A picture is worth a thousand words, but what if you can’t capture that picture in a physical image without distorting it or failing to grasp the immensity and at the same time the detail of what your mind is seeing?
This weekend’s mission was to have fun, find a few hundred thousand wildebeest, to get back out into the wilderness, and a chance for me to show a few friends in the safari industry a quiet and amazing corner in the Serengeti ecosystem. It wasn’t three hours into the trip when the first fawn-colored wildebeest calves stood staring at us from next to their mother’s sides as we made a right turn off the main road and made our descent into Olduvai gorge. The river in the gorge was flowing but fordable and we picnicked as storm clouds darkened the sky and threatened a downpour that skirted us. Up out of the gorge we crawled and then made our way along a track that had grassed over, through some wait-a-bit thorn and then out onto the Angata kiti plains to Nasera rock. A coffee break, leg stretch and we were soon off again, cross country now, through the hundreds of thousands of wildebeest. Here’s an image for you- if you can imagine six guys on a weekend trip with a freezer full of beer, but all sitting in near silence on top of a Landcruiser as it drifted across the plains with the rolling green hills in awe of the vastness, the aggregation of wildebeest, zebra and gazelle, and solitude. We drove for a good 30km before the horizon in front of us changed from short grassland to a series of inselbergs, each with its rock-splitting fig in full leaf, and behind them an Acacia-woodland in which the camp was hidden.
I got stuck, I hate to admit it, but it was part of the trip hence part of the adventure. Only a few kilometers from camp I radioed that I would be in within the half hour and then took a gamble on a small stream and pulling out cheering at not having bogged down, slammed into a hole. Nothing we could do to jack the car up and get something underneath it was working so we settled down for an ice-cold beer and packet of cassava chips. As the sun set on our impromptu sundowner, we discussed the nine Aardwolf we’d seen- how many we’d seen before, and then how we’d all read about digging the spare-tire into the ground as an anchor for the winch when there were no trees around. Soon we were digging and with a small tug from the winch and a bit of wheel spinning the cruiser popped out of the hole. I’ll spare you the details but in the dark I sunk the car again, and one of the rescue vehicle looked even worse before it reached my car so we called it a night, and drove into camp with the second rescue.
The next morning we made easy work of our new winching technique and soon we were scouring the plains again, watching large herds of eland leap imaginary fences and bat-eared foxes dodge their way into their holes before emerging again to watch us, their satellite dish ears cocked for the slightest sound. Brunch knocked us out again, but by two we were raring to go. Fridge stocked we crawled back onto the plains in search of the ten cheetah we knew were around. Two is a bit too hot for action but we made our way towards a major drainage that flows into Serengeti, again through numbers and numbers of eland, zebra, gazelle towards a hillside that was so thick with wildebeest, they looked like ants. We gravitated towards a small clearing in the herd and combing the grass with our binoculars pulled out a hungry young male cheetah who obligingly got up and ran straight into the herd of wildebeest sending them scattering. We spent the afternoon with him as he posed for the camera and then made his was across the plains spotting a young Thomson gazelle. He gave chase again, another failed hunt, but the fun is as much in watching the chase as in the kill.
The option for Sundays should always include a lie-in, instead of moving at dawn we feasted breakfast in camp and then head off to look for fossils in a dry river bed. Over 7000 extinct species of mammal have been identified from fossilized bones in Olduvai, and it’s exciting to think that the fossils we were picking up are possibly the remains of species we will never see. We lunched on top of a hill to the gnuing of the wildebeest and then in post-lunch stupor drove the next 40km again, through wildebeest towards Ndutu. If this trip was about numbers of animals we saw thousands. Hundreds of eland, thousands of zerba, tens of thousands of gazelle, and a few hundred thousand wildebeest, but also exactly twenty two Aardwolf and one Striped hyena.
The Aardwolf is evolutionary one of the most interesting member of the hyena family. An insectivore, it feeds almost exclusively on termites and has lost the strong jaws muscles, and sharp carnascial teeth its cousins have and instead has pegs for teeth. It’s typically found in pairs or solitary and is generally active at night. The little hyena is also fairly neurotic and hard to photograph let alone see- so twenty-two in two days is a surprising number.
Ndutu was its usual gem, and we watched four-month old lion cubs playing in the dying evening light, watched a coalition of hungry cheetah “passively hunt” as Nick called it, and as we left were rewarded with the spectacle of nearly ten thousand wildebeest as they made a mad dash across Lake Ndutu.
Read Nick's blog entry on the trip: click here