Our driver-guides Richard and George are the axle on which our understanding of Tanzania turns. Friendly, charming and both highly experienced, they freely share their knowledge of the country's tremendous parks and wildlife.
This morning we left early with them and drove by the Tarangire river until we encountered a family of elephants with numerous young. A pair of grey kestrels perched in a tree by them, a magpie shrike and two lilac-breasted rollers swooped for insect food and through the grass and scrub wove northern pied babblers and a red-cheeked cordon-bleu. The elephants meanwhile tugged great clumps of grass with their trunks and passed them to their cavernous mouths.
Quickly a group of elephants began chasing downhill, males of all ages in pursuit of a young female in oestrus. She rejected their suit and clung to the biggest male who soon pushed away the hormonal young hopefuls. All the while a beautiful sunbird trilled in an acacia, a tiny iridescent shred of life claiming his own patch of a landscape owned on another scale by hundreds of tons of elephant.
Radios crackle all the while in our jeeps and though I speak no Swahili I closely watch George beside whom I sit today. As professional as he is, as dispassionate as he pretends to be, I sense he's received news of a carnivore. Strange though it is in Tanzania, this bright young man and I have Spanish as a common language and quickly I learn that duma - cheetah - was the key word in his Swahili conversation. One of his colleagues has found two.
We tip off Richard and leave calmly, making brief stops for clients to take photographs, still unaware there may be excitement ahead. As we near the spot we see giraffes gathered in a thicket of necks, pointing in unison at the same low bush. In its shade, briefly, we see the upper body of a cheetah before it drops to the long grass and is lost.
Both cheetahs raise their heads occasionally, sometimes turning to stare with their soulful, tear-marked faces. An impala stands on the bank of a nearby waterhole, a grey crowned crane stretches at the top of a dead tree and through an acacia hops a brown-crowned tchagra. It is hot.
We entertain ourselves watching a family of warthogs with four small piglets, crashing through the grass on the other side of the road. They cross it, away towards the lone impala and the browsing giraffes. Slowly though they turn back towards us, unaware of the lean spotted cats who crouch under a shrubby acacia. Soon the far side of the bush is encircled by warthogs, blundering about their business. Too late the mother, already alerted by their scent, sees one of the cheetahs just feet from her.
Her only option is to charge, to protect her young. The first cheetah runs ahead of the rampant pig, a sprung coil of gold and black. The other follows a pace behind, cheetah-warthog-cheetah giving chase.
Their foe returned to her piglets, the cheetahs slink away to the shade of a line of trees. We think they may be brothers, facing life together, and we follow along the road. They cross a patch of open sand, giving what we imagine will be our best views, both gorgeous animals wholly visible. But these are far from our best views, as first one cat, then the other, climbs to the top of a termite mound in the shade of a big acacia.
As we watch the cheetahs, relaxed now that they can see the approach of danger, it is clear, from the kittenish face and golden mane of one of them, that these are in fact a mother and her nearly full-grown cub. I realise, with a giant smile, seeing these two exquisite creatures, that my year in the company of cats has begun.
Duma nangiri: the cheetah and the warthog.
Cats seen in 2015
cheetah Acinonyx jubatus