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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
She got her gazelle.
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.
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.
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!