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October 29, 2001
Nyani Tent Camp: Serengeti central (Russell)

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Zebras crossing the road in front of our truck

In the Maasai language, "Siringet" means "land of endless space."  The English name is "Serengeti," and this vast area of rolling plains is home to an amazing assortment of wildlife.  Simply by driving around, you can see birds and animals of all kinds interacting completely naturally, unencumbered by any kind of boundaries or human influence.  We can think of nothing like it back home in the United States or anywhere else in the world.

One of the joys of having a three-week safari is that we can afford to take our time to look at things whenever we drive from place to place.  On October 28th, we passed into the Serengeti through Naabi Hill, a large mountainous formation (although it is actually 18 kilometres inside the park, it serves as the official gate and entrance).  Instead of taking the direct road, we took a side road that passed by some large boulders, or kopjes.  Sure enough, by the side of a rock, Gail's amazing eyes spotted a cheetah (yes, we kno; they're born that way, ba-dum).  Cameron's two goals in Africa were to see a rhinoceros and a cheetah, and his trip was now happily complete.

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Spotting a rare cheetah

Once inside the Serengeti, Tom drove at the posted speed limit of 50 kph and was soon passed by every other safari truck in sight.  Rather than breathe everyone else's dust for the rest of the day, we diverted off onto a side road and continued at our slow and leisurely pace.  We were rewarded when Gail's amazing eyes spotted some ears wiggling in the tall grass.  We drew closer and saw two lion cubs, hidden and incredibly-well camouflaged.  A little further on, we saw three more cubs, again very well hidden.  Next came the real excitement: under a tree, we saw six more cubs and the three mother lions resting happily.

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The second sighting of three lions cubs

With the sighting of eight more female lions awhile later, we saw a total to 22 lions within half an hour.  This is particularly remarkable considering just how difficult it is to spot these big cats.  Lions are hard enough; cheetahs are very difficult; and leopards are almost impossible -- these animals can remain perfectly still and blend completely in with their surroundings.  Nevertheless, our sightings for the day included one more cheetah, as well as a leopard way off in the distance, barely visible high up in the shadows of an umbrella acacia tree.

By the time we reached the Seronera Public Camps in the center of the Serengeti, it had begun to rain.  Luckily, Chris had already shown up the day before and pitched our tents at the Nyani Campsite ("nyani" is Swahili for "baboon" -- every day at lunchtime, they wander into the camp and steal food).  While we ate our lunch/dinner under the dry cover of the dining hut, we saw other campers whose programs called for them to pitch their own tents... in the rain.

By evening, the rain had cleared and the campsite had become very crowded.  In the dining hut, we met a Dutch woman who had just completed her medical residency in Tanzania (the natives have abominable medical facilities and a dearth of medicines) and a French mother traveling with her two children (we promised to contact them when we reach France).  (Back at Naabi Hill, we had also met a father and daughter from Los Altos, one town over from our home in California!)  The nearby cooking hut was even more amazing -- all of the safari chefs mingled and chatted in Swahili around the warmth and eerie light of their evening cookfires.

Gail's hopes of spending the night listening to animal noises was dampened when the dominant sound came from some snoring campers.  Nevertheless, we were able to hear some lions roaring throughout the night (lions don't really roar -- their call sounds more like a man grunting in a slow rhythm).

On October 29th, we were up (along with everyone else) at 5:30 AM for the first of two game drives that day.  The previous day we had driven to the Simba Kopjes; today our destinations included the Maasai Kopjes.  ("Kopje" is Dutch for "little head."  The kopjes are points where the granite substratum emerges above the layer of volcanic ash soil that makes up the Serengeti Plains.)  We saw several more lions, some lounging atop the giant boulders.

When you see nature documentaries, it always seems as if the big cats have all of the advantages.  They stalk around completely hidden, and then pounce upon or outrun their hapless prey.  In reality, the prey have several means and opportunities for gaining the upper hand:

(In the case of the leopard, we arrives after the big cat was already very well hidden in the tree.  We pulled up behind another truck that was already parked there.  We tried chatting with the passengers, and the gist of their remarks was: "Well, yes, if you really must know, there is a leopard in that tree, but it will be much too difficult for you to see, and besides we were here first."  We peeked into their truck and saw that one person was asleep and another was doing a book of crossword puzzles.  All of them were equipped with cameras the size of bazookas.  It was obvious that they intended to wait for that leopard to come down out of that tree, all day if necessary, or their guide would certainly hear about their displeasure.  We drove on.)

Returning to Nyani Camp for a second night, we were now just about the only inhabitants left, although a few more tourist trucks pulled in after dark.  (They were on a three-day safari.  They had driven 325 kms from Arusha that day; and tomorrow they would turn around and drive 126 kms back to Ngorongoro.)  We had more rain that night -- a spectacular lightning storm far off to the west at Lake Victoria.  We could think of nothing more attractive than snuggling into our warm, dry tent and listening to the thunder and animal sounds.  Then we discovered that we had left an open bag of cookies in our tent all day, and the inside of the tent was now swarming with ants.  In the dark.  In the rain.

We recalled a remark that Cameron had made earlier that day: "It's great to be on safari, but it'll also be nice to get back to civilization again."

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Nyani Tent Camp (dining huts in the background)

 

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