The Serengeti is synonymous with lions prowling massive grasslands for good reason. I had been on safari four years ago in Zambia, but that was more through wooded thickets and river banks. But now it was time for the quintessential Africa that I had read about in Willard Price’s Africa adventure as a eight year old. We entered the park via the western corridor which a month or so after our stay becomes the hotspot of game viewing as the massive herds of migrating wildebeest have to cross the Grumeti river, trying to avoid the jaws of the crocs. We watched these prehistoric reptiles change from sunning themselves on the banks to be lurking in the water upon our heads cresting the rise of the river bank.
The first afternoon of game viewing from our landcruiser was a bit hit and miss, with decent ranks of Impala (collective noun naming due to their very hierarchical structure where only one male lives with the females, and the rest of the males living together in what must be the animal kingdoms version of an all boys high school boarding hostel) and the occasional giraffe, hippo, elephant, ostrich and zebra. Standing in the back of the landcruiser, with your head out underneath the roof that lifted skywards, you were presented with a 360 degree view with sun protection preserved. However, you weren’t immune from the hundreds of biting flies, including a large fly that landed on me, with a worrying familiar hatchet pattern in the architecture of its wing. The diagnostic feature identified it as a Tsetse fly, the harbinger of sleeping sickness, one of Africa’s more deadly and most neglected tropical diseases. They were given the rapid swat away. Soon after sunset, just prior to arriving at camp, we got our first glimpse of lions, with a pair lurking up a tree, hoping the lone impala would stray a bit closer. Always ready to join in on the ruckus, a pair of hyena weren’t far away.
We had opted for the camping option as although it was low season and the lodges were about 30% of normal rates, they were out of price bracket. That ubiquitous tent peg eating gremlin seemed to exist in Tanzania as well, and with some make shift alterations, our tents were up with hopes that the rainy season was just a metaphor.
We had put the word on Jonathon, our guide, that we were super keen for sunrise game drives to see the largely crepuscular big cats. And we weren’t disappointed. As first out of camp, in time for sunrise, we watched the great ball of fire erupt from the horizon. This event seemed to be much more special than normal, with the logical association being winding the memory back to one day back in 1994 at the Wanganui movie theatre, where I had sat and watched the Lion King my grandfather and forever associated ‘nants ingonyama babithi baba’ with the excitement of foreign lands, graceful antelope, roaming big cats, behemoth elephants and adventure aplenty.
Within about a kilometer of camp, we crossed a pride of 18 lions including about 6 cubs lazily strolling across the grassland, and then having a snooze on the warming road. We sat there for about an hour, watching a couple of the females peel off to stalk some ostrich nearby. Tito our cook for the trip had whipped up some chipatti and omelettes in our absence so after a spot of breaky back at camp, we headed off to see more of the ‘Endless Plain’, which the masai name Sereget is derived from.
Soon after leaving camp, we spied the telltale sign for something interesting – not paw prints or piles of poo, but just lots of other muzungu sitting in their Landcruisers with oversized telephoto lenses at the ready. Sure enough, there were a pair of cheetah sunning themselves on the rocks a few hundred metre away. This was getting better and better. With a bit of patience that the other overweight muzungus in the other 4WDs didn’t offer, we were soon greeted by the cheetahs coming over to check us out. As one scouted out the local impala, the other stood proudly in the branches of a fallen tree, scanning the savannah with its noble gaze. The rest of the day was spent rumbling over the rolling plains, splashing through muddy ditches and scouring trees for leopards. We eventually found one perched way up a sausage tree, named after the huge wooden fruit which are a favourite of elephants apparently, as well as those who want to make a quiver for their arrows. We managed to spot several more lions sunning themselves on the kopjes (rocky outcrops) of the plains as well as an assortment of Jackals (Jackal, its a jackal…!), civets, Thompson’s and Grant’s gazelles, more impala, hippos, elephants and giraffes.
The next day’s morning drive was not as fruitful as the previous, so we were back at camp soon, in order to make the drive to Ngorogoro Crater. That took us across the southern grass plains of the Serengeti, where we came across one of the largest migrations of any animal in the world – well over a million wildebeest and zebra on their annual cycle to find food. They were still chowing down on the mineral rich grasslands of the south, with enough food to provide sustainence, prior to needing to follow the dwindling feed into the north, to the Masai Mara of Kenya. After that, it was a dusty drive across the rest of the plains into the Ngorogoro, only interrupted by circling vultures scavenging the carrion of baby wildebeest, in between the whims of whether the nearby hyenas wanted to join the ruckus.
The Ngorogoro Crater lies in a volcanic area to the Southeast of the Serengeti, and the region’s ash is responsible for the vast plains that now make up the Serengeti. As one of the larger craters in the world not filled by water, it provides a natural sanctuary and self-contained ecosystem for many of Africa’s classic wildlife. Compared to the Serengeti, the animals seemed to be more dispersed, with smaller throngs of antelope, zebra and elephants, but occurring more frequently. Unlike the Serengeti, the Ngorogoro crater still provides refuge for the Black Rhinoceros. Trying to decipher whether a sleeping mass was a rhino or a lazy wildebeest took its time to master, but we were rewarded with spying a couple, as well as many of the animals we had seen in the previous days. After a bit of encouragement, we convinced the driver to stay towards the end of the day, in the hope the Rhinos would move and become more than an amorphous grey blob. We were rewarded with one strolling right in front of the truck, but it meant our run to the gate of the park was cut close, only missing spending the night sleeping on the seats of the truck by a few minutes. Sunset over the crater provided some majestic views with the sun’s rays illumiating the dry dusty air into shades of red, yellow and purple. Once up on the crater ring, it was time to pitch our tents for our last night of safari, followed by the next morning, the drive to Arusha.