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Tanzania Redux, March 2008 Trip Report

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As some of you know, after having been on safari in Tanzania and Kenya in January, I was able to go back to Tanzania for a week in March. I spent five nights in the Ndutu area and two nights in the Serengeti. Believe me, I know how lucky I was to do this! Raelond, we’re posting at the same time, so I hope I have titled this report so as not to be confusing. I’ll apologize in advance if I accidentally add to your report rather than my own!

I arrived at Kilimanjaro Airport March 10. I got to bypass the visa line and get in the Immigration line because the visa I purchased in January was still valid. That was fun! My luggage arrived with me this time and nice surprise - Tesha, my guide in January who I had requested for this trip, had made the airport run to pick me up. He couldn’t believe I had returned so quickly (me either!)

When we got to the Kibo Palace Hotel, I found they had put me in a suite. This is not something I would spend money on, so I got a kick out of it - I felt like a celebrity. The next morning, we went to the Roy Safaris office for a short briefing and then it was off to Ndutu. We stopped in Karatu for fuel and to buy rice for my camera beanbag. We bought the rice at the open air market. The transaction was in Swahili, so I couldn’t follow it, but I got the rice, we filled the beanbag and I walked through the market for a few minutes. Seeing the fruits and vegetables reminded me of local farmers’ markets, but the open bags of rice and grains were not something I would see at home. Next time, I'd like to spend time walking around Karatu - I like towns and cities and seeing them on foot.

We continued on to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. As before, I was amazed at how the scenery and temperature changes as you drive from the Lodware gate to Ndutu. It was green and noticeably cooler as we climbed towards the crater. After we drove down onto the plain and got closer to Ndutu, I noticed that it was drier and dustier than when I was there in January. There were grazing animals around, but the huge herds had moved south of where they were in January.

We got to Ndutu Safari Lodge in time for lunch and I had a chance to take a nap before the evening game drive. The evening game drive did not offer many photographic opportunities (as distinguished from seeing animals and birds), but there were some dramatic cloud formations near sunset. After dinner, I got out my tripod and took pictures of the campfire, then sat down to talk to a man who runs wildlife and bird tours all over the world. He told me about seeing the mother cheetah with three small cubs, which prompted me to review the viewing guidelines in the Cheetah Watch brochure in case I got to see cheetahs too.

The next morning, we started our game drive at 6:00. We weren’t seeing much in the area we were in, so Tesha drove to the other side of the plain, where we came across a pride of lions - one male and four females. They had a zebra carcass in a copse and a couple of them were still eating. As we watched, they all settled down to resting. One lioness was somewhat separate from the others and when she came over to join them, she started licking two other lionesses on their bellies. I hadn’t seen this behavior before - I’ve seen them groom each other’s faces and heads, but not give a full body bath. We had to leave eventually to get back for breakfast. After breakfast, I was leaving the dining area to go back to my room and saw an elephant walking through the brush between the lodge and the lake. That was so exciting - I love elephants!

After breakfast, we went out on another game drive. By this time, we had heard about the mother cheetah with six cubs, so we were on the lookout.
When we saw three other vehicles in the distance, we went to check it out and there they were! The cubs were playing in an open area in the grass and their paws and legs were muddy because there had been rain in that section. After awhile, the mother gathered up the cubs and started to move away from the vehicles. The other vehicles left, but we watched to see what she was doing. She didn’t appear to be hunting, but moving the cubs to an area where the grass was higher and thicker. When we saw them settle down again, we moved in that direction.

As we park several yards away the cheetahs, I’m thinking ‘wow, I have this cheetah family to myself - great photo op’. I did not anticipate what would happen next - after a few minutes, the cubs came scampering out of the grass towards us. I’m still thinking ‘great photo op - they’re out of the grass and visible.’ I’m clicking away as they get closer and closer, but since I’m looking through the viewfinder, I’m not aware of where they are in relation to me. All of a sudden they are so close, I can’t get a good angle. Then they disappear under the vehicle.

I’ve seen pictures of adult cheetahs on vehicles, but I didn’t know that cheetah cubs, especially such young ones, would approach a vehicle. We sat for several minutes, then Tesha started the motor. The cubs came scampering out, we counted to make sure they were all out from under, and then moved the vehicle a little further away.

Once we stopped, I started watching the cheetahs and after about five minutes, the cubs came scampering out of the brush and went back under the vehicle. Up to this point, the mother had been keeping watch - she would lie down for a few minutes, then get up and look around for a few minutes. When the cubs went under the vehicle the second time, she came over. She sniffed around the front bumper, peered under the driver’s side of the vehicle, then seemed satisfied that the cubs were okay and went back to her watching post.

After several minutes, another vehicle appeared. I didn’t want to yell and disturb the cheetahs, but we wanted the other guide and guests to know that there were cubs under the vehicle (I really did not want to become known as the guest who was involved in cheetah cubs being run over). The man was taking pictures, but I caught the woman’s eye and by making signs, was able to indicate that the six cubs were under our vehicle. When we finally had to leave, we started the vehicle, counted to make sure all the cubs were clear and drove off a little way. We stopped for a few minutes to watch the cubs, who headed under the other vehicle. I couldn’t resist - I had to take pictures of the cubs under the other vehicle. When we finally left, the other vehicle left with us and the cubs rejoined their mother.

We headed out for the evening game drive around 4:30. When we saw several vehicles around a tree, we knew it was probably a leopard. We joined them and there was a large, beautiful male in the tree. It was a bit crowded and while I had a good view of the leopard, I couldn’t get a good shot because there were branches across his face. We thought about leaving but by that time, there were vehicles behind us, so we stayed put. We passed the time by Tesha telling me about leopards.

Eventually, the leopard stood up and came down the tree. He headed our direction and disappeared into the brush somewhere to our left and behind us. After a few minutes, most of the vehicles departed - we and two other vehicles were the only ones left. We started to back out but saw the leopard in the brush. The people in the other vehicles had a good view for photos, but since there wasn’t room near them, Tesha positioned the vehicle at a right angle to the other vehicles. Since I couldn’t get an unobstructed shot, I was content to watch the leopard without taking photos - it was the first time I had seen one that wasn't up in a tree.

Eventually, the leopard stood up and started to move in our direction. Then the most incredible thing happened - the leopard walked out of the brush, up to my side of the vehicle, back to the rear tire and then went under the vehicle. We could not believe it. We looked all around the vehicle and there was no other place he could be. We kept watch but he did not reappear. Finally, since we had to be back at the lodge by 7:00, Tesha started the vehicle. We thought he would come out at the sound of the motor, but he didn’t. Tesha moved the vehicle slowly forward and finally he appeared. I was at the back with my camera and got the most close-up picture of a leopard I’ve ever gotten. As we drove back to the lodge, we could not stop smiling. It was just so incredible, we couldn’t believe it. When I told Marleen, one of the lodge managers, about it later, she asked what we had under the vehicle that was attracting all these animals!

There was a lot of excitement about the cheetahs at the lodge that evening. Several people had seen the six cubs and several others had seen the cheetah mother with the three younger cubs. There was a Japanese man and his daughter sitting in the lounge downloading their photos onto a laptop. They spoke little English and none of the other guests spoke Japanese, but we managed to communicate via the photos - they got some great ones of the three young cubs.

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