World Cup of wildlife
Put Africa on your bucket list if you want an encounter with the Big Five
THE zebra had little chance. It had been corralled by the lionesses into the confines of the camp area. They had been planning and waiting for more than a day. The zebra’s death was imminent. It knew it, those awakened by a desperate animal trying to escape its predators knew it. Its pounding hooves and escalating screams left no doubt the pride had found its next meal. We had been waking at dawn to the evocative sounds of the African animal kingdom. It’s an experience which will stay with us forever. But it was 4am, and on this morning, a different scenario. We were in the darkness of our tent, safe and never in danger of the lionesses turning their attention to us but, transfixed by the drama unfolding, it was hard to not be a little afraid. We were in Tanzania, east Africa, witnessing an everyday event in the Serengeti, but not so common within the grounds of Sanctuary Retreat’s Camp Kusini. Camp staff, so in tune with this untamed world, had sensed the lionesses were close to a kill. Within minutes all went quiet and we were thankful the zebra’s suffering was over. Sunrise came quickly and the camp was buzzing with talk of the kill, the final scene being played out at the front of the lodge where the pride was still feeding. It was a stunning morning and camp manager Van Heerden, a South African who runs Camp Kusini with his wife Esmeralde, was thrilled that his guests, the majority on safari to see the big cats hunt, were front row to one of nature’s greatest theatres. Though upsetting to some, the reality of what had happened was far tamer and less confronting than what we are presented with on our television screens. We left the pride halfway through their meal and fighting over the carcass, and headed towards the great Serengeti plains. There was no time to waste. Today we were searching for leopard, but not before our own treat, breakfast in a setting straight from the Hollywood classic Out of Africa. It was day four of our six-day African safari which took us to three Sanctuary Retreat safari camps nestled deep within national parks in Tanzania and Kenya. It was early March, and Sanctuary Retreats had timed our visit perfectly for experiencing one of the greatest wonders of Africa, the migration. Rated as one of the world’s most spectacular natural events, every year up to 1.4 million wildebeest and hundreds of thousands of zebra and impala migrate clockwise around the Serengeti/Maasai Mara ecosystems looking for grass and water, making time for courting, mating and birthing along the way. That morning the wildebeest, curious looking animals with curved horns, shaggy beards and tapered bodies, streamed in file onto the plains in their thousands. With them were just as many babies, most still being weaned from their mothers. Under a magnificent acacia, Allan our guide set up breakfast. In the distance we saw not only wildebeest and their travelling companions, but giraffes and elephants. All grazed peacefully together under a cloudless, blue sky. It was a feast, not just visually, but culinary, with fresh fruit, homemade granola, quiche and pancakes, served with hot African coffee. No more than 50 metres away, vultures and stork were feeding on last night’s kill. We were upwind, thankfully. Nothing could spoil this experience. In the “land that moves on forever” you feel you are a million miles from anywhere, but you are part of one of the greatest events on this earth. It was a morning when everything was in sync with Mother Nature. Every minute presented a new picture of an event which has been occurring for aeons – the visitors in their mass numbers turning the plains into a living sea of life. Sanctuary Kusini is ideally placed to catch the migration from mid-December to April when the wildebeest and zebra drop their young and the big cats get to enjoy the abundance of young prey. It was leopard we were seeking on the Serengeti this day, but birdlife was all around us and Allan, to our delight a birding expert, soon had us hooked on spotting all the species. It wasn’t hard to find in excess of 50 out of a potential 800 on the Serengeti – a mecca for bird lovers. The photo opportunities were everywhere and the starlings and rollers gave our zoom lenses a real workout. Some of the most stunning images to come out of this safari are of birds. But they can potentially ruin a good photo too. Take the cheeky blue starling which photobombed my once in a lifetime shots of the magnificent cheetah we followed through the grasslands. He was stalking wildebeest, lean, hungry and focused, stopping occasionally to rest on ant hills, giving us the perfect view of his awesomeness. We may not have spotted a leopard that day, but I doubt it could have surpassed the exhilaration of getting so close to this cheetah, one of the world’s most critically endangered animals. There are fewer than 500 cheetahs left in Tanzania due to poaching and a high mortality rate among cubs, so we wished him a long and happy life, and good luck with the hunt as we changed course and headed to the kopjes (large boulders and rocks) where the lions were waking up from their daily slumber. While the big cats take the leading role in wildlife’s big African production, elephant, rhino, buffalo and giraffe are much more than the supporting cast. Our first introduction to Africa was giraffe – a gentle giant, elegant, aware of us but not in awe of us, looking for the next grazing spot and no more than a few metres from our safari vehicle, a modified Toyota troop carrier.
The Sanctuary Retreats vehicle has an advantage over others we saw. We had an open, unrestricted view of everything around us. In contrast, other vehicles have metal and glass between the passengers and nature. Camp Swala, a Sanctuary Retreat in Tarangire National Park in southern Tanzania, was our first experience with these fun vehicles. We had travelled from Brisbane on international and internal flights for almost two days, landing on tarmac, grass and dirt to get to Swala, a lodge hidden deep in southern Tanzania in a rich, green landscape shaded by acacia and baobab trees up to 2000 years old. As we came in to land, nothing could have prepared us for what we were about to see – Queensland’s channel country on steroids. Ridges, valleys, wetlands, dense terrain and animals straight out of David Attenborough’s Planet Earth. Siggi, our Camp Swala guide, greeted us at the airstrip with a picnic lunch and esky full of cold African beer. We sat under an awning in the middle of nowhere, enjoying chef-prepared salads and wraps, as we watched our light aircraft continue on to Kilimanjaro, its snow-capped peak having already revealed itself during our flight from Arusha. With lunch over, we hit the dirt tracks, squealing in delight – yes, the African beer went down well – as giraffes and elephants surrounded us at every turn, just metres from us, but feeling so close we could reach out and touch them. Next there were buffalos. First we smelled them, then they appeared, a thousand or more, tearing across the track in front of us, stopping dead still, staring at us as if to say, “You owe us money!” It was comical and intriguing as every buffalo’s eyes were on us. We bounced along the track not believing what we were seeing. We stopped for a tortoise, crossing the road in African time, and a pair of ostriches strutted their stuff and disappeared into the growth. But number one bucket list safari sighting, “the king of the jungle,” was our next encounter when Siggi cautiously approached a large male lion lazily resting at the foot of an ancient baobab tree. Having fed the night before on buffalo, the carcass of which was still being finished off by vultures and storks, he was recalcitrant at first, then as he further awoke from his slumber let us know in no uncertain terms that the time for photographs had finished. We departed rapidly. More than 1300 photos and hundreds of safari kilometres later we were at our final Sanctuary camp, Olonana, on the banks of the Mara River in one of Africa’s greatest parks, Maasai Mara, in southern Kenya. This is home to the Big Five – lion, elephant, rhinoceros, buffalo and leopard. But Kenya welcomed us with the hippo, one of Africa’s most dangerous animals, and Mara River, where the camp tents are perched on the banks, is as close as you can get to view these giant mammals. We were happy to heed the warning not to fall into the river, or risk death, and delighted that an electric fence between the banks and the tents was protection if one was inclined to sleepwalk. Unpacked, and bidding farewell to “Nice hippo” watching us from the river below, we were off to explore the Maasai Mara. We were already in love with Africa, and couldn’t wait to explore the Mara, one of the world’s greatest wildlife areas, and the setting for what is known as the World Cup of Wildlife. It’s here that the wildebeest cross the treacherous Mara River during their migration from July to October. It’s the jaw-dropper for this region and one of nature’s most thrilling natural phenomena as huge Nile crocodiles feed on wildebeest as they make their crossing. Nature’s force is all too unforgiving as lions then take their share from the banks above. The Mara has one of the largest densities of lions in the world and for safari operators a kill is the Holy Grail of all wildlife sightings. It’s nail-biting exhilaration, as we discovered that morning when four lionesses closed in on two grazing zebra and a warthog, all oblivious to the immense danger they were in. It was sickening but impossible not to watch, and when it was all over – the zebra and warthog escaping by the skin of their tails when other zebras raised the alarm – you felt devastated for the pride who, hungry themselves, were also hunting for seven cubs left waiting in scrub many kilometres away. We had spotted the cubs earlier that morning, and then again later that afternoon. With the sun setting, their eyes were firmly fixed on the horizon, waiting, waiting, waiting. In the distance their mother appeared, exhausted, bloodied and fly-ridden from another kill encounter. She came within touching distance of our 4WD but lifted her eyes not once to the vehicle or us. She had been kicked in the face, her eyes barely open from the swelling, and her breathing so heavy. Her only goal was to return and protect her cubs. There would be no dinner for them that night. I will remember her forever.
We hit the dirt tracks, squealing in delight – yes, the African beer went down well – as giraffe and elephants surrounded us at every turn...
Giraffes spotted from the troop carrier.
◗ Right, a lion cub chills on a kopje (or large boulder) in the Serengeti; top left, the lilac-breasted roller, the national bird of Kenya, never ceases to thrill bird-watchers with its beautiful colours and, bottom left, a young cheetah, in search of wildebeest, poses on an ant hill on the Serengeti. BACKGROUND: Wildebeest in their thousands form a living sea.