July 31, 2008 (AKAGERA National Park, Rwanda) — The thing about a safari that makes it different than a zoo is, even though you may see a sign that says "giraffe area," there's no guarantee you will find a giraffe there. Instead you may find impala, bushbuck, wildebeests, even vervet monkeys. It's also possible you will find giraffes — as we did: a mother and her one-year-old baby.
Our park guide, Cecile MUVUNYI, tells us giraffes have a gestation period of one year and two months and a lifespan of 25 years.
These particular gentle herbivores are Masai giraffes. I am not sure what that means, but after seeing hundreds of zoo giraffes in my life, my impression is these creatures are much more vibrant than their captive cousins. From their white-tipped ears to the bottom of their long legs, they exude health, even though it is the dry season here.
During the dry season, the animals, we are told, are harder to spot. "They go inside," explains our guide, Freddy Budaramani.
Cecile says they have to wander farther to find food.
That means we have to wander farther to spot them. And the other thing that is different from the zoo experience is that even if you do spot them, there's no guarantee they won't run away.
We find that most do sooner or later. We hope for later — Barbara and Sonya, especially, who are trying to capture these shy animals digitally.
The exception would be the ubiquitous baboons. At lunchtime at the AKAGERA Game Lodge, where we are staying, they are everywhere.
At first the kids find them intriguing, but after being chased by them a few times, they are less fascinated. Baboons can be aggressive, especially where food is concerned.
As we sit having lunch, we watch one grab a plate from a table on the terrace outside.
Julia runs out to get a picture, but is quickly turned back by the baboon's unexpected charge. Also unexpected is her best friend Rene slamming the door to keep out the big, wild beast and effectively keeping Julia locked out on the porch with him. It is a moment of spontaneous uncontrollable laugher among the hundreds we have had on this trip.
Later in the day, at dusk, a few of us set out again. Cecile tells us we can see many more animals at this time of day. We are rewarded with sightings of warthogs, waterbucks and — finally, as the sun is almost setting — the splashing at the edge of Lake Thema of two hippopotami.
There is no underwater tank from which to view them. No caged area to guarantee a clear view.
But there is the unmistakable snorting of these water-loving creatures as they surface and then dive underwater again. And on top of the water, just peaking above the lake chop, you can see two round ears and the top of their broad noses. Just as I snap a picture, they are gone again, leaving behind only a small wake to confirm their presence.
Feeling we want another chance at AKAGERA's fauna, Sharee, Stelli, J'Moi, Barbara and I set out Thursday on a motor launch along with Cecile — our park ranger friend — and Freddy, to NYIRABIYORO island to look for crocodiles. What we come upon first are birds — hundreds of them, in all shapes and sizes.
"These are open-beaked storks," Cecile says, pointing to hundreds of large black birds resting in the trees. They are called that, she explains, because their beaks are open. We also spot cormorants, fish eagles and pelicans.
Thanks to J'moi's keen eye, we soon come upon a the crocodile we were looking for tucked away in the clutch of trees that make up the island's shoreline — at least that's what I am told.
Crocodiles are not easy to spot — take it from me. Three sightings later by everyone in the boat and I am still crocless. This despite everyone's best effort to explain where the tree-branch-looking reptiles could be found. "Look, over there," Stelli says.
"Oh yeah, I see it," says Sharee.
And so the story goes.
I find myself quite satisfied with the boat ride, the company and the birds today. I will leave the crocs for another time.
To be continued ….
Editor's note: For more about the trip, read first lady Cecile deJongh's Travel Journal.
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