Serengeti 2020 - Living the dream..(6th March to 12th March 2020)
The countdown for my 2020 Trip to Serengeti had begun a bit sooner than usual. In my mind, I was living it a few months ahead of the trip - I was imagining, dreaming, contemplating and tried living it even before it had begun. I was even visualizing some of the frames I was desperate to add to my kitty. The magic or the spell, she cast on me is unexplainable. The rich plains, safari tracks, the Kopjes and my friends at the camp, i almost ended up dreaming or perhaps, day dreaming. Cant say if that helped me or made me want it more every day. I was looking forward to every next morning with a child-like curiosity, wishing I could fast-forward time, be in her arms instantaneously. Yes, there is a thin line between imagination and reality, especially when you start living your dreams and cling to them as if they were real.
The reality started sinking in by mid February along with the world-scare of Covid-19 Virus. Besides that, I had this uneasy and merry feeling all through. I was disturbed and feeling a bit jittery. There was this vacuum inside me. On top of it, the Covid-Threat, more than a scare, was a dampener. My craziness about being in the plains is beyond my existence, so for me it was a question that I kept asking myself umpteen times - how can I miss this trip? I checked with known folks out in Tanzania, got to know that things were normal. Much against my family’s wishes, on 6th March, I was on my way to Bangalore Airport. Well, deep inside I knew the risk I was taking but something was pulling me. Someone was calling me.
I have always loved flying in Qatar and even this time it was an amazing experience. A quick layover in Doha and at around 230 pm on 6th March, I saw the ever familiar Kilimanjaro Mountains, engulfed in snow and mist. My entire body was frozen but in peace. My heart was pounding… And yet another time, I landed in Kilimanjaro! It was such a feeling as if I knew everyone out here, the surroundings, the smell of the air.
I checked into my usual hotel, Airport Planet Lodge to retire for the night. These folks always take good care of me by providing some delicious vegetarian soup and dinner. Walking back to my room, staring at the empty sky, I was thinking about the next few days. By this time, the global pandemic scare had become a reality and I was blissfully unaware of the intensity. Early morning, having checked into the Airport, I met up with my usual friends over coffee and my flight was ready. Well, here I come Serengeti… Here I come Asanjaafrica.
Few minutes prior to my landing, I was peeping through the window watching Serengeti Plains, usual suspects - Kopjes, water logged tracks, Elephants scattered over and few rain drops on the window pane. Yes, the sky was over cast and Serengeti greeted me with a drizzle. I rushed towards the arrival hall where my trusted friend and naturalist, Hameed greeted me with his inimitable smile and warmth. While I let him finish some of the paper work in the jeep, I helped myself to a sumptuous vegetarian lunch and set up my ammunition. Trust Asanjaafrica folks to take good care of you!
The first bout of drizzle passed away with fresh wind blowing into us. Hameed was eager to fill me in with some of the information about cats and how things have been around. I was tad sad to know the News wasn’t great. Heavy storm was heading onto us and we were quite worried about the waterlogged tracks. More than that, the elephant grasses was almost at 5 feet tall now. Wildebeest and Zebras were yet to arrive in Central Serengeti from Ndutu. Well my heart sunk and a huge wave of disappointment hit me. With such gigantic grasses on both sides, it is very difficult to track cats, obviously, it lay hidden or sleeping throughout the day. I controlled my emotions and chose to stay positive. As we got off the Airstrip track, got a call. There was this Lioness sleeping on a tree. Even while I was framing her, at the back of my mind, somehow my stirred emotions played up. I knew I wasn’t okay. Deep inside, that vacuum had started to eat me up. What do I do? I knew I was missing something.
As I turned back, I could see huge clouds setting up towards South of Serengeti. There lies my camp, Asanja Africa. As we drove, usual suspects showed up such as Warthogs, Jackals and a stray hyena.
It was 5:00 pm and the wind started blowing heavily even as I got ready with my raincoat. We drove from Serenora towards south - its one road, a long one, leading towards Sopa and Moru Kopjes. I looked around to see the yellow and green grasses so tall, that they could almost hide a jeep. Well that was how I could have imagined about unlucky the situation was. The sun was going weak. Further down, I could see a massive elephant in the middle of the road. It guessed our movement and slid across into the grass to our left. Behind him was the storm cooking up, hiding in between the blue and black clouds. The fading light was on the plains and a thin but sharp shaft of light, lit up a part of the plains. As I got closer to him, this gentle giant who was walking slowly until then, changed his mind only to charge at us. Well I did take few picture with my heart pounding so loud, guess, it was louder than the elephant’s trumpet itself. That was close! Very close! Phew! I could almost touch him with a wave of my hand - only if he permitted
Well, after that brief excitement, we got into the track leading to South - My nemesis - The TseTse Fly Zone. I had to get through their territory and well, they did taste me just like many times before. In the end, I gave up to go through the ordeal. By this time, the sun had melted behind those black clouds and we still had some time to reach the camp. I always enjoyed being here in Asanja. The headlights of our jeep guided us and sometime later, I could see the lights. It is what I call - Home Away Home for the next 5 nights.
What a welcome! A wine bottle, Welcome Back - Card and Sweets! I love this property - Genuine hospitality, amazing food and great people! The night went peacefully with me listening to lion’s lullaby all through the night. Exactly what I wanted all the while! This camp nests right at the foothills of two big mountains in the southern part. The terrain is visibly different. Lot more trees, streams cutting through the tracks, few Kopjes here and there and of-course some of the best sightings one would die for. The Moru Kopje Pride’s prime territory. Few days earlier to my visit, around 7 Lions were up on a tree very close to Asanja Camps. Hyenas are regulars. Later in the night, one can experience the legendary bush dinner under the blanket of an African sky.
Asanja is located quite deep and gives a bush feeling much different than the typical plains. A resident Jackal family (Parents and 4 Pups), few Janets - Welcomed me almost every morning - It rained every evening and night much to my love of rains. Serengeti was blooming with green grass all around. Every morning was a unique one. One of the mornings was so special that entire plains was covered with dense fog. I could barely see anything. Moist air, wet morning and me navigating, was the best experience I had. The Kopjes covered with white layer of fog, light drizzle, birds chirping and off and on, few Giraffes making their way into the sunlight - Was this a dream? In nick of time, I screamed - Lion! Lion! Just ahead of my jeep, the Moru Kopje Pride Lion was walking ahead of us! Heaven it was! Picture Perfect! It was so misty, I took a record shot but unworthy of posting it :)
The road off Moru Kopjes is a very special one for me and it has been like this for years now! The entire stretch is so dense and with thick vegetation, chances of spotting a Leopard or lesser known cats are high as they move around a lot, early mornings. That day, we struck gold! Caracal! Little ahead of us, I saw some movement at the end of road curving to another - Yes, it was The Caracal! My first sighting of this beautiful cat ever! Even though, he was at a distance, it was blessing for me. Incidentally, the previous evening on my way back to the camp, I was so exhausted that I had my share of few winks when Hameed screamed - Caracal! I scrambled and literally jumped out of my seat only to see it getting into the bush. But, this sighting proved too good for me.
Watching the endless plains, painted in green and yellow, moderate weather, every time I was transported into heaven! Its not about just Cats! It is not about just few usual suspects but the kind of emotions it gets into me is unexplainable. There are times I cried. I cried looking at the rainbow behind the Kopjes, melting into the clouds. I cried to see the dark skies pouring its heart out while the Lion bending his head, as though, obeying almighty’s orders. Those Impalas jumping around, trying to get to a safe point before the night kicks in. Certain moments are so precious such as Jackal family walking towards my camp, playing all night along! I feel indebted to experience these moments in my life. And I pray god, until I am alive, I keep experiencing these heavenly moments …..
It was another day, a clear morning and for a change the sun had come out. We hung out at our usual post having breakfast. I had my usual MTR Upma followed by a flavourful black coffee. My mind was hovering around. While my eyes kept looking around, a certain hollow feeling grew more and more. There were times I was just closing my eyes and doing nothing while Hameed was talking to me. I had never felt like this before. I was feeling lot more miserable, lot more lost. And it continued. I at times can get brutally lost and can vouch on myself during this trip how depressing my mood swings were.
The amazing Naabi Gate Pride enthralled me! Mating Pair, pride of 10 Lions and Thousands and thousands of Zebras and Wildebeest! The first batch of Migration had begun into Central Serengeti and boy, what a treat to behold! The two pride males literally gave an absolute welcome to me! Just when the sun started coming out blazing, one of them decided to lay low, have a morning siesta! He slept in a way as though giving a message to the world saying, let everybody go to hell, let me get on with sleep!
The migration was a few weeks delayed, but it did like every year. Wildebeest walking in a straight column from South of Serengeti towards Central, Zebras being so watchful of the big game while a trio of Cheetah miserably failed to hunt one in a sea of thousands talked about nature and its manifestations. Strange behaviours. A close encounter I faced this time was near the Naabi Gate. I was sitting on the edge of my seat watching the migration without a clue of a Lioness that walked past my jeep - brushing against my vehicle. I realised a bit late but that really gave me goosebumps. One need to lay still and not to make any immediate or take evasive actions else animals will assume that it is a threat.
From Naabi gate, a quick tour to Gol Kopjes & Simba Kopjes resulted nothing as it was already quite hot - My belief was that cats would have moved elsewhere to rest. Both of us had our lunch and set ourselves back in action. It was around 3:00pm, unusually hot - the wet roads were turning into thick mud cakes but that didn’t help us at all. The long road from Naabi Gate towards Sopa, one single stretch - especially after lunch, you will be obligated to take few winks. No action either. By 4:00pm, as the first bite of TseTse fly woke me, I irritatingly got up, trying to scratch the itch. Opening my eyes wide, out of no-where, this Serval jumped out on to the track! Vow! That was some experience!
Dejavu! Just like last year, as we approached close to a bridge that is the main approach road to get into South, our Jeep got struck! This time we got struck around 30 yards ahead of last years spot! That means, I made some progress this year!
Both of us tried all options to get out of that deep hole but in vain. No cellphone network - We had to use Radio to communicate with our camp - Unfortunately the other jeep was also struck on the other side! Vow! From 5:15pm till 09:00pm, we were technically struck waiting for help! As we lay in wait, we did have few visitors checking on us. Hyenas, Black backed Jackal and of-course, few lion roars that seemed very close! Finally, at 09:00pm, our saviors came and reached my camp at around 11:00pm. It rained and rained. The roads were just unimaginably tough but to the expert driving skills of Asanja’s reputed guy, Ed. I had jumped from my Jeep to Ed’s during the evacuation! That night as I slid into my bed, I was excited with the incident but also left me wondering about the reason causing me pain and discomfort. While Serengeti had taken good care of me, I could feel loads of dots crossing over my mind, I could see empty skies without any stars or moon. Without my knowledge, I was in deep slumber.
Nature at its best. Serengeti at her best. What drives me to visit her, year after year? What makes me come here and just stare at the plains? I watch the African skies, filled with colours, I watch the rain filled skies, it soothes me, late evening light, glowing the entire plains, fresh breeze flowing in, the surprises that keeps trickling in, in the form of sightings, the Kopjes standing as living history to this enigmatic world, the rainbows that pops out time and again, light drizzle that makes me stretch my hands to feel every rain drop, the thunder-storms, lightning that makes me pack my cameras and stare at the skies, the stray acacia trees that has withered many a storm through the years, the golden and green elephant grass that hides the unknown, the ultimate warrior, the Lion King standing on top of a hill looking at the rising or setting sun or perhaps, when I hit the bed, the non-stop roars or hyenas hooting, breaking the silence of the nights - For me, its sheer magic. It is sheer essential for my survival.
With mixed emotions, I bade good-bye to my dear friend, Barrick at the camp. The entire staff gave me a wonderful and momentous good-bye dance, a traditional one, even as I promised to come back next year. Back at the airport, my heart started to pound thinking about the reality and havoc the entire world must be facing! I was in heaven all these days and on 12th March, I realised the gravity of the situation. Luckily for me, my flight route was not via Dubai. It was via Ethiopia. As I landed in Addisababa Airport, empty corridors and closed shops welcomed me. Thin but alert crowd, authorities leaving no stone un-turned for the safety of all passengers made me wonder what could be the situation back home in Bangalore? 13th March, Friday, 0730am, the Captain announced that we were about to Land in Bangalore and I was sweating! Reason? What would happen? Will I be isolated ? Will I be quarantined? I had no symptoms neither I was in any infected country. After filling the form, I was inspected and administered thermal scanning. Fast track through immigration and customs, I breathed the air of Bangalore! Phew!
In the cab, as I was getting back home, the mixed and hollow feeling continued all the way. While Serengeti loves me always and gives me all her best, this time, a certain turmoil gripped me all through. Nonetheless, my annual ritual got over. I am now looking forward to 2021!
A big thanks to Amazing hosts @ AsanjaAfrica, Barrick - the Manager and entire team out there!
Serengeti is just not a name to me. It is my life.