Our journey from the previous day's campsite to Serengeti national park was a contrast of colors. Bright blue skies struck overhead, intermittently spotted by billowing white clouds as we packed up the jeep and prepared for a long day of travel. Sun-baked red clay caught my eye as we drove further west into the outskirts of civilization. The soil here was fertile, giving birth to a wealth of trees and luscious green undergrowth. The road wound through the greenery, passing through a thick forest canopy until we arrived at the ridge of Ngorongoro crater.
This 15 by 19 kilometer depressed caldera was once home to a volcano of tremendous size. After the cone erupted twice, the volcano's interior was replaced by an impressive wide plain that now serves as one of Africa's most compact destinations for wildlife viewing.
From the ridge of the crater we progressed downwards, lowering ourselves for the first time into the dry expanse of the great rift valley. Here melancholy yellows and dull greys ruled the day, as parched bushes and dry grasses swallowed the scenery whole.
Soon enough the dirt road combined with the parched air to choke our noses, mouths, and throats with an intense amount of dirt. We even drove straight through a cyclone-shaped dust storm, the sand whipping overhead at dizzying speeds.
Yet even amidst all these sad colors, bright life emerged. Cloaked in their red, blue, and yellow checkered robes, the cattle herders of the Massai served as stark reminders that human life still survives in such a desolate alien landscape.
The road here was rutted, justling us about interminably in the backseat as our guide told us to enjoy the "Free African Massage." In the middle of the afternoon, we came to a single island of rock in the middle of the great grass sea. Behind us lay the dusty trail we came in on. In front of us lay a gigantic expanse of flat plains, stretching way further than our visibility amongst the dusty haze.
Soon enough, the wildlife was upon us. Zebras, gazelles, and warthogs roamed the open areas. A group of giraffes grazed by the side of the road.
Even in this blank slate of nothingness, a hierarchal ecosystem has evolved. Large rocks protruded up from the unbroken grasses to serve as sheltering coves for saplings, enabling magnificent trees to grow strong before being swept away. It was at one of these outcroppings that our guide expertly spotted a lioness with two young cubs lounging in the sun.
Less than a month old, the cubs appeared playful and cuddly from our safe vantage point.
Our drive continued deeper into the park. I found that my favorite position was with my head sticking out of the jeep's pop up roof. From here the wind whipped against my face and storybook scenery of the open savannah opened up in front of my eyes. The air was clear and the views endless.
It was from this spot that I noticed a weirdly shaped rock on the side of the road. Quickly, I realized it wasn't a boulder at all!
"Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!" I yelled, alerting the rest as if astride a horse. We screeched to a halt and in the cloud of dust wrought by our tires, I realized we were just a few feet from a massive lioness perched in an impressive upright pose as she surveyed the plains.
Long whiskers escaped from a massive snout and padded paws spelled the end of powerful hind legs, but the comparisons to a domesticated cat ended instantly when her head leaned back for a yawn. Fangs the size of fingers protruded grotesquely from her jaw, jostling us back to reality with a reminder that this was a ferocious predator.
We stuck around in this lucky spot for as long as possible, savoring our unique encounter up close and personal with a lioness.
Later on the wildlife continued in astounding diversity. Zebras and wildebeests gazed by the hundreds, a herd of elephants plodded slowly in the distance, and a prostrate cheetah seemed to be unfazed as more than a few jeeps stopped by for a closer look.
A long day of driving finally ceased with our arrival at an exceptionally basic campsite inside the park, but our animal encounters were not finished yet. Upon stepping out of the bathroom, I was greeted by a magical sight. Within our small area, giraffes now outnumbered humans! A pack of almost ten of the majestic tree-toppers moved slowly and gracefully across our field of vision, adding the ultimate sense of wonder to our already impressive journey.
The following morning, Stefje and I awoke and peeked out of the tent to a disappointing sight. A dull grey haze filled the sky, implying that a cloudy day was in store for our full day safari in the Serengeti. Yet our initial fears were quickly proven to be unfounded.
By turning my head and peering in the opposite direction, I could see that the sky only remained dark because the sun had not yet appeared over the horizon. Over the next twenty minutes a scene of breathless beauty unfolded. At first just a few clouds turned a light layer of pink. Then a thin slice of a glowing red orb showed itself above the first layer of trees.
Finally the sunlight came streaming through the canopy in a scene of pastoral beauty: deep orange hues filled the sky, announcing the beginning of a new day. And what a day it was! We started by tracking a group of lions.
Three females and one male were grouped around a series of bushes, with the male alternating between having sex with each of the females every 10-12 minutes. After finishing with one, he would get up and stalk the next, waiting until she succumbed to his animalistic propositions before finding a not so secretive spot to do the dirty deed.
Later on, we saw the fruit of these constant reproductive acts. A pack of more than a dozen young lion cubs and their mothers chilled under a tree, relaxing after a morning hunt.
While they slumbered peacefully, a large group of elephants came within striking range for a showdown.
Ultimately the elephant babies and mothers chose to lumber on to another spot, leaving us waiting for some action.
Another cat that was having a sleepy morning was the leopard. This gruesome predator can take down almost any herbivore in the park, but unlike the lions they are a highly individual species. A leopard requires an incredible 25 square kilometers of hunting range, meaning they rarely make friends. The one we saw was lying splayed in a tree, his limbs hanging from the branches as he stealthily hid from unsuspecting prey.
All afternoon, we drove around the park in absolute awe of what was unfolding before our eyes. A cackle of hyenas demolishing a carcass in the distance? Check.
The park's lone pack of wild dogs, one of the most rarely spotted animals in the region? Check.
An incredible bloat of hippopotamuses, each of them lying on top of each other and resting contentedly in a pool consisting mostly of mud and poop? Check!
Thousands of wildebeests, a tiny fraction of the more than 2 million that cross these plains every year during the great migration? Check. So plentiful were the wildebeests that I had to constantly remind myself that each speck on the horizon was not a bush or a tree or even some mud, but rather another animal!
A veritable day care school of lions lounging around some fallen trees, appearing like a scene out of The Lion King? Check!
On our third and final day in Serengeti national park, we awoke before the crack of dawn and were in the jeep before sunrise. When the vibrant sun finally showed up, the scene was one of impeccable beauty.
To compound the sight was an influx of animals; a long single file line of zebras stretched more than 180 degrees across our field of vision while a family of elephants grazed peacefully in the background.
Early morning on the plains brought feelings of complete serenity. Whenever our guide turned off the engine, the only sounds were light winds whispering amongst the grasses and birds proclaiming their morning calls. Soft rays of morning light peeked through a sky dotted with clouds, illuminating great packs of wildebeests grazing in the distance.
On this day we drove deeper into the plains, exposing ourselves to wide open panoramas of endless grassland. Although after three days on safari our eyes were feeling a little spoiled, I doubt anyone could become jaded enough to not appreciate what we saw next.
Grazing on the side of the road was a herd of elephants: 3 adults, 2 adolescents, and a pair of youngsters not more than two months old.
The babies were more interested in rough housing than placidly enjoying breakfast like their mothers. They explored the surroundings with their dextrous trunks, smacking each other playfully like a pair of human siblings.
As the herd moved across the road right in front of us, one was even cocky enough to mockingly charge, a decision that caused us more laughter than fear.
He did his best to appear ferocious: his ears flopped around his head and his feet kicked up a cloud of dust, but we couldn't help but explode in fits of giggling as he retreated into the comfort of his mother's trunk.
Just a few minutes later I glimpsed a male lion meandering solo through the bush. Slowly we approached each other, until he knelt down to take a long drink of water right in front of our car's bumper.
Ferocious muscles crouched and twitched, ready to leap at the slightest sound of warning. But he was not in danger, as only 10 yards away we found the rest of his clan. A pride of three mothers and five children relaxed in an idyllic sight.
The smallest cub was just a week or two old and quite literally still finding his footing in life. Following mama along the riverside, he slipped and stumbled continuously, yet was always able to scramble to his feet and catch up with the rest.
We took our time here, admiring the soft fur of the cubs and the dignified way in which the lions perched their heads above the tip of the grasses.
On the way back to camp the wondrous morning was enhanced once again by the presence of monstrous predatory cats. Another leopard laid out on the branches of a tree, so still it seemed to be a carcass until the tail began twitching. Another pride of lions lay in the shade just two steps from the road, offering a prime viewing opportunity for the complex social hierarchy of these apex predators.
Another pair of cheetahs lounged in the shade, on the lookout for any possible afternoon snacks.
As we drove out of the park, it was rare to go two minutes without seeing a huge mammal of some kind, further reinforcing the wild nature of our expedition. Setting out across the great plain of the Serengeti lends itself to philosophical thinking. It's almost impossible to feel self-important amidst such a magnificent landscape. Regardless of what you may think is important in life, the ecosystem here follows the true cycles of earth.
The seasons come and go, bringing their respective bounties and hardships. Everyday, the struggle for life is played out on a grand stage. The eternal push and pull of predators and prey takes place in front of your eyes.
Compared to the scope of this environment and the natural power of the animal kingdom's greatest beasts, the lone human is registered as what it really is: an insignificant speck of dust. As such, we must cultivate gratitude for the opportunities to witness the immense power constructed over eons by mother nature. With this mindset, let us then experience such displays of life as we truly are: passive observers, not sculptors of our own personal fantasies.