Elephant for lunch? It wasn't on the Kigelia camp menu but that's Africa for you; always throwing up surprises. "Grab your plate and head into the tent if he comes any closer," said Rob Barbour, the camp owner, with a firm eye on the wild elephant standing four metres away from the outdoor dining table where we'd just sat down to eat. We were in Tanzania's Ruaha National Park, a reserve of baobab and acacia trees, dry river beds and shrub savannah, littered with wildlife. Kigelia was a bush camp of six or seven tents perched on the bank of a dry Great Ruaha River tributary, a natural thoroughfare for the larger animals and a great place to watch them go by. It also meant they sometimes dropped in. "This one often invites himself into camp, which is why we call him Samahani," Rob advised. "It means 'excuse me' in Swahili." The 20 year old elephant of around 5,000 kilograms didn't stay for long but it was enough to have us soon talking about what might come for tea. Lion? Surely not the pair I'd heard overnight. They'd be too exhausted. I first heard the roar just before dawn, and it sounded like the big cat was just outside my tent (as was the toilet – my full bladder would have to wait). In fact, there were two big cats, and the roar was one of pleasure, not pique or authority. It would start with gusto and wind down to a whimper. Someone at camp had said that lions mate every 15 minutes for seven days; that’s 674 times a week! On safari later that day in one of Rob’s open-air jeeps, we spotted what seemed to be an exhausted lioness and her mate resting in the shade of an acacia. They looked shattered. But no sooner had we pulled up for a closer look, than the male got to his paws and began rubbing himself against the lioness. Was he whispering in her ear? I was channelling American soul singer, Barry White. Uh-huh, right there, you like it like that? Closer, come here, closer, close, oh, baby, oh, baby… When finally he mounted his belle and did what they do on Discovery Channel, at the risk of being branded a voyeur, it was mesmerizing. The power and raw energy. Think James Brown. Whoa-oa-oa! I feel good, I knew that I would, now… To be honest, I felt slightly uncomfortable watching this mighty beast, the king of the jungle, in such a private act. But neither lion seemed to care. They were in the zone, although the whole thing didn’t last long. The roar promptly wound down to a final moan and before you could think of England, both lions were on their backs, legs in the air, grunting sighs of completion. My mind's eye had them reaching for cigarettes. And to think, in a quarter of an hour, they’d be at it again! I'm gonna love you, love you, love you just a little more, baby…For all my discomfort at watching two fellow mammals on the job, the spectacle had been a privilege.I had the same sensation a few days earlier at Rob's camp in the Serengeti, the only Tanzanian bush camp north of the Mara River. We'd been scouring the open plain for cheetah when one of the ever-present hyena started running towards a destination out of sight. Others began to follow, so we too joined the rush. Something was obviously up. We arrived in time to witness the savage stripping of flesh from a Topi, a type of antelope, which we surmised had died naturally only minutes before. The hyenas poured in, squealing sinisterly, snatching at the warm meat, ripping it from the bones, fighting each other for some of the rapidly disappearing carcass. Vultures stood patiently nearby, waiting their turn. Within minutes, the Topi had been converted to little more than blood and manure-stained savannah grass. It was a breathtaking display of life and death on the African plain, and a stunning contrast to the vista of the Serengeti we'd enjoyed only moments before, where herds of different animals comingled in apparent harmony within metres of each other. Topi, Thomson’s gazelle, Grant’s gazelle, zebra, wildebeest, warthog and ostrich; even hyena and jackal were amongst the throng. Archaeologists fancy Mount Ararat in Turkey as the final resting place of Noah’s Ark but my money’s on the Serengeti. Yet, the friendly serenity quickly comes to an end at the sniff of death. Stunning; but that’s life, I guess.
This article was written by Tom Baddeley.