I woke up in a hotel overlooking the crater at Ngorongoro. I quickly wrote a column, took a brief rest and then opened the curtains. It was already bright outside. The sky was cloudy. Clouds covered the rim of mountains on the crater’s edge. The clouds were so closed that it gave me a sense of oppression, a feeling as if they were crushing me. But there were also several beams from a sun that lit up the paradise of crater. The bright golden sunlight against the lake was so beautiful that it seemed unreal.
After the breakfast, clouds are clearing away. Stray clouds trailed and wandered over the paradise. I stood for a while looking at the beautiful sight, closing my eyes and feeling thankful for the opportunity to visit this place and feel at one with nature. I left the room when the time for our departure came.
I found tourists aiming their cameras in a hallway outside my room. They whispered to me, “There is an elephant.” The elephant stood still, hurriedly eating something. I caught him feeding grass into his mouth with his nose and his huge tusks in a thick grove of trees. The elephant was only 10 meters away from the hotel hallway. It was within the premise of the hotel, at the top of a 2,600-meter mountain. When I told the driver about the episode, he responded with a smile, “The elephant dropped in to say goodbye to you.”
We bade farewell to the gigantic crater and its paradise, and began climbing down the green mountains in the opposite direction. We passed by a Masai village after driving through forests of umbrella trees and a natural garden of yellow flowers. We saw zebras and gnus on the side of an ordinary road near the village. We were getting used to them now.
The driver suddenly stopped the car. The reason: a herd of giraffes. Come to think of it, we didn’t see any giraffes in the crater. The driver told us the giraffes didn’t come to the crater because of “the lack of acacia leaves, their favorite food.” Outside the window, we saw giraffes nearby, stretching their neck to eat acacia leaves.
Next, a group of impalas cross the road ahead of us. They looked very pretty from behind. Dozens of impalas travelled together. Each group had only one male with antlers. My guidebook said, “Dozens of females form a herd around each male, and live in open forests and surrounding meadows. Males not chosen by females form male-only herds around regular herds and look for an opportunity to seize the harems.” We came across with a male-only herd around sunset that day. The natural world was quite unequal.
After impalas, we came across some baboons. Masai people were grazing cattle right next to them. I wondered if the Masai people were part of the ecosystem. Besides cattle, they were pasturing sheep and goats. When we finally descended from the mountains, the savanna stretched as far as we could see.
We arrived at the Olduvai Gorge. This is where fossils of humanity’s ancestor Australopithecus were discovered in a stratum more than 1 million years old. Subsequent studies revealed that the ancestor of modern man originated and slowly evolved into Homo sapiens in this part of East Africa. Humanity has traveled a long way from here. Through the course of evolution, our ancestor expanded its habitat, migrated to Europe and Asia, walked across a land bridge that existed in an area that is now the Bering Strait into the North American continent, and reached Patagonia in South America.
Japanese anthropologist and medical doctor Yoshiharu Sekino began his bicycle adventure in Patagonia in South America to follow the course of this great human journey backward on a man-powered vehicle. I found records of his journey at a museum in Olduvai. The museum carefully kept Sekino’s bicycle, too. There was even a monument in his honor. I felt proud to be Japanese when I saw them.
Our Land Cruiser stopped in front of a gate bearing the sign Serengeti National Park. A family came out of a car ahead us to relieve themselves. The tour guide told us we could leave the vehicle in designated areas only once we enter the national park. So, I stepped outside as well. All I could see at the gate was a field of grass. Not a tree was in sight. The place offered an almost 360-degree view of the horizon. When I gradually lowered my vision after looking at the sky, white clouds were extending, then my eyes reached the horizon. If you look from the ground, and raise your vision there was the sight of brown ground extending all over the Savanna, then at the end, you reach the horizon. I think people call the horizon a “skyline,” because the border between the sky and the earth looks like a line. The skyline spread out almost 360 degrees around us. It was truly a panoramic view that we could only appreciate from ground level.
A hyena crossed the road ahead of our Land Cruiser. The hyena faced gazelles only dozens of meters away. The scene evoked a feeling of tension. But then the hyena started to walk away from the gazelles. Possibly he wasn’t hungry. We also saw some jackals in the grass field. They were smaller than I had imagined.
The driver stopped the car and turned the engine off each time we found an animal. I could stand up and watch the animal directly from a big gap between the ceiling and the raised roof each time the driver did so.
We came across an enormous herd of zebras. We saw thousands of them on both sides of the road. There may have been more than 10,000, and it might be more appropriate to say they swarmed the grassland. I was on my feet throughout the encounter. Our Land Cruiser slowly cut through the huge herd. The air was slightly cool because the Serengeti is about 1,600 meters above sea level. It felt nice. I could enjoy nature with my five senses, including smell and sound, because nothing blocked them.
A little hill came into view. There were five elephants at the foot. Two were calves. Standing in the car, I gazed at them. Just looking at them was heartwarming.
The hill was a place called the Naabi Hill Gate. We climbed the hill to its top. Vultures wheeled in slow circles in the sky as we looked up. They flew as if it was pleasurable for them. We climbed down, took out our lunch box, and had a picnic lunch at the foot of the hill. We enjoyed a lively conversation with our driver. According to him, Serengeti means “endless plains” in the Masai language. The driver said he loves both Ngorongoro and Serengeti because they each offer different delights.
We continued our safari in the afternoon. A solitary rock elevation presented itself in the endless plains. We found the king of the beasts, a lion, lying flat on the elevation. He may have been enjoying the nice feel of cool rocks. There seemed to be more lions around. Lions are said to relax themselves out in the daytime and hunt in the morning and early evening. A vulture perched still on a rock nearby. The view was perfect for a picture.
Our guide spotted a cheetah. The driver stopped the Land Cruiser and turned the engine off. We took our time to watch the cheetah. There was a young gnu some way distant. The calf seemed to have wandered off from its herd. The cheetah was still a long way away from the gnu. It began to make a slow approach as the little gnu walked along. The gnu wasn’t aware of the cheetah yet. Slowly and softly, the cheetah moved closer to the young gnu, keeping its body low and hiding in a tuft of grass.
The calf suddenly noticed the cheetah’s advance and began to run. Instantly, the cheetah responded and chased the little gnu. Another cheetah dashed out of a tussock and followed. Cheetahs are the fastest of all animals, and the first cheetah caught the gnu in the twinkling of an eye. The initial attack appeared to have failed, but the cheetah immediately pounced on the gnu again. The little gnu fell down on the spot, never to rise again. A pair of young cheetahs walked out of a bush nearby and joined their parents for dinner. The strong indeed devour the weak in the natural world.
But it was the gnus that ruled Serengeti. I must have seen tens of thousands of them. They were so large in number that they caused the illusion of an army of black ants swarming over the meadow. I heard gnus start their mass migration to the Masai Mara National Reserve in neighboring Kenya from late May to June. Maps show the Masai Mara is connected to the Serengeti across a national border. I don’t think the national borders mean anything to the gnus. They seem to migrate regularly, just to find enough grass to feed on.
A zebra began to bray. It seemed to have strayed from its herd. Gnus started calling, as if to answer the zebra. The hippos in the marsh began growling, too, as if they were being drawn into the conversation. Birds began singing. A mild chorus of animal calls echoed quietly across the grassland. This was the sound at a marshland near Seronera.
The scattered acacia trees began increasing in number across the grassland. We spotted a leopard standing still on a tree. Maybe the leopard was enjoying the fine weather. It stood completely motionless. The driver stopped the car and turned the engine off. We waited for the leopard to start moving. Time passed quietly. A sea of grass spread behind the tree. There were small mountains far away.
The sky was beautiful. The sun shone from behind the clouds. Different levels of sunlight and white clouds of varying thicknesses created their own gradations. A turquoise sky broke through the white clouds. While I was staring at this beautiful picture of the sky, the leopard suddenly moved its leg. It then froze again. We left, concluding that we had enjoyed the leopard enough.
After the leopard, we came across a herd of elephants. The herd included many young elephants. Then we saw a group of hippos submerged in a brown marsh. A buffalo was hurriedly eating grass in a field next to the swamp. I felt happy just watching those wild animals. It was a peculiar feeling.
The Land Cruiser headed for our hotel for the night as the sun started to reach closer to the land. I dozed off on the way, relaxed by the vibrations of the vehicle. We were already at the hotel when the driver shook me awake.
May 6, 2010
Written at a hotel in Serengeti National Park