Six of us hopped into a 4×4 pop-up top safari vehicle with our local guide, Claus. For the next three days we would explore the Serengeti National Park, and in those days, the only thing separating us from death or being mauled, would be that safari vehicle, some occasional armed guards, and…a tent.
If you break down life into its most simple components they are – your born, you live, and you die. The more pessimistic way of breaking it down would be – your born, and you survive as long as you can but then eventually you must succumb to death. Nothing shows you this lifecycle more than spending a few days in the Serengeti, where animals fight to survive and fall victim to death on a daily basis. And, consequently, nothing makes you feel more a part of this lifecycle then realizing the only thing separating you from a lion is a thin canvas tent wall.
The Serengeti is 4,750 square kilometers (1,837 sq miles) of grassland, savanna, and forest. Luckily for us, the migration was still happening so the bumpy dirt road at the entrance was lined with wildebeest, zebra, buffaloes, warthogs, gazelles, eland, impala, dik dik, and many other hoofed animals. Sometimes we would have to wait for several minutes as they crossed the road, or stubbornly stood in it not entirely sure which way they wanted to go. Because this part was in the flat grasslands, you could see the animals spread out on the plains for miles and miles, distantly becoming just specks on the grass. All at the same time, we saw parts dark and covered with storm clouds, parts covered in rainbows, and parts basking in sunshine.
And then springing up from the flatness of the grassland, are kopjes, granite rock formations visible because of eroded volcanic rock and ash. With bushes, trees, water, shelter, and, more importantly, good visual vantage points, these are prime locations for predators. This is where we saw the elusive African leopard, sleeping and relaxing high up on a rock, or should I say where our eagle-eyed guide Claus spotted the leopard. He would find two others lounging in the trees the next day.
Claus had powerful binoculars, but he didn’t need them. He would point to a nearby rock or tree, and we would all stare at it for about two minutes till we saw the leopard lounging on it or in its branches. He also just knew where to go, how long to stay, and where the best viewing would be. Many of the other guides would follow Claus, waiting for him to spot something. We learned quickly to never question Claus; he was tied to this place in a way none of us could understand.
As we entered the savannah, African elephants and giraffes began to appear, the former meandering between the acacia trees and the latter snacking on them. Monkey’s rested and played on those branches, and hippopotamuses occupied the ponds in between them, poking their heads barely above water and occasionally yawning. Claus pointed out that you can tell an African elephant by their Africa shaped ears.
Birds of all different sizes, shapes and colors were everywhere, from the gothic vulture picking clean the bones of some fallen animal to a dazzling starling gliding above the grass.
We would see all these animals in one fell swoop on the last day in the Ngorongoro crater, named by the Maasai people meaning “Gift of Life.” The crater is 12 miles (20 kilometers) across, 2,000 feet (600 meters) deep, and 115 square miles (300 square kilometers) in area, and the animals are generally sedentary, meaning they are born, live, and die in the crater. The crater is a stark open plain, noticeably void of trees, with just some areas housing them. You can see from edge to edge, and the animals all just meander about, playing the game of life, predator side by side with prey.
I didn’t think we would see that many animals, and on the first day. I thought it would be a lot of driving around, and we would be lucky to see any. We all had an animal we really wanted to see, and we all saw them multiple times. Jess loved giraffes and was dying to see a dung beetle. Emily needed to see vultures, and, not only did we see them, but we saw them eating a carcass. Many wanted to see a kill, and, while we missed the take down, we saw the aftermath, a lion eating the carcass, and the lioness, who caught the animal, patiently waiting for the male to get his fill before she and the others in the pride got a piece.
I figured I would see a lion, but it would be far off in the distance. The first day, we saw two male lions right near the entrance of the park just four feet (1.2 meters) from the side of our vehicle, and then drove by a large pride that was located not more than a half mile (0.8 kilometers) from our camp site. The following day we would see two more prides, and another in the crater. A pride is typically six females, an assortment of cubs, and two to four males. The Serengeti has one of the largest populations of lions in Africa, with an estimated 3,000 lions. They spend about two hours a day walking, one hour eating, and the rest relaxing, sleeping, or playing. They prefer to scavenge, since it is easier, but will kill, usually by strangulation with the jaws over the mouth and nostrils or by crushing the windpipe. They have been known to kill humans. Just five months earlier a woman of 29 on safari in South Africa was killed when a lioness jumped through the vehicle window at her. Between 1990 and 2004, it is estimated Tanzania had 593 deaths and 308 injuries from lion attacks. The numbers vary depending on the source, and is probably much higher since there is a high degree of under reporting.
Our campsite was nestled next to a kopje that was topped with a tree shaped like a heart. Illuminated by the pink lit sky from the sunset, we knew, we were in the heart of the Serengeti, the heart of Africa. Or maybe it was a sign saying, “Sleeping here is not for the faint of heart”, because as the sky lit on fire and the darkness of night rolled in, the predators started to appear. I brought along a night vision monocular, just an added precaution to check inside my tent or outside it as need be. That’s how we saw the hyenas that were stalking us. They were like Slender Man, the minute you turned your back to them, they got closer. At one point, one couldn’t have been more than 20 feet (6 meters) from us.
While hyenas make an eerie laughing sound, they are no joke. Though they are scavengers first, they are hunters with powerful jaws that can crush through an elephant leg and they can eat and digest bone. They are cunning and intelligent with the ability to run up to 37 miles per hour (60 kilometers per hour). They make a whooping sound, “wooo” “wooo”, with the second “wooo” at a higher pitch. If this sound is fast, then it signifies the onset of an attack. Historically, they have attacked and killed humans, so when I heard their “wooing” sound throughout the day and night, I kept just that much more vigilant.
We were told to stay in our tents with the door sealed all the way and with no vents open. We were told to refrain from going to the bathroom, and if we had to, get a friend and it would be at our own peril. We were told there would be armed guards around the campsite. And then we were left to our tents to sleep.
I slept most the night…until the roar of the lions. It was so close to my tent I could feel it rumble. Simba, which is Swahili for lion, was right outside my tent and singing a more Gothic and scary version of, “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King.” At this moment, the reality that there was only a thin canvas wall between me and these predators set in. My false sense of security was shattered, and the game of life was on.
Adult lions have no natural predators, just humans or other lions. That’s right, like humans, they just kill each other. They truly are king of the jungle, so much so I felt like bowing down in my tent. That is, if I wasn’t too afraid to move.
But in the end, you just have to say, “Hakuna Matata,” no worries, because that’s life. Surprisingly, this was said often throughout the different parts of Africa I ventured. It is a line “The Lion King” Disney movie borrowed from them, and not the other way around. In a world with so many things to worry about, and the act of worrying being a waste of time, it is easier to just accept things for the way they are and keep striving to make things better. It is a philosophy I found deeply ingrained in the culture.
And just in case I didn’t quite get the message of my place in this world while sleeping next to a lion, as we were driving out we found a huge pride lounging, without care, in the trees. One simba looked nonchalantly down on me, suggesting to me that, maybe all of life is merely getting by with just a canvas tent wall for protection.
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“Having wandered some distance among gloomy rocks, I came to the entrance of a great cavern…Two contrary emotions arose in me: fear and desire–fear of the threatening dark cavern, desire to see whether there were any marvelous things in it.” – Leonard da Vinci