Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Serengeti: Day 2. Still Amazing.

You know you are camping in an unusual campsite when the morning discussion goes something like this- Everyone else: "Did you hear the lions last night?" Me: "No! I missed lions?! All I heard were frogs and hyenas. Oh, and baboons. I heard a lot of baboons." The others: "Yes. There were definitely lions. And the group over there thinks they saw a cheetah in the campsite." Me: "Balls!"

We were camping inside of the Serengeti National Park and unlike other predator-inhabited game parks I'd been to, there is no fence separating us and the more ardently carnivorous mammals. How this works is still a bit of mystery to me. We were told not to worry, that we're not appealing to them since we generally don't yield a lot of meat, particularly when compared to a buffalo or wildebeest, which is true. But I'm pretty sure I have a good 20-30 pounds on an impala and they're called the 'McDonald's of Africa' by virtue of the fact that everybody eats them.
The campsite has a rudimentary bathroom, way on the edge, right by where the heavy vegetation began. One of the funnier stories I heard was about a guide who, upon returning from a game drive one night, all sweaty and dusty, wanted to shower but did not want to wait the line for this one and only facility. His solution was to heat up some water and go behind the shower block, out of sight of the others who were drinking and catching up around the campfire. His plan was working well, he was lathered up and feeling fresh when he heard a low guttural noise. He pointed his flashlight into the trees and glowing back at him was a set of eyes. They belonged to a leopard and she was crouched and ready to pounce. In a justifiable panic, he screamed and took off running in the direction of the campfire, much to the equally justifiable surprise of the campers who had not expected to see a soapy naked African sprinting through their revelry. Feeling safety in numbers, the group grabbed their flashlights and went to explore the site of the impromptu shower, only to find that it was not a leopard that had been ready to feast on the guide. It was three leopards.

I bring this story up (1) because I think it is hilarious and (2) because it directly contradicts the other bit of comforting advice that we were given. We were told that if we had to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, we should unzip the tent (always good advise there) and scan the surrounding area with a flashlight. If we see one set of eyes staring back, it is probably a predator and we should re-zip the tent and do our best to hold it (for how long, they never said). If it is a lot of eyes, it is probably some kind of antelope and you are good to go. My theory is that the predators of the Serengeti have caught on to this bit of flawed logic and are bringing along friends, as evidenced by the leopard trio.

As I mentioned, that first night, I heard nothing more than hyenas, baboons and loads of frogs. Interestingly, a guy that I had nicknamed the Gropey Game Guy, approached me when I was by the showers trying to spot wildlife and felt compelled to explain to me, over and over, that what I was hearing was frogs. Dude, I live near mangroves, I have frogs in my yard. It is the other two that you might have wanted to focus on.

Come morning time, more than half our group set off before sunrise to partake in a hot air balloon ride, something I would have done were it not $500 a pop. Instead, the rest of us went for an early morning game drive. If there was any question that our mad success at game spotting had been a fluke, it was put to rest that morning.

The day was perfect.  It was clear and crisp and this apparently had the park's residents feeling frisky.  The first example of this was a pair of battling impala males. Impala social structure tends to be either bachelor herds or harems, with the latter featuring a dominant male and up to 200 females.  In between tending to the needs of his 200 women, the male also has to fight off interlopers.  In the example we witnessed, the perceived challenger didn't really want to fight and kept backing away but it wasn't until there was a sizable distance between them and the ladies, that the alpha male finally let it go.

The Maribou Stork: a face even a mother would struggle with.

Next up, we had squabbling hippos. I would say that Squabbling Hippos would make for a good band name, but that could cause some confusion with the other defining feature of this particular group (and equally good band name), the Farting Hippos.

It is easy to assume, based on all the bubbles that these hippos were in a jacuzzi.  I assure you, that was not the case.
"I bite-a your face!" " No! I bite-a your face!"

One of the hardest things to see, when it comes to hippopotami, is one of those of fatties out of the water. They are very susceptible to sunburn and usually only come out at night to feed.  But this was the Serengeti and we were Team Leopard, so of course, they were strolling around, just begging to be photographed.

As the day got warmer, the fighting stopped but the wildlife sighting kept on coming.

"Really, humans?  A hyena can't enjoy a quiet dip in a puddle without a carload of you stopping to watch.  Unbelievable.
From the start of our tour, I had been asking about our chances of seeing the annual wildebeest migration.  We were about a month early, but occasionally there are early migrations, where a sizable group decides to get a head start.  Seeing a seemingly endless line of wildebeest, I was certain we had come across such an event.  Unfortunately, Olly our tour leader and temporary member of Team Leopard, felt compelled to point out that if this was, in fact, an early migration, someone'd better tell them they were heading in the wrong direction.

The fake mini-migration was promptly followed by the All-Star Hour of Cats. The opening act was a pride of lions, who were leisurely hanging out and enjoying a buffalo kill.

Notice the hyena throwing down some attitude in the background.

Photo-bombing lion.  Love it!

Once again, Frederick amazed us with a momentous spot, this time of a species we had not yet seen. It was a cheetah, laying in a distant patch of grass and barely visible to the naked eye. We were sort of, kind of able to make it out and after a while, gave Frederick our now customary “Sawa, Sawa”, Swahili for “good, good” and our indication that we were ready to move on. Frederick got as far as “Do you mind if we wai...” before we cut him off with a “NO, NO! Whatever you say, Frederick!”. Of course, moments later, the cheetah sat up, stretched and sauntered over to join yet another cheetah.

While similar in appearance to the leopard, the cheetah is smaller and sleeker and has 
black ‘teardrop’ markings running from its eyes.

The headline act was someone we were already familiar with, the mama leopard from the evening before.  With the lions gone, she was relaxed and enjoying some time with her two frolicking cubs.

Trust me, there is a leopard by that tree trunk.
See. At this point, we had yet to see the cubs.
And then they showed up and we all "aww'ed" uncontrollably.

A sure sign that you are witnessing something special is when the guide takes out his camera and starts shooting away. Olly, a veteran safari goer, was clearly stunned.  He could not believe that, in the span of sixty-minutes, we had managed to see three different cat species.  

We capped off the morning with a herd of elephants doing their utmost to mess up a tree. Apparently, it is pretty easy to track elephants based on the level of destruction that they leave behind.

During the hottest hours of the day, unless nothingness soothes you, there is no point in going for a game drive.  Animals, like Spaniards and sensible people everywhere, prefer to find a shady spot and indulge in a mid-afternoon nap.  We followed suit and returned to the campsite for a snooze.

Later in the day, with the hot air ballooners back from their sunrise adventure, we all set off to see what we could find.

Impalas aka McDonald's

After a couple of hours, the air suddenly turned cooler and it was clear that another manic rainstorm was heading our way.  I think I could have spent a month in the Serengeti and still not become accustomed to the schizophrenic weather patterns.  It goes from cloudless and perfect to the world is ending in a matter of moment.  In anticipation of this, we had already weighted down our tents with massive rocks so as to not have to search for them a second night in a row.

Due to the crazy weather, our game drive was cut short, but my favorite sighting of the interrupted outing and most likely the reason the park has a strict no-stealing-the-animals rule, was a 3-4 day old baby monkey.

If your heart does not melt at the sight of this little baby, go directly to the heart store and buy yourself a new one.

When the massive storm did hit, it was the little monkey that I thought of, having recently left the comfort of the womb only to be caught up in the monsoon of the apocalypse. Poor little guy.

When we returned to camp, we saw no point in getting out of the nice, dry vehicle.  Neither did the passengers of the other jeep, that is, until one of them realized they were out of toilet paper, a definite emergency in the present surroundings.  They let us know that they were going to a store and, having nothing better to do and assuming they were going to the souvenir shop/ market, we followed.  Instead we ended up in a small dark building with a long counter, a bunch of guys sitting around and a respectable selection of booze displayed.  It was a bar!  In the middle of the Serengeti!!

There was an alleged generator but it was not scheduled to kick on until 7pm and it was quickly becoming pitch black, giving the already dive-y bar an even more thrilling and exotic feel.  We had no choice but to order drinks and stay to watch what looked like a CGI-generated lightning storm play out in front of us.

You know when your day does not suck?  It is when you manage to sleep to the sounds of the African plains, see an amazing variety of wildlife and top it all off having cold beers with new friends. In a bar!  In the middle of the Serengeti!!  

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