11. Travel Escapade – An African Safari in Search of the Big Five

Chapter 11

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I had high hopes for this day as it was our last full day at Serengeti and I was yet to see a majestic lion that was fully alert and not in deep slumber. What a different world would it be if all that you had to do to be the king was just to sleep for more than 12 hrs a day! As James came to know that it was raining heavily towards northern Serengeti, we decided to explore other directions as driving in the slush was both tricky and dangerous and animal sightings would be very rare. Stepping out of Kati Kati, we saw hyenas lazing around in mud baths after having a heavy meal. Though they looked really dirty with all the mud smeared across their body, their cute faces captivated us. Growing up watching The Jungle Book, my perception of hyenas was very villainous, yet seeing them up close, I was drawn to their innocent face.

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Soon, we happened to spot an “almost perfect” camouflaged leopard on a sausage tree and would have easily missed it hadn’t it been for its dangling tail. To our surprise, there was another leopard just a few trees away. As leopards are territorial, it is indeed very rare to spot two of them within close proximity. The only explanation that James had was that they might be a male and female leopard getting ready to mate. We decided to give some privacy to these lovers and moved away from there. Moving a little further we came upon another leopard that was fortunately not trying to hide itself in the canopy of a sausage tree. The leopard was sitting on a fallen tree trunk and was very easy to spot. Although its face was hidden by a branch we could see the lithe body and an occasional glimpse of the ferocious face.

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Driving around, we came upon a lion pride which had lionesses and cubs aplenty. I believe this was the same pride that we saw from our hot air balloon ride. The lionesses were resting as usual and the cubs were playing around. The mothers were trying hard to put the cubs to sleep between their paws yet the naughty ones escaped and were finding pleasure in disturbing the others. It was a different feeling to watch the cubs up close in their comfort zone playing around and tumbling on top of each other. They looked so adorable that I thought of pocketing one. Realizing they were not puppies but lion cubs instead, I dropped the idea. This pride was sleeping in open area as the sky was overcast and there was no harsh sun.

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As we had abandoned our plans to drive towards the north, James drove far and wide in search of some wild animal sightings. The only animals that we came across were some zebras, wildebeests and hyenas. There was also a secretary bird feeding on a mongoose with its characteristic sound. The secretary bird when eating makes a sound very similar to the sound of keystroke of a typewriter, hence the name “secretary“ bird. We drove to a region abounding in kopjes. Stopping at each and every kopje we looked out in anticipation to get a glimpse of the kings and queens resting on the top, but were left disappointed every single time. My husband was getting restless as it was almost 2 hrs since we started driving without a single animal in sight. James was also really surprised to see a total absence of animals and we realized that we were not the only ones without luck thanks to the crackling voices over the radio.

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Soon enough, our fortune changed! Resting near one of the kopjes was a lion. To add to my excitement, he was up from his slumber and looking around vigilantly. We could see his magnificent golden eyes, long mane, sharp teeth and the powerful front paws. We soaked in this close proximity to the beast of the jungle, mentally recording everything about it. James immediately broadcasted the location of the sighting through the radio. Although it was entirely in Swahili, I could make out few words like Simba and Candelabra. It puzzled and amazed me as to how these safari guides were able to reach the exact location broadcasted in a radio without any GPS coordinates or a map. Even with a map, I am unable to reach a location correctly, even if my life depended on it! On enquiring with James, he mentioned that the guides have some landmarks identified across various points in Serengeti. Where we had sighted the lion, there was a kopje with a lone candelabra standing tall at its top. Hence, all the guides on hearing Candelabra will understand the location. Thank heavens that I wasn’t a safari guide!

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While we were proceeding to a public campsite for lunch, we saw three cheetahs hiding under a shrub. Though they all looked almost alike, James mentioned that one was the mother and the other two were her cubs. The mother was looking after the almost mature cubs who were really skittish around the safari vehicle. We sat there observing them for quite some time and forgot all about our rumbling stomachs. By the time we realized how late it was for lunch, James suggested that we can have our lunch in the vehicle itself rather than going to the campsite. We whole-heartedly agreed. How many people are lucky enough to have lunch with a cheetah family and that too in the middle of the Serengeti!

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After lunch, James, with our permission, took a detour to a nearby research campsite to drop off some beer from Kati Kati as there was a birthday party. James dropped off the bottles in a carton and returned with another carton filled with empty bottles. He explained that in TZ if you go to any shop with empty glass bottles in exchange for a bottled product, you can purchase it at a lower price. These empty glass bottles will be washed and used to repackage the product again thereby ensuring lesser wastage. The research site like every other lodge or building in the Serengeti did not have any walls demarcating their boundaries to ensure that there were no man-made obstructions to the movement of the animals.

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On our way back, we saw few topis grazing around the research camp. Soon enough, we came upon five lionesses relaxing nearby the road. On observing closer we could see one of the lionesses wearing a radio collar. James explained that she was the dominant female of the pride and that this pride was being tracked by the scientists for research purposes. The radio collar was placed on the dominant female as she decides the pride’s activities and always led the pride in hunting. All of the lionesses in the pride were resting and barely even lifted their heads when we approached.  Nearby, we spotted the king of the pride who too was resting.

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While we were nearing Kati Kati, we came upon a full alert lion sitting under an acacia tree looking at us directly with his yellow eyes. He looked a bit aged as he had an overgrown mane and had a grey-ish skin tone, unlike the golden colored skin of the young males. We sat observing the lion and clicking pictures of him while James was busy checking his email and Whatsapp messages. We were surprised that there was a very good mobile network even in the middle of a national park! Discussing about telephone network issues, James pulled out an Airtel dongle and connected it to a port in the vehicle so that we too could be a part of the connected world in the middle of nowhere!

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As this was our last night at Kati Kati, we were watching the “Bush TV” when one of the Masai staff members came to talk to us as he was very curious about India. He asked us about our jobs and about life in India in general. After hearing about my blog, he wanted to know more about blogging and how it was done. Realizing that I write book reviews, he lamented that reading as a habit is not cultivated in Tanzania from school and that nobody reads for pleasure. After having a heavy dinner, we retired to our tent and slept off soon enough. I was awoken by the sound of rain pelting down on the roof, but I soon returned to dreamland being contended with a wonderful day!

To be continued…

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