Thursday, October 20, 2005

Adventure in the Serengeti!

The Great Migration has begun. Any day now the short rains will arrive, marking the end of the dry season in East Africa. In anticipation, the Serengeti’s 1.5 million wildebeest have already begun to return south from Kenya’s Masai Mara where they’ve spent the past few months. Traveling with them are thousands of zebra. The two tend to stick together, for the zebra have superior eyesight and the wildebeest possess exceptional sense of smell. Together, they increase each other’s chances of survival.

A herd of wildebeest and several zebra walk miles to this watering hole.

A wildebeest making the long migration.

Here i am observing a herd of wildebeest.

We drive along a dirt road for hours to reach the Serengeti, and i am amazed but very pleased that this is the only way to reach the world’s most prolific wildlife park. Along the way, our first stop is Lake Manyara. Just moments after driving into the park, i am absolutely thrilled to see a mother elephant and her 2 year-old just 20 feet away, munching peacefully on acacia branches. Minutes later the trees part and the lake is visible.. presenting an AMAZING scene. Herds of zebra and wildebeest mingle among several giraffe and water buffalo while hippos bob in the water. I nearly climbed out of my seat in excitement, much to the amusement of my guide/driver Hashim!

Lake Manyara - Giraffe, Zebra, and Hippos in the water.. wow!

With all of the excitement, wonder, and awe.. the scene was surreal. It was like entering a real Jurassic Park, seeing all of these incredible animals in abundance that i have only ever dreamed of witnessing in their natural environment. I wish i could impart this thrill and sheer joy to you, but it is something that can only be experienced firsthand. However, I do have a few stories to share from my African wildlife safari.

Water Buffalo grazing at Lake Manyara.

As we drove though the Lake Manyara park we came upon a herd of elephant walking along the road. I discovered that i have a unique talent for identifying the sex and relative age of elephants based just on sight.. i really do love these animals. We noticed a small baby elephant among the group, no more than a few months old. When a baby is around, the herd becomes extremely protective, so we moved cautiously.

This baby elephant rules the road.

Our truck crept along behind the herd, which had no intention of leaving the road. The mother turned sideways and blocked the road completely, not allowing us to pass as the baby proceeded unaware. She wanted to show us who was in charge, so she stomped her front foot and threw dirt with her trunk. When Hashim moved the truck ahead slightly, she turned to face us menacingly head on, threatening a charge.. okay, bad idea!! Finally, after about ten minutes the baby and the herd left the road and we were allowed to pass.

Woah there! Okay, okay.. we'll wait for you and your baby to go ahead!

On our first day driving through the Serengeti we spotted a cheetah, and trotting along not far behind came two cheetah cubs! Hashim told me that even on his many trips to the area over the past nine years, it was rare and special to see just one cheetah, but two cubs as well was incredible! I was able to capture some good photos while the three perched atop a termite mound. We watched them for awhile before i suggested to Hashim “Twende” – let’s go. But he said, “Wait, there’s a hyena!” Sure enough, the hyena stalked closer and closer, eyeing our little cubs as a nice meal. The mother and cubs all watched very closely as the hyena neared. After getting within about 150 feet, the hyena must have realized his presence was well known and he slowly moved off. I cheered silently for the mother and cubs but was thrilled to no end with seeing this occur.

Mama Cheetah and cubs.. aren't they cute??!

I believe this sign is self explanatory.

At our camp i made friends with two Germans and a Norwegian who were all traveling solo like myself. The camp was just plopped right in the bush, with no fences or other barriers between ourselves and wild Africa. A sign warned campers not to leave the camp or else you may be attacked. So after dinner, what did we do? We went for our own walking safari, of course. As the other campers sat around a campfire telling stories or jokes we quietly snuck out of camp as the full moon lit our way.

The full moon rises over our camp.

We crept along in the grass until we could no longer see or hear our camp. About 1,000 yards from camp we spotted something.. look! It was a hyena.. wait, two of them.. no, THREE, and they were looking directly at us, watching. Then they began to spread out as they approached – we were being HUNTED!! Despite the moonlight, it was difficult to clearly see their movements. Someone suggested we go back to camp immediately.. to get our binoculars! We all agreed this was a good idea.

Fifteen minutes later we returned. At first we didn’t see anything. Wait, what are those? Zebra. Several of them.. moving from our left to right, stopping to look at us. Suddenly they were startled and trotted along quickly, and then we saw why.. hyenas trailing them. We of course followed. About ten minutes later we found the zebras in a clearing, with several hyenas lurking in the trees nearby. All at once the zebras took off in a loud gallop. Through my binoculars i could clearly make out the hyenas running alongside snapping at the zebra’s legs, hoping to bring one down. Straight out of National Geographic!

They all disappeared in the bush and we saw nothing. A few minutes pass. I look back to where the zebras were and see two hyenas. Then we hear several loud haunting hyena calls.. woo-ooh, woo-ooh! This is the sound hyena make when they’ve made a kill and are calling the rest of the pack. Though we are an adventurous group, we know this is our cue to leave. If there is a kill, within minutes fifty or more hyena may arrive for the feast.. and we certainly do not want to get caught between them and their meal. Wow.. what a thrill.

Happy to be alive after our hyena encounter.. Andreas, Arland, Carsten, and myself.

The night sky in Africa is SPECTACULAR. I have not seen a sky so full and glorious since i slept on the ground in the Australian outback. A wonderful moon and shining beauty Venus follow each other across the sky each night, giving me immeasurable pleasure. I eagerly identified the constellations and planets i knew and told anyone who would listen while trying to spot satellites crossing quietly just like my Dad and i do together back in Arizona. One night in camp a Spanish guy overheard me talking about where to see Mars and he excitedly brought out a book on the night sky and several star maps, which we pored over together. Looking up at the African night sky is one of the highlights of the trip for me.

He looks nice and peaceful now, but get too close...

After setting up camp one afternoon i noticed a male elephant grazing at the edge of camp. Few others noticed as i followed him a few yards away. I inched my way closer until i was just a few feet away, where i sat down and watched him for the next thirty minutes. This giant is so powerful yet so peaceful. A few minutes later i found my safari buddies and told them, “Come quick - there is something i want to show you”. In our adventurous spirit we approached too closely too quickly, startling the elephant, who turned on us and charged! We scattered and ran for our lives back into camp - that’s one way to get your heart really pumping!

Standing at the edge of the gorgeous Ngorongoro Crater.

On my final day of safari we descended into the Ngorongoro Crater, a massive and spectacular extinct volcanic crater home to more than 10,000 animals. At one point we came upon a cheetah with what at first appeared to be a cub. Through my binoculars i discovered it was a baby gazelle, no more than two weeks old and hardly taller than your knee. The two appeared to be playing.. the little gazelle hopping around playfully while wagging its small nubby tail. The cheetah was also having fun rolling around and softly batting at the gazelle, which was a fraction of its size. The sun shined warm on the yellow grass as the game continued. I watched this continue for a good fifteen minutes and it was fun to watch. You almost had the feeling that the two were good friends.

A pride of lion relaxes, like they do most of the time.

Then, without notice, the game was over in an instant as the cheetah lunged for the baby gazelle’s throat, sinking its teeth in deep and snapping the young animal’s neck. As the cheetah now proudly held the lifeless body dangling from its mouth, i thought it seemed he was aware of his audience. He carried his kill several yards, stopping regularly to look around. But it wasn’t an audience he was concerned with, it was hyenas he was worried about, who would surely try and steal his prize. Just moments before they were playmates, but as the cheetah ripped into the gazelle’s tender flesh, friends no more. And such is life.. on the wild African plain.

Here are several more photos for your enjoyment!

A Hippo pool.. anyone up for a swim?

These guys actually kill more people each year than any other animal in Africa.

A Hartebeest makes his way on the plain.

The shy but friendly Giraffe.. so fun to watch!


At 8:21 AM, Blogger Dana said...

Very cool, Johnny 5! I'm looking forward to sharing drinks and hearing more of your tales. Stop sneaking out of camp! No one back here wants you dangling from a hyenia's mouth!

At 1:51 PM, Anonymous darla said...

Great photos and summary! Keep it coming.

At 10:36 PM, Anonymous jlao said...

I see I was right to say that you remind me of Steve Erwin, the Crocodile Hunter!

"hey mate, what do we have here?"

"by golly, it's a hyena, isn't she a beaut?"

"perhaps I can get her to show her teeth a little, if I just stick out my hand..."

HAVE FUN and Happy Birthday!!

At 11:25 AM, Anonymous Fr. Mark said...

Jambo John!
awesome pictures and adventures!
Are you sure you didn' just download these from a National Geographic Mag?
Can't wait to hear to gory details and the behind the story stories sometime when we meet in DC, New Orleans or Arizona.

I am serious, you should submit your stuff to Frommer, Lonely Planet or some other guide or travel book/mag.

Give my best to Simba, the Lion King!
Fr. Mark

At 9:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is truly amazing. Keep the stories and photos coming. As a matter of fact, just stay out there until I'm bored of your stuff. I'll let you know when you can come home.

At 9:25 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

duuuude... these pictures are AMAZING. you look SOO hot in your cowboy hat. you are a GOD!!!


At 4:20 PM, Blogger Roberts said...

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