Kalahari, Day One

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.

our first Kalahari sunrise
our first Kalahari sunrise

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.

lesser grey shrike
lesser grey shrike

The kori bustard walks through the grasslands eating insects and reptiles.

kori bustard
kori bustard

A pale chanting goshawk looking for prey. See the long white thorns of the acacia. African birds learn to land and take off carefully.

pale chanting goshawk
pale chanting goshawk

Nests of weaver birds.

weaver nests
weaver nests

Springboks are an antelope found in southern Africa. This herd of males is grazing and hanging out.

male springboks grazing
male springboks grazing

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.

lone gemsbok and gathered vultures
lone gemsbok and gathered vultures

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.

cheetahs waiting at dusk
cheetahs waiting at dusk

Our last game drive

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.

mother cheetah and four cubs walking
mother cheetah and four cubs walking

They walked past a downed tree, so of course the cubs had to climb it as the mother kept walking.

cheetah cubs climbing the tree
cheetah cubs climbing the tree
more climbing
more climbing

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.

jackals looking at thomson's gazelles
jackals looking at thomson’s gazelles

Later these two thomson’s gazelles were fighting (butting heads).

gazelles fighting
gazelles fighting

A pregnant spotted hyena showing us her long, yellow teeth.

pregnant spotted hyena
pregnant spotted hyena

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.

Maasai boma overlooking the Serengeti
Maasai boma overlooking the Serengeti
lush vegetation in the Ngorongoro highlands
lush vegetation in the Ngorongoro highlands

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.

Day 3 at Serengeti camp – wildebeests and cheetahs

Near our camp in the Maswa Game Reserve, this group of wildebeests walked along the alkaline lake in the early morning. Our guides had told us that with the recent rain, the grass would grow quickly and the herds would return. On our drive the day before, we had seen columns of wildebeests migrating toward camp.

wildebeests returning after the rains
wildebeests returning after the rains

This group has six adults and one baby. I expected more babies — by late February, the calving was complete. Our guide said that about 80% of the newborn wildebeests don’t survive the first year: approximately a quarter die in the first few months, a quarter die crossing the rivers west of the Serengeti, and a quarter die in the Masai Mara. The west and Masai Mara both have rivers with crocodiles. The western Serengeti rivers have the first crocodiles encountered by the young wildebeests, and wildebeests aren’t prepared for the river crossing. The crocodiles get much of their annual food from the migration, so they gather and wait.

We noticed there were a lot more flies than before. Had a thousand flies hitched a ride with every new wildebeest that migrated here? Our guide explained that flies lay eggs in the dung. When the eggs are moistened by rain, baby flies emerge. So the wildebeests migrating into the area didn’t cause more flies.  The recent rain triggered both the new grass (causing wildebeests to migrate into the area) and newborn flies hatching.

Driving on the savanna, we saw three cheetahs: a mother and two 1-year-old cheetahs.

cheetah mother of two
cheetah mother of two
two one-year-old cheetahs
two one-year-old cheetahs

We waited to see if they would hunt the nearby wildebeests and gazelles.  But they only hid in the tall grass, so we drove on. In the photo below, there’s a cheetah head sticking up on each side of the photo.

two cheetahs hiding in the tall grass
two cheetahs hiding in the tall grass

At noon we found a cheetah mother and four cubs with a gazelle kill. It was the same cheetah family we had seen two days earlier. Our guide compared the two cheetah families.  One family has four month-old cubs ; the second family has the two year-old cheetahs.  The family with the older children has fewer children. Is this normal? Some cubs will not survive their first year, despite the best care of the mother. Yes, half the cheetah cubs surviving their first year is normal. 😦

Back at camp we saw this marabou stork.  They’re large (up to 1.5 m tall) and not pretty.

marabou stork at camp
marabou stork at camp

On the evening game drive we saw a mother and baby striped hyena.

striped hyena mother and baby
striped hyena mother and baby
striped hyena baby nursing
striped hyena baby nursing

The family that preys together, part 2

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.

cheetah mother and cubs surrounded by safari vehicles
cheetah mother and cubs surrounded by safari vehicles

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.

cheetah cubs eating
cheetah cubs eating
cheetah mother eating
cheetah mother eating
cheetah mother licking her nose
cheetah mother licking her nose

The cheetah mother tried to drag the gazelle, but she was too exhausted to drag it far.

dragging the kill
dragging the kill

The cheetahs stopped feeding. We had watched for an hour.  We drove back to camp for lunch.

cheetahs and gazelle
cheetahs and gazelle

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.

Day 1 at Serengeti camp – birds and cats, then raining cats and dogs

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.

pair of secretary birds in acacia tree
pair of secretary birds in acacia tree
secretary bird taking off
secretary bird taking off
secretary bird spreading wings
secretary bird spreading wings

We also saw a lappet-faced vulture, a long-crested eagle, and bat-eared foxes.

lappet-faced vulture
lappet-faced vulture
long-crested eagle
long-crested eagle
bat-eared fox
bat-eared fox

After the acacia woodland, we drove on the short-grass plains.  Under a tree we saw lions.  See my post lyin’ in the grass.

lion in the grass
lion 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.

a hyena, a wildebeest, and a disappointed hyena
a hyena, a wildebeest, and a disappointed hyena

During the evening game drive, we found a cheetah family. See my post the family that preys together.

cheetah mother and sleeping cubs
cheetah mother and sleeping cubs

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.

The family that preys together, part 1

On our first day at Serengeti camp, we came upon a mother cheetah and cubs on the afternoon game drive.  They were sleeping, as cats usually do.  Our guide said there were four cheetah cubs.  We couldn’t make out four cubs, but by now, we knew better than to doubt the guide on counting animals.

sleeping cheetahs
sleeping cheetahs

We kept our distance and watched.  Occasionally a head would pop up for a moment and plop back down.  After 40 minutes, several heads popped up at the same time. Now we can see three cubs.  It’s getting dark.

several heads popping up at the same time
several heads popping up at the same time

Five minutes later the entire family is awake.  A proud mother and her four cubs, posing for us.

proud mother and four babies
proud mother and four babies

They get up and stretch.  My yoga instructor would be proud of these cats.  The cheetah cub does a cat pose.  The mother cheetah does a variation of the downward facing dog pose, a cat with its head up.

cheetah cub does a cat pose
cheetah cub does a cat pose
cheetah mother stretching
cheetah mother stretching
okay, we're up now
okay, we’re up now

And then the rain started.  They went for cover.

running for cover
running for cover

They played for a bit and then ran off, through the rain, into the night.

cubs climbing
cubs climbing
cheetahs nuzzling
cheetahs nuzzling

We had a great visit with the cheetah family.  It was dark, and we had a long drive back to camp in the rain, on dirt roads.

We’re in Africa

From Ngorongoro we drove to Olduvai Gorge, then north to our camp in Alamana.  It would be a long day of driving starting at 8:30.

Driving west down the Ngorogoro highlands, giraffes browsed in the acacia woodland. Do you see six giraffes?  We played see and count the animals with our guide, and he always won.  The first person would say “I see a giraffe at 2:00!” “I see two!” Our guide would say “I see six”, and we’d eventually see the six.

six giraffes
six giraffes
Don't you think this is my better side?
Don’t you think this is my better side?

Almost every tree or shrub we saw was an acacia, all with thorns.  Giraffes browse on acacia buds and leaves despite the thorns.

Driving across the savannah, we saw some diagonal lines in the distance.

giraffes migrating across the Serengeti plains
giraffes migrating across the Serengeti plains

At first, I couldn’t tell whether these were animals.  Watching them longer, they moved, confirming they’re animals. The neck and legs are long and thin — giraffes.  The necks lean the same direction, so they’re walking or running together.  Traveling in a single file, they’re migrating.  Giraffes migrating across the Serengeti plains — we’re in Africa.

The plains are brown and dry.  Although we visited between the short rains and the long rains of the wet season, rainfall has been scant, so there’s no grass here for grazing wildebeests and zebras.

At Olduvai Gorge, streams cut through several geologic layers, exposing old formations.

Olduvai Gorge
Olduvai Gorge

From Wikipedia, “Olduvai Gorge is one of the most important prehistoric sites in the world and has been instrumental in furthering the understanding of early human evolution. This site was occupied by homo habilis approximately 1.9 million years ago, paranthropus boisei 1.8 million years ago, and homo erectus 1.2 million years ago. Homo sapiens are dated to have occupied the site 17,000 years ago.”

We listened to a talk, visited a small museum, and walked through the gorge to the excavation site.

After lunch, we drove north cross country across the short-grass plains, until the acacia woodland, where we turned to head for camp. Cross country means no roads. We drove off-road for three hours across the Serengeti, navigating by bearing and mountain landmarks. We saw no fences, no rivers, no walls, no roads. Africa is a vast land.

On a game drive, the three cars drive parallel and radio the others when they spot something interesting.

In the acacia woodland, another car spotted a cheetah and radioed us. As our car pulled up, the cheetah ran. Cheetahs are the world’s fastest land animal, accelerating to 60 mph in 3 seconds. I had time for only one picture before it disappeared into the brush.  (400 mm, 1/1600 sec, f/9) We searched for the cheetah, but it had vanished.

running cheetah
running cheetah

Here’s a higher resolution image cropped from the photo.

fleeting cheetah
fleeting cheetah close-up

We also saw a tawny eagle and Coke’s hartebeest.

tawny eagle
tawny eagle
Coke's Hartebeest
Coke’s Hartebeest

We pulled into camp at Alamana just before 6:00 pm — a long day on the Serengeti. But we would be at camp in Maasai lands for four nights before moving on.