Animals seen (new in bold)
- The now typical combined herds of gnu, far less zebra though with them
- A few dozen scattered herds of Thomson Gazelle
- Two or three dozen elephants, including four babies born in the past month or two
- A family of a couple dozen banded mongoose
- 14 Topi antelopes in a family unit
- 12 lionesses and their eight month old cubs. No adult males in sight
- 10 hyenas who were half asleep in a big mud puddle right next to the road
- Around 8 Cape Buffalo. First we’ve seen them since the Crater
- 2 leopards in trees. One got out to unsuccessfully hunt a Bohor Reed buck. Hard to perform when 14 tourist trucks are starting and stopping next to you
- 2 cheetah females. One immediately after leaving Hugo camp, drinking at a watering hole then walking, sniffing, looking for Thomson gazelle but not seeing any. Another about an hour later in open savanna tracked a gazelle but was stymied by an alert zebra who bellowed and informed the Thomson to keep its head up
- 2 silver jackals baring their teeth and snapping at
- 7 vultures who were all hooding and guarding a bit of dead meat
- 2 ugly Marabou storks following the vultures around. They were picking up bits of bone and offal and cracking it like walnuts in their long beaks
- 2 crowned cranes at the same watering hole as the cheetah
We awoke with the sunrise. More specifically Christine did – I had already been up, tossing and turning on my cot and trying to find a comfortable way to lie. I had heard several hyenas laughing through the night but none had been close enough to make me worry. The tent was barren of everything but us and our electronics anyway; I was sure there wasn’t enough in there to make us smell interesting, just like scary humans. At several points I had thought I had heard long spans of something breathing, very close by and rhythmically… But then eventually I turned over and my ear positioning changed and I realized it was just the metal tent zipper scraping slowly across something, over and over again. I seemed to sleep a little easier after discovering that.
Outside the tent, alone, before Christine awoke, I stopped over to see how Rebecca the Dung Beetle was doing (fine) and heard a quiet rustling in the bushes. I stared hard, wondering if the hyenas had waited until now to pounce. Instead, sprinting away from me with an amusing lumbering run, was a honey badger. Thanks to the Internet’s interest in the HB and its inability to “give a fuck” I recognized it immediately. It was only in my line of sight for about 3 seconds before it ran behind another bush, farther away, and was out of sight.
Our morning game drive turned up a couple cheetah as described above as we moseyed north from Ndutu to the Serengeti. They both seemed interested in hunting, with the first one sniffing and slowly turning her head in every direction and walking a pretty clear one-way line. At one point she even briefly climbed a tree (albeit to a very low branch), stared around hard, and then came down to the ground and curled up in a very housecat kind of way. The hunt seemed to be over for her, at least for now. The same was true in the wide savanna north where we saw the second, but at least in that case there was a definite stalking of a Thomson gazelle. If only the zebras and gnu hadn’t saw/smelled the cheetah and sounded the alert for the otherwise oblivious Thomson, we could have seen a good hunt. However, Paul pointed out the hyena lurking nearby, about 400 meters away. Even if the cheetah had made a successful kill, there’s no guarantee she’d have been able to keep it.
On our way north, we stopped by a tiny little airfield at the edge of the Serengeti for Paul to register us, and we watched a tiny little 12-seat bush plane filled with tourists take off laboriously, possibly heading towards a private game reserve vs the public national parks that can get semi-crowded during high season.
Soon afterward we had a bit of minor car trouble- a flat rear driver side tire. We could hear it suddenly start leaking air even with the engine still on! Christine and I sat and read our Kindles under an acacia tree while Nicholas and Paul replaced the tire with one of their two spare tires that are attached to the back of the truck.
The roads got rougher – Paul said that unlike Ndutu, where we could basically drive wherever we wanted, in Ngorogoro and Serengeti all the vehicles had to stay strictly on the roads, which resulted in some deep ruts and teeth rattling bounces. Besides a couple of young elephants leaning against trees, gloating mud onto themselves in the heat, we didn’t see any other animals (besides, of course, zebra and gnu).
Until right before we reached the public campsite, Nyani, we’d be staying at to drop Nicholas and the gear off. We saw at a distance about 5 tourist trucks pulled up around something, and of course we’ve learned that means something special must be nearby. And it was! Our first spotted leopard was lounging in a tree, relaxing with its back to us, tail dangling down like a pendulum. More and more trucks started appearing and then, as if on cue, the leopard stretched, leapt down from the tree and stalked between the vehicles to the east, where a Reedbuck was standing alone, staring off into space.
A few trucks (there were 15 now, the most I had seen in one place to look at an animal) kept starting, stopping, or pulling around to try to give their tourists a better view. The leopard’s ears twitched in annoyance at the squealing brake sounds. After about 20 seconds of crouching and looking at the antelope, it suddenly darted back across the road, quick as a flash. The Reedbuck started, and suddenly screamed a rather horrific piercing call several times – obviously a warning call. We watched the leopard angle for position for about 15 more minutes, even after out of the other vehicles had given up and left, but finally the leopard climbed into another tree to rest and even we admitted it was time to move on.
As we waited for Paul and Nicholas to unload the truck at the campsite, I noticed a small, lean, tube shape running around the wall of the bathroom. It suddenly stood up on its hind legs and jerked its head around. I followed at a distance. Was it a meerkat, completing my Lion King collection? I rounded the corner and suddenly two dozen pairs of beady black eyes were looking at me. I remembered from Paul’s book that these must be banded mongooses.They ranged in size from about 1.5 feet to little 6 inch long sausage babies, a few of which were tussling and making cute little squeaking sounds.
They stared at me in watchful interest. A few started bowing their heads up and down while still making eye contact. I did the same. They chattered excitedly, standing up on their hind legs. I crouched and rose at the same time. More of them gathered in front of me, bowing and bowing again. I tried to copy them exactly. I had about 15 in front of me, squeaking and coming closer. We all bowed rapidly at each other like we were about to close a business deal in Tokyo.
Then Christine came around the corner, “what are you doing over here?” and the mongooses immediately scattered, squealing, into the underbrush. A few heads popped up from the weeds and looked back, but the spell was broken. At least, until Christine started tossing little chunks of banana to the group. Suddenly I was forgotten and the little tribe had a new best friend.
Back in the truck, we bounced down the well-suited paths and found a herd of elephants, the largest group we’d seen together yet. There were some adorable little babies, about a month old in Paul’s estimation, running about gleefully with their trunks up in the air, crashing into things like toddlers often do. I noticed something on the mothers that I’d never seen on any other mammals – instead of the nipples being located on the belly in a line, the elephants had two nipples, each located just behind the forelegs. From that point forward it became easy to recognize male vs female elephants.
We saw a second leopard, but it didn’t do too much – just sat in its tree and gazed down at us for about 2 minutes after we arrived, then fell asleep, both tail and one rear leg dangling from the tree. After that, we stayed for about 15 minutes at a pride of no less than 12 lionesses/cubs, the latter were extremely adorable 8-month-olds who made tiny roars, played with each other, flopped onto their backs and waved their paws in the air, and nursed their mothers while growling in contentment. Paul pointed out there was no male adult in sight or sound – contrary to the image portrayed by the Lion King, elder males tend to eat baby males, who they (rightfully) recognize as a threat to their leadership of the pride.
Back at the campsite, the party was in full swing. There were two main pavilions – one filled with shouting, hardworking Tanzanian cooks, and the other filled with smoking, shouting European tourists, about 30-40 by my count. Seriously, the smell was pretty bad. I wish I could say that someday they’ll ban smoking “indoors” at the public campsites but considering the pavilions are mesh screens halfway up the wall, it’s unlikely. And the spaniard table talked and smoked all night as I was trying to post the last two blog entries (in case you couldn’t tell, diligent readers of Jan 9, 2017, I’m a little bit behind). I had a cough for the entire next day.