Escapism

Jill Worrall leaves Timaru to take on the world - bringing adventure travel to your desktop

Tanzania: Life and death on the African plains

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A lioness prospecting for her next meal. Photo / Jill Worrall
A lioness prospecting for her next meal. Photo / Jill Worrall

The cheetah had made her kill just before sunset. On the fringe of the Serengeti Plains, where the land begins to rise, undulating towards the crater walls of the Ngorongoro Crater, she crouched over the limp body of an impala.

After tearing flesh away from the haunches of the antelope, the cheetah would stop and looked anxiously to her left. A jackal was watching her and beyond it two vultures, wings unfolded, like feathered Draculas.

I stood in the back of the jeep entranced. My first African predator. Was it bad taste to be so enthralled by the sight of this big cat with its bloodied muzzle ripping into the innards of the hapless impala? It was certainly gruesome but equally, the cheetah was so graceful, a lean running machine with a gloriously spotted coat, its long tail curled out behind it.

This was life and death on the African plains - if the cheetah didn't kill it would die and if it didn't eat fast the jackal and vultures - and maybe even nearby lions - would move in and take over her meal.

When we left her she was attempting to drag the impala to a less exposed spot, maybe she'd sensed what we saw coming just a short way away - two spotted hyenas, tongues lolling as they loped effortlessly through the tawny grasses towards her.

The Serengeti National Park covers nearly 15,000 sq km in northwest Tanzania on the border with Kenya.

It's a World Heritage Site and is probably best known for its annual migration of millions of wildebeest accompanied by hundreds of thousands of zebra and gazelle. However, once the migratory animals have left it is also a superb place to see predators such as lions, cheetah and leopards.

We travelled to our Serengeti lodge via Arusha, along a road that took us along the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater, itself famed for its wildlife.

Having already seen a cheetah and a hyena on the drive in, we set off the following morning full of anticipation. We were not disappointed.

Our first sighting was not of a predator however, but a herd of zebras browsing among the trees beside the road.

It had been love at first sight for me with zebras when I saw them for the first time the day before at Lake Manyara - and later, even after five weeks in Africa, they never ceased to intrigue me.

There are several species of zebra - some have stripes more brown than black, some have a faint "shadow" stripe between the main bands of colour, some have striped legs, others pure white. The black and white effect extends part the way down their tails - it's as if they get together each morning to do elegant French plaits.

Giraffes stalked elegantly among the trees too. They are equally beautiful and, like the zebras, different sub-species have a range of patterns and colours.

As they nibbled on high branches they would often stop to look down their long elegant noses at us ... I am sure they know they are African eye candy.

A few kilometres down the road Mweta, our guide, stopped the jeep suddenly and pointed up into the tall spreading trees about 50 metres away.

At first we couldn't make out what we should be looking at ... then I spotted four paws dangling below a branch - it was a sleeping leopard, straddled along a branch.

Leopards, who are preyed upon by lions even when they haven't made a kill, often sleep in trees for safety and drag their prey up into the branches too.

Mweta explained that leopards regularly lose their kills to lions and even hyenas, sometimes having to make multiple kills a day before they get a decent feed.

A few minutes after our first leopard sighting the jeep stopped again - two leopards were on the move on a grassy hillside - the fact that these usually solitary cats were close together, indicated to Mweta they were preparing to mate.

We saw yet another leopard later in the day, also in a tree but this time awake and alert - he looked across to us without concern.

Most animals of the Serengeti are so used to vehicles that they appear not to see them at all - elephants weave among jeeps and lions rub against trucks to scratch itches.

Wart hogs are more skittish however - in Tanzania at least most of my photos of these ugly but nevertheless endearing animals are of warthog bottoms retreating into the grassland, their almost prehensile tails standing straight up like a flag.

During our first few days on safari we'd seen lionesses, lying near the road, semi-comatose in the heat. Apart from their size they seemed to be behaving little differently to our Birman cat. But that afternoon we encountered a pride that was wide awake.

Lions live in prides, usually with one dominant male lion and up to 30 other individuals including mature lionesses, juveniles of both sexes and cubs.

We'd arrived on the scene as the pride was finishing off the last meaty morsels from a zebra kill. On the other side of the track a herd of elephants was standing belly-deep in a watering hole, babies carefully corralled amongst the milling giant animals.

Elephants too live in family groups but it is a matriarch that is in control. At some signal undetected by us this particular matriarch began to move away from the water, threading her way between the jeeps that had gathered. The rest of the herd, mothers and babies and young males, followed her.

They stopped near the lions, some of which were now lolling with full stomachs in the shade of some thorn bushes while others were still gnawing at the carcass.

The smallest of the baby elephants were almost hidden from sight among the forest of enormous elephant legs but one of the male elephants decided that the family was not safe enough. Raising his trunk and trumpeting in warning he made a rush at the lions. The big cats scattered, other than a few younger ones still intent on finishing their meal.

Another elephant now joined in the attack, charging at the remaining lions and when they ran off, both elephants pursued them.

Several lions took refuge in a thicket of shrubs but this was not far enough away for the elephants who swung their feet and trunks at the bushes until the lions slunk out the other side.

"You know the saying 'the lion is the king of the jungle'?" said Mweta.

"It is not true - you can see that for yourself - it is the elephant who is the king."

By now there was a gathering of about 30 elephants under the wary gaze of the displaced lions. On yet another signal from the matriarch, the elephants began to move away across the plains kicking up a cloud of dust as they left. Slowly the lions crept back to their kill.

The following morning we left the Serengeti and drove up to the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater which is more than 2300m above sea level.

The crater is one of the largest unflooded intact volcanic caldera in the world and is home to about 25,000 large animals, including 25 extremely rare and heavily protected black rhinos (each rhino is under 24-hour surveillance by armed guards and each is microchipped so its every move can be detected).

On safari there are strict rules for visitors. There is no getting out of the jeep other than in the rare designated picnicking/toileting stops (we were told by our guide that someone who refused to listen to his guide about not getting out for an unscheduled wee was eaten by a lion. We didn't need to be told twice).

Even in the lodges a security guard is charged with escorting you back to your room after dinner and sometimes back for breakfast before the early morning game drives too.

I asked a guide at Ngorongoro if this was just to make things seem more exciting for guests.

"Oh no", he said, "we often see leopard here. After all this was once their home so they come back time to time."

"So what do you do if we see one now?" I asked, seeing he didn't appear to be armed with anything more lethal than a torch.

"I shine the light in his eyes and he just quietly goes away - we respect him and he respects us."

We had stopped at a picnic area beside a vast waterhole fringed with reeds in which glistening black pods of hippo wallowed. Every now and then there'd be an outbreak of hippo guffaws and a rearrangement of their tubby bodies.

On the grassland nearby an ostrich threesome stalked past - two males pursuing a lone hen. Every jeep in the Ngorongoro seemed to be here but Mweta said although it was comparatively safe it was still important to stay vigilant.

"Once in the quiet season a lady went into the toilet block. We suddenly heard her screaming - two lions were walking past and decided to lie down just outside the door. She was trapped in there for a long time because we're not allowed to disturb the animals. Finally a ranger came and moved them along by driving his jeep up behind them."

On our way back to our lodge, up in the mists of the crater rim, we came across the rare sight of a normally nocturnal serval cat out hunting. Servals are beautiful elusive members of the cat family, about the size of a spaniel but fine boned with cheetah-like black spots.

The serval was hunting for insects in the long grass beside the track. He stalked them appearing totally oblivious to the line of jeeps that materialised as the news spread among the guides about this rare sight.

Back at the lodge that evening we sat on the terrace as the African sun began to set and a pair of buffalo lumbered past immediately below us.

Beyond them a flock of guinea fowl with their speckled plumage and blue crests hurried home on foot to roost ... three guinea fowl had been left behind - they skittered out of the undergrowth, wings flapping agitatedly.

No wonder really - there were a lot of sharp teeth out there only too keen for a little poultry.

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