Safari Serengeti : A Theatre of Timing, Rhythm, Life and Death

Reflections on our safari in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, including a slideshow of the big cats – lions, cheetahs, and a leopard – who have made this place their own.

Cheetah Passing Us By - Serengeti, Tanzania
A cheetah in the Serengeti.

Expectations: dangerous stuff. It’s virtually impossible not to have them when it comes to an iconic experience like a safari in the Serengeti.

You’ll understand if you’ve ever watched Animal Planet or a National Geographic documentary and imagined yourself — dressed in “safari” clothes, of course — peeking out of the roof of a four-wheel drive vehicle as a lion takes down a zebra and begins to devour it, all only a meter away. You’re snapping away with your DSLR camera, and its huge lens allows you to zero in on the drops of blood on the lion’s whiskers. Vultures hover overhead, hyenas grow in number and close in. The drumbeat of the soundtrack in your head (all daydreams have soundtracks, don’t they?) comes to a crescendo. Will the hyenas and vultures take their cut of the kill?

Not ringing a bell? OK. So maybe this is all just me, including the soundtrack.

But I digress. Back to reality and expectations. So now that I’ve been on safari in the Serengeti, what was it like?

It’s much like being invited to Mother Nature’s cabaret, a show with its own rhythm and drama, complete with life and death. We are there for a short time to watch, learn, enjoy. Then we exit the show and return to the real world, our heads spinning with everything we’ve seen.

Serengeti Timing – Ours and Theirs

Like any good show, timing is everything.

The Serengeti has a rhythm and a pace: everything happens in its own time, the right time. We humans must be patient, we must learn to enjoy the wait.

During our first late afternoon in the Serengeti, we set off on a game drive (such a dramatic term, isn’t it?) onto dusty roads and into vast open space. I’d seen it on TV: the veldt, an expanse into which are tucked tiny pockets of ferocious animals doing their bit to live.

On Safari in the Serengeti - Tanzania
Late afternoon in the Serengeti, last chance to spot something.

We sought every animal we could imagine, but we truly hoped for cats, for their hunting and eating habits seem to anchor our safari excitement. They are clearly the big stars.

But there’s nothing that you can do to help animals appear. You just go where you might find them and you hope that you do.

“Oh my god, lions!!” And there they were. A group of female lions lounging on a mound of dirt. In one breath, amazing to us and so ordinary to them. It was fabulously climactic and anti-climactic at the same time.

Big Lion Yawn - Serengeti, Tanzania
Lion yawn, close up.

The lionesses just lazed around, sprawling, doing nothing dramatic outside of an occasional yawn or lick of the paw, but that didn’t matter. We could have watched those lazy, lounging lions for hours. Each of their simple movements sent us all into squeals of delight.

You could see our guide and driver – veterans of the Serengeti – laughing quietly to themselves about our excitement and elevated reactions to absolutely everything, from a family of warthogs zipping across the road to giraffes noshing on the high leaves of an acacia tree.

That’s the beauty of this show: just about everything is exotic, exciting.

Rhythm of the Day

Animals follow their own cadence, one that seems to track the daily cycles of hot and cool. They can’t escape the heat to an SUV, they can’t retreat to their tents. No return to a campsite with a fully cooked meal waiting for them. Theirs is a cycle of hunts and feeds, rests and never-ending watches for scavengers.

Early morning is a good time for tracking the big cats. The day is still cool, the air is fresh. Animals of all sizes graze along the plains. This is the time for all animals, especially the weak and the slow, to be on alert.

We see nothing for an hour or two. Then in a span of minutes, we witness two cheetah brothers’ in an unsuccessful hunt followed by their mother’s snaring of a gazelle.

Cheetah Brothers Hunt Together - Serengeti, Tanzania
Cheetah brothers on the hunt.

We see another failed hunt, this time from a lioness. She’s too slow, almost lazy. We’re beginning to notice the personality of the big cats emerging.

Afternoon comes, the sun hangs high overhead. The animals seek relief in the shade of the tall grass and under the umbrella-like acacia trees.

It’s a time for sleeping, eating, conserving energy. We pass another lioness eating a gazelle she’d caught that morning.

Lion Feasting on an Antelope - Serengeti, Tanzania
Lioness feasting on a gazelle in the Serengeti.

While I had seen this scene on TV, the soundtrack in real life was more profound: crunch, crunch. The lioness chewed through tendons, crushing the remaining bones. This lady is hardly delicate, and the atmosphere about her is far more dramatic in real life than it ever seemed on television.

When evening falls, the air cools again and it’s time for another hunt. Our driver hears reports of a leopard over the CB radio. We drive off to find a leopard in a tree, scanning the horizon.

Leopard Lookout Spot in Tree - Serengeti, Tanzania
Early evening viewing of leopard in a tree.

He comes down off his perch. We all wait expectantly, wondering which gazelle is his target.

Instead he sits on the ground, taking his own time. He doesn’t move.

Leopard Resting by Tree - Serengeti, Tanzania
Leopard in the Serengeti, this time on the ground.

We leave him, still sitting on the ground in the fade of the late afternoon. It’s as if he knows our campsite curfew is 7:00 P.M.

We’d have liked to witness a hunt, but we don’t control the show.

Serengeti, Life and Death

On television, the process of hunt and kill seems more gruesome, brutal, and unfair than when you actually watch it the wild.

Why? The context. When you’re in the Serengeti, you realize that this is just the way nature works. Some animals eat plants, others eat meat. There’s a system — -an ecosystem — that’s delicate and well-fit. Without the gazelles and other small animals whose presence we all begin to take for granted, you’d have no big cats. Random yet purposeful — that’s the way it is.

And so perhaps this is why everyone in our truck was rooting for the cheetah to get some food.

Her hunt began slowly, deliberately. But when she broke into to sprint – going up to 100 kpm/70 mph, it was amazing. And quick.

Cheetah on the Hunt - Serengeti, Tanzania
Beginning of the cheetah chase…

She got her gazelle.

Cheetah Got the Gazelle! Serengeti, Tanzania
Success!!

The story doesn’t end there, however. There’s no rest for the weary. She must eat quickly, particularly once she punctures the gazelle’s stomach, for the hyenas in the distance will sense the fresh meat almost immediately. Their interest: taking away her kill. Her interest: eat enough to stave off hunger that much longer and maintain her energy for those short yet full sprints that are critical to her staying alive.

Brutal, yet balanced. That’s life in The Serengeti.

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Note: During our safari with G Adventures we visited Lake Manyara, Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater National Parks. In this piece, we chose to focus on the Serengeti. Of all of our experiences, it was our favorite and it best represented the spirit of safari to us.

Photo Slideshow of Serengeti’s Big Cats: Lions, Cheetahs and a Leopard

If you don’t have a high-speed connection or you’d like to read the captions, you can view the Big Cats of the Serengeti photo set.

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Disclosure: Special thanks to our G Adventures tour leader, Moses, and our driver, Emilian, both of whom proved expert on the animals and the layouts of the parks. Our tour in Tanzania was provided by G Adventures in connection with its Wanderers in Residence program. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely our own.

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The experiences above were from the G Adventures Tanzania Encompassed Tour. If you plan to book this or another tour with G Adventures, please consider starting the process by clicking on the ad below. The price stays the same to you and we earn a small commission. Thank you!

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Comments

  1. says

    All these photos make me ridiculously excited to get on that plane in 8 weeks time and get to Africa! Amazing shots and incredible experiences you have; congrats =)

  2. says

    Looks and sounds like an amazing experience. My father has been on several safaris in Africa, his last to the Serengeti, and he always says it’s one of the best experiences out of his life of traveling the world. I will get there one day for sure. Great photos.

  3. says

    A beautifully written post and some stunning photographs! I’m embarrassed to say I only stumbled upon your blog today, but I’ve since been enjoying reading about your Kilimanjaro trek (grats!) and look forward to following more of your adventures.

    PS: I know what you mean about the soundtrack in your head. For me, it’s always been Africa by Toto ;)

  4. Bluegreen Kirk says

    Serengeti has been a place on my mind for awhile. With my wanting to visit her family in Africa next year it will make a great vacation if we can get enough time off.

    Like you stated though timing is everything. I would hate to set out there and nothing good happens like a pack of lioness chasing a zebra.

  5. says

    @Toni: Glad we could add to the excitement. Safari njema!

    @Dean: Thank you! It was an exceptional safari experience. It was as if someone had orchestrated it — the sightings, the timing, everything. I know some people come away from Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro and favor the latter. We were the other way around, in great part to just plain good fortune.

    @Astra: Thank you. Glad you liked them.

    @Sunee: Thank you on all accounts. No need to be embarrassed — we’re glad to see you here!

    Funny you mention Africa by Toto. I was carrying an iPhone and felt inspired to play that tune on one of our drives. But alas it wasn’t in one of my playlists, so it just remained in my head…for the rest of the trip.

  6. says

    @Tyler: That’s a cheetah, actually. But the confusion between a cheetah and a leopard is understandable and pretty common. Cheetah faces are smaller and leopards have black circles around their spots (I’m sure there’s a better way to say that.)

    I think we have some footage of the cheetah chase/hunt/kill, but we’ll have to review it. Stay tuned. The whole drama lasted no more than 20-30 seconds. The first few seconds were easier to follow with video and still cameras, then it became virtually impossible. I was lucky to catch the cheetah mid-sprint and the catch (8th and 9th photos, just above). It was raw, almost surreal. And very, very quick.

    @Kirk: We loved the Serengeti. If you put it together with a couple of other parks like Ngorongoro, Lake Manyara and Tarangire, I’m sure you’ll see your share of animals.

  7. says

    @Cam: We were insanely lucky on this safari. Our guides couldn’t have beaten the bushes for more cats. I think there was a special on cheetahs.

    Thanks for the kudos on the photos. This one was all mother nature, and a few cooperative cats.

  8. Pete De Ritter says

    Kind of makes you glad you’re at the top of the food chain. Great photos. Great writing.

  9. says

    Wow guys! Astonishing pictures… And once again, thanks for bringing back some great memories. I was at the Serengueti last year and it’s one of the most amazing places I’ve been so far.

    Btw, you were definitely lucky with the leopard. I’m pretty sure I spotted the same one but it was too hot so he didn’t move, nor went down from the branch he was on.

    One last thing, did you see these cheetahs on your way out of the Serengueti (route to the Ngorongoro)?

  10. says

    Ahhh, just read it on your next post: I did saw 2 cheetah brothers too! It’s fun to see them a few months after. It’s like recognizing old friends :)

  11. says

    @Sandra: Glad to hear you also had such a great experience in the Serengeti. We really enjoyed the pace and atmosphere — wild and open. I’ve heard from other visitors that they weren’t so fortunate at Serengeti, or perhaps they’d just had a better experience at Ngorongoro Crater.

    We were lucky down the very last animals we saw in the Serengeti. Actually, the lions (about a dozen of them) we saw on our exit were something our guides turned around and went back for as we were exiting the park. We’d overheard others talking about a pride of lions having lunch at a buffalo.

    We saw the cheetahs (the brothers twice and a/the mother once) at the end of one day and the beginning of another, in the middle of the Serengeti. Really fabulous. The leopard, too, was a great sight. I get chills just thinking about it making its way across the tree branches. The big cats were definitely the highlight.

  12. says

    What a beautifully written post! (The photos are pretty great, too.) I’ve always had mixed feelings about whether or not I would want to go on safari (when you’re dealing with wild animals, things can go horribly awry), but this really makes me want to go.

  13. says

    @Gray: Thanks! We can absolutely recommend this trip. Perfectly safe and thrilling at the same time. Prior to this, I always wondered what the word “safari” really meant, what the experience was like. Now I know.

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