Serengeti, the Crossing

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.

 

The Crossing
My first crossing. Truly amazing, although we were at the wrong side of the river and the dust reduced the visibility.
The Crossing
The wildebeest rush across the Mara to the Masai Mara.
The Crossing
The wildbeest are climbing the opposite bank of the Mara river.

 

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.

 

Mother Cheetah
A mother cheetah looking back at her two cubs, somewhere right at the Masai Mara / Serengeti border.
SIngle Parent Family
A mother cheetah and her two cubs, about six months old. We spotted them in the Masai Mara, just a few hundred meters from the Tanzanian/Kenyan border line.
Cheetah Cub
A six month old cheetah playing in the Masai Mara - Serengeti border.
Mother Cheetah
A mother cheetah looking back at her two cubs, at the Masai Mara / Serengeti border.
Youngsters
A couple of young elephants in the Serengeti National Park.

 

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.

 

Gathering for the Crossing
The herds gather near the bank of the Mara to attempt the crossing
African Crocs
Three african crocodiles basking at the bank of the Mara river.
Dangerous Waters
An african crocodile waiting for the wildebeest to cross the Mara river.

 

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.

The Crossing
The start of the second crossing we witnessed. After several attempts, finally the wildebeest decided to go ahead.
The Crossing
Wildebeest rush across the Mara river.
The Crossing
An endless stream of wildebeest crossing the Mara.
The Crossing
The calves try to stay next to their mother during the crossing, some without success.
The Crossing
The wildebeest form a line to cross the dangerous waters of the Mara.
The Crossing
The urge to cross the river is unbeatable.
Going Back
A calf going back to find his mother.
The Crossing
Dust clouds are generated by the frentic descent of the herd into the river.
The Crossing
The steep slope is difficult to descend but the urge to cross is too big.
Surprised
Getting out at the other bank, the seemed quite surprised with our presence.

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.

 

The Crossing Part Three
One more crossing happening ten minutes after the last one finishes. This one went on for thirty minutes.
The Crossing Part Three
Our third crossing of the day keeps going on.
The Crossing Part Three
Wildebeest crossing the Mara for the thrid time of the day. the sallow waters at this particular crossing point helped them to pulli it out without any casualties.
The Crossing Part Three
Even more wildebeest gathering to join the crossing for a total of thitry minutes of non stop action.
The Crossing Part Three
Right after getting to the opposite bank of the Mara river, the wildebeest form a long line and continue their migration nort, to the Masai Mara.

 

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.

Resting Hippo
A female hippo cooling off from the heat of the day under the bush, near the southern bank of the Mara river.
Marabou Storks
A couple of marabou storks eating off a wildebeest carcass in the Mara river.
Baby Hippo
A rare baby black hippo next to his mother in the northern Serengeti. Only 30 black hippos graze in the wild in Derengeti. The picture was shot by Peter Balkanski through the dense bush.

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.

 

Gather to Cross
Wildebeest gathering to cross the Mara. We did not wait for them as we had seen three crossings the day before.
Vultures and Marabous
A party of vultures and marabous eating the carcasses of the wildebeest that did not make it to the other side of the Mara river the day before.
Breakfast at the Mara
Vultures and marabous competing over the wildebeest carcasses in the Mara river.
Touch Down
A vulture landing near the Mara river in northern Serengeti.
Elephant herd
A herd of elephants in northern Serengeti on our way back south.
Young Bull
A young elephant bull in northern Serengeti.
Hamerkop
A hamerkop feeding in the shallow waters of a pool in Serengeti.
Elephant Mother
A mother elpehant with a strange trunk pose. Her baby was lying on the ground motionless and she was trying to wake it up. We thought for the worse until we saw the lazy young fellow getting up.
Female Elephant
A female elephant looking at us in the Serengeti.
Serengeti
The plains in northern Serengeti.
Lonely Tree
A lonely tree in the Serengeti, typical setting in this part of the park.
Bateleur Eagle
A bateleur eagle sunbasking in central Serengeti.
Cheetah
A cheetah we spotted on our way to central Serengeti.
Muddy Buffalo
A buffalo with carrying a generous amount of mud, somewhere in central Serengeti.

 

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.

 

Intense Look
A young male leopard in central Serengeti, looking straigh into my lens.
Leopard on a Tree
Elias spotted this, while driving at 80 km/h and talking to Ole. Note that this picture is shot with a 8x times magnification compared to the human eyesight normal field of view.
Male Leopard
We came extremely close to this male leopard, just under the tree where he was resting. This was my first up-close-and-personal encounter with a leopard in the wild.
Elias
We met Elias for the first time this year. I now have a new friend in Tanzania. Great guide too. He is able to spot a leopard on a tree while driving and talking!

 

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.

 

Big Guy
A big hippo in the filthy waters of the hippo pool. Filthy from the hippo presence of course.
Hippo Pool
There must have been more than 100 hippos in this pool in central Serengeti.
Those Teeth
This guy was sharing a pool with hundred-something other hippos in a pool in central Serengeti. One bite with those teeth can bisect a human.
Hippo
A big hippo entering the hippo pool in cenral Serengeti.
Yawning
A hippo yawning or whaetev it is that hippos do when they open their mouth wide.
Young Hippo
A young hippo on his mother in the hippo pool.

 

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.

Sunrise in the Serengeti
The sunrise at 6:30am, right outside our tent.
Spotted Hyena
A spotted hyena lying in the middle of the dirt road on the way to our camp.
What
Surprise, surprise , there is a vehicle tracking me.
Secretary Bird
A beautiful secretary bird. They are called secretaries because the plummage on their head resembles the pen that secretaries were sticking between their ear and head.
Saddle-billed Stork
A saddle billed stork with its colorfull red, black and yellow bill.

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.

 

The Happy Couple
Male and female lion on their way to honeymoon after a healthy meal.
Spotted Hyena
A spotted hyena in Serengeti, biting a wildebeest leg.
Jackals
A couple of Jackals next to t apride of lions in the Serengeti. Jackals are monogamous and mate for life.

 

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.

 

Leopard
A male leopard, guarding her previous night kill, a Thomson gazelle which he carried on his tree. We were lucky to spot him before other vehicles started approaching the area.
The Predator and the Prey
A leopard at the bottom of the tree where he dragged his kill, an adult thomson gazelle.

 

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.

 

Brotherhood
Three brothers on patrol in central Serengeti.
Patroling
The king patrols his prode territory in central Serengeti.
Warrior
Full of scars from fighting, this healthy male is definitely a king.
Serengeti
A lonely giraffe wandering the plains of Serengeti.

 

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.

 

Ngorongoro Crater
The great Ngorongoro crater, a natural wonder and home of a rich fauna.
Zebra in the Crater
A zebra against the caldera backdrop in the Ngorongoro crater.
Wildebeest in the Crater
Wildebeest walking in line in the Ngorongoro crater.
Yellow-billed Strok
A yellow billed stork by the hippo pool in the Ngorongoro crater.
Blue Heron
A blue heron in the Ngorongoro crater.

 

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.

 

Nyangulo
A young Nyangulo Masai. Looking straight to my camera. A bee is buzzing next to his ear.
Nyangulo
Two of the four Nyangulolo Masais we encountered.
Nyangulos
Three of the four Nyangulos we met on the way to Arusha.
Nyangulos
Nyangulo in Maa language means a young warrior. They were circumsized some weeks before we met them, on the way from Serengeti to Arusha.

Thank you Ole and thank you Elias. It was once more, beyond a safari beyond our expectations.

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