Africa is home to just about all of the world's most magnificent animals. When people think of Africa, they usually think of lions, elephants, and rhinos. This entry in my African Stories will be about my safari on the Serengeti.
Road to the Serengeti
As we got off the paved road and began to drive on the dirt road towards the Serengeti, I was grateful for the comfortable seats of our safari vehicle. We must have drove on the dirt road for about 5 bumpy hours before we stopped for the night.
During that time we passed many different villages near the road. We stopped to eat lunch, these two Maasai women were gathering wood to bring back to their village. I could only imagine how strenuous it must be to gather and carry that wood on your back like that. So many things that we take advantage of back here in the US.
As we were eating, more of the villagers came out to see us. I really love the different colors and patterns of the shukas that the Maasai wear. I bought 3 of them for myself and was given one as a gift.
I have said it many times before, but the people of Tanzania are what makes it such a special place for me. I am a big bearded guy full of tattoos and back home people are either scared of me or just flat out ignore me, but the Maasai are the most welcoming and genuine people I have ever met. They welcomed me with open arms as one of them.
Animals on the Horizon
The first animal we saw was a giraffe. There were a couple of them off in the distance, but then we saw some walking right towards us. It is a pretty weird feeling to see one of these animals up close in their natural habitat just walking around doing its thing. It is almost like you don't really believe what you are seeing. The crazy thing is that these Maasai that live so far out here away from civilization see this every day, so this is a normal occurrence for them.
Soon we started seeing Zebras as we got closer to our destination for the night. We got to our hostel for the night shortly after and then prepared for a long day on the Serengeti.
Serengeti National Park
Before we could enter the park, we all had to get our passes for the two days we would spend inside. While we waited, I explored around outside of the entrance. I found some pretty sweet looking lizards hanging out on the walls of a building. Their colors were so awesome in the sun.
After we crossed into the park, we had to drive for a while until we got to a clearing and then it was like a scene from The Lion King. It was just a massive plain and in the distance I saw a few giraffe walking up to a tree to grab a bite to eat. Then an ostrich came running up to the side of our truck.
As we were driving, our driver stopped the vehicle and pointed up at one of the trees. At the top of the tree was a large vulture that was standing tall with his wings spread wide.
He told us that the vulture had spotted a kill and was claiming ownership of it and warning the other vultures in the area by showing off his chest. The vulture must have stood there for about 30 seconds with his wings spread like that and was turning his body around, showing his chest to all the others that were nearby. Then he took off to go eat.
If you look closely, you can see the head of another vulture poking up out of the tree, so most likely there is a nest there and the bird was going off the gather food for the babies. One of my favorite subjects to shoot in wildlife photography is birds in flight because of the challenge that it takes, so I had a great time tracking this vulture in the sky as it flew towards it meal.
When I look at birds flying I always wonder if some of them fly around just for fun, like how some of us humans like to go on runs for fun. If I was a bird, I would probably go fly super high and then dive bomb down as fast as I could and then open my wings and glide back up.
It started to get closer to lunch time, but then we got a call on the radio that some of the other vehicles had spotted some lions, so we rushed over to see them. When we got there we were a little surprised on what we found.
At first the lion was just laying next to her, but then after a few minutes the mood must have gotten just right, so he hopped on and started going to town.
Lion sex doesn't last very long at all, and I was trying to make adjustments on my camera to my shutter speed so that I could get a more crisp picture because he was moving pretty fast, but he finished a lot faster than I expected, so the next picture is a little blurry. You can tell she probably isn't too happy with his performance either.
Once the lion was done he rolled over and went to sleep, then we headed out to get lunch. We had a long day in the sun ahead of us as we tried to find more of these amazing animals.
Back on the trail
After seeing the lions have sex with each other we had a nice sack lunch in a picnic area on the Serengeti. We wanted to eat fast though so we could get back out and see more of the amazing animals that the savanna has to offer.
Luckily we had just eaten because if we visited the hippo swamp before lunch, we probably wouldn't have had much of an appetite. It was one of the worst smells I have ever smelled.
The hippos were swimming around in the nastiest water ever. They were all piled up together and every now and then one of them would poop all over the others, as you can see from this next photo.
It was like an explosion coming from under the water that would cover the backs of the others. I felt bad for the little baby one that was stuck in the middle of all of them with nowhere to go. Especially when a fight would break out. You can see all the scars across their backs from them fight with each other.
The nasty water brought bugs and other wildlife to the area. The long beaked birds would plunge their beaks into the shores of poo searching for something fresh to eat. Not the best way to find a meal if you asked me.
This Nile Crocodile was just laying around in the hippo swamp staying cool and waiting for the chance to venture out and get a bite to eat. I don't think this croc would be dumb enough to go try his luck with one of the hippos.
On to the savanna
It was nice to leave the hippo swamp and get out to the fresh air of the savanna.
There are so many amazing animals out wandering the plains. It is breathtaking to see them in their natural habitat. As we drove we came across a giraffe in the distance.
Then we got a call over the radio that a cheetah had been spotted, so our driver rushed us over to where the cheetah was. He kept us pretty far back because he didn't want to spook the animal. Luckily my 600mm lens was able to reach out and still get some decent pictures of it.
Everyone now and then it looked like there was a tiny head or two that would pop up along side the cheetah. I wish that we had been able to get close so that I would have been able to get some pictures of some cheetah cubs.
I'm seeing stripes
Zebras are very abundant on the Serengeti, but I would still get excited every time I saw them. Something about their black and white stripes against the colors of the grass and sky is just beautiful.
This is one of my favorite pictures I took of zebras because there were so many of them and the pairs of them "hugging." They stand like that and rest their heads on each other's backs so that they can protect each other by looking out for predators. It was really cool to see groups of zebras standing around doing this.
I made this watercolor version of my picture in photoshop.
It looks like this mother is going to have her hooves full soon with another baby on the way. I could only imagine the survival rate for the young zebra.
Into the lion's den
We got a call on the radio that there was a large group of lions that were hunting a zebra. Our driver rushed over there and we were the second truck there. We saw the zebra walking a ways in the distance and a few lioness had their heads popped up in the grass looking at it.
They were keeping their distance, but I think there was two of them that were actively stalking it in the grass, trying to force it to go towards the others.
Other safari vehicles started to show up because the news travels fast that lions were on the hunt.
The zebra started to get spooked because of all of the trucks that had started showing up and it took off running. None of the lioness's gave chase. We were all a little disappointed that we weren't able to see these predators in action. I still blame all of the other trucks for ruining it and making them all go hungry for the day.
You can almost see the hatred in this one's eyes as she stares back at us with disgust for ruining her meal. More of them started coming out of the grass to be back with the pride. They all seemed to stare back at us like they knew it was our fault.
After they all had gathered back in the area near our trucks we started to count them.
There were 16 of them total that had been part of the hunt. They all set up outside of our trucks, and started to pose for us.
I think they were secretly plotting to find a way to get one of us outside of the trucks to eat us. Either way, I rolled down my window and stuck my camera and arms out to get some good shots. If I was going to get eaten, I was going to get nice shots in the process.
This picture is one of my favorites of them that I took that day. I really liked how the golden light was hitting her and the fierce look in her eyes.
Gentle giants incoming
While we were there taking pictures of the lionesses a group of elephants started to wander in towards us.
It was crazy to see how much respect that the lioness had for the family of elephants. The elephants didn't alter their path at all, they were walking right towards the middle of the whole group. One by one the lioness began to get up and make a large pathway for the elephants to walk through and gave them plenty of space.
Even though the elephants were severely outnumbered they walked through like they owned the place. I wonder if they are the real kings of the Serengeti.
We have spotted the elusive one
Our safari guide told us he has been working on the Serengeti for 17 years. During that time he has only found a leopard a handful of times. He told us that they are some of the most elusive animals on the Serengeti, so when he got the call that one had been spotted, I think he was more excited than anyone in the truck.
When I took this picture we were parked pretty far away and I was zoomed about to about 600mm, which on my Canon 80D, that I was using at the time, has a crop sensor on it, so it magnifies it to about 840mm. Everyone else in the truck had cell phones, so they were getting pictures of a tiny tree way off in the distance.
The leopard stayed up in the tree the time while everyone in my vehicle passed binoculars around and looked at it. Someone said that they saw a kill that had been dragged up in the tree by it, but I didn't see anything like that as I went through the photos that I had taken of it.
After a while the leopard got bored of looking at us, so it decided it was just going to lay back and go to sleep. It looks like he got a pretty comfortable position and propped his leg up on the branch to keep him from falling off the tree while he slept.
Heading in for the night
After the leopard encounter it started getting late and we needed to head towards our camping area.
That's right, we were sleeping under the stars on the Serengeti. The campsite was really nothing special. There was some bathrooms, a hard building for preparing food. I don't remember what we had for dinner. What I do remember was that we had popcorn that was cooked over a fire and it was a welcomed treat because we had been eating traditional African food for the past month so this was a nice change.
We also gathered in the corner of the building and watched The Lion King on someone's computer and talked about all the different areas of the Serengeti that looked just like what we had seen over the past day.
After the movie we all went to our tents and tried to get some sleep while we thought about the fact that there was no fence around the camp and that there were wild predators that eat flesh to survive wandering around and all we had to protect us was the thin walls of a tent.
Sunrise on the Serengeti
Nothing can prepare you for the amazing sunrises that you will see on the Serengeti. This is one place where you do not want to sleep in. The sky was breathtaking as it changed from the dark night sky, to to blue, then to a golden glow as the sun came up over the horizon.
We had gotten up in the dark and packed up the tents, grabbed a quick bite to eat and then headed out to a clearing so that we could see the sunrise, after we left the area, we passed an area that our guide told us is a frequent elephant crossing and we came across this vehicle.
We aren't quite sure what happened to it, but it wasn't on a curve, so we don't think it flipped from going too fast while turning. Our guide suggested that they may have parked in the middle of the path of the herd of elephants. Whatever happened, I am sure that the people in the safari vehicle probably got some awesome pictures and I wish I could see them.
When the sun wakes up, so does the Savanna
Our driver had an idea where some big cats usually slept and was headed towards the area because he wanted to see if we could catch them sleeping. When we got there it was incredible.
They were just waking up and stretching. The backlight from the morning sun was so awesome on these two.
I wanted to get out of the vehicle and go pet them. They looked so soft and cuddly in this light. So much different than the group the day before that was in the middle of hunting the zebra.
I could probably get away with petting the one that was still yawning because she hasn't had her cup of coffee yet and was still sleepy, so she is probably slow to react.
Nope. Guess not. She spotted me and knew what I was thinking. She would probably eat me now. I guess I will just stay in the truck where it is safe and just take pictures from here.
Then they ran off to probably get some breakfast, so we moved on to look for the next big cat. It didn't take long to find the big male in the area.
This guy was huge. It is crazy how big their heads are compared to the rest of their bodies. When you are up close to a lion, you really get a sense of their power.
They are such magnificent animals.
It was a surreal feeling to be so close to such an awe inspiring animal.
Elephants on the way out
After we left the lion, we had to start heading out of the Serengeti to the next safari destination on the map. We came upon some more elephants and got up close and personal with them. I wondered if these were the same ones that knocked over the other safari vehicle.
I had my 150-600mm lens and I was zoomed all the way out on some of the shots.
Even after seeing the lions, elephants are still my favorite animals of the safari. Just the nonchalant walk that they have, not really caring about anything. Even if it is a safari truck in the way, they will knock it over with their trunk and keep walking.
African elephants aren't known for being nice, but I guess it comes with the territory. They have to adapt to their surroundings.
A rare sighting on the Savanna
As we were on one of the main roads to travel towards the exit of the Serengeti, our driver stopped at pointed out something in the grass.
This is an African Serval. They are an extremely rare sight to see while on safari because of their small numbers and they are usually alone. Exotic cat breeders use the Serval to breed Savanna cats and sell them as domesticated animals.
A short time after we stopped to check out the serval, one of the trucks in our group got a flat tire. That may not seem like a huge deal, but considering the location of where you are, changing a tire is a little risky.
So what did I do? I got out of the truck like the safari guides and took pictures while they changed the tire. If we were going to get eaten by an animal, I wanted to get some good pictures of it before it happened.
They worked fast to get the tire changed. I guess they were motivated by the fact that we were exposed and not really in an area that was used to having people out in the open like the camp grounds. The got the tire fixed quickly and then we were back in the trucks and headed out of the Serengeti and towards the Ngorongoro Crater.
The Ngorongoro Crater
The Ngorongoro Crater is the world's largest largest inactive, intact and unfilled volcanic caldera. It is 100 square mile's of adventure inside the walls of a collapsed volcano.
This picture was taken at the top of the crater near the entrance. I tried doing a panorama shot with my cell phone to show the massive size of the crater. After you enter the park, you drive down a road taking you to the bottom where there are roads all over for you to explore.
The crater is overflowing with life
Inside of the crater, you can see pretty much all of the wildlife that Africa has to offer. Including "The Big 5". The Big 5 are:
- African Buffalo
Most people spend two days on safari in the crater, but we did our best to see what we could in the half a day we had to spend there. Here are my favorite shots of the day.
I would not want to be on the receiving end of those tusks.
The wildebeest had some really weird looking heads. Their eyes seemed to be completely on the sides of their heads and I am convinced they can't see directly in front of them.
You gotta love baby zebras trying out their new legs. I am not sure how old this one is, but I am guessing it is a few months old.
Mom and baby just going for a stroll.
These gazelle were all over the place and boy did they have some hops.
If any of you have seen The Lion King, this looks like Pumbaa got married and had himself a baby.
Hyenas are pretty strange animals. I was hoping they were closer so I could get some better shots, but they were pretty camera shy.
Hyenas are actually really smart animals. Even though The Lion King made them look stupid. There have been studies done and they have been shown to be have a frontal cortex on par with primates and even be better at solving problems and social cooperation than chimpanzees. They can solve these problems in complete silence and only use non verbal cues to communicate with each other.
This could be why they are such feared hunters. Spotted hyenas eat baby lions and a pack of them can eat a whole zebra in 30 minutes, bones and all.
We parked alongside a group of African buffalo to check off number 4 on the list of the big 5.
The African Buffalo is actually an extremely dangerous animal.
The list for the Big 5 came from trophy hunters and what they considered to be the top "prizes" of Africa. Out of this list, the African Buffalo has killed more trophy hunters than any of the other animals. They have been known to circle back around after they have been wounded and ambush the hunter that tried to kill them.
The older males that tend to live away from the herd are the most dangerous. When the buffalo are with the herd, they have safety in numbers and are less likely to be provoked into an attack, but the ones that live in solitary will attack first to defend themselves.
Lunch with the hippos and birds
At some point during the day we stopped at the designated picnic area which was a pond that had a lot of wildlife in the area.
I was near the water taking pictures of the birds when I saw this big boy floating around.
After I saw the hippo about 20 feet or so from me, I decided it probably wasn't a good idea to be so close to the edge of the water. That didn't stop all the other people gathering around the edges of the pond to get pictures with their phones of this floating monster.
Every now and then the hippo would disappear under the water and then pop up in a totally different spot. I didn't trust that hippo as far I could throw it, and that isn't far at all.
Shortly after lunch we came across some sleeping beauties that were blocking the road.
The trucks were taking turns slowly pulling up next to them and letting the people inside take pictures of the sleeping cats.
When our turn was next, as we started to pull forward, one of the cats got startled and woke up. Luckily she was still tired and laid right back down.
When we got next to them, we were so close that I couldn't even zoom out any further than this with my lens. It was crazy to be this close to something that could rip my face off. I wanted to open the door and pet her on her head. She probably would have stayed asleep and just started purring.
Time check off number 5
We got a call on the radio that two rhinos had been spotted, so we started heading towards them. We got to the area where they were spotted and they were really far off in the distance.
That is the hard part about trying to find specific animals in 100 square miles. There was a lake between us and the rhinos and a few miles of ground to cover. It would probably take an hour or two to get to the spot they are at and they would most likely have moved on to a different area by that time.
But we were able to say that we had seen the Big 5 during the safari as we started to make our way out of the park.
Exiting the park
As we made our way towards the exit, there was still plenty of wildlife to see.
The Gold Crowned Crane is a magnificent looking bird with a fluffy ball of gold on the top of their head.
I believe this is a Black Kite, but I am not 100% sure. I am not a bird expert.
As you exit the crater you take a trail up the side of the crater though the lush vegetation and it is like you have entered a jungle.
In the distance was a group of elephants having fun in the dirt. Seeing the elephants as the last animals of the safari was a great finish.
The end of the journey
Africa is a treasure trove of beauty and adventure. I can not wait to go back and visit the friends that I have made and to take my family on safari and show them all that Africa has to offer.
Africa will always have a special place in my heart and I want to thank you for allowing me to share my experiences of this wonderful place with you.