Serengeti, Timbuctoo, grey-green greasy Limpopo, Ngorongoro, enticing words from books read long ago. Now as we land at the excitingly named Kilimanjaro International Airport some of them are about to become a reality. We are soon met by our guide and are heading out under the African night sky. Over breakfast the next morning we discover that, apart from our guide, there are six of us in our group – two English, two Scots and two Welsh – is this a cue for a joke or for an adventure?
Three days later and we are out on that endless plain – the Serengeti. The predominant colour is pale burnt umber with the occasional green of an acacia tree. It was just getting light when we left the lodge and the sun is well up when we stop for breakfast. It is hot so we sit under the shade of one of the few trees and are joined by buffalo weaver birds and brilliantly coloured superb starlings hunting for our crumbs. A little way down the track there is a toilet block but the bushes behind it seem healthier (and far less smelly). We are amazed to see a Land Rover convoy full of Japanese tourists in masks and gloves. They descend from their vehicle like beings from another planet, survey the scene and head for the toilets. They don’t stop long and are soon back on their isolation tour.
We are getting used to spotting the game watching opportunities by the tell tale signs of huddled tourist vehicles. We find a cheetah sitting under a tree watching a traffic jam of tourists but there are too many other vehicles. We move on and pull up only ten yards from a dozen young lions and a couple of lionesses resting under a tree beside the road. Their colour merges beautifully into the grass and the only movement is an occasional yawn or stretch. There is far more action on any natural history programme but here we are far better able to appreciate the environment and put what we see on television into context. Our future viewing will be much richer for the memory of a group of lions sleeping through the heat of the day under a Serengeti acacia.
Next day, after a slightly later start we head out across the Serengeti aiming to be at the Ngorongoro crater that evening. There are thousands of gazelle on the plains. We stop beside the road (along with a couple of other vehicles) not far from where we saw the pride of lions yesterday. There are several lions on one side of the road and further back close to us a single male watching them, his head silhouetted in the long grass. He has his eye on taking over the pride but cannot decide whether he is ready to take on the resident male.
As one vehicle moves off we get closer to the pride and see that there is a group of Thomson’s gazelle milling around near the road. From our vantage point on our vehicle we can just see the heads of eight lion cubs watching them. Unaware, the ‘Tommys’ decide to move and determinedly walk off in a line straight towards two waiting lionesses. She pounces. Within a few strides she has downed a gazelle. The Tommys run, frantically bounding away from danger.
The watching cubs see their opportunity. “Look at the cubs, look at the cubs, they’ve taken off” cries Glen Then, in awed tones, “Oh, here comes the lion” as the male ambles over to the kill. The cubs give chase to the fleeing gazelle. One cub downs one just in front of us. He hasn’t got a firm hold so the Tommy is able to scramble away. The cub slips on the sandy road and goes head over heels before continuing the chase.
Two minutes later and all is peaceful again, the gazelle are back together in a group standing at a safe distance from three still watching cubs, the lion is enjoying his breakfast and the rest of the pride will have to wait their turn. Panting hard, they now trudge off up the road passing within a few feet of us and we follow them for a while.
The lone male is still waiting back down the road unfed and unloved. This has been one encounter we will never forget – and will forever wonder why the Tommys walked to their demise. Now we head to the great amphitheatre of the Ngorongoro crater but the lone male, Timbuctoo and the Limpopo will have to wait.