Dispatch from the Razor's Edge, the Blog of Michael Stephen Fuchs
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The Endless Plain

    That's what "Serengeti" means, in Swahili. (So "Serengeti Plain" – like "tse tse fly" – is redundant.) Serengeti National Park is Tanzania's – and almost certainly the world's – most famous wildlife preserve. Except for a few dusty roads and spare camp sites, the area is totally undeveloped – and across its dizzyingly unbounded, and mostly treeless, plains roam literally millions of hoofed animals (and quite a few pawed ones). Moreoever, with the beginning of the rains in November comes the Great Migration – when truly huge herds of wildebeest, gazelles, zebras, and antelopes return to Serengeti for the good grazing. And where the grazers are massed, you know the predators – lions, hyenas, leopards, and cheetahs – will not be far behind.

Nearly adjacent to the Serengeti is Ngorogoro Crater – if anything a more stunning setting for visiting, and game viewing. Formed when a 20 million-year old volcano collapsed into itself two million years ago, it is the world's largest unflooded caldera. Ngorogoro Conservation Area is also a World Heritage Site, a Biosphere Preserve – and home to 20-25,000 large animals at any given time. At first blush, it appears to be pretty much a big sunken bowl. But, in fact, deceptively large, it has terrain: a lake, two swamps, a standalone forest (a pretty tropical one), and some tall-grass highlands – in addition to all the flat plains. Because it is a conservation area, and not a national park, people can live there – and do. The Maasai – those wacky guys with the red togas, cattle-poking sticks, and distended earlobes – are the most numerous. But they're hardly the first: fossils of Australopithecus afarensis, homo habilis, and homo erectus have all been found here – meaning people have been living and visiting the crater in a pretty unbroken chain from nearly two million years ago to our visit today.

* * *

We're picked up from our camp site near Arusha by three tricked-out Toyota Land Cruisers, with pop-out roof panels, sent by our side-trip guides, Victoria Expeditions. We five veterans from the Cape – me, Mark, Laura, Jamie, and Susan – self-segregate in our own vehicle. Our mood is bright: it's a beautiful morning, we're going to the Serengeti, we all know and like one another – and this jaunt has a valedictory feel to it, after many days and nights adventuring together.

The drive north is long and bumpy – but already getting pretty Serengeti-looking. We begin spotting a lot of Maasai alongside the road; but you don't get any pictures, because I'm not all that comfortable shooting people (however exotic-looking) as if they were wildlife. We climb up over Lake Manyara, but we won't be stopping in the park here (which is famous for it's tree-climbing lions).

We're also to pass around the rim of Ngorogoro Crater the first day. The plan is to push straight to Serengeti, which is our farthest and northernmost stop; do a bit of an evening game drive; camp there; and do a dawn game drive in the morning. Then we will return to the Crater in time for sunset of the second day; camp; and tour the crater starting at dawn the third day. But we do get an early peak. We stop at the visitors center, which has some good exhibits and info – as well as this huge armored beetle with crushing jaws!

As we ascend to the rim, it's hard not to feel this place really does have quite a vibe to it. We reach a vantage of the whole shebang: Holy cow. (*) As for the earlier comment about the deceptiveness of the size, Exhibit 1 is the fact that you can see (in the photo above) that it is raining, on the far side, in the center. Exhibit 2 is this thundering herd of something or other, which I could just pick out on the crater floor, at full zoom.

We also stop over at the spot on the rim where we'll be camping. Here we find a couple of malingering Maribou storks – truly the Vulture of the Stork World. Also, a number of brown kites cavort overhead. I burn an insane amount of battery power (which soon comes back to haunt me), spending nearly a half hour trying to shoot them. Ultimately, I get two entire shots. My damnable digital shutter delay is killing me.

Anyway. Back onto the road – and onward to the plain. The local flavour of antelope is the Thomson gazelle, and we spot a number before even entering the park proper. More interestingly, we come upon a lioness. She was looking all reposed and soulful – until our three Land Rovers came up and basically started herding her. As she kept trying to brush us off, I couldn't avoid the feeling that we just couldn't take a hint.

We stop again at the Serengeti NP welcome area, which also has a hill-top observation point, from which we can just pick out some giraffes below. We have colorful close encounters with an agama lizard and some superb starlings, before getting onto the road into the heart of the park.

We pop the roof panels, marvel at the scene around us, and spot a line of wildebeest in the distance. Before we make any more progress, though, we come across another Victoria Expeditions truck – broken down. Five vehicles sit there letting the light slip away, while various people take cracks at auto repair. Ultimately, we end up tying it to ours and performing tow truck duty – on our nickel. Unfortunately, I also allow myself to get (vocally) frustrated about this.

Another lion is spotted on some rocks, and the caravan careens off the road to take a look. We have to untie our dingy first, and when we finally arrive, the lion is turning to leave. As plussed as I am about the fading light, though, it sure is pretty. We go and find a nice giraffe to play with instead; and get close enough to nuzzle.

And then we stumble upon The Hunt! Two lionesses are moving intently through the grass. Soon enough, we spot their target: an entirely hapless hartebeast. Watching the lions work stealthily in on their prey is kind of painful, as the hartebeast seems quite oblivious. The one nearest us passes right by the road, and circles around to the far (right) side of the antelope. The other continues on a direct vector to the target. Soon, they've got a trap in place, ready to spring. Fluttery with excitement, we spectators figure it's all over now but the bloodshed. However, we've lost track of the salient fact that a plain is a geometric plane, rather than a line: the hartebeast finally gets a clue (probably a scent, actually), and slips the noose by turning and heading off at 90 degrees. The lions call it a day as soon as the jig is up; they know they're hopelessly outmatched in a straight-up footrace. A bit anticlimactic; but thrilling, nonetheless.

Sunset on the Serengeti? Don't mind if I do! one | two | three (those are wildebeest in the final foreground).

We call it an evening ourselves, and head toward camp. But, this being the place that it is, it's got one more first for us: two male lions, brothers – one of whom rapidly goes from looking regal to silly all the way to positively goofy. The other, presumably big bro, keeps his composure.

Good night, Serengeti.

Next: Serengeti Morning, and Ngorogo Crater.

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about
close photo of Michael Stephen Fuchs

Fuchs is the author of the novels The Manuscript and Pandora's Sisters, both published worldwide by Macmillan in hardback, paperback and all e-book formats (and in translation); the D-Boys series of high-tech, high-concept, spec-ops military adventure novels – D-Boys, Counter-Assault, and Close Quarters Battle (coming in 2016); and is co-author, with Glynn James, of the bestselling Arisen series of special-operations military ZA novels. The second nicest thing anyone has ever said about his work was: "Fuchs seems to operate on the narrative principle of 'when in doubt put in a firefight'." (Kirkus Reviews, more here.)

Fuchs was born in New York; schooled in Virginia (UVa); and later emigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he lived through the dot-com boom. Subsequently he decamped for an extended period of tramping before finally rocking up in London, where he now makes his home. He does a lot of travel blogging, most recently of some very  long  walks around the British Isles. He's been writing and developing for the web since 1994 and shows no particularly hopeful signs of stopping.

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