Sunday, 28 June 2015

African Memories Part 1 - The Serengeti Tanzania

Both my wife and myself have over the years spent quite a lot of time in Africa either working there or visiting for pleasure. Some years ago we decided to visit Tanzania for a holiday looking at the mammals and birds of the Serengeti.

The Serengeti is rightly famed for its wildlife spectacles especially the Great Migration of Wildebeeste and Zebra. Comprising 5,700 square miles of  grassland, savannah, riverine forest and open woodland the Serengeti is a place of wonder and delight for anyone with an appreciation of the natural world and with an estimated population of one thousand Leopards as good a place as any to try and encounter this beautiful big cat.

On all our travels in Africa throughout the passing years we had seen all the famed animals of The Dark Continent; Lion, Cheetah, Leopard, Rhino, Giraffe, African Buffalo, Hippopotamus and of course Elephant. Of all of these it was the Leopard that had proved personally the most elusive for us and we could really only count two separate, fleeting and therefore unsatisfactory views of this big cat despite all our efforts.

With the abundance of wildlife, constituting both prey and predator, throughout the Serengeti we decided that this was our big opportunity and we would concentrate one whole day in trying to find a Leopard, preferably asleep in a tree so we could have prolonged views of one and finally lay our bogey to rest. I did not rate our chances too highly but we had to try.

So it was that one morning I instructed Njano our guide that today we wanted to find a Leopard. We set out from our camp in the early morning, three of us in a four wheel drive, heading into the vastness of the Serengeti. The air was still cool and the sun yet to rise. A group of Bat Eared Foxes diverted our attention as they examined the remains of a dead bird along the dirt road we were following, making their way back after a night's hunting, to their den. Possessing a high cuteness factor their sociable antics were entrancing as they ignored our presence and bounced and bickered amongst themselves, snuffling feathers and chasing after one last meal of locusts they had found in the scrub.Their ears are huge and constantly move and twitch as, like radar scanners they  pick up and assess each and every minute sound that may signal prey or danger.

We reluctantly left them and continued onwards, driving further out into the vastness of the awakening land, heading for the open woodland of Acacia trees where hopefully a Leopard was now sleeping, draped over a branch after a night's prowling.

The sun rose, which in Africa happens in minutes as we are so near to the Equator. One minute it is a deep orange orb rising above the Serengeti's horizon and then in a few minutes it is high in the sky. The heat rises exponentially and we have just  a few hours before it will be too hot to continue. By ten in the morning it is time to return to the camp, rest and sleep in the shade, allowing the heat of the day to burn on in a shimmering white light  across the plains, creating countless mirages in the heat haze.

We passed a small rise and a Lioness rested there, statuesque and haughty. We were very close and she looked directly into my eyes. A wild lion making eye contact is unnerving despite the safety of the vehicle and I instinctively looked away not relishing being the focus of this supreme predator. 

I need not have worried as after a few seconds she dismissively turned her head away as if I was of no consequence or interest. She looked into the far distance head raised. Her flanks heaved, then compressed and her neck stretched as she let out a series of roars, the sound coming from deep in her body and rising to the back of her throat from whence it was expelled and resonated across the plains. Again and again at regular intervals she roared. In between she listened intently for a response but none came.

This particular morning in our search for a Leopard we must have driven under and looked at hundreds of Acacia trees, big, small and between,  but it proved fruitless. No tail hanging down from a shaded lateral branch or dark lump prone along a bough. We gave up, with the intense heat now permeating every corner of the land and life slowed as everything sought the shade until the heat slowly died away in the late afternoon.

We returned to the camp, dusty and thirsty and after a couple of ice cold beers and a light meal slept away the heat of midday.

We rejoined Njano at four in the afternoon and once more set off out into the now cooling embrace of the Serengeti. This time we took a different route and headed for more Acacia trees but most of these were relatively small and looked hardly suitable for a Leopard. I was accustomed to thinking Leopards would seek out a big tree where they would feel more secure as I had seen this enacted on countless wildlife television programmes. We tried the largest trees but found nothing and slowly drove in a winding and haphazard route through the scattered smaller trees but our search was still fruitless.  It was now five and in another hour it would be sunset. The sun sinking as fast as it rises in this part of Africa.

Resigned to the fact we had done our very best we still had an hour and retained some forlorn hope. 'Try over there Njano'. I pointed to yet another scattering of unpromising looking, spindly Acacias and we headed for them. We drove through them slowly and then came across an isolated Acacia of no consequence and sprawled like some discarded child's toy in the fork of a branch near the canopy was a Leopard.

A female, she could hardly be bothered to raise an eyelid or turn her head to register our presence. Njano turned off the engine and we sat in the evening air and whispered our excitement to each other as the Leopard lounged in the tree. There was no hurry as far as she was concerned. The sounds of Africa no longer drowned by the vehicle's engine filled the land. Strange exotic, tropical calls of birds came from far and wide accompanied by the rhythmic pulsing of cicadas.

We were well off the beaten track and entirely alone. One of the less enjoyable facets of game viewing on the Serengeti is that you are rarely left alone if other vehicles  notice you are stopped and looking at something. All the guides are keen to earn a good tip from grateful clients and know better than to ignore the opportunity to take advantage of someone else's good fortune. I do not really mind as we too have taken advantage of such situations but it is nice to have something all to yourself as then the communion between you and the animal is so much more personal and intense.

We sat for the next forty five minutes, just the three of us and the Leopard. Other vehicles passed us in the distance but failed to notice us or did not come our way, maybe assuming as we were not looking at the ground we were just having a sundowner (evening drink) and enjoying the cool of the evening. We drove closer to the Leopard, almost under the tree and she opened her eyes and yawned yet again. Casual and unafraid. Untroubled and completely at ease. She briefly shut her eyes and dozed some more but as the cooler air became more apparent soon stirred and moved position before standing up and stretching out her limbs in the familiar relaxed way of all cats great and small. The colouring and patterning of her coat was exquisite. Dull gold, lit by the waning sun, with clusters and lines of black spots from head to tail. Pale amber eyes scrutinised us as she awoke, responding to the timeless rhythms of the Serengeti.

Gradually she came more awake and attentive before delicately picking her way through the thorny branches and descending the tree head first, jumping the last few metres to the ground and landing light as a feather. 

She sat assessing her surroundings at ground level, still a little drowsy, then gently swishing her tail wandered over to some nearby vegetation and sprayed with her scent gland. Satisfied and with one more giant yawn she wandered away, a picture of insouciant ease and grace.

She came to a fallen tree trunk and stood with her forepaws on top of the trunk looking left, looking right and then, dropping from the trunk she melted into the embrace of Africa and was gone.