Our safari started and ended with amazing cheetah sightings.
As soon as we arrived in Serengeti, we spotted three cheetahs walking in the distance, and watched as they turned to walk in our direction, even stopping to drink from a puddle directly in front of our vehicle.
And on our way out of the Ngorongoro Crater, we were able to pull up almost right next to a cheetah to watch it stare intently at a group of grazing antelope.
Cheetahs are part of the cat family, and when they roll around in the grass they look just like oversized, spotted house cats.
But, cheetahs are classified separately from the other big cats because of various differences in the way that they are built and the way that they behave. For example, they are the only cats whose claws are not fully retractable, which gives them additional traction when running. Unlike most big cats, they can purr but they can’t roar, which suits their flee-rather-than-fight behavior. They are also unusual among cats in that they prefer to hunt during the day. The black tear-like lines on their faces may help them hunt in the bright sun, like the black marks that athletes draw under their eyes on sunny days.
The cheetah is of course best known for being the world’s fastest land mammal. A cheetah can run up to 65 mph and can accelerate from zero to sixty in 3 seconds — about as quickly as a ferrari. Cheetahs are built for speed, with long bodies, flexible spines that allow for maximum extension and contraction while running, muscular legs, large hearts, and long tails for balance.
They aren’t quite so blessed in the endurance department, though — they can only sustain top speeds over short distances or they will overheat. A cheetah hunt is usually over, win or lose, in less than a minute.
We didn’t get to see a cheetah running, but we saw one think about it, which was actually more exciting than it sounds. This cheetah that we saw in the Crater looked like it was poised to make a move and hunt something, but in the end it thought better of it (possibly because there were so many human eyes on it). In the video, you can see it start creeping towards a herd of antelope, but then look around and decide to lie back down instead.