The crater never seems to fail me. But client patience made it better than ever.
We left Crater Lodge at 6 a.m. having cajoled our butlers to wake us shortly after 5 a.m. with hot drinks and the cookies of the day. It was dark until we reached the down-road gate around 6:30a.
Even on the rim road we saw game, as our Landcruisers had to stop several times for buffalo. But I could tell as we began the descent that it was going to be a good day.
The crater was beautifully green. The central lake was large and there were pockets of water all over the veld reflecting sunrise. When we got to the floor I noticed a new road into the forest and reckoned correctly that it was the newly opened bathrooms. Never pass a bathroom!
But what we found was a lot more exciting than new state-of-the-art choos. Not 20 yards away were two of the crater’s finest tuskers, one with a truly massive pair that turned back inwards like a pincer. Many of the largest tusked elephants wandered into the crater during the horrible years of poaching and never left. They found protection and today may be the largest tusked elephants left in Africa.
We immediately encountered hundreds of wildebeest, female herds with an equal number of calves and mothers. Umbilical chords shown on just a few, so I figured the birthing took place right on schedule at the end of February. Later in the day we would watch a distressed mother blarting wildly and running about as she tried to find a lost calf.
Hyaena were everywhere and many of my clients are so surprised when they see the randomly wandering hyaena, looking for everything like a simple dog on a walk. But that’s actually the way hyaenas usually behave: individually randomly walking across the veld, hoping to come upon something.
But it wasn’t too long afterwards that we saw the other side of hyaenas. Along the Mungi River we saw 8 lions on an eland kill. Now an eland weighs up to 1400 pounds. There were four mature females and four 6-month old lion cubs. It is remarkable how much meat a lion can chow down, but at most I figured the pride could consumer about 300 pounds maximum.
From the looks of the kill it had happened the day before. The lions had collapsed helter skelter with their big bellies in the grass, but one female wouldn’t leave the kill. She obviously couldn’t eat another bite, but she wouldn’t leave it to the jackals, birds and hyaenas that were circling.
They weren’t far from the river, and I’m sure they had already watered. Lions have to follow their chow-down with gallons of water in order to prime digestion. If they hadn’t, their faces would still have been bloody, and they weren’t. So clearly they had been down to the river, but returned to fend off the scavengers.
Finally, the cubs began to moan and started to walk towards the river with its abundant shade on their own. Three mature females followed, but the one stayed on the kill, now capable only of licking it.
Soon the hyaena were whooping. Two hyaena became three then four and they began circling the lion. I’m sure she could have chased them away, but perhaps the hassle was just to much. She got up, hyperventilating like all lions with recently filled bellies, and sauntered with the rest to the trees over the river.
The jackals went in immediately. Of course, they can get out just as quickly. It’s virtually impossible for a jackal to be touched by a lion. The hyaena were more cautious. Stretching upright in the grass, they looked around as if a fifth mature lion were waiting for them in the grass.
Then they moved in, and the food feast began. Blood squirted, pieces of meat and skin were thrown about, and the hyaena dug into the eland as if it were a dirt pile. Moments later, vultures came cruising in, which was remarkable in itself since we saw no trees except along the river, and these birds seemed to have come from the opposite direction.
Some safaris just luck out, and for certain this one did. But it takes more than luck to experience something like this. We were there for nearly 70 minutes. During the time our silent vehicles watched the event, another 8 vehicles came and went, spending just a few minutes it seemed. I’m always a bit worried that I push my clients too far, so at one point I asked if they were ready to leave.
Bryan Hassell said forcibly, “Let’s just wait a few minutes.” And sure enough, it was in those few minutes that the persistent female guard gave up, and the next chapter of the event began, something very precious to see.
I understand completely people who “want to see everything.” But I think it goes without saying that those who rush from place to place might be able to tick off a number of animals, but will likely never get to know them the way we did, today, in the crater.
Later we’d see more lion, serval, cheetah and enjoy a beautiful picnic breakfast by a lake with 14 hippo. Maybe, we could have seen even more, but I don’t think anyone would have traded in that hour plus at the lion kill for anything!