In October of 2013 I went to Tanzania for 23 days to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, go on Safari, and wander away the itch that is Africa. After a week on the mountain I was back for two nights before being picked up outside my hotel in a Land Rover by my guide and my cook, ready to drive west to Ngorongoro Crater and later the Serengeti. This is about that. You can read the first post here. Thanks for reading and enjoy!
Sometimes in the early mornings of Los Angeles you can spot the coyote out of its element. Paired off with friends–I don’t even know if they travel in packs–the coyote looks odd. It’s sort of a rare sight–as far as coyote watching goes. Most other times of day–in the early morning, in the late evening, during a midnight stroll through your anywhere suburb–the coyote is alone. The way your street corner bum is always alone. Many nights you’ll hear the pack ripping apart some animal and caroling to the stars but otherwise to the eyes of a mere human they are that: solitary. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a “baby” coyote. As far as I can tell there are no babies. Coyotes form from the earth like red eyed sprites ready and eager to wreak havoc on the lives of stray cats everywhere.
Our neighbor cat is a momma and two of her cubs stray around the hill with her but all of them are old enough that there isn’t much parenting or nurturing or anything that would identify this triplet as family members. City animals are not far different than that coyote patrolling the streets. They don’t have families. They aren’t raised by wolves. We are the family. Their nurturing comes from walks and sprints through dog parks and treats when everything is done to form. They are as domestic as we are.
And so the big shock when you enter any of the parks of Northern Tanzania is not the size of the animals. It isn’t even necessarily their wildness. It’s something more ethereal than that. It’s families. It’s sex. It’s blood. All the shit that brings animals together, a force stronger than consciousness.
There’s the lioness beside two grown males. She presents herself to one. She presents herself to the other. She rolls on her back. She growls. One gets up, yawns, and plops himself on the ground like the stereotype of an American 50’s working husband. It’s no matter. The other male is up for the task. He steps behind her. He mounts her. He climbs off. It’s over in 8 seconds. I wish the night I lost my virginity would have went so well (sorry I had to)
There’s lions again. This time a lioness and her two cubs kneeling over the carcass of a zebra they’d hunted an hour before. Ten Land Rovers peopled with families across the globe sit in silence watching. The lions don’t care. A cub tries to bite off some intestine but can’t do it. The momma pushes him aside and gets in there herself before giving the cub another shot. The family in my Land Rover have been loud the entire trip. They’re from Sweden–a mother and her two kids (19 and 20)–and though they’ve been instructed by our guide and driver to remain quiet when around the animals–particularly when their faces are covered with the blood of an animal they just killed–they continue to talk. I shush them. The driver shushes them. The germans one car over glare over at us. The swedes continue to talk.
The lioness looks up from the carcass and stares at us. The growls comes her belly. This low throttle like an idling engine.
“Oh, wow, what is she growling at?”
Our driver turns on the engine.
“That is the sign from the mother lion that we should leave. The lion will always let you know before she attacks.”
Two nights later in the less populated Tarangire Park I’m woken up on three different occasions by this sound (skip to the 2:50 mark for the sound.) I didn’t know what it was. In my journal I wrote that it sounded like “elephants humping or some sort of seismic anomaly”–a wink to one of my favorite movies. That morning our guide showed us what lion tracks outside your tent look like.
An elephant trumpeted through our camp the first night.
A circling vulture led our guide to a kill.
Big mammals seek shade in the heat of the day.
Zebras honk and play in a pool of water as they begin the great migration. A lion appears a hundred yards away and a shudder ripples across the herd.
The Serengeti. The endless plain. The horizon bends the world. The animals are animals. The people always that. My Wildlife of East Africa book is one third mammals and reptiles and insects and trees, two thirds birds. And there are plenty. Two days on the road our guide asks us what we want to see. I say hippos because, come on, who doesn’t love hippos? The herd of hippos lounges in the water. A crocodile is still nearby. One of the hippos steps out and goes for a walk but can’t figure how to get back in without cannonballing. (I’m sure hippos who cannonball are as big of outcasts as the preteens who do the same.)
There’s more of course. The albino cape buffalo. The endless antelope. The black rhino 500 yards off. By themselves they are just animals. No different on the surface than any you might find in a local zoo. Perhaps the very same you’d find in the “wild” animal park from San Diego.
But they are different. They are. And it isn’t something you could necessarily spot with a camera. I doubt any of my photos captured it. I want to say it’s in the eyes. The eyes of the wild animal are different from the free animal. I don’t really have enough experience to say that with any certainty. Eyes are eyes. But it might come down to a few simple observations.
No animal paced. Every animal looked content (even the zebra). And more than anything: the families. There were just so many. Paired off couples. Herds. Prides. Old animals and young animals. Queens of an elephant herd surrounding the baby. The solitary coyote? He exists as the hyena.
Sky to land to life.
The cynic in me wants to find fault. The cynic wants to talk about poaching and poverty, the ratio of white man to black inside the parks compared to outside. The cynic wants to feed the guilt. I suppose there is a place for that. But not here. Not now.
I’ll save the guilt for my next trip to the zoo. For now I’ll stay hungry watching cubs eat the dead.
© 2014 Christopher Dart