Lions in the Serengeti (1 of 3)

Siblings change their purpose over time. When you’re young, your sisters and brothers are either sources of embarrassment or targets of derision, or competitors in licking the whipped-cream bowl. In adulthood, siblings exist primarily in order to let you freeload vacations in desirable locations. When my sister Audie got a job as a lion researcher in the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, she fulfilled her fraternal duty for the rest of her life. At the earliest practical opportunity, I quit my job and flew to Africa along with my friend Rhona, to take advantage of my sister’s position.

After a couple of days of partying in Arusha, the staging post for the Serengeti, we boarded my sister’s Land Rover and set off for the all-day drive to the Serengeti, via Lake Manyara National Park and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, the other two famous wildlife parks in Tanzania. Behind us Mt. Meru and Kilimanjaro, the two towering volcanoes of northern Tanzania, loomed impossibly high above the horizon.

The road led through farmland and then open savanna plains, before deteriorating into a rutted dirt track which eventually wound up the wall of the Great Rift Valley. To the south, the shimmering blue of the shallow, alkaline Lake Manyara, its shores a faint pink from millions of flamingoes, lit up the landscape.

A bit further and we were looking over the rim of the incomparable Ngorongoro Crater, one of the densest concentrations of big game on earth. A sunken volcano, or caldera, 15 kilometres in diameter and 600 metres deep teems with wildebeest, zebra, lions, buffalo, leopard, gazelle and the last few black rhinos in Tanzania, survivors of the poachers’ slaughter. We stopped for a cup of tea with some wildlife researchers on the crater rim: Audie seemed to know everyone of importance in the area. We then dropped down from the Crater Highlands for the last few hours across the plains.

The Serengeti National Park, the greatest of Africa’s great wildlife parks, includes a vast treeless plain (the short grass plains), on its eastern stretches, a transition zone with more vegetation and some trees (the long grass plains) in its centre and rolling savanna woodland to the north, west and south.

The park is home to 1.5 million wildebeest, 600,000 zebra, and thousands of other animals, including gazelle, hartebeest, elands, ostrich and of course the lions, leopards, cheetah, hyenas, jackals and crocodiles that feed on them. The annual migration of wildebeest and zebra provides a magnificent natural spectacle, which Rhona and I were lucky enough to see. As we sped across the plains we encountered an ocean of wildebeest and zebra flowing slowly westward, stretching from horizon to horizon, a sight that would become the background to our expeditions over the coming days.

It didn’t take long the next morning to find lions. Audie fitted her lion-tracking radio antenna to the Land Rover, to detect the signal from the radio-transmitting collars that had been fitted to two females in each of the prides in the study area. As soon as she put her headphones on, a deafening signal came in on the frequency of the Transect Pride. They were somewhere close by. We turned off the dirt track to Audie’s bungalow and drove through (and over) the acacia trees, trying to get a directional fix on the signal.

Not 500 metres from the house, my sister pulled a tight circle with the vehicle and announced with a wave of her arm, "They’re over there somewhere very near." Within seconds Rhona spotted golden fur under a tree, and we drove over to investigate.

Transect Pride’s members were lolling around in the grass, looking very lazy and unferocious, as lions do most of the day. There were XX adult females and XX youngsters sheltering from the sun in the shade of a clump of trees. Audie identified them by name and took notes (this was work for her, after all). Rhona and I snapped photos madly, and Audie took several close-up identification shots of their faces. (Lion researchers identify individuals by their pattern of whisker spots on their cheeks: each lion has its own pattern.)

Audie’s job was to provide what biologists call "long-term baseline" data on the various prides of lions around Seronera: family trees, the membership of prides, territories, lifespans, who mated with whom, and all the milestones in the life of a lion. She and her partner, a New Zealander named Maria, were supposed to make contact with each of the 13 prides once a week. Sometimes this was simple, but at other times of the year – for example, the rainy season or the hottest, dustiest days of the dry season – each day could become a grim struggle to dig the vehicles out of mud holes, or to see above the tall grass, or to locate elusive prides who had hidden themselves in ravines. Luckily, we were visiting in prime lion-finding season.

One of the great advantages of Audie’s job was that her work was other people’s idea of a perfect safari vacation.

The first four days were spent in the Land Rover, visiting the far-flung parts of the park contained in Audie’s job description, and watching the magical world of the Serengeti unfold in front of us. The time seemed to float by unreally: up early, into the Land Rover with a picnic lunch and off in search of three or four specific prides, in the general vicinity of where they had last been seen.

Along the way we would stop for photos of whatever other animals we came across: wildebeests, zebras, Thompson’s or Grant’s gazelles, huge cow-like elands (the world’s largest antelopes and champion high-jumpers), graceful giraffes, jackals, comical-looking hyenas, bustards (large terrestrial birds), ostriches, occasional elephants and malevolent buffalo.

By late afternoon, we would make it back to Seronera in time for some tennis on an ancient, overgrown court with Maria, Jos the cheetah researcher and Nick the wildlife photographer, before racing back to celebrate sunset at Audie and Maria’s house with gin-and-tonics.