ON SAFARI: Spot the leopards in Tanzania

Goring, Barry


Book ID 436

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Goring, Barry ON SAFARI: Spot the leopards in Tanzania, 2000
Extract Author: Barry Going
Extract Date: 2000 January 8

ON SAFARI: Spot the leopards in Tanzania

I've just spent three hours waiting for a leopard to appear. It was wonderful. This is what safaris should be about: the patient pursuit of quarry, camera in hand, not frantically barrelling around a game reserve ticking off sightings like a beginner. I did all that yesterday.

I was in Tanzania's Ngorongoro crater, a circle 10 miles across left by an imploding volcano billenniums ago. On the rim 500 yards above me I could just make out the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, a splendidly eccentric designer hotel made up of strings of circular chalets with big chimneys.

The lodge provided me with a van, for just me, Emanuel the driver, and his assistant George. So while other vans resounded to debate about whether to wait for a leopard or go in search of warthogs, we sat down to a picnic lunch - pasta, salad, home-made bread, cakes, fruit, cold drinks - and waited.

We knew the leopard was lying in the long grass in the shade under a tree; his tail occasionally waved lazily to chase flies away. Sooner or later the shade would have to move, and he with it.

In the event he held out quite a while before the sun became too warm. He looked up, yawned, stretched, and finally got to his feet, fit and muscular and indifferent to the cameras, and padded behind the tree to resume his nap.

Leopards are always worth seeing, if you manage it. They are tough, solitary hunters, flourishing from Cape Town to Siberia, and they did not earn their success as a species by being conspicuous. Definitely one to tick off - if you go in for that sort of thing.

There is plenty more to see in and around the crater. The Ngorongoro Conservation Area was split from the Serengeti National Park in 1959. The Masai people, traditionally Pastoralists, were unwilling to be moved away from their grazing land around Ngorongoro to make way for animals, as they had been in the Serengeti, so the land is now used for both. They are not supposed to graze cattle in the crater itself, but the ones I saw had obviously not been told.

Ecologically, the crater has something for all its residents: savannah, woodland, marsh, lake, rainforest. There are no acacia trees, so no giraffes; and no female elephants, because the slopes of the crater wall are too steep to bring babies down. Lusty males living on the crater floor have to climb the hill to make conjugal visits.

But there are black rhinos and black-maned lions, and so many hyenas that, in a role reversal, they are reported to have taken up killing their own meals, which the lions then rob them of.

Pink and white flamingoes stand one-legged in the lakes while jackals wait for them on the shore, where they are reduced to little piles of feathers. Kites and vultures soar on thermals, then spiral down for lunch.

In pools under the noon heat, snorting hippos submerge to nostril level, flicking water over their backs with their tails and occasionally rolling over and waving their stubby legs in the air like puppies.

And all this against a background of golden grass, shady trees, and blue hills still licked by morning mist.

For a less enclosed safari, you can go to the tourist-free Serengeti nearby. I stayed at two of Crater Lodge's counterparts there: tented Grumeti River Camp (the river is so thickly covered with plants that I didn't spot it until a hippo's head poked up), and Klein's Camp, whose rondavels overlook a long valley leading north to Kenya.

These are great places to see the mass migration of millions of wildebeest and zebra north to the Masai Mara every June and back again in November in search of fresh grazing.

The travelling companions make a good double act: zebra eat the tall grass, discouraging the tsetse flies which torment the thin-skinned wildebeest and tourists. The wildebeest then eat the short grass. Zebra have good eyes, wildebeest good noses - and the sixth sense which tells them when to hit the road. This is the cue for the lions, crocodiles and other predators to look for vulnerable migrants.

Sadly for me, the migration always seemed set for yesterday, or tomorrow; I saw hundreds of animals milling around but not migrating. If you must see the migration and can come at short notice, register with the camps and they will let you know when it begins. Live coverage should eventually appear on their website, www.ccafrica.com.

The other place to visit, an hour north-west of Ngorongoro on a bumpy road (Tanzanian pot-holes could double as giraffe traps), is Olduvai Gorge, where the Leakeys and fellow palaeontologists have discovered some of the earliest human remains. Apart from a small but good museum, there is not much to see, but it's a pilgrimage any homesick hominid might make.

And after a dusty day in the gorge or with the wildlife, retreat to the comfort of the Crater Lodge. The rooms are strung along the rim, so you can see the crater from your bed, lavatory or bath.

The duties of Safari, my butler, included not only meeting me on my return with Emanuel, taking my order at dinner, lighting my fire and/or switching on my electric blanket, but also running hot baths and sprinkling them with rose petals.

I was lying back submerged to nostril level when it dawned on me: surly buffalo, pregnant rhino, somnolent lion, lonesome elephant, and of course the leopard: for the first time, I had seen the Big Five in one day. But don't think I go around ticking off lists.

Extract ID: 1472