(Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part blog post on safaris in Tanzania. Previous posts: part I)
So many of this season’s drives have been spectacular, if not simply stunning, both in dry and wet conditions. In fact, even though safaris have become more confined to the inside of our land cruisers, few of our drives bear any resemblance to road trips most anyone has ever experienced, unless of course they are safari aficionados.
One damp morning, after riveting rain and h
ailstorms pounded us, we took off blind in thick fog. We bundubashed out of camp to see if we could locate three particular cheetah, although given the conditions we may have been happier snug in bed, or at least that was a voiced thought at the time. We could see only the canopy tips of the Acacia branches before the tree trunks themselves; they seem to reach out to us as we approached. We must cross a ravine to get out onto the southern plains from this campsite. The Oykejo Nyiro runs down from the Ngorongoro highlands and often brings flash floods in such conditions, as it did this morning. Although the torrent looked frightening, I felt pretty sure we wouldn’t get washed away, so I engage the 4×4 low range. No one in the land cruiser objects to my decision so in good faith or maybe resignation, everyone hangs on as we slip-slide into the murky water with a splash a hippo would be proud of. The front of the cruiser is submerged. It’s surprisingly deep but soon water cascades off the windshield and we’re roaring out the other side. We’re fortunate to have the Snorkel built into the car. It allows us to make such crossings without flooding the engine, which would cause it to stall and perhaps we’d then, become croc bait. Wouldn’t want that would we!
Not much later we’re miles south on the Serengeti plains and ironically dust is now billowing behind us. In typical fashion we were drenched in camp and here some ten miles to the south not a drop has fallen. Neither river crossing nor dusty plain can deter us from our cheetah search. The rising sun warms our skin and illuminates the migration, which is scattered before us. Everything including – wildebeest, zebra, dung beetles, giraffe, crowned cranes, eland, tommy, jackal, hyena and birds of every sort for as far as our eyes can see.
This is cheetah country and we’re looking for a particular female familiar to us. She has two cubs, one male and the other female. She has a large feeding range but given its location, which includes an area well traveled by vehicles she is tolerant, even trusting of us.
When we find them in the middle of hundreds of miles of open grassland after much scanning with binoculars, it becomes apparent that they have not yet hunted. This is exciting because I knew she was teaching her cubs the basics of catching cape hare and tommy gazelle. They are slender and obviously having a slow morning so spend the next hour playing with the car and us since mom won’t take them hunting. These cubs are totally inquisitive while their mother, grateful for the break from their attention, lies in the grass twenty yards away without the slightest concern making us feel like rather privileged, trusted babysitters.
Within no time, curiosity gets the better of them and the male jumps up onto the spare tire that’s mounted on the back door of the car. At first he’s just peering over the roof at us, nibbling at bits of canvas and generally just being a goofball, a highly entertaining one at that. This game goes on for almost an hour, and at one point I have to grab his tail to stop him from jumping into the car. As suddenly as it all started, the games stop. Mom is up and heading out. She makes bird-like chirps calling them and they know school is in session. Many a time, one may wait for hours to see a hunt opportunity develop but, on this day it was different, once again. The cheetah had not gone more than fifty yards. They were still stretching, probably pretty resigned to an expectation of many miles of walking before being able to lick blood off each other’s lips. We had just maneuvered the cruiser for a better view when a stray tommy with fawn, that had in some bizarre twist of fate not seen them, came running towards the cheetah.
There was an initial moment of confusion, possibly of disbelief, of rubbing the eyes to be sure they were actually seeing right. But, the second the cheetah zeroed in on the tommy they hit the after-burner taking off in a blur of magic. Tails switching, bodies folded then stretched to full length, cutting and weaving with strides of over 30 feet at a time, the tommy fawn stood no chance. Its mother, in a supreme effort of courage and determination, tried every tactic of distraction to draw them away from her new born to little avail. The cheetah tripped the little gazelle and brought it to a controlled stop below her razor sharp claws without so much as a scratch to the tiny creature. She looked round at her two slowcoaches bringing up the rear and just before they get to her, she releases the fawn giving it a nudge and off it goes in this unexpected gift of freedom. Its mother, who must have been convinced that her fawn was dead, suddenly leapt back into the fray. She ran over in an attempt to draw the little one away from these thugs. It was a truly valiant attempt of her but by then the cheetah cubs had bypassed their mom and were onto it. The learning curve is steep. They trip the prey, it falls, and then they are surprised it takes off again, so the process is repeated over and over in this lesson on hunting fast food out on the plains. In macabre humor, it is almost funny watching the cubs look back at their mother as though asking “Why does it keep running away, Mom?” when she comes over, puts a stop to it all by biting into the neck of the fawn and, the lesson is over.
When we left the cheetah, they were licking each other’s lips; we were wide eyed, speechless and in awe of the amazing experience we’d just witnessed. Where does one go, what does one do after such an experience? On safari; we drive over to the nearest bush and take a rest stop. Of course, the nearest bush might be two miles away.
So it is with safari. Rain or shine the animals are always out there doing what they do. And as long as we’re in the right place at the right time — and even if we’re not — every day has its magical and memorable moments. Needless to say: you’ve got to be on safari to experience them.