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Perils of Polly: Getting up close with the animals

Posted: March 28, 2013 - 2:33pm  |  Updated: March 29, 2013 - 8:33am
A leopard and cub on the Serengeti plains of Africa.  Polly Crawford
Polly Crawford
A leopard and cub on the Serengeti plains of Africa.

Editor’s note: Polly Crawford was a reporter and associate editor of The Peninsula Clarion from 1985-1988, when she wrote “Perils of Polly.” She also has written a series of “Peril” columns about Australia, Asia, Central and South America. Her perils continue in Africa.

Our poor safari driver. He had to deal with two animal-crazed women jumping up to take pictures of animals barely visible without binoculars — with nothing but point-and-shoot Lumix cameras.

On our second safari day, that included a tree-climbing lion in Manyara National Park and some hippos grazing across some swamp and water we weren’t allowed near. David kept telling us not to worry. We’d see everything closer.

He wasn’t kidding. Not just close. Really close. Close enough to reach out and touch them, but luckily we had the good sense not to. I’m talking lions, cheetahs, leopards, giraffes, zebras, gazelles, hyenas, jackals, you name it! The only animal we didn’t get really close to, but still got a decent photo, was the black rhino.

By the third day we weren’t even stopping for the zebras and wildebeest because they were everywhere! Thousands of them. But it was the big cats that really had my attention.

Our third and fourth safari days were spent in the southern Serengeti plains called Ndutu. This was Mary’s and my favorite place because it didn’t have the restriction of road travel. See something over there? Let’s go! No road? No problem. That’s what four-wheel-drive is for. Of course a hidden log can be a bit of a problem, along with a hidden hyena. We actually almost hit a hyena, and we did hit the log, although David got us through that quite well.

Mary and I were running on amazement mode. “Oh look, there’s a lion over there,” David would say, and go tearing across the riverbed, then screech to a halt and back up. “Did you see that bat-eared fox?”

Snap. Snap. “Oh, there’s a jackal.” Snap. Snap. Finally he drove up almost on top of the male and female lion just lazing away on the dry riverbed. Snap, snap, snap. In the back of my mind I realize that I’m about 10 feet from a huge lion and there is nothing between him and me. Sure, I’m in a vehicle, but the roof is up and there’s nothing but air between us. Of course he’d have to jump five feet … It’s a good thing they are basically lazy animals that sleep 20 hours a day.

Leopards seem to be high on everyone’s priority list. They definitely attract the most vehicles. We saw about eight vehicles surrounding a tree and finally figured out that there was a female leopard with newborn cubs in a den at the base. It was almost 6 p.m. and getting dark. One vehicle had been there since 6 a.m. waiting for the leopard to appear. Suddenly she did! Up the tree, around the branch, and back down again. We saw her for about 10 seconds and everyone was exuding contagious excitement.

But it was in the Central Serengeti that we really got leopard lucky. About 50 vehicles were watching and waiting for a leopard someone had spotted hours before. We pulled in the line. Suddenly she appeared out of the grass with her two cubs and walked right behind our vehicle! I scrambled to get the best photos possible, switching from telephoto to wide-angle, forgetting there was nothing between me and the leopard. My movement caught her eye and she looked up at me when she walked by our back tire. David yelled at me to be still. Excitement does make a person do stupid things! Luckily, she didn’t care about the throngs of people.

We found another leopard perched in a tree looking for dinner. He spotted it — a family of baboons. He began stalking. The baboons knew something was up. The head male told his family to scramble up a tree while he took off to stalk the leopard. We thought for sure he would be the leopard’s dinner. Suddenly movement erupted from the grass. We watched in disbelief as the baboon chased the leopard at top speed! He chased it beyond the leopard’s original perch, and then climbed up to the same perch to make sure the leopard was gone.

The wildebeest wasn’t so lucky. It seems wildebeests are the dinner of choice among the carnivores. David spotted the cheetah first and tore off over the savannah toward it. We watched as it leapt on the neck of a wildebeest while its partner kept the rest of the herd at bay. About 15 heart-wrenching minutes later, the wildebeest was finally suffocated and became the cheetah’s dinner until the hyenas showed up. Eight against two weren’t the best odds, so the cheetahs hissed and relinquished, allowing the hyenas to rip apart what they had been so delicately eating.

That gained us new respect — and even hatred — for hyenas, so we were not prepared for the fear they would instill in us.

The tented camps in the Serengeti have one basic rule: don’t walk around after dark without an escort. But the “escort” doesn’t have anything more than a flashlight. No one carries a gun. I don’t think there was even a gun in the camp at all. If we wanted something, we were to flash our outside lights and they’d come. If we had an emergency, we were given a whistle. We tried both the first night and never got anyone’s attention. We knew, realistically, we were on our own. That’s OK. We’re from Alaska. We deal with bears. Yeah, with guns, not flashlights!

Shortly after we turned out the lights on our fifth night, we heard the “whoop whoop” of a hyena. Soon an entire pack was whooping and cackling right by our heads, with nothing but canvas between us. I lay petrified in bed hoping they couldn’t hear my heart pounding. I remembered their mouths dripping with blood and sinew. I figured Mary was awake doing the same thing.

Suddenly she hit the tent. Their cackling turned into pretty serious growling. Then she reached for her flashlight and shined it through the tent. That got them. They ran off. So the flashlight really works! We both sighed in relief and went to sleep.

We had water buffalo, elephants, zebras, and a lion wander through our camp at night, in addition to the hyenas. This really was Africa. On to Ngorongoro Crater.

 

See next week’s Recreation page for more of Polly’s perils.

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