The Serengeti: The Fifth of the Big Five

It was in the Serengeti that we saw the fifth of the Big Five, the elusive leopard. Boy were they hard to spot! The first one Muba and DC saw was a young one that flitted away from sight as soon as Muba gave the alert. It was on one of the larger kopjes that we were driving over. Later, we spotted an adult one high up on a smaller kopje. It was a bit too far away to observe properly. The only other interested tourist was one with a large telephoto lens. It was funny seeing only the large lens sticking out and nothing of the human controlling the lens.


What was way more exciting was our prolonged sighting of not one, not two but three leopards! Can you spot this one slinking in the grass?


It headed towards a tree and climbed up.


Before long, it was joined by another. Muba commented that leopards never tolerated having strangers in their territory, so this meant that they must be brothers.


They seemed to be playing a sort of Bollywood dance routine on the tree, changing places and jockeying for the best position. I like how this one is showing off its tree climbing skills. Leopards are true cats with retractable claws, unlike cheetahs, whose claws are always out – all the better to run with. Here, the leopard’s retractable claws come in very handy to show off its full prowess on the tree.


Soon, the gambolling was over and they decided to go down the tree, out of sight. Muba said that leopards never let themselves be spotted unless they wanted to. They could wait for hours in hiding until they were out of danger, and were far more patient than the tourists. It seemed like there was no further chance of observing leopards for the day as dusk was rapidly falling. We had to make it back to camp in time for curfew.


A few metres away, we were surprised by another leopard, this time with a kill hung up on a tree. Muba explained that leopards are ambush hunters, waiting for an unsuspecting moment, then pouncing from behind. It used its retractable claws to puncture the prey’s neck and get a firm hold, then with its powerful shoulders and front paws, it gave a quick twist to the neck and all was over. The leopard would then drag the prey up a tree to be safer from other predators, although some lions and hyenas could still get at up the tree to steal the carcass. Muba speculated that this was probably the mother of the leopard brothers hunting for her offspring.


We drove off as darkness started to fall around us. It was clearly past curfew and we were stopped by the park rangers. Muba explained that we had been delayed by a leopard on the road and that we had to wait for it to move away before we could get past. The ranger waved us off impatiently. Get back to camp quickly!

Muba smiled and we continued on our way.


Into Africa: The Big Four and Beyond

Isn’t it the Big Five? Of course, but we didn’t see the last member of the Five, so Four it is. The most obvious member of the Dangerous Animals of the Safari Club (yes, it’s really a listing of the most likely animals to kill you while on safari) is the lion. We witnessed quite a few sightings in the Masai Mara, and so did many other tour vans too. As you can guess by now, the Mara is a much smaller and far more accessible and well-known reserve, hence the concentration of tourists.

But we were focussed on the lions and not tourists, and were delighted to come across this young lion (look closely to spot his mane) and his harem so early on in our trip. Here, he was enjoying an evening sip of water while the women in his life frolicked while waiting for him. Francis didn’t want to wait and soon we were part of a convoy looking for more lions.

Francis’s efforts in following the pack paid off and we soon sighted a mature male lion, most likely in search of either food or a harem to take over. He had a far more majestic mane than the younger one we saw earlier and he very calmly walked past the convoy, later choosing to pass between the cars in front of us! How lucky we were to get so close to the pride of the Mara.

Our lion adventure wasn’t yet over. Yet again, we took off in search of more interesting sights. This time, we turned a corner and suddenly saw a litter of lion cubs lounging in the shade of some bushes. They all looked up expectantly as they saw our vehicle, making me very glad for the protection of the van. The Masai Mara is definitely not a place to explore on foot!


Luckily for those who would dare to go on foot, they seemed to be very drowsy from the evening sun and soon lolled over to have a snooze. I’m surprised they managed this despite all the flies on their snouts.

And as our van went in closer, they looked up again.

But still succumbed and fell asleep, paws and ears twitching as they dreamed their leonine dreams.

The next member of the Big Five was the elephant. We only saw one family of elephants in our the Mara. Francis told us that we were lucky because it had been raining a far bit, meaning that the elephants wouldn’t bother going to the usual watering holes. They were pretty far away from the van and quite spread out. I wasn’t too impressed because at that distance, I couldn’t really appreciate the difference between them and the Asian elephants that I’m more familiar with. All I thought was that yes, they seemed big, they had tusks and they had very leathery wrinkly skin.

The reason why they make the Big Five is that they are highly protective of their own, particularly the babies. Heaven help you if you end up between an elephant calf and its mother, or worse, the entire herd.

So we move on rapidly to the next member of the club, the cape buffalo. Don’t laugh at what looks like a silly double combover hairstyle, that’s its horns. I like how gracefully they curve, but I’m sure the buffalo itself likes better how gracefully the horns impale a threat. Cape buffalo are supposedly very paranoid and adopt a “strike first, ask questions later” approach. A worthy member of the Big Five.

The next member of the Big Five was also the hardest to spot on our safari, no thanks to the fact that it is critically endangered. This was the only sighting we had of the black rhinoceros, or of any rhinoceros at all. We spotted it in the evening, an auspicious time for us to spot the animals.

It was ambling along on its way, probably thinking of what yummy twigs and leaves it ate today when a van decided to go offroad and click lots of photos of it. Poor guy.

Francis decided to stick to the trail and avoid the US$100 fine if caught by the park marshals. We contented ourselves with taking pictures from afar, glad that the evening rays came down beautifully near our rhino.

The last member of the Big Five is the leopard and sad to say, we weren’t able to spot one in the Mara. Francis’s tactics of following the convoy and rushing to whoever’s reported a sighting over the radio while paying off handsomely for the other animals simply didn’t work when it came to the famously shy leopards.

I decided to add the hippopotamus as a stand-in member of the five, as they are pretty dangerous too. If faced with a threat when wandering around away from its pool, a hippo would adopt a very similar strategy to the cape buffalo: chomp first, ask questions later. Here’s the only time we saw hippos, in the Mara River. Check out how they surface and blow out spray. Cute eh?

And soon it was time to leave the Masai Mara. Bigger adventures in the vast plains of the Serengeti beckoned. We travelled there by the same van on potholled roads winding round the tea plantations of south Kenya.


It was a very green detour round as we weren’t able to choose the same path as the animals. Unlike them, we had to respect international borders and take the long, scenic route round.