Tanzania Photo Safari Trip 2
February 13 – February 27
See our 2012 Brochure for this Trip!
Day 1. Ngorongoro Crater
We’d stayed at the Ngorongoro Crater to meet the new group, comprised of only 1 new participant. Some, like Libby, James, Grover, and Susie had been with us here in Tanzania several times, while most of the others had been to Kenya. Everyone arrived without incident and after lunch and a briefing we headed down to the crater shortly after 3PM. It was overcast and gloomy, but without rain. Later, the western skies cleared somewhat an a partially obscured sun appeared, enough to give me a burn on a sunscreen-less face.
The lions were out at the lugga, 11 in total, feeding on an African buffalo carcass they’d killed earlier – either at dawn or, as luck would have it, during the day when it would have been quite a show. We continued, scouting out how the crater had changed in just over 24 hours, which was significant. On the road we met our US representative of our tour company and she asked us, ‘Where are the animals?’ They’d been out all afternoon and had seen little, but I assured her that, based on our last several days here, there were indeed plenty.
Our really only shooting in the afternoon was a bull elephant that fed in the distance and eventually came to within frame-filling distance to drink and later to feed. At one point, as we crossed a small bridge, by guide, Michael stopped and asked me if I saw the snake. He pointed towards the little stream where I searched along the bank before being directed to an overhanging limb where a green rat snake-like serpent lay coiled, with its back half stretched upon the branch. How our guide saw the snake while driving, crossing a bridge, and keeping an eye on the elephant we were approaching was simply phenomenal.
The landscapes of the Serengeti - kopjes at Ngong Rocks, an acacia parkland at Ndutu, and one of the beautiful Gol kopjes at sunset, just a peek into the big sky, wide open spaces, that make the Serengeti so special.
Day 2. Ngorngoro Crater
Mary and I were chilled throughout the night and I was constantly cold, as if the mild sunburn had radiated all of my internal heat. Mary grew nauseous, and I felt drained, so, after meeting the group and reassigning some positions, I returned to my room and crashed, where I joined Mary. We were sick, and as I write this I’m still chilled and wrapped in as much clothing as I’d use at dawn.
The day was mostly cloudy bright or overcast, and by 2PM our side of the crater was covered by thick clouds that evolved into heavy rains and thunderstorms. By 3:30 it appeared as if the crater was completely enshrouded in rain, although in the 12 mile expanse of the crater it could be raining on our eastern side and clear upon the other.
Day 3. Ngorongoro Crater
For the second day in a row Mary and I sat out, still sick with what we now assume was food poisoning. We slept 13 hours, and still had little energy throughout the day, although by dinner Mary was recovered but I was queasy, and almost returned the pieces of bread that I had had for dinner.
Nonetheless, this was a great day for the group, although a rain started right before the game drive and continued, fairly constant, until 11AM. The rest of the day in the crater alternated between a little strong sun and a lot of wonderful cloudy bright weather. Until 5, when the storms rolled back in, with everyone arriving a little before six.
The highlight was the clan of hyenas that tried to hunt a juvenile black rhinoceros, but the mother defended it and the clan eventually diverted their attention to a group of zebras, including an injured one, which they chased right next to the vehicle. When the zebra finally stopped, so did the hyenas, and they walked off, leaving it alone. Later, another black rhinoceros actually charged one of our vehicles, but fortunately it was a false charge and stopped short. The rhino shots – the charge, the streaked, wet skin, great images, and we wished we’d have been able to be there.
A very cooperative serval and a three-quarter grown baby walked right up to the vehicles, giving both front views and side views for the various vehicles. A baby hippo was another highlight, as were 30 species of birds seen on a very dull day for bird-watching.
At drinks, before dinner, Tom showed a lightroom portfolio of some of the images he shot today, which everyone enjoyed and giving me a chance to enjoy, too, their luck. Dinner was lively, but I excused myself early, not wishing to push the gut any more than I had to.
Day 4. Ngorongoro Crater to Naabi Hill, Serengeti
Like it or not, today was a game drive, but fortunately Mary was now back to 100% and I was, at least to start, at 60% or so, but improved throughout the day. We had a cooked breakfast (some of us!) at 6:30 and were on the road by 7:15, under an overcast sky that lasted throughout the morning. Our lions were visible but far off, and we continued to Munga lugga to look for the rest of the pride, which was absent. The morning was fairly slow, with various birds as most people’s highlights, but we still didn’t leave the crater until after 11am where, on the route out of the crater, our guide spotted a beautiful Schalow’s turaco, a quetzal-quality iridescent green bird more commonly heard than seen as it quacks in the treetops. The bird cooperated for several shots, but within an official park vehicle driving down our one-way road, we decided to risk moving closer, and it flew. Still, it was truly spectacular.
The trip west went uneventfully with a stop at the whistling thorn acacia forest where, when I tapped the galls produced by ants, a swarm appeared, with the red-colored abdomen projecting skyward, as if capable of firing off formic acid. The ants, which form a wonderful symbiotic relationship with the acacias, perform a valuable service in discouraging any browser from lingering as the ants would make the meal quite costly. That protection comes at a cost, which is the energy expended by the plant in creating the gall the ants live in. Most galls are produced, like those on oak leaves or goldenrod in the US, when a wasp injects an egg into the tissue, triggering a cancer-like controlled growth that creates the characteristic gall. While ants, bees, and wasps are more closely related than, say beetles to ants, it seems likely that an acacia is colonized by a migrating swarm, much like honeybees when creating a new hive, where a queen and hundreds of members of her colony leave their birth-hive and settle somewhere new. For ants, though, virtually every acacia appears to be colonized, so forming a new colony would be difficult, when all likely trees are already settled. It seems unlikely that separate trees are all part of a super-colony of ants, but … I’ll need to look in to this.
Michael, one of our guides, had 4 flat tires so far, and 2 today on the road to the Serengeti, and when he got out the final time you could see his frustration. We stopped at the shifting sands, a sand dune composed of ferrous oxide, essentially magnetite, that keeps the dune particles together as they blow across the plains. Since 1990, when the first marker was erected, the dunes have shifted about 250-300 yards, kept intact in this windy, treeless plain by their inherent magnetism.
Soon after entering the park, and within site of Naabi Hill, we spotted our first gnus, and herds of thousands extending eastward to Gol Kopjes and, as we neared camp, westward below our camp and beyond, into the conservation area (NCA). We arrived at camp shortly after 5, welcomed by our friends the camp staff we so looked forward to seeing. As Mary and I relaxed for a few minutes, the western sky was masked by a blue veil of a thunderhead and the distant horizon was lost, in haze or rain. Thunder resounded in the distance, as the rains have finally reached the birthing grounds of the gnus, and the herds, too, have returned.
Day 5. Gol Kopjes
We left at 6 under a foreboding, dark sky, with the eastern horizon black with an advancing thunderstorm. As we drove across the grasslands to the first kopje lightning periodically flashed the swollen length of a northern storm, while spits of rain threatened worse to come. While technically past sunrise, the light was still dim when we rounded the first kopje, spotting the grass owl back in his crevice, before the bird slipped out and flew to another roost.
Shooting was light through the morning, as we drove past kopje and kopje looking for cats, and not bothering with landscapes in the flat light. For once, we had breakfast at a normal hour, at the waterhole where 10 days earlier the pride of lions had lounged and drank. Zebras came to drink, but the shooting was limited before the herd wandered off.
Leaving the waterhole we moved close to a trio of surprisingly tolerant bat-eared foxes, before moving on to a pair of cheetahs, a male we believe was entranced with a female that I suspect had not yet come into heat. Eventually the two split, and the male made a stalk on a small herd of Thompson’s gazelles, singling out a young fawn which it captured after a jog/sprint of 75-100 yards and another 200 yards of full power. We raced up to the capture in time to catch the cheetah as it lifted the still struggling fawn in its jaws before carting off into higher grasses where it’d be free from piracy.
Nearby, about a third of a mile off, the lion pride we’d been seeking lounged on the top of a tall kopje, but fortunately for the cheetah all of the cats were either asleep or on the opposite side of the rocks where the chase was hidden. Although the lions looked full, there’s little doubt that at least a few members of the pride would have rose for the opportunity of a free, and stolen, meal.
The cheetah fed, its muzzle bloody each time it looked up, and we left it there, departing to return to camp at noon, and arriving an hour later. As we expected, and hoped, the camp chef made his welcoming lunch for us – beef lasagna, and it was a hit.
PM. Gol Kopjes.
Many years ago, on a Uganda trip, an unpleasant woman, in recounting a personal anecdote, spoke of ‘no good deed goes unpunished.’ From her, such negativity only epitomized her persona, but today, for the second time for us, a good deed was, indeed, almost punishing.
Mary rescued a large beetle from her vehicle, and as she scooped it into her hand she, instead of shooing it away with her other hand, leaned in and blew hard on the insect to set it free. With her face close to the beetle it unexpectedly ejected what James described as a fine powder, striking Mary in the face. Fortunately she closed her eyes reflexively and only her left eye had some contact with the spray, but her face burned with the contact.
Chemical defenses like this are common among some ants and termites, and American beetles like the blister beetle and another, the bombardier beetle. In Arizona we see a type of blister beetle roam unconcernedly as their chemical spray, emitted from the tip of their abdomen, perpetually aimed at an angle upward, protects them from canny predators. Obviously, this type of defense is found in many regions, but for Mary there was no hint that this beetle had a chemical defense.
Immediately upon being sprayed Mary felt a chemical burn and told the others she had been hit by the beetle. Blindly, she groped for a bottle of water and started flushing her eyes, which she did repeatedly. Fortunately she had no vision loss or symptoms, as I had when I had one of my animal ‘good deeds,’ rescuing a spitting cobra from being chopped to pieces in a camp, and where a tobacco-like filter descended over my field of view. Like me, however, Mary felt as if she’d been thumbed in the eye and her eye hurt, even hours later her eye still hurt, as did her face, which still burned.
The spray had covered her face and eyes like a raccoon mask, sprayed at a distance of about 12 inches or so. The spray, James recalled, looked as if Mary had blown a powder from her bag, it being quite visible. This episode only reinforces what we tell every group, that virtually anything ‘out there’ can kill you, from an insect bite that gets infected (again, I speak from a near fatal experience) to an elephant mashing one to grease (no experience here, fortunately!).
I didn’t know any of this until we returned to camp, after returning to the lion pride that we’d left earlier in the day. The lions hadn’t moved much, and we waited for the cats to awaken while in the east a brooding storm crept ever closer. Nothing much happened, and with the storm near all of the vehicles, except mine, started a slow passage back to camp. We did, too, but stopped momentarily at a different viewing point, the one most of the others had, and as we stopped a few of the cubs awoke.
We stopped for shots, and the cubs got up and climbed over the kopje and out of view. We, in turn, circled the kopje to discover the cubs, followed by the lionesses, descending the rocks and resting on a broad shelf of sloping granite just above eye-level. Here the cats greeted one another, wrestled, and eventually nursed off of one of the females, while we photographed and anxiously watched the progress of the storm.
Shortly after 6, with the storm now just minutes away, we finally gave up and started a fast drive back to camp. En route, we paused to cover the hatches for the on-coming rains, but the ride out proved uneventful on roads that, when very wet, becomes both slippery and a quagmires.
One vehicle had, as an additional highlight, a very rare aardwolf, a small, termite-eating relative of the hyenas, which poked its shy head out of a burrow. Suzie’s birthday was today as well, with a cake for dessert and a nice couple of minutes with most of the group at a late campfire, as we sat and joked, framed, in the west, by recurring flashes of lightning from the now distant storm.
Day 6. AM, Simba Kopjes
The skies were overcast as we headed north towards Simba Kopjes, so the prospect of scenic in great light on these photogenic rocks seemed unlikely. The far eastern horizon was clear, and as the sun broke the horizon we framed the fireball against one of the distant Gol kopjes before the sun was swallowed by the clouds. We headed north, passing the largest of the kopjes, and at a borrow pit we found the two male cheetahs that, on the last trip, we’d photographed on our first day at Gol. They scanned the horizon for game, but since nothing was visible, and the light poor, we continued on.
At the Reedbuck lugga we found a great male lion following a lioness, but too far away for anything worthwhile. Further along, our first reedbucks, and then, a call that a leopard had been spotted. The leopard was perched in a sausage tree almost directly across from the hippo pool along this lugga, where it had stored a half-grown gnu carcass. Draped in shade, with a bright sky behind it, the shooting was poor, and after too many record shots everyone moved on. For my vehicle, that wasn’t far – just a hundred yards or so to a good goliath heron, and later, about a mile off, a very cooperative yellow-billed stork that sieved the shallows unsuccessfully for fish.
After breakfast we headed back to the hippo pool, discovering that the leopard had left the tree. While we waited, the big male leopard, the first we’d ever seen here, and a real rarity in this almost treeless grassland, returned, and hopped up the tree trunk to return to the kill. For that brief instant it offered a nice shot as it jumped, for those who were ready.
As we returned to camp a group of very cooperative reedbuck perched on a ledge above the lugga, giving us a clean, distraction free background. Later, after crossing the stream, we photographed a blacksmith plover that sat quietly next to the track. It sat in the grasses, and it was obvious from the bent stems that the bird wasn’t sitting on a nest, and we suspected she was hunkered over one or several chicks. Eventually, the bird rose to its feet, revealing … nothing beneath her. We headed home.
PM. Ndutu Forest
We left at 3:30 for the 30 minute drive to Ndutu, where shortly after leaving camp we stopped for a flap-necked chameleon that was crossing the track. The lizard rocked along, pausing frequently, and provided everyone with some great shooting. We left the chameleon safely off track in the grass, and we moved on, passing large herds of zebras en route, many with babies, and not a one with a feisty stallion. In contrast to the murky morning, the afternoon was clear and stayed that way throughout the afternoon, providing great light for scenic in this magical forest of tortillas acacia trees.
We barely entered the forest when we encountered a lioness, that posed nicely and yawned repeatedly, before finally standing and passing close by our vehicles. The acacias were striking, gnarled and twisted, and providing a perfect foreground accent point for the cumulous clouds towering in the western sky. Masai giraffes seemed everywhere and were tolerant, both in the forest and on the flatlands of Ndutu lake where we filmed several young adults necking, sparing in juvenile wrestling matches that tested strength and, perhaps, began to establish a dominance hierarchy.
Suzy and I got down on our bellies to frame a well preserved zebra skull against the sky, using our wide angle lenses. A family of 7 lions had been in the brush but as the afternoon progressed to early evening the cats moved out to the edge of the brush where we shot them framed by the late afternoon light.
A potential mating pair, a good male and a lioness, stepped into the open and the male tried to mate, but the female snarled and turned on him, faster than I expected, and I only captured the last half of the aggressive display. He tried again later, but she snarled again and the lion, much like the other male we’d seen earlier in the day, simply sniffed and flopped down resignedly beside her.
We left at 6:30 for the long drive home, making it back to camp in only 35 minutes and missing little light as low clouds erased any chance of sweet, late-evening light. To the northeast verga, rain that fails to hit the ground, formed a veil-like sheet that captured a vivid rainbow, making the drive back memorable.
Day 7. Ndutu and NCA
Lunch was at 5PM. Which sums up the day…..
We left camp at 6AM, heading to the Ndutu lake flats where we hoped to find the lions of yesterday evening. For the first time, the flatlands between Naabi and Ndutu were shrouded with a low fog, but the herds, fog, and light didn’t coincide, and we drove on. The lions were on the flats, with the mating pair sitting separately, and a lone young male guarding the road. The cubs and a lioness were off in the salt brush, joined soon by the mating couple, while a second, beat-up male joined the young male, who greeted him and weaved about him, semi-submissively but in an action that looked more like a female soliciting a male than a greeting.
Two bull elephants jogged onto the flats, and although somewhat shy they provided some great shooting, with their shyness, and our closeness, never morphing into aggression on the elephants’ part. Later, at the swamp, a large bull very definitely in musth, the breeding condition of a mature male, tolerated our presence quite closely, which is unusual for a big male at that time. Several bulls came, one by one, to the swamp where they either drank or used a mud hole the first bull excavated, spraying themselves partially with black ooze before continuing across the marshes.
We had some success with a bat-eared fox den, with a total of 7 foxes around the den site. Although there wasn’t too much activity, which is typical, our patience was rewarded when a few foxes got up and walked about, wonderfully back-lighted. Leaving the fox, we had some success with both roller species, including a tolerant lilac-breasted that was too close to fully fit in the frame.
After breakfast, now 11:30AM, we headed deeper into the NCA looking for a cheetah with young cubs and three male cheetahs, also reported here. We found the three brothers, huge cheetahs that my guide told me that he’d seen kill three one-year old gnus, one each, so they are a formidable trio. All were larger than the average male leopard, and I’d suspect even topi and hartebeest would be potential prey for the bunch. The cats did little, and after some shots we moved on, looking for the family.
Along the way we passed our second orphaned gnu baby of the day, and while this one didn’t come close it later followed us, just when we had turned in to visit a lioness and three 9 month old cubs. While we watched the lions the gnu calf came cantering in, with the rocking gait that adults use to eat up miles. The gnu calf grunted its distress, and the lioness flattened, bunching up for a charge. The calf switched directions, ending up almost between our vehicles when one of her cubs took chase, frightening the calf to a further distance. Still, the calf returned, and now the lioness charged, but the calf, who blithely and desperately had approached our vehicles, reacted to a baser instinct and as the cat streaked forward, the gnu spun on its tracks and galloped off, with the lioness in pursuit. The chase lasted less than 50 yards, and the gnu calf won, disappearing into the distance while the lioness sat, panting in the sun.
We continued searching for the cheetah family but without success, although a great dark chanting goshawk, tawny eagle, scenics, and a very cooperative baby Masai giraffe filled the afternoon. We finally entered the Ndutu plains after 4PM, missing, we thought, lunch, but as we arrived in camp the place settings were in order and a great lunch, temperature perfect, awaited us. Considering our camp chef cooks on a grill over an oil drum, and prepares outstanding meals, we wondered how, without a microwave, he could not only keep food warm but do so without burning. Our lunch lasted nearly an hour as we shared the day, before breaking for down-loading, showers, and a campfire before a dinner only hours later.
Day 8. Seronera
We set a new record today, with my vehicle finally eating breakfast at 12:30PM, and the rest just one hour earlier. The reason – leopards.
We headed out, straight, for the Seronera area where we hoped to find the leopard and cub we had last week, but we were waylaid for a few minutes at Simba kopjes where the two great male lions of that pride climbed atop the sloping shoulder of the biggest kopje, and, walking parallel to us and exactly on the crest, we had great silhouettes of the male against the early light of sunrise. I was a bit late, with my driver/guide stopping prematurely twice, but Mary was there as the male did flehmen along the crest – we were stopping at the time and missed it!
A leopard with a cub was spotted at a tree, and usually, with a Serona leopard, that means a distant view. We were filming a wonderful goliath heron, with reflection when we received the call, and by the time we arrived a long line of vehicles were set up, and both Mary, Bill’s, and my vehicle had more distant, 1.4X w 500mm views, as the leopards played and groomed. Scott and Cheryl’s vehicle, with Reggie, were the first to arrive and may have been the first there, as they had a prime spot right next to the tree, and sometimes had the cats playing only 30-50 feet away.
By mid-morning the leopard cub, as is typical with these independent cats, moved off, walking about a hundred yards before disappearing in the brush. The mother, later, tried calling repeatedly but the baby ignored her, and the mother finally settled down to sleep in the shade of the tree. It was close to 11AM by then, and most of the vehicles left, but I stayed, with Tom and Doris, as we hoped the cub would return. It never did, but we were rewarded for our patience with the leopard gave us some nice poses on the ground before climbing the tree and lying on a limb, facing us, giving us the best views I’ve ever had of a Serengeti leopard. Finally, giving up hope of the cub returning, we headed out to meet the others, and arrived for breakfast at 12:30.
The others, at HQ, had a green snake we assume was a striped bush snake eating a lizard, and mongooses and hyrax and birds. It was hot, and we spent nearly 3 hours there, talking and avoiding the sun. At 3:30 we left, with three vehicles heading toward Masai kopjes, while James’s and my vehicle went back to the leopard, hoping for the return of the cub. The leopard was back in the tree, and eventually adopted the same poses we had in the morning, but with even better light. Eventually, the leopardess left the tree and retreated to the lugga, perhaps to drink or to find her cub. We waited an hour and gave up, and soon stopped for the most cooperative black coucal I’d ever had, singing on a low perch, framed against the blue sky in the afternoon sunshine.
The group also had some great luck with zebras at a waterhole, elephants, and observations, without photos, of cheetahs and lions at a kill. Everyone headed south, towards home and along the Seronera, and, incredibly, another leopard with babies was spotted. This one, as it turns out, was the one we’d seen last week, and was less than 2 km from where we had it then. The other leopard and cubs was over 5 km away, as it turned out. The new leopard had two cubs, although last week we’d only seen one, but that’s not unusual for leopards, who have a fairly loose family system. The mother had killed a reedbuck since we’d passed by in the morning, and now she, and her two cubs, climbed about in a sausage tree.
We headed towards camp at 6, driving fast, but at Simba we did a circle of the big kopje where two giraffes fed along the slope and, at the other end, the male lions were resting on the rocks, not far from where we’d left them this morning. It was rewarding to finally get a lion amongst the boulder-marbles that litter the smooth slope of the rocks, giving real life to these kopjes. It was well past 6:30 when we started our race to the gate, arriving at 7 and shortly after to camp.
A great day finished when, after dinner, we watched a Scop’s owl perched on a low branch outside a tent, where it waited to hawk insects attracted to the lights.
Day 9. Gol Kopjes
We left at 6, for one of the most productive, in terms of seeing rarities, mornings we’ve ever had in Gol, if not anywhere in the Serengeti. It started with our grass owl, the barn owl relative, still in its vertical slit in the kopje, but the bird didn’t fly off as usual, and we left it undisturbed. We’d been called to a honey badger, or ratel, the first of this trip, in the open plains before the first kopje. This one stayed in the area, and while avoiding us, lacking the usual racing, evasive behavior, and the white-mantled mustelid trotted by us and slipped into a burrow.
We still hadn’t reached the first series of kopjes, ‘cept the grass owl rocks, when we spotted two male lions feeding on a smaller carcass. It was a partially eaten aardvark, only the second (both dead) aardvark I’d ever seen, and most of the guides had only seen one or two in their entire careers. The male lions were from the Naabi Hill pride, and must have been on the outer edge of their territorial boundary. One lion we’d seen several times before, an old male with a sliced, distorted left nostril. This older cat was lying attentively nearby, while the other male, with a scraggly black mane, hogged the carcass. As ‘Hook nose’ moved to get closer, the other lion feinted a charge, stopping the more timid lion in its tracks. The other lion never shared, although the bigger male moved in, inching forward and sometimes flopping over and rolling onto its back, much as we’ve seen lionesses do when they’re trying to join in a contested kill. As we left the lion was still feeding, and any scraps left for the other lion would be meager.
We finally reached the first rocks of the kopje where the two male cheetahs that we’ve seen here and at Simba kopjes were sprawled out on a rock. They looked well fed, although both took up different viewing positions to watch either for game or danger. We shot them from several angles, ending with a nice series as the cheetahs got up and stretched, framed by the blue sky, before moving on into the shade, where we left them.
At breakfast three of the guides and I climbed a kopje, having some fun on the steep, slick rock surfaces, and later Mary and I took our ‘trip photo’ for the web. By then it was past 11 and we hoped to be back in camp by 1 to give people a rest and time to download, and after a visit to a few of the kopjes, where, at one, gnus gathered at a large waterhole to drink, we headed back towards camp.
We’d gone ahead, but were called back as, incredibly, the two caracal cats we’d seen nearly three weeks ago, and less than one mile away, were spotted. We tried to move close but the cats hunkered down, and, unseen, disappeared into a burrow where we left them unmolested.
PM. Gol Kopjes
The scattered, sculpted boulders, from outcrops barely large enough to support a few misplaced bushes to football field-length rock slabs with acacias and fig trees, that comprised the Gol Kopjes makes this my favorite part of the Serengeti, and this evening, with golden, angular light the area just screamed scenic. We started the drive with the two cheetah brothers, one of which had perched himself close to the road where I could incorporate a wide-angle scenic, with the cheetah in the foreground and any number of variations of the kopje rocks in the background. We spent twenty minutes or so with the cat before it finally climbed off of the rock and joined his brother, lying in a less photogenic location a short distance away. Most of the other vehicles stayed with the cheetah, and Mary got a great shot when the cat stretched, dramatically, in the low light of late afternoon.
I continued on with Libby, checking on the lions we had earlier, which were still asleep in a rocky amphitheater formed by a U-shaped ring of rocks. The late light glowed, and we shot several kopjes as we went from one to another, eventually returning to the lions that had finally awakened. The cubs nursed, and the 1.5 year olds flopped haphazardly upon the younger cubs before all settled back down to sleep, and we headed back to camp, arriving just after 7.
Day 10. Moru Kopjes.
We left early, and tried to drive direct to the kopjes, where we hoped to photograph a kopje silhouetted against a dawn sky. Several vehicles were waylaid by 4 lionesses near Simba Kopjes, and while I forged ahead, we never made it, and watched a fireball rise without flare across the grasslands. We continued on to Ngong rocks, where I hoped to shoot the rocks in the early golden light, and although successful in the location, the lighting was weak and the shots so-so. By then, the rest of our group had reached the kopjes, and eventually we met up with everyone at a long, flat kopje marked by giant marble-like rocks, where most of the group got out to shoot landscapes. Later, we continued on to the Masai paintings, and back to Ngong, where the group did more scenic. We arrived back to camp close to 1:30, and as lunch ended a storm blew in.
The storm passed and the air was crisp and clear, with a few clouds very low on the western horizon, and giant thunderstorms swirling around Marumek volcano in the Ngorongoro highlands. The afternoon was simply stellar, starting with a square-tailed nightjar on the side road to Ndutu, followed, on the flats, by a very cooperative two-banded courser. A few minutes later a large herd of African buffalo tromped in, drinking at a small waterhole in great light, and, as we continued, we flushed up an extremely cooperative African hare, that stood, like a Texas jackrabbit, with its ears erect as it watched us.
We were lured from the hare by a trio of Masai giraffes that came to drink, raising their heads, spilling water and tossing oxpeckers, and shaking their heads violently with each upswing. We had multiple chances as the giraffes drank repeatedly.
My vehicle, with James and Grover, went looking for the bat-eared foxes, but either they had moved or they were still inside their den. However, a trio of black-backed jackals that Mary also was working, and which she got a great shot as one leaped across a stream, approached us and cooperated wonderfully, for walking/running shots, and also back lighted in the late light.
It was after 6:15 when we headed towards camp, and we’d just climbed out of the lake bed when one of the other guides radioed that they had a great cheetah with cubs. We turned around and sped back, reaching the cheetahs just as the light began to fail. Still, at higher ISOs we managed some shots, and we finally left the cheetahs around 6:40, requiring us to race back to camp on a smooth, dusty road without mishap. It was, for everyone, one of the most complete and satisfying afternoons we’ve had in the Serengeti.
Day 11. Ndutu
We left early, but stopped before we reached the forest when a cheetah was spotted, that appeared to be hunting gazelles. While we watched and waited, our first African wild cat appeared in view, a tiny spot of cat far off. Unlike a baby cheetah or lion cub of the same size, the adult wild cat had ‘normal’ cat proportions, not the big head/huge paws of a cub, so even at our distance the identification was clear.
The cat stalked along, looking back occasionally at the cheetah, and we had a good view of its black tail and grayish-brown coat. Wild cats are very variable in coloration, and we’ve seen darkish, nearly gray black cats, as well as brownish, tabby calico-looking, much like our cat at home. Unfortunately, this wild cat never came close to the road.
We continued on to the lake, hoping to find the cheetah mother and cub, but she eluded us or moved on. I scoped the lake, and the flamingoes that had been in the shallows of the lake were now gone. Glassing further, I saw that the entire mass had clustered along a feeder stream, close to a track, and we headed down, fast, to get them.
There were hundreds, if not several thousand, greater flamingoes, easily identified by their bi-colored, black-tipped beak and height, and a small number of the black-beaked lesser flamingoes. They milled about in parade, moving upstream and down, and I radioed the group that this was something they should see. In all the years at Ndutu we’ve never seen the flamingoes on shore, or accessible, and in the early light it was a visual spectacle.
Leaving the birds, we soon encountered the bat-eared foxes, which were running about far from the den we’d had them at previously. As we approached, they flopped down, whether because of our approach or the end of a play period I couldn’t be sure. Still, for the time we lingered the shots were good.
Further up the dry river valley we encountered a big male lion, spotting it just as it entered brush. It had been drinking at a small pool and, since there were several lions also in the brush, we hoped that others might come down to drink. Doris and I parked close, waiting, while dusky turtle doves, mourning doves, and ring-necked doves swooped down to drink, joined later by a pair of black-faced sandgrouse and a pair of yellow-fronted canaries. The shooting was great, and after filling most of a card with portraits I tried shooting doves as they took off in flight. It’s amazing how slow human reflexes are, or at least mine, as I missed every bird if I fired at the moment of take-off. I did catch those where, due to some clue, I fired at the instant they started to launch, and hopefully some of those shots will be in focus.
While we waited, we watched a side-necked turtle scrambling about in the pool, probably trying to snag and drown a dove, but the reptile didn’t linger at any one spot, so any ambush was fruitless. A young male lion left the bush and returned to the pool, and at our close working distance for birds the lion was perfect for either our short zooms or tight, tongue-lapping head shots with our telephotos. The lion finished drinking and sat down, and a lioness took over his spot, giving us more shots.
Eventually both lions, and another lioness, moved passed us to the feeder stream, where Mary, Don, Judy, and some others got some great shots as one of the lionesses leaped across the tiny stream. We moved further upstream, shooting the herds of zebras that came in to drink, just a hundred yards or so from the resting lions.
Further upstream the wildebeest migration was now fully visible, with long, thick lines of gnus moving through the brush and woodland and onto the flats. We saw our first baby, then two, then dozens, but most looked at least several days old. The grasses here are very short, so I climbed out of the vehicle and tried some ground-level shots of the zebras, gnus, and a blacksmith plover that traveled past our vehicle.
At 11:00 we finally met up for breakfast, sitting beneath a spreading acacia tree and overlooking the streams of gnus traveling on the flats below us. By 12 we headed towards camp, with several of us stopping at the lions again, where one of the males now lay next to the stream, his belly filled to bursting, while he panted and drooled in the hot sun. The reflections were good, but at one point his dual strings of saliva, resembling saber-teeth drooping from his upper jaw, made shooting problematic.
As we headed home, we stopped for a pied avocet that we’d passed on while heading towards the lions. This large, black-and-white shorebird has an up-curved bill which it scythes through the water, straining for small insects. The bird was oblivious, and gave us the best shots I’ve had of this unusual bird.
We left at 4, under an almost cloudless sky, but hadn’t reached the main road when Michael spotted a square-tailed nightjar, a whip-poor-will look-alike, perched on a tree limb high above what I’d expect to be his normal field of view. This, our second nightjar in two days, was almost as many as I’d ever photographed in East Africa!
We continued down the now very dusty road to Ndutu, then west along the forest edge until we reached the NCA. En route, we spotted 5 cheetahs, 4 together, and a female off by herself nearby. Three southern ground hornbills fed in the short grasses, the first of these turkey-sized black birds I’d seen since arriving in Tanzania.
Once in the NCA we headed cross-country until we reached the Ndutu lake basin, where the gnus were once again in migration. Dry and dusty, the gnus kicked up small clouds with each step, and as a long line of gnus galloped passed we positioned ourselves for back-lighting. The gnus, and zebras that followed, crossed a great open stretch before veering off into a small pool, where we again caught the gnus as they splashed through.
Three of our vehicles continued on to where a leopard had been spotted, and now surrounded by 20 vehicles, but the cat was sleeping and unperturbed, with its head buried in brush. Mary radioed me to say, don’t bother, and we didn’t.
We finished the afternoon with 7 of the lions we had earlier, but the cast had changed, with two cubs now replacing two of the adults. Although the light was warm and wonderful, the cats did little – one cub, with a shortened tail, chased doves, and a lioness, at the very end, began to groom, scratching her foreleg in time with humorous tongue flicks. As she scratched faster, her tongue darted out more quickly, until she finally slowed on the scratching and her mouth stayed quiet.
We left the lions at 6:45, and raced back the dusty roads, arriving around 7:15. To our south and west five different thunderheads loomed up into an otherwise clear sky, and as the sun set the sky was banded in stripes of color, light oranges, soft blues, deep reds. At camp, just after sunset, these clouds flashed brightly with internal lightning, but the storm moved on and no one tried any campfire-side photography. As Mary and I returned to our tent we again heard rumbles, not thunder, but the grumbling low rumbles of elephants close by but unseen in the darkness.
Day 12. Seronera, full day.
A flash of gold, a flash of white, and an instant later, thrashing limbs. So went, in as long as it took to read this, for a female leopard to make her kill. We’d left early, at 6, and headed directly to route 16 where we planned on following the Seronera River, hoping to again find a leopard.
En route, not long after sunrise, I spotted the green coils of a snake in an acacia tree. Just seconds earlier, we’d passed a branch that I had a brief glimpse, but it looked suspicious and, confirming the one was a snake, we backed up to see another, easy 5 ft long, snake stretched on a limb. Judy and Don’s vehicle wisely decided to shoot perpendicular to the track, and thus got a head shot of the snake, which, baring a contradiction when I see their shot, should prove to be a boomslang. This snake, which grows to this maximum length is a rear-fanged lizard hunter that is lethally venomous. A bite, except for the obvious discomfort of being as painful as any toothed snake’s bite would be, shows no sign of envenomation. However, within hours hemorrhaging begins, and the victim may bleed out, literally, from every body orifice. Deaths occur in 1 to 5 days, and a big snake, like these potential boomslangs, probably would do so within the day. A Chicago herpetologist in the 1950’s was bitten by a snake that barely brushed his skin, and although symptoms seemed to abate after 16 hours, he died in less than 24, of a cerebral hemorhage
Short afterwards, we spotted a leopard on the opposite side of the lugga, perched in a sausage tree. By the time we drove to the spot, in a tree close to the road, the leopard had shifted position and faced away from us. A few minutes later she climbed down, and after a brief toilet break she moved out, heading again for the lugga. We suspected she was going to cross and continue, so we drove back to meet her but instead she started stalking through the grasses and low shrubs. At that point we suspected she’d seen something from her perch and was hunting, and, sure enough, a few minutes later, after she disappeared, flattening in the grass, we had the leap, snatch, and grab, with a reedbuck captured after a blazingly fast jump or charge.
The leopard stayed with the kill a short time before unexpectedly leaving it, to walk down the main track, a dozen or more vehicles following along. We assumed the cat was going to fetch her cubs, but after waiting a half hour we decided to follow, where we found the cat walking right next to the cars that lined the road. She was completely tame, and as we arrived she moved off, scent-marked a tree, and walked away, eventually perching in another sausage tree, tired, bored, or discouraged from finding her missing cub.
We continued on to Seronera for a late breakfast, where we spent the next two hours avoiding the mid day heat. At 1 we headed out, heading towards the Masai kopjes. Here several of the vehicles had a great show with elephants at a mud hole, and some young bull interactions, fighting and chasing off buffalo.
My vehicle found a mating pair of lions but the lioness was placid and the mating uneventful, with barely a growl or snarl. In less than an hour they mated three times, after each, returning to a comically thin snag, the only shade in the hot sun. We joined up with everyone for lunch, at 2, and headed slowly towards home.
We were first on the scene as a large herd of zebra moved across the grasses, approaching three widely spaced lions that showed interest. Eventually a young male and a lioness took positions and began creeping in on the zebras as they streamed passed, but none came close enough to trigger a real charge. Although we waited an hour or more, the hunt dissipated when the zebras sensed danger and stopped, then turned and the remainder of the herd moved back up the hill where they calmly grazed.
We encountered a few more lions as we left, before starting the long drive back to Naabi Hill. Near Naabi more gnus and zebras had gathered, repeating the cycle of emptiness and plenty we’d seen over the last several weeks. One day or two a given area would be thick with gnus, while the next the herds were gone, seeking the water and the fresh grasses required for birthing. No one seems to know where they have gone.
The last observation of the night was memorable, and solved a question Mary and I had about the parental rearing of kori bustards. No guide I’d ever asked had ever seen a chick, but tonight we spotted a tiny, duckling-sized chick following closely in tow with an adult. No male was visible, so we’re assuming the male, like most lek displayers, had no role in parenting. However, that deepens the mystery of the observation we had with the Hartlaub’s bustard and the caracal, where, on the last trip, a bustard flew in as if keeping an eye on the cat, as if ready to defend a nest. It appears that a male has no such role, so we’re still at a loss to understand what, exactly, that bird was doing.
We arrived in camp around 6:30, very, very dusty and, for some, very tired as well. At dinner this evening several participants commented upon being back early enough to see in the shower, or made reference to the great day, and how tired they are. In contrast, while Mary and I are tired, I commented to my vehicle passengers that I can’t believe tomorrow is the last day, and I’d love to get another 2 weeks here. As we drove the back road from Masai kopjes, enjoying the subtle beauty of the grasslands, I realized there’s so much of this 6,000sq mi park I haven’t seen. And I would like to.
Day 13. Ndutu and Hidden Valley
We planned on one long morning game drive to give everyone time after lunch to clean gear and pack. We left at 6, stopping along the branch road to Ndutu when two clans of spotted
hyenas clashed over a carcass. In the dark, their eyes glowing golden in our headlights, the hyenas loped about, charging one another and gaining ground, then rocking back in their peculiar gait as the rival clan retaliated. The view, though brief, gave some idea of the power and speed of hyenas, for during the day they often look like husky hangdogs, moving at a walk or lying in a mud puddle.
Several vehicles stopped for various sunrise locations, including a secretary bird at its nest, and my vehicle, with Suzy and Grover, headed in to the woods, hoping to find a clearing where the rising sun might create an alleyway of light. We partially succeeded, framing the rising sun against a series of acacias as we moved along, looking for new angles.
We crossed the Ndutu river bed quickly and headed west, with three vehicles turning south almost immediately to move along through the forest, with matiti, a set of double hills far to the southeast, as our destination. My vehicle, and Don, Judy, and Barry’s, continued westward, and for a while I felt that the route the guides had taken would be unproductive. Still, I kept quiet, as a lion hunt might materialize in the short grass, or a serval, or caracal. As we continued west, however, I saw that we were approaching a large watershed depression known as Hidden Valley. I asked my guide and he confirmed it, asking me, ‘Do you want to go there?
Hidden Valley is a dusty seasonal lake basin, marked by a series of very shallow lakes, and dusty beds and shorelines. Sometimes, when conditions are right, it is a magical valley, with a pride of lions that alternate between here and Moru kopjes, and where it serves as a regional water source. As we approached, we saw that thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of gnus and zebras were streaming toward and into the valley.
The sight was The Migration, an almost confounding series of lines and shapes as gnus and zebras milled about, mostly moving west, but with animals coming into the basin at all angles. Visually, it was stunning, but as a photograph it was a real challenge. We drove towards the lake edge, flushing collared pratincoles, a bird that somewhat resembles a dark tern, and reaching the lake with a herd of gnus that drank and then waded across the waters. Others, from the east, streamed in, kicking up dust and clouds, often obscuring the animals as they entered the flats.
Our best shots occurred as we left, as we moved down a side passageway where a valley-like funnel channeled the wind, whipping up clouds that periodically swirled behind or amongst the zebras. The scene, alternating between stark silhouettes of zebras against a background of partially obscured zebras in the dust, to ghost-like images of the herds, was simply wonderful, although I wished that we could shoot that same dust at sunrise, when it would swirl about in pumpkin orange.
It was past 10, and we headed towards a prearranged picnic breakfast area, although all of our vehicles were parked on a pride of 9 lions, the Ndutu pride. When we arrived the lions were dead asleep, and since most of the vehicles had been there for some time, three of the vehicles headed for breakfast. Since we’d just arrived we stayed, and a few minutes later one of the cubs awoke, yawned, and stretched. You could tell it was getting up for good, and quite likely that the one cub would bother the other two that were still asleep. And it did.
The shooting only got better, with the cubs first interacting with each other and then with their mother, who, at first, was facing away from us. As we watched, the lioness got up and turned our way, with her cubs intertwining between her legs. As she lay back down, facing us, the cubs squirmed about, often passing beneath her chin. The light was somewhat harsh – after 11AM by now, but still the shooting was great, and the best lion activity, with cubs, I think we’ve ever had in the Serengeti. We called in the other vehicles, shortcutting their breakfast, and when they arrived, ten minutes later, the cubs had settled down again, seemingly asleep.
We were kidded, ‘you brought us back for this!’ but even if true, we knew what we had seen, and could prove it, and we just hoped the action would start again. It did, with the lioness getting up and leading the cubs to the nearby swamp where she sought, unsuccessfully, shade, before returning to the pride where, once again, the cubs milled about her, squeezing beneath her chin and interweaving between her legs. That’s why we brought everyone back!
Mary spotted a cheetah almost directly opposite the lions, sitting in the marsh grass at the edge of the swamp. She went over, and got some nice shots of the cheetah in the grass, before the very obvious pregnant female disappeared into the thickest grasses. The cubs fell back asleep and, now past noon, the show appeared over, and we left, the last of the vehicles to do so.
Cumulous clouds built in the sky as we drove, and by the time we reached the park-like area of the Ndutu woodlands we had beautiful skies, and a great foreground of flowering acacia trees as our foreground. Suzy, Grover, and I got out, and walked about, shooting wide-angles, while our guide, probably nervous as hell, followed close behind in his vehicle, in case any animal appeared.
We arrived back in camp at 2, had an hour lunch, and spent the rest of the afternoon packing and cleaning very dusty gear. As I write this at 5PM the south and western sky is partially obscured by dust, haze, or rain, and the evening promises the potential of a thunderstorm. The area needs it, as this is the start of the rainy season and nearly everywhere is dry.
Day 14. Naabi Hill, Serengeti National Park to Arusha.
Last evening, we had our going-away dinner, a bitter-sweet time marked by good cheer but tempered by the sadness that we were soon to leave the camp. The chef made two cakes, one to celebrate Don and Judy's recent wedding, and another for the entire group as a final good-bye, or, as they worded it, one cake was a good-bye and the other a 'welcome, and come back soon.'
We left for the Seronera airport at 8, with a final farewell to the camp staff, who, like always, were lined up to wave us off. Their day had only begun, as they would spend the rest of the next two days breaking camp and packing, tearing down the campsite we'd shared for almost 21 days.
Our plane was late, by about an hour, but we arrived back in Arusha on schedule, had lunch at the African Cultural Center, and returned to the Mount Meru Hotel. The group left that evening at 6, and Tom, Mary, and I saluted the great group with a drink before heading back to our rooms, to rest before the next leg of our trip -- India, starting tomorrow!