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Fitzgerald: Lions, cheetahs and Part II of my African journey

  • By Larry Fitzgerald Special to NFL.com
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Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald spent part of his offseason exploring Africa, including the Serengeti.


Note: Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald loves to combine his passion for photography and world travel. He first shared his recent adventures in Africa back in May, and here he offers a second installment of his "travelogue."

A couple months back, I told you all about my adventures in Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya and the Seychelles Islands during this offseason. When I finished my last travelogue, I told you of an exciting first day where I was amazed at the silverback gorillas, cheetahs and lions. After seeing such amazing African wildlife in its natural setting, I couldn't wait for more as my journey continued.

A gorilla enjoys a snack in Africa.
A gorilla enjoys a snack in Africa. (Larry Fitzgerald/Special to NFL.com)

A mating session and mini-migration with another group of lions highlighted Day 2, and although tracking a group of cheetahs proved uneventful, it was a joy to observe their grace, beauty and serenity.

On the final morning in the Serengeti, we again happened upon the lions. Yes, they appeared hungry, and we initially followed their movement. Their cunning style and ambush techniques are universally feared on their own playing field -- but sometimes their decision to abort and wait is all part of a master strategy.

I found that one of the great ironies of the cheetah is the wide contrast between their "hunt and attack" mode and their "quiet mode." They are the epitome of lethargy and laid-back nonchalance after a feeding -- and why not? They are the "kings" of the plains, with little to fear, and their presence is so commanding.

Their manner was so captivating that it necessitated another mad drive to the makeshift airfield to board a flight to the Maasai Mara Plains, west of Nairobi in Kenya. As the crow flies, we could have driven there from the Sabora plains in about an hour or two, but we took a circuitous three-stop, seven-hour small plane ride back through Nairobi to reach our new destination. On a side note, the view at one stop along the air route, the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro, signaled another future challenge: to ascend the tallest peak in Africa.

If I could make one recommendation to anyone going on safari in Tanzania, it would be to have a sunset dinner at the Sabora Mountain Lodge overlooking the plains. The view is so spectacular that I consider it the best spot possible to view the migration, which traditionally passes below.

Fitzgerald photo gallery
In addition to these two travelogues from his 2011 trips, Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald has shared photos from his world travels the past two years. Check out this updated photo gallery, chock full of stunning and iconic images. More ...

Kenya's Maasai Mara Plains camp was a delight in its own right. We were situated on the northern border of the reserve, which provides a different style of terrain. There were more watering holes and dense side bush and vegetation, affording us a view of more hippos and buffalos. The great throngs of zebras and topi were not as abundant as they were on the Serengeti, but to our delight, the giraffes and bird life were more abundant.

The termite mounds were equally as omnipresent, and of course the lions and cheetahs, my principal fascination, were both readily trackable and inviting.

At this location, it was the cheetahs that prompted the extended focus. Of course, it didn't hurt that our chosen focus group included a mom and her five 10-month-old babies, six of the most beautiful cheetahs imaginable. We observed them on four different occasions -- moving, positioning, attempting ambushes, playful banter, snoozing.

On the final morning, we found them again on the edge of the busy plain. The mother looked more restless, the cubs perhaps a little more hungry ... and then, with no uncertainty, the queen cheetah spotted a group of gazelles with a weak trailer. She uncoiled, leaped off, initially in a gallop, then in a sprint -- 200 yards, 300 yards, 400 yards ... the entire plain (imagine 200 football fields side by side) seemed to be transfixed by the chase. On the horizon, the cheetah exhibited her coveted "extra gear" and tackled the gazelle. What closing speed!

In hot pursuit, we trailed the mother cheetah, who with gazelle in mouth, brazenly marched to a lonely tree with a "soft grassy knoll" at its base and feasted. Only when she was full did she beckon her cubs. Similar to a lion's roar, which can be heard for 2 to 3 miles, the mother cheetah's distant call, signifying breakfast was ready, summoned a spryly group of siblings sprinting to her majestically. Did any animal dare to interfere with this feast? There were plenty of onlookers, but none ventured near. Even the menacing hyenas were at bay.

A lion gazes into the distance, perhaps at some potential prey.
A lion gazes into the distance, perhaps at some potential prey. (Larry Fitzgerald/Special to NFL.com)

Here again, the two-hour ritual had prompted another mad dash to an airstrip for the journey onward.

While traveling at breakneck speeds, my guide amply pointed out an "empty intersection" in the bumpy dirt road, identifying the "right lane" as "the road to Nairobi"; fortunately, no traffic jams, no security lines and no pollution.

Our proximity to the northern plains had positioned us close to the Maasai Warriors' homestead; a side trip to the village was particularly enlightening. The tribal costumes, dances and simplistic life where the cow is worshiped, and even has its place in the house, were a joy to view. They live amidst the great wildlife and share the land with Africa's "Big 5" (elephant, leopard, lion, rhinoceros, buffalo) and the rest of the carnivores and veggie lovers, which presents both hardship and opportunity. Their simplistic lifestyle and forces of nature yield them an astounding 75-year average lifespan -- lessons from which we all can learn.

Back in Nairobi, a rainstorm and traffic jam finally caught up with us -- we missed a flight to the Seychelles after a harrowing trip to the airport through the back streets of the Kenyan capital. The only solution was a diverted, 12-hour excursion through Dubai to reach the destination -- again, well worth the effort.

After seven self-imposed grueling days on the hunt, the tranquility and beauty of the Seychelles was a welcome respite.

The crystal clear waters and sugary white sands of some of the world's finest beaches were omnipresent on Mahe Island. The surrounding atolls afforded views of a variety of beautiful species of birds, the world's largest nuts, and beaches even more spectacular than those on Mahe.

A serene way to end the trip, but I'm already conjuring up visions of my next excursions. The migration? The Kilimanjaro climb? Remote mountain top gorillas? A leopard track?

Just can't wait.

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