I awoke under the cover of dark, up at 4:15am for a sunrise balloon ride. After a quick gulp of coffee it was time to head to the launch site. Normally night drives are forbidden in the park, but the balloon company has an exemption. We saw a spring hare and later a hyena walking in the roadway, and a hippo grazing by a pond. Suddenly a large male lion came into view. As the driver turned to point the headlights at him, a female lion came tearing out of the brush, snarling and clawing at him. He shook her off and continued again across a clearing when another female attacked, biting and swiping. The male seem unconcerned and kept walking. Once he was gone, the females returned to the brush, where small cubs could be seen hopping in the grass. The females had been protecting their babies, as male lions are known to kill cubs that are not their own.
Soon we came upon a large field where two large shapes could just be seen against the dark purple sky. As the balloons were filled, we got a quick safety lecture. My balloon Tembo (elephant) holds 16 passengers and is the third largest in the world. The smaller balloon Simba (lion) holds 12. The Serengeti's steady wind would lift the balloon as soon as it was righted, so we climbed in while the basket was on its side, then held on tight as hot air filled the canopy and carried us into the shy. The sun rose just as we took off, quickly changing the plains from gray to brilliant gold.
We stayed fairly low, just skimming the tops of the acacia trees that dotted the landscape. Below us Tommies darted frantically, crossing back and forth as they tried to elude the large balloon's shadow. Nik, our British-born pilot, explained that the lower an animal was on the food chain, the more skittish it would be at the sight of the balloon. The zebras ran, but less frantically than the Thomson's gazelles, and the larger elands and waterbucks watched for a while before causally trotting away. As the orange sun rose, we passed high over ponds full of hippos and rocky kopjes. The simba kopje, named for the frequency that lions are seen there, had two tents on it, a precarious private camping spot. I was very thankful to be spending the night in the relative safety of a tent camp. The highlight was spotting a pair of female lions feasting on a kill. Hyenas circled nearby, a sign that they had made the kill and been chased off by the hungry lions.
Before the flight we had been told we would land on the basket's side, lying on our backs. Nik was aiming for a bare patch called Kuba Kuba West, but a sudden downdraft called for a change of plans. He urgently yelled out for us to assume our positions and apologized in advance for the bumpy landing. He hit the ground hard and bounced high before hitting again with a jolt. I feared that the 75-year-old woman next to me might go flying, but she stayed in place as we dragged and bounced before coming to a rest. Nik called it a "sporty" landing.
We were driven to the other balloon landing site, where champagne bottles overflowed and we toasted to an amazing flight. Then we were taken to a long table set with fresh linens and white china and sterling silverware. We were served an incredible breakfast in the open air, all prepared on a tiny camp stove in the middle of the grassy field. The soft morning light glowed around us as we feasted on sausages and eggs, fresh fruits and delicate pastries, hot coffee and more champagne. And all this before 9am.
We slowly made our way to camp, spotting hippos, giraffes and lion cubs on the way. It was hot when we reached the Rongai campsite. These "classic" camps are set up for only a few days at a time, then move to a new location before lions and other predators become comfortable enough to wander through. As always, we were greeted with cool juice and warm welcomes. From the dining tent we looked out onto a sloping field thick with acacias. Giraffes sauntered among the trees about 150 yards away. The camp had a dozen two-person tents that were anything but rustic. The firm, comfortable camp cots felt like beds. Outside my tent sat a chair and washing table with a small pan and pitcher of water for washing (with warm water delivered each morning). There was even a mirror. Behind the tent were two smaller tents - one had a hand-pump toilet, and the other a shower. This was more luxurious than any camping I had ever done.
The afternoon drive took us to the Senorena area of the park, where we made our way to the large Moru Kopje and climbed up. On top was an odd crescent-shaped rock with even rows of white dots. We used a small rock to bang on round indentations in the large rock. The sound was unreal - a deep, hollow clang that seemed to come from the opposite end of where the rock was struck. Before the Maasai were driven from the park, they would use these Gong Rocks in ceremonies. Nearby was a small cave with fading Maasai paintings decorated the walls. The paintings were fairly recent, dating from the 1800s.
We continued viewing wildlife when on the horizon we saw a back rhino. Our guide was amazed. Only three rhinos live in the entire park, migrants from Ngorongoro Crater. It was hard to spot without binoculars, but we could see the distinct horns peeking above the tall grass. Nearby, three ranger vehicles kept watch. Poaching is so great concern that the rangers never let the rhinos out of their sight. I couldn't believe our luck - we saw three of six in the crater and one of three in the Serengeti. It was sad to realize how few are left.
We headed back to camp as the sun set among the acacias. Dinner was another opportunity to be amazed. The dining tent was lit by lanterns, giving the feel of an outdoor candlelight dinner. The camp staff cooked the most incredible meals on a tiny grill and a metal box that served as an oven. Nederburg (our new favorite wine) flowed as we chatted and laughed through the meal. A roaring fire blazed after dinner, but I was exhausted after my long day and we were getting up early for a sunrise game drive. My tent was the second to last, and as I brushed my teeth by the soft glow of the lantern I suddenly felt very exposed. Any number of wild creatures could be lurking in the darkness just beyond the tent. I quickly finished and scrambled into the relative safety of my tent.
We arose early on the clear cool morning, woken up with a friendly "Jambo Jambo" and a pitcher of warm water for washing. We ate breakfast in the dim pre-dawn light and were off to explore. There is nothing unique about loving a sunrise or a sunset, but on this trip I came to appreciate them more than I ever had. The quiet transition from dark and featureless to brilliant and spectacular seems both gradually and sudden. While the early rising did not reveal any active animals as we'd hoped, just seeing the sunrise was worth it. In the distance we could see the two balloons making their regularly scheduled flights. The previous morning's adventure seemed like a year ago.
I rode with Samson today, and he made up for the lack of animals with an adventurous off-road journey to what he suspected could be a cheetah, the one major animal that had eluded us. The photo safari group that shared our camp had spotted four cheetahs resting on a ridge the day before, so we were anxious to spot one ourselves. Samson bounced us over the plains until we came upon a pointed stick that he had mistook for cheetah ears. I'm sure he knew it all along, but wanted to liven up the morning. When we stopped, the vastness of the plains really hit me. The slight breeze whipped the grass but otherwise there was no movement in any direction. It seemed like the plains had swallowed us up. It was the most peaceful moment of my trip.
Back on the road we spotted a group of juvenile lions, perhaps the same from our first day in the park. We came across a large group of baboons, some playing in the treetops, some grooming one another, and one sitting quietly, just looking at us. Then we approached a group of vehicles clustered around two sleeping lions barely visible in the tall grass. The male stood up and started huffing and bellowing. Before we knew it, we were watching two lions mate. It was over in a matter of seconds, with the female snarling and snapping at the male as he dismounted. Then both rolled over back down into the grass. Lions mate as many as 80 times on the first day and continue at a diminished rate over the next three days. The pair soon walked off to a more private location. Nearby a smaller male sat, the loser in the battle for the female.
It was a day of lions. We came across the juveniles again, and also saw a pair of females under a tree. Before the day was out, we had spotted over 15 lions. We also saw an unusual sight - a giraffe being chased off an acacia tree by a huge herd of elephants. Normally the animals have no contact, but occasionally elephants will bully other animals for fun. The giraffe ran off - another unusual sight for this normally slow-moving creature - but he kept circling back and stayed close by, unwilling to give up so easily. There were over 25 elephants, including a tiny four-month-old baby nursing under its mother. Some stood under the shady tree for a quick nap while other walked in a line on the other side of the road. A small elephant held its mother's tail with its trunk. Elephants surrounded us, but they seemed unconcerned with us as they crossed over to the tree.
As the day wore on we saw two giraffes splaying their legs and bending their long necks down to nibble on grass, a very funny sight for so large a creature. A two-day-old Grant's gazelle stopped in the road in front of us, looking surprised before darting off with its mother. John's creative animal spotting also led us to spot turtles, sheep and a male lion that turned out to be a wildebeest. It was one of the most fun drives of the trip.
We returned to camp for lunch and a nap. As I dozed off in the warmth of the afternoon I heard a roar. My first thought was "Lion!" but I quickly laughed at my overactive imagination. Later the guides informed us that is was a lion roar, but assured us that the lion was very far off.
We set out on our last wildlife drive of the trip, determined to see the elusive cheetah. We saw a few more lions but little else of note for a while. With the sun low in the sky and only 30 minutes before we had to be off the park roads, our guide heard a cheetah had been spotted on the main road. It was far from where we were, but he was determined to get us there in time. We sat down and held on as he flew over the bumpy roads, kicking up huge clouds of dust in our wake. We flew by a pack of hyenas with a fresh kill - a cool sight but with so little time left our priority was the cheetah. I would have been happy to catch a quick glimpse of spots in the distance, but as we approached it was on a mound not 15 feet from the side of the road. In the orange glow of the setting sun, the cheetah seemed to pose for us, turning to show every angle, looking directly a us, even crossing between our vehicles and back over. We silently cheered, exhilarated, amazed, and overwhelmed. We had seen so much, and at the last possible moment, got our cheetah. It was the perfect end to our last wildlife drive.
We celebrated our last spotting at our farewell diner. We were all in high spirits as we marveled at all we had seen. We chatted and stargazed by the campfire for a little while, and then suddenly it was just Mary, Erica and I. We planned to stay a bit longer but the unmistakable call of a hyena very close by scared us back to our tents. In the night, I heard baboon howls, a lion's roar and grunting just outside my tent. My mind conjured up pictures of warthogs rooting in the dirt, but the next morning I learned it had been female gazelles snorting and stamping to chase away a male. In the middle of the night I got up to take one last look at the night sky before bidding farewell to the dark night. >>