Immersive Wildlife Experiences and Expert Guiding: Epic Cats Group Trip 2019

In March 2019, TWS staff member Emily Smith joined the Epic Cats and the Great Migration Calving Season group trip for an immersive 10-day safari focused on sightings of big cats and the Great Migration herd. With no more than four people per vehicle and expert guiding by The Wild Source’s team of elite guides and biologists, guests experienced once-in-a-lifetime wildlife sightings, behavior and interactions.
By Emily Smith, Safari Specialist at The Wild Source (all photos by Emily Smith unless otherwise noted)
Marsh Pride cubs in the Ndutu region

Manyara Ranch and Tarangire National Park

After arriving in Arusha and overnighting in town, we make our way through the coffee plantations and small villages on the outskirts of town. As we pass by Maasai men, women and children shepherding their cattle and sheep, our guide, Deo Magoye, shares background stories on the area and how the land, people and wildlife have changed over his lifetime. Deo, co-owner of The Wild Source Tanzania, is a passionate guide imparting his knowledge to the next generation of guides and wildlife biologists in Tanzania. One of these upcoming leaders is Sosy Maira, guiding the other vehicle of four guests. An advantage of the group trip is the opportunity to meet and interact with more than one guide from The Wild Source, learning from both Deo and Sosy throughout our time at camp and during game drives. The two guides work in amazing synchronicity during game drives, communicating by radio to share updates as each vehicle follows slightly differing routes – maximizing the ability to find elusive big cats and other wildlife.
After settling in at our first camp, Manyara Ranch, we have the privilege of an evening safari walk with the camp’s certified walking guide and a local Maasai guide who grew up in the area. Since the camp is located in a private conservancy, guided walks and night drives are allowed, unlike the rest of our itinerary taking place in national parks. I relish the chance to slow down and put foot to earth out in the bush, looking for wildlife tracks, identifying different trees and learning about the often lesser-noticed aspects of the savannah ecosystem, like the sophisticated tunnel ventilation system of highly prevalent termite mounds. Our walk ends with a surprise sundowner drink set up by the camp staff on a beautiful bluff overlooking the oasis below.
Guided walk in the bush near Manyara Ranch.
We spend the next day game driving in Tarangire National Park among the iconic baobab trees, spotting giraffe, warthog and impala– and of course, herd after herd of elephants. Tarangire is known as one the best places to see elephants in Tanzania, and it does not disappoint. We come across several breeding herds and solitary males, and one group luxuriating and cooling off in a mud bath. Another highlight is finding a pride of four lions – one female, two young cubs and, curiously, a grown male without a mane. The giraffes are highly entertaining, particularly one pregnant female and her male partner who take turns standing on top of one tree that is just the perfect height to scratch an itchy belly. We stop for a while to observe a troop of baboons – who display some of the most fascinating social behaviors with all the dramas of a hierarchical society. We are also lucky to see a large herd of oryx, although quite far away and only visible with binoculars.
After dinner back at Manyara Ranch, we set out for a night drive with the camp guides in the fully open-sided vehicle, wrapped in Maasai blankets. Almost immediately, we witness nocturnal wildlife going about their nightly activities, including bat-eared fox, springhare (which resemble a small kangaroo), genets and dik diks. Being out in the bush as it comes to life at night is always an unforgettable experience.
The following morning, our last at Manyara, we set out at sunrise for a second bush walk with the camp guides, giving us the opportunity to experience the landscape, views and wildlife in the early morning in addition to our previous evening walk. We continue walking further than our sundowner viewpoint and end up a beautiful lake with a hide situated on the shore. As luck would have it, a small herd of elephants is drinking at the lake and gathering along the edge. As we watch, two, then three more groups move in until there is a herd of at least 30 of these incredible pachyderms drinking, playing and cooling off in the water, and guarding young, tiny calves on shore. We can’t tear our eyes away from this incredible sight, as pairs of adolescent eles dunk each other in the water and swim along the shoreline even closer to us.
Eles swimming near Manyara Ranch.
In the midst of the action, we turn over our shoulders as branches rustle to see a massive, solitary bull come through the trees through which we just walked, and up to the edge of the lake to drink. He stops maybe 30 feet from us across a small finger of the lake. We make eye contact as he lifts his trunk to get our scent, and after a few moments of sniffing us out and deciding we are not anything to worry about, continues to drink and then climbs the opposite bank to start moving toward the large breeding herd across the water. To witness the herd swimming, splashing and drinking, and to come so close to a solitary bull, all while on foot and feeling vulnerable yet safe, makes for an unforgettable finale to conclude our time in the private conservancy.

Ngorongoro Crater

On the way to the Ngorongoro region, we drive past Maasai villages, many located in former wildlife corridors that have become farmland, and climb up a winding pass with views of Lake Manyara and thousands of migratory storks perched in the tree tops. We pass through the small towns of Makuyuni and Karatu, stopping at a fruit stand for red bananas and for a picnic lunch near the Tanzanite museum.
We continue onward to the entrance gates of the Ngorongoro Crater, where habituated baboons put on quite a show: a clever duo simultaneously raids a safari vehicle from both the open rooftop and side door at once, ending with a guide throwing a lunchbox at one (who is delighted with the delicious contents that come spewing out) while the other baboon steals a chocolate bar from an unsuspecting guest’s seat. Then, as we are watching a set of baboon parents tend to their infant, and another infant works on climbing what appears to be its very first small tree branch, another wily baboon climbs onto the window of our vehicle – he has spotted the tasty red bananas inside our locked, windows-up Land Cruiser. He crawls across nearly every surface of the vehicle, searching for a way in, even trying to pry the window open with his fingers. He frustratedly lolls and rolls on our roof before eventually giving up – fruitless.
Habituated baboons linger (and entertain) near the Ngorongoro Conservation Area entrance gate, looking for food in unsuspecting safari-goers’ vehicles.
We enter the gate and enjoy a beautifully lush drive through the jungle-like landscape, past the ruts in the soil walls where elephants have used their tusks to dig out mineral deposits. We stop at a viewpoint area on the crater rim, taking in the bird’s eye view of this ancient, collapsed volcanic caldera. The soft hues of the grasses, water, forests and vegetation below resemble a watercolor painting, speckled with herds of buffalo and elephant that look like ants from our vantage point 2,000 feet up. We search for animals with binoculars, and miraculously from this height, my fiancée Braydon captures a shockingly clear picture of an endangered black rhino far below us on the surface of the crater.
Endangered black rhino on the Crater floor, taken from the rim about 2,000 feet up. (Photo credit: Braydon Hancock)
We continue along the crater’s rim, driving along the bumpy 4WD road to our home for the night, the Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge. We take in the beautiful sunset over the crater’s rim while sipping sundowners, and are treated to a traditional Maasai song and dance. It’s dinner and off to bed for the evening – where we are surprised back at the room with views of a waterbuck mother and calf curled up to sleep in the grass right outside our window. We are thankful for these visitors, already missing our canvas tent and eager to be back in the heart of the bush tomorrow night.
Sundowners on the Crater rim.
But first, we have the wonders of the Crater to experience. We are in our vehicle by 6:00 with picnic breakfast and lunch boxes, descending down the crater’s walls before sunrise. As we enter the caldera, the sun is rising, and we stop by a solitary bull elephant eating a tree branch for breakfast in the soft light. It is utterly quiet except for the sound of his crunching, breaking and chewing, accompanied by an occasional snuff of his breath that we can see in the chilly morning air. We’d love to stay, but we are on a mission to spot the elusive and highly endangered black rhino – up close this time.
As we drive, we come across a family of lions, just waking up for the day. An adult male with a fabulous mane lazes in the road, unbothered by us, as a young male rests his head on his sleeping mother’s side and stares right at us with his golden eyes.
Throughout the remainder of the morning, we search for rhino unsuccessfully but we gladly watch hippos feed on grass and relax in the water, babbling and belching; a lioness strutting with the stolen carcass of a wildebeest calf as the hyenas who hunted it watch jealously nearby; a male zebra chasing off another young male who is trying to court his daughter; and a wildebeest calf nursing as two older calves chase each other around the herd. As far as the eye can see, in 360 degrees, there are animals dotting every point of view. Wildebeest, zebra and Thompson gazelles intermingle with dozens of different birds and families of warthogs running away with their tails held high like little periscopes. Hyenas skirt the edges of the herds and soak in the muddy water. More lions lie in the road for their afternoon nap.
Deo spots two rhinos with his binoculars that are so far off in the distance in an inaccessible area of the crater that we can only see them as dots, and these will be the only that we see this time. With only about 20 rhinos in the entire crater, we are not surprised that they are tough to find, especially with the Lerai forest offering ample hiding spots and the area’s rules of staying on the road. It has been an incredible morning spent with the wildlife of the Crater, and we depart after lunch for the scenic drive up the opposite wall and onward through the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. It again becomes hot and dusty as we descend from the highlands of the crater area, past the Oldupai Gorge (the Cradle of Humankind) and toward the endless plains of the Serengeti.

Southern Serengeti and Njozi Ndutu Camp

As we game drive toward our next camp, Njozi, we pass hundreds of Thompson and Grant gazelles, and make our way into a wooded area. We continue to a small lake where we are surprised to see a “mini river crossing” – wildebeest are swimming across the lake to the other side, and many are turning right around and swimming back across. Young calves try to follow their mothers through the water as they “train” for the famous River Crossing they will face come August and September as they migrate north to the Masai Mara and back in their ever-continuing Great Migration. Some calves are lost on the shore, or in the water, searching frantically for their mothers. We can only hope they are reunited, and move on toward our camp, contemplating the harsh realities of life in the bush for a young wildebeest. A lone Maasai man seemingly appears out of nowhere and walks across the mud flats, spurring a herd of giraffe to flee at full speed as a lost wildebeest calf on impossibly spindly legs bleats for its mother.
On the way to camp, Deo and Sosy get word of a leopard that has been spotted high in a tree – we head that direction and spot her sleeping on a branch. To spend even a moment with the elusive, dignified, glorious leopard in the wild is an intense privilege, and we stay and watch her as long as possible as the sun begins to fade and set. In the distance, a herd of wildebeest stampedes past the trees, kicking up a cloud of dust that shines spectacularly in the fading sunlight.
Nearly at camp now, we say hello to a resident lioness of the Backyard Pride who is relaxing on the sand – so named by the biologists at Njozi Camp because the pride literally lives in the “backyard” of camp.
We arrive slightly past our dinner time thanks to all the action on the way, but the camp staff are eager to meet us with cool damp towels and a refreshing welcome drink in the lounge area of the main tent. The camp manager Joe gives us a warm welcome and we all happily enjoy a shower, a hearty meal and our first night of trading stories with the camp’s resident wildlife biologists, Yusuf and David, by the campfire under the African stars.
The next morning, we head out with Deo and Sosy before sunrise with picnic breakfast and lunch boxes, and are delighted to find a female cheetah before we even leave the “backyard.” We learn that she is Sugar, a cheetah the biologists have been studying, and she has a new set of cubs that we hope she might lead us to, but she does not. We stay awhile as Sugar basks regally in the early morning light, her beautiful red-orange eyes scanning the horizon, stretching and cleaning herself, before we leave her at peace so she can tend to her cubs.
Ready for some cub action, we make our way to the marsh area to visit the Marsh Pride, where Sosy correctly anticipates two mother lions will be sunning their cubs – eight cubs in total. We are delighted to sit back and watch as the little balls of fur finish up a meal with their moms, then tumble and run down to the water for a drink – Mom gets a sip too. Individual personalities are on full display as the mothers move the pack of cubs to another area, the cubs navigate a small but intimidating stream crossing, and eventually settle into a wooded area to rest. Sharing an hour with this pride is an adorable and entertaining way to spend the morning, and while we could watch their cute antics all day, more and more vehicles show up and we decide to move on and relieve some of the pressure on these lions.

We drive out onto the open plains, coming across a single male cheetah hidden low in the bushes, and then Deo and Sosy find the two males we have been looking for: Coffee and Milk, brothers to our girl Sugar.  Coffee and Milk are in a coalition and we hope to see them hunt.  We spend a few hours watching them sleep in between driving to other areas nearby where we see wildebeest (including calves) jumping over a gully and being circled by hyenas who attempt an unsuccessful hunt.

Eventually, the cheetah brothers begin walking with purpose and calling out, moving from tree to tree and picking up on the scent of a female in oestrus. Their calls become more urgent and by the late afternoon, Coffee and Milk have suddenly split off and gone a bit “haywire.” They each go opposite directions suddenly and begin making more urgent, repeated calls, alternating between a high-pitched call and a low, guttural mating call. It is highly unusual for the coalition to split like this, especially at the distance they are now apart from each other. We follow one male as he ramps up his desperate search for the female – cheetahs are highly endangered, and it is extremely important that one of the males finds her while she is in heat and they can mate.
As he searches, a herd of wildebeest moves in and Deo spots a calf that has quite literally just been born – the afterbirth is still visible hanging from the mother. The speed at which everything happens next is indescribable, and the energy feels frantic as we watch the male cheetah spot the calf and the herd begins to run at full speed. The young calf, not more than 20 minutes old, is learning to run for the very first time as it is chased by a cheetah. A brave herd of zebra moves in to block the hunt and the cheetah gives up what was a half-hearted attempt anyway as he is singularly focused on mating at this point. The young wildebeest has survived its first 20 minutes of life in the Serengeti, just barely.
We follow the cheetah as he even climbs a tree at one point for a better vantage point and calls urgently for the female. We wish we could follow him all night, but it is nearly dark and we head back for another wonderful evening at Njozi, giddily sharing stories of our day with David and Yusuf who have been out doing their own field research all day.
The next morning, we are joined by the wildlife biologists for a special day of game driving among the Ndutu wildlife that they know so well. For the first half of the day, we are with David, who shows us how the biologists record identifying features on individual lions and cheetahs. We visit the Marsh Pride again, but the cubs are hidden away in the bushes this time– we can see the bushes shake and hear the cubs’ tiny snarls at each other as they play and wrestle. A pair of lions mates, but David explains the female is actually bluff mating and not really in oestrus as she is already apparently pregnant Bluff mating is nothing unusual for this lioness, and is one way to keep the males of the pride happy and the dynamics stable, as the father of the cubs she is carrying is likely from the Backyard pride, not this Marsh pride—information that we benefit from by traveling with resident biologists and guides who know the big cats intimately.
David shares additional history on the four lions around us and their pride dynamics, adding so much meaning to the wildlife interactions we are witnessing. We head out to the plains of the Serengeti once more to look for Coffee and Milk, hoping one has found the female to mate, but we do not encounter them again. After a delightfully gourmet bush breakfast that the guides have set up, we head down to another marshy area and David spots a solo female cheetah in the grass. We watch her patiently as eventually a herd of wildebeest funnels down into the area. Our cheetah girl is on the move, stealthily walking toward them when suddenly she notices a group of two lionesses and a male lion up on a hill – she has spotted them with her incredible vision, and though she lowers herself carefully into the grass, she knows they have seen her too. Lions will steal a kill from a cheetah and end its life in the process, so she must be incredibly careful if she makes a move to hunt.
We stay with her for upwards of another hour; she rests and lies low for quite some time before deciding that she is hungry enough to risk a hunt. She purposefully stalks through the grass and finds perfect cover in the taller areas of the marsh as she gets to within 50 yards or so of the herd without being spotted. We watch with indescribable anticipation and our breaths held – suddenly, she rises up from the grass and explodes into a full chase. My heart pounds at the display of exquisite beauty and raw power that is a cheetah running at full speed. The wildebeest move in a chaotic flurry; she has picked a calf from the herd and expertly takes it down in the small stream nearby. As the young calf takes its last breath, I am both sad for the wildebeest mother who has lost her young, yet happy for this cheetah who desperately needed food. Such is the way of life in the Serengeti.
She is keeping an extremely close eye on the lions, who luckily have not moved at this point, but are keenly watching her as she brings down her kill. She is incredibly stressed out and anxious about her kill potentially being stolen, and she pants and lies still for a long time. We wait to see if she will eat, but she is far too anxious about the nearby lions. The lions begin to move, but thankfully for her, it is toward another herd of wildebeest that have now moved into the lions’ area. We watch as the two lionesses make an unsuccessful attempt to hunt, but our view of the major action is blocked by the hill as we try to follow at a safe distance in order to not interrupt their hunt.
This afternoon, we set out with Sosy and Yusuf toward the far reaches of the southern Ndutu/Serengeti area as we seek out a pack of wild dogs seen recently in the area – a long shot to find them, but we must try. It is a long and beautiful drive across the plains, and we come across lions, wart hogs, kori bustard, secretary birds, zebras taking dust baths, and Yusuf even spots an elusive honey badger darting across the grass before it dives back into its burrow. We stop for a fascinating and hilarious look at dung beetles, rolling their dung balls and fighting on top of them for dominance as they hope to woo females, and an insightful reminder from Sosy about the deep importance these little beetles hold as the janitors of the Serengeti.
As we drive further south, we are reminded of the meaning of Serengeti in the Maa langauge – “endless plains.” The plains are impossibly vast, and we see the largest, densest concentration of wildebeest, zebra and gazelle yet – it seems like an animal per square foot, as far as the eye can see. The herds go on and on, the entire vista teeming with herbivores. We search for the wild dogs until we must leave in time for sunset. They have eluded us this time, but the trip down south is an exciting and scenic conclusion to our game drives in the Ndutu region.
We are surprised with a delicious traditional Swahili dinner back at camp and a special musical performance and dance. Sosy and David play the drums, Yusuf and Viana sing, and the entire amazing staff – as well as us – sing, clap and dance along. It is one of the most memorable experiences of my life and we say bittersweet goodbyes the next morning to Njozi, to Tanzania, and to Deo and Sosy, with heavy hearts – until next time.

Njozi Camp staff and wildlife biologists with TWS guides and group.

Masai Mara and Enaidura Camp

We are sad to be leaving our friends at Njozi, but eager for the next adventure that will conclude our safari – the iconic Masai Mara, hosted by legendary guide-owners Ping and Paul at Enaidura Camp, in the heart of the Mara Reserve. After a morning of bush flights and border crossings, we are picked up at the dirt airstrip by a beaming Ping and Paul who share cold water and beer from their coolers as we load into the modified open sided vehicles. On the drive to camp, Ping, wearing his traditional Maasai cloth, points out various game like huge buffalo wallowing in the mud and warthogs sprinting across the grass, and shares his deep knowledge of the Mara wildlife.

Upon arrival at Enaidura, we are met by the Maasai staff with a traditional song and dance and escorted to our tents along the Talek River.  We head out for a game drive that evening, the highlight being a visit to the river to watch dozens of hippos splash, grunt, snort, yawn and wake up for the evening to get out of the water and feed on grass. There are a multitude of young hippos, and it’s paradoxical to imagine how something so tiny as a baby hippo can become so massive as an adult.  The sunset on the way back to camp takes our breath away, and we feel the magic of the Mara landscape.

Maasai welcome at Enaidura Camp.
Magical Mara Sunset
The next morning, we set out with Ping and Paul, and sight topi, eland and impala before Ping spots a serval cat dart across the road and we follow it into the tall grass. These mostly nocturnal cats are tiny and well-hidden in the grass, but we spend several minutes with the beautiful serval who even pounces and hunts insects as we watch. We search for leopards in the wooded areas, but they elude us today. We spend the afternoon visiting multiple prides of lion, including several with varying ages of cubs, and we come across several adolescent and adult males together as well.
Elusive serval cat hiding in the tall grasses.
One of my favorite sightings of the day is a warthog mother and child kneeling on their little knees so they can reach the grass they need to eat. Short necks make it tough to reach short grass!
A large solitary bull elephant with enormous tusks, one of the oldest in the Mara, eats nearby. He is collared, likely being monitored due to the size of his ivory tusks.
Later, the guides receive reports that an elephant carcass has been found nearby, presumed to have died naturally. We make our way there, and the conflicting emotions of the safari experience rise up in me once again as I grieve for the dead elephant but am grateful that the lions have a bountiful meal. I remember that nothing will go to waste in this balanced circle of life.
Just before heading back to camp, we come across an orphaned baby elephant that Ping and Paul have recently found– it is unclear what has happened to the elephant’s mother, and we wonder if it is the dead elephant nearby as it is highly unusual for this little one to be completely alone from the herd. It is unlikely, though, as the baby would have stayed nearby the mother as she perished. It is a heartbreaking sight as the young ele, who is luckily old enough to feed on grass at this point, tries to bend its mouth down to the ground to pull out a stubborn acacia bush – it has not yet learned from its mother how to kick the bush to free it from the ground while holding on with its trunk. Ping and Paul call in the sighting to the park rangers before we head back to camp.
We ride with Paul the next morning and have the most peaceful and astounding sunrise with a herd of elephants. The matriarch leads the way as they calmly, trustingly munch on grass right next to our vehicle. At one point they are so close we could easily touch them (though we don’t of course), and a little calf sniffs us with his trunk just inches from our vehicle. I sip my coffee and marvel at this sunrise breakfast with the elephants.
Photo credit: Paul Kirui
Photo credit: Paul Kirui
Onward toward a different area of the Mara to seek out cheetahs and leopards. We scan the horizon with binoculars and wait. Soon, Paul spots an eagle circling overhead nearby, and expertly poses that it could be waiting for a cheetah to finish its meal. We head that direction and indeed, we find a female cheetah with a mostly-consumed Thompson gazelle carcass. She finishes her meal and moves on, leaving the remainder to the eagles, vultures and hyenas, the important next steps in this ecosystem that wastes nothing.
We drive out of the park through some nearby Maasai villages, and back into another entrance of the reserve, where we soon encounter a famous coalition of five male cheetahs – the largest coalition ever known to the Mara. They appear to have full bellies, and are quite sleepy, so we stay with them for a while and move on in search of leopards once again.
Ping and Paul’s efforts are rewarded as they abruptly discover a female leopard, who likely has cubs nearby, hunting in the bushes. We follow as quickly as possible driving in the challenging bush area but are able to watch her stalk and pounce on small prey unsuccessfully; nearby, a reed buck darts away in the opposite direction, unfortunately for our leopard. She emerges from the bushes into a clearing and crosses closely in front of our vehicle – she is stunning. Paul thinks she may be heading toward a tree where we can see an old impala carcass stashed up high, but she disappears back into the bushes. A few other vehicles look for her too, but it is Ping who spots her, impossibly, as one corner of her face is visible in the bush she is resting under. We stay with her awhile, taking in the piercing beauty of her blue-green eyes, before we head back toward camp.
On our way back, the guides receive reports that a herd of elephants is moving toward the elephant carcass from yesterday, and Paul’s excitement is evident as he explains there is a chance we are about to witness this herd of elephants grieve the loss of a member – a truly once in a lifetime animal behavior to experience.
Soon we see the herd from a distance, moving together in a tight clump and clearly with a purpose – a scene that brings goosebumps to my arms as we can feel the tense emotion in the air. Suddenly the herd stops – they have picked up the scent of the carcass, and nearly half the herd splits off and heads the other direction, deciding they will not continue on. The remaining matriarch and three calves continue onward, and we meet them at the carcass, where we count about six or eight lions who have already eaten, and two more who are feeding. There are three other vehicles and every one of us is in complete silence as the small herd of elephants reaches their lost loved one and the lions move away. The eles lift their trunks over and over again as they circle the dead ele, flapping their ears and brushing against it with their trunks. A few tears slide down my cheeks as I feel the powerful grief that crosses language and species barriers, and their sadness and anger at the unfairness of death settles deep in my gut. These incredibly social, sensitive and smart animals mourn deeply for the one who is lost, and each of us is in awe as Paul shares that this is only the third time in his 30 years of professional guiding that he has witnessed this behavior.
Elephants mourn the death of a herd member, and chase off lions — incredibly rare behavior to witness.

The matriarch turns abruptly toward a lion nearby and stampedes at him, chasing him all the way down the hill with her calves in tow. She trumpets and bellows as she charges after him; her anger is palpable and relatable as she chases him away from her lost family member.  He circles back and ends up near the carcass again, and she continues to chase one lion after another, about four times, before she takes the calves and moves into a wooded area away from the carcass.  My adrenaline pumps at what we have just witnessed, and the interaction is seared in my mind and heart.  Later that night around the campfire, we all agree that it has been a highlight of this safari, and of our lives.

Mother and baby hippo at sunset on our last evening.
Wonderful staff and guides at Enaidura Camp with Epic Cats 2019 group.
A final visit to the hippos and a stunning sunset closes our evening, and our time in the Mara, with one last magical show of colors bursting across the African sky. My heart bursts simultaneously with the love I feel for this incredible continent and its indescribable wildlife. The calling to return is so strong, I know I’ll be back again soon.
The stunning Mara leaves a lasting impression.

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