi has an idea. He turns our vehicle around and heads back down the dirt road. He stops just long enough to jump out and turn the hubs so we have four-wheel drive available. Chedi jumps back in the jeep and says “We may need it.” The excitement and drama have built to a fever pitch. He heads straight into the ravine. It seems useless to us, but suddenly the leopard streaks from left to right about forty feet ahead of us. It hesitates as it reaches the tall bushes, just long enough for us to get a good look, and then it is gone and we see the tail disappear. It is in the tall bush now, and we stop and watch. It is getting dark quickly. Chedi decides to follow the cat into the bushes and we drive through grass and bushes as tall as the jeep. The other vehicle joins us and we stop to listen. We wait and peer into the area where the cat disappeared. We are all looking intently into the brush. It is nearly dark, about 7:00 PM. Suddenly Chedi says “There he is.” The leopard is 180 degrees behind us at quite a distance, nowhere close to where we were looking. This is typical of leopards, the guides say, and call them elusive, quick and sneaky. The leopard is walking casually away at a slow pace, secure in the knowledge that in moments the darkness will conceal him completely. We watch silently, happy to have seen him at all.
Chedi heads the jeep back to camp. We thank him profusely for his efforts. He turns to us with a big grin and admits, “I love these game drives as much as you do.” It shows. I have to say that flying along the road, head out the top of the vehicle with the wind in my face, racing toward a leopard sighting was one of the best moments of my life. Now I understand why dogs love this so much. There is no better way to experience all the sights, sounds, and smells of your surroundings. It is a great way to watch the world go by.
Pulling into camp with wildly tangled hair and covered in dust, we couldn’t be happier. We shower with five gallons of water heated painstakingly over a fire and change for dinner. All the lamps here are solar charged battery operated, no electricity, and no running water. Dinner conversation is mostly of the leopard and plans for the next day’s game drive. We are served leek and cheese casserole, sautéed zucchini and roasted potatoes. It is delicious. We are back in the tent at 10:00 PM to find turn down service completed, including a hot water bottle between the sheets on our cots. A very nice touch, and greatly appreciated. Life is good. We are meeting Chedi at 6:30 AM and hope for a repeat performance.