Serengeti sunrise

Eastern Serengeti: Pay Your Respects To The Vultures

Pay your respects to the vultures
For they are your future
-Coil, Amethyst Deceivers

Everyone in the Serengeti wants to see a kill. This is somewhat ironic given that most meat-eating humans prefer not to know how their food lived and died before being served up in hygienic packaging. But “Did you see a kill?” was a constant refrain on the trip from our fellow in-humans.

In these vast plains of teeming wildlife, the odds seemed pretty good. There are plenty of meat eating cats and dogs. Plenty of herbivores provide the meat. However, the Serengeti is surprisingly clean of carcasses. It’s rare to see a rotting corpse, or a pile of cleaned off bones, never mind a kill close up. The reason for the apparent cleanliness? Vultures! Watch the vultures and you see our future. A rabble of squawking beasts polishing off the leftovers of the apex killers. Follow the vultures and find the dead.

Endless Plains of the Serengeti

The tree at the center. Serengeti
Acacia tree on the Serengeti.

If Ngorongoro resembled the Land That Time Forgot, then the Serengeti is Iowa reclaimed. It’s vast, flat, golden and full of beasts. It consists of 12,000 square miles of wilderness, which holds the greatest numbers of large mammals on the planet. The numbers are truly astonishing: two million wildebeests, 500,000 gazelles, 250,000 zebra, 53,000 buffalo, 3,000 lions, 1,000 leopards, large amounts of elephants and so on. Our visit was at the beginning of the annual Great Migration, when the zebras and wildebeests gather en masse and start heading north to the Maasai Mara in Kenya. So the sights and sounds were often uproarious and overwhelming.

We spent 3 nights in the Serengeti split between the eastern and western areas. We could have spent weeks. This is a place where it is difficult to get bored. On the drive in from Ngorongoro, we saw the weirdly psychedelic agama lizard, a couple of hyenas, red hartebeests, secretary birds, and lots of gazelles.

Simba - lion on kopje
Lion on a kopje

The only break from the flat grasslands are the rocky outcrops known as kopjes. Lions like hanging out on the rocks, so they are good places to tally up numbers on one of the Big Five. Unsurprisingly, we rocked up to the first kopje we saw and there, slumped down on a high lookout, were two lions doing what cats do best. Sleeping. Cute, but we wanted blood!

As we moved on from the rocks, we saw a hippo cooling off in a pool, crocodiles lounging on riverbanks, marabou stork pompously strutting through the long grass, and a dead gazelle hung over a tree branch. Sadly, we did not see the leopard responsible for the kill.

Excellent Elephant Encounter

Elephant panorama
Elephants at the watering hole.

Slurp
Elephant taking a drink.

Family portrait. Elephants
Generations of elephants.

As we drove through the golden hour, we saw a family of elephants wandering towards us in the long grass. Eddie pulled the Land Cruiser on to a side track and parked right in the path of the oncoming beasts. Obviously, elephants step aside for nothing and no one. I am convinced they would have walked right over the car if they had more agility. They moodily bumped us on the way through and made a beeline to the watering hole on the other side. There were 16 elephants, including a couple of super-cute babies. I could watch baby elephants learning how to use their trunks all day and be perfectly content.

Baby elephants are the cutest
Baby elephants are the cutest.

Elephants. Serenget
Elephant family.

We sat there in perfect silence, watching and listening to the elephants guzzling gallons of water, spraying cooling water on their backs, and talking to each other in rumbling guttural tones. We were the only people there watching this splendid scene. This is one of the true wonders of the Serengeti. Where on else Earth can you get this unfiltered view of the world as it once was, and you are the only ones witnessing it? I have no doubt other groups were having equally unique little moments like this throughout the park. No huge tour groups, idiot Instagrammers, or selfie-seeking morons.

Perfect.

The Lap of Luxury at Kubu Kubu

Kubu Kubu Lodge sunrise
Sunrise over the pool at Kubu Kubu Lodge.

Laura and I typically eschew expensive accommodation, preferring instead to spend our money on experiences rather than a bed for the night. However, places like the Kubu Kubu Tented Lodge in the eastern Serengeti made us question that stance! What a fabulous place! It’s a shame we got here so late in the day and left first thing the next morning. I think within minutes we vowed to come back for a longer stay in the future.

Kubu Kubu Tented Lodge
Our bungalow at Kubu Kubu.

The hotel is up on an escarpment with the immense plains spread out below. The room was fantastic and the food the best of the trip. Sadly, most safari lodge restaurants cater to bland middle-aged Western tastes, but the cooks here know how to use local flavors and spice. The ice cold champagne on arrival and mimosas for breakfast softened us up too!

Kubu Kubu infinity pool
Infinity pool at Kubu Kubu

Our bungalow reminded us of the many beach huts we’ve stayed in Indonesia, if those beach huts had four-poster canopy beds, deluxe furnishings, and two-way radios to call a Maasai guard to escort us to dinner. Laura couldn’t resist a chilly swim in the infinity pool before breakfast and I am always a sucker for a shower under the night sky.

In for the kill

Lion Eats Wildebeest
The killer lioness takes a bite out of her first kill.

There are kills and there are KILLS!

We packed up and left the Kubu Kubu lodge with some reluctance. But we had an exciting morning in store. Eddie received word that there was a lioness close by with a dead wildebeest. We might have missed the kill but at least we could see blood! We drove up and the crowd had already gathered. There was a small watering hole with a few bushes scattered around and a dead wildebeest in plain sight on the river bank. Land Cruisers were jostling for the best spot in case the lion came out to eat from the larder.

After a few minutes, the lion sauntered out from her hiding spot under a bush and flopped down by the wildebeest. She went in for the soft spot in the groin and after a few nibbles and tears at the flesh, she buried her jaws into the dead beast. A yank and a rip in the soft flesh and she lifted her head and, for menacing effect, licked the blood from her face. Teasing the crowd who wanted to see more gore, she sloped off back to her hide.

Meanwhile, the Great Migration was going on with herds grunting and kicking up dust all around us. A stream of wildebeest (also known as gnu) and zebras arrived to fill up on water before their day’s march north. They looked a bit spooked, unsurprisingly with a dead gnu on the ground and a crocodile in the water. Needs must, however, and the safety in numbers mentality took over. The line of animals came to the water, drank, and moved on.

Gnu migration
A herd of wildebeest approaching the watering hole where the lion was lying in wait.

Woe for the poor baby zebra! A little one with shaky legs got stuck in the mud by the river and after thrashing around for a few minutes, it wearily crawled back to safety… or so it thought.

The lioness stuck her head out of her hide and locked the baby zebra in her gaze. At first, it seemed like the lion was just there to taunt the little zebra. The zebra stood rooted to the spot as if in a Star Wars-like tractor beam. Everything seemed to freeze in the final moment as the lion coolly appraised her prey. She leaned back on her haunches and, in a lightning strike, sprang forward and the zebra was no more. An audible gasp arose from everyone around. Wildlife is visceral this close up. The lion grabbed the zebra in her jaws as if a mere rag doll and sauntered back to her hide.

Kelsey captured the kill on video. The exciting part starts at about 2:30 (video by Kelsey Jacobsen).

Minutes later, a few more gnu strolled up for their morning drink. Unbelievably, the lion came out again. She must have some hungry cubs. A flurry of terrified gnu, a cloud of dust, scattering hooves, terror, and confusion. The lion sank her teeth into the wildebeest’s neck, snapped its spine, and added another beast to the larder.

Lioness pounce. Serengeti
The killer lioness pounces.

An action packed start to the day. There was even a suggestion that the lion had disappeared off behind the bushes and killed another gnu. Now, we know why they are the Kings (Queens) of the animals.

Through the Animal Kingdom

Zebra confusion
Cluster of zebras

For the rest of the day, most of the activity was centered on life in all its glory, not so much the gory. Well, aside from a large group of vultures and maribou cleaning up the carcass of a wildebeest.

We headed west, farther into the plains. The migrators were gathering like witches at black masses. All thunderous hooves, skittish behavior, dust clouds, and gnu gnu gnu! We saw topi, rock hyrax, Fisher’s lovebirds, fat crocodiles, buffalo, zebras, dik-diks, marching troops of baboons, banded mongoose, and elephants here, there and everywhere.

We had another superb encounter with big cats too. Eddie had gotten word that there were cheetah close by. Off we sped. We pulled alongside 5 other Land Cruisers and focused our binoculars on the endless expanse of long grass before us. Hell knows who first spotted them or how, but out in the distance were a mother and juvenile cheetah. Lots of chatter went up between the drivers, and all at once we turned off the road and got closer to the cats. I am fairly sure this was not a strictly legal maneuver, but it gave us astonishing close ups of one of the more elusive residents of the plains.

Mother cheetah
Cheetah in the grass.

I expected them to get up and leave, but they looked at us with bored, aloof indifference. They were beautiful cats. Healthy, lean, sinuous, and undeniably cute. The younger cat got up and I thought the show was over. Soon they would lurch off into the grass. But no, if we could get a closer look at him, he was going to take a look at us. He wandered over to the jeeps, and in true cat style, started to scratch his claws on the spare tires of one of the vehicles. Amazing to see but I think the occupants of the scratch pad were relieved to see him wander off again.

After half hour of fabulous cat watching, we swung the car back on to the legal tracks and sped off into the golden expanse to get to our destination in the Western Serengeti before nightfall.

Photos

View full size photos on Flickr

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