Wednesday, December 20, 2017

On Safari: The Patient One.

It would be easy for this to turn into somewhat of a 'fish story,' as the only handful of people who could dispute or corroborate this likely don't read this blog. So you'll just have to take my word on this that I'm retelling honestly, and this fish was in fact as big as I claim. And it was a big one.

Except the fish here was a mother cheetah and her three cubs. The part of Serengeti that we were in was the part known for its big cats. Our trip was effectively divided into three parts: predators, the migration, and beasts. So far the 'predator' portion had not disappointed: we'd been awoken by the roar of lions, seen them close up, and even seen a hyena or two after a prized carcass. But we'd not yet seen cheetah. Part of me did not even expect to see one. I mean after all, they are quick, elusive, and blend in perfectly with the endless plains which surrounded them and from which the Serengeti took its name. 

So on this morning, our second in the Namiri Plains, we had been out for a few hours and were beginning to head home after an unsuccessful hunt for the cheetah. Sandor, our guide, explained that you never know what you will see, and it is somewhat silly to head out on safari actually expecting to see any one creature or beast.... but I could tell we were all a little disappointed that we had not seen one of these quick cats as it may have been one of our last chances. But then the radio came alive. The other truck. We quickly veered onto another dirt path in a different direction. Given that I was in the back and that I don't speak Swahili, I wasn't sure what it was all about. Sandor turned back, and in the calm and collected manner of a proper British gentleman said the word we'd hoped for:


After a few moments we spotted the other car - engine off with all inside standing binoculars in hand looking out across the plains. After we joined suit and our spotter pointed his hand off towards the horizon, I finally saw her. A small head popping out of the grass probably a few hundred yards out. How our Masai spotter saw this amazed us all. I quickly began snapping photos with my fully zoomed 300mm lens with the expectation that this was the closest we'd ever get. But the longer we waited there, the more we realized that there was a situation unfolding. Off to our right: our cheetah, who now revealed herself as a mother with three cubs. Off to our left, a herd of Grant's Gazelle, grazing on wild grasses and generally a tightly knit group, expect one who lagged from the pack, but seemed extra cautious, his head popping up to look around every few seconds. He likely fancied himself a careful one who was comfortable enough to be this far away from the safety of the herd.

Our truck was positioned right in the middle. Of course, in our minds, a nature documentary was about to unfold any minute as superior cheetah broke upon hopeless gazelle who had no chance and closed upon him over the distance of a few football fields, taking him down just like we've all seen on the Nat Geo specials. But as minutes passed and the Cheetah barely moved, we realized this was not going to be the case, and that a Cheetah was completely capable of moving at a snail's pace, and indeed seemed to prefer it as far as we could tell. 

She was methodical. Careful. Cunning. When the gazelle put his head down to graze, she moved. When his head came up, she fell. This happened for maybe 30 minutes while the 200 yards was cut to 100. Then she passed in front of our car. Elegant and graceful, she did not pay us attention, but her cubs came close and played at our tires while their mom pressed on. On she went, getting closer now. Maybe 80 yards from her target she looked back at her three cubs and they immediately laid down, knowing what mom meant by the look: "game time." We all watched on with our binoculars as she got closer, and moved towards the gazelle who had by now allowed quite a bit of extra space between himself and his herd. 

Then she dropped into the grass. We totally lost sight of her. Five minutes turned to ten, and ten to fifteen, then twenty. Sandor explained that she may lay there for three more hours or attack in ten more seconds; she played this game very carefully. After about 30 minutes of not seeing her again, we decided that we'd take a brief  bathroom stop as one in our group was about at a breaking point. We drove a few minutes in the other direction so that he could de-truck and find nature's loo to do his business. Just as he was getting back in the car the radio came alive again. This time with several yelled words reported back from the truck still by the cheetah which I assume could have only meant one thing: she was making her move. 

Our truck took off across the plain directly back to the herd and Sandor yelled out something like 'Oh hell!' In the distance I saw a cloud of dust as our Cheetah sprinted from her hiding place towards the gazelle. She had indeed made her move. And in the time it took our Grant's Gazelle to look up and notice, he had lost two seconds. Quick math here: a cheetah during a sprint travels 40 mph, which is about 20 yards per second. Our Cheetah has closed the distance to fifty yards before revealing herself and breaking to a sprint. Result: that was an important two seconds lost. By the time we got back she had made her target. 

Next was the part which was hard to watch for some in our group. The impact of the takedown had broken the gazelle's leg, but he had not lost hope.  As the cheetah stood over her prize and her cubs trotted over to join, the gazelle attempted to stand and make one last run for it. The cheetah effortlessly proved that it was all over. She leapt at the gazelle's neck and the hour plus long hunt came to an end. Her cubs came and made a few bites at the already incapacitated gazelle's neck as mom looked on - school was in session. The feel of this gazelle between their teeth was what would keep them alive in the Serengeti. They were to become familiar with it. Practice it. Perfect it. Or they would die. 

We could all barely believe what we'd seen unfold. We went to set up and have our lunch nearby on a makeshift table and recounted our own versions of the story with each other before returning to the cheetah and her cubs to watch them have their own lunch. The cheetah did not spend long at her kill. They filled their bellies quickly and moved along. Before long the vultures would come, circling far above and descending on the kill. They were only an annoyance to the cheetah, but the hyenas who they signaled were a problem. Strong and ferocious, only a single one could chase the cheetah off her kill. So we left the cheetah and her young to finish up their meal in peace and headed back to camp. 

We joked that each animal out there had something to teach us. And she had taught us patience. What we had expected as an epic 200 hundred yard sprint which wound up with the big predator cat winning over the helpless gazelle. But what we got was an almost two hour long stalk which was anything but dramatic, but rather a lesson in patience. In the end, it was our lack of patience which caused us to miss witnessing the climax up close. The cheetah is known for her speed. But so is the gazelle. It was mom's speed which ultimately took down her prey, but it was her patience which got her 90% of the way there - reality may not be as sexy as the stereotype. 

Oh, how the wheels are turning in my head for the basis of my self help book totally inspired by this hunt. Stay tuned... As just our fourth night in Africa came to a close - I was amazed at how much we'd seen, and how if one wanted to be introspective, what they would learn out here. But it was not quite the time for that just yet. The fire was going, we were among family and friends, enjoying good food and drink, and hoping the lions did not get too close to our tent that night.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

On Safari: Among Lions

As our plane landed in the middle of the Serengeti, I wasn't having the best of days. I was recovering from a bottle of Swiss Kirsch which I'd acquired at the Zurich duty free and finished off while talking Kenyan politics late into the night with a few Masai at the Emakoko Lodge in Nairobi National Park. I know nothing about Kenyan politics, but as it turns out, Swiss Kirsch makes me think that I do. So after the Kirsch and a spontaneous dip in the pool that the lodge owner had to call extra guards out for to ensure we did not share it with cape buffalo, I finally made my way off to bed - ready to capture a few hours rest before heading to the Serengeti.

Karen Blixen described this part of Africa as "distilled." It's the earth left to its most primordial roots. The trees are hardy, the water scarce and the animals all adapted to fight for their existence in a place where if they couldn't or didn't they were doomed to extinction. As our car bumped over the dirt roads mile after mile towards the southern tip of Serengeti, we passed everything that I came to know in my childhood as near mythological creatures that one only saw at a zoo: zebra became commonplace; the antelope were as numerous as the stars; ostrich, buffalo and the endless rolling hills of grass took us into a world which reminded me of those paintings on the back of the wild cat exhibits.... but here we were. 

But then there were the lions. After a few hours of driving, we came upon a rock... Not a particularly impressive rock.... But this rock had lion resting on it. Nothing really prepares you to see a lion in the wild. Of course I'd seen them in a zoo. Lethargic, confined, looking out and yawning at all the visitors. But not this lion. He was an apex predator and you could see in his eyes that he knew it. He was proud... unafraid... the master of his domain. And it made me never want to see a lion in another place. We all stared transfixed at this first lion for several minutes. You in a way become more aware of your humanity when looking at a lion like this. Knowing you are no longer in control as you are in a zoo, or in the safety of your home. Of course we had cars - but they were open, and if for some reason this lion decided he'd like to have a go at one of us, I'd imagine he could have inflicted a fair bit of damage before we could make our escape. But this is the world to which we got accustomed if only for a few short days. 

That night after we'd got to camp we were not too far off from this rock. And as it turns out even though we arrived near sundown with enough time to set our things down and enjoy the luxuries of camp life, we shared the valley with a group of lions who were hungry and very interested in a kill it seemed. At 2:05 AM that night (I know because I remember thinking that if this was the night that I was going to die, I may as well know what time that it was going to happen), I began to hear lions roaring not 50 yards from my tent. Hemingway, in his typical unvarnished and slightly crude manner, described the experience this way:

"You cannot describe a wild lion's roar. You can only say that you listened and the lion roared. It is not at all like the noise the lion makes at the start of Metro Goldwyn Mayer pictures. When you hear it you at first feel it in your scrotum and it runs all the way up through your body"

To that, ill just say... yup. But I won't be overdramatic here... these lions were not interested in a large canvas mass containing something which would have provided not even a days food if they were lucky enough to navigate the zippers and canvas and blowhorns which I would have frantically set off.. they were after cape buffalo... fat, vulnerable and worth a weeks hunting for an entire pride. 

The lions did not make their kill that night, and the next morning we set out early to find them. Sure enough not more than a couple minutes drive from camp we were among them. Us still rubbing our eyes and barely awake, they just settling down for the day after a night of activity and being on the hunt. We watched as they walked just feet from the car, very uninterested in us, just going about their business as if we were not even there. I can remember thinking how terrifying it would have been to spend a night alone in the Serengeti. How everything blends to its surroundings and even when on your guard it would take just seconds to be overcome by this or that cat, hyena, Cape buffalo, (fill in the blank). But these lions owned the night. It was clear they weren't scared of anything, and to be in their presence made all of the stereotypes and sayings about them make sense (fought like a lion, such-and-such the lionheart,  the lion and the lamb, etc... )

It was fitting that we'd come on safari and to have this encounter be one of our firsts. It is of course, the most stereotypical and impressive beast one expects to find in the African plains... but over the coming days a bigger story began to come together, and I'd come to see that though impressive, he was just one small part of Serengeti.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Wrapping Up; The Bucket List in Review

I've been avoiding this post for the longest time.

For one, because it feels like it needs to be a conclusion. I have no more countries to add to this list, so should I be done? I feels so wrong to write a concluding post to a journey which I feel is still very much underway.

Secondly: how do I summarize all this? Is there a central theme? What lessons have I learned? Does that even matter?

It's true, my list as of now has come to an end. So unless I'm prepared to update this once a year (at best), my "bucket list series" is done here (guest authors welcome!).

I suppose I'll just end with this. Somewhat of a call to action to you homebodys, or a reminder to you travel-bugs.

Traveling is timeless. Yes, it costs you money. But what it buys you is priceless. One day you'll have to part from your Dodge Stratus, or fancy Kitchen-Aid blender. But no one will ever take away your memories.  And this is what travel buys you, or at least what it has bought me.

When I shave in the morning before work, as the razor hits my cheek, I remember shaving in front of the window watching the waves crash on the cliffs in the Forteleza do Guincho hotel in Portugal, and I smile.

When I have a good steak, I remember sitting on the patio of La Puerta Ancha steakhouse watching those kids play soccer in the square of Ayamonte, Spain while the afternoon gave way to evening.

When drink my coffee, I'm brought back to the crisp 7 am morning air in Vienna and the journey we undertook to find a coffee shop and pastry before setting out on the town to explore.

When snow begins to fall, I remember Prague. Experiencing  something like waking up in the middle of a dream, but realizing it was all real; that fairy tales are really inspired by true places, and you have to get out into the world to see them.

But also Terezin. The camp just outside of the city. This same snowy cold day providing an eeriness and deadness to the world that made me question what it is to be human and haunt me even to this day.

All these things have made me a different person.  And without having been around the world, I'd be so much less. I count my blessings that I married a woman who shares these same passions and has journeyed with me throughout much of this, and a woman with whom I welcomed a son Jacob to the world who was born this past January. He was named after my ancestral forefather from Hesse, Prussia (see my earlier German post), the man whose father braved a two week long Atlantic journey from Antwerp, Belgium to New York Harbor and planted my family's roots here in America.

What a joy and excitement that I get to teach his great, great, great, great grandson how big this world is. What beauty he has surrounding him. What treasures his God has created, and maybe one day even bring him back to the land his ancestors left.

What a beautiful world.

Until next time - KG