The first day of the safari was spent kayaking on the Momella Lakes in Arusha National Park. I, unfortunately, missed the first day, but when the group told me how much they enjoyed the water along with not one, but two pythons! I was so pleased to see everyone turn up for the second day and no one had got straight back on the plane home. There was crater hiking through the forest and good views of a snowcapped Kilimanjaro. The park is a real gem and well worth a look if you’re around Arusha for a day or two.
Tarangire National Park
After coming up short searching for Arusha’s elusive elephants, everyone was excited to find some. Assuring everyone that Tarangire would provide, it was indeed before lunch on our way into the park when a wonderful herd crossed the road right in front of us. The next morning, we were out early and rewarded almost immediately as a small group of lions ran towards and past us in an eerie dawn light. Again, we found time to stretch the legs on a bush walk which included some barefoot river crossing. That evening we headed out for a night game drive, one of the added advantages of Tarangire. Things got off to a reasonable start as I reacquainted myself with how sore your bum gets sitting on a Landcruiser door, I soon forgot about it when we got a chameleon in the spotlight. A few genets later things started to get interesting with a pack of serious-looking hyenas, amazing to see these animals really in their element, at night. Then a couple of bat-eared foxes popped up. And then as we drew up at a waterhole, there were some healthy expletives issued as two lionesses stood up a few feet from the vehicle. I should mention that not all-night drives are like this. By then we had to think about going home. But not without finding a beautiful cheetah enjoying a lazy evening. Before we could regale those who stayed behind in camp with our adventure, they informed us they had had quite an evening themselves. A leopard, at one point hiding next to the toilet, had killed a duiker right in the middle of the camp. The joys of tented bush camps!
The Ngorongoro Crater
On the way up to the Ngorongoro Crater, another leopard was spotted on the crater rim road, I was wondering if we were peaking too early. After negotiating the rather friendly buffalo in camp, we got down into the crater itself. An always spectacular backdrop, we got off the regular circuit and enjoyed a quiet morning before spotting a pair of huge male lions away in the distance. One of our vehicles managed to be in the right place when one of these chaps trotted past after another seemingly trespassing male. The other car, perched above watching the scene unfolding with a lioness curled up in a tree, spotted something small, down in the grass. On closer inspection said dot turned into a serval, who we were very happy to watch hunting in the grass with their classic jumping ambush routine. Much discussion of our continuing good fortune ensued over lunch under the mighty fever trees. A few minutes later, when one of our guides spluttered caracal, I thought he was winding me up. But no, there, striding across the dried floodplain was indeed a caracal, an outrageous string of sightings and a stunningly beautiful cat. That night, three young children were killed by lions while guarding their cattle, a reminder of the terrible costs for people who live alongside the wildlife we enjoy.
Starting in a heavy, impenetrable fog, we made our way down into the dry vastness of the Serengeti. As always endeavouring to get away from anyone else, we enjoyed some slipping and sliding in the mud and even saw some more servals, kittens included! Having now already seen a full range of big cats, attention was shifting towards seeing their babies too. After having to turn down a number of lovely looking lunch trees because of bees, we were able to continue the theme and spot a mama leopard in a tree. With it, we realised some moments later, that two small cubs were in the same tree. As we rolled into camp the fire was already burning with glorious views back across the Serengeti plains. The other car was only just in time for sunset, such was their insistence on seeing more lions.
The following day we had some miles ahead to reach the far north of the Serengeti, hoping to catch up with the migrating wildebeest herds. Having decided on a shortcut along the western boundary of the park, and some discussion with local bystanders, you could have been forgiven for allowing the word lost to pop into mind. Due to the indelible spirit of the group, and the distraction of a flat tyre, the route was quickly rescued, and we arrived into the Lamai wedge and large herds of wildebeest and zebra. Tuning into the news wire, the excited chatter of herds on the brink of the Mara River began and we raced to the scene. As if by appointment, and while we were explaining the need to really hold on if it gets started, they began to cross. Hurtling down to the riverbank, arms and legs and cameras flying, we were right there as hundreds of wildebeest threw themselves off the banks down into the river, and for most of them, up the other side. A visceral, adrenalin pumping spectacle like no other.
Still, relatively, there weren’t that many wildebeest around. We soon realised that was because they were all gathering in the hills around our camp. The sheer density of animals is mind-boggling. Their constant calling lulled us to sleep and serenaded us in the morning. An occasional chink sound, their horns on the tent poles as they grazed. The camp’s gas lamp turnover was high as the wildebeest did their level best to make sure every single one was smashed by morning.
After a quick visit to Kenya, we found some considerable herds walking single file, with intent, towards the riverbanks. Wait, wait some more. Then one suddenly turns back at a run, and the whole lot are spooked. With a flick of a tail and a plume of dust, binocular inspection reveals a botched lion ambush. Moving into the long grass to investigate we find said lion, then another, and another and before long the whole pride. We spent the afternoon with them as they played hilariously amongst the bushes.
There was still time to chase some more river crossings. Whilst enjoying everything in-between, ranger coffee recipes and elephant herds, the will they won’t they continued. Until they cross, but not where you thought, down from the other side. And then another group immediately crosses back the other way. Cue a gut-wrenchingly dramatic battle for survival between one unlucky wildebeest and a determined but ultimately hungry crocodile.
Having reached the final day, we sombrely made our way to the airstrip. But why not a quick look around the kopjes before take-off? A couple of klipspringers, and then we noticed another vehicle across the valley. It seemed quiet, we peered amongst the rocks and bushes. And then, tiny eyes, tiny spots, whiskers, and a tiny leopard cub climbing out unsteadily into view. Our luck really did hold for the entire safari. Disappearing down an aardvark hole on the way back, putting take-off briefly in question, was a small price to pay.
A huge thank you to Elius, Lesika, Dionis, everyone behind the scenes, everyone we met along the way and of course you all who were along for the ride.