Thursday, September 08, 2016

African Adventure - Part 8: The Serengeti - The Endless Plain

July 10 - 11, 2016
The Wonders of the Serengeti

July 10 - afternoon
I was so excited as we drove through the entry gate of Serengeti National Park with the promise of more animal sightings!
The Entrance Gate of Serengeti National Park

But after the thrill of seeing the great herds of Masai Mara and the tangled woodlands of Tarangire, I have to admit that the the first hour was a disappointment. Serengeti means "the endless plain," and for miles and miles of dusty road, it lived up to its name.  We passed through a flat plain of short dry grass.  The air was a dull grey color, polluted by the smoke from several controlled burns in the distance - set by the park rangers to encourage the growth of new grass and to control bugs.
Smoke from the controlled burns filled the air over the plains.

The only animals in sight were a few ostriches and small herds of Thompson's gazelles.  Our guide explained that these animals were not water-dependent, but could get the moisture they needed from the grass poking up through the earth.
The beautiful little Thompson's Gazelles - which we called "Tommies"

A trio of ostriches

Golden jackal

After the long drive from Oldupai Gorge and the bouncy drive over the rocky dirt roads of the plains, we were relieved to get a little rest break at the park headquarters where our guides had to register our tour group.  The picnic area was filled with the gorgeous Superb Starlings that we saw everywhere on our journey, and we were also joined by a little mouse looking for crumbs.  After a snack, some of us climbed the small hill behind the headquarters to stretch our legs and get a better view of the park.  A sign at the top of the hill read:
On Top of a Rocky Hill...
You are on top of a hill emerging from the plain, Naabi in Maasai.  This rocky hill (kopje) is floating in the sea of grass called Serengeti plains.  These endless plains you see, siringet in Maasai, derived the name of this most famous National Park, the Serengeti - the migration route and a nursery for a new generation of wildebeest (February - March) every year.

Superb Starlings were found all over the Serengeti

One of the less noticeable creatures of the Serengeti

A view of the plains from the rocky hilltop

The rock climbing members of our group

Soon, we were on our way again.  The dry plains were slowly replaced by grassy meadows, and the hills at the northern part of the park came into view.

More Tommies

We started climbing into the woody hills - and initial disappointment disappeared immediately at a sight that brought back the thrill and wonder of Africa.  The tree on our left, very close to our car, had two large lions snoozing on the branches...and the tree on our right held seven of the magnificent creatures!
Lions to the left of us...

...and lions - lots of lions! - to the right of us!

Lots of lions just lyin' around in the treetops.

As we watched, a third lion walked right below our vehicle and, after several attempts to get up into the closest tree, finally succeeded in grabbing a spot on a large limb.
This big lady was just below our Land Cruiser.

Is there room for me up there?

Do you mind moving over?

It took some work, but she finally made it up.

OK, now I can relax again.

We stood, whispering quietly and snapping hundreds of photos, hardly believing our eyes.  The lions were completely unconcerned about our presence, enjoying their afternoon nap before their evening activities.

I loved the way they just hung over the limbs.

Awww..what a sweet kitty.

It was late afternoon, so, reluctantly, we had to leave the lions and continue on to our campsite before dark.  Our Serengeti Tented Camp was the most "rustic" stay of our trip...canvas tents set up on the ground.  Permanent tents are not allowed in Serengeti National Park.  They must be moved periodically to prevent harm to the natural environment.
Our tent camp was on the slopes of this large hill.

Bags lined up ready to be taken to the tents

We were way down at the end.  It made me a little nervous to be so far away from the guides.
But the tents were roomy and comfortable.  We had large cot beds, a little table and mirror...and separated from the bedroom of the tent by a canvas screen was a bathroom with a flushing toilet.  (I was especially relieved about this, as we learned that the animals wander through the camp at night!  Each tent came with a whistle to blow in an emergency.  Yikes!)  The tent even had a shower.  A staff member filled a 4-liter bucket with hot water, and we stood on a wood planked floor and pulled a little handle that allowed the water to flow.

Settling into our tent - with the "bathroom" behind the screen.
After settling into our tents, we all met back at the campfire and had a little orientation about the coming day's schedule.  A buffet dinner was served in the large dining tent, then we were escorted by staff members back to our tents.  As we walked down the dark path, the staff shone powerful flashlights into the dark, checking for eyes peering at us out of the brush.  Nervous Nellie Joanie was assured by the staff that no animals would attempt to enter the tent, with the exception of the mice.  We were cautioned not to have any food in the tent.
The dining hall

Rob and Bob enjoy the cool evening air

Our evening campfire
It had been a long day, but the sight of those lions made it one of the most memorable of the trip!

July 11
I slept well and didn't even worry (much) when I heard the huffing of a lion and the yelp of a hyena during the night.  We got our wake-up visit at 5:30 a.m.  My journal of our days in Serengeti National Park is pretty bare, other than lists of birds and animals.   Each of the three days of our stay followed the same pattern.  Up very early for breakfast and an early game viewing drive while the animals were active.  Return to the camp for lunch and a nap.  Then out again in the late afternoon when the animals began their activities again.
Sunrise over the Serengeti

Bird sightings began almost immediately, along with the usual sights of gazelles and impalas.

White-bellied Bustard

White-browed Coucal

Magpie Shrike

White-headed Buffalo Weaver

Red-necked Spur Fowl
But the real thrill of the Serengeti were the big cats.  We soon spotted a pair of cheetahs and learned that cheetah brothers often formed a "coalition" and hunted together.
Cheetah on the prowl

Keeping an eye on us

A little further along, we paused and watched a mother cheetah and her cub resting under a tree.  Suddenly, a small group of Thompson's Gazelles came walking by, unaware of the predator in the brush.  The cub spotted them first.  His instinct kicked in and he spoiled his mother's hunt by charging after the little herd, which immediately took flight.  Mama gave a half-hearted chase, but quickly gave up and returned to her spot under the tree.
Mother and cub

Mama goes out to explore the surroundings.

Behind her, unseen, a small herd of Tommies walks by - unaware of the nearby cheetahs

Baby spots the herd and starts the chase.

Mama joins in - but she's too late.  Baby has given them away.

We continued on toward the river where we spotted a pride of about eight lions making their way through the grass.  (I could sure understand why we were never allowed to get out of our vehicle without permission.  In the tall golden grass, the golden lions are almost invisible.)  We watched for quite a long time as the lions gathered on the hillside overlooking the river and the herd of gazelles and zebras on the other side.  One lion seemed to be the leader and she walked past the "lion traffic jam" of safari vehicles and stood above the river bank.  At some sort of signal, imperceptible to us but understood by the lions, the pride suddenly moved forward and took up new positions over the river.
A pride of lions looking for a good hunting ground

Across the river is a herd of Tommies and a dazzle of zebras

Unaware of the approaching lions, they graze peacefully.

This lady seemed to be the leader of the pack

Ignoring the vehicles, she walks on to the river...

...while the others wait for her signa;

Patiently waiting

Still waiting

She gives the signal...

...and the pride is on the move again

Keeping an eye on the herd across the river

We finally had to move along, so we did not observe an actual hunt.  I always have mixed feelings about the hunt when I see them in nature shows.  It would be thrilling to see in person, and the lions have to eat, but the gazelles are so beautiful, I always feel a little sad when one of them meets this bloody end.  It helped to see that there are so few lions and such large herds of the antelopes and gazelles.
I wonder how many animals we missed because they were so well hidden in the grass!

Brown snake eagle

As we crossed the river, we spotted this trio of hippos climbing out of the river and grazing on the green grass along the riverbank.

Hippos climbing out of the river

Now that's a mouth!

The hippos and Cape Buffaloes often had the little ox-peckers riding along

Spotted hyena

The next area of the park that we explored was my favorite landscape - Moru Kopjes, an area filled with huge granite outcroppings called kopjes.  (If you saw Disney's "The Lion King," you will recognize these from the scene in which the baboon priest holds little Simba up to be recognized as the new prince by the crowds of animals gathered on the plains below.)  This is also the territory of the few Black Rhinos who call the Serengeti home.



Kopje and candelabra tree


More ostriches

We stopped at the Visitors Center of the Serengeti Rhino Project.  The black rhino is critically endangered, but the efforts of the rangers here have increased the number of the local population from only 3 to 42.  They use transmitters attached to the rhino's horns to track them and work hard to guard against poachers.  Sadly, rhino poaching has increased greatly in the last decade mostly due to a mistaken belief in some Asian countries that rhino horn has medicinal properties.
Bones on display outside of the Rhino Post

We learn about the efforts to save the Black Rhino.  There was another sign praising the field ranger who spend
days and nights out in the bush in their attempt to save the black rhino from extinction.
"Often more criticised than encouraged, these rangers face hardships and discomfort, with their lives directly threatened.  They are the frontline of a worldwide effort to save the rhino.  They need your support and encouragement."

This is the transmitter that is used to track the movements of each rhino.

Another memorial to Michael Grzimek, whose gravesite we saw on the slopes of Ngorongoro Crater the day before.

We took a snack break on top of one of the kopjes, enjoying the beautiful views.  Sadly, there were no rhinos in sight, but we did see some cute little rock hyraxes peering down on us from their perches in the rocks.  The hyrax looks like a rodent, but it is actually more closely related to elephants!
Rob and me on top of the kopje

Our group enjoys a snack break on top of the kopje

A family of rock hyraxes
Mama and babies keep an eye on us

The more I looked, the more rock hyraxes I saw!

A baboon walks by as we eat our snacks...

...followed by this youngster who looked like he wanted to steal a cookie!

Brilliant male gamma lizard

On the way back to camp, we spotted more game.  The hippos were still snoozing on the riverbank, and they had been joined by some yellow-billed storks and egrets.  I had had my eye out for dik-diks, adorable tiny antelopes, for the entire trip.  On the way back to camp for our afternoon siesta, we finally spotted two of them, hiding in the underbrush.
Zebras and Tommies

The hippos were still on the riverbank

Yellow-billed Storks

Kirk's Dik-Diks

The afternoon drive had us back on the flat plains where we had a variety of animal sightings.  There were several groups of warthogs, which Cosmas told us are called "lion sausage."  They are such odd looking little creatures.  It was hard to get a good photo, as they usually ran into the brush - their long skinny tails straight up into the air - as soon as our vehicle pulled up, but a couple of the braver ones stuck around for a snapshot.
The afternoon drive

Our usual sight of warthogs - running away as fast as they can

But these three decided to look us over

A face only a mother could love!

We always loved the sight of the graceful giraffes and the enormous elephants.

It was always a thrill to spot the giraffes

Giraffe family

A tower of giraffes

Mother and child

In Maasai Mara, we had seen several jackals, but here we spotted more hyenas.  They looked like cuddly puppies until they showed us their teeth!
Spotted Hyena

Isn't he cute?

...Well, maybe until he shows his teeth!

The late afternoon brought another thrill - the sight of two leopards in a tree with their kill hanging from the branches.  I am always so impressed with the guides, who can spot these almost invisible creatures even as we are bouncing along the rocky roads!
Can you see the two leopards?  How did our guides spot them?

Is this better?
One of the cats started feasting on the antelope haunches and we could hear the bones crunching all the way to our vehicle!  The leopards are so rare and elusive that every sighting was an exciting moment.
The leopard on the left was just sleeping...

...but the one on the right was enjoying a feast.

We could hear the leg bone crunching all the way to our vehicle!

There were a couple of more gorgeous birds on the drive back.

Fischer's Lovebirds in the dusky air

Spur-winged Lapwing

At dusk, we returned to camp, our heads filled with another day of wonderful memories.