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.
Giraffes spotted from the troop carrier.