Each morning we were greeted by our bright smiling guide Baraka as we climbed into our private safari vehicle, pushed open the pop-up top, and started off on our day’s journey. I would take my usual spot, standing in the back of the truck, scanning the savanna for wildlife while the clear, cool wind whipped at my face. Baraka would follow the dirt roads that snake their way through the unforgettable landscapes of broad rolling grasslands shaped by fire and grazing animals and dotted with lone acacia trees.
It would only take a few minutes before we were spotting 15-foot giraffes munching on high branches and fearsome-looking warthogs disappearing into the high grasses with only their antennae-like trails visible across the savanna. Groups of Thomson’s gazelle would go bounding across the plains showing off their attractive black flank stripes as they fled. Jackals and mongoose would pop up from their burrows for a better view at the passing vehicle. Awkward ostriches weighing up to 285lbs gathered in groups, their heads bobbing up and down while their balloon-like bodies hovered over the grasses. Distant wildebeests grazed alone, seemingly lost from the hundreds of thousands crossing somewhere nearby. Pairs of striped zebras huddled together resting their heads on each others necks and confusing even us with their unique form of camouflage and camaraderie. Nearby, a pair of spotted hyenas would go bounding through the grasslands, instantly recognizable by their long, thick neck and strange, loping gait. And all this would happen each and every day to the point that we would grow accustomed to vast expanses of open savanna dotted with innumerable exotic animals.
Yet, each day their would be a special find; a discovery in the midst of our African wonderland that would send vehicles racing in from every direction. If we were lucky, as on the second day, we would be the first to arrive. At first, I thought it was a lion, but nothing could have excited me more than the two syllables uttered by Baraka: “cheetah.” Not one, but three beautiful cheetahs, all brothers, rested beneath the shade of a small grove on the savanna. They were barely visible from afar, but undoubtedly these were the animals we had been searching for as Baraka had been circling each lone tree over the past hour. We had heard the rumors of a cheetah with cubs the previous night and knew they were in the area. Yet, even the advance warning could not spoil the sensation of pulling up next to a trio of these gorgeous animals.
Lazing in the shade and only occasionally lifting their heads to acknowledge the approaching vehicles, it was difficult to imagine these slender cats reaching speeds up to 70 mph (112 km/h). Their life is one of the most difficult of animals in Africa, as evidenced by the injured hobble of one of the brothers. They assured us he was getting better and that the others continue to care and provide for him. But this is no easy task for the cheetah who lacks the strength and teeth to defend its kill or even its cubs. Unable to hoist its prey into a tree, as the leopard does, cheetahs can only hope to devour their kill before being noticed by large predators and scavengers that will steal it away. Cubs often go unattended while a mother must hunt and for that reason and more, few of them survive. Yet, despite their hardships and peril, the cheetah remains one of the most regal of African cats with its elegant fur and teardrop-striped face. These would be the only ones we would see on our safari and it was undoubtedly a highlight of the trip.
Still smitten by the cheetah brothers, we continued towards Lake Ndutu where fingers of woodland mingled with savanna providing an ideal habitat for animals to find shade and places to rest during the day. It was in an open field next to a tiny pond that we discovered yet another unforgettable sight. A pride of lions basked in the sunshine having just consumed their morning’s kill. Several small adorable cubs were still crunching on bones and licking their lips as they finished up their breakfast. We pulled up next to them and shut off the engine while our cameras began firing away. Africa’s most feared predator is also one of its laziest and when we discovered this same pride the previous afternoon they hardly moved a muscle. But now thirsty and with their bellies full, this group of a dozen females and cubs took turns drinking from the pool and playing with their young.
For myself, no animal in Africa was more fascinating or memorable to watch. Granted, they did little but lay around and cuddle their cubs, but the sight of wild lions in the African savanna defies any description I can give. Simply put, they just appeared like over-sized house cats. Their mannerisms are so similar, it is difficult to imagine these formidable animals as feared predators. They roll around on their backs with their paws in the air. They nuzzle each other’s necks and playfully bite and paw one another. They daintily lap at pools of water, obviously adverse to actually touching it and getting wet. And the cubs are so cute and adorable, it is hard to believe you can’t just pick one up and play with it (strongly advise against this). But when the large powerful lioness raises herself and stalks slowly through the high grass, it provokes a sensation that simply takes your breath away. For in those moments we are all aware who is truly the top predator around- and it is not those of us hiding in the safety of our safari vehicle.