Throughout the previous few days, I had been amazed at the range and sheer numbers of wildlife we had seen driving through Tarangire and Lake Manyara national parks. Both parks were relatively quiet in terms of other tourists and the animals were relaxed around our vehicle, offering great observation and photography opportunities.
The Serengeti, however, blew them both clean out of the water.
We'd barely passed the boundaries of the park, the only car for miles around, when we spotted a gentle movement at the base of a tall tree. There, just a couple of metres away and almost camouflaged into the dusty yellow ground, were a pair of cheetahs resting beneath the hot sun. My heart jumped into my mouth - I'd desperately hoped to catch sight of either a cheetah or leopard, although knowing that my chances were much slimmer than other wildlife. Yet here they were, incredibly beautiful and so, so close.
They seemed completely undisturbed by our presence, glancing over with mouths stretched wide into a yawn before settling back down. Every now and then the female rose and circled the tree once or twice, arching her long, lean body and scouting for movement. We were reluctant to leave, soaking up every second of the experience, but were eventually forced to head towards our tented camp as the sun began to set.
We needn't have worried though; early the following morning we had just set off on our game drive when our driver was forced to stop the car for another cheetah sleeping in the middle of the track. Paying very little attention to us, we waited for half an hour until she slowly moved off to find shade in the bushes. Over the next few days, the Serengeti proved to be thick with those gorgeous cats - one evening we spent three hours observing a lone female on the hunt, tracking zebras as she hugged the ground closely, hidden from their sight. We hung back, keen not to disturb her concentration (or scare the zebra) until she finally pounced, speeding across a bare plain and just missing her target.
Not all the prey we saw were safe, however. One afternoon, our driver spotted a flurry of movement close to where we were parked. He sped over, stopping just as another car, clearly with the same intentions, arrived. F and I jumped up to look over the roof, exchanging adrenalin-filled glances with the two men in the 4x4 parked next to us. Directly in front, blood already staining the ground, a huge pack of lions were ripping apart a large, freshly-caught warthog. The sounds and smells were incredible. Dominant males tore chunks of meat from the unfortunate hog, dragging the best pickings off and settling down in the dust to eat. Small cubs, clambering over the bodies of their older relatives, were snapped at and forced back until the adults had taken their fill. One strong youngster managed to grab a discarded lump of meat and gorged himself, fur and face swiftly turning red as the previously cute cub revealed his predatory side. The faint breeze sent occasional scents of metallic blood towards us and the volume of shouts and fighting increased over the last scraps.
As the pack eventually moved away, only the pink grass betrayed any evidence of the carnage. It had been incredible to watch, although seeing the warthog torn limb from limb made me reflect upon my own excitement at realising that we had stumbled upon a kill, and the precedent we give to certain animals - would I have felt that same adrenalin rush had it been an elephant I'd seen on the ground? A kill and its aftermath is a natural event, part of a cyclical process on the African plains, yet often selectively glorified by humans (evidently including myself!).
The tip of the icing came towards the end of our time in the Serengeti, when we spotted a few leopards stretched lithely along branches high in trees. Although mostly cocooned within shadows or surrounded by leaves, it was still a joy to glimpse the last of the great African cats. We were thrilled.
Although the cats were undoubtedly the highlight, the Serengeti also saw us encounter multiple groups of elephants, including some very small calves, a family of ostriches and more zebra than we thought possible, travelling in huge numbers for safety. I also finally managed to get not one, but multiple photos of hippos yawning... It was an indescribably magical place that we were reluctant to leave, but time was running away with us and we still had one last park to visit.