Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

The Ngorongoro Conservation Area extends from the main crater all the way to the border of Serengeti National Park.  On the morning of the third day of our safari we drove across the dry, flat plains connecting the two parks, searching for wildlife along the way.  A hyena appeared by the side of the road, and we saw a big cat prowling through tall grass in the distance.  “It is a lion,” said China.  As the cat came closer we could see that it wasn’t a lion.

“It’s a cheetah,” we informed our guide.

 

Hyena Outside Serengeti

 

Cheetah Near the Serengeti Border

 

Wildebeest Mom and Kid

 

We reached the Serengeti entrance gate at about 10am.  China once again told us we had to wait before we could pass through.  Are you kidding me?  The Serengeti was the highlight of our tour and we’d been told we’d be able to spend the better part of two days there.  Now China wanted us to get in and out within 24 hours.  Niv, Shahaf, the two Mikkos and I all complained.

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.

 

Young Male Lion Close-up

 

Lion Cub Resting in the Shade

 

Young Serengeti Lion

 

Young Serengeti Elephant

 

Young Lion on a Dead Tree

 

Lions Sleeping Under a Dead Tree

 

Young Lion Standing on a Dead Tree

 

Lion Cub on a Dead Tree

 

Baboon in a Tree

 

In the afternoon China began to focus on locating a leopard.  I’d talked about wanting to see a leopard so incessantly that China finally promised we’d find one, probably just to shut me up.  I had no faith in China so I put no stock in his promise, but in this case I underestimated him.  At about 5pm we drove alongside a group of safari jeeps clustered around a big tree.  “What do you see?” we asked.

“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.

 

Leopard in a Tree

 

Later we asked China to drive us to the other side of the tree, where the sun would be behind us.  As we pulled up to our new vantage point we saw a small shape scamper up one of the branches.  A leopard cub!

 

Leopard Cub Climbing a Tree

 

Later we saw another cub, and then a third.  As the sun dropped low on the horizon, the adult cheetah finally climbed down from the tree, followed by one of the cubs.  If only they hadn’t been so far away!  I would have sliced off my left pinkie finger for a 600mm lens.  We hoped the leopards would walk towards us, but instead they disappeared into the tall grass.  Soon after China told us it was time to return to our campsite.

 

Leopard Climbing Down a Tree

 

Safari Jeep Watching Leopard Climb Down Tree

 

Leopard Cub Joining Mom

 

Leopard Leaving a Tree

 

Hippo Yawning in the Day’s Last Light

 

Serengeti Campsite Warning Sign

 

That night Niv, Shahaf and I sat by our tents, drank Kilimanjaro beer, and played music through a pair of portable speakers Shahaf bought in Ethiopia.  I queued up The National, TV on the Radio, Wilco, Gaslight Anthem, and Muse.  They both preferred classic rock – Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin for Niv, Bob Dylan and The Beatles for Shahaf.  All three of us were fans of Eric Clapton’s music from the 70s, so two of my last picks were Blind Faith’s Can’t Find My Way Home and the live version of Derek and the Dominoes’ Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad?

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.

 

Packing Up the Land Cruiser

 

Shahaf and Niv

 

Baboon Portrait

 

Giraffe Eating

 

Mongooses Raiding a Termite Mound

 

I Gotta Be Me

 

Hippo Mom and Baby Sleeping

 

At 10am we took Mikko and Mikko to the bus station, driving nonstop about an hour each way through an area of the park that had very few animals.  The Mikkos, frustrated that they didn’t get as much time in the Serengeti as they were promised, gave Niv tip money for the cook but left nothing for China.

 

The Mikkos

 

Tanzanian Kid at the Bus Station

 

Tanzanian Kid in Blue Sweater

 

Niv, Shahaf, Hussein, China and I got back in the Land Cruiser.  “We can stay in the park until 3pm, right?” I asked.

“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.

 

Cheetah in Tall Grass

 

Elephant in the Serengeti

 

At 1:00pm China drove us away from the cheetah.  “Where are we going?” asked Shahaf.

“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.

 

Sleepy Lion Cub

 

Lion Cub on a Grassy Knoll

 

That night I gave the tour operator my feedback.  I said we had a great time, the food was excellent, and we saw all kinds of wildlife.  We only wished we’d had a better guide and more time in the Serengeti.