This post is a continuation of a series started in the pandemic lockdown to get over a few cancelled trips. The trip in question was our honeymoon which had started almost a decade ago in the Lake Manyara National Park (Memoirs of Tanzania, Part 1 – Lake Manyara National Park) followed by 3 great days in the awe inspiring Serengeti National Park(Memoirs of Tanzania, Part 2 – First taste of the Serengeti, Memoirs of Tanzania, Part 3 – A morning to remember in the Serengeti, Memoirs of Tanzania, Part 4 – An evening with the giants of the Serengeti). We were now on our last day in these endless grasslands of Northern Tanzania.
On our last day I had something special planned – A balloon safari over the Serengeti. While these are usually ideal during the migration season as you can see the vast herds of Wildebeest & Zebras crossing the savannah. We were here in the start of the short rains so the herds were widely dispersed. The experience of flying in a hot air balloon is special in itself, adding to it the chance of spotting the wildlife below made it all the more special. A balloon ride is always an expensive proposition but the experience is worth it especially if the landscape below is interesting. We have done it only once in the 10 years since – flying over the fairy chimneys in Cappadocia in Turkey (Turkey memoirs – Cappadocia , A land of Fairy chimneys, whirling dervishes & underground cities).
We got back before dawn and had some tea and biscuits before setting off in our vehicle to the spot where the balloons were supposed to lift off from. We reached there in pitch darkness. The crew had fired up the flames and were filling up the balloons with hot air. The pilots explained to us the safety procedures and the way to secure yourself during the uplift and the landing. A hot air balloon can only be controlled with regards to the height it is flying at. The rest of the path is decided by the winds, so we may travel a lot of area or just stay at one position depending on how the winds are.
We were in the second balloon to set off just as the sun started to come up. That gave me the chance to photograph the other balloon immediately after setting off against the colourful skies just after dawn.
Soon after setting off we saw what would be our only kill being carried by a predator in the whole trip. As it was just getting bright, a spotted hyena was carrying an impala that it had snared in the night and carrying it away to safety.
We saw the hyena trot away with its prize for a minute before the wind decided to take us in another direction. We saw the vehicles below that were carrying the equipment for our breakfast in the bush after the ride tracking us from down below and changing directions accordingly.
From the air you can appreciate the vastness of these plains properly. Even from high up in the air they seem to go on and on till the horizon, justifying its name.
Wildlife spotting from a balloon is very easy as you see a wide area from the high vantage point. However it isn’t too good for photography as the animals were way out of range for my lens and when we came lower the animals were scared from the noise of the flame burner that powered the balloon and ran away faster than they would from a lion! So I realised that it would be better to enjoy the views rather than take a lot of mediocre photos. Still I couldn’t resist a few photos here and there when the opportunity presented itself.
The balloon safari went on for an hour and a half and it was a unique experience that you can splurge on once in a lifetime. For a hardcore photographer like me I would rather stick to the ground if I ever end up going to the Serengeti again. To prove my point as soon as we got down I got a great photo of a Reedbuck standing among the tall grass of the Central Serengeti.
The landing of a hot air balloon is always a nerve jangling affair as the carriage usually ends up horizontal making the safety instructions that the pilot gave us extremely important. In any unfortunate event they always had a release clause that they make everyone sign that you are doing it of your own free will and they are not responsible in case of any accident, how reassuring! Fortunately for us we have lived to tell the tale 2 hot air balloon rides later.
They serve champagne on landing ( orange juice for the teetotallers !), as a celebration of having survived! I enjoyed my glass of Champagne on the plains of the Serengeti, it would be the only time in life that I would have the chance to do that. The better half had to do with her canned Orange juice served in a Champagne glass!
We were then taken by the vehicles to the place where the balloon company had set up the breakfast in the bush. Enroute we saw a Kori Bustard and a group of Hartebeest enjoying their breakfast before us.
Soon we came to the spot where the crew had set up the breakfast table under the shade of an Acacia. It was a beautiful setting to have breakfast and one of the umpteen memories of this trip that I remember very fondly. Surprisingly the food was good too with the usual fruits, breads, eggs and cold cuts being served with hot tea and coffee – sheer bliss!
After a filling breakfast we were informed that we would be going to the rest stop that we had visited on the previous day where our regular drivers would be waiting to continue our morning safari. That put an even bigger smile on my face as it meant some more time with the hyraxes at the rest stop.
We reached the rest stop and sure enough there were hyraxes galore. We enjoyed our time watching these cute (no other word for them!) creatures go about their daily schedule without paying any attention to us.
When we were done with the Hyraxes Hadji was ready to continue our morning safari. He had already scouted the area and told us excitedly that we had a great chance of seeing a leopard and a cheetah at close quarters. We boarded our land cruiser and set off.
Before we got to either of the locations of the aforementioned cats we came across a Secretary Bird strutting with her long legs across the plains looking all pretty.
Next we came across a spotted hyena who grinned nicely for the camera. We didn’t linger too long at either of these two sightings as I really wanted to see my favourite animal – the cheetah up close.
First we came to the spot where the leopard was sighted. While he was still there at the same location, the cat had decided to take a nap in a secure location up on a tree. So the only photos possible were that of a leopard snoozing with his head conveniently rested on a branch.
That dampened my enthusiasm and I half expected the cheetah to be gone or at a distance from the road by now. Luckily my pessimism didn’t jinx our sighting. The Cheetah was still there, just by the trackside. Enjoying his rest under the shade of an acacia. We finally had an unobstructed view of a cheetah from close quarters! I took a lot more photos than I should have and one of those is still hanging on a frame in my home.
We stayed with the cheetah for a long time before it got tired of us and went back to sleep. So we left it to enjoy his nap and continued our safari. While most memorable photos on a safari are the close ups of the wildlife, sometimes you do get memorable photos of animals at a distance. One such occasion was a lone Giraffe on the horizon making for a pretty frame.
Next we came to a carcass with a huge flock of vultures around it. It was a mixed flock of White backed, Ruppells and Lappet faced vultures. As all over the world the numbers of vultures are declining in Africa too because of the same diclofenac poisoning when they feed on dead cattle on the drug that affects them in India.
The whole area was stinking because of the carcass but the birder in me was oblivious to the smell. I was just very happy at seeing these birds at close quarters and clicked away to glory.
Soon the smell got too much for the better half and I gave in to the demands of leaving the area with a promise to return after a while for some more photos. We then left the area and went toward an area where a small pride of lions were spotted resting under a tree. The sun was now blazing in the sky, we had been lucky enough to get not a single drop of rain in our three days in the Serengeti.
As we reached the spot the lions were enjoying their nap away from the hot sun. We were able to get real close as the tree was just at the track side. We were the only vehicle there and we enjoyed our time with the sleepy cats. Since we were close I got good portraits of the lionesses.
After that amazing time with the lions that made the better half happy I coaxed the better half to spend some more time with the vultures. She reluctantly agreed and we went back to the carcass and got some more photos of the vultures.
We also saw a Northern White Crowned Shrike near the carcass trying to get its share from its larger scavenger cousins.
As I was satisfied with my photos of the vultures we left the smelly birds behind and went on with our safari. We then came across what was some really unique hunting behaviour among lions.
We came to another pride of lions on the open plains. On the other side of the track was a mixed herd of Zebras and Wildebeest. The lions are usually well camouflaged in the grass but get exposed on the track when hunting. So these lions were actually using the vehicles on the track to hide themselves as they tried to get across the track unnoticed and surprise the herd on the other side.
Unluckily for the lions and the waiting cars but luckily for the herd some of the grazing Zebras spotted the lions smart efforts and alerted the group who made a run for it. So all the planning of the lions ended up going to waste, but it is surprising how these cats have adapted to the vehicles in the park & even started using them to their advantage.
That ended our safari for the morning and we returned to the Serena Serengeti Lodge for a sumptuous lunch. It had been a great morning in arguably the greatest national park in the world which had started with a successful hunt seen from the air to an unsuccessful one seen from close quarters.
We still had one more safari left in the Serengeti but that is the topic for another post some other time, some other day.