Monday, December 26, 2011

The indescribable Serengeti.

I have just typed and deleted at least a half dozen paragraphs, all of them trying to express how spectacular our time in the Serengeti was. It is not working. Everything I have written sounds cliche and trite and blah, which I guess would be fine if the Serengeti was any of those things. But it's not, it is so very, very....AAARGHHH (must keep finger away from the delete key, must control impulse, MacBook not so aerodynamic)

You know what? I took photos. Lots and lots of photos. They have a currency of approximately one thousand words each. How's about I just share some of those and let them speak for themselves. M'kay?
But first, a little context- the last post, the one about the Ngorongoro Crater- was all about what we saw during our first game drive in Tanzania.  After leaving the crater, we travelled along a rough gravel road for a couple of hours to reach the entrance of the Serengeti  National Park.  From what I could tell,  this is the only road that connects one point to another, meaning that this is the great equalizer.  There are lodges and campsites within the park offering all levels of luxury.  It was easy to see the groups that were in impeccably white clothing and had flowing, untangled hair and gather that they probably were not camping.  Odds are they were staying in a five star lodge being attended to hand and foot.  Yet, they too, now knew what was meant by the term "African massage".  It is the beating that one endures while bounding along 60 mph in a 4x4, all the while trying not to swallow too much dust.

We arrived at the park with enough time for an evening drive before we had to set up camp. I should stress here that this was still the same day as our Crater drive, every picture that appears here is from the same 10 or so hour period as the ones in the earlier post.  That is how freaking lucky and how indescribably amazing this first day was.

Frederick, our guide and driver, whose surname had now become "You're the man!"  as in the oft-repeated and awe-filled "Frederick, You're the Man!" was quick to spot a pride of lions sunning themselves on some boulder-like rocks.  From this point forward, all of Team Leopard learned to become very attentive whenever we encountered similar rocks.

Note Big Daddy laying in the grass between the two boulders.
Frederick YTM was also the one, who, while driving (!) at a relatively high speed, managed to spot the highlight in a day full of highlights.  It was Big Game Animal #4- the leopard!  It was my first time seeing one in the wild and judging from the moniker we had chosen for our group, a big deal for all involved.  This is why it was a little troubling to me how difficult it was to see this cat.  She was nestled in a tree, as leopards are wont to be, but was so well-hidden that every time we moved the jeep backwards or forwards, we all engaged in a fresh round of "Wait.  I lost him.  Does anyone else see the leopard? Can I borrow your binoculars?"  This is basically what we were looking at:

If you look in the lower right-hand quadrant of this photo, you can see a paw and a dangling tail.  Now imagine this sight without the benefit of a 20x zoom lens. That is what Frederick spotted while also driving!
Other safari vehicles, stopped, stared into the tree for awhile and continued on their way. We had been watching the tree with the dangling tail for twenty minutes or so, it was getting dark and one of our group had to go sign in for the next day's balloon ride, so we were resigned to doing the same. Frederick YTM, who all day long, had allowed us to dictate when, where and how long our stops should be, spoke up for the first time, asking if we minded waiting a little longer.  This guy knew something and we knew he knew.  A unanimous "No, No. Take your time Frederick, no worries!" erupted from the group.

Not five minutes later, the leopard rose up to stretch.  It was no longer just a dangling extremity, it was a very distinct, clearly visible leopard.  My eyes watered from the emotion of the moment. This is one of the most difficult animals to see in the wild and here we were, witnessing as she readied herself for the evening hunt.

Once again, we thought this was a good as we were going to get (and it was pretty damned good, no question about it) but Frederick hesitated and we all exchanged exited looks.  What could he be waiting for?  

And then, it happened.  She came down from the tree!!

That was it.  This was officially the best day ever.  If we saw nothing else for the next two days, I'd be ok with it. But, NO-

We drove a little ways towards camp and saw, sitting by the side of the motherfucking road,  another Leopard!!!

There was something along the road that was holding her attention and, while she strolled back and forth, seeming somewhat agitated, she refused to leave.  And so did we.  It is illegal to drive in the park after dark, one guy still had to make it to the balloon office, we had tents to set up- yet no one was moving an inch.  When you have something like this in front of you, everything else can wait.

When we did eventually move, we saw what was causing the leopard's distress.  Right across the road was a pride of lions, lions that would have no qualms with killing and eating the newborn leopard cubs that we later learned mama had wisely hidden under a hollowed out tree trunk.

We got to the ballooning office right at sunset to find two things: the other half of the group, who were peeved at having had to wait,  thus rendering us incapable of gloating about our sightings and a very quickly approaching thunderstorm.

All of these sunset pictures are exactly as I took them, without any kind of digital enhancement.  The light was really that rich and golden.

We raced in the dark to get to camp beset by a deluge that had come out of nowhere.  We were careening blindly as I alternated between worrying that some creature was going to jump out in front of us to enjoying what felt as unreal as a carnival ride.  In the surreal chaos that we found ourselves in, we still managed to spot some longish silhouettes in the middle of the road.  Guesses of Rhino!  Lion! and Buffalo! were blurted out, but the shapes were somehow off.  As we got closer, it slowly began to dawn on us that we were looking at tents that had been picked up by the wind and hurled into the mud.  Some poor suckers were going to be sleeping in some wet, nasty tents. What's that Frederick YTM?  This is our campsite?  But then that would mean...

Oh!  Those were our tents alright.  Our cooks had done us the favor of setting up the tents and now they were scattered to the four corners of the campsite. And yet none of us cared.  We laughed as we trudged through the mud, trying to secure and towel off our evening's accommodations. Think about it, when you have just spent a day in  a place as (fill-in every possible synonym for amazing here) as the Crater and the Serengeti, there is no way something like a soggy tent is going to bring you down.  It is only going to add yet another hard to describe element to what was the most perfect of perfect days.

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