I have a balcony seat at a spellbinding show. The stage is a gigantic mud hole, surrounded by thick African jungle, and the performers have been front centre for the last hour.
The first to emerge from the wings are a herd of Cape Buffalo. They appear as amiable as their domestic kin, but are one of Africa's most unpredictable and dangerous animals. Next, a wart hog makes his appearance. With his elongated snout, and enormous curved tusks, he looks like an accident of nature and perhaps he is-his awkward torso necessitates going down on his front knees to snack on grass. He roots around, then lifts his head, and sensing danger takes off in a rush, tail held vertical - a comical exit.
The next performer is a handsome male waterbuck with ringed horns, accompanied by his family. The females and babies graze placidly until a male elephant strides into the clearing causing a flurry of hasty departures. Here is one of the Big Five animals that I've been eagerly waiting to see, and they arrive in tribal numbers. Over twenty big Mamas with their baby elephants cluster around the mud hole. Two little chaps, perhaps four to six months old meander off, and a teenage Jumbo mischievously sprays them with water. The mother of one of the little guys flaps her ears at the tormentor and he settles down to grubbing in the soil instead of teasing his juniors.
The night is closing in and the temperature has dropped considerably. We are 7,200 feet above sea level here on Mount Kenya and I seek the warmth of my room. At night I wake to anguished screams, but there's nothing to be seen in the gloom beyond my balcony. Later we learn that a cheetah had made short work of a jackal.
Our driver-guide steers our Land Rover through rolling grassland picking his way between thorn trees and palm trees with odd shaped Y-branches. Around a bend, a cluster of giraffes wiggle their ears at us, before resuming their breakfast of acacia leaves.
A little later a barrel-bodied zebra ambles in front of our vehicle: "Zebra-crossing!" quips one of our group.
The radio-phone crackles into excited bursts of Swahilii, and our driver-guide hastily heads across the savannah, and edges us through a cluster of vehicles. Showtime! A leopard sits sprawled across a tree trunk. Languid and aloof, head held high she sets the cameras rolling. Her expression says: "I'm ready for my close-up Mr. DeMille!"
The days are breathless with activity. A mother cheetah teaches her three cubs to hunt as we look on, and a little later another lone cheetah feasts on her kill - an antelope. This is high drama! She is ringed by vultures and they keep tightening their circle, their murderously sharp talons and beaks just inches away from the carcass. She raises her head and they hastily leap back, but not for long. Eventually she gives up and walks away, and fur and feathers fly as the birds fight over the remains of the animal.
And the king of the jungle? Yes, we see him too: the Lion King in all his male glory resting in the long grasses. He is one of the only two males that we stumble upon, but we do sight several lionesses.
On one occasion a big cat stalks a group of bushbuck grazing about five hundred yards from our vehicle. We are close enough to see a fly crawling across her nose, but her tawny eyes are so intent on her prey that she ignores us entirely. A group of monkeys set off warning calls and the bushbucks take off at full gallop. You can almost see the lioness shrug resignedly as she turns and disappears into a thicket of bushes.
This is the season of the wildebeest migration and it is hard to imagine anything more thrilling than standing at a high lookout point to see thousands of these animals streaming like freckles across the Serengeti plains. They are dimwitted creatures, and on one occasion we pause to watch them attempt a river crossing. The bank is steep and further upstream the waters are infested with crocs. They make it down a little way, and then the leader turns tail and scrambles up the bank…the lot of them panic and follow suit. Eventually one brave (or excessively stupid) wildebeest reaches the water and begins to swim across - emboldened by this, the entire herd thunder down the embankment, and make it safely to the other side.
And the king of the jungle? Yes, we saw him too: the Lion King in all his male glory sitting atop a rocky outcrop, surveying his territory. He is one of the only two males that we stumble across, but we catch glimpses of several lionesses. On one occasion it is more than just a glimpse: she is stalking a group of bushbuck just downwind from where we are in the vehicle. We are so close to her that we can see a fly crawling across her nose, but her tawny eyes are so intent on her prey that she ignores us completely. A shoal of monkeys sets off warning calls and the bushbucks take off at full gallop. You can almost see the lioness shrug resignedly as she turns and disappears into a thicket of bushes.
At a large muddy watering hole, we find about fifty or more hippos (along with their babies) wallowing in the mud and their own bubbly excreta (the stench is overpowering!) but also present are a formidable number of large crocodiles. The hippos aren't worried, and the crocs stay supercilious and detached. Until a baby croc gets a bit too close to a baby hippo. And the chase is on….the little hippo splashes behind the small croc and at one point even grabs its tail. But the mother crocodile moves forward menacingly, and the chubby little hippo decides that discretion is the better part of valour and backs off.
Apart from its prolific animal and bird life, the Serengeti seems to change with every passing hour - hazy and mysterious at sunrise when we take off on safari, shimmering under a heat haze by mid-day and as we head back to our camp each evening, we watch the sun going down like an enormous orange ball, splashing the sky with gold, scarlet and purple. The dusk deepens and then Africa draws her diamante studded cloak of night across the land.
PHOTOS by Margaret Deefholts
1. Cape Buffaloes surround a watering hole at the Mount Kenya Lodge
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