Saturday, 24 September 2011

Open Vistas - The African Safari (continued)

From the previous post: "...You could see far enough into the horizon and make out the dust columns being raised by similar land cruisers far away. The intrigue of visiting the 'cradle of civilization' kept the mood high..."

The parched dry sand and pebbled rutted tracks that led to Oldupai Gorge, ensured that I felt like I was in a stone shaker. Not a part of the body left to shake, though the mind was busy shoring up images of grand open vistas that we were travelling through. Abombe, apologetically did say that unless he drove that fast, the going would be rougher. This was the moment when I wished that all those advertisements of vehicle and tyre manufactures, promising your off/on road driving experience to be like walking on feathers, were to be true!

Away from the heights of the Ngorongoro crater, the land was bone dry. By the time, we reached the Oldupai Gorge, even droplets of sweat would vanish in an instant.

Oldupai, formerly known as Olduvai (a local misspelling), was a steep sided ravine, part of the Great Rift Valley that stretches through eastern Africa. Though it was accidentally discovered in 1911 by Professor Kattwinkel, it was Professor Leaky and his wife, who made the most important discoveries a couple of decades later.

Going back in time

Imagine. It was a lake, that was still alive, but barely. It had been raining volcanic ash ever since the earth had started quaking. Two strange creatures of almost similar height, walking on two legs, followed by another similar creature but of smaller build. They stood watching the lake and the sun. Then, walked away without a final glance.

4 million years later, at a place called Laetoli, about 45 kilometres south of Oldupai, Louis and Mary Leaky had dug through 7 layers of alluvial deposits and reached the stage when the volcanic ash had fallen and very importantly, had set forever with the imprint of those human like footsteps. Those three creatures were not humans, but hominids from where we all have evolved. About 2 millions years back, humans had already developed and had started using rudimentary tools. Until this discovery, Asia had been considered the birthplace of humans.

This is the story of Oldupai Gorge. For the first time ever, it had been discovered and through various forms of carbon and non-carbon based dating, confirmed as the first ever evidence of creatures walking on just two feet instead of using all four limbs. This has been and is still termed as the 'cradle of civilisation'.

Oldupai Gorge
As I stood overlooking the gorge, I was going through the recesses of my mind, sort of running a film so to speak, trying to imagine how life must have been and the sharp contrast with what we have become and where we have reached. Today, we don't think twice about colonising Mars. We are only bothered about when.

There is a small but neat building on the rim of the gorge, where you could see the various discoveries that had been made so far at the site. Worth going through, if you the patient sort.

Having had our fill of the past, we started the drive again to the world famous Serengeti plains. Just before we left, I took a stroll around the place and managed to see the common Mwanza Flat-headed Rock Agama - a kind of lizard. After having been accustomed to the brown variety in our homes, for me at least this creature was anything but common.

Mwanza Flat-headed Rock Agama (Agama mwanzae)
As we drove, we watched a Masai dressed in his traditional shukan - a sort of blanket, walking with long footsteps across a distance that most of us city-dwellers may find extremely difficult to match. Finally, we were out of the mountainous territory and in a land with expanses so open, it left me bleary eyed. You could actually see the curvature of the earth. Barely a rock or a shrub here and there to block the view. We had reached the great vast plains.

The Serengeti

After the usual break while buying entry tickets and completing the formalities, we set off. We needed to set up our tents just before nightfall, so having a bit of time Abombe decided to give us a bit of a tour - enough to whet our appetites for the next day and a half during which we would be touring the Serengeti reserve.

The Serengeti. 14,763 square kilometres. Known to the Masai people as the 'endless plain', is world famous because it is regarded as the best wildlife reserve in Africa due to its density of of predators and prey. Also well known is the annual migration of half a million Wildebeest and about 250,000 Zebras.

With this background, I was panting in anticipation to see the wildlife. And Abombe did not disappoint. After about half an hour of driving, he turned off the main path, into a designated track and another 10 minutes later, we stopped near the only set of rocks in that area. My eyes were skipping wildly for there was an entire pride of lionesses and a majestic lion sitting on top.

Suddenly, instinctual reaction. I turn to the right. And I see this magnificent animal walk out of a hidden enclave.

Walking past us at a distance of less than 2 feet, he showed utter disdain at the quavering humans inside the box on wheels. I felt as if my heart was beating so rapidly that he could hear the drumming. While walking by, not a sound. Not a pebble overturned. Not a dry crackle from the grass. Absolute predator. Skilled, dangerous and powerful.

Abombe regaled us, with a very insightful story of another traveller and his stupidity with these lions, which I shall not recount here. But should you be interested to know, email me and I shall be happy to give you a private account.

Having talked so much about Abombe, I felt it would be only natural to put up a picture of this man who has worked hard as a driver/guide for the last 12 odd years.

Abombe, our driver/guide extraordinaire

The public camp site

Finally, we reached the main public campsite of the Serengeti. Found a good spot. Set up the tents, freshened up. Another thing which I realised here, and was to further experience rather drastically, is that I was a bit off the mark in thinking, how cold could Africa get? By nightfall, when we were ready to have dinner the wind was blowing steadily and temperatures dropped fast. It felt good to be served with, yet another good meal by Joachim, our cook. Sated, it was off to the tent. One moment, I had slipped into the bedroll. The next minute, I was out!

Woke up a bit early, as Abombe had warned us that the earlier we could go the better chances we had of seeing wildlife. As the sun warmed up, by mid-day most of the animals would be sheltering in whatever shade they could find.

As I am having breakfast, so were the birds. Only unlike the normal birds that one might be used to seeing, here were a pair of Red-billed Hornbills. A smaller variety found in the savannah and shrub-lands, in a specific belt across Africa, they largely subsist on insects, fruits and seeds.

Red-billed Hornbill (Tockus erythrorhynchus)
Their mating and child-rearing behaviour is similar to other Hornbills. They mate for life. When the female is ready to lay her eggs, they find a sufficient sized hole in a tree for her to incubate the forthcoming chicks. The male, will wall up the hole with plaster of mud, droppings and fruit pulp. A very small aperture is left for the female to poke her beak out. The male faithfully will forage for food and return to feed his mate and children until the chicks have hatched and are of sufficient size. Amazing, isn't it?

A searing sight

Driving in the early morning with the top up, fresh cold breeze in the face, mild sunlight by itself was a treasure. We saw a variety of animals, some of whom, I shall come back to in a bit. Was lucky enough to watch a African leopard (classified as vulnerable), caching his early morning kill, up on the bole of an acacia tree. However, the chap was not in the mood to say good morning to us, and the moment he heard us going over he decided to leave. Abombe informed us, that the leopard will return in a couple of hours to eat his meal. Woebegone was my face, at having missed this rare opportunity.

That is, until I came across this fellow, who had finished his breakfast and was enjoying the mild warmth. So unperturbed was he, didn't even bother to flick his tail or even mildly snarl. For an animal that can reach from 0 to 100 kilometres per hour in just 3 seconds, with a top speed of 120 km, all he did was sniff the air for scenting anything unfamiliar or familiar and then posed elegantly for me, almost as if he was saying, 'enjoy'. Ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you the Cheetah.

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)
If you click on the picture, it will open up in a larger size on your screen. Have a look at his left jaw, which is slightly reddish from his consumed breakfast and more importantly, look at his eyes. Let me know what you think.

Having had our fill of watching the cheetah and taking umpteen number of pictures, we drove off at a leisurely pace to experience more of the savannah. On the way, we managed to see a female cheetah with two cubs, but she was maintaining her distance from us and a pride of lions, whom we spotted earlier feasting. Interestingly, lions can be quite the scavengers, often snatching the prey away from cheetahs and hyenas.

About another 30 minutes or so, came the stage that most men like Abombe and I, get a bit worried about. Maybe it was due to the cold climate, my female companions had to take a toilet break. The reason we worry is simple. This is a wild reserve. You can barely make out a predator a few feet away in the grass and shrubs. Getting out of the vehicle is, to put it mildly, fraught with danger. However, with no other choice we had to risk it. One after the other, the ladies blithely got out, did their job behind the vehicle, while Abombe and I were keeping our eyes peeled on either side and the mirrors to try and spot any incoming danger. With the women back inside the car, I think, Abombe and I were more relieved!

After sighting some more enthralling wildlife, we headed back for our lunch at the camp site. A relaxed lunch and then we were off again, to see what more the Serengeti would reveal to us.

Further on the trail, in the next post.


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