Day 6: Global climate change appears to have hit here as well, which is of course no surprise but is painful to learn. We timed this journey not only with our anniversary in mind, but with the hope and reasonable expectation of witnessing what is referred to as the last great migration of land animals on the Earth. The Great Migration is the annual flow of more than 1.5 million wildebeest and hundreds of thousands of zebra, their 1,200 mile circular, clockwise pilgrimage through the Serengeti in search of grazing and fresh water, these animals followed by predators large and small (as well as the carrion eaters who clean up the spoils), an annual trek which has occurred for thousands and thousands of years.
Reliable annual rainstorms, called the "Long Rains," are the source of life-giving waters which should mean the migrating animals massing here now in the southern Serengeti. This year, however, the Long Rains have proven unreliable and have not yet come. They are late, worryingly late we are told. The animals are weeks behind schedule, lagging far north of here in the central Serengeti, having already grazed through most of what had sprouted there. We are told that the pregnant mothers are holding off, as best they can, giving birth to their young, the mothers needing the fresh nutrients of the southern Serengeti's bounty to produce the milk they need for their young. We are told that the animals are feeling lost. Last night we decided that, today, we would go to them.
We are woken even earlier than usual by the sound of Cape buffalo chewing grass just outside our tent; our Maasai guard tells us that this is a good thing, that Lion will not come where Cape Buffalo are grazing. We pile into our vehicle for the three-hour drive north over very rough and difficult terrain. A good omen, we spot a leopard lounging high in a tree near the road. Leopard is the last of the Big Five for us: along with lion, elephant, Cape buffalo and rhino, these were the five that self-respecting (and aggrandizing) big game hunters once needed to kill for a successful safari. Today's camera-clad tourists sometimes feel the need to spot the same five for their own trips to be considered fully successful. But "successful" is hardly adequate to describe what came next.
I suspect that absent experiencing it there really is no way of fully appreciating what it is to find oneself among tens of thousands of zebra and wildebeest. I know that my own imagination and powers of description are not up to creating the scene. And even though I'd seen plenty of pictures and video, they were of course only images.
Perhaps it is helpful to know that Serengeti comes from the Maasai word "siringet" which means "endless plain." This is indeed an endless plain, densely covered by endless, countless numbers of animals. I suspect if you tossed a pebble you'd not only hit a zebra but the stone would then also bounce off one zebra onto the back of another and then a couple of wildebeest butts before it actually touched the ground. We are within a sea of these animals.
Mixed herds of animals, different species congregating so closely with each other, are unusual. Our guide explains that the relationship between zebra and wildebeest is more collaborative than truly symbiotic: the zebra's excellent vision is the best early warning system for predators, and the wildebeest's excellent sense of smell knows when the rain is coming and where to find standing water. It is a relationship which obviously works.
Hundreds become thousands become tens of thousands. The dust they kick up as short spurts of energy move some animals this way and then that, clouds the air for 10 to 20 feet. The air is also filled with animal sounds: the chorus of zebra's anxious bleating, mostly from males looking for their families, combined with the silly, complaining moo of thousands of wildebeests, and the occasional drumbeat of running hooves.
As if that was not enough of a miracle, here's some of what we also witnessed today. A hippo, apparently annoyed by the nervous herds jumping in and out of her water upsetting her nap, ran from the pond at startling speed to chase obviously frightened zebra away from her water. A baby baboon and her mother take turns grooming each other, sitting at the bank of a small lake and watching the herd. Giraffes, all told several dozen giraffes, all moving in slow motion, an impossibly odd animal whose knees seem to bend simultaneously both forward and back, each step and every motion a study of grace somehow melded with awkwardness, like something Spielberg would have dreamed up. And, on the drive back to the tent camp, Lake Ndutu was covered from shore to shore in pink flamingo.
We drove home, reliving and feeling confident in our promise to remember forever what we witnessed today. And hoping for rain.