A few highlights stand out above the rest of the wonderful sea of images and memories.
We picnicked one afternoon atop one of the Barafu Kopjes in the short grass plains, where a layer of volcanic hardpan just below the soil surface prevents trees from putting down roots. After shouting out "Any lions up there?" (lion researchers are nothing if not safety-conscious) we climbed 25 metres to the flat top of the rock outcrop and gazed out across the vast plains, that stretched nearly to the horizon.
To the east and northeast rose the highlands near the Ngorongoro Crater. To the north an enormous solitary tree, which the Maasai named The Tree Where Man Was Born, intersected the horizon. To the south and west the grasslands ran into the distance. Herds of elands roamed the arid landscape amidst the zebras and wildebeest and gazelles, while vultures spread their huge wings to dry in the sun. It was a scene of perfect natural beauty that left us silent in admiration.
One day we drove through the heart of the wildebeest migration.
As far as we could see in all directions, the plains were dark with animals. Males staked a territory and waited for females to wander through it. A million-and-a-half large animals is an unfathomable sight; the North American prairies must have looked like this once, before the bison were all but exterminated. The sounds were incredible, too: a cacophony of coughs and grunts and stamping feet.
We saw cats other than lions, too. On three separate occasions I spotted cheetahs, much to Rhona’s delight: she was under strict instructions from her brother to bring back cheetah photos.
The cheetahs were sitting atop termite mounds, watching for prey or for malevolent lions. (Audie used to call cheetah cubs Chee-To Snacks, as her lions were much given to killing them if they could find them.)
One morning Rhona spotted a lone leopard, the most reclusive of the big cats, perched atop a kopje and looking very photogenic. Leopards tend to avoid being seen since lions kill them as well, so we were lucky to see ours.
Nighttime was a spooky time, with the sounds of the wildebeest migration borne clearly to my sister’s house. One night as we sat outside, an nearby unidentified growling sent all of us tumbling inside, panic-stricken that a lion was at hand. Peering over the window sill, Audie eventually identified a buffalo as the source of the noise. (Earlier that year, however, a lioness had walked right by Audie and another researcher as they sat looking up at the stars.)
Another night, the sound of vigorous roaring led us to go exploring. On the old Seronera airstrip, the Land Rover’s headlights picked out an unidentified young male mating with one of the Transect Pride’s females. Audie and Maria were excited: it might mark the takeover of the pride by outside males, resulting in the death or expulsion of the pride’s current male and the cubs he had fathered.
The next day we found two more unknown and unnamed males pulling the corpse of a wildebeest from a stream. Rhona and I were given the privilege of naming them; we called them Rickman and Binoche, after our respective favourite film sex symbols.
On the fifth day, our pleasant routine was interrupted by a chance to go hot-air ballooning.
A commercial enterprise offers balloon safaris, complete with champagne breakfasts after touchdown, for US$300 a person, but since the pilots were Audie’s friends, she wangled us free rides as ballast for a film crew who were flying over the migration.
It was a strange experience to float over the plains in utter silence, interrupted by sudden deafening bursts of flame that sent the animals scattering from beneath us. We could see the delicate network of paths trodden into the grass by the wildebeest following each other nose-to-tail. We drifted over a bush and got a perfect top view of a male lion devouring his night’s kill: a wildebeest. Once we had passed the wildebeest hordes, we climbed high for scenic shots of the woodlands along the Seronera River, with giraffes’ heads and necks sticking above the flat tops of the acacia trees and the suddenly green grass.
That same day we drove out to Lake Ndutu, several hours south and east of Seronera. A wildlife lodge and the tented camp of noted wildlife photographer and film-maker Hugo van Lawick stand there amidst an arid landscape of scrubby savanna woodlands, an utterly different world from the short-grass plains, but still part of the Serengeti National Park.
Audie and Maria had been filmed as part of one of van Lawick’s documentaries on lions, but Sophie, a beautiful Irish model-turned filmmaker, wanted to re-shoot some close-ups that hadn’t worked out. We watched the rushes, full of amazing hunting sequences and tiny cubs, and saw the sun go down in a spectacular purple and pink sky over the dry bed of one arm of Lake Ndutu. (In the end, Audie and Maria were removed from the final version, to make way for never-before-obtained footage of infanticide of cubs by a new dominant male, and of a three-day-old cub.)
If you want more information about this area you can email the author or check out our Africa Insiders page.