Saturday 15 July
This was a long day in the bus with no riding, 130 km on stony roads, We stopped for a picnic lunch under two acacias. They are well adapted to the hot, dry conditions.
Their tiny wrinkly leaves, on spindly branches, sturdy needle thorns and flat canopy tops give a surprising amount of shade. We clustered gratefully underneath to eat, on folding chairs that Juma and Amos unearthed from the truck. Such comforts were much appreciated. At the entrance to the park we had time to visit real toilets, the shop, buy coffee and ice cream, and stocked up on biscuits and snacks for our camping adventure. I bought postcards and had them stamped with the official Serengeti stamp. There were giant skulls decorating a dessicated garden, hippo and cape buffalo were easy to recognise.
We saw a monkey catch a lizard and walk a tightrope of spikes on a rooftop to a tree where it could safely eat. Other lizards decorated the ground and walls, their slender bodies vivid blue and red, with long tails, posing for photos. Also on the ground were furry squirrel-faced creatures like small wombats, but more agile. They scampered fast around the gardens chasing over walls, up trees quite unafraid.
To one side was a great slab of granite jutting diagonally from the ground. It had to be Simba’s rock from The Lion King.
From this point on, there would be no wee stops and hands kept inside the windows. Keep cameras and binoculars ready and call out Suma, suma to stop the bus for a sighting. There was constant chatter as we drove and I was convinced any animals would run away at the noise but these are different. Because they have grown up for generations with trucks and safari jeeps as part of their environment they have become used to them. We stopped behind a jeep full of cameras pointing at a tree, about 20m away. Gerard had excellent binoculars. ‘It’s a leopard,’ he announced. Karimi and Justaz were visibly moved. ‘This is so rare,’ said Justaz and the chatter subsided as we jostled to see. The leopard was draped along a branch, one paw hanging down, apparently asleep. As cameras clicked and we stared in awe, Justaz spotted movement in the grass. ‘Look, there are hyenas. They can smell the leopard but they don’t know where it is. We watched as they circled several nearby trees, heads up, sniffing.
‘Surely they can’t hurt the leopard?’ someone said.
‘No, but they can annoy it, disturb it so it leaves the tree.’ If the leopard had made a kill and eaten its fill, the hyenas would scavenge the remains. The journey was punctuated by cries of ‘Giraffe!’ ‘Zebra!’ ‘Impala!’ ‘Pumba!’ (warthogs are forever pumbas after the Lion King).
The shout of ‘Lion!’ had us all rushing to one side of the bus, then, ‘Where?’ Only those with perfect eyesight could spot the King as he sheltered under a particularly bushy tree, in long green grass and shrub. Binoculars were passed round, cameras took photos and we left him to his peaceful afternoon. Soon after, ‘Elephant!’ and there were two mothers with calves strolling through the grass. The journey could have been tedious and uncomfortable but we were too interested in the wildlife to care. A small herd of cape buffalo were grazing not far from the road. We learned these are the most dangerous animals in the park. They will charge for no reason.
The bus halted though no one had asked. A gazelle lay dead in the roadside grass, probably killed by a jeep; they were always dashing across just in front of us. Vultures, five of them, were already landing to feast. At our stopping they hopped away, not far. As we watched to see what drama would unfold, someone saw hyenas trotting over. As with the leopard, they did not know where the dead gazelle lay, but they knew the vultures knew. One by one the vultures rose casually into the sky on enormous wings, each heading off in a different direction. The hyenas stopped, confused and began circling, trying to locate the kill. They seemed to work together, each taking a patch to search. Again, they gave up after a short while. We stopped for a pride of lionesses and cubs, trying to work out how many there were concealed by the grass. A troupe of baboons ambled across the road in front of the bus, mums with babies clinging tight to their backs. One mother curled her tail up and around her baby, who was sitting upright on her back.
When we finally reached the camp site, the sun was setting so the first action was to take photos. It was pretty special. Although listed as basic, our site had a toilet/shower block, a kitchen large enough to accommodate three cooks and paraphernalia and another building besides. There were two other groups the first night. Both were very quiet, unlike ours. They sat round a campfire barely talking. It was unanimously agreed that we were the best bunch of people to be with. Our tents were pitched in a semi-circle, with our fire outside at the edge. There were fleeting drops of rain as we sat, enough to make us find jackets. The dark clouds rumbled away. Our instructions for night-time were clear. If you need to go to the toilet block, go in twos with torches. Preferably, pee close to your tent. Any noises outside will most likely be impala or zebra grazing. Not quite like camping in the Australian bush. I woke up of course, needing to pee. There was comforting light from the embers of our fire. I imagined fires kept the animals away. Not long after I wriggled back into my tangled up sleeping bag, a horrible eerie howl came from outside. A hyena had scented me and come to investigate. I was scared it would know I was inside the tent and froze, holding my breath. Pat was awake too and we listened, not knowing what to expect. Nothing did happen and eventually we cuddled up and slept. In the morning, Justaz remarked that there were four hyenas round our tent last night. He said they are cowards, they would have run away if we’d shone the torch at them.