Tanzania: Animal attractions

By Derek Cheng

Daydreaming in the warm African sun gets Derek Cheng wondering which magnificent creature in the animal kingdom it would be best to be.
Zebras are first to the water hole. Photo / Alaina Buzas
Zebras are first to the water hole. Photo / Alaina Buzas

Only twice over four days did our safari guide Gus get that anxious look on his face. The involuntary look that suggested he wasn't in total control of the situation and bad things - like being devoured by merciless carnivores - might happen.

The first time was in the middle of the Serengeti plains, Tanzania, when he made a sudden stop on the dirt road to relieve himself. But being at the mercy of his bladder wasn't what made his face turn slightly pale - or the African version of stark white - and his forehead crinkle up like an accordion. It was more to do with the trio of hyenas that instantly emerged from the long grass about 20m away.

Not that Tom, an Australian tourist in our jeep, minded. He, too, had to go, but he showed not a trace of anxiety as he calmly went about his business in the middle of the road. To emphasise his obliviousness - or stupidity - he even turned his back to the fuzzy-faced would-be killers.

Giraffes pose in Kenya's Masai Mara National Park. Photo / Alaina Buzas
Giraffes pose in Kenya's Masai Mara National Park. Photo / Alaina Buzas

Perhaps he had thought, incorrectly, that there was no danger. We had, after all, just watched a dozen or so hyenas surrounding several dozen gazelles, trying unsuccessfully to encircle and eat them.

Obviously they weren't very efficient killers.

But Gus wasn't quite so ... relaxed. He stayed close. He practically hugged the back door - presumably so he could leap back inside in a second, if necessary - as he peed. And he never took his eyes off the disarmingly cute predators beside the road.

As soon as he finished, Gus rushed back into the driver's seat, while the rest of us gleefully looked on from the safety of inside the vehicle. Tom followed, dragging his feet.

The only other time Gus had that two-steps-short-of-terrified look on his face was when we arrived at a small craggy part of the Serengeti to check out some cave paintings of the Masai people, cattle farmers with a reputation for being fierce warriors.

"There are leopards here sometimes," he said. "Are you sure you want to go and see them?" he asked me, as if I knew more about the real level of danger than he did.

"After you," I replied enthusiastically.

He cautiously climbed a short path to the cave, scanning studiously on all sides, looking for any sign that the spotted hunter might be close. Satisfied that we were safe, he pointed out a small pile of litter where a porcupine had recently had a home, and then some 200-year-old cave paintings, which included an elephant that had a suspicious resemblance to Sonic the Hedgehog.

He had resumed his usual confident swagger by the time we left, but his eyes practically popped out of his skull when we saw a leopard 200m down the road. She was resting on a large boulder, gorgeously resplendent in the fading sunlight, sitting stoically as if pondering her own greatness.

We watched in awe. Leopards are rarely seen in the day time because they hunt at night, and if seen at all are usually lazing in trees. (The following day, we caught a glimpse of a leopard's tail hanging behind some leafy branches.)

Muscular, proud, pretty, this leopard was relaxed, oblivious to our binoculars and finger-pointing. Then into this perfect scene a second leopard appeared. He jumped on to a steep part of the boulder, only to slip down. A tad humiliating, seeing he was trying to impress the young lady.

When he finally made it up the boulder, she had decamped to the other side. They stared at each other, not like star-crossed lovers reunited after an age, but like the strangers they were.

He tried to woo her by lazing on his side of the rock in a nonchalant pose, offering his armpit and the underside of his chin as specimens of his worthiness. She perched under a tree, facing him, ready to pounce if she felt threatened.

Tourists check out a lion couple. Photo / Alaina Buzas
Tourists check out a lion couple. Photo / Alaina Buzas

They stayed like this for half an hour. He changed his reclining position slightly. She never toned down her alertness. The sun sank behind the curved horizon and we remained transfixed.

Gus later told us he had only ever seen two leopards together twice in his three years of guiding. Leopards are solitary creatures, and when males are lucky enough to find a potential partner, they persist until they are accepted. Or eaten.

It eventually got too dark to see. They were either on a romantic date under cover of night, or she had gone hunting and he was still following her around in a hopeful stupor.

We had barely driven off when Gus spotted a porcupine, a massive beast armed with spindles the length of chopsticks, scurrying across the plains in our headlights.

So it is on an African safari. One minute, there is action aplenty. The next, you're just driving around endlessly in search of something to look at, though the landscapes themselves are so vast and stunningly beautiful that they quickly dispel any feelings of boredom.

It can be a little frustrating being vehicle-bound. But, if I had felt like ignoring the rule about staying in the vehicle, I would have changed my mind after hearing Gus' story about a woman who wandered a bit too far towards some grazers and accidentally disturbed a lion in the long grass.

We had started in the Ngorogoro Caldera, an enormous 23km-wide collapsed crater in northern Tanzania, whose fire and lava had long since matured into a large bowl of grass and trees supporting a range of wildlife: wildebeest, hyenas, hippos, lions, zebras, gazelles, elephants, rhinos, baboons, water buffalo.

The grass cover and rainfall here are sufficient to cater for hundreds of wildebeest who spend their time perpetually grazing. As do the zebras, the gazelles, the elephants. Could there be a more blissful existence, lazing with friends every day and night, eating an abundant supply of food?

But it's not all leisure and eating. At dusk on our first evening, a herd of zebras and wildebeest erupted into a frenzy, kicking up a cloak of dust as they scampered away in a sprinting mass. As the dust started to settle, two cheeky hyenas emerged, with facial expressions much like the ones we saw later in the Serengeti during the nervous peeing.

It's a common tactic for hyenas. The ensuing panic usually sorts out a youngster for the pack to then focus their attention on.

Binoculars are your best friend on safari. Photo / 123RF
Binoculars are your best friend on safari. Photo / 123RF

But normally they, like most predators, hunt at night. It's less sweaty that way. And they have great eyesight. All the great killers do, including leopards and lions, the undisputed kings.

In the vast plains of the Serengeti - an unimaginable 30,000sq km, peppered with acacia trees and craggy outposts - we were lucky enough to chance upon a pride of a dozen or so lions under the skeleton frame of an acacia tree. Four or five cubs lay next to each other by the tree trunk, while their mothers were sprawled out in random positions, their limbs in unnatural positions, looking like drunken sailors who had passed out and fallen asleep where they had fallen.

This was an alpha male-free zone, no doubt because he was patrolling his territory, which can be 250sq km of land. One youngster slowly rose and waltzed sleepily over to his mother, who started tenderly cleaning him.

But there was a stark reminder of this creature's majesty when the mother yawned, revealing a quartet of enormous knife-like teeth that would make short work of a water buffalo, impala ... or human.

This is what lions do in the daytime. Nothing. They spend most of the night hunting, so it's forgivable that they relax in the daytime. And while their vision suits the night-hunt, they are colour-blind, which explains the puzzle of how zebras evolved to blend in about as well as a clown at a funeral. In a herd frenzy at night, a zebra's black and white stripey suit looks like a fuzzy blur to a lion.

Cheetahs, on the other hand, have terrible night vision, but make up for it by being able to accelerate to 100km/h in three seconds. The black mascara lines running down the insides of their eyes are thought to shield them from the glaring sun, making it easier to spot prey in the daytime.

Such incredible abilities led to many discussions about which animal we would be. The speedy cheetah? Or the mighty lion? Top of the food chain but on permanent day-patrol ... and inevitably replaced by a younger, stronger male.

Maybe better to be a leopard, strong enough to drag a kill its own body weight up a tree? But only if you like being a loner.

If you're more of a social bunny, then giraffes tend to hang out in groups and they are quite elegant, in a goofy sort of way. And as comedian Eddie Izzard points out, any attempt at procreation seems sure to end up an awkward disaster.

Impala also socialise and have an appealing lifestyle. Young males bond together as young bachelors, then set up their own harems. Sounds good to me. And though impalas are delicious, the slowest are usually the first to be eaten, meaning the mature male impala is usually protected by a screen of young, expendable females.

If you want to stand out, the vervet monkey is hard to go past. There aren't many species that can boast bright blue genitalia.

Or if figure matters not, a six-tonne elephant or a three-tonne hippo might be more appealing. Hippos also get to bathe all day, an inviting prospect in the African heat and red dust. Which would be grand, if you had no sense of smell.

Hippos, while bathing, defecate constantly and fling it away by whirling their tails, often into the faces of the hippos directly behind them. It's not very attractive and it does little for the odour or general ambience of hippo watering holes. And then there is the diet: grass, grass and more grass.

But don't forget those cute little hyenas. They have that innocent teddy-bear look so their prey lower their guard. It's an effective strategy, whether they're trying to encircle gazelles or creeping up on wildlife-spotters relieving their bladders. That's enough to make anyone anxious.


Emirates flies daily to Dar es Salaam with connections from New Zealand, with return fares for Economy Class starting from $3270. emirates.com

- NZ Herald

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