Safari Days 3 and 4: Serengeti

It took a couple hours to drive from Ngorongoro Crater to Serengeti, through more Maasai villages in dry grasslands with scattered trees. Gabrieli told us more about the country and wildlife along the way, and we saw our first giraffe, not exactly blending in with the Maasai cattle.

Once at the park we offloaded gear, and Amisi started setting up camp. We had lunch in a covered building with other tourists and then went out for our first game drive.

Serengeti’s landscape is haunting and beautiful in places, with rock outcroppings, immense grasslands (“Serengeti” means “endless,” Gabrieli told us), and trees that look like they were sculpted by an artist. Along the Seronera River, where we spent much of our driving time, the vegetation is rich in spots, with the occasional oasis of palm trees. In others, it is nondescript, with scattered shrubs and dry ground crossed by tracks of four-wheelers.

Tina was hoping to see a crocodile, Truls was looking for a leopard and a cheetah, and Madalena was after more giraffes and a male lion. We were successful Day 1 on all but the cheetah and the lion, although we did see more females. The croc was sunning itself on the bank of the river, with a hippo in the water just beneath it. Amisi found the leopard with cubs while driving around a kopje. I have no idea how he spotted it, as it blended in perfectly with its surroundings. We spent about 10 minutes there and never got a perfect look, and when a bunch of fancy Land Cruisers started pulling up to see what we were seeing, we moved along.

Gabrieli told us he doesn’t like to talk with other guides about what they’re up to. Too many trucks spend all day chasing from one sighting to the next, using radios to communicate, and may miss things along the way, he says. I like that attitude. The alternative seems a bit too Disneyland for my tastes, and Gabrieli’s concern for the animals and leaving them to their business is evident in everything he says.

We saw a lot of hippos, including a couple wandering around on land, as well as an eagle owl, baboons with a tiny baby, and a pride of female lions with young, but the giraffes were the highlight of the day. Madalena made it her favorite animal, and Gabrieli agreed. “They have no quarrel with anyone,” he said.

After seeing groups of three or four, almost close enough to touch, we came upon an area with 20 to 30 of them. They really are amazing in their natural environment, with a kind of awkward grace and a contented lope when they’re ready to move along.

We got back close to dark and enjoyed another great meal of spaghetti and a beef curry sauce (and a Serengeti beer) before turning in early.

Our final day included a morning game drive where Amisi spotted a male lion at a kill site. He was quite far away, but close enough to see with binoculars eating what appeared to be a buffalo. A female — probably the one responsible for the kill — waited her turn nearby, as did a dozen vultures.

We had pizza for lunch and another drive in the afternoon, with only the cheetah left on our list. We didn’t find it, but we saw beautiful expanses of grass and rocks, along with gazelles, antelope, zebras, wildebeest, buffalo, giraffes, foxes, mongoose, warthogs, a secretary bird, topi, dikdiks, and one lone elephant. Amisi also showed us a critter probably too pedestrian to make the cut for most guides: the African rock hyrax, a little rodent that runs around on the kopjes and can really jump.

That evening, after a dinner of quiche topped with breaded and friend onions, I hung out with some Swedes who had a guitar and played some Johnny Cash songs. We were soon joined by a French Canadian with another guitar and a pride of Irish. I heard two versions of Wagon Wheel, one in Gaelic, and two versions of Ghost Riders in the Sky, one with a Swedish accent and one with French. There was also a guy from Venezuela who enjoyed playing leads when he could grab a guitar. He played while I sang “Girl from the North Country” and thought of home.

They played Pink Floyd, Journey, and the Beatles, and then an Irish woman asked me to play “the most American song of all. You know the one I mean.”

“Home on the Range?” I said.

She laughed. “Everyone knows the one I mean. Almost heaven …”

So I bungled my way through “Country Roads,” and everyone knew all the words.

After the Swede led the whole group in “Don’t Stop Believing,” Gabrieli came over, complimented us on our singing, and told us it was time to go to bed to leave the animals in peace. I felt sheepish about participating in the noise and immediately retreated, but not so the others. I heard Gabrieli getting a little direct with them: “Oh my god, guys, I don’t know why you don’t listen to the guide.” Probably because their own guides were sitting in the circle enjoying the Irish whiskey.

The next day was a long drive back to Moshi, dropping Tina and Truls at the Kilimanjaro Airport along the way, where we said goodbye and shared hugs and promised to keep in touch through Facebook.

In the end, without the huge migrations of animals Serengeti is famous for, our time there was not as remarkable as our day at Ngorongoro, but who can complain after seeing an African rock hyrax in the wild?

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