Sunday, June 3, 2007

12 February: Splendid Serengeti

Our wake-up knock came at 6 a.m. so we could eat breakfast before our 7:30 game drive. We watched a spectacular lavender- and rose-hued sunrise from our balcony, then enjoyed the “usual” breakfast buffet at our two tables on the terrace – a fresh breeze rolling in off the plains adding just the right touch – before setting off on our game drive. It took a good forty-five minutes to descend out of the hills and onto the plains (this may be a disadvantage of staying at the Serengeti Sopa Lodge). We were searching for leopards in every suitable-looking tree (Rodgers having pointed out the sort of low, horizontal branches where they like to hang out). It is amazing how easily your eyes can trick you, particularly when you really want to see a leopard; we saw those deceptive A.L.T.’s in just about every sprawling acacia tree! We passed one particular tree where our guides had heard a leopard was sighted within the last hour or two. Rodgers spotted tell-tale tire tracks leading up to and away from the tree and he suspected that someone had driven illegally off-road to get closer to the leopard and scared it off, therefore ruining the experience for the rest of us. We were pretty frustrated.

Other wildlife sightings this morning included four Topis, four black-backed jackals trotting down the road in front of us and, a little later, three more lounging by the side of the road, a Coke’s Hartebeest (a large grassland antelope), and Bohor Reedbuck (another large, reddish antelope). Additional bird sightings included a family of Helmeted Guinea Fowl with eight or nine chicks, Rüppell’s Long-Tailed Starling, African Hoopoe (an awesome bird but unfortunately it moved to fast to get a photo), Cardinal Woodpecker, Bare-Faced Go-away Bird, Montague’s Harrier, Rosy-cheeked Cordon Bleu, Fisher’s Lovebird, and Gray-headed Spurfowl.

The road conditions were none too good – at times looking more like a river than a road – and we were grateful for our trusty Land Cruisers. We gave up temporarily on the leopard search and made our way to a large muddy pool where we saw our largest group of hippos to date – I estimated between 20 and 30 individuals. A youngster yawned widely, showing us its chompers. Another rolled over in the water, looking quite comical with its stubby, mud-covered legs flailing in the air.

A little while later we got a glimpse of three cheetahs – probably brothers – loping away from us in the grass. It was amazing how easily they blended in with their surroundings. Next we got our closest view yet of some Topis – they crossed the road directly in front of us – and then spotted a large herd of Cape Buffalo several hundred yards from the road. We also got a good look at a Vervet monkey (also known as the blue-balled monkey – for good reason) perched in a tree. We stopped at a nature center for a short hike and learned a bit about the flora and fauna of the plains. Here we saw a number of hyraxes foraging on acacia leaves, a Grey-capped Social Weaver, and a Speke’s Weaver working very intently on his teardrop-shaped nest of woven grass. Next we visited another hippo pool, where an acacia tree arching over the pond was loaded with dozens of weaver nests. On or way back to the lodge we came across a small group of giraffe feeding on acacias right next to the road. We also stopped so Bernard could move a turtle safely off the road. Near the river I noticed a lot of acacia trees with distinctive yellow bark and almost simultaneously Rodger pointed and said, “Those are yellow-barked acacias.”

We didn’t get back to the lodge until nearly 2:30 (I think Renny kept us out longer than usual hoping that we would finally spot a leopard) so we only had a couple of hours before our evening game drive left at 4:30. We ate lunch on the terrace – we skipped the soup because it was so hot, then had a nice cucumber, carrot and cabbage salad; I had fish curry with rice and DH had beef stir-fry with potatoes. We had some laundry done while we were out (it was the cheapest here of all the lodges we stayed at) and it was already finished and neatly folded when we returned to our room. I spent some time wandering the grounds after lunch – there is a lovely pool, although we didn’t have time to take advantage of it (yet again) – and trying to sneak up on the brilliantly-colored lizards that were crawling around all over the place.

Several members of our group were thinking of bailing out on the afternoon game drive but Renny and the rest of us convinced them to come along; this would, after all, be our last outing with Renny and he wanted to give us a fitting send-off. I had a feeling they had something special planned. Renny invited me to take the front seat next to Rodgers while he sat in the back, so I had a great view of the road ahead. I knew something was up when, not twenty minutes into our drive, Rodgers started exchanging meaningful gestures and conversing in Swahili with the guides in several passing trucks. I stared down the road and glimpsed a splash of gold in the trees above the road. My mouth said, “Oh my God!” before my brain had time to react. At first I thought, “Leopard!” but I didn’t see any spots. Then I had this sinking feeling that my eyes were playing tricks on me again. As we came closer, I realized that there were lions in the tree! Tree-climbing lions, right above the road! There were four in all – a lioness and one cub in a tree off to the left side of the road, perhaps thirty feet away, and a second lioness and another cub lounging on a branch hanging directly over the road. We had our windows closed and the top down because we were still in the tse-tse fly area, so I had to lean over in Rodgers’ lap in a very contorted position and take pictures out his window. As I snapped away, Rodgers laughed and said I was just like a Japanese tourist. At one point Rodgers grabbed my camera and took some pictures himself, including a great shot of the cub yawning. The lighting conditions were really tough, with the lions in the shade set against the bright sky, so I took a ton of pictures.

The lioness hanging over the road just lay there quietly, looking down at us with those mesmerizing golden eyes. She looked directly into my lens several times and I got the most brilliant portraits of her. At one point the cub looked like it was going to jump down out of the tree, but it thought better of it and went back to lie next to the female. Rodgers pointed at the cub, which still had its spots, and said they were special “spotted lions,” so hopefully that would make up for not seeing a leopard. He said that seeing tree-climbing lions, especially so close to the road, is extremely rare. Honestly, I felt like I could live with not seeing a leopard after that amazing experience! Finally Renny told us we had to move on.

At the rickety wooden bridge (with the hand-painted sign saying “2-ton weight limit”) there was a giraffe standing in the road in front of us. It didn’t budge for several minutes, just sat there swishing its tail at us, so Rodgers drove slowly up behind it and we watched it turn tail and lope off into the grass, hindquarters heaving. There’s nothing quite like the ungainly gallop of a giraffe! We spotted a Pygmy Falcon (the smallest African bird of prey) en route to a small saltwater lake, where we saw a Grey Heron, a Hottentot Teal (Africa’s smallest duck, with a distinctive blue bill), a Three-banded Plover, a flock of pink-tinged Yellow-billed Storks with bright red faces and yellow beaks, and a Blacksmith’s Plover sitting on its nest in the sand, right out in the open.

We parked the trucks by the lake, where Renny, Rodgers, and Bernard laid out a white-clothed table and served us sundowners. I managed to prop my camera up on the hood of one of the trucks and got a great group shot of all of us making one final toast to Tanzania. The sun was dropping rapidly towards the horizon, so we had to literally race back to the lodge. On the way back we stopped briefly to watch a herd of impala with lots of babies, then we found all four lions where we had left them, now grouped together in the tree off to the side of the road. The two cubs were sacked out side-by-side with their long tails hanging down in parallel. We couldn’t stop for long because we were supposed to be back at the lodge by 7 p.m. We said goodbye to the lions and thanked them for putting the crowing touch on our visit to Tanzania!

We had another nice meal (at this point I started getting behind on my notetaking so I don’t have all the details). The service at Serengeti Sopa was rather slow and sometimes unreliable, but the food was quite good. Then it was off to bed, as we had to leave at 7 a.m. sharp, to give us plenty of time to navigate the treacherous roads to the airstrip, where we would catch our plane back to Kenya.

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