The rhythm of daily game drives is set so we see the most wildlife, and they’re active at dawn and dusk. For our April safari in Botswana, sunrise was around 6:15 am, and sunset was around 6:15 pm. To start a game drive at sunrise, the wake-up call was at 5:30 am, and we started the morning game drive around 6:15. Not what you’d imagine for your ideal vacation, but a safari is costly in terms of time and money, so you want to get what you came for.
At dawn we were on game drive, and we paused in this copse of trees where the authors of Cry of the Kalahari lived. The trees have short-grass plains on three sides, providing views and food for grazing animals, with some protection from predators.
Below a lesser gray shrike is lit by the pink dawn light. The shrike sits on an acacia tree, which has sharp white thorns to fend off animals.
The kori bustard walks through the grasslands eating insects and reptiles.
A pale chanting goshawk looking for prey. See the long white thorns of the acacia. African birds learn to land and take off carefully.
Nests of weaver birds.
Springboks are an antelope found in southern Africa. This herd of males is grazing and hanging out.
Springboks are extremely fast, reaching speeds up to 100 km/hr and leaping up to 4 m through the air. Male springboks sometimes race and leap to show off their strength. Called pronking, here’s a shaky video, but you’ll get the picture.
A stoic gemsbok with vultures gathering, probably at a recent kill.
Before dusk these cheetahs waited for a springbok to come close enough for them to run it down, but the springbok wisely kept its distance.
This would be the last game drive of our safari, from our camp in the Maswa Game Reserve to a lodge just past Ngorongoro Crater.
We drove through the acacia woodland and discovered the cheetah mother and four cubs at the edge of the acacia woodland. We were happy that they had made it back to the woodland safely from the gazelle kill. The mother was taking the cubs somewhere — alternately walking and waiting for the cubs to follow.
They walked past a downed tree, so of course the cubs had to climb it as the mother kept walking.
Now we’ve seen what herding cats means. 😉 The cheetahs continued walking. We saw this cheetah family on three different days. Amazing luck and skill of our guides.
We started a long game drive along the boundary of the the acacia woodland and the short-grass plains.
Some jackals were looking at Thomson’s gazelles, but the gazelles had spotted the jackals and were careful.
Later these two thomson’s gazelles were fighting (butting heads).
A pregnant spotted hyena showing us her long, yellow teeth.
In the Ngorongoro highlands there are Maasai villages and tropical trees. Looking at the vegetation, you can see that the highlands get a lot more rain than the Serengeti plains.
We arrived at the lodge in time for lunch. The lodge felt somewhat antiseptic after 8 nights in camps, but we did savor the long showers, electricity in our rooms, flush toilets, and internet.
At dinner we each talked about our favorite experience on the safari. Mine was the cheetah family before the thunderstorm and the harrowing drive back to camp on the flooded dirt road.
The next day two people left for gorilla tracking, four for Zanzibar, four for South Africa, and three for home.
We had a blast. The safari was a fabulous experience that we’ll always cherish. We had great guides who found a wide variety of animals and parked so that we’d have good light for photos. They told us about the animals. They patiently answered our questions and told us stories. They put a very positive face on Tanzania. We enjoyed traveling with our fellow safari clients. I appreciate everyone’s patience with me as I clicked away with my camera, or more frequently, waited for an animal to turn its head just so.
At noon on our third day at Serengeti camp, we found the cheetah family that we had seen two days earlier, just before the thunderstorm. They were in the acacia woodland earlier. Now they were on the savanna about a mile from the acacia woodland.
The mother cheetah had killed a thomson’s gazelle, and the safari land cruisers found the cheetahs. In this photo, four safari vehicles are very close the the cheetahs, and there are more vehicles. The mother cheetah is reacting to the tight circle of vehicles surrounding her four cubs. The short grass provides little cover. This photo was taken at 100 mm focal length.
Right after this picture was taken, our lead guide radioed all the guides to give the cheetahs more room. Remarkably, every vehicle except one moved back. Because we moved back, most of the remaining pictures were taken at 400 mm, four times the magnification of the first photo.
The cheetah mother tried to drag the gazelle, but she was too exhausted to drag it far.
The cheetahs stopped feeding. We had watched for an hour. We drove back to camp for lunch.
Back at camp, our lead guide told us what happened that morning. Another guide had watched the cheetahs before we arrived and told our guide. The cheetah mother went hunting. She couldn’t take the cubs while hunting, so she left them in the woodland, where they could hide from predators. After killing the gazelle, she went back to the woodland and brought her cubs to the kill so they could eat and she could protect them. She had dragged the kill toward the woodland but she was too tired to drag the gazelle the remaining mile.
During our safari in late February, the great migration is normally in the southern Serengeti. But so far there has been little rain so the wildebeests and zebras came, ate the grass, and moved to the north, where there was more rain and grass. We had seen few wildebeests and no herds of wildebeests.
On our second day at Serengeti camp, we woke early for a long drive north to see herds of wildebeest and zebra. We would enter the Serengeti National Park, where we would have to stay on roads.
Early in the morning this giraffe was eating its favorite food, acacia leaves. Acacias have long thorns. We see how giraffes use their long, dexterous tongue to grab the leaves while avoiding the thorns. The giraffe’s tongue is wrapped around the branch to strip the leaves.
Here’s a closeup with more detail. See the long thorns to the left and right of the giraffe tongue. The thorns are a lighter green than the leaves and branches. At 7:18 am, the light was dim. Like the night before, the ISO was maxed out and the lens wide open, and there still wasn’t enough light. Learning my lesson, I increased the exposure from 1/400 to 1/250 second, while shooting at 400 mm. The rule of thumb is that the exposure time is less than or equal to the inverse of the focal length, or 1/400 second for a 400 mm focal length. The photo looks clear enough despite the longer exposure. See the giraffe’s eyelashes?
A half hour later we stopped to see this jackal. We were far away — these photos were taken at 400 mm.
A couple minutes later we learned why our guide stopped and waited.
Here’s a closeup. It looks like the jackal’s eating a bird with long black feathers, perhaps a secretary bird. Breakfast before 8:00 am.
When we entered the Serengeti National Park, we stopped to file papers. This superb starling was in the parking lot. The iridescent top feathers and orange breast are very pretty.
At noon we finally found herds of zebras and wildebeests. Not the million animals that we had read about, but many herds of animals.
We were happy. Our safari was nearing the end, and we had not seen a leopard. The leopard completed our seeing the big five animals. As it turned out, this was the only leopard we saw. It was almost 2:00, and we headed for a late lunch.
But of course we had to stop to see these baboons on the side of the road.
After lunch we drove along a river and saw hippos. There was much more water here than at the Alamana hippo pool, so these hippos were more comfortable.
Here’s a closeup of the hippo jaws. Note the hippo’s enormous mouth and sharp, ivory canine teeth. Hippo teeth are sharpened during use, and the canines can reach 20″.
We started the long drive back to camp. We had started early, and we were all tired.
Our guide saw some vultures landing and taking off in the grass so he stopped to look where the vultures were landing. No other vehicles were stopped. We didn’t see anything where the vultures landed. Finally he told us to look to the left, far away. We finally saw some brown spots in the grass. Still in the National Park, we couldn’t drive off-road to get closer. The following photos are with a telephoto lens at 400 mm. Here’s the initial photo.
Soon there was some movement.
And a closeup of the lion.
Looks like a wildebeest. Our guide told us that the lions had probably killed the wildebeest and dragged it away. The vultures were landing at the spot of the kill. Our guide is amazing at finding animals.
At dusk we saw these storks roosting in a tree.
Back at camp, we heard a loud elephant trumpet as we got out of the vehicle. A large elephant was walking between two tents, about a hundred meters away from us. The elephant was taller than our tents. The guide said to climb back in. After the guides said it was clear, they drove us back to our tents.
We later learned that this adult elephant is a frequent visitor to the camp. Our lead guide saw it and shined a flashlight into its eyes. The light in elephant’s eyes ruins its night vision, so it moved away.
On our safari in February we drove far to the north for the day into Serengeti National Park, to see the great migration. At 1:00 we saw dozens of vultures and storks congregating at this tree. These African storks eat meat, a far cry from our childhood image of a white stork delivering newborn babies.
A few minutes later, our guide stopped at the lone tree in the photo below. There’s a leopard nearby, and there might be a kill in the tree. No vehicles were parked here, a common indicator of animals. We all pulled out our binoculars and scanned the tree. This photo was taken at 120 mm focal length on a 40D, about 3 times magnification over the human eye. How our guide knew to stop at this tree is a mystery to me.
acacia tree with leopard kill
We finally saw some thin, brown legs hanging from a limb on the right side, half-way up the tree. The next photo, a tighter shot using a telephoto zoom lens at 380 mm, shows the kill more clearly. From the color of the legs, it looks like an antelope such as a gazelle or impala, probably an impala from the medium brown color.
Then we drove a half mile to a tree with a dozen or more land cruisers parked underneath. The leopard was in this second tree, away from its kill. After waiting for vehicles to leave, we finally had a clear view of the leopard. This photo shows the leopard from head to tail, shot at 160 mm focal length.
leopard in tree
Here’s a tighter shot of the leopard, at 380 mm.
tighter shot of leopard
Our guide explained that the leopard is clever, hiding the kill in one tree and hanging out in another tree. During the day, vehicles like ours will call attention to the leopard. Putting the kill in a tree ensures than hyenas won’t get to the kill. Using a tree with leaf cover hides the kill from dozens of vultures a few minutes away.
You have to be clever to survive in Africa. And our guide is just as clever to see all this as he drives, to show us, and to teach us so we can understand. Asante, Mzee.
Our Serengeti camp is south of the Serengeti National Park, in the Maswa Game Reserve. The camp is in acacia woodland near alkaline lakes and grassland. We could do game drives off-road, but we couldn’t do bush walks.
A game drive is like a treasure hunt. You have better chances if you look around and know what to look for. You don’t know what you’ll discover, and you appreciate what you find. This treasure hunt aspect contributes to the adventure and romance of the safari. Our guides knew this and fostered it, without talking about it.
At breakfast, one of our group asked the guide if he had heard hyenas and lions at night. He did. As we started the morning game drive through the acacia woodland, we saw mostly birds.
Secretary birds are a meter tall and have a striking appearance, resembling a British secretary — white top, black bottom, and a black crest that looks like a pencil in the ear. They walk fast, and they walk away when a vehicle pulls up, so they’re hard to photograph. We were fortunate to see two secretary birds in a tree. The birds dipped their head, separately or together, before flying off.
We also saw a lappet-faced vulture, a long-crested eagle, and bat-eared foxes.
After the acacia woodland, we drove on the short-grass plains. Under a tree we saw lions. See my post lyin’ in the grass.
Returning for lunch, we saw 2 hyenas and a kill less than a mile from camp. The choice parts of wildebeest were already eaten. The closer hyena was guarding the kill from the second hyena, who was disappointed. Our guide thought that a lion had killed the wildebeest.
We watched the cheetahs past sunset, when it started raining cats and dogs. We drove back to camp on flooded dirt roads in the dark. When the lightning flashed, we could see that the ground was flooded as far as we could see. It wasn’t a river out there; it was a lake. I was concerned that if our vehicle had to stop, it might get stuck in the mud. Fortunately, all three vehicles made it back without mishap.
On the last night of the safari, we each talked about our favorite experience. The cheetah mother and cubs waking up and playing that evening was my favorite. I thanked our guides for the experience and for letting us stay with the cheetahs until they woke up, despite the oncoming rain and difficult drive back to camp.
After seeing the boma, we visited the primary school that serves the Maasai village and surrounding area. Operated by the Tanzanian government, a primary school has seven levels, or standards. The school and adjoining clinic are outside the village.
John’s three daughters attend this school. They live at the school and come home on weekends. About half the students are boarders. John is a Maasai Elder, and he knows folk medicine from his father.
In the primary school, classes are conducted in Kiswahili, the national language, and English is taught as a class. Students generally speak their tribal language at home. In secondary school, class is conducted in English. To better prepare for secondary school, one of our safari guides sends his children to a private primary school, where English is used for instruction.
The lead teacher, the administrator for the school, told us about the school and answered questions. American schools use a similar name — our principal is shortened from the original principal teacher. There are two classes per standard.
The lead teacher showed us the dormitories for the boarding students — bunk beds crowded into dimly-lit rooms. Two or three students share a bed, and many beds have slats without mattresses. The school has over a dozen buildings: classrooms, dormitories, and lodging for teachers and the lead teacher. Two buildings have solar panels donated by an American on safari, so those buildings have lights.
Teachers walked with us during the tour. I talked to a 2nd standard teacher from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city and commercial hub. His English is excellent. He attended a government college, which requires three years of service upon graduation. The government assigned him to this school outside a Maasai village of 400 and hours away from Arusha, the closest large town. He’d like to go back to school.
We asked if there any sports at the school. No sports. Are there soccer balls (footballs)? No. Looking around, the school is on a hillside so they also don’t have a level area except in front of the classrooms. Then there are thorny issues from the brush surrounding the school. If it’s anything like the brush we see on bush walks, it’s acacia with thorns of 1″ to 3″, depending on the variety. What does the school need most? Solar panels for lights. Only two buildings have solar panels. The teacher’s lodging has no lights.
We visited a 7th standard classroom. The students are between 12 to 16 years old. They sing a song for us. Our lead safari guide proceeds to hand out pencils. He calls up students based on their rank from last year’s standardized test, starting from number one, and passes out pencils to the top-ranked students. Each student knows their ranking, and they apparently are accustomed to their ranking being discussed.
Coming from American schools, this public use of ranking seems harsh. With time, we rationalized the Tanzanian approach. Tanzania is a developing country with scarce resources. They can’t afford to educate everyone through secondary school, so they select the most qualified students. Students going on to secondary school must pass a qualifying test. Students and their families need to know where they stand before that test, so that they’re not totally surprised by the test results. Similarly, students must pass a test to enter college.
We asked how many students are in the class. About 70. Although there are 2-3 students per desk, only about half the students are in class. They dodge school, the teacher observed.
A safari member looked at a textbook and saw facts about growing cotton. Don’t see how growing cotton is relevant to herders who count cattle as wealth. If the Maasai were to take up farming, they would probably start with food they can eat, not a commercial crop like cotton. We saw corn (maize) growing in the village. Maasai eat corn and make a beer from corn.
We donated money to purchase mattresses for the school and gave school supplies to the lead teacher to distribute as he sees fit.