On the morning of February 20th, we left Ngorongoro Crater and, after a visit to Oldupai Gorge, headed towards the Serengeti Plains. Halfway to our destination, a half-mile thundering line of galloping wildebeests crossed the road in front of us.
We had chosen to stay in the area near the southeastern border of Serengeti National Park in the hopes of experiencing the Great Migration of some two million wildebeests, zebras, and gazelles. In fact, if you go to the website of the lodge at which we stayed you'll see its February newsletter talks of safari vehicles "surrounded as far as the eye can see with wildebeests". Perhaps the herds took a few days' vacation at the time of our stay.
Yes, we saw many wildebeests and zebras, but no vast herds. What was unexpected instead was the large number of cheetahs and the variety of other animals and birds that we saw. It was probably a good tradeoff. Wildebeests are definitely not the most attractive looking animals, but cheetahs might be.
How many cheetahs we saw is unknown. Each one supposedly has its own unique pattern of spots, but we were not expert enough to know how many times we saw a particular cat over the course of three days. What we did see were individual cheetahs, two or three males hunting together, feasting cheetahs, and a cheetah stalking a herd of gazelles. And then there was the amazing experience of watching a mother cheetah guide her three cubs on a hunting trip. The survival of the species depends on the mothering skills of female cheetahs. They get no male parenting help and must provide for their cubs for 18 months, all the while protecting them from lions and hyenas.
I'm sure, being in only one area of the Serengeti, that it is impossible to appreciate what a vast area it is. The plains stretch to the distant horizon and beyond. It seems somewhat dry with rather sparse vegetation. Yet it supports a remarkable diversity of animals and bird-life. Over the course of our 10-day safari, we recorded over 100 species of birds and many of those were observed in the Serengeti.
It was indeed a privilege to see cheetahs and the other animals of the Serengeti in their natural habitat. It's a unique experience to feel like you are the intruder in a world that man does not and should not control. Our Serengeti experience confirmed the decision I arrived at over the course of our safari -- I never want to visit another zoo. I just want to remember the twinkle in an elephant's eye and the uncorrupted presence of the cheetah.
One thing is certain: The Serengeti changes you.