Jun 29

The Migration

by in Africa, Tanzania

If you are of a certain age, you may recall a Sunday evening ritual from your youth:  watching The Wide World of Animals in full Technicolor on TV while wearing your fuzzy footy pajamas and munching Jiffy-Pop popcorn. 

I remember sitting mesmerized as images of lions in full pursuit of field upon field of migrating wildebeest filled the screen.  I would watch with one hand over my eyes as the lion steadily closed the gap and it seemed inevitable that the baby wildebeest would fall.  That program was directly responsible for my desire to see the phenomenon of the annual migration in person. 

And so it was that, thirty-some-odd years later, we found ourselves in a petite six-seat bush plane heading toward the Serengeti.  It took us more than eight hours and five flights to reach our destination, the Nomad Camp which is smack in the middle of nowhere.  This is a mobile tented camp which actually picks up and moves along with the migration and, while the sighting is never guaranteed as no one seems to really understand what precisely spurs the animals to move and when, we figured it was our best chance to see the action.

It also meant sleeping in tents.  In the middle of the Serengeti.  With many wild animals and no electricity or running water. 

Never having camped a day in my life, I had no idea what to expect.  All I knew was that we were going to see thousands and thousands of wildebeest and zebra and perhaps a few lions and vultures along the way.  But first we had to get there.

Once we finally arrived at the air strip (picture a long patch of dirt and grass flanked by one or two park rangers whose job it is to chase the stray wart hogs and antelope away), we were greeted by our guide Cornelius.  Cornelius is very soft-spoken and in his warm and gentle voice asked how our journey had been.  We tried to smile and respond politely but the truth was, it had been long and grueling.  The tiny planes had been buffeted by thermals all day long tossing our tummies about and we were hot and tired.  Nevertheless, we assured him that all was well and told him how pleased we were to have finally arrived. 

He then escorted us to the open Land Rover and we set out for camp, an hour’s drive away.  No sooner had we pulled away from the air strip when we heard a distinct buzzing inside the car and an occasional “ping” against the outside.  I thought it was small pebbles being kicked up by the tires.  After only a few minutes, the noise inside and out intensified and I heard Katherine yelp from the back seat.  It was tsetse flies and we were under attack.  They are big and they bite. 

Cornelius seemed unfazed as he casually swatted at his ears from time to time, but the kids were in full spasms in back as they silently flailed their arms and legs in valiant but vain attempts to counter the relentless assault.  Then Russ got bit soundly on the ankle.  “That’s it!” he hissed through clenched teeth, “I’m getting the electric bug zapper.”  [The zapper is a handy device we were first given by our friends Ed & Katherine.  It looks just like a neon-colored tennis racket only the strings are metal and they electrocute any insect that comes in contact.  We spotted one of these wonders at a market in Thailand and had been carrying it around for months.]  “Absolutely not,” I hissed back.  “We’ll look like ugly Americans who can’t tolerate a few little flies!”  I think the tsetses heard me because they seemed to organize and intensify their attack.  There were easily forty inside the car and countless others were buzzing overhead looking for the way in. 

Cornelius had handed me a copy of our travel documents which included a customer feedback form.  It was all I had and it seemed somehow fitting as I rolled the papers up and handed everyone a “swatter.” At least we now had something to defend ourselves with.  They were fast and eluded most of our discreet swats (we were still desperately trying not to seem bothered).  We managed to hit several and were astounded when they appeared to revive before our very eyes:  they would land on their backs, wiggle their feet in what we were convinced were death throes, and then right themselves again and fly back into the fray!  They were the Terminators of the flying insect world.  Finally, I conceded:  “Get out the zapper.”  The kids let out a cheer from the back seat.

Carter went on the offensive and immediately caught several in the racquet.  Incredibly, they are so large that instead of falling out, they got stuck in the wires and began to fry!  The car was filling with tsetse smoke, which does not smell good.  Although slightly disgusted, I was at least satisfied that we had found an effective counter-weapon.  But no!  The blasted flies tumbled off the racquet, feigned death, and after only a few seconds flew off again; the zapper merely stunned them.  It was hopeless.  We were clearly no match for this formidable creature and we finally begged Cornelius to pull over and close up the roof despite the afternoon heat.  He graciously agreed.  We couldn’t even tell if he had been suppressing a smile the whole while. 

Once we had sealed up the Rover, we only had to worry about the several dozen left inside.  While we were busy swatting and squashing the remaining offenders, Cornelius continued gallantly trying to make conversation, “So, is there anything in particular you are hoping to see while you are here?”  Without hesitating, we told him that the highlight of all our travel in Africa was coming here to see the migration.  There was a slight pause as he cleared his throat.  We looked at him expectantly.  “They have left,” he said simply. “I believe the last of them have moved through and are off to the bush in the North.  They will be impossible to see from here.  We will probably have to move the camp next week.”

We sat in stunned silence.  Impossible!  Our whole safari journey had been meticulously timed and planned to see this single massive event.  How could we possibly have missed almost two million animals as they walked across the plains?!

I looked at Russ, eyes wide, as my brain immediately clicked into contingency planning mode.  No problem, I thought, we’ll just call Dylan and ask him to book us a flight out tomorrow and we can catch up with them.  How fast could they possibly be moving?

With a plan in mind, and no clue that there wasn’t a cell tower for miles and miles around, we finally pulled into camp and were greeted with moist facecloths and cold drinks.  We instantly felt better and were led to our tents.

    

The tents were bigger and better equipped than anything I could have imagined.  I giggled as Cornelius told us how to operate our “en suite” toilet and shower.  The latter was simply a pull chain overhead which released hot water from a bucket suspended outside.  To operate it, we just had to let someone know when we planned to shower and the water would be heated to the perfect temperature.  However, the bucket only held so much.  We were told that the best thing to do was to get wet, turn off the water, suds up, turn the water back on and rinse.  There should be enough.  In fact, Carter was the only one who got stranded mid-suds during our three nights there and that was only because Russ had gone before him.

Meanwhile, our hopes for seeing the migration had been dashed.  We enjoyed fabulous cocktails gazing out at the sunset over the Serengeti and later ate dinner while watching the distant lightening that dazzled us all.  I fell asleep to the rumble of thunder, dreaming of ways to catch up to the wildebeest.

After a gourmet sunrise breakfast, we set off.  We were going to make the best of it and see what we could see.  Cornelius told us that we would surely come across some stragglers, often the weak or wounded or the occasional stubborn bachelor bull defending his postcard-sized territory against others who wouldn’t return for another six months, assuming he survived that long (wildebeest are herd animals and live longest and best in large groups; alone they are very vulnerable to predators like the TV lions of my youthful armchair safaris).

Soon the radio crackled and Cornelius spoke in rapid Swahili.  He turned to us and said, “It seems we have a rumor, second class.  I would like to investigate it further.  What do you think?”  We smiled at his choice of words and assured him that we liked that plan.  We drove on passing through woodland areas and vast endless grasslands.  Finally we came to a crest on a ridge. 

As we rounded the top, we looked down and there before us were thousands and thousands of wildebeest. Cornelius smiled and said, “It seems that they have not all gone. There must be between ten and fifteen thousand here. Let’s sit and watch a while.”

We could have watched all day. =)

RUSS:  Wildebeest are not the only attraction in the Serengeti.  We saw the zebra, lion, hyena, and giraffe plus our old friend the lilac-breasted roller and a fabulous new lizard – the red and purple agama, and a graceful new antelope – the antlered topi.   We encountered Colubrus monkeys and crocodiles and hippos by the river.  At night we would listen through tent walls to hear lions breathing loudly and hyena howling and zebra barking in alarm. 

We were exploring a lightly wooded area with Cornelius when we observed something exceedingly rare though:  a troop of baboons hunting a baby Thompson’s gazelle.

    

The baboons displayed clear intelligence and hunted in an organized group of at least thirty adults.  They gathered in a wide circle and waited for the tiny gazelle to wander inside.  After the circle closed, they sent three large adults to chase after it.  We saw that baboons can run at a terrifying speed even relying on their knuckles for support.  With baboons looming in all directions, the baby hesitated and the baboons were able to get close, then bring it down with a bite to the stomach.  Cornelius said a guide might see this only once or twice in his entire career.  That is good news, because it was thoroughly chilling.

On the last full day we saw a more common and still gruesome event – the consumption of a wildebeest carcass by a pack of vultures.  We identified several vulture species and massive Maribou storks.  These carrion-eating storks are unmistakable due to their enormous piercing beaks and a giant air sack that helps them fly. 

The crowd around the body swelled to over fifty birds as we watched.  They fought and kicked each other viciously, but Cornelius explained vultures do cooperate in two important ways.  First, the variety of vulture species means that there are many different shapes of beaks and talons, which lets the vultures efficiently butcher the different areas of the carcass.  Second, when searching for food vultures form an aerial pyramid.  The lowest watch the ground, then vultures high above them watch vulture beneath.  When a vulture finds food, all of the vultures flying above know to come down as well.

We watched the mass of birds for about half an hour, particularly engrossed by a nasty lappet vulture who stalked the grounds with an ugly bald red skull and his wings up like a cape, kicking the smaller vultures in all directions. The children sang the Dark Vader theme music and it matched his stride perfectly.

Finally the clean-picked bones and skin of the wildebeest carcass started to surface, and we went on our way.

We came to greatly enjoy Cornelius and the Serengeti.  We left consoled however:  by the indoor plumbing waiting for us in Kenya, and by the end of our time with the tse tse fly.


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