Journey t o Africa

Like most people, my impression of Africa was shaped by a mash of wildlife documentaries, blockbuster movies, the news and the occasional novel. I couldn't wait to discover how it was really like. The idea of a safari was a much-needed breather from the concrete jungle I lived in. Imagine towering skyscrapers, traffic jams and crowds of people replaced by the unearthly beauty of clouds and plains that went on forever. It was a privilege to see the animals in the flesh. They were the stars and the reason I had come this far. Fueled by pure instincts of survival, their graceful and determined ways were a precious reminder of what it meant to be born free. The world has to leave space for the wild to just be. Wherever you come from, the magic of a safari will move you in ways like no other. The journey is indeed the destination and this one will always have a special place in my heart. Most importantly, I would like to thank the staff at the lodge for their hospitality, especially Seba and Kassi for our memorable conversations on the road.

THE SER

ENGETI

DAY O n E

80C

Plains of Gold

The clock read 06:00. I sprang out of bed and got ready, pottering around the room as I turned off the backup alarms on my iPhone. Hat? Checked. Binoculars? Checked. Camera? Checked. There was no better time to begin our journey. Photographers spoke of the golden light cast during the magical hours of sunrise as the best moments for pictures. Back home one would almost never sacrifice a minute of sleep for this. But here in the Serengeti, the sun was kind, gentle rays danced with the breeze, chirpy creatures sang their songs and the dust of the land had yet to stir up. On a safari, there was no room for the lazy and early birds were rewarded well. After a scrumptious breakfast, we hopped onto the fourwheel drive. Elevated in a transformer-like beast with an open rooftop, we traversed across unpaved roads of mud, stone and gravel locals likened to as an African massage. The wind was chilly – a reminder we were at a relatively high altitude of 2,000 metres above sea level. It wasn’t long before I caught a whiff of the pungent scent in the air. Unlike on TV where everything was so sanitized, the smell hit hard and fast! We had arrived at the Hippo Pool, a viewing loop overseeing some twenty frumpy, adorable hippos not far from our lodge. While the hippos busied themselves cooling off in a muddy stream, a sleeping calf rested its head on its mother’s

up close and personal

One of the first Maasai villages we spotted

Thankful for the smooth flight !

You hardly get such space in the city

back, blissfully enjoying a morning snooze. Another lurked awkwardly on a slope by the bank as it tried to find its way down. There was a rhythm to the hippos’ morning if one observed long enough. They disappeared. They surfaced. And they pooped. Boy was it intense! Known as dung showering, it was the act of hippos spinning their tails while defecating to distribute feces as far out as possible. What an entertaining sight! We drove for a good hour into the heart of the Serengeti, constantly scanning fields of tall, dense untrimmed grass. The land reached far and wide where the eye couldn’t see. It was an endless palette of mellow. The arrival of the dry season turned lush fields of green into a pastel brown, tinted golden under the African sun. The occasional protruding rock was sometimes mistaken for a warthog. I suppose safaris were magical in that aspect? They reinforced the concept of destiny, leaving city-bred control freaks to chance and luck. Herds of curious Thomson’s gazelles, zebras and impalas peered curiously as the engine’s roar disrupted their peaceful grazing. Mini rock hills known as kopjes punctuated the monotony of the land. “Do you know the Serengeti inspired The Lion King?” asked Seba, our driver, referring to the animated Disney film that had kids fixated with lions. “You will see many simbas on our trip.” He continued: "Everyone knows the big five, but have you heard of the small five?" "They are the elephant shrew, ant lion, leopard tortoise, rhino beetle and buffalo weaver. It is not easy to spot them!"

seba, our human encyclopedia. his k nowledge is... as vast as the seren geti.

Indeed, one couldn't help but feel blind in the perpetual search for something you might not see. In Africa, sight took on a new meaning. The vast savannahs were open to possibilities, where animals ran wild like imagination. There were so many things happening at one time it was up to you to find it. Often my eyes would play tricks and turn rocks into faces and shrubs into tails. But lady luck was on our side. Already we received a lovely welcome surprise yesterday – a lazy lion sleeping on a tree. I had to remind myself it was all about managing expectations. Crossing fingers, I scanned the bushes with intensity, looked near and gazed far. We were on a treasure hunt, but with clues invisible to the untrained eye. Suddenly, the radio exploded into a flurry of exchange. Seba pressed the accelerator and we sped off, not knowing where next. “What’s happening?” I asked.

“Cheetahs!” replied Seba. “A few of them are around the corner.” Within minutes, we descended upon a scene of excitement as everyone tiptoed on the seats to look. “How many?” I whispered. “Five!” he replied with a twinkle in his eye. “I’ve only ever seen three before. You are lucky.” I peered long and hard through my telephoto lens. The naked eye wouldn’t go far in separating the five svelte cats from grassland. A collective gasp ran across the line of jeeps as one got up for a stretch. Arching its aerodynamic body elegantly, it took a quick glance at the crowd that had gathered. Seba turned off the engine and we waited for something to happen. True to the whim and fancy of Mother nature, nothing did for quite awhile. The cheetahs lay still under the unforgiving sun, snoozing in the cool breeze. Gradually everyone else dispersed, leaving the cats and us alone. “If only they would stand up and do something,” Lucy pleaded, eyes glued through her binoculars. The silence was deafening. I swam around in my thoughts, hypnotized by the swaying dried spikelets of foxtail grass and occasionally laughing at my travel companion who looked like an awkward-looking statue. My stomach growled. A cold beer and some lunch would be nice.

“Oh my!” Lucy squealed after what seemed like eternity. The invisible cheetahs had popped up on our visual radar again. Looking fresh from a satisfying nap, two young adults stood up and started nudging each other playfully. Their classy, patterned fur glistened in the evening light and stunned us speechless. Short deep purrs passed through the air. It was hard to believe our patience had paid off! We returned to the lodge as it got dark, happy and satisfied with today’s fruitful harvest. The “Type-A” results-oriented urbanite in me started ticking off a mental checklist of sightings: Hippos, eagles, secretary birds, cheetahs… Though we were tired out by all the activity, Lucy and I were already looking forward to what tomorrow might bring.
The cool and chic cheetahs were a crowd favouri te.

If only w e co uld race on e an othe se e them r !

Z ebras and wildebeests - comrades in an unforgivin g world

Nulla vitae euismod risus.

the kill !

DAY T WO

My heart was racing. Ten minutes passed in utter silence as three lionesses gracefully walked by our jeep. With an air of confidence, one paused and sniffed. We had a brief moment of eye contact as she inspected the vehicle. Her beady eyes shifted to the land ahead, scrutinizing a herd of zebras on their way to the Seronera River. Were the zebras aware of their presence? They did seem increasingly nervous with every passing moment, shuffling their hooves and nodding their heads. Danger was in the air. Two of the three predators stealthily disappeared into the tall grass, leaving the last lion out in the open. With the rhythm of a seasoned killer, she advanced towards the zebras, which had morphed into a crowded mess of agitated bleats. A brave one ran up and down the line, warning the rest with its frantic barks.

Seba turned off the car engine and a hush fell over the grassy plain. “Look at the lioness' stomach,” he said. “She is hungry.” The kill. What a sight to behold. We held our breath and tried hard not to blink. Any moment now, I thought. The camera was on standby just in case. Suddenly, the lioness stopped in her tracks. “What’s going on?” I whispered. Seconds later without any warning, she accelerated into a mad dash. All hell broke loose as the zebras panicked and collapsed into a headless stampede, chased into an ambush by the other two. Heavy gallops stirred up an eruption of earthy dust that masked our vision into a blur of stripes and grass. The herd of prey radiated in all directions in a desperate attempt to escape. “Where are the lions?” “Oh my god!” “Did you see that…?” Sharp and precise, the lioness took aim and pounced onto the rear of an anxious fleeing zebra. Sinking its razor-like teeth

Can't believe how close we were !
and powerful jaws, it wrapped its paws around the creature, sealing the deal. Life faded away from the zebra as piercing agonized cries gave way to silence and the fear in its eyes disappeared. Our hearts pounded as everyone tried to take in this brutal act of nature. We thought it wouldn’t startle us at all – that familiar scene on national Geographic Wild where predators were often caught in action. But this… being here was nothing like what we saw on TV. The intensity tripled as it happened right before us. Lucy embarrassingly wiped away a tear. She took a deep breath. “Wow,” I said. “That was quite something.” The lioness had killed its prey by strangling it and hid it safely in the field of waist-high grass. It got up and walked away, leaving no visible trail but an oddly positioned carcass whose hind leg stood out awkwardly. “She’s gone to call the cubs,” Seba explained. “It’ll be awhile before they return.” We heeded his advice and returned to the same spot later in the evening, just to get closure of the day’s adventure. Although it was likely the carcass would have been devoured, we decided to take a chance. By the time we got there, everyone else was waiting for the party to start. Jeeps stood by neatly in a row, as vultures perched on an acacia tree overlooking the carcass. That awkward leg glistened like a psychedelic art piece in the sun. What a surprise! The carcass was indeed still in the same ‘pristine’ condition, as if someone had paused a DVD for a dinner break. Further down the road was the most adorable sight. Slumped comfortably on the branches of a sausage tree, famous for its vine-like fruit stalks resembling giant corndogs,

Han gin' on their sausage t ree

were a lioness and her two cubs, oblivious to the commotion around them. An absolute picture of bliss and nonchalance that was nothing like the ferocity we witnessed earlier. I was ready to play the waiting game, but this time round events unfolded quickly after. Just as I got slightly fidgety, more familiar feline friends appeared in the distance. Tottering along were five adorable cubs, struggling to keep up with the graceful stride of their mothers. Excited whispers from our fellow adventurers turned into gasps of anticipation as one of them approached the dead zebra. We saw nothing but were treated to loud crunching noises of bones being crushed. This time, there was no helpless squeal. A bloody face popped up. The lioness had her fill. She made way for the cubs to enjoy the prey’s stomach, supposedly the best part. A meal like that would keep this pride full for the next few days. “Today, we are the stars in a national Geographic TV show,” joked Seba. The sunset in the distance was a fierce, red ball of light. It turned the skies a soft orange hue. We set off for the lodge, hushed in the car, in awe of the beauty and brutality we saw.

DAY T H R E E

Rise balloon, rise !

Soarin g above the plains
04:15. The days got earlier. We were raring to go, motivated by the thoughts of floating in the sky over the Serengeti. Drowsy yet excited I grabbed only the essential, having been advised the night before to bring as little as possible. After a quick cup of tea, we were bundled up in a jeep to the balloon launch site with a few others from our lodge. I struggled to keep my eyes open as anticipation built up in the car. "I saw a fox!" "Is that a hyena?" "Oh my god, there's a hippo right there!" Speeding across the rocky uneven terrain in the dark was something new. I gripped the edge of my seat and bumped my head from time to time as we accelerated over big humps. Even though it was half-past five in the morning, the level of energy was infectious as our guide entertained us with talk of mating bush pigs and civet sightings. In the chilly pre-dawn light, four deflated hot air balloons emitted a strange glow as workers hurried around to prepare for take-off. Loud engines from fans disturbed the calm as they blew cold air into the balloon's envelope, a huge bag that kept us afloat. Our pilot Masoud greeted us with a warm handshake and began to explain the procedures of take-off. The wicker basket, tipped over to its side, was divided into eight compartments, each carrying two passengers. We would lie on our backs before it tipped into an upright position.

MAGIC

So this is how we look like t the birds o

Pict ure perfect

I glanced around and spotted some nervous faces. Lucy and I climbed in gingerly. We fastened our safety belts onto a harness and waited as everyone else got in. Dawn was breaking and the birds had awoken. Eyes on the sky, we watched as fierce spurts of fire brought the balloon to life. “Hold on tight, we’re taking off,” said Masoud. We stood up as the balloon gently ascended to almost 150 metres above sea level. The ride was exceptionally smooth. The flight plan, which was pretty much at the wind's mercy, would cover some 20 kilometres across the Maasai Kopjes in an hour. In the distance, pretty pink light flanked a perfect sunrise over the Serengeti, as the sky broke into a brilliant blue. It was hard to tear our eyes away from the magnificence. Skimming across the acacia treetops was absolutely breathtaking too. We glided slowly along the riverbank, looking out for animals below. "I cannot promise sightings but there is a good chance,” Masoud said. “Up here we are one family so please shout if anyone spots anything.” "Lion!" someone screamed immediately. I scampered to the edge of my basket excitedly to witness a lioness busy devouring whatever was left of a wildebeest. Hidden from the rest of the world under a dense bush, she gave us a rude glare for interrupting breakfast. Her bloodstained mouth kept moving; her eyes in a trance. "Looks like she has feasted on the kill for a couple of days now," said Masoud, as the rest of us listened agape with wonder. A gentle roar from the burners took us higher. Coloured in dirty green and savannah gold to blend with the landscape, these balloons could rise to around 300 metres above sea level. This change in perspective gradually transformed the vast Serengeti savanna into a stunning work of landscape art.

What a feast of grassland, marshes, kopjes and woodland! Everything looked neatly trimmed, as if a gardener worked his way through the plain with a lawn mower. A family of olive baboons broke into a run, confused by our UFO-like presence. A pair of dik-diks (antelopes) skipped away against a panorama of yellow and brown, disturbing a small herd of topi and a couple of odd-looking ostriches and Kori Bustards nearby. We even managed to see a hare! In the far distance, a wildebeest crowd trotted ahead. They looked like black ants from where we were. not long after, the wind dictated that it was time to land. We sat down in the basket and held on tight as Masoud steered the hot air balloon towards the ground. High from the invigorating journey, we were whisked off to a makeshift bar for a champagne toast. The toast is said to be a tradition dating back to the late 1700s, a time of early ballooning in France where pilots started offering champagne at landing sites to appease villagers annoyed by the noise.

The gorgeous pool and its priceless view

Many glasses of bubbly later, our giggly group was driven to a clearing where we feasted on the quintessential breakfastin-the-bush. Admiring this expanse of land from a bird’s eye view was certainly a bucket-list worthy experience! The rest of the day passed in a happy blur. In between lazy swims, updating Facebook with photographs and laughing at envious comments from friends, we lounged by the infinity pool, indulging in the vastness of land before us. Our comfortable lodge was the perfect respite from all the action and excitement. I replayed the morning’s balloon adventure in my head over and over again, as time slowed down.

DAY F O U R

A game of survival

A Bittersweet Goodbye
Tension gripped the air. To cross? Or not? We watched with bated breath by the riverbank as the world’s greatest wildlife spectacle unfolded in its full glory. Migration is a never-ending brutal business, and quite a mystery too. In the Serengeti, an estimated two million wildebeest pound their hooves together with more than a million zebra and countless antelopes in the search for fresh grass. They move all year round, traversing the ngorongoro crater to the Maasai Mara reserve in Kenya. I could almost sense the painful indecision overwhelming that single wildebeest at the start of the line as it lifted a hoof, preparing to propel itself to the other end. Like lost soldiers waiting for a command, the rest looked for a sign. True to their swarm intelligence, the message was soon passed down to buckle up for the ride. nervous grunts echoed as the wildebeests stepped carefully in each other’s tracks, creating a tapestry on the ground beneath. One by one, they picked up speed and began to gallop through the crossing with a burst of vigor and desperation. We weren’t the only ones observing this spectacle. Eyeing them with great interest too were crocodiles waiting quietly in the murky water. With a menacing gaze, they painted a picture of snooty confidence. In contrast, the wildebeests were an ungrateful sight, paddling awkwardly with labored breaths and panicky eyes. One couldn’t fault them though – it must have been tough hoisting some 170 kilograms of body weight while fighting for their lives.

the annual migra tion route of t reachery and luck ...

a z ebra crossin g

i will bea t the crocs. i won’t be ea ten. i will survive.

We soaked in every bit of the action. After all, it was our last day in the Serengeti and I was missing it already. Earlier in the day, Seba had driven us right in the middle of a tense moment between a lioness and a hostile mass of some two hundred Cape buffaloes. “They look really angry!” Lucy exclaimed. To our left, a defeated but persistent lioness hid in the thicket, bidding time. On our right, menacing stocky male buffaloes had formed a line of defence to protect their young calves from danger. Grunting repeatedly, a hot-blooded male charged at the lioness and drove her further away. “She won’t be hunting today, said Seba. “The buffaloes are too strong.” With that, our four-wheel drive sped through the Maasai Kopjes, leaving an orange cloud of dust in its trail. Seba had spotted a leopard the day before and wanted to check out the area again. True enough, he was right. It was a case of blink and you would have missed it. There, nested lazily in the crown of a majestic acacia tree was a leopard, most of its slender body concealed from the public eye, except for an inconspicuous spotted tail. Silly as it sounds, we waited for the leopard for an hour before the sprightly creature finally woke up. Our patience for decent photographs paid off once again. We headed off quickly, eager to see as much as we could. I scribbled fervently in my notebook, trying to remember the highs and lows of our day. We were on a roll and in good company! Soon, the afternoon's brutal inferno gave way to a gentle evening breeze, signaling it was time to make our way back. This journey was nothing short of a treat for the

senses. I loved how nature had its way of putting things in place to remind us that the world was so much bigger than ourselves. Suddenly, serendipity rewarded us with an elephant crossing – a herd of eleven grazing giants lumbering across the road. Matriarchs guarded their little ones warily as they tugged at twigs from a dried tree. In the distance, two young elephant bulls fought for attention, their trunks agile and forceful. I felt a strange calm in the presence of these giants. Growing up in a city where zoos were our only access to wildlife, the absence of steel cages and glass walls was moving and surreal. This journey to the Serengeti has opened doors to a whole new world and inspired me to do my part in wildlife conservation. I will miss the animals and the hours spent searching for them. I will remember Seba. People make places and those we met have made Tanzania a treasured experience with their attentiveness and warmth. I watched as the elephants soldiered on into the golden horizon, reminding us to do the same.

A moment I will always rememb er

Simba’s Pride
A B A B Y L I O n ’ S S T O RY

y name is Simba and I was born in the wide savannah plains, which I’ve made my playground and home. There are about 3,000 of us living here. I share it with many other animals, including over a million wildebeests, elephants and zebra, which don't really like us. Compared to the other kinds of meat-eaters like hyenas, leopards and cheetahs, we're pretty much the biggest. The human inhabitants who graze their cattle on the grassy plains are the Maasai. They call this place “Serengeti”, which means "endless land". We call them the lion hunters. A long time ago, during the era of my ancestors, they used to seek us out with the purpose of taking our lives. To make us angry, they would steal our food and provoke us in a challenge among the bushes or open plains against their spear and shield. Mama says we have lost a number of our kind to these hunters, who use our mane and tails for their own adoration. So far I have yet to see them. I hear they are still around, but they seem to have other things to do now and take lesser interest in hunting us down. There’s also another kind of humans, the non-hunters, who come armed with black brick-like objects called cameras and hide behind large, noisy moving boxes-on-wheels called jeeps. They are watching us all the time, whether it's naptime up on trees or among the grass plains, and will sometimes wake us up from our sleep by making funny noises. This really annoys me because I love to sleep. Together with my brothers and sisters, we spend about 18 hours a day sleeping. This is almost as long as the time those grass-eaters spend grazing.

We live for around 15 human years, which works out to be a ripe old age of 76 cat years. Life is very peaceful here with my pride, though things weren't always this way. A very long time ago when mama was just a cub, a disease spread by domestic dogs kept in villages, called the Canine Distemper virus, struck us. It quickly spread and wiped out almost half of our kind in six months. Imagine half of us, gone? That was my brief history lesson yesterday! My playground changes every six months. During the wet months from October to March the golden-brown grass, which provides us camouflage from enemies gives way to lush green fields. Although I miss being invisible sometimes, I love the cool weather because I can feel the rain and breeze in my fur. I don’t have many friends except for my siblings. It used to make me sad that I couldn’t play with the baby elephants, baboons and zebras, but I’m used to it now. Mama says I will understand why when I grow up. I like to play the occasional hide and seek game with my siblings but the adults don't let us roam too far for fear of the mighty hawks or eagles, which can easily crush us. Although I think I'm mightier than that. I try to be. I’ll reach my full size by my third birthday and I’m still waiting to grow a mane. It will only be fully-grown when I am four or five years old, but I'm definitely looking forward to it because I’ll look so strong! It is also then when I'll need to leave my family and form a new pride. I shudder to think of all the fights with other young lions that I have to deal with. Growing up is pretty exciting, I think. I’ve started to sharpen my claws often by scratching on tree trunks. I’m still not quite big enough to bring down a prey with that sort of deadly bite to the neck like how mama does. But I’ve had a couple of hunting practice sessions and also helped to take down two zebras, under mama’s watchful eye of course!

Zebras and wildebeests are supposedly easier prey than gazelles because they don’t move as fast. We also try to steer clear of the hippos and the giraffes because of the threats they pose. Hippos are too big and giraffes have powerful kicks that even the adults are afraid of. In my pride, mama and the aunts go out to hunt. They are not lucky all the time, though, and we go hungry sometimes. It’s not that easy, you know. It usually takes mama four tries to succeed once. I guess she works the hardest out of everyone. Papa, on the other hand, does the sleeping and eating. But I’m not sure who gets it better – there are times where he gets into really fierce brawls with other male lions to defend us and comes back limping in a bloody mess. I like mama most because she always makes sure we get to eat first. My siblings and I enjoy picking and choosing the best cuts of meat. Belly meat, which is boneless, soft and tender, is my favourite. Bones taste horrible. Once, I accidentally ate too quickly and ended up throwing up some undigested bones. The adults enjoy taking their time with the rest of the meat before leaving leftovers to scavengers like jackals and vultures. After we eat, we usually stroll along the plains. I like watching the bright glowing sun ball turn into an orange red and disappear behind the land. It’s pretty cool. Then night falls real quickly and I know it’s time to sleep again.

COPYRIGHT NOTICE | The information, text, graphics, images, and information published or otherwise contained in this book are owned by, or licensed to, ASB Development Limited and, except as specifically provided herein, may not be copied, distributed, displayed, reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of ASB Development Limited. Stories and photographs by Logue| Jean Qingwen Loo, Huiwen Yang Cover illustration by Missyrica Concept and design by Duet Design, Singapore Copyright © 2012 ASB Development Limited. All rights reserved.