14 December 2009

serengeti national park

Songs have been written about the Serengeti, and it's the most famous national park in Tanzania and maybe even in all of Africa, so one might think it would be hard to live up to the hype. But it was everything I had imagined-- endless golden plains and blue sky, large prides of lions slinking through the savanna and leopards lounging in trees.

Even when we were just paying our park fees, we saw tons of these metallic turquoise birds flitting around:

And this guy catching some rays.

Minutes after we entered the park, we saw a pride of nine lions walking right next to the road. (Prides can be as big as thirty lions, and there is usually only one adult male in the group. They're very territorial and tend to stay within their area.)

We drove to our campsite and set up camp in a site where they warned us explicitly not to leave the area.

We felt very lucky to be camping in the famous Serengeti National Park and definitely didn't go wandering around. (To be honest, the bathroom was a ways away from our tent, and I was a little nervous just going to and from it in the dark. But anyway.)

We had a lovely hot dinner and enjoyed a simple sunset before hitting the sack.

When we started our trek the following morning, there were tons of animals right outside our campsite. They really weren't joking when they told us not to wander around. We saw topis (lower left), giraffes, zebras and gazelles all grazing right beyond our tiny campsite (large enough for about eight tents or so).

A little while later, our guide told us to look closely at this tree.

Our untrained eyes didn't see anything, but then we saw the hanging tail.

And looked a little closer.
There's nothing like looking into the eyes of a leopard who is looking right back at you. I think we stayed and watched it for an hour. They're huge, by the way-- they're more like lions than I expected. They're like lions with spots-- and better tree-climbing abilities. When they roar, it sounds like a chainsaw or cardboard ripping-- not really animal-like at all.

And the land itself was worth seeing. Serengeti comes from a Maasai word meaning endless plains, and it really is flat and open as far as the eye can see.

For those of you who love lone trees like I do, there were plenty to appreciate.

We saw a warthog family, which my partner loved.

And another pool of hippos lazing in the sun. We learned they spend the entire day keeping cool in the water and only graze at night.

We saw a buffalo skeleton, which meant lions weren't far away.

And sure enough, we saw lions galore. We lost track around thirty, but I think we saw around fifty lions. The Serengeti is known for its lions, and just to put this number in context, people who have gone on safari in South Africa are often lucky to see one lion. (!)

We were even treated to a cheetah sighting.

When we returned to our campsite, we saw a giraffe, a buffalo and some zebras grazing nearby.

For my partner's birthday, we spent one night in a lodge instead of a tent. And instead of your usual concrete hotel, this one was built on and around giant kopjes (pronounced koppies, meaning huge rounded boulders) and had giraffes, impalas, vervet monkeys and rock hyraxes running around. We even saw a hippo wandering around at night.

We saw two giraffes strolling by as we entered the grounds and thought maybe they were resident giraffes, but nope-- we never saw them again.

When we checked in, we were told to make sure not to leave our windows open when we went out, as the monkeys were known to enter rooms and steal things. We later saw them on the roof enjoying some of their stolen goods.

And we woke up to two adult monkeys and a baby monkey right outside our balcony door-- I closed it just in time. They really were fearless. I practically slammed our glass door shut in their faces, and they still sat perched on the balcony railing watching me for a minute before taking off.

Rock hyraxes look like giant rodents (about a foot in length), but they're actually most closely related to the elephant. Who knew?

We were on a camping schedule, so we woke up in time for a nice sunrise.

We went to the (highly recommended) Serengeti information center (there's a snazzier name, but I don't remember it now), and as we walked around, reading all of the signs, we were suddenly stopped and told be very careful as we proceeded.

Apparently, there was a resident leopard that lived around the rock the exhibits were built upon, and it had dragged a gazelle into one of the trees. (Leopards often carry their prey high up into the trees to prevent lions from eating their food.)

My partner and I took a few photos, but they're pretty disturbing, so I decided not to post them here.

On a sweeter note, I was enchanted by this rainbow-colored lovebird that I saw on one of the signs, and I asked our guide if we might see one. They're common in the Serengeti, but after asking around, our guide told us that none of the other guides had seen one. Sorry, he told us-- it's just not the season for them.

And then, as luck would have it, I spotted one. Much as the big animals were impressive, seeing this tiny bird (about five inches long) really made my day. The colors were unmistakable.


This was one moment when I wished I'd had a nicer camera than my little point-and-shoot. Don't get me wrong-- I love my little Canon and wouldn't want to lug around a nice camera for our backpacking trip, but there were a few times when a good camera would really have made a difference.

On the positive side, we were generally close enough to the animals that a fancier camera wasn't really necessary.

Like the last animal we saw before leaving the Serengeti: a cheetah that had just eaten and was resting under a tree just a few meters away.

So, even without a fancy camera, it's just amazing to be there, to see it all and have those memories, whether you have photographic evidence or not. Some images of the Serengeti will stay with me for a long time...