Tuesday 3 December 2013

o : Serengeti

A kopje
Serengeti National Park

Dear o,

The dry air is silent.  The vast grasses are still.  I feel the odd gust of wind remedy the hot sun against my head and shoulders, but it makes no noise.  Serengeti is a Maasai expression which means “endless plains”, and from this rock, or kopje, jutting up from the flat earth I can see what they mean.  The scorched brown grazing fields and solitary acacia trees and little hills like this one stretch for an interminable distance in every direction.  It is all so quiet, patient, and ancient.  Nothing in my sight betrays the big marvels everyone comes here on safari for: the lions and rhinos and hippos and wildebeest and others.  These animals are indeed big and mighty when you see them, but on this infinite plate of land they are specks tucked away, almost forgotten, almost gone.  When we pulled up to this rock for lunch our safari guide Isaac asked us to stay in the truck.  He had to scout the lunch area to make sure there weren’t any lions sleeping in the shade.  This is lion territory, he said.  We are guests here.  Have people encountered lions up here?  All the time, he said.  They just chase them away, usually.  I didn’t ask what happens when people encounter the lions and aren’t merely chased away.

Isaac’s foray up the hill and around the bush revealed nothing, and so here I am, hovering over half-eaten lunch boxes.  I keep looking over my shoulder, expecting to see a pair of yellow eyes coveting the other half.  What would I do?  Run?  Shout?  Scream?  Pick up a stick to ward him off?  Hold eye contact?  Offer my left leg to save the rest of me?  I really have no idea.  I haven’t heard the protocols, I haven’t read the safety guidelines, I haven’t been lectured by a Maasai warrior.  Perhaps deep in my bones, or deeper in my genes, there is a coded but dormant memory from 100,000 years ago, an instinct for survival in this sort of wild.  For here in east Africa is where we humans come from, our homeland.  More than that, actually: this is where we were made.  So, do I face down a lion, or turn my back, or play dead?  Maybe I have to just wait until he pops in for lunch to let my ancestors speak up.

I’ve seen a fair share of lions now, both the hard-working and attentive females and their grotesquely lazy but still magnificent male counterparts (the females catch up to 80% of the pride’s food, and the males just stroll up to the recent kills and act like kings).  There are plenty of the big cats scattered around the Serengeti, hanging out on roadsides, under trees, beneath rocks, in the tall grasses, waiting by waterholes.  After four days of this six-day safari we are just about desensitised to the lion.  When we see one now we check if he’s full (sometimes they are actually bloated, almost sick from eating half a buffalo) and if not, if there is game nearby.  If there’s no chance to see a kill we drive on to rarer things: cheetahs, leopards, or the reticent rhino. 

We have checked every animal off our list, and then some: three leopards, all hanging in trees, one with a partial gazelle torso hanging from another branch, saved for a midnight snack perhaps, and one who got in a stand-off with a band of baboons.  The leopard seemed too tired for the fight and climbed higher; eventually the baboons gave up and hobbled on to another tree.  We spotted two pairs of cheetahs, stalking the grass and surveying from anthills.  One pair started to chase a gazelle but were a beat too late, and missed the chance to demonstrate their dining habits.  We’ve stood over muddy pools filled with dozens, perhaps up to 100, hippos, all slopping, sloshing, burping, yawning, growling, fighting, blowing and swimming in obnoxiously (and noxiously) tight groups to protect their young from the crocodiles who swim around in lethargic, virtually imperceptible circles.  We've watched zebra resting their heads on each other’s backs, giraffe bulls staring us down, monkeys stealing lunches, elephants shaking the earth, eagles soaring over lakes, vultures feasting on buffalo, buffalo escaping from a couple lions, and thousands of antelope, at just the beginning of the great yearly migration between here and Kenya’s Maasai Mara.  We've even glimpsed rhinos in Ngorongoro Crater, at a great distance, and only two – but two is a sadly high percentage of the remaining population here.  They are hunted.  Many of these animals continue to be hunted.

You can see the poachers’ bicycle tracks in the sand.  Isaac pointed them out to us on the first day.  They ride in groups from villages outside the park, quite far away.  They enter the parks via animal tracks, evade the rangers, and use their numbers and binoculars and guns to kill whatever might make the trek worth the while.  Sometimes they fail and leave empty-handed, and other times they find this migratory bottleneck conducive to a very profitable slaughter.  Either way, it is never enough, and there is always the next poach.  Animal skins and ivory bring a fine coin, but the rhino horns are the biggest prize.  Why?  Traditional Chinese medicine values an ancient, still-unproven (evidence = 0) rumour that the horn made into a powder has medicinal qualities, while others in the Middle East seek rhino horns for ceremonial daggers.  Can you imagine?  You don’t have to imagine.  It happens.  There may be no rhinocerous left in the wild in a matter of years.  I don’t have the words to describe the disrespect of our natural heritage, the downright stupidity of our species.

There are seven billion of us roaming around now, and we vastly outnumber all of these great species of the Serengeti.  And you don’t need to visit megacities to witness our numbers; in fact, you don’t even have to leave Tanzania’s national parks.  We are doing this safari in the low season, yet there are still packed-out lunch locations, and hundreds of 4x4s ploughing around in search of the precious photo opportunity, or if truly lucky, a chase and kill (the one thing we are yet to check off our list).  Indeed, there is so much traffic on these dirt roads that there was an accident a few days ago.  The up-turned green Toyoto Landcruiser with specks of blood on the smashed glass and bent metal was as eye-catching as any animal creeping in the grass.  Whether we like it or not, we too are part of the big Serengeti animal show.  I wonder if the animals here have learned the rhythms of the Great Tourist Migration.  Zebra and wildebeest and gazelle know what it means when a truck or two parks on the side of the road.  It certainly doesn’t mean we’re looking at a few zebra or wildebeest or gazelle.  Those humans,  they might think, and their obsession with other predators.

We are one subject of our own itineraries, too.  At least, the “we” of three million years ago.  On the second day Isaac drove us from the Highview Hotel in Karatu to the Serengeti and stopped at the world-renowned archaeological site popularly known as Olduvai Gorge.  The site’s real name is Oldupai Gorge, and was mispronounced by the German paleontologist who first explored it.  Oldupai is a part of the Great Rift Valley, an African fault line which extends the line of its physical impression into the earth from Ethiopia down to Mozambique.  It is the location of some of the oldest human fossils on record, including a set of footprints pressed into the once-fresh ash by three hominids millions of years ago.  The footprints have been reburied for the sake of preservation, but we saw the mould in the museum.  Like a piece of art in a gallery, the longer you stare at the footprints, the more they speak.  They aren’t wildly fascinating or particularly special, in fact they are quite prosaic.  A man, woman and child, perhaps, strolling along in a volcanic landscape.  At first you think of what they looked like – big chimpanzees?  Hunched, hairy humans?  Wait long enough and they acquire stories, memories, personalities; they become human, and our history becomes real. 

Is the same thing true when you look long enough at a sleeping leopard, a hungry mongoose, a grazing giraffe?  I think so, to some extent, with enough patience and imagination.  We don’t need Disney to anthropomorphise the animal kingdom in order for us to understand that other species feel, think, hunger, thirst, rage and whine.  All I need, really, is a night in our tent, pitched in the Serengeti: the yelping hyenas and coughing lions and yakking zebras are making the same fuss we make when we snore, yawn and grind our teeth in our sleep.  On some level we are all out here doing the same thing.  It helps to be reminded that we are a human animal, and that we drive around in circles in these vast plains for the same reason (however more advanced, cerebral and self-reflective) that a hippopotamus dunks under the water, spins playfully around, and then slaps its head against his neighbour’s belly.  We might not have the enormous teeth, but I figure we get mad and show our own small ones for the same general reasons as the mud-filthy hippo.

Still, I wouldn’t say that we belong out here, not anymore.  Some years ago the government forcibly removed the remaining Maasai who lived on kopjes like this one, sending them to villages that orbit the Serengeti park instead.  There were too many deaths from lion attacks, too much interference with the other animals, and not enough food to support the communities – so they were moved.  We removed ourselves, but our prints remain.  On this outpost of higher land there are plenty of rocks, and many of them sport circular depressions, obviously made by humans.  In some of these depressions rest sharp little rocks, and the obvious message is for each visitor to keep boring, keep digging through.  Each person who comes up here may add a few swipes to a few indentations, chipping away, bit by microscopic bit, the dark surface to reveal the chalky white stone beneath.  And when you press the stone against the rock it makes a sound, like tapping a stone on a metal pot.  Each little crater has its own sound, its own tone, which makes these rocks into a gigantic musical instrument, a singular percussive hill.  There are no diagrams, instructions or patterns, just a bunch of sounds to make., like glasses of varying heights and levels of liquid.  You feel like a child tapping against them.  You feel, for a second, that you belong.  But it has taken a great effort to get us there, centuries of living and carving and coexisting, maybe even millenia.  For all the compunction to separate ourselves from the animals we photograph, we remain one of them; and for all of the evidence of our shared heritage, we keep running so far away.

That’s it, I figured it out.  Running away is exactly what I would do if a lion or a leopard or a cheetah emerged from the bush beside me.  After all, it’s their Serengeti now.



Towards Lake Manyara

Young baboons, Lake Manyara


Zebras and giraffes

Baboon mother and child

Lake Manyara
Ngorongoro Crater

Descending into the Serengeti

Oldupai Gorge

Replica of the 3.6 million year-old hominid footprints, Oldupai Gorge

Kori Bustard, Serengeti

Sleeping hyena

Lion cub

The Serengeti

Lion cub yawning

Tawny Eagle

Female lions

Follow the leader


Sleeping leopard


Spot the leopard?


Cheetah, waking up



Cheetahs hunting

Cheetahs after a failed hunt

Zebras in the classic pose

Part of a gazelle, kept by a leopard on another branch


Female lion

Buffalo bones

Feeding on a recent lion kill


Crocodile sneaking

Maybe I'll move, maybe I won't


Not rocks: hippos


Changing positions

In the shade



The music stone, Moru

Another sleeping leopard

Male lion

Male lion

Road accident

Rhinos, the closest we got, Ngorongoro Crater

Ngorongoro Crater

Speke's Weaver Bird, Ngorongoro

Male lion, Ngorongoro

Male lion, Ngorongoro

Male lion, Ngorongoro

Hyena with a gazelle leg

Monkey greeting, Tarangire

Kite, Ngorongoro

A turtle crossing the road to round it off