Last night we arrived in the dark and so had no idea where we were. Already from my window I can see some pretty dramatic scenery, to put it mildly. The landscape is so majestic, so utterly beautiful, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry, to sing or just stand there, silent . I meet Jeanne who is in a similar mood and we get some coffee and hang out on the terrace, enjoying the view, sipping our coffee and watching birds and animals.
Below us the ground falls away to a valley where the Great Ruaha river, wide and muddy snakes along with flat-topped Acacias on its banks . Green hills and mountains rise out the plain and stretch to the horizon. Everything is the lushest green you ever saw, every imaginable shade, from the yellowish grass to the dark green of the trees. Small groups of Elephants are moving placidly along and slowly we start to notice other animals moving through the tall grass – Giraffes (easiest to see), Wart-hogs, Impalas… a Lilac-breasted Roller swoops to the ground in front of us with a flash of brilliant blue wings. Red-billed Horn-bills flop around in the nearby trees. All utterly pristine and crystal clear after last night’s rain.
The others show up slowly, there’s no rush, this is a morning to savour. Last to appear is a smiling, freshly shaved, very dapper Martin who has found a small Owl just outside his room. Just as we are polishing off the last of our breakfast pancakes Modest rolls up in the Land Rover and we set off to explore this magical kingdom.
We haven’t gone very far (stopping for some Elephants and the odd bird or two) and are admiring some pretty Little Bee-eaters when Modest calmly says: ” there’s a lion” and there indeed she is, a little way up the hillside, just peeking out of the tall grass. Soon she stands up, followed by a cub and moves down the hill; another and another appear out of the grass and soon they are crossing the road in front and behind us, 6 lionesses, a young male and a cub. They are all fat and sleek, bellies full from the Zebra they killed yesterday. Modest has the story – yesterday evening some of the park workers who were playing football at the nearby TANAPA staff quarters saw the action, so it wasn’t a coincidence we passed by this way today ( Modest’s father worked as an engineer here and so he spent most of his childhood in the park and seems to know everybody).
Not a bad start for the day, we take a break at the little riverside bungalows nearby and rest of the morning passes quickly as we drive around the park stopping to look at animals, birds and the breathtaking landscape.
Then it’s back to the cottages for a delicious lunch of fried local Tilapia fish. I am so happy with the cook I get Modest to teach me how to say the food was delicious in swahili and go and visit him in the kitchen. He is delighted and so am I and so is the little manger who is there too. I feel among friends and am so happy we chose this budget accommodation to stay at instead of the pricey lodges, we couldn’t be better cared for and who needs hot water in this climate? I organize some beer for the group’s evening (“hakuna matata”) and go for a siesta.
In the afternoon we set off and soon find the lions again. They are up on a little hill , the big male now completing their numbers. Two lionesses are alert, heads up, watching a nearby herd of Impalas. “They have the hunting look” says Modest, and indeed the Lionesses change position, eyes all the time on the Impalas. Then some Elephants move out of the riverside trees and amble into the clearing. The lions stand down, not in a hurry and we decide to move on.
We roll over a rise and enter a valley of stone sculptures, everywhere are granite outcrops, colourful rounded shapes rising out of the mixed forest and grassland. Modest has said something about Leopards so every time we stop I scan every rocky hill carefully with my Nikon Binoculars. I had encouraged everyone to get some good binoculars for the trip: Jeanne has my spare pair which are not bad, Hilde and Martin have reasonable Porro types, Dirk uses his camera zoom and Inge’s – well, they are pink… Modest has a reasonably good pair but none come close to my superb Nikon Monarch 5 (hello sponsors are you out there?) and today proves it: about one km away, lying on a huge granite slab in the shade of tree I can see a yellow shape with legs, a tail and a head – a Leopard! It is so far away that I have to pass my binoculars around for everyone else to see it, but its worth a look, she is lying there like a queen, shaded by a wild fig with a view of the valley spread out below. We then drive as close as we can get to the hill and finally find a place where by standing on the car’s roof we can get a fairly good view. Leopards are not easy to find so this is very good, and I see Modest is now determined to find something good – to match my lucky sighting, so to speak.
The afternoon has more in store for us: further along in a Baobab dotted glen on the side of a mountain a small group of Kudu are making their way along the bank of a small river. The beauty of the scene and the graceful antelopes, like a Victorian painter’s romantic picture of Africa, is … well, I think we all feel it and look on in a sort of hushed awe….
On we go. Modest is still determined to find something. It’s no good saying this has already been a mind-bogglingly amazing day. I had mentioned to him that I would love to see a Verraux’s Eagle, a handsome bird of prey which had eluded me for 30 years or so. They specialize in hunting Rock Hyraxes and we are driving around the rocky slopes of Kimilamatonge Hill – Hyraxes galore – when he asks “you see the Eagle?” Far above, one, then another and another – 3 Verraux’s Eagles swooping over the granite slopes, black as ebony, bright white wing patches; I am delighted and Modest is satisfied now. We are all in a sort of dreamy euphoric mood as we drive slowly through the bush , taking a break where two roads meet, coming from nowhere, going to nowhere.
But there is still a grand finale. Nearing home, Modest is busy on his cellphone when glancing up into a Baobab by the road he spots another Leopard! This one is really close, fast asleep on a thick branch (we can see his paws twitching as he dreams, maybe of a juicy Impala or perhaps a pretty lady Leopard?). He is a big one, his fur is so beautiful you want to reach out and touch it.
2 Leopards in one afternoon is really something (not to mention all the Lions and other stuff we have seen today), and now modest is really pleased, but also a bit puzzled – “you are a strange group” he says, and Jeanne and I smile and have a good a laugh. We stop at the riverside to hang out with some Elephants with very small calves (who doesn’t love a baby elephant?) and are back at the cottages for another wonderful dinner and the promised beers – Kilimanjaro, Serengeti and Tusker. Very very happy campers tonight.