“It’s a cheetah,” we informed our guide.
At first China tried to blame it on the Mikkos, who had to catch a bus just outside the park on the last day of our tour. That had forced an adjustment to the normal itinerary. Groups usually go right to the Serengeti after Lake Manyara and then stop at Ngorongoro on the way back to Arusha. Because of the Finn’s bus, we had to visit the Serengeti last. “But you all knew that from the start,” we told China. “And still the tour company told us we’d have two days in the Serengeti.”
China eventually gave in, saying that we could enter the park right away and stay until 3pm the next afternoon. “We will be in Serengeti until 3pm tomorrow?” I asked, wanting to leave no doubt about our agreement.
“Yes,” said China. “Until three.” Well then, problem solved. We drove into the Serengeti and started looking for animals.
“Two leopards,” said a man from behind his binoculars.
We couldn’t see anything with the naked eye, but through my camera I was able to make out a backlit leopard lounging on one of the tree’s branches. Not exactly the amazing photo opportunity I had in mind, but still very cool to see a leopard in the wild for the first time.
Our attempt to push China to start as early as possible the next day fell flat. We didn’t manage to leave camp until well after sunrise. Niv wanted to see a crocodile, so we spent the first part of the morning searching the area’s small rivers before finally spotting a crocodile sunning itself next to a hippo pool.
“We need to leave the park by 2pm,” said China. At first I thought he meant we needed to start heading towards the gate at 2pm, but after some clarification it became clear that he was changing the story he’d told us yesterday. I was angry and made no attempt to hide it. I told China that spending as much time as possible in the Serengeti was very important to us, that he’d promised we’d stay until 3pm, and that he’d better honor that agreement. “OK, whatever!” he yelled, dismissing me with a wave of his hand. I couldn’t force China to stay in the park, but I knew that if he left before 3pm he’d be getting no tip from me, either, and I’d share my thoughts on his performance with the head of the tour agency.
China pulled over at a gas station. “Did the Finnish guys give you our tips?” he asked. Niv told China that the Mikkos left money for Hussein but not for him. China took Hussein’s tip to pay for gas, and later he asked us to loan him more gas money.
“Why don’t you have money for gas?” we asked.
“The tour company sent me money on my phone,” China explained, “but I cannot use that.” Of course not.
Back at the main area of the park a traffic jam of safari jeeps alerted us the presence of another big cat. “It is a leopard,” said China. It didn’t look like a leopard to me, but the cat was too far away to be sure. I took a photo with my telephoto lens and enlarged the image on my camera’s LCD screen. Clearly a cheetah. I showed the LCD screen to China. “It is a leopard,” he said.
“No, it’s a cheetah,” I told him.
“Leopard,” he repeated.
I showed the image to Hussein, who had corrected China’s misidentification of a topi earlier that day. But this time Hussein supported his guide. “A leopard,” he said. I laughed, realizing they were just being pissy. China held out until he heard a guide in a nearby jeep identify the cat as a cheetah. “That is a cheetah,” he announced authoritatively.
“To another place,” said China.
The other place turned out to be the park’s exit gate, which we reached a half hour later. The day before, China had been able to convince the Serengeti rangers to issue our permits with a 2pm entrance time, so he succeeded in his primary mission. He avoided paying for a second day of park fees. Niv and Shahaf were as annoyed as I was, but they didn’t blame China. They thought he was just doing what the tour agency told him to do, and they were probably right. Regardless, China was intentionally deceptive, he knew almost nothing about the animals, and when we confronted him he was rude.
We stumbled across one more group of lion cubs on the way out of the park. After that we drove straight back to Arusha.