Monday, February 20, 2017

I could get used to this

Another solid night of sleep, lots of dreams (good ones, like relaxed REM sleep good ones) and very restful.  I have started to hear the night watch making passes by the tent, usually within the hour before we wake up.  I also heard a large cacophony from our resident lions about 20 minutes before we woke up.  I thought at the time that it was a good sign.

Unfortunately the torrential storm from last night left us with a world shrouded in heavy mist and fog and for the first hour we were out driving we could see next to nothing until we were right upon it.  While it was a peaceful, ethereal scene, it was somewhat disappointing for the lion fan who hoped to see the noisemakers from not an hour earlier.

We drove in a direction we'd not taken yet, so it was all new trees, grassland and road passes to me.  Yes, after a few days you start to know your way, recognize when the road is getting close to where you'd usually see the lions or when you're about to approach camp.  It's funny like that.  I knew though that even David had given up on lions at that point when he said "let's go look at hippo".  That was the back-up plan on my last two safaris: when things get slow, we go look at hippo.  They are reliably always there, hanging out in their pool during the daytime, coming out only to graze after the sun sets.

Surprisingly, on the way to the hippos David spotted a male lion lying regally out in the open plain with his cohort lying out flat nearby.  By the time we got to them, they were making their way into the croton bush to sleep the day away.  These were the two pride males of the River pride. The males had broken away from the Acacia pride and taken the River pride and all its females over.  They looked healthy and well fed and just fell down for a nap as we watched.  So it was now on to the hippos.

And that's precisely where we had our bush breakfast, over the hippo pool in the Mara River.  I counted over 80 hippos directly in front of us, all sizes and ages.  There was some barking and roughhousing between them but it was a lighthearted moment there watching them.  There were three crocs on the other side of the river on the bank.  Thankfully no where near us.  And at 6-10 feet each, they were "pretty small" says David.  The ones nearer the migration crossing points (where they get all the spoils when wildebeest and zebra fail to cross during the chaotic river crossings in August) can grow over 20 feet.

By the time breakfast was over, the sky had cleared and the sun was shining brightly.  We started to head back the way we came, which looked new to us now that the veil of mist and fog had burned off in the sunshine.  David quickly swerved to the right and took us deep into the brush, where we found 7 lions of the River pride (3 sub-adult males and 4 sub-adult females, they all still had the spots of youth on their legs and the boys only had gentle manes) tucking into a hippo kill.  This was clearly the second sitting for this meal, as five of the lions already had nice round bellies and were dozing heavily in the shade.  Two lionesses were devouring the hippo though.  The hippo appeared to be a sub-adult, not full sized but not a baby either.  It was big enough that it could not be dragged anywhere.  Where they were eating is where it was killed.  David said that the River pride were experts at taking down hippos, and I guess this is proof.

When we drove up, we saw about two dozen hyenas resting nearby, knowing that if they're patient enough that they'll end up with some hippo.  One made a hasty attempt at it and was quickly chased off by one of the lionesses.

Watching these cats for over an hour, I saw so much behavior that was just like my two housecats.  One went over to a tree, dug a hole, peed, then covered it over, as if it was a bush litter box.  One lioness approached another lounging nearby and the lounging lioness greeted her sister with a head-butt and then proceeded to clean all the blood and hippo gore from her sister's face.  There was a bit of good humored smacking with the paw.  But the lions' focus was on filling those bellies as much as they could, since they never know when the next meal will come.  It was much like Thanksgiving, when I've already filled a plate (or two) but I can't resist having a bit of a rest and going back for more.

What was interesting was that the kill was still very fresh, but the hippos ears, tail and testicles were missing.  David explained that with so much of the hippo covered in tough skin, those parts are soft and easiest to get to, which is why they're gone first.  But that didn't stop these lion.  We heard so much bone crunching by those jaws.  They were getting through to the soft innards.  One lioness walked off with a long strip of intestine (still filled with, well, what intestines are filled with) and ate it like I inhale licorice or spaghetti.  It was something to see.  Quite a visual.

Once it looked like the lot of them had had their fill and were going to sleep off their food coma (with one eye open to guard against the hyena), we moved on.

I think the cold and the rain last night brought out a lot of plains game today.  We seemed to see a lot more giraffe and warthog than we usually do.  The rain also brought out the flies, which hatch right after a big storm, so there's that to contend with now.  Today though, the weather couldn't be more perfect.  Not too hot, nice light breeze and warm sun.

David and Kappen were back to looking for Rana.  They think maybe he had beat a hasty retreat back to Leopard Gorge (of Big Cat Diary fame) so we drove through looking for him there, but saw only agama lizards, rock hyrax and hyenas.  I think Rana is keeping a low profile since he was publicly humiliated up in that tree on Saturday.

Back to the camp by noon for lunch.  I've already written the blog before lunch so that means I can make after lunch a true siesta, reading and napping the couple of hours away.

Lunch today was a cheese and veggie quiche, beet and avocado salad, green bean salad and pineapple for dessert.  I continue to be very happy with the food here.  I'm certainly taking advantage of their vegetarian skills.

During siesta, the heavens opened up again for about 20 minutes, just enough to make us all wonder if we really wanted to go out at all.  I don't care about getting wet but I do worry that the animals will all be snoozing.  Thankfully that wasn't the case.

We found Frank and Jesse, who must have hidden out somewhere during the deluge because their gorgeous manes looked pristine as usual, like they'd just had a blowout in some Hollywood salon.  They are gorgeous creatures.  We spotted the female lionesses with some cubs on the opposite hill but were unable to cross the river to get to them after the storm left everything all muddy and slick.  We couldn't tell from such a distance if Lucky our little guy was among them.

We moved on and just around the bend we found the nomad sub-adults from the Offbeat pride.  These are the ones who've been booted from the pride and are in the process of establishing themselves.  They all looked well fed and were in serious food comas.  They look as if they must have eaten recently so they're doing well.  This group was 4 males and 3 females and again, they look pretty darn good.

The thing I love about these guides is that they try to do what they can to keep us happy.  After the failed attempt at getting to the cubs, David managed to find another crossing and we made our way to where we spotted the cubs, but they had moved on.  So, as the day got darker, we moved on and had our sundowner (gin and tonic for me) and chatted about the conservancy concept and how it's working.

Another thing I love about these guides, especially Kappen, is that they will stop the vehicle and hop out to collect bottles or plastic that humans have left behind.  They realize what a danger these are to all the animals and they've stopped several times to clean up after someone else.  I respect that.

I think we'll likely pass on the day trip into the Reserve.  Both guides have said that most of the predators have moved into the conservancies, along with a lot of the prey, so it's not a great use of our time.

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