As we continued in the Northern Serengeti, we wanted to see many of the animals that we had seen on previous safaris, as well as some of the animals that we had not previously seen in the wild.
Visiting the Big Cats
After experiencing the wilderbeests, the big cats were our second priority. Although we have seen each of these on previous safaris in Zimbabwe and Botswana’s amazing Okavango Delta (and in zoos), we can never get enough of these apex predators. The northern section of the park has three big felines: lions, leopards and cheetahs.
Since lions are most active in the mornings and evenings (they are generally resting during the day), we started out at 6:00 each morning to catch the lions before they started resting around 7:30 AM and went out again around 4:00 each evening until 7 PM (by which time rangers required us to be back in camp) to attempt to find lions (or in a couple cases, leopards) engaged in hunts. The vast majority of these efforts were unsuccessful. Still, we saw many lions including a small pride, a larger 11-pride with males, females and cubs huddled together in some shade to rest during the heat of the day. And, in a show of familial protection, one male, when he heard our Land Rover approach, sat up and put his paw on the back of his mate, as if to show us that she was already taken. We also saw a lioness with several 1-2 week old cubs. When we got too close, she got very nervous and glared at us, eventually picking up the cubs in her mouth and moving them.
On our last morning at the camp, we got our first clue of hunt. When we reached a rock outcropping in which we had seen a couple lions the previous evening, we found some cubs that our guide said was waiting for the return of their mother who was probably out hunting somewhere within its roughly two square km territory. We began in the direction in which the cub was looking (presumably the direction in which the mother left) and then in ever-expanding circles. By that time, other safari jeeps in search for the same lioness–none, unfortunately, with any luck.
We hoped that we would be more successful in our upcoming one day in the Ngorongoro Crater.
One big treat came just as the sum was beginning to set on our first day’s game drive when a leopard, who had been sleeping in a shaded rock crevice, began to stir. He put on a show for those of us watching him as be moved to the top of a rock, surveyed his surroundings and began to clean himself before going out on an evening hunt. Unfortunately, we had to be back at camp before dark and had to leave him at that point.
We also got a chance to see cheetahs. While we did get a chance to see them, as with the lions, we did not get to see them in action. After all, they hunt only in early mornings and early evenings, when the temperatures are cool. Moreover, since they are carnivores, their diets provide have so much nutritional value, they can spend very little of their time hinting or eating food. So while their meals are spending most of their waking hours grazing on low-nutrition grasses, the cats spend their days resting in the shade.
Given this, being at the right place at the right time to watch them hunt (much less catch their prey) is even more of a crapshoot that timing the wildebeest’s arrival and the crocodiles’ appetites. As with our previous safaris–and with the Great Migration–we lost our bets. Still, they are beautiful animals.
Elephants, and Hippos, and Cape Buffalos and Black Rhinos…Oh My!
We were almost as anxious to see mammals including elephants, hippos, rhinos and cape buffalo as we were to see the cats. Even more so in the case of rhinos, which we had not, on any of our previous safaris, seen in the wild. We got to see them all.
Given the huge numbers of elephants we saw on previous safaris in Botswana and Zimbabwe, we were surprised to not see as many here as in previous safaris. Still, we saw enough including a mother and her adorable one year-old baby, and some other elephant families.
The hippos were a little more elusive—at least on land. We saw quite a few in the water but the land sightings were, unfortunately, limited to partial views of one walking behind some distant bushes and a few partially emerging from the water for air.
But we were fortunate to see two endangered black rhinos. Although black rhinos are more common than are the practically extinct white rhinos, both are endangered, primarily due to poachers in search of horns, which are highly prized by Chinese for medicinal purposes (rather than its generally assumed role as an aphrodisiac). A huge mother and her roughly three year-old child were strolling leisurely through an open field, providing plenty of viewing opportunity.
But Wait…There’s More
While the above animals were the highlight of our Serengeti safari, they barely scratch the surface of the diversity of this incredible ecosystem. There were, for example:
- Other large mammals, such as giraffe and zebra (zebras also crossed with the wilderbeests, although not in large numbers);
- Smaller mammals, like warthogs;
- Scavengers. Including hyena and jackals (although both will opportunistically hunt wounded or baby animals), in addition to the huge numbers of vultures (which only scavenge);
- Primates, especially chimps and baboons (not counting the baboon tourists);
- Amphibians, including turtles, tortoises; and
- Reptiles, including very well-fed crocodiles and small lizards, such as the pretty, red and blue agama lizard.
And then, of course, there were the birds: all types and sizes of birds, from tiny sparrows to huge ostriches. We heard and saw birds (especially vultures which were the most numerous and prominent of the larger birds) continually during game drives and from our camp. They even chirped throughout the night, in response to the full moon.
While of the larger birds were rather plain looking, some notable exceptions were the beautifully multi-colored lilac-breasted roller (of which we could not get a picture) the crowned crane (Kenya’s national bird) and a secretary bird (the national bird of Tanzania). Less beautiful, but almost as dramatic, are the many types of cranes and the storks. Nor, of course, can one forget the largest birds of all, ostriches.
Some of these bird’s nests were at least as interesting as the birds themselves. Some were simple hollows scraped in the ground, such as that used by the crown lapwing. (The mother of the eggs from the pictured nest was away on a temporary mission to chase away the Thomson’s gazelles who might inadvertently step on her eggs.) At the other extreme were the huge, elaborate tree-based nests of the hamercop which are built from branches, leaves and scavenged human debris such as plastic in the crotch of trees. More interestingly, they contain three separate compartments: a “sleeping room”, a “sitting room” and a “storeroom” for eggs.
With all due regard for the living, we can’t forget the dearly departed. Although we never got the chance to see any type of hunt or chase, much less a kill (either by crocodiles or by the cats), evidence of their success, and in some cases, natural death from old age, was everywhere. This included:
- Previous days’ wildebeest carcasses that lined the shores and that were floating down the river;
- Decaying carcasses and bones of antelope taken down by cats and finished off by vultures;
- An elephant scull and hippo jaw that remained from animals that died at a ripe old age; and
- The scat of hyenas, white from the calcium in the bones they devoured.
As our trip to the northern seregeti draws to a close, we thought it was appropriate to finish with some of the beautiful sunrises, sunsets, flowers and scenery that we saw. And, if you are interested, how to have a “picnic” on safari. No explanation needed, but every day a new experience.
OK, so we never got to experience a lion, leopard or cheetah hunt much less a kill. Not even a crocodile attempting to catch a wildebeest during the Mara River crossing.
Even so, it was a wonderful trip; incredible scenery; a great guide (Michael) and nice lodge (Alex Walker’s Serian). Although we could have imagined somewhat better meals (aside from the soups which very very good), we would recommend the trip highly. One caveat–if you really want to get the most out of the river crossing experience, go in August, when the crocodiles are still sufficiently hungry to capitalize on the bounty being presented them.