Wednesday 5 February 2003
How do you follow a day like yesterday?
Well, you can start by watching the sunrise over the far off Ngorongoro Hills, with Lake Ndutu in the foreground, in the company of a pair of bat-eared foxes. You can then drive through the shallow and dusty depression that leads from the lake towards the marsh and see a pride of eleven lions, comprising two adult lionesses and the rest two year old youngsters (including no less than six males).
Finally you can drive to the plains north east of Ndutu and towards the hidden valley and see wildebeest and zebra in their tens of thousands stretching as far as the eye can see in every direction.
What is unbelievable about the herds of migrating wildebeest and zebra at this time of year in this part of the Serengeti is that you see tens - or even hundreds - of thousands of animals on the plains, then, when you have feasted your eyes for long enough and become dizzy with the sheer scale of it all, you drive on somewhere else for an hour and discover that the plains that you saw before are not the only plains, and that there are tens – or even hundreds - of thousands more animals on these other plains as well. And you wonder how can the 1984/5 census that counted 1,300,000 wildebeest and 200,000 be accurate? There are just so many of these animals in so many different parts of plains around Ndutu, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, and the southern Serengeti – let alone anywhere else in the nearly 15,000 square kilometres of the Serengeti – that they are impossible to approximate let alone count accurately. Add to this the anecdotal evidence that these numbers have been increasing over the past 15 years and you wonder - notwithstanding aerial counting techniques - couldn’t these numbers be a gross underestimate!
The herds we saw yesterday did not seem to have many calves born yet. Today it is a different story. Calves abound, many still ‘wet’ and tottering having been born minutes earlier, and others, with their light brown coats and confident air appearing to have been born months earlier when it is probably only days. After driving through the herds for a while we notice a female wildebeest with a pair hooves protruding from its behind. Although it is in the latter stages of giving birth, it is running! Clearly it is necessary for reasons of self-preservation for a wildebeest to be able to run as fast when it is giving birth as when it is not, but it is still amazing to see. A few minutes later it lays down and gives a couple of pushes and out pops a calf. I leave the camcorder running (with the timer on) to record the birth and what happens afterwards, so I can say precisely that it stood up unsupported after five minutes and was running after its mother confidently after ten. When you witness something like that – the moment of birth followed by the speed of development - it really makes you marvel at the wonder of creation. Of course the cruelty of nature is also clearly visible in the number of calves separated from their mothers in the heat and dust and condemned to die either of starvation or at the hands of the numerous predators stalking the plains.
Apparently wildebeest tend to give birth over a 4-6 week period so as to ‘swamp’ the plains with their offspring to ensure that as many will survive the onslaught of hungry predators as possible. Although we see many hyenas roaming the plains with bloody mouths and distended bellies so full they almost drag along the dirt and the pride of eleven lions mentioned earlier, we could see that even all these predators (including also cheetahs, jackals, eagles and vultures) could only make the slightest dent in the wildebeest and zebra population. Interestingly zebras tend to give birth a little earlier in November and December and most of the foals we see look confident and sure-footed.
‘Rhino!’ shouts my safari virgin friend, suddenly. Astonished I look towards where he is pointing … at a zebra with afterbirth hanging from its uterus and a wobbly and wet foal by its side. It can only have been born half an hour previously - as we had taken our breakfast on the plains surrounded by life.
In the afternoon, we opt for a break from ‘wildebeest city’, as Steven calls it, and drive through less populated areas of the savannah and acacia woodland. Nevertheless we still face a mock charge from a loan bull elephant and flush a marsh owl from it hiding place in the long grass. The diversity and quantity of life here is simply stunning.