Adorably ferocious and ferociously adorable

Trip Start Dec 28, 2009
Trip End Jan 12, 2010

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Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Sunrises, like the one over Angkor Wat, have produced some of my best memories from traveling. The only problem with sunrises? They come really frickin early. But the sunrise game drive through the Serengeti was well worth the hassle of a pre-dawn wake up.

The Park takes on a whole different personality in the early hours than in the sweltering midday heat where the Land Rovers vastly outnumber the animals. The acacias, silhouetted by the soft yellows of the rising sun, are beautiful and slightly spooky, as opposed to the dead look they have during the day. Our first sighting of the day was a water buffalo out for a morning tinkle, and this was about as close as we'd get to one on the safari. I realize that water buffaloes are part of the 'Big Five,' but finding them didn't excite me all that much. They're just sort of cows with big horns, and as far as we could tell, didn't really do much of anything.

We drove past a rainbow and a couple bird sightings before hitting the motherload: two lionesses on the hunt. There's just something gripping -- and, well, regal -- about lions in the wild, even the females. Watching the two of them track a gazelle was mesmerizing. They weren't particularly big, four of five feet long at best, but so powerful. Even watching them on the hunt, they didn't necessarily seem like terrifying killing machines. Until they flashed their teeth at least. It was fascinating how unconcerned the lions were with our presence. We're probably just as meaty as any gazelle, and given the muddy track from the previous night's rain, probably not any faster. But the pair were focused on the gazelle and only the gazelle. And Charles did a tremendous job of keeping us close while not interrupting the process. At one point, as we tried to follow one lion while the other went to flank the gazelle, we lost track of one of the lions. I was quietly wondering where it was, when all of a sudden it popped out from the side of our car. It couldn't have been more than four or five feet away from us. And by us, I mean me, since I was in the window seat on the side she was walking. If she had decided right then and there that human was an easier target than a single elusive gazelle, well, I wasn't in much of a position to do anything about it than except my fate as breakfast.

The hunt was ultimately unsuccessful (though given the sentiment above, in some ways it was), but it was still an excellent start to the morning. We eventually left the lions and moved on to our best leopard spotting of our time in the Serengeti. The leopard was perched up in a tree, and we managed to get directly underneath it, looking it straight in the eyes. Again, watching it up in the trees, laying around, staring somberly back at us, it seemed like just another cat. Granted, a large, majestic cat, but not something that would rip you limb from limb at a moments notice and devour you with glee. We drove around for a while getting nothing especially unique, a few giraffes and such, before hitting motherload II: a pride of lions devouring a dead giraffe. The carcass was a pretty good distance from us, but we could see the group of lions diving in for breakfast, including the cute and cuddly cubs emerging with blood caking their darling little faces. So adorably ferocious.

We spotted a few more lazy hippos as we drove back to camp for lunch through pouring rain. The meal couldn't have come at a better time as the weather cleared just in time for us to finish and pack our things. The rain, though gone now, wreaked havoc with our drive. The paths were muddy and near impassable. At one point we reached a raging river in which one jeep had gotten stuck (and ditched), but Charles navigated the potentially scary situation seamlessly. We spotted a few gazelles before I dozed off as we hit the main track to lead us out of the park and the driving became smoother. I woke up just in time for mother load III: a group of lions chilling out by the side of the road. There were about five or six of them -- including a couple males -- just relaxing no more than 20 or 30 feet from us. We watched as they yawned and stretched and playfully pawed at each other. So ferociously adorable. It was almost enough to make you forget they're devastating cold-blooded killing machines. Almost.

We left Serengeti to take the long road back to Ngorongoro and re-enter the wrold of zebras, ostriches, Thompson's gazelles and wildebeests. Charles took us through at a calm pace so we could enjoy the wildlife, but we were appalled at the speed with which some of the other drivers plowed along, even during wildebeest crossings. We found a baby gazelle and were pretty astonished at its uncaring mother, who seemed more concerned with getting herself to safety than making sure her baby was safe. I guess she figured she could always have another one. We were able to witness a few more sweet wildebeest rushes before arriving at Simba Camp A, perched above the crater. The campsite was packed, but a stunning setting, cleared out in the wilderness, with a clear view of the crater below.

We set up our camp and I was just lounging around reading a book while Rachel went with Charles on a beer run and the other girls went for a shower. Suddenly, John came running up to me to breathlessly tell me there was an elephant in the camp. We walked up, and sure enough, between the women's bathroom and the dining hall was a huge elephant casually tugging away at the branches of a nearby tree. Two of them, actually. We were the only two people in the whole camp watching these elephants when a girl walked out of the bathroom. I tried to get her attention, but all I could think to say was, 'Hey.' I'm such a wordsmith. And I just kept loudly whispering 'Hey' over and over again. Now, I do have a bit of self-awareness, and I could understand how, under normal circumstances, a girl might find it a tad creepy to walk out of a shower to have a strange man say 'Hey' over and over again. But eventually I got her attention and I nodded my head over at the two guests to our camp. Suddenly she was a lot more forgiving for my slightly coarse approach. As word spread, a ruckus quickly ensued as people came running out to check out the elephants. I strategically placed myself next to the park rangers with large tranquilizer rifles for the rest of the show.

After the excitement subsided, we had our typical dinner tradition of eating with a couple Kilis and closing out the night with card games. This time, though, there was a ruckus birthday celebration in the corner with a group of Dutch girls singing and shrieking and acting in the absurd way you would if you were celebrating birthday in the middle of nowhere on an African safari. As we called it a night and walked back toward our tents, we found a zebra quietly munching on some grass. And then five more. My birthday present for the girl, as it turned out, was to go back inside and tell the girls what was going on outside. I started chatting with the birthday girl, and as it turned out, she'd been in that car we saw abandoned in the Serengeti. The story was absolutely incredible, and she asked me not to go around telling everybody. But considering I'm not mentioning names (since I don't know it anyway) and the minuscule number of visitors currently on this blog, I'm going to share it anyway. Their jeep had become stuck in the river, so they first retreated to a nearby bush before the water levels started getting too high, so they had to all climb on to the roof. A new car arrived and they were about to make the switch until they had the most ill-timed lion sighting ever. There were four of them in fact. Then a hippo came bounding along. And it was at this point of the story that I suddenly wasn't so disappointed that all the hippos I saw were just lazily submerging themselves in pools of water. They eventually made it safely out (obviously), but the story took a sobering turn when she found out that later that day a chef and guide died in a similar incident when they were able to get their tourists out of the car, but were unable to get out before the river rushed the car downstream.

Once the zebras left the scene, the overcast skies cleared up, leaving a stunning skyscape filled with stars. I considered taking my sleeping bag and sleeping outside instead of in the cramped tent, but it was far too cold at that elevation. And there had been way too many animal sightings already to trust the rest of the night would pass uneventfully.
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