Sunday, November 14, 2010
Just Enough Death on the Serengeti
“Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.”
-- Arthur Schopenhauer
We decided it was time to expand our fields of vision, Elodia and I. So we went to Africa. To Tanzania. To witness a few moments of the Great Migration and to stand on the same ground where the human race was born.
Each year nearly two million wildebeest, zebra, and gazelle migrate through Kenya and Tanzania in a clockwise roundtrip that covers close to two thousand miles. Along the way, hundreds of thousands die from exhaustion and disease, and more are lost to predators: lions, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas, and crocodiles.
As we view the Serengeti from the back of the Land Rover, I am struck by the number of skulls that sit on the ground. They are all gleaming white, picked clean by jackals, vultures, and then insects. We see no rotting carcasses. Nothing on the Serengeti is wasted.
It is hot, dry, and dusty, and the roads are an endless series of bumps and ruts. Our guide, Harrison, is driving one of Thomson Safari’s customized Land Rovers, which allows us to stand up and view the scenery and the wildlife, through the open roof.
I like to stand up while we are moving. Maybe I will be the first to spot a cheetah. But I have to tightly grip a crossbar or part of the open hatch to avoid being thrown into a fellow passenger, and after while, it’s like holding on to a runaway jackhammer, and I have to sit back down.
Elodia and I are seated in the back and three others on our safari are seated in front of us, looking through binoculars and taking picture after picture. Harrison is on his radio, speaking Swahili to Robert and Kumbi, our two other guides, who are driving the other nine members of our group. The three guides are constantly trading information on clues and sightings that may lead us to a big cat or to a herd of elephants.
We approach a river. It is the Banagi River, and we will cross it where it is narrow and where there is a bridge. Harrison pulls up onto the bridge, which is little more than a platform, and is just slightly wider and longer than the Land Rover, then stops and turns off the ignition.
We are parked just above the river. The sight and sound of the water rushing over and around the rocks is both calming and cooling. We feel enveloped by it. We welcome this break from the heat, the dust, the occasional diesel fumes blown in from our exhaust pipe, and the constant bouncing.
I have come to use the phrase Harrison’s hunches, and I will tell you why.
One morning, while driving the Serengeti, he spots a vehicle from another safari company, parked next to a massive formation of rocks, called a kopje (pronounced: ko-pee).
He pulls up next to them and kills the engine. The guide and passengers, in the other vehicle, have their binoculars and cameras trained on a crevice between the large rocks. And in that crevice, shielded from the sun by a curtain of small trees and bushes, is the grand prize -- a large male leopard.
Harrison radios Robert and Kumbi, who quickly arrive in their Land Rovers. The leopard is fast asleep, with his head curled into his body. We watch and hope that he will get up so that we can see him move. But, when he does, he moves back into the rocks, and completely out of our sight.
Each of the vehicles start up and race to the other side of the rocks, hoping that he has moved in that direction. We wait, with binoculars and cameras, but he has settled on a spot where we cannot see him. We wait and watch, and then reluctantly, we move on.
We see a lot that day. There are giraffes so close to the road that if they choose to bend their long necks in our direction, we would almost be able to touch their heads. We see enormous herds of wildebeest, mixed with zebra, impala, and gazelle - especially the variety known as Thomson’s gazelle.
Tommies, as they are called, are small, elegant, and wear a distinctive black stripe that runs from shoulder to flank, and serves as more than just decoration. They rely on visual awareness of each other, and the stripes help them do that. They also have highly keen senses of hearing and smell that helps protect them from predators.
After a full day, we begin heading back to camp. Harrison is driving fast on our Serengeti road, when suddenly he veers off and heads toward a large kopje. It turns out to be the same kopje where that morning we watched the leopard.
He drives up and in between rocks, until the spaces become too narrow for the Land Rover to fit through, then he backs down, and turns into another passage until that one also becomes too narrow. The Land Rover pitches upward, downward, and from side to side. He is in hot pursuit of this morning’s leopard. He is a man possessed.
Suddenly, high up in the rocks, there he is. I rarely use the word magnificent. It is one of those wonderful words that has become sadly cheapened from overuse. But this leopard is just plain magnificent, and he seems to know it.
These rocks are home to other animals, including Agama lizards (dominant males can turn their bodies blue and their heads red or yellow, just to show off), rock hyraxes, which look like cute guinea pigs, and klipspringers, which are tiny antelopes that stand watching us from the very top of the rocks. But these rocks are ruled by a single prince, and we have met him.
That this leopard would still be there, hours after we first discovered him was one of Harrison’s best hunches.
But today, at this moment, we are parked on that little bridge, just above the rushing water of the Banagi River, enjoying the sight, and the sound, and the serenity.
On our right, a herd of Thomson gazelles suddenly arrives. They begin gathering at the river’s edge. We have passed so many dry watering holes and river beds. The gazelles must be here to drink. Watching them will be the crowning touch, before we continue on our way.
But, no. They have not come to drink. They have come to cross the river, here, where it’s narrowness and shallowness make it too good an opportunity to pass up. They begin crossing in single file.
Then Harrison, looking through binoculars, says in a soft, matter-of-fact voice, “a crocodile.” One of us asks, “where?” Then, I see it. Close to the river’s edge, moving toward us, and toward the line of gazelles.
Harrison, again in that soft, matter-of-fact voice, says, “He may get a gazelle.” He makes it seem only possible, not probable, not certain. And then, we see how fast and how torpedo-like the croc is honing in.
In seconds the hind leg of a gazelle is clamped between his huge jaws and thrust up and at us so that we cannot miss seeing the helplessness in the gazelle’s eyes, before it is taken under to be drowned and eaten.
No one in our group gets the picture. All of us are frozen in our moment of absolute awe.
We fix our eyes on the water, looking for one last glimpse of the two principal characters. But that spectacle is over. There are four more gazelles that were next in line, in the process of crossing. They are now panicked. They break formation. They are stomping their feet. And they are making desperate attempts to finish crossing the river, trying to choose a path. After a minute or two, they give up and dart back to where they had entered.
They will not be joining their herd. At least, not right now.
We sit rather quietly. The scene has returned to its original state. The sound of the rushing water has been turned back on. Harrison starts the engine and we leave the river exactly as it was, with the knowledge that we will not be exactly as we were.
We have seen enough for one day, but the day has something else in store for us. As we pass by some zebras walking through the high yellow grass, Harrison stops the Land Rover. They are three adults and one foal. We wonder why he has stopped. We have seen plenty of zebra and they were a lot closer to us than these four.
While peering through his binoculars, Harrison utters the word, “lion.” We look, but we see no lion. We tell him so. “Yes,” he says. “He is lying in the grass.“ We continue to scan the high grass. “Where?” we ask. “Straight ahead.” he says. “You can see the tips of his ears.”
And yes. There is the slightest bit of movement, as the lion’s head begins to rise out of the grass, with his eyes trained on the zebras, which are now walking in single file, with the foal at the end. The lion is between us and them. We watch as the line comes to a halt.
Do they sense the lion?
We think they might turn around and go back. But they do not.
The lead zebra continues, while the others wait. We watch him get closer and closer until he crosses the lion’s path. The lion does not strike. Then come the other three, in close formation. We think the lion will wait until they are closer and then strike the foal. We watch this drama play out, one heart beat at a time, until they all are safely out of range.
Then, we see our lion’s head drop back down into the tall grass. He has chosen to sleep rather than hunt.
We head back to camp, with a lot to process, to replay in our heads, and to describe to the others.
But I am sure of one thing -- that this day, in its Serengeti way, held a kind of perfection that we do not see in our normal field of vision.