We started at 7:30 with Ole and Elias mumbling and being worried. As they confessed that same night, they got news at 6:30 that there was an early crossing so they were worried that the window of opportunity closed for that day. Boy, were they wrong!
After an hour waiting and watching the herds gathering at the south side of the river, at 8:50 we saw a number of vehicles rushing to the edge of the cliff. The crossing had started. The first time you see that you are awestruck. Hundreds, if not thousands of wildebeest running, tumbling down the steep hill and then running and swimming along the river, producing at the same time a thick cloud of dust and a cacophony of noises. Unfortunately we were at the wrong side of the river, looking at the back of the herd. I shot a number of pictures but the but cloud was so dense that almost all of them are poor 🙁 Still I felt privileged that I witnessed this spectacle.
We left to happy to do some game spotting. We cruised along the Mara and spotted elephants, wildebeest and the occasional crocodiles. The road took us to the Kenyan border which we crossed by some hundred meters to see a mother cheetah with her six months old cubs. Two lovely cats, full of energy and an appetite for play that often distanced from their mother. She was always alert and called them back several times. Every time she did, they returned promptly, a thing they learned in order to stay alive in the wild. Cheetahs usually produce a litter of five or six, so these two must have certainly lost some brothers and sisters along the way. Listening to mama is a must in this area.
We returned to the river bank and had our lunch in the car. There were herds gathering along the opposite side. We had to wait some 50 meters away from the edge, behind the trees in order to hide from the herd and scare them from crossing. We secretly hoped for a repetition of the morning play as the population of wildebeest was building up on the top of the hill across the river. This time we were on the right side of the river. On two occasions we thought it would happen as the leaders of the herd were going half way down the hill. Then up again. Down. And back. After half an hour of this we got a bit closer only to see three huge crocodiles waiting at the base of the hill. The wildebeest are migratory, not stupid. Then they moved west and along with them we drove to the next likely crossing point.
An hour later we saw the population building up again. This time there were no crocs in sight. And then it happened again. One got in the water and started crossing immediately followed by hundreds, rushing in from the grazing grounds.The cameras were on fire. We were on the right side at a great vantage point. It went on for about fifeteen minutes and they were coming out just 10 meters away from our vehicle. Almost all of them turning their head in our direction when they climbed the bank. Some of youngsters were going back in search of their mother that they lost during the crossing, then continuing along the long line of wildebeest heading north. Pure magic.
We left in awe, but Elias had different plans. He heard on the radio that there was a new crossing just a one kilometer from there. Pedal to the metal and we arrived first, just in time to witness what proved to be the longest crossing of the day. A full half hour of wildebeest crossing the Mara river for our third crossing in a day! I never thought I would get this lucky. this time I spent enough time with my eyes off the viewfinder in order to appreciate fully the experience. I noticed better their behaviour, how the go down, how they cross, how some of them cross back and then forth again in search of their young or some other reason that I still do not understand.
We drove back, excited and happy. But the day was not over. We stopped to see a female hippo lying in the grass when the guides were tipped by a passing vehicle that there was something worth pursuing three kilometers away. Ole said that we forgot something so we had to drive back. Anticipation building. Ole would not drive us back for a lion, Was it a leopard? After half an hour of searching we saw a number of vehicles waiting for something. and waiting. The hell with this. We drove straight to the dense bush next to the road and we saw them. A huge female rhino with her three week old cub. A-m-a-z-i-n-g. She was so shy, the little guy was half-hiding behind his mother and the bush was so dense that we could not get a clear view, but there were there, 5 meters away. Black rhinos are extremely rare, with only 30-something rhinos living in the Serengeti, some of them transferred there from South Africa after the population had dropped to less than 10 in 2006. We felt so privileged to see these great creatures in their natural habitat. I did not get the chance to shoot a clear picture, but Peter was bit luckier and I am using his pictures here. One more item off the bucketlist.
Such a full day. We decided to change our plans and return the next day to central Serengeti as our task for seeing the crossing was fulfilled. This way we would spread the return trip along two days and get some time to see some more things in the central Serengeti.
The Mara was full of dead corps from yesterday’s crossings and a big population of vultures and marabou cranes were devouring. It was not the crocs but rather the fact that some of the wildebeest break their legs or drown and do not make it across the river. We took the way back to central Serengeti, five hours driving with a lot of game spotting opportunities.
About halfway through central Serengeti, Elias hit suddenly on the breaks. What? What is it? ‘I saw something hanging from a tree’, he said. Pulled back twenty meters and there he was. A young male adult leopard, resting on a branch. I still do not get it. This guy is driving 70 km/h on a bumpy road, talking to Ole and he spots a leopard on a tree. The tree was fortunately next to the road and we were there alone. Camera on fire, one more thing off the bucketlist. I felt blessed by the great God of the Masai, whoever he is.
In the afternoon we stopped by the hippo pool. A shallow water pool where a big number of hippos – seventy, eighty? – were doing what hippos do. Being filthy. I mean stinky filthy. they sit there, on top of each other, making sounds, rolling and producing gazes. The smell was thick so it was challenging to sit more than twenty minutes, but enough to get some good pictures.
We arrived at the lodge but there was more. Shortly after dinner, my party went to bed and I stayed with Ole and the camp’s manager for a drinks and chatting. It started raining heavily when one of the staff came from the kitchen tent to tell us that a lioness just killed a gazelle. Do I want to see it? The hell I did. In the Land Cruiser, pitch black, heavy rain, fifty meters drive, two dead gazelles, a gazelle stomach lying in the grass, one dead wildebeest, a herd of gazelles running nervously, alarm calls and two cat eyes staring intensely at my torch. Wow. Go to the other side. Where is she? Ole yelling. There, there! Where? Me, waving the torch widely, then boom. Five, no, four meters away, she was grabbing another Thomson gazelle by the neck. Suffocation. Kill. We were facing a very unusual behavior. A serial killer lioness. Lions do not kill for fun, they kill just enough to satisfy their hunger. But this one was either deranged or she had a big pride to feed on her own. I did not think that I would ever witness a night kill. This is one of the things that people with decades of Serengeti milage rarely witness. I did not have the camera with me, but frankly it doesn’t not matter. I was there, I watched it. I saw a killing machine, in her full glory, doing what she was genetically engineered to do best.
I slept so heavy that I did not hear the elephant destroying the tree five meters away from the entrance of our tent. I realized it the next morning when I woke up by the rising sun. A truly mystical moment. Shadows and sounds, the morning Serengeti sun lighting the herds of elephants that we still grazing in our neighbourhood.
What’s more to see? Time to drive back, happy and full. But there was a little more. A couple of hundred meters away there was a lion pride with a fresh kill, cubs playing, bellies full, some still eating the last remnants. Then a female stood up, the male followed promptly. What a dude. Time for sex. But he wanted some discretion.
Then Simon, Ole’s partner who was driving another group in the area, called Ole. He had spotted something and Ole asked him to keep it secret until we go there, then he could give it away to the other vehicles. One more leopard. Another male, this time sitting on the grass below his tree. On the tree there was Thomson gazelle, obviously last night;s kill with its back half eaten. Again very close. I realized that leopards are much smaller than I thought. It is really mind blowing how they manage to drag a kill their own size five meters up the tree.
One last for the road. Three male lions, maybe from the same we saw the first day patrolling their territory right next to the main road. The way they walked was truly imperial. Full of confidence they were doing their daily turn on the perimeter of their territory.
Two hours later we descended to the Ngorongoro crater. This was my second time but it was at midday and very dry. The wind was blowing dust clouds of volcanic ash that presented a very different scenery than my first time. No flamingos around this time of the year but the wildebeest, zebras and buffaloes were there, grazing against the caldera walls. Ngorongoro is unique and something you must see at least once, but I would not go there for a third time. There are too many vehicles for my taste and the setting is a bit controlled. You have to get really lucky to see a rhino from close distance but they are always there and you are certain to see them from a mile away.
Back to the civilization. The lodge just outside the conservation area had electricity and a proper toilet. Good food and an impressive fireplace. It was only then that Ole confessed that it was the first time he witnessed a crossing after 15 years on the job! Is he kidding us or are we so lucky?
The next morning we drove back to Kilimanjaro for our flight back to Nairobi. Half way through we Peter asked Ole to stop a group of Nyangulus, the young Masai that we recently circumcised and became the new warriors. They were black, paint their faces and wander around with their leader, an older warrior. The leader asked for a little something to shoot some pictures, but Ole is a Masai himself and negotiated a fair price. The youngsters were very timid and did not feel comfortable with the cameras. Ole promised to take us to his village next time in order to get a good feeling of the Masai culture.
Thank you Ole and thank you Elias. It was once more, beyond a safari beyond our expectations.