Tanzania Days 5 & 6 – Leopard And More
I just took my favorite photo of my life last night. I thought there was no way I could top that, but it turns out that there was one particular leopard dead set on proving me wrong.
Day 5 – Ndutu And The Leopard
Eager to keep exploring this incredible country, I asked Sami what the plan was as I packed my lunch for the day. He informed me that a leopard was spotted in a certain area and he was hoping we might be able to catch a glimpse of it. That sounded great to me so we headed out in search of the elusive feline.
if the circle of land cruisers surrounding one tree was any indication, the leopard was still there. We drove closer and staked out a spot a little farther back from the others to give us a some flexibility. I could see him high up in the Acacia tree with a partially consumed gazelle. It looked like something out of a wildlife horror film as he was surrounded by carcasses of previous kills propped up on the thorns of the Acacia tree, none of them quite fully eaten. This is when Sami informed me that leopards often kill just for fun, and this guy seemed to be pretty good at it!
The World’s Least Lazy Leopard
When I first heard we might see a leopard, I was excited but I also expected to see a lazy cat lounging in a tree. I never thought I would get the show that this leopard put on. When we first arrived at his home, he was keeping busy shuffling his kills around and finding various storage spaces for them. I was amazed at how this leopard was able to push his head through the thick, thorn-filled branches. He didn’t just slink through easily, either, but had to ram his head through them forcefully, sometimes taking several tries to break through. Despite all of his experience shoving his face into spikes, he still looked pristine and beautiful.
As if seeing a leopard move his kills around wasn’t enough, he soon climbed out of the shadows of the tree and right into the circle of vehicles surrounding him! After I got my shots of his descent, we headed further down in the direction that the leopard was traveling to try and get some shots of him walking.
To get good shots of wildlife on the move, it’s imperative to anticipate their movements and activities. If you just follow the animals around, you’ll end up with nothing but shots of their backs, so sometimes it’s a good idea to take risks and move far ahead of your target. It often paid off big time.
We were the first to the clearing and spotted our feline friend lounging a bit down the ways. I leaned out the window to get some shots of him closer to ground level, and what happened next made my blood run cold. Our leopard locked eyes with me and instantly transformed from a lounging house cat to a predator on the prowl. He maintained eye contact and walked straight at me! Remembering Sami’s trivia tidbit about leopards being unpredictable and killing for fun, I frantically rolled up my window as the powerful cat got closer and closer. I cautiously eyed our open roof, expecting him to jump up for easy access when out of nowhere…
He slinked underneath our car and stayed there. Thankfully, he was less interested in a snack than he was in lounging in the shade of our land cruiser!
Now as cool as it is to share a vehicle with a leopard, I didn’t get much out of it if I couldn’t even see him! We were able to get him out by starting the car and gently rolling back and forth, but once he had the taste for shade it was hard to keep him away. He hopped from vehicle to vehicle, enjoying the cool undersides of the land cruisers. Every time he would approach ours, we would have to drive away from him before he made it under again!
This game of musical cars continued for a few hours until the leopard grew tired of chasing car after car. Eventually he sauntered back to a new tree and did what leopards do best, lounged on a branch with all four paws dangling below him.
When it was all said and done, I spent a full 12 hour day watching this one leopard, and it was worth every moment. It was rare to find such an active one and I enjoyed basking in his beauty and power all day. It was the perfect end to Ndutu, and now it was time to move onward to South Serengeti.
Day 6: South Serengeti
It was time to say goodbye to Ndutu and head out to the southern section of Serengeti National Park. Things started off great when the very first animal we spotted was a honey badger! Sami seemed just as excited as I was, telling me how rare it is to spot them. We moved in for a closer look, and that was when I got to see why honey badgers have their fearsome reputation.
Honey Badger Cares
Most animals make a hasty retreat when they see your iron beast on the horizon. Not the honey badger. Instead of running away like pretty much every other animal in Africa, this honey badger turned around as soon as we got near it and headed straight for us in a full sprint! I was caught a bit off guard when I could hear it grunting and growling as it approached. We got out of its way in case we were stopping the badger from reaching its nest, but instead of running past, it followed us and began snapping at our tires!
We drove off at a quick enough pace that it couldn’t catch us, and after a few minutes of chasing after us the honey badger seemed satisfied of its triumph over this giant metal intruder.
Nature Runs Its Course
One thing that struck me about South Serengeti was the abundance of vultures there. Everywhere we drove there were several within sight, and we came upon quite a few groups of them feasting on assorted carcasses. With the great migration passing through the area there were plenty of predator leftovers for the vultures to choose from, but sometimes they find other ways to eat.
When we arrived at a large wildebeest herd, one thing that stood out to us was one mother and a baby standing apart from the rest with several vultures lounging nearby. As the herd moved on, the mother tried to encourage the baby to join them, but it was to no avail as it sat back down after just a few steps. The mother had no choice but to join the herd. My heartstrings were being pulled to their breaking point every time the calf called out to its mother. This went on for a while, where she would turn around and walk back to it when it would call, but eventually she had to leave it behind as the vultures moved in.
It was a sad sight, but it’s part of life in the savanna. The poor calf was too sick to move and it didn’t pass on in a pleasant way. While it was heartbreaking to witness, ultimately it strengthened the herd and provided the vultures with a meal.
After having my heart torn out of my chest by that last sight, we got some much needed relief when we spotted a playful juvenile cheetah. His eyes were glowing in the morning sunlight as it bounced around the savanna, paying little attention to the nearby wildebeest herd.
Cheetahs don’t have very strong claws so it’s rare for them to climb trees, but nobody told this guy. As he bobbed and weaved around the area, he sprinted straight up a narrow tree, then ran right back down at full speed, as if he made up his own rules to gravity.
His high jinks continued with his morning exercise routine as he frolicked through the greenery, bounced up and down other trees, and seemed to have a blast on a beautiful African morning.
A Family Meal
This was certainly turning out to be a bountiful morning. Not far from the playful cheetah was a mother with four young cubs just finishing their breakfast. These cubs were even younger than the ones in Ndutu and still had their scruff, making them look like cheetah-honey badger hybrids. Sami, always full of useful information, mentioned that some naturalists have theorized that this is an evolutionary design intended to make would-be predators think twice before going near the cheetah cubs, giving them some degree of protection.
As the meal was finished, the mother quickly cleaned off her cubs and ushered them away from the carcass. Hyenas would be attracted to it and were no doubt nearby, and they would have been perfectly happy to snack on some cheetah cubs as a side dish.
This mother cheetah had her work cut out for her, but she seemed to do an excellent job. They settled down in the shade of a tree and behind the cover of some shrubbery, where the cubs were free to play and frolic. They made perfect use of their tree/jungle gym as they scurried up the trunk and chased one another around. Mom kept a watchful eye on everything, making sure there were no threats looming in the distance.
Home Of The King
We had to make it to our camp in Central Serengeti before dark, so we said goodbye to South Serengeti and drove to the Central area. This is one of the most popular areas of Serengeti National Park and is famous for its rock formations, known as “Kopjes,” and for its large population of lions.
As we pulled into the park, the skies opened up and it began to rain. I was dismayed, but Sami told me it’s good luck when you go somewhere new and it rains on your arrival. I guess Toto was on to something with that song, after all. I hoped he was right, and luckily the shower was over quickly.
I took in the beautiful landscape and the many superb starlings in the area. They’re downright iridescent as their bright blue feathers reflect the light of the sun, glimmering as they flutter about. They were great company and showed us the way to our beautiful tented camp, situated right in the middle of the park with nothing else around for miles. The sun set over the gorgeous landscape and I tucked myself in for the main attraction tomorrow.