Serengeti, Tanzania: Where the Wild Things Are
The baby wildebeest is lying in the long grass, lurching around like an infant learning to walk as it strains to get back on its feet. It would be cute, if only it wasn't struggling so much - but then the lioness, her mouth dripping with blood, digs her fangs back into the baby's throat, and the flailing ends; the wildebeest has succumbed and the queen of the jungle is ready to enjoy her fresh kill. As a couple of dozen gobsmacked tourists, and three equally impressed local guides, gawp as the lion drags her victim deep into the undergrowth, everyone is stuck by the fact we are seeing the law of the jungle - up close and in real life. While we didn't see the lioness actually catch the wildebeest, we have seen something that even the guides admit is a specific sight - one of the animal kingdom's greatest predators doing the business of killing her prey.
Catching a glimpse of such a scene is yet another example of why the Serengeti National Park, in northern Tanzania, made up of 15,000km of rolling savannah, is undoubtedly one of the world's great destinations for wildlife watching.
Whether it's the grace and killer instinct of lions and leopards, the size and bizarreness of elephants and giraffes, or the fun of warthogs and zebras, witnessing creatures great and small, while on a safari in the Serengeti is quite unlike any other journey. We're on an over landing trip, being driven around in a big truck and camping out at sites ranging from those with hot water and finishing toilets to limited facilities in the middle of the bush.
Everyone knows that lions are the kings of the jungle - and it's this very reputation that makes seeing them in the wild a special experience. Chances are you won't witness one hurtling across the scrub and bringing down an unfortunate zebra - most likely you'll see them perched atop a kopje, the rocky outcrops that lions are so fond of for the panoramic views they provide of the animals they will provide of the animals they will later hunt down for lunch. But even if they're simply lying on a rock, you can't help but feel that lions’ posses an unmistakeable sense of power that only come from humans knowing, and being in awe of, the fact that these are the greatest of land-based predators.
Best of friends
But the scales aren't totally tipped in favour of lions over wildebeest. On the savannah plains of Africa, herds of wildebeest and zebra mingle and graze together contently. On their own they'd be easy prey for lions and leopards, but together they have a chance. The zebras have a good sense of smell, enabling them to sniff out a predator and get both herds on the move (giving wildebeest a getaway option they'd otherwise not have).
Wildebeest are slower and dumber, meaning they succumb first to the big cats, giving zebras a greater chance of escape than they'd have without their mates around.
Sticking your neck out
But not everything enjoyable about wildlife watching is about big animals eating slower animals. On safari you can get within just a couple of metres of giraffes and zebras, who are not afraid to amble out in front of a jeep. We also spot buffaloes, who along with lions, leopards, rhinos and elephants, are one of the Big 5 - so named because they're the most dangerous of Africa's animals to hunt on foot.
Size doesn't matter
While there's no doubt the Serengeti is something of a wonderland for big and impressive wildlife, it's striking how the small critters can be just as fun as the big example, by meerkats, as they lean back on their hind legs and then pop their heads up out of the grass for a peek around.
It's tempting to think of dik-diks, meanwhile, as the runt of the Serengeti. They're a tiny antelope, standing roughly 30cm high, with funny, spindly legs - and in comparison to other members of the antelope family found in the region (such as gazelles) they look a bit ridiculous. But it's the marked contrast to their predators (any of the big hunting animals) that gives them a certain charm.
And then there are warthogs. They truly are dumb, and dumb-looking animas. Local folklore has it that they were created from the leftover bits of other, more impressive mammals small critters can be just as fun as the big ones.
No matter what animal - big or small, predator or prey - you spot in the Serengeti, there's one thing that stands out above all: that you are seeing the beauty of the animal kingdom with your own eyes. Sure, it might look good in a documentary or photograph, but nothing can match seeing it up close, even if it is a baby animal meeting its end at the fangs of a hungry lion.
- The Amazon, Brazil: From piranha fishing to caiman spotting, an Amazon jungle trip is a great way to see wildlife in its natural habitat.
- Masoala National Park, Madagascar: Home to 10 lemur species, gecko and rare birds.
- Masai Mara, Kenya: Probably the most famous safari area in the world, the Kenyan plains offer sightings of the big five.
- Rwanda: Marvel at gorillas in their natural habitat in the jungle, and spot chimps at Nyungwe National Park.
- Cockscomb Basin, Belize: The world's first jaguar reserve, the sanctuary also boasts wildcats and reptiles.