World Cup of wildlife

Put Africa on your bucket list if you want an en­counter with the Big Five

Central and North Burnett Times - - READ - BY Denise Pick­er­ing

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.

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