Day Seven – The Cats Are Back
What an absolutely incredible overnight experience. We all crashed early, by 9:30 or so, and slept the best sleep of the trip so far. However, that doesn’t mean I missed the overnight activities. At one point I woke to hear the distinctive sound of clumps of grass being pulled up right outside our tent. I think it was most likely wildebeest grazing there, because I heard the moo-like sound coming from behind our tent. At another point, I heard what sounded like a stampede right through the center of our campsite. Said confirmed this morning that some species was here running around during the night. At any point I awoke, I heard the calls of wildebeest, zebra or hyena. Now this is camping!
We were up at 5:15 and ready to hit the road by 6:30. No shower early, just a quick wet down of the hair, throw on some clothes, apply sunscreen and insect repellant and we were off. I’ve given up trying to look even remotely presentable here. Neither Said nor the animals care, and it sort of adds to the relaxation level not to worry about that too.
Breakfast this morning was pretty good. We all had scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon and a pancake, with toast, OJ and coffee. It was a great way to start the day and would last us well.
On the ride out to where we would eventually find our main attractions of the day, we saw more wildebeest and zebras than we could ever even imagine. It is easier to enumerate the places where there weren’t any of them. As far as I could see in just about any direction, nothing but wildebeest and zebra. Said told us that his goal was to have us see a wildebeest give birth, and indeed we came so close three times early today. Each time we came upon a newly born wildebeest, still wet from emerging from its mother, placenta about to drop. The moms were licking the calves and nudging them along. Within minutes, they were running alongside their moms, some more wobbly than others, but in any event ready to try to evade the predators.
A couple hours passed and we continued to bump into some wildebeest births, some pretty cool birds (eagle, vultures) and a few hyena. Said all of a sudden turned toward a mini-swarm of other vehicles that were all looking at one thing in particular. When we got upon it, we found a lone jackal feasting on a fresh wildebeest kill. Just nearby were a dozen or so vultures waiting to step up. We all wanted Said’s opinion on what happened here, and he said there are two deaths here, either a natural death or a kill. He thought initially this was a natural death. It wasn’t until I happened to look behind us and see a few vehicles looking under a nearby tree that I saw a cheetah walking away. Said turned the vehicle around and we followed them.
The cheetah brothers were working in a coalition. Said recognized the pair from previous visits and knew they were brothers from the same mother. Cheetah males will only form hunting coalitions with their own siblings, and originally this pair had been part of three brothers. One brother has been killed by a lion in the past. We followed the cheetahs to the next tree where they laid down. Close-up view by either binoculars or my zoom lens revealed blood on the chin of one brother, so it was obvious that they had made the kill. Both males had very distended stomachs, which was further proof that they’d gorged on their kill before that jackal had gotten to it. So we’d missed the kill probably by less than an hour, but at least now we’d seen two more cats. The brothers settled down to sleep off their meal and we continued on after getting our fill from about 30 feet away.
Somehow Said knew where to find the next big event of the day and it was probably the highlight of my trip so far. We came upon a mother cheetah and three one-year old cubs. They were walking through the grass with a long, single-file line of migrating wildebeests just past it. It didn’t take long to realize the mother cheetah was sizing up the line of migratory beasts, looking for food for her family. Compared to the brothers we just saw, these cats were very thin and apparently hungry. It was interesting to see how they followed her until she was ready to hunt. Then it was as if she’d sent them to huddle down together out of the line of fire, and they did as she told. She watched the line of wildebeest for some time, passing up several calves which would have been easy kill if she’d tried. It seemed like she hadn’t deemed any one of them worth a try. All of a sudden though, one of the cubs got antsy and went for it, bursting out of his hiding spot with his brothers, then making the mistake of hesitating, which gave the wildebeests just time to realize what was going on. The cubs tried to pursue after the false start but came up empty and gave up the chase. It was fascinating to see, and makes me wonder if the mother was training them to hunt or if that one cub was just over-eager. I didn’t realize how much I wanted to see the kill. It was all so exciting and some what disappointing that they weren’t successful, although I know from my reading that they are successful only about 20% of the time.
It seemed like a good idea now to head back to camp for lunch. On the way though, Said spotted two male lions asleep under a tree, and he pulled our vehicle right up next to them. We were no more than 15 feet from two sleeping lions! We waited long enough for one to raise its head, pose, stand and stretch only to lie down next to his brother again. Unlike cheetahs, male lions will only hang out with brothers from their pride, but they don’t have to be brothers from the same mother. Just past these two guys was a female who was soundly sleeping belly up under another tree.
We definitely had worked up an appetite with all this excitement, so we headed back to camp for a hot lunch, which was pizza, a green been, carrot and onion casserole and a mixed salad, with apple caramel for dessert. I washed it all down with a Tangawizi, of course. During lunch Said gave us the option of a bush walk or an evening game drive, and we chose the latter unanimously. So we took a break until 4 and headed out again to see what else Ndutu had in store for us. Kim and I played Uno and drank beer or Baileys and listened to the animals. I could get used to this life.
Promptly at 4:00 Said loaded us in the car and we took off. Right outside our camp, he came across 5 cheetahs, a mother and four 1-year old cubs. We found them walking and followed them to under a tree where they sprawled out. They didn’t seem to be doing much of anything but lying there, but sitting and watching five cheetahs is heavenly, and I have the pictures to prove it. Once we ascertained that the weren’t up to much just yet, we moved on.
Next we happened upon 6 giraffe, two of which were very short juveniles who were munching on the foliage near the sandy beach areas around the river. We watched them amble around a bit and moved on again.
Just past the giraffes, we came upon two female lions who were sleeping soundly under a tree. We sat and watched with our usual patience and were rewarded after close to 45 minutes when a line of a couple hundred zebra and wildebeest made their way from the beach up the hill in the line of sight of the lions. Even though Said thought that they looked as if they had eaten recently, they paid careful attention to everything that went by them. That got them up and awake enough to take some excellent photos. Then they flopped back down and took more of a cat nap. One of the lions snored loudly while the other was having kitty dreams of some sort, twitching and she dozed away. Once again though, our vehicle outlasted about 8 others who came and went while we sat there. We are the masters at the waiting game, and it always seems to pay off.
Said told us that lions noses start to turn black after they turn five years old. Before that they are mostly pink. As these two lions had noses just starting to turn black, he said they are probably just over five. Each also had four teats, which is standard for lions, regardless of how many cubs they have.
Letting sleeping lions lie, we moved on and rode around through more masses of wildebeest and zebras again. I think Said really has his heart set on showing us a birth. I’d love to see it, but I think so far we have just missed quite a few!
I took a few wonderful shots of the sky and the light here today. The clouds here seem to just hang in the sky and never move, which I think is due to there being such an expanse of sky over us and no frame of reference like buildings to track the movement. And I caught a wonderful moment just before sunset when huge rays of light broke through a cloud and streamed down to earth. It really was more poetic than I am doing it justice.
Finally, just outside camp again, we happened upon the same five cheetahs we saw earlier. This time they were watching a herd of wildebeest move into the area. We watched the lie together for a while and two of the cubs play fought with each other, just like our housecats do. I couldn’t tell for sure how serious the mother was about actually hunting tonight, but after a bit of a wait, one cub decided to make an approach on his own. He walked away from the group and I thought maybe no one had noticed, but finally when he took up position to observe the wildebeests, the others seemed to take notice and move in with him. Said called it a night as it was getting terribly dark and we wouldn’t be able to see much more anyway. Hopefully we can bump into the group tomorrow and see if they are noticeably fatter or not.
Back at camp we had dinner. How they manage to pull of such good meals is beyond me. Tonight we had cream of pumpkin soup, marinated lamb (which was fabulous), grilled potatoes, mixed vegetable, salad and a chocolate cake with white sauce. We split a bottle of chenin blanc and some water. It was a delicious meal and no one can say I’m not eating well in Africa.
Early to bed tonight again as we’re up at 5:45 for a 6:15 game ride!