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Serengeti National Park: a close encounter with a leopard

September 11, 2010

About Serengeti
Size: 14,763 sq km (5,700 sq miles).
Location: 335km (208 miles) from Arusha, stretching north to Kenya and bordering Lake Victoria to the west.

After a long drive from Lake Manyara passing through the lush Ngorogoro Conservation Area with its Masai tribes we reached the southern Serengeti plains. Rising from the sea of sun-baked grass came a hill surrounded by trees and vegetation – our lunch spot. We emerged from our jeep to find a sea of khaki. Where did these people find all this “safari gear?” I bet they all bought entirely new wardrobes. I had read that you are not supposed to wear bright colours because they might scare off the animals. Well I can tell you now that this is ridiculous. What is going to scare off the zebra more – a huge noisy Landrover or the smidgen of red inside of it? Regardless it appears that most animals are unfazed by either.

After lunch we continued through a sea of yellow (which reminded me of pictures I’ve seen of Saskatchewan, Canada) until in late afternoon we finally we reached central Serengeti with its scattered vegetation. Not long after passing the few lone trees we came across another cat-jam. Reminiscent of Tarangire National Park there was a leopard not far from a lion. The Serengeti is known for its spectacle of predators – and the park was not letting us down. At first we saw only the leopard lazing on the branch of a sausage tree. This time she was not obscured by the leaves so we admire her tell-tale spots using the binoculars. Then noticing that others were looking in a somewhat different direction we scanned the plains to find a lioness partially concealed by grass. She seemed to be taking great interest in two Thompson gazelle a short distance away. She was in stalking mode. It must be hard to hunt with over a dozen jeeps watching on. We watched the lioness stalk her prey for at least 40-minutes. But in the end the gazelles saw her coming and ran off. No meal for her tonight.

After this spectacle we drove to find two giraffe eating away in our campsite that will be our home for the next 3 nights. This location was definitely open to the wilderness. During the nights we could hear the sounds of hyena in the campsite, and lions off in the distance. There was just no option to leave the safety of the tent in order to use the washroom at night.

Over the next three days we did morning and afternoon game drives. During that time we started to grow less and less excited about the plain grazers such as gazelle and zebra (there are just so many of them!) and more excited about finding the rarer animals – lion, leopard and cheetah. In the end we saw 4 leopards, 2 cheetahs and at least 3 dozen lions! And of course I was always excited to see the hippo pools.

Our most eventful day started early. We began out game drive before sunrise at 6 am – the earliest you are allowed to wander in the park. The Serengeti sunrise was just breathtaking. We sat and watched as the sun crested over the horizon. We watched as two hot-air balloons drift over us.  I was amazed to see how many people were crammed into the baskets, a dozen at least. After speaking with a couple in our hotel we learnt that it cost them $599/person for the hour and the balloon had drifted over part of the Serengeti where the park rangers had done some controlled burning of the grass. I bet that this experience would have been fantastic during the wet season when the migration (thousands of wildebeest and zebra) and roaming around on the plains.

Since we were up so early we went to the nearest hippo pool to see if any of the hippos had made it back late from night-time grazing. Hippopotamus are nocturnal – they sleep during the day keeping cool in the water holes. Unfortunately this means that they usually are not that active. We were in luck – we spotted two hippos slowly making their way back to water. One disappeared in a large ditch but the other had other plans. We semi-stalked this hippo as he walked around the hippo pool and crossed the road. This made my day. No this made the entire safari – we could have gone back to the hotel at that moment and I would have been happy. I wonder how many hippo enthusiasts there are.

After all the excitement we made our way over to a picnic area for some breakfast. We jumped out of the jeep and started walking hand-in-hand over to the washroom areas. Mid-pee I hear the sounds of the jeep pulling up outside and some muffled conversation. “That’s weird” I thought since this path wasn’t really designed for vehicles. Then I hear Dave yell out at me “Taylor stay in the washroom. There is a leopard stalking us!” Holy shit. Seriously? Waiting around a little bit I open the door a crack. “Guys? Can I come out now? Guys?” I called out. Dave and our driver pulled around the building to watch the leopard walk away. Umm remember me? I started to get much more paranoid about predators after this experience, especially walking around the campsite.

Later that afternoon we came across a cat-jam just as a lioness pounced after a small herd of zebra. She sucessfully caught a baby zebra and sunk her teeth into its neck. I have seen footage on television showing predators killing (poor innocent) prey but this was different. What they don’t show you is the rest of the herd. The remainder of the small group of about 6 zebra stopped after only 50 feet. They all made sad horse-like noises and displayed their distress. What I can only imagine was the mother zebra stood in front of the group looking the most distressed. The rest of the group would urge her to leave. They would only go another 20 feet or so before she would stop and look back again. Once more the group would insist that she leave. The group continued on this pattern another 6 or 7 times until they were out of view. I cried while the rest of the people in the largest collection of jeeps I’ve seen so far were jubalent. I think some of them cheered. I’m such a stereotypical vegetarian.

Sadly our time in the Serengeti came to an end. Oddly enough, it rained for at least a few hours all three days. Before I left I read online that September averaged 1cm/month. As we drove to Ngorogoro crater you could see green sprouts coming in. I guess the short rains are coming early this year. I would love to return one day to see what the Serengeti is like in the wet season during the migration.


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