I was watching him as he lay under the shade of a tree, seemingly dead to the world. Suddenly he got up and turning his head, looked in my direction. The golden brown of his luminescent eyes seemed to bore into me; unearthing secrets which even I didn’t know lay hidden in the recesses of my being.  I could feel the ever so slight prickle of fear crawl up my spine and find a comfortable resting place on the nape of my neck.

 

He got up with an imperious toss of his head and started walking. His thick rebellious mane, his majestic gait and the aura of  sheer, unadulterated power that he exuded, replaced whatever  little trepidation I might have had with only one feeling – that  of  absolute,  complete awe at   nature’s greatest creation.

 

He walked languorously, stepping over, not going around, his girlfriend. He stopped and stared at the setting sun as if unleashing a command and then with the same languid grace settled down to wait for the night to happen.

 

It was the evening of our first day in Serengeti and our maiden tryst with the king of the jungle in his very own kingdom.

 

  I couldn’t help feeling that though we have  seen  these creatures  in captivity several times,   there is  something about an animal in  its  elements which is almost surreal. The insouciance bordering on insolence, the majesty, the grandeur and the visceral vitality are truly stunning.

 

The word Serengeti has been derived from the Maasai Serenget which means endless plains. And one can’t but doff one’s safari hat off to the Maasai for choosing a perfect name. The Serengeti National Park, a part of the vast Serengeti ecosystem of Tanzania,  is 14,763 square km and since 1981, a World Heritage Site.  

 

Soon after we entered Serengeti our driver cum safari guide come motivational guru Hamza Ayubu, stopped our Safari Jeep, a tough and tenacious Toyota Land Cruiser, beside a pond.

 

And there, just a few metres away, we saw three lionesses relaxing in the light of the setting sun. Even as we watched mesmerized one of them yawned, stretched and rolled over with such indolent elegance that we couldn’t help laughing.  The other two also were supine, completed content with life and totally unconcerned with our presence.  It was like three of our mainstream bollywood actresses, during a shoot, continuing their work with absolute professionalism, least bothered about ogling eyes or lurid comments!

 
This of course was just the trailer. The big picture was to follow.
 

The next day Hamza brought our safari vehicle to a halt below a tree. He then very casually asked us to look up, as if he were directing our attention to a juicy fruit. We followed his instructions and continued staring too stunned to react. Just above us, at a height of barely six feet was a leopard resting on the fork of a tree and looking down. One leap southwards and he would land right among our midst and be in a perfect position to have us for breakfast!

 

He looked really magnificent with his dark spots forming a beautiful pattern on his gorgeous skin, his liquid eyes and his sharp whiskers, like proud sentinels. We stared in wonderment at this spectacular feast for the eyes, for God knows how long, until finally Hamza started the Cruiser and drove us away.

 

On the way we found an antelope carcass draped over a tree. This clearly was the handiwork of our new found friend, the leopard, or one of his cousins. What was fascinating was the perfection with which the antelope had been placed – almost like a washer man putting a cloth to dry. The centre of gravity had been taken into account so that the corpse would not keel over. We saw this spectacle in quite a few places and we couldn’t help admire the strength and finesse of the leopard.

 

An hour later we spotted a cheetah resting under the shade of a tree.  The faint smears of blood on her body indicated that she had just had her meal. Slim and graceful, she looked vulnerable alone in the grassy plains.

 

The sights of the carnivores were punctuated with glimpses of herbivores of different sizes and shapes, tastes and temperaments. One image that would be indelibly etched in my mind was that of a herd of around a dozen elephants crossing the river bed just in front of us. Hamza parked the jeep in a valley between two undulations, on one of which the elephants were striding across. The male who was leading looked really gigantic with his huge ears, long, thick trunk which stretched to the ground, and enormous tusks. He was easily one and a half times the size of his Indian cousin.  He was walking at a reasonably brisk pace when he stopped and looked at us. An elephant, as we all know, is one of the most unpredictable creatures. I wondered if he took it upon himself to lead the charge against us, where would we be! Because of the strategic position in which the jeep was parked our quick getaway would be impossible. Thankfully Jumbo had better things to do and after a brief glance he marched on and we all heaved a collective sigh of relief.

 

 Hamza then took us to a pond where we found not less than fifty hippos wallowing in the slime, nudging, nuzzling and indulging in ‘little’ skirmishes with each other. Only their smooth backs and large snouts were visible. I was wondering why they had to pack themselves like sardines when the half the pond was still empty. Probably they believed in ‘sticking together through thick and thick’!!

The buffalo is one of the most feared creatures of the Serengeti - powerful, whimsical and aggressive, it can create havoc. We came across a herd of more than seventy buffaloes during our game drive. Some of them were standing while others were reclining. A few were even enjoying their afternoon siesta. As the jeep stopped close, the ones who were awake paused to stare. One of them took a step forward and snorted, looking menacing both in intent as well as form. We decided to beat a retreat.
 

If elephants, hippos and buffaloes awe you with their size and tonnage, for sheer style and poise no one can rival the giraffe, the tallest animal in the world.  The Serengeti version is called the Maasai giraffe. Whenever a giraffe spotted us it would turn its head and subject us to an avuncular scrutiny. Often, after the inspection, it would resume whatever activity it was indulging in with the same dignity. However, sometimes it would turn and lope away, like a graceful ballet dancer imitating a long distance athlete.  On a couple of occasions I watched a giraffe walking at a distance using my binoculars. I was convinced that it could give a handy tip or two to any model wishing to sizzle the ramp!

 

Among the creatures found in the plains of Serengeti, for sheer variety and number, the antelope takes the cake and the bakery. The Wildebeest, which belong to this species, are the protagonists   in the migration which defines East Africa like no other phenomenon.

 

We saw quite a few of these rather foolish and unimpressive looking creatures. I was reminded of their description in a book on Serengeti brought out by Tanzania National Parks: “It was once said of this loveable but scatter brained animal that it had been ‘designed by a committee and assembled from spare parts’.  But while the Wildebeest may look and behave a trifle oddly in human eyes, they have been around virtually unchanged for two million years so the design must have been good and the parts durable.”

 

Apart from Wildebeest, we saw the strong and sturdy Eland, the elegant Topi, the attractive Thomson’s Gazelle,  the lissome Grant’s Gazelle, the athletic  Impala, the lithe Hartebeest and the bonsai Dikdik. Of these the Eland and the Dikdik are the largest and the smallest member of the antelope family.

 

On a number of occasions, we found one of the Grant’s gazelles standing bang in the middle of the road while our cruiser approached and at the very last minute streak off as if its pretty backside had suddenly caught fire. The other antelopes too endeared themselves to us with their loveliness and speed but certainly not their intellect. Often we would find Thomson Gazelles racing away madly with no apparent objective.  “Are they being hunted?” we would ask.   Hamza’s reply would be cryptic, “No.  It is their way of getting exercise and keeping themselves fit.”
Zebras with their distinct black and white stripes were omnipresent.   Often we saw two or three zebras standing very close but facing each other and looking in the opposite direction. I was wondering if this was a deliberate pattern or a mere coincidence. “They face each other so that they can keep a watch on possible predators coming from either direction,” Hamza clarified.

 

If the creatures on the land captivated us, those in the air were no less enchanting. The Ostrich impressed us with its huge size and its energetic gait with the female losing out to the male in splendour.  The exotic(to us)  birds which caught our eye were the Great White Egret, Hadada Ibis,  Sacred Ibis, Coqui Francolin, Augur Buzzards, Kori Bustards, Fischer’s Lovebirds, Bare-Faced Go-away Bird, Superb Starling,  D’Arnaud’s Barbet and the  Secretary Bird (so named because    the quills on its head  are reminiscent of a secretary with a pen above her ear!).  African Eagle, Fish Eagle and Hooded Vulture overwhelmed us with their attitude.

 

A rather ‘cute’ incident occurred when we stopped bang in the middle of Serengeti to have a picnic lunch.

 

 This was a popular picnic site created by the Serengeti authorities. At this spot there were several tree trunks cut evenly to serve as stools on which the tourists could sit and eat. There were trees all around providing enough shade and a cosy feel. We sat on these logs and began munching our lunch with morose   Marabou storks and friendly zebras for company.

 

Madhavi, my wife, picked up a pancake from my lunch box and started walking towards the Cruiser.  Just then a kite swooped on her and plucked the pancake very neatly from her hand, in a jiffy.  The rest of us who were watching the scene   were thinking that the kit was merely flying by. Clearly the bird knew that the pancake belonged to me and Madhavi was usurping it so it decided to indulge in some justice and had it for itself! What struck me was the finesse with which the bird accomplished this task, with its beak not even caressing Madhavi. I was sure that had the even best pickpocket in Mumbai seen this ‘sleight of beak’, he would have turned green with envy!! 

 

On the second day Hamza took us to another picnic spot at the migration office.  This had   thatched canopies   with cement benches on which we sat and started digging into our food. Within minutes we were surrounded by small mongoose like creatures standing up and begging for food. Some of them would literally stand on their hind legs and raise their paws, in a gesture which moved from the realm of   imploring to the sphere of demanding. After a few minutes, if they were not rewarded with a morsel, they would bare their teeth and voice their protest.

 

They were soon joined by some more creatures which looked like huge rats. “These are Hyraxes and are the elephant’s closest relatives today,” Hamza explained. The Hyraxes were far more patient and less strident in their demands, as compared to the ‘mongooses’. Since we were asked not to feed the creatures, we refrained from doing so. But the moment a crumb fell, one of the ‘mongooses’ would grab it and run for its life with his brothers and sisters in hot pursuit, while the  Hyraxes  would keep gazing upwards, hoping  for more such benediction!

 
If the fauna of Serengeti was spectacular, the flora and the landscape created a collage which was exquisite.  The tree which best defines the vegetation of Serengeti is acacia. There are various species of this tree, the most common being the flat-topped Umbrella Thorn. The Acacia, which is   truly striking in appearanceis the yellow-barked Fever Tree, named so since it was once suspected of causing malaria.
 

One of Serengeti’s most recognizable and fascinating trees is the Whistling Thorn Acacia.  It was given its name because it makes a whistling sound in the wind. It has bulbous, dark-skinned galls that   provide a home to cocktail ants which in turn protect the tree from giraffes or anyone else: clearly a classic case of near perfect symbiosis. 

 

The Sausage Tree looks beautiful when its flowers are in bloom and its fruits ripe for plucking. It gets its name from the huge sausage shaped fruits, which are almost one metre long. The Boabub tree, which is sacred to the Maasai’s is believed to have its roots up and its shoots down – a phenomenon which obviously is only true in appearance. Candelabra is a huge cactus which looks like a gorgeous bouquet of lush green stems.

 

The Sausage Tree looks beautiful when its flowers are in bloom and its fruits ripe for plucking. It gets its name from the huge sausage shaped fruits, which are almost one metre long. The Boabub tree, which is sacred to the Maasai’s is believed to have its roots up and its shoots down – a phenomenon which obviously is only true in appearance. Candelabra is a huge cactus which looks like a gorgeous bouquet of lush green stems.

 

We found the landscape   dotted with outcrops   or kopjes (in Afrikaans) which     are “rocky islands in a sea of grass”, formed from metamorphosed granites. The rocks, formed curious shapes: an elephant resting, a woman in repose,   a miniature version of Mount Rushmore, and  looked like creations of an avante gard sculptor at his creative best!

 

Kopjes are the favourite resting places for lions. They laze around on the rocks, which provide them a great vantage point to spot their prey.  We had a picnic lunch on the third day, near one such formation. Though we didn’t see any lions the very fact that we were trespassing in their domain was thrilling enough.

 

Our home during our stay in Serengeti was the Ikoma Safari Tented Camp which is close to the Ikoma Gate - one of the many entrances to Serengeti National Park.
 The Camp was in the middle of thick woods. It comprised the reception, dining hall and the kitchen in one cluster and our tents a few hundred metres away.

 
Each tent was placed on a raised wooden platform supported by poles with a thatched roof. It had windows and doors that could be zipped up or down.  If from the outside it looked exotic, from the inside the room was snug with all the modern comforts – like electricity, running water, a double bed,   cupboards, et al.
 

Our room was facing the woods and there was a balcony from where we could enjoy the ambience. At night we could hear the ‘mating’ call of a zebra, the ‘meeting’ call of a hyena, the grunts of buffaloes and many other cries we couldn’t trace - the perfect lullabies for tired bodies and exhilarated souls.

 

On the second morning I got up and stood in the  balcony drinking in the fresh air, enjoying the slight chill and feasting on the scenery when  I saw  a herd of wildebeest  running in an arc barely twenty metres away. A few minutes later a lone wild buffalo put in a lazy appearance,   followed by a couple of zebras – it was as if the ultimate tour operator of them all, had organised a teaser for my exclusive benefit!

 

As we drove out of the Serengeti on the last day we saw the setting sun silhouetted against an acacia tree, its iridescent rays creating a montage that looked straight out of renaissance art.

 

We knew that we would never again be viewing the spectacle of Serengeti ever again.  At the same time we were also sure that the Symphony of Serengeti would continue playing in our minds and hearts forever and ever…….