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To some, the phrase “spectacular birdlife” sounds like shorthand for “don’t expect to see any thing bigger than a dung beetle”. But, next time the lion you’re watching refuses to open its eyes, you might be amazed by the elaborate behaviour of some of the African bird species going on all around you. Fish eagles are a good example. They have an interesting way of dealing with their slippery prey, which they grab in a spectacular fly-past reminiscent of aerial pig-sticking. The fish is dealt with in one of two ways depending on its size. Smaller ones are plucked clean out of the water, held sideways tight under the tail of the bird and carried away in flight. Larger ones, which can threaten the harmony of the flight, are lifted onto the surface of the water and then planed - much like a rather animated water ski - to the edge of the water to be dealt with on the bank. Perhaps most spectacular of all hunting methods amongst the birds of prey are those that habitually catch other birds in flight, either by a blindingly fast and accurate stoop or by rapid pursuit. These are most notably the falcons – such as Peregrines, Lanners and Hobbies - whose speeds have been commonly estimated in stoops of up to 200 miles per hour. The ornithologist Leslie Brown illustrated the extraordinary accuracy and speed of such birds in an event he witnessed involving a lanner falcon and a bee eater (itself no slouch). The falcon successfully caught the bee-eater which was rising on a spiral course in the opposite direction to that of the falcon. So the falcon had not only to allow for the erratic course of the bee-eater, but also to deal with the fact that it was approaching its prey with their combined eye-watering velocities. Pound for pound this must be similar to riding downhill on a bicycle as fast as possible and attempting to catch a greyhound running towards you. With one hand.
A few years ago I watched a fully-grown male baboon fly some 50 ft from the top of a doum palm tree and alight on the ground below. Technically of course - and to coin a phrase - he didn't so much fly as plummet, and it ranks as one of the more surreal things I've witnessed in recent years. We were sitting on the edge of the Mwagusi River in Ruaha, having a spot of breakfast and waiting to see more than 1000 buffalo come to drink, when I was startled to hear a loud rustling noise behind me. Expecting to see an irate buffalo, I turned and instead saw the baboon - a male about the size of a Labrador - still clutching a half eaten palm nut. With a determined pedalling motion he free-fell the full height of the tree before hitting the ground with a sickening thump. Apparently this wasn't a planned descent. Amazingly, the baboon connected with the ground, compressed like a squash ball in one of those slow motion films, and then popped onto his feet and ran away. Positively radiating embarassment, but apparently unharmed. The bush is full of bizarre and unexpected occurrences. Talk to any guide - in fact anyone who's been on safari - and they'll have numerous stories like this, often far stranger. But the reason I mention this is that it illustrates a point that I think it's difficult to appreciate until you've been on safari. And it's the reason why we keep on about getting the best guide you can, having a private vehicle where you can, and just not trying to fit too much in. The really exciting thing is that absolutely no body can predict what you'll see on safari, but if you give your self the time - and this particularly goes for the next few months between December and May - what's certain is that your expectations will seem like monochrome in comparison to the technicolour of your experiences.
In the bush people start to go a little crazy at this end of the year, particularly if the rain’s late arriving. I can remember conversations being mostly - and longingly - about the advent of rain, and eyes being fixed on the distant horizon, looking for that first build-up of cloud. And then one day, just when you think it can’t get any drier, the whole place changes over night. Dusty brown turns to vibrant green and the whole animal kingdom breathes a sigh of relief. If you haven’t experienced Africa between November and May, then you have a treat in store. Of course, while the Serengeti migration is in full swing, with hundreds of thousands of wildebeest, zebra and gazelles heading into the southern plains of the Serengeti, many other places won’t have the sheer volumes of game that you’ll find in the dry season. But the game is still there, and if you’re interested in a bit more than simply numbers, this time of year can be magical. Look out for newly hatched crocodiles, miniature and perfect in every detail, organic “Christmas trees” formed by clusters of fireflies under the branches of certain bushes at dusk and insect life that looks like it came straight from the pages of Edward Lear.