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Monday, February 15, 1999
Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

The morning arrived with much anticipation! If today was as good as yesterday had been, I was going to have a grand time in the Serengeti. After all, this was the lion country I had really come for!

I got up, and cleaned up. Then, off to the dining room for breakfast.

When I got to the dining room, I was greeted by a very excited head waiter. Seems I had ran off the night before without paying for my soft drink! I apologized for the mistake and promptly paid for my bill. Everything was then OK! (I was now 'even' with Joe and Joyce, who made the same mistake the first night of the trip!)

Breakfast was a buffet with all the usual things I had come to expect. I certainly didn't leave the table hungry!

This morning, I brought a camera and got pictures of the lion table markers. I still smile when I look at the picture of this marker. (14:17)

While sitting at breakfast, another couple asked if they could join me, so I let them. Turned out to be a good thing. We started talking about all sorts of African adventures, and eventually the conversation turned to the subject of the Tsavo Maneaters. This immediately elicted a response from my guests, as they were traveling with Bruce Patterson (Not related to Colonel Patterson) of the Field Museum of Natural History! (This museum, in Chicago, IL, is where the Tsavo Maneaters are on permanent display.) Bruce is one of the people heavily involved in the Tsavo Maneaters project. Unfortunately, his group had left already, and I never did get to meet him. Well, maybe next time in Chicago!

After breakfast, I went back to my room and packed up. I then checked out in the lobby. Check-out was as fast and easy as any good European or American hotel.

There was a jewelry store in the hotel lobby, with an impressive array of wildlife jewelry in gold, silver, etc. There were a couple of nice metal lion figures. I didn't even bother to ask what they cost!

Njau arrived, and we headed off for the central Serengeti. We would stop at Seronera Lodge, where Joe and Joyce would be waiting after what hopefully for them was an exciting balloon ride.

The balloon rides over the Serengeti and Masai Mara are heavily promoted. They are also expensive. After reading several tour guides, the general feeling I got is that while the balloon ride may be novel, and you see things from a unique perspective, your best game viewing is still on the ground. I had also read that some animals were spooked by the sound of the balloon's burner. This was especially the case with elephants. So, after reading this, I made the conscious decision not to go. (I was close enough on the budget I couldn't have afforded it anyway!)

Njau and I were soon on our way. The first notable thing sighted was a yellow-billed stork, high in a tree. (14:16)

We came to a small pond, bordered by a dam that was almost against the road. This may have been as far North as the Seronera River, but I suspect it was further South. In any case, at least three hippos, and a crocodile were keeping cool in the pond. I did not see the crocodile until I looked at the picture. (It's right above the foreground grass on the right side.) Since we never did actually see any crocodiles, this becomes the first one sighted! (14:15)(Addendum: I have since learned that this was indeed the Seronera river and that this dam is called Downey's Dam.)

We saw a lot of zebra and some wildebeest on the move, steadily migrating to the North. There were a lot more of these animals around than we had seen yesterday. (14:14)

We found a hyena in an unlikely place: sitting in a mud puddle right in the middle of the road! (14:13) Why it was sitting in it, I'll never know. Maybe it was cool. Or, perhaps comfortable. Maybe it helped cut down on insects and parasites. In any case, he showed no intention in leaving his mudhole as we slowly drove by. This was as close as we got to a hyena on this trip! (I have since learned that hyenas like to do this.)

We found another warthog who was intent to let us stop and photograph it. (14:12,11,10,9,8) Unlike the one in Lake Manyara National Park, this warthog moved around a bit and held his head high for a couple of shots. At least one of these pictures is likely to make my 'best of trip' list.

We saw a maternal herd of elephant, with at least one calf. (14:7,6) Njau said that all the young elephants is a good sign, the elephant population is recovering. He also told me that the elephant has been moved off the endangered species list.

As we got close to the Seronera area, we came upon a new species of antelope, the topi. (14:7,6) These antelope are a beautiful dark tan, and have curved, ringed antlers. These animals are both fast runners and long distance runners. You can really see the muscles in their heavy front shoulders.

We next saw a rather odd sight: An impala licking another impala! (14:3,2) Njau explained this is what happens when a bachelor impala is accepted into a bachelor herd. This situation probably occurred when the smaller impala lost a fight for his harem!

We found three more topi at a bend in the road. (14:1) The closer we got to Seronera, the more of these animals we saw.

We arrived at Seronera Lodge. It was an impressive and busy place. Safari vehicles were coming from all over to pick up balloon riders. People were everywhere around the lodge, many talking in small groups. There was a great deal of general bustle.

Seronera lodge itself appeared to be a two-story affair, partially set into a hill. The building was dominated by a huge, weather-worn granite rock that sat right in the middle. This was probably an isolated kopje. In any case, it was very picturesque. I didn't get any pictures of the lodge because of all the people milling around.

When we finally did find Joe and Joyce, I put on my Masai cloth and got an interesting double-take out of them! I took it off as soon as they had 'fallen' for the situation.

Joe and Joyce had a wonderful time. They told us about their adventure. Each balloon held six passengers, and an operator. Each passenger was in a little stall-like enclosure the nature of which I don't fully understand. In any case, it made your viewing experience somewhat private.

The balloons are at the mercy of the wind, so they have no set course or itinerary. At the end of the flight, you end up wherever you end up. Chase vehicles find you, and take you to a predetermined spot, where a champagne breakfast is served. A number of people I talked to who had gone on a balloon ride thought champagne for breakfast was a bit odd, but otherwise OK.

Joe and Joyce saw a lot of neat things from the air. The one thing that I specifically remember is that they saw a lion catch a warthog for breakfast just before they landed.

We now started on our second game drive of the morning, which would take us back to the Serengeti Sopa Lodge for lunch.

We sighted a nice gray heron a bit further from water than I might have expected to find such a bird. (15:36,35) These pictures did not turn out as well as they could have.

At a small waterhole, we found a nice example of a three-banded plover. (15:34) This was an all-new bird I hadn't seen before.

A bit further on, we came across a larger waterhole, with many zebra and a couple wildebeest in it getting a drink. They seemed a bit skittish. Indeed, we were not really surprised when all the animals got out of the water as quickly as they could! (15:33,32,31) Soon, the thirsty animals would venture into the water to continue their drink. Within a couple of minutes, they all quickly left the water again. We saw this happen 3 or 4 times. What was driving them out? A predator, no doubt. But what kind? Njau seemed to think it was a crocodile. We never did find out.

We saw an African fish-eagle in a tree. (15:30) These birds are similar in appearance and habit to the American bald eagle.

We hadn't seen cape buffalo yet in the Serengeti. We finally caught up with a nice herd of them. (15:29) They were being attended to by some yellow-billed egrets, who enjoyed the insect feast that invariably accompanied such big animals. Indeed, you can see one of them picking an insect off of one buffalo's chin! (15:28)

We ran across the same hyena we had seen earlier laying in the puddle. (15:27,26) The mud on his lower half was clearly visible. The puddle was also clearly visible, with hyena tracks all around it. The incredibly powerful jaws of this hunter-scavenger are clearly evident in this view.

We made it back to Serengeti Sopa Lodge around noontime. Larry and Teri were nowhere about, and Joe and Joyce had not checked out of their room. Now, it was apparent that checking out when I did was a mistake. I had an hour or so till lunch, during which I was completely bored.

I was going to wander out onto the terrace behind the main lobby, but it looked like it was closed in preparation for some event. The lodge's pool was out there, also. It was an odd shape, figure 8 with a very narrow neck between the two halves.

Eventually, I found some magazines I could read. The particular one I found was entitled 'Tanzania Wildlife'. It was nicely done, very similar to 'Africa Environment and Wildlife', which was readily available in the US. They have a website, but I have never bothered to check it out. This might be a nice magazine to subscribe to, but it was rather expensive. I read through it pretty completely.

Finally, it was lunchtime. I was one of the first people in the dining room. I was seated at another table from where I had been seated before, one without a wooden lion! I was glad I had photographed one earlier in the day.

There was a fountain in the middle of the dining room. It wasn't running when I came in, but started up soon afterwards. Apparently, even little details like that weren't overlooked to conserve energy.

I had perfect conditions to get a picture of the Serengeti Plains out the window with the dining room furniture in the foreground. Before I could take the picture, guests started to occupy tables in the shot. I never got the picture.

Lunch was a buffet of all sorts of good things. One of these was not the pork. Or was it goat? It was very hard to tell. Whatever creature it had once been, it was now so dry that I could hardly eat it. I almost choked a couple of times. I finally ate all of it, even though I hadn't taken that much of it.

Larry and Teri eventually joined me, and later, Joe and Joyce. We finished lunch together, and then rested in the lobby for Njau to arrive. Joe had to attend to some of Joyce's medical needs. Larry helped Joe with this, while Teri and I made sure that nobody would watch.

Njau eventually arrived, and we were soon back on the road. This afternoon, we would explore the gallery forests along the Mbalageti River, some of the area around Lake Magadi, and the route to our camp via the Simba Kopjes and Naabi Hill.

We saw a lot of plains game on this drive (15:25-22). It was all migrating in columns towards the North. Although we never saw the 'endless herds' the Serengeti is famous for, we did some big game concentrations from time to time. Because they benefit from each other's feeding, zebra are often seen mixed in with the wildebeest, as we graphically see here.

Another animal we encountered a lot of that afternoon was tsetse flies. They were worse in this area than anywhere else we had been. We all got bit from time to time, but they still seemed to favor me for some reason. By the end of that afternoon, I had become an expert in identifying and eradicating the pesty insects. Tsetse flies were also smart. They would go down by the legs, or other hard-to-get-at parts, and do their biting there. I eventually had to put insect repellent on my ankles!

We found two male impala locking horns in a dispute of some sort. (15:21,20) Although we saw all sorts of power struggle type behavior among impala, this was one of the few real fights we saw.

Upon crossing a small bridge, we were treated to a fine sighting of an ordinarily-shy vervet monkey. The result was some fine photographs. (15:19,18,17)

Someone working in the park had a healthy sense of humor. This humor was evident when we found the somewhat comical and goofy combination of a buffalo skull sitting on top of an elephant skull! (15:16)

We discovered two young warthog close to the road. Although they didn't exactly pose for us, they stayed around long enough for us to have a nice observation. The thinner face, big ears, lack of tusks and scruffy manes showed their young age. Somehow they don't quite look like warthogs, yet! (15:14,13)

We were alerted to the discovery of a leopard in a tree just down the road. Unfortunately, another safari vehicle drove off the road to try and get a better look. It scared the leopard off, and we (And everybody else that followed, staying on the road like they were supposed to.) never did see it.

Our next find was a pride of lions sleeping under a tree. (15:12) There was not much activity here, so we didn't stay for very long. We were at a point where we were close to the end of what we planned to explore in this area. So, not far past this point, we turned around and headed up a road that ran parallel to the road we had been on. It was hardly 200 yards away. But, the tree with the lions under it was between these two roads. So, we saw the same pride of lions, from about the same distance, from the opposite side. (A HREF="15_11M.JPG">15:11. This picture and 15:12 are 600 d.p.i. Scans.) In the ten minutes or so between these pictures, one of the big females had moved, and was possibly grooming itself. Praise the Lord!

We came across some wildebeest with a couple of very young calves. They are such cute and homely things! (15:10) They couldn't be more than a few days old. You can still see the stump of the umbilical cord on one of them. However, we quickly discovered that one of them had a broken leg. Although not evident from the picture (15:9), this calf was having a bit of a struggle keeping up with mom. Unfortunately, the only role this calf has to fill in the scheme of things is the belly of a predator.

Even though we saw them everywhere, I had a strange fascination with guinea fowl. I photographed a nice group of them, in good light. The colors on their head stand out unusually well. (15:8)

We found a usually shy bat-eared fox close to the road. This handsome animal hung around long enough to let us carefully observe and photograph it. The pastel colors in their coat are quite beautiful! (15:7,6,5)

When we came into the Lake Magadi area, we had another audience with the king of beasts. We saw several safari vehicles looking at something. It turned out to be this male lion, resting himself in the heat of the day. It is amazing how being top predator makes these cats so laid back and shameless! In any case, this nice male had absolutely no intentions of doing anything until he had his beauty rest! (15:4,3)

We didn't stay here for very long, as it was apparent the only lion behavior we would observe is sleeping. (They are very good at this behavior. They spend up to 20 hours a day doing it!) There were also a lot of other safari vehicles about, constantly jockeying positions for a good view. We left by a slightly different route than most of these other vehicles. The result was an unexpected surprise lion sighting! (15:2) We saw this female sprawled out in the grass about 10 yards from the male. When we looked closer, there was at least one more further in the grass, also fast asleep. Everyone else was so intent on observing the male, that we were the only ones who saw the females! I think God was looking out for me, as I was the person who spotted them from my low seat!

In any case the male figured he'd lay out in the open and attract all of the attention of those strange white animals with wheels! Then, his females could rest better and maybe catch him something bigger for dinner! Praise the lord!

We saw lots of bird life around Lake Magadi. One of the birds we saw was a fine example of a black-capped avocet. (15:1) the most notable feature of this somewhat unusual bird it it's long, upward-curved bill. A bit later, we saw a beautiful saddle-billed stork, along with a yellow-billed egret. (16:36,35) The saddle-billed stork has an amazing bill, with a rainbow of bright colors. (16:35,34)

Up to this point, whenever we had seen crowned cranes, they were always a long ways off. We finally ran into a pair close to the road. They also happened to be fine specimens of the species. (16:33,32)

We were now heading out of the West Central part of the park, and were moving in to the East Central part before heading South to our camp. As we moved in this direction, the land became flatter as we moved back onto the Serengeti Plains. Prime cheetah country. And, we were again not disappointed!

As usual for cat sightings, there were several safari vehicles parked nearby. They were watching a group of cheetah out in the grass. They did not appear to be doing anything in particular, except milling around. There seemed to be a mother and four or five older cubs. The grass did a good job at hiding them, so we only saw them when they put their heads up, or sat down. This sighting did not offer a lot of good photo opportunities, although I did get two reasonably decent pictures of the mother. (16:31,30. These are 600 d.p.i. Scans.)

We came across a small herd of zebra with two of them doing something we observed occasionally: One animal resting it's head on the back or neck of another animal. (16:29) Notice how confusing it is to tell where one zebra begins and another zebra ends. It is widely held that the stripes of a zebra confuse predators, especially lions. Other researchers have evidence to show the stripes do little to confuse predators; they are really there for thermal management. Another interesting fact: a zebra's stripes go all the way to it's skin. Shave off all the hair and you will still have stripes!

We found a bunch of guinea fowl resting in a lone tree. (16:28)

We now had turned South and were heading into the Simba Kopjes. We took a road around the outside of the kopjes to check them over for interesting animals. We all hoped for a lion, or a leopard, or a cheetah, but there were none to be seen in this area today. I did get some nice scenic shots of the kopjes. (16:27,26,23)

We saw a group of safari vehicles near one of the kopjes. We went to find out what they were watching. They had spotted a troop of baboons that were out and about on the rocks. (16:25) You can also see how weathered the rock is in this picture.

Njau stopped by a bush, called a whistling thorn, that had developed an interesting defense against grazing. Ants lived in green galls among it's branches. (16:24) Whenever the plant was disturbed, the ants would leave the galls and sting whatever was disturbing the plant. Therefore, any animal attempting to feed on this plant got a painful surprise on it's tongue! In return, the ants got food and shelter from the plant. Njau disturbed a branch, and within seconds, ants appeared.

It was now getting to be late afternoon, and the light was right for some nice photographs.

One of the young tommies thought the road was a nice place to be, until we chased it off. (16:22,21) Of course, it found it's nearby mother. They wandered off together, making a charming picture. (16:20)

We found a pair of secretary birds foraging not far off the road. They were close enough for decent observation and photography. (16:19,18) The long tail feathers were very evident. Secretary birds are considered raptors, although they don't look much like raptors. They eat snakes, rodents, small reptiles, nestling birds, insects, etc. They carry food back to their young in their crops and regurgitate it. This is uncommon among birds. They also kill snakes in an unusual manner. They form a fist with a foot and pelt the snake to death!

We found a bunch of tommies that wanted to race! (16:17) There is also what appears to be a single Grant's gazelle off to the left side.

We passed through Naabi Hill Gate and continued South. Just a couple miles beyond that, we turned Southwest onto a road that took us towards lake Ndutu. There were signs here and there along this road for Lake Ndutu lodge. Their symbol was a genet. Some people call them genet cats, even though they are not felines.

We found a kori bustard close to the road. (16:16,15) Besides being big, I found these birds to be quite handsome. They're certainly one of my favorite African birds, if not my favorite.

The dying light of the day proved perfect for getting some fine photos of a topi. (16:13,12) We stayed and watched this solitary animal for a while, as it was the first one Larry and Teri had seen.

Lake Ndutu and it's smaller companion, Lake Masek were located at the West end of Oldavi gorge. By this point the gorge had widened out into more of a shallow valley. Although water flowed here during the wet season, it was now just a dry, dusty bed. Because the little water that was here tended to concentrate in the lakes, and the soil was so volcanic, the water in them was alkaline. This is why they were called soda lakes. These lakes were not as alkaline as other large alkaline lakes in the world, such as the Dead Sea, and Great Salt Lake. Much birdlife lived in the water, and there were a few species of fish as well.

As a result of La Nina, the short rains in November and December had failed. This made everything extra dry. As a result, the herds had moved North quite early. Normally, this area would be crowded with countless thousands of wildebeest and zebra. We saw an occasional zebra and very few wildebeest here this time. The herds were now where they normally should have been in May. At the time when our camp was booked here, it was anticipated we would be smack dab in the middle of the wildebeest migration. (Camps must be booked months in advance.) We probably would have had wildebeest everywhere, including in camp! (Although Njau said otherwise, I think we would have seen more lions, too, as the nomads tend to follow the herds. The lions we saw here were resident ones.) But, since they couldn't exactly predict the weather, we were not in the best location for the type of game viewing we had anticipated. Although this was a problem, we still were able to see a lot of things, and had little competition for good game viewing.

We were also far enough away from the core of the park that off-road driving was permitted. We didn't do much of this today, but we would do it extensively on our next two days.

As the sun started to set, we reached the salt flats surrounding the two lakes. As our camp was almost on the far side of lake Ndutu, this was a nice shortcut around a lot of bumpy roads. (16:11) We also kicked up a tremendous amount of choking dust on this road. It had an odd taste and smell to it.

Just after leaving the salt flats, we encountered a tank truck pumping something out of a pair of wells. We learned from Njau that these were fresh water wells used by the park folks and some of the camps. The wells were apparently deep enough that the water was potable. (Or it was potable for the residents. We would probably had to drink it for weeks before our systems adapted!)

We now realized that we were in an area where leopard might be lurking about. We kept an extra eye out for them as we made our way towards camp.

Just before we reached our camp, we came upon another camp that was just being set up. We recognized some of the people there as professional photographers we had seen earlier. One very interesting thing in their camp was an HF dipole antenna.

We soon reached our camp. Although this was a different set of equipment, and a different staff, it was otherwise just like the last camp we had been in.

This had been an extremely dusty day, so a shower felt especially good. The hot water heater, which was wood fired, was located this time right behind my tent. A bucket of water was left there, that hadn't been used for that day's showers.

Dinner was later than usual that night, so I took the time to clean all the dust off of my optical gear. Boy, did it need it. If conditions kept up like this, I had some doubts if the camera would continue to work!

We had a nice dinner that night. I forget what it was, but it probably had lamb in it. They served it quite frequently, which I didn't mind a bit.

After a brief look at the African stars, it was off to bed.

Not long after I retired, I woke up. As I lay there, I listened to the night sounds. A few animals could be heard, but not like Tarangire. Of course, the ring-necked doves would occasionally call 'work-HARD-er, work-HARD-er'. There was an occasional hyena, often not that far away. If I heard lion at all, it was extremely distant. That was kind of a disappointment, but a small one.

I then heard the footfalls of a fairly large animal in the camp. It was quite close, perhaps behind the tent. Then, I was sure it was behind the tent. It was drinking out of the bucket of water that had been left there! Whatever it was, it took a good, long drink. It then walked down the far side of my tent, where it stayed for several minutes. I heard it move briefly again, and that was the last I heard of it. What was it? I suspected it was not a herbivore. I also suspected it sounded too small to be a lion, although that possibility couldn't be ruled out. A leopard perhaps? Probably not. A hyena? Now, there was a good possibility.

I didn't hear any vocalizations close to camp, so as I lay there, I never figured out what it was.

I also had a strong urge to use the bathroom, even though I had used it before bedtime. I let 45 minutes go before I got up and used it. I didn't want to surprise a predator outside my tent! After that I finally fell asleep.

I tried to use my Masai cloth as a blanket that night. It allowed me to use the blankets on the bed as extra padding for the center brace. Although the bed was considerably more comfortable, the blanket proved too thin to keep me warm. Although it was not as cool as it had been in the crater highlands, it still was cool near morning.

Next: A tale of 2 lions!

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