December 11, 2020
48 HOURS IN TANZANIA
By Kevin Zimmer
Of all of the superlative descriptions I’ve read that attempted to capture what makes Tanzania a must-visit destination for anyone with an abiding interest in natural history, none hits the mark as succinctly as the words used by my friend and VENT colleague Dion Hobcroft in the introduction to his trip report after guiding our Northern Tanzania tour for the first time: “Being in the Serengeti for the Great Migration is like having a front row seat to the dawn of time. If you do one thing in your life, visit Tanzania!” Dion’s bold declaration has rung true for me on every one of my trips to Northern Tanzania, but was reinforced in spades over the course of just 48 hours during our 2019 tour.
Ndutu (in the eastern Serengeti) is the place where we normally expect to intercept the Blue Wildebeest migration, when the wildebeests are pausing to calve in lush grasslands replenished by the onset of rains. But, as of our arrival on February 24, 2019, it wasn’t happening. Although there had been a few recent rainstorms, enough to muddy the plains, the wildebeest herds had yet to respond. Geitan, Vincent, and Anthony were in constant touch with other safari drivers and tour operators, and so far, everyone was coming up empty on the wildebeest migration. With one more rain shower shortly after our arrival, that scenario took a dramatic turn.
We awoke the next morning to the grunting calls of wildebeests on the move, as small bands made their way through the woodlands immediately behind the lodge. The migratory herds had arrived! As we headed out through the woodlands to the Makao Plains, we encountered lines of steadily moving wildebeests, some plodding, others in full canter, but all moving with singular focus toward the recently rain-kissed grasslands that could support their numbers. Breaking onto the plains, we encountered an awesome, primeval scene, with wildebeests stretching to the horizon in all directions—an estimated half-million strong over the course of the morning. As we worked our way slowly through and among the throngs, it was an amazing sight to watch the sea of moving ungulates part to make way for our vehicles, only to close ranks behind us as we passed. Migrant “Eurasian” Barn Swallows used the wildebeests and our Land Cruisers as “beaters,” zipping back-and-forth in front of us to opportunistically snatch up insects flushed by our progression. Our morning was thus spent immersed in the spectacle of the Great Migration, with occasional “time-outs” to take in the inevitable new birds. In the afternoon, we headed to the Big Marsh, where we were treated to another 10 Lions and a variety of waterbirds.
The following day saw us returning to the Big Marsh and continuing beyond to the Kusimi Plains, where our primary objective was finding Cheetah, the one big cat that had largely eluded us. En route, we stopped for a striking White-headed Vulture, on the ground, that was carefully picking over the remains of some unfortunate mammal. After taking in the vulture, we continued across the plains, where we eventually spotted a lone female Cheetah, seemingly on the prowl. We followed for some distance, stopping whenever the Cheetah stopped. During one such pause, we came across a Marsh Owl huddled down in a patch of low-stature shrubbery. I alerted Anthony over the radio, and soon, both of our vehicles were pulled up alongside the owl, which shrank even deeper into the concealing vegetation. Soon, it was so buried that we needed to use the laser pointers to get everyone on the bird. While so engaged, I heard Anthony telling folks in his vehicle that the Cheetah was up and looked to be stalking some prey. All of a sudden, Anthony shouted, “There she goes!” Instantly, Vincent kicked his vehicle into pursuit. We looked up to see two Thomson’s Gazelles bounding away, but could not see the Cheetah. By the time we caught up, it was all over but the shouting. Only Anthony had witnessed the takedown, but the folks in his vehicle, upon arriving at the scene, found the Cheetah, clutching a still-kicking Thomson’s Gazelle by the throat.
Upon leaving this spectacular scene behind, we tacked back across the trackless plains, and, some 20 minutes later, we came across two more Cheetahs, young siblings, now out on their own. We followed at a distance and soon saw them take notice of a lone Thomson’s Gazelle feeding hundreds of meters distant. It quickly became obvious that the Cheetahs had their sights set on the Tommie, so we bypassed the cats and positioned ourselves on the far side of the gazelle, with the sun at our backs. And then, we waited. The stalk itself was executed with nerve-racking patience, as the two cats expertly used the patches of low herbaceous vegetation to conceal their approach. Periodically disappearing from our sight, only to slowly poke their heads up to assess their progress, the cats took their time. Meanwhile, the feeding Tommie occasionally looked around, almost as if it sensed something wasn’t quite right about us expectantly watching its every move. Eventually, the Cheetahs ran out of concealing cover and stopped their approach 50+ meters away from their intended prey. They waited, and waited, and waited some more. I had my lens focused squarely on the lead cat and began shooting as soon as it stood up and began slinking toward the Tommie. Within a split second, the chase was on, and, as hoped, the angle of attack was bringing the action right at us. I was still tracking the lead cat, and it required a burst of photos before the Tommie entered my viewfinder. Just when it looked as if the Cheetah was going to run the gazelle right into our waiting vehicles, the Tommie banked steeply to its left and accelerated as if turbocharged, leaving the Cheetahs in the dust, and us as gobsmacked spectators!
Following lunch and a break, we headed out on an afternoon excursion to nearby Lake Masek and Lake Ndutu. We stopped frequently for avian fare ranging from Red-fronted Barbet to Yellow-bellied Eremomela, to roadside Three-banded Coursers, to copulating African Hoopoes, to a pair of Martial Eagles at a nest. Then, the radio crackled, but the message was in Kiswahili and did not sound urgent. But Geitan, with his characteristic calm, turned to me and said, “I am just receiving news of a Caracal not far from here. Do you wish to try for it?” Oh yeah! I relayed the news to Anthony, and off we went. Before long, we were converging on a handful of safari vehicles, their occupants focused intently on a small thicket. I caught a glimpse of the cat, but it quickly melted back into the vegetation before I could get anyone else on it. After a few anxious minutes, the goblin-eared feline came bolting out of the thicket and disappeared out of sight. We soon caught up with it, a male, strolling across a gap and up onto the slope above. We stayed with it for 20 minutes or so, leaving it when Anthony radioed to tell us that they were watching a second Caracal, this one a pregnant female! We made it back down slope in time to get quality views of the female before it too walked off out of sight. After 30 years of visits to East Africa, I had finally seen my lifer Caracal, only to score a consorting pair in the same spot just minutes apart! Caracals are not rare, but they are somewhat patchily distributed and are rarely seen. They are the largest of Africa’s small cats, with big males tipping the scales at around 50 lbs. With huge, tufted ears that would be the envy of any Lynx; a long, slinky body; proportionately long and powerful hind legs; and the fawn-brown pelage of a Puma (Cougar), they are a sight to behold.
The pair of Caracals was the cherry on top of a day dominated by spectacular cat encounters, and a 48-hour birding and natural history spectacle that will remain, burned forever, in the memories of all of us fortunate enough to have been there.
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