Hello kitty — and please don’t tear me to shreds. In Tanzania’s world-famed Serengeti National Park, a sleek fanged cheetah shockingly jumps up on our safari jeep just a claw’s swipe away from us.
Let me reiterate: We’ve been carjacked by a wild big cat!
The extraordinary encounter in the savanna grasslands begins as we’re stopped at a distance watching the on-the-prowl female carnivore, who casually turns, slowly paces toward our Land Cruiser, then disappears at our vehicle’s rear. All six passengers, including myself, are standing up in the open-air pop-top facing that direction when suddenly — with a scratchy thud and our audible gasps — the spotted creature lands on the back roof right before our eyes. She curiously peers at us, as if we’re the surprise. Our Tanzanian guide Moses (pray for a miracle) calmly whispers, “Be quiet.”
Fortunately no one resembles a tasty gazelle antelope, which cheetahs — who rule as earth’s fastest mammals — race down, viciously bite in the neck to suffocate and bloodily disembowel to devour. I once witnessed this unforgettable slice of nature in Kenya, so today’s regal party-crasher (with their black “eyeliner,” cheetahs are Hollywood glam of the jungle) has me both fascinated and with my fur up. Normally, cheetahs perch atop high termite mounds to survey their antlered prey. This hungry cheetah commandeers a dusty Toyota for a much better view.
For nearly 10 (oh is my heart thumping) minutes, the keen-visioned predator changes positions as she intensely scans for hoofed dinner — when she rotates on all fours, the black-and-white ringed tip of her long tail pokes into our cab; when she erectly sits, her muscular left haunch spills over padding above the back seats. (Those occupants, two 20-something guys, have wisely ducked and nervously stuffed themselves into the corners.) Hearing cameras click, the quizzical cheetah again fixes amber eyes on the rest of us upright, frozen paparazzi. Mind you, we’re in a closed-window 4×4, so if she dives in or accidentally falls in, it’ll get ugly. Eventually, the confident cat leaves only after another safari truck pulls alongside and deliberately guns its engine.
If it seems like a National Geographic episode, well, by chance, I’m on a National Geographic Journey with tour operator G Adventures. The seven-day “Tanzania Safari Experience” is also one of G Adventures’ Jane Goodall-endorsed itineraries, focusing on protection of wildlife. Which is why the next day we listen to a conservation lecture, coincidentally given by Dennis Minja, manager of the Serengeti Cheetah Project and a field researcher who keeps tabs on 120 of the 200 cheetahs roaming the park.
He’ll try to identify the jeep-leaper through our photos; every cheetah has a unique spot pattern. Later he emails to inform me she is Grace, previously named by him after the elegant real-life princess and movie star Grace Kelly. (His study subjects also include Bradley and Cooper.) Grace is about 3 years old. “When she reached the age of 8 months, she started jumping on the cars, and she perfected this behavior during her adolescence,” he writes. That trick isn’t condoned for her safety either. Grace already beat the odds — 95 percent of cheetah cubs don’t survive to 18 months, often slain by lions to eliminate competition or by hyenas for food. Grace became independent early last year, just months before her mother was tragically killed by a speeding vehicle in the Serengeti.
It turns out before pouncing onto the roof, Grace first hopped up and straddled our two back spare tires — one of those claw-punctured wheel covers aptly reads: “Your Journey Begins Here.”
This journey is a cat-a-rama. During just a day and a half of game drives, I count 25 magnificent lions, five gorgeous cheetahs and three distant leopards in the Serengeti, where we’re mesmerized by spectacular striped parades of zebras and thundering caravans of bearded wildebeest, the last to make the massive annual migration north to Kenya. We also travel inside the planet’s largest intact volcanic caldera, Ngorongoro Crater, a 3-million-year-old wonder crawling with untamed animals (a genuine cat fight occurs when a snarling, teeth-bearing pride chases off an intruder lioness).
And throughout the weeklong road trip, we gain cultural insights — in one rustic village, I learn to brew pungent banana beer with locals, and in another, I’m in awe of tribal “Maasai mamas” who build lifesaving smoke-free stoves in their airless cow-dung huts. All along the way, children excitedly greet us in Swahili (“Jambo!”) and in the Rift Valley, three school-age Maasai cattle herders, cloaked in traditional red shuka robes, approach and proudly count aloud in English from 1 to 10.
The Serengeti is one of the world’s greatest lion lairs, with around 2,800 beastly kings marauding about the 5,700-square-mile park. Scouting from the pop-top, we find fierce felines up to all kinds of tricks on endless golden grassy plains.
Tree-climbing lions are rare. But a family of them strangely lounges on branches of an acacia tree, the mother sacked out on her belly, while her two fidgety youngsters keep readjusting themselves on separate limbs, as if griping, “Why are we up here?” (Moses says some lions scale trees to get away from irritating flies.) Miles away, a bonded pride snuggles in a cozy heap, the females licking and grooming each other’s faces and cubs, while lazy orange-maned Simba naps behind bushes and a rowdy juvenile springs up and down tormenting a mongoose as if it’s a toy. We come across this group after noticing a towering tree loaded with lion-averting baboons.
And speaking of spooky primates (those baboons with scary old-man faces!), en route to the Serengeti, we visit the UNESCO heritage site, Olduvai Gorge, where acclaimed anthropologists Louis and Mary Leakey excavated evidence of early man dating back nearly 2 million years. There, I gape at the heralded skull of what was once believed to be a vegan apelike, prehuman with huge molars, dubbed “Nutcracker Man.”
Back on the meat-eater front, a vigilant lioness has stashed her fuzzy whelps in a granite rock outcropping to deter murderous hyenas and leopards. One adorable cub gnaws on what looks to be a Thomson gazelle fawn’s lower leg. Later, for some time, we follow two lionesses patiently creeping toward a sizable herd of unsuspecting zebras, the male lion lagging far behind (the women do all the dirty work first). The pair ultimately and futilely dash after striped targets, who frantically stampede off in a black-and-white blaze.
Elsewhere in this primal province, majestic, spindly legged giraffes feed on prickly acacia trees, warthogs sillily scamper, half-submerged hippos monstrously yawn and scores of delicate impalas stand on alert as a devilish pack of hyenas skulks by.