OnSafari: Dry Delights

OnSafari: Dry Delights

ndutuBPThe Miller family safari didn’t waste any time. We chartered right into the Serengeti for the first two nights at Ndutu, which I’d planned because I had expected light game viewing during this middle of the dry season.

I was reminded that I’m often wrong. My preference is for the wet season when the migration is here, the veld is abloom and dramatic rains refresh each day, but family safaris are often dictated by the summer school holiday, and there are definite pluses for safaris at this time.

The biggest plus is cats. Cats don’t migrate. They feast and starve and with far less vegetation obscuring the landscape, they’re much easier to find now. On the very first game drive we encountered a mating pair. The next morning we found a pride of 12.

Neither group was starving, but that unfortunately was because they had killed two Maasai cows and one Maasai donkey. In fact it was a researcher who tipped us off to the mating pair, and that concerned me, as researchers don’t normally point tourists in their direction.

But he was worried that the Maasai would retaliate and that our presence could impede that. He’d been trying to convince the Maasai of the value of lions to the tourist industry: that it was vital to their own well-being. More to the point, though, modern Maasai use social media as much as anyone else. It wasn’t likely they would dare the incessantly clicking iPhones or Cannons.

Bibi, that’s grandmother in Swahili, is Judith Miller who’s been with me on several safaris in the past. She chose exactly the right ages to show her three grandsons why she loves Africa so much: they are 8- , 10- and 11-years old. The family also brought their summer guest, 12-year Louis of France. Many would shake their heads at a safari with 4 energetic boys that age, but in fact this is a fabulous time.

The boys couldn’t have been more excited, stopping the car a lot more than the adults, and for each new bird as well. Ben was picking out animals at 400 meters. Charlie was naming birds that most adults don’t know.

After the pride of 12 lion we got news of a possible cheetah hunt. We raced out of the marsh onto the plains and found a mother cheetah with 2 6-month olds walking behind her. She was definitely hunting.

About 400 meters away was a single, unassuming Grant’s gazelle that she had targeted. She started out walking slowly towards it at first, and then broke out into a slow trot for a short while, using the tall dry grass as cover. Her cubs stayed an appropriate distance behind her.

We stopped the cars and finely focused out binocs, since I didn’t want to disturb their possibilities. The dry season around Ndutu is a very tough time for cats. Later we’d find a couple more gazelle and three warthog within her range, but even so that’s a lot less than during the rains.

We watched the whole affair. She finally crouched down, and the cubs behind her did as well. The gazelle didn’t see her. It was just over a slight ridge, and the high grass was favoring the cheetah.

I thought she was within range to strike, but she didn’t. The gazelle finally noticed her and bounded off, ending the hunt.

We moved up to her also shortening the distance between us and the gazelle, and I noticed what a large and powerful male Grant’s it was. The smaller Thomson’s Gazelle is the cheetah’s preferred kill, and this nearly twice as big animal – especially a large healthy male – would be quite a task.

She had to worry, I think, about getting hurt as much as losing the hunt. Most cheetahs birth 5-7 cubs. She had only 2 left and they all looked hungry. If she was hurt, they would most certainly die. So perhaps when she got close enough, she figured the risk too great.

We left passing other gazelle and warthog, so her chances were hardly over for the day.

Both twin lakes of Masek and Ndutu are pretty full. The marshes around them have good ponds and the ground though dusty is not desiccated. There were good rains last season and the veld is healthy. As a result, the area may seem almost as if in a drought, when in fact it is an oasis for many animals in this southern part of the Serengeti.

Coming back last night only the swamp edge we encountered nearly 100 elephant in five different families, including quite a few youngsters. Everybody looked quite healthy. They were feasting on the last of the area’s fodder, including the very tough swamp grass, something they don’t usually eat unless they have to.

So for all my biases about when to go on safari, it was clear that normal cycles that have existed for aeons all have a purpose. Our game viewing these two days in Ndutu in the middle of the dry season would please anyone! Even me!