This article was published by our friends at Africa.com, who have agreed to its republication here. View the original article on their Africa.com Blog.
So many of this season’s drives have been spectacular, if not simply stunning, both in dry and wet conditions. In fact, even though safaris have become more confined to the inside of our land cruisers, few of our drives bear any resemblance to the kinds of road trips most people have experienced, unless of course they are safari aficionados.
One damp morning, after riveting rain and hailstorms pounded us, we took off blind in thick fog. We bundubashed out of camp to see if we could locate three particular cheetahs, although given the conditions we may have been happier snug in bed, or at least that was a voiced thought at the time. We could see only the canopy tips of the Acacia branches before the tree trunks themselves; they seemed to reach out to us as we approached.
From our campsite, we had to cross a ravine to get out onto the southern plains. The Oykejo Nyiro runs down from the Ngorongoro highlands and often brings flash floods in such conditions, as it did this morning. Although the torrent looked frightening, I felt pretty sure we wouldn’t get washed away, so I engaged the 4×4 low range. No one in the land cruiser objected to my decision so in good faith or maybe resignation, everyone hung on as we slip-slid into the murky water with a splash a hippo would be proud of. The front of the cruiser was submerged. It was surprisingly deep but soon water cascaded off the windshield and we were roaring out the other side. We were fortunate to have the snorkel built into the car. It allowed us to make such crossings without flooding the engine, which would cause it to stall and perhaps we’d then become croc bait. Wouldn’t want that would we?!
Not much later we were miles south on the Serengeti plains and ironically dust was billowing behind us. In typical fashion we were drenched in camp and here some 10 miles to the south not a drop had fallen. But neither river crossing nor dusty plain could deter us from our cheetah search. The rising sun warmed our skin and illuminated the migration, which scattered before us. Everything, including wildebeest, zebra, dung beetles, giraffe, crowned cranes, eland, tommy, jackal, hyena and birds of every sort for as far as our eyes could see.
This is cheetah country and we were looking for a particular female familiar to us. She has two cubs, one male and the other female. She also has a large feeding range, but given its location, which includes an area well traveled by vehicles, she is tolerant, even trusting of us.
When we found them in the middle of hundreds of miles of open grassland after much scanning with binoculars, it became apparent that they had not yet hunted. This was exciting because I knew she was teaching her cubs the basics of catching cape hare and tommy gazelle. They were slender and obviously having a slow morning, so spent the next hour playing with the car and us since mom wouldn’t take them hunting. These cubs were totally inquisitive while their mother, grateful for the break from their attention, lay in the grass 20 yards away without the slightest concern, making us feel like rather privileged, trusted babysitters.
Within no time, curiosity gets the better of them and the male jumped up onto the spare tire mounted on the back door of the car. At first he was just peering over the roof at us, nibbling at bits of canvas and generally just being a goofball, a highly entertaining one at that. This game went on for almost an hour, and at one point I had to grab his tail to stop him from jumping into the car.
As suddenly as it all started, the games stopped. Mom was up and heading out. She made bird-like chirps calling them and they knew school was in session. Many a time, one may wait for hours to see a hunt opportunity develop but, on this day it was different, once again. The cheetah had not gone more than 50 yards. They were still stretching, probably pretty resigned to an expectation of many miles of walking before being able to lick blood off each other’s lips. We had just maneuvered the cruiser for a better view when a stray tommy with fawn, that had in some bizarre twist of fate not seen them, came running toward the cheetah.
There was an initial moment of confusion, possibly of disbelief, of rubbing the eyes to be sure we were actually seeing right. But, the second the cheetah zeroed in on the tommy and they all hit the after-burners, taking off in a blur of magic. Tails switching, bodies folded then stretched to full length, they cut and wove with strides of over 30 feet at a time. The tommy fawn stood no chance. Its mother, in a supreme effort of courage and determination, tried every tactic of distraction to draw them away from her newborn, but to little avail.
The mother cheetah tripped the little gazelle and brought it to a controlled stop below her razor-sharp claws without so much as a scratch to the tiny creature. She looked around at her two slowcoaches bringing up the rear and just before they get to her, she released the fawn, giving it a nudge and off it went in this unexpected gift of freedom. Its mother, who must have been convinced that her fawn was dead, suddenly leapt back into the fray. She ran over in an attempt to draw the little one away from these thugs.
It was a truly valiant attempt, but by then the cheetah cubs had bypassed their mom and were onto things. The learning curve is steep. They tripped the prey, it fell and then they were surprised when it took off again, so the process was repeated over and over in this lesson on hunting fast food out on the plains. In macabre humor, it is almost funny watching the cubs look back at their mother as though asking “Why does it keep running away, mom?” until she went over and put a stop to it all by biting into the neck of the fawn. The lesson was over.
When we left the cheetah, they were licking each other’s lips; we were wide eyed, speechless and in awe of the amazing experience we’d just witnessed. Where does one go, what does one do after such an experience? On safari, we drove over to the nearest bush and took a rest stop. Of course, the nearest bush was about two miles away.
So it is with safari. Rain or shine, the animals are always out there doing what they do. And as long as we’re in the right place at the right time – and even if we’re not – every day has its magical and memorable moments. Needless to say: you’ve got to be on safari to experience them.