Tanzania, just south of the Equator in East Africa, has 120 ethnic groups and languages. So Swahili, the language of East and Central Africa, is everyone’s second language. It is also home to world-famous Serengeti National Park--one of our destinations. Why does Africa have such numbers and diversity of large animals? In part, because Ice Ages did not much affect it. We were here to see this panorama of life.
-- Michal Strutin, firstname.lastname@example.org
Map: U.S. Central Intelligence Agency
Tanzania's 14 national parks account for 35% of land. Tourism is the 3rd-largest source of revenue, after agriculture and mining. We visited Tarangire, Ngorongoro, and Serengeti. We arrived at Kilimanjaro International Airport near Arusha, Tanzania's 3rd-largest city. Beyond Arusha, paved roads run out fast. Tanzania is a poor country.
Map: U.S. Centers for Disease Control < wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/ > Yellowbook Map 4-12.
I wanted to visit the Serengeti before the proposed mine-haul road is built. Funded by China to reach rare-earth minerals, the road would cut across northern Serengeti National Park. Researchers, in a Jan. 25, 2011, article in PLoS One, estimated that the road could reduce wildebeest populations by as much as one-third: www.plosone.org/ "Predicted Impact of Barriers to Migration on the Serengeti Wildebeest Population."
Map by the African Wildlife Foundation. Via mongabay.com, conservation news on the tropics.
The largest land mammal, African elephants are iconic to any portrayal of Africa. Males can reach ~12 feet high and weigh 6+ tons. Females live in familial herds, like this one. How long do they live? Elephants get new molars every 10 years. At ~60, molar growth stops and, if the elephant has lived that long, it often dies of starvation.
Except where noted, all photographs by Michal Strutin
Called the upside-down tree because, leafless, its branches look like roots, baobab trees are among the largest trees. They are also the oldest angiosperms, carbon-dated at more than 1,000 years. Elephants peel and chew baobab bark, putting some populations at risk. In the past, Bushmen lived in hollow baobabs, inspiring the name of Peter Matthiessen's excellent 1972 book on East Africa, "The Tree Where Man Was Born." Tarangire National Park.
Many tall as a person, termite mounds dot the landscape. Within are many "workers" and one queen, who can live 20 years and lay up to 1,000 eggs per day. When aardvarks break into mounds to eat the termites, the abandoned mound may become home to warthogs or hyenas. Tarangire National Park.
A typical scene in Tarangire National Park, at 1096 square miles a smallish park compared to some. But packed with wildlife, and an easy 75 miles on paved roads from Arusha. Like all Tanzania's national parks, you must enter with an official guide. Because of year-round water in the Tarangire River, the park has a high density of elephants.
Thirteen travelers in 3 jeeps--not bad. The jeeps have pop tops and we spent a lot of time standing as we drove along the parks' dirt roads. Harry Cornbleet, some of whose photographs appear here, is farthest left. I am farthest right and the photographs not noted are mine: Michal Strutin.
Our intrepid, knowledgeable Thomson Safari guides. Able to explain animal behavior and physiology as they tip-toe jeeps down rutted gullies. From left: Abu (Abraham), Hashim, and John, our head guide. In researching safari companies, we narrowed many to 3: Thomson, Africa Adventure Consultants, Premier Tours. We chose Thomson because they focus on Tanzania, their guides are great, and Thomson gives back to the community.
Tarangire River and wooded savanna. This permanent water source is the reason Tarangire attracts so many elephants. They need gallons of water to drink each day, plus water helps cool their massive bodies when it's hot.
East Africa has the greatest diversity of antelope in world: about half of the planet’s 86 species. We saw about a dozen different species, such as these waterbucks grazing along the Tarangire River. From the white ring around their back end, you can see why they're also known as "toilet-seat" antelope.
A male waterbuck along the Tarangire River.
Her ears are out, displaying displeasure / warning. Elephants' ears also help them dissipate heat, by flapping and via large, noticeable veins. Tarangire National Park.
Size requires space, but as human populations expand, elephant habitat shrinks. That and continued poaching, despite an ivory-trade ban, keeps elephants at risk. Tarangire National Park.
Male giraffes can reach 18 feet. Giraffes' height provides access to their preferred food: acacia leaves, which they strip off with their prehensile tongue, narrow muzzle, and flexible lips. Sort of like sucking fish flesh off bones. This well-adapted package keeps them from getting injured by the acacia's sharp thorns. Tarangire National Park.
Warthogs tusks are dual-purpose: used to root out bulbs and rhizomes from underground plus males use them as weapons when they fight. The warts on their faces are defensive growths. Tarangire National Park.
Impalas, like many other species, generally live in all-female groups while males band in loose confederations. We saw more browsing than grazing, but impalas do both depending on what's available. Always good to be flexible. Tarangire National Park.
Few animals look as graceful and elegant on the run as an impala. Only the males have horns.
The smallest antelope, dik-diks top out at at 1.5 feet. They live in shrubby areas to stay unseen, but we saw a lot in Tarangire. No surprise, shrubs--rather than grass--are their main food source. Also their main water source. They use scent glands in front of their eyes to mark their territory. Unlike most antelope, dik-diks live in monogamous pairs.
Its dramatic, don't-mess-with-me colors say this is a dominant male agama lizard. Females and subordinate males are drab brown. We commonly saw them sunning on rocks. Tarangire National Park.
This pride includes 5 or 6 females, a male, and two cute cubs, who were hopping back and forth over their father's back when we first spotted them. This male is definitely their father because when a male lion takes over a pride, he kills any offspring that aren't his. Tarangire National Park.
As we watched, suddenly the females stood and began moving off...
...the male, too, looking back at the interlopers, the true "king of beasts."
...in this case, "queen of beasts." Elephants seem like gentle animals--until they're not. A rampaging elephant killed David Western's father, a hunter turned conservationist. Western himself became a noted biologist and an East African conservation leader. His book, "In the Dust of Kilimanjaro," presents a fascinating, sweeping picture of elephants, environment, and humans on the savannas of East Africa.
In Tarangire, if you see a grove of small-to-medium trees strewn around like broken pick-up sticks, assume elephants were there. They knock down the trees, then browse the leaves. Or, using their incredibly dexterous proboscis, they peel then eat strips of tree bark. Elephants: one way to turn woodlands to grasslands rather quickly.
The finger-like protrusions at the end of an elephant's trunk allow it to strip bark as precisely as if it were lifting a teacup. Elephants spend half of their waking hours eating because they digest only half of what they eat. We saw a baboon and, later, a hornbill bird rummaging through elephant dung to find good, undigested bits.
A female ostrich watches our lead jeep in Tarangire. About 6-7 feet high, these flightless birds can run 30+ miles per hour, deliver a nasty blow with their feet, and females lay eggs that can feed a dozen people each, as many as 20 in a clutch. (No, we didn't eat any.) The eggs look and feel as smooth as white marble.
View from picnic tables, overlooking broad Silale Marsh in Tarangire. In winter, the marsh greens up. We passed plenty of elephants, who need to drink daily. We also saw vervet monkeys, pelicans, sacred ibis, saddle-bill storks, wool-neck storks, open-bill storks, warthogs, herons, ostrich, and...
...a few fish-eagles, including this one, similar to North American osprey. These photos include a small percent of the birds we saw. Of the eagles, the most prevalent were tawny eagles. A good, compact field guide on birds and other African wildlife is National Audubon Society's "Field Guide to African Wildlife."
A black-backed jackal, one of 3 jackal species. Others are the golden jackal and the side-striped jackal. Jackals and North American coyotes fill similar niches. For more information on jackals, or any wildlife anywhere, Encyclopedia of Life < http://eol.org/ > started by E.O. Wilson and other scientists, is a great go-to website.
A lilac-breasted roller, rivals the painted bunting as the most brilliantly multicolored bird I've ever seen. In flight, their backs look like small explosions of turquoise. You'd think their call would be as gorgeous as their raiment. No, it's a loud, grating "crawk-crawk."
Photo: Harry Cornbleet.
Elephants and zebra at the Tarangire River. Elephants can drink 25-60 gallons a day, when water is plentiful. Water also helps them cool down their massive, near-hairless bodies in hot weather.
With an alert male in the lead, these zebras reminded me of wild-horse herds in Nevada. Although each zebra has a unique stripe pattern, when in a crowd, it's hard to tell one animal from another--defensive adaptation. Two zebra together stand head to tail, like police cars, to spot predators in either direction and to swat off flies with their tails.
Griffon vultures. Just up the road, we saw even more, cleaning up the carcass of a wildebeest. In researching my book, "Discovering Natural Israel," I watched these magnificent birds at Gamla Nature Reserve on the Golan. They are diligent and caring parents and provide essential clean-up services.
Photo: Harry Cornbleet
Nyumbas under baobabs--not much like my pop-up tent. These canvas-sided tents with screened, zip-open windows were typical of our four camps. Canvas walls divide the tent into a large sleeping area, a long, narrow wash-basin area, backed by a shower on one side and a toilet area on the other.
A demonstration of our personal hygiene areas, from left: staff fill large fabric bucket with hot water that runs through tubing to shower stall, with simple lever in shower head; wash table include basin, water-filled pitcher, large bottle of drinking water, etc.; chemical toilet: easy-use, non-smelly.
Photo: Harry Cornbleet.
Typical wash-basin "room." Camps have no running water. All water, fuel, and food must be trucked in. That's why the closer you get to nature, the more expensive the safari. Thus, comfortable lodges cost less than tent-camps.
Not that we were uncomfortable--au contraire. Queen beds; hot water bottles for our feet on the cold heights of Ngorongora Crater; even interior decorating with African-made wall hangings.
Baobabs at sunset at the end of our stay at Tarangire National Park.
Ngorongoro Conservation Area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of the largest volcanic calderas: ~12.5 miles in diameter, 7,500 feet high at the rim. Within: rivers, grasslands, woodlands, hills, marshes, and myriad wildlife. Originally part of Serengeti National Park, the crater and surrounding area was split off to help preserve the Maasai peoples' pastoral lifestyle in lands they had long inhabited. No one is allowed within the crater past sundown.
We woke each morning to a tropical bou-bou duet--birdsong like a bell married to a coronet. The first large mammal we saw in the crater was this cape buffalo. The largest antelope at a half-ton and not so gentle-tempered, cape buffalo can be dangerous. In the crater, one charged our jeep, but dodged right before impact. Could have knocked us over.
A gray heron, similar to North America's great blue heron.
The geese pictured in Egyptian hieroglyphics--these are them. Sacred in ancient Egypt, they are not common there today. But they are commonly seen beside East African waterways and ponds.
The Kori bustard is one of Africa's 18 bustard species and the only species we saw. A large, chicken-like bird, the bustard is adapted to grasslands, and we saw quite a few on the floor of Ngorongoro Crater. Sometimes it serves as a ride for bee-eaters.
Little bee-eaters, like other bee-eater species, look like jewels on the wing, swooping through the air to snag bees and other insects in flight. This was the species we usually saw.
Our first up-close lion, this one was walking slowly along a road on the crater floor. Wherever big cats show up there's sure to be a jeep-jam, as guides call each other.
Wildlife has become used to "boxes-on-wheels." If you stepped out of a jeep--not allowed--you would instantly become either predator or prey.
If I had reached out of the jeep window, I could have touched the claw-scarred back of this male lion. Someone in our jeep started to attempt just that. Whoa! Want to keep that hand?
Then the lion veered off the road, spotted a cape buffalo standing on a low ridge nearby and, with a male confederate, started a flanking movement toward the buffalo.
The two lions started to chase down the buffalo. When it approached the top of the hill, the lions right behind, 4 or 5 of the buffalo's big bull buddies popped over the top of the hill. "You gonna mess with one of us?" seemed to be their threatening message. The lions just remembered something else they meant to do and trotted away. We saw cape buffalos pull this maneuver a couple of times.
What's the second-largest African carnivore? Yep, the spotted hyena, slightly longer and heavier than a leopard. At night, in our Ngorongoro camp, we heard them "laughing" in the distance. This female was one of 3 or 4 we saw lolling about their den, grooming a couple of cubs. Females are as aggressive as males, even have a phallus. This fact would have made a good Stephen Jay Gould column. A pack can take down a full-grown wildebeest.
With their massive jaws and teeth, hyenas can eat a whole animal, bones and all. Like vultures, good for clean-up in a place where so many large mammals eat other large mammals. I would not want to face even 1 hyena, day or night. They're scary.
Male ostrich backed by a view of Ngorongoro Crater’s wall. In breeding season, the male's bare neck and legs turn red. Besides seeing them on the savannas of Africa, I've seen them in Israel's Arava, a broad desert valley that is part of the Great Rift system, which runs from East Africa through the Red Sea, ending in Syria.
The shallow salty alkaline lake on the crater floor attracts thousands of lesser flamingos, whose color comes from their food. Their long necks allow them to stand while swishing their curved beaks upside down through the water, sweeping up algae, brine shrimp, and diatoms from the bottom, using baleen-like filters.
Then, the flamingos rose like a rose-pink cloud. It was a sight I had hoped for, but tried not to expect. And what a sight!
This cheetah watched and waited, as did we, but no prey came within range. Another hides in the brush nearby. The fastest land mammal at 70 mph, cheetahs must wait for prey to come within range because they can't keep up that pace over any distance. The cheetah has been reduced to ~6% of its range in East Africa, less in N. and W. Africa. The Cheetah Conservation Fund < www.cheetah.org/ > is doing interesting work to preserve their habitat.
Unlike cheetah populations, warthogs are doing well. They're speedy and run with their tail raised like a flag. When threatened they're aggressive enough to face down a predator.
Mostly herbivorous, warthogs can graze from a kneeling position, developing "kneepad" calluses in the womb.
Scroll through this and the next 2 photos quickly to get a sense of a male ostrich's mating dance (or search YouTube). Gorgeous, dramatic. We found out later the intended female eventually acquiesced.
Ostrich mating dance 2
Ostrich mating dance 3
On our way to and from cheetah sightings we passed this couple mating a few times. A PBS show states that "for every cub that lives to be one year old, its parents have mated nearly 3,000 times." That's because when pride-less males want to get themselves a pride, 2 or 3 will attack the head of a pride, then kill the defeated male's young. This cycle can make it difficult to raise a cub to adulthood. About 7 prides live in Ngorongoro.
Hippos in the large pond near 1 of the few crater picnic areas.
Only 22 black rhinos live in the crater and are not always seen. Critically endangered worldwide, they are poached for their horn, which is used in traditional Asian medicine for a variety of ailments. Their numbers are so dire that some rangers have sedated and sawn off rhinos' horns simply to save their lives.
A male Thomson's gazelle, a species that serves as food for many East African predators.
Fortunately, there's enough "Tommies," to provide food for predators yet retain healthy populations. More than half a million live on the Serengeti. We also saw plenty of Thomson's gazelle's larger, leaner cousn, the Grant's gazelle.
Africa is home to 60 species of acacia tree, 50 of which can be found in Tanzania. To my eyes, the yellow fever tree (above) is the most beautiful. Fever trees are so-called because they grow along streams and swamps, so associated with mosquitoes and malaria. They are one of the few trees where photosynthesis occurs in the bark. At sunset, the yellow-green bark glowed like gold.
This woodland fills part of the west "side" of Ngorongoro Crater, where fever trees and others are backed by a view of the crater wall. If you see leopards in the crater (we didn't), this is where they likely would be.
The Maasai are famed as warriors. Some have said the reason Maasai, moving south, and Zulus, moving north, never met in battle because the uninhabitable territory of the tsetse fly kept them apart. Once pure pastoralists, their wealth counted in cattle, Maasai now also raise corn and other crops. This village, just outside Ngorongoro Crater, is populated by the 13 wives and offspring of one man.
Photo: Harry Cornbleet.
Generally tall and lean, Maasai can seem fierce and their history is full of feats of courage. When they move to the city, they often find work as security guards. Here, village men are presenting the competitive jumping dance. We spoke with a young man going to boarding school. How can he bring back what he has learned and still retain Maasai culture? How do a people go from pastoralism to modernity in 1-2 generations? And how do they choose what to retain from their traditions? This is no easy path.
Photo: Harry Cornbleet.
A Maasai woman wearing traditional beaded marriage necklace. Polygamy is still practiced, the number of wives depending on the number of cattle a man has for each bride price. Almost all women living outside of cities in areas with a long walk to water keep their hair close-cropped--a matter of convenience.
Photo: Harry Cornbleet.
On the way from Ngorongoro Crater to Oldupai Gorge and the Serengeti, we passed blasted landscapes, some the result of overgrazing. Ngorongoro Conservation Area was home to 9,000 Maasai in 1959, when the area was designated--a compromise to right some of the wrongs of colonialism. Now 60,000 Maasai and their herds live in the same space, resulting in overuse that is problematic culturally, politically, and demographically.
Looking north toward the Serengeti, which means "endless plain" in Maasai.
Between Ngorongoro and the Serengeti lies Oldupai Gorge, where the Leakeys and, later, Donald Johanson, discoverer of "Lucy," researched humankind's predecessors, from Australopiths to the Homo line: Homo habilis, Homo erectus, and Homo sapiens. A small museum overlooks Oldupai Gorge, whose name means "place for sisal," the cactus-like plant that provides cord for mats, baskets, etc.
This map shows the government-proposed route (red), which crosses the northern Serengeti, and the alternate route (green), which avoids the park altogether. It also shows the path of the thousand-mile migration that wildebeests and others make over the course of a year.
The "endless plain" seen from Naabi Hill, just above the parking lot, at the south entrance to Serengeti National Park.
A rock hyrax on steps leading past the Visitor Center and up Naabi Hill. The closest relative of these housecat-sized mammals is...the elephant. The two species have similarly structured padded feet and interior testicles.
Marabou storks line the Seronera River. About 4.5 feet high and thickly built, a few of them hung out at both of our Serengeti camps, looking to scavenge. They remind me of unpleasant, gouty old men from a Dickens novel.
Hippos, here in the Seronera River, stay submerged much of the day to cool their massive bodies. To protect their hairless skin from sunburn, they exude what's called "red sweat," which contains compounds that block ultraviolet light. At night they emerge to graze along the banks.
Often we saw hippos massed in groups, including in ponds stinky with their excrement and other nutrients. Besides serving as a sunblock, their red sweat contains hipposudoric acid whose antibiotic properties keep hippos healthy in such "nutrient-rich" environments.
Seregenti National Park is home to 1.5+ million wildebeest, which cycle through the park annually in a thousand-mile migration, following the most nutritious forage. Their "associates" are zebras and gazelles, a half-million each.
Wildebeest look like animals "made of spare parts." Not the cleverest antelopes on the block, wildebeest serve as food for all big carnivores. But they are fecund; nearly 90% reproduce each year. Of those offspring, about 20% die during the first year. Survival strategy: the females bear all around the same time, right in the center of the herd rather than off in individual places. The larger the herd surrounding it, the greater the chance of a newborn's survival.
The vanguard of a herd of 21. All the adults are female and likely all are related: mothers, daughters, sisters. Elephants: amazing animals detailed in a 2011 book, "The Amboseli Elephants," by long-time elephant researchers Moss and Croze.
We saw only two types of primates: baboons, such as the one above, and vervet monkeys. But we saw a lot of each. The baboons were in troops that ranged from about 10 to near 30, moving from trees to ground and back to trees with equal ease.
A mom with her year-old offspring and her brand-new baby. When not engaged with their young or foraging, baboons spend a lot of time grooming each other.
In the central, Seronera section of Serengeti National Park a particular line of trees seems to serve as leopard "condos"--with a leopard hanging over the thick branches of this tree and that. Leopards drag their prey into a tree to protect their meal from other carnivores, allowing them to eat at leisure.
These two leopards are near-grown offspring of the female in the previous slide, lounging in an adjacent fever tree. In the grasses below, we spotted a female cheetah with two gray-colored, half-grown cubs moving toward a low ridge.
Their coloration blends right into the trees. When they live in larger, more shaded forests, leopards may have black coloration and, in this phase, are often called black panthers.
Mom starts back down her tree...
Checks out the next step...
On our way to our third camp, our way is blocked by a huge herd of wildebeest. They're part of the migration moving south in October to take advantage of grasses greening up thanks to an early start to the winter rains.
Photo: Harry Cornbleet
We watched the wildebeest stampede across the road. When they slowed down, we edged through.
The only permanent buildings of our four camps. One was a airy lounge room, the other the dining room. A typical meal: samosa appetizers, with beer or wine if you like. Then yellow lentil soup, lamb with ginger, curried peas, toasted green beans, salad, and lemon curd cake.
From our camp in the central Serengeti, cape buffalo looked ready to challenge--part of the huge group of animals we saw moving south across the road earlier. Sitting outside our tent, we could also view the mass of wildebeests, but so could other interested parties.
Photo: Harry Cornbleet
Wildebeests spread as far as the eye could see not far from our camp. At night, hyenas, with an interest in eating, called eerily "oooo-Whoop! oooo-Whoop!" outside our tents. Guards protected each camp and we had a cowbell to ring, but I didn't sleep all night, thinking a hyena might rip through the tent. How could my husband sleep! Only comfort: Trip Advisor never mentioned anyone eaten by hyenas at a tent camp.
Before dinner, we took our one long walk: to Robanda Village, as a storm threatened in the north. The 3,000 residents live in mud-brick, thatched homes or cement-block, tin-roofed homes. Brush corrals protect their cattle. In 2011 Robanda got its first electricity, from Chinese-made solar panels; its first electric mill to grind corn; and its first water well, driven by a Chinese-made generator. In the many villages without community wells, residents may walk miles each day to get water.
Our guard, as we walked, is from Robanda, a village of the Ikoma people. Only official park rangers are allowed guns, so a bow and tipped arrows will do. We saw people driving their cattle and goats home. Kids ran out to meet us. We passed a clinic that has a full-time doctor.
Our guide, John (right); Robanda school principal, Yohana Makongo (seated); and two teachers at Robanda School, which supports grades 1-7. Prospective teachers attend teachers' college, then the Tanzanian government sends them wherever needed, providing salary. The village must provide lodging, all school supplies, and school uniforms. Whenever we passed towns and villages, the schoolchildren all wore uniforms.
John with another of Robanda's teachers. In addition to Principal Yohana Makongo, the school has 7 teachers, 1 for each grade, and ~420 students. They attend school 8 am - 2 pm, then return home to help with chores.
A class of 5th-graders sang a song for us. Didn't understand the language, but the energy level was infectious. Their math books were full of complicated fractions, etc. I've taught lots of classes, so my feeling of potential here was based on experience. Sure, we were a happy distraction for them, but I still think: lucky teachers!
Kid art in the school office. When Robanda kids draw zebras, giraffes, and elephants, it's not necessarily from a book!
Carol talking with one of Robanda's teachers. Travelers on Thomson Safaris trips were inspired to start Focus on Tanzanian Communities (FOTZC www.fotzc.org/ ). FOTZC works with Tanzanian communities and Thomson to provide school supplies and other necessities. In Robanda, FOTZC bought books and other supplies and, with the help of the community, built classrooms and teacher housing.
The thousand-mile route of the greatest mammal migration on Earth: wildebeest plus zebras, gazelles, and cape buffalo head south through the Serengeti Nov-May when rain greens the southern grasslands; circling north June-Oct, when southern grasslands dry up and the best forage is found in the north.
We traveled on rutted roads, passed the town of Mugumu, and entered the northern gate of the Serengeti. The northern Serengeti, abutting Kenya, has more hills; taller, lusher grasses; and granitic rock formations called kopjes. Tree shade and the niches and protected surfaces of kopjes make them fine places for some animals to rest.
Secretarybird: an odd-looking bird with an odd name. About 4 feet long, this “eagle of the savannas” specializes in snakes, but will eat any small living thing it can catch. It's called secretarybird because the upright feathers on its head look similar to long-ago secretaries who stuck quills in their wigs to have them at hand.
Classic view of kopje in the northern part of Serengeti National Park.
Wildebeest pass below a different kopje, little knowing that just above...
...lounging and shaded by shrubs, rests a pride of lions.
We saw at least half a dozen females and likely a few others were hidden by shrubs and rock.
Klipspringers are adapted to rock-hopping, as a way to avoid predators. Small, sturdy antelope, they get all the water they need from their food: shrubs, fruit, etc. We also saw topi and oribi antelope in northern Serengeti.
Just a reminder that we saw zebras everywhere...
…including this cute baby.
Small village at the park's edge. We passed villages large and small and, interestingly, of the crops we saw growing, corn--native to the western hemisphere--was the most obvious.
Hyenas have not been doing their job! Plenty of bones are scattered about the northern part of the park.
Perhaps too busy taking a mudbath?
Topis tend to live in the northern part of the park, maybe because they’re pure grazers, picky, and there’s more good grasses here? Tall, fast antelope, this female is accompanied by her new baby.
Gorgeous animals, the fore- and hindquarters of the topi are "splashed" with deep purple and the rest looks like polished wood. As humans and their cattle have spread, topi populations have declined, extirpated from some of the African countries they once inhabited.
The famed Mara River, winding in from Kenya, flows east to Lake Victoria. If you've seen videos of wildebeest crossing a river, most likely it is the Mara, the most dangerous migration crossing. Wildebeest must negotiate narrow defiles down from high banks and dodge hungry crocodiles without trampling each other in the process. Each year, tens of thousands die from the rigors of migration, many in the Mara.
Crowned cranes along the Mara River.
Crocodiles, "cold-blooded" reptiles, lie alongside the Mara to warm in the sun. Top length is 16 feet; average is about 7, with males 30% larger than females. Eyes, ears, and nostrils are atop the head so crocs can submerge most of their body and appear as a log.
The goliath heron, here along the Mara, is the largest of all the world's heron species.
The skin of the Nile monitor lizard looks beaded, making it seem to glisten. Not quite 4 feet long, we saw this one along a Mara River sidestream.
The biannual wildebeest migration is an important dietary highlight for crocs. They can go without food months after eating a large meal, and twice a year they are assured of a large meal. They use powerful jaws to drag prey under water, drowning it in a "death roll." Once a croc has had its fill, others crowd in for a share.
Like crocodiles, hippo eyes, ears, and nostrils lie atop their heads so they can submerge. They can completely submerge only 5-6 minutes. A croc can remain underwater about an hour, if under stress; 15 minutes is more typical.
Lucky yellow-billed stork: first to a fresh wildebeest carcass. Of Africa's 8 stork species we saw the yellow-billed, saddle-billed (the prettiest!), open-billed, woolly-necked, and marabou.
It's not unusual to see hippos and crocs adjacent in the Mara River. Hint: this has implications later. The small bird on the hippo's back is likely an oxpecker, which feeds on insects it finds on the backs of hippos and other mammals.
Photo: Harry Cornbleet
Far across the Mara River, gathered beneath the trees, myriad wildebeest wait to cross. Because a member of our jeep was sick, we left at this point. About an hour later, we saw the amazing video Keeley took of the crossing. The wildebeest flooded down a narrow defile along the far bank; then crashed in a wild assault across the river--thousands in about 10 minutes. Amazingly, none were trampled. But...
…a pregnant female drifted out of the herd and a large crocodile clamped down on her left hind leg. The river was too low to drown her immediately, so the croc held on for ~50 minutes, until she tired. During that time, a hippo approached and tried to attack the croc. But the croc dove underwater, and the hippo pulled back. At the end of the wildebeest’s ordeal, the crocodile dragged the tiring animal into deeper water until only her head and shoulders were visible, then her head, then her muzzle, then nothing.
Michael and I knew nothing of the Mara River crossing drama yet. We were simply enjoying our last afternoon in the Serengeti. Although all animals must eat and all have a place (except cockroaches! what niche do they fill?), it was hard to watch such a long struggle.
Our trip almost over, I'm missing Tanzania already. It was really much much more than a vacation. I dreamed about the landscapes, the people, the animals for weeks afterward. Still do.
From the northern Serengeti airstrip, we flew in an 8-seater back to Arusha and its busy, dusty streets cluttered with mini-motorcycles. Change is a constant and Tanzania is changing. Despite the rising blur of turbulent modernity, it is a place filled with life, potential, and a sense of wonder.
Except where noted, all photographs by Michal Strutin