In the far North of Tanzania and stretching a good way into Kenya, the Greater Serengeti Ecosystem spans a vast thirty thousand square kilometres. A thriving wilderness, pristine and teeming with wildlife, this jewel adorning Mama Africa between the arms of her Great Rift Valley is truly an icon to behold and revere.
Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park protects half of this hallowed ground and is perhaps the most famous park in Africa. It’s no fresh concept that fame comes at a price and the Serengeti isn’t an exception to the rule.
In the years before Jana and I had moved to Tanzania, prior to making our home in the Serengeti, we’d heard so many tales of woe from travellers and guides lamenting great crowds of vehicles and a contrived wildlife experience, that they almost put us off entirely. We will be forever thankful that they didn’t succeed.
For two and a half years Jana and I watched the seasons pass in the north of the park while managing the beautiful Lamai Serengeti lodge. Three times we witnessed the great migration arrive and depart the region, awaking to the monotonous sound of wildebeest a-gnuing the one morning and then realising the soundtrack was missing this baseline again some months later when they disappeared. It was extraordinary.
It was also bloody hard work. We were intimately acquainted with how popular the park was and how busy our region would get during the “high-season”. To a greater extent the visitors migrate with the grazers, and this is compounded in the north where the added draw of potentially witnessing the mayhem of a Mara River crossing combines in part with the long summer holidays in the northern hemisphere. At times it would get too much, the park would feel overused, the wildlife disturbed and the experiences tainted. Then the gnuing would stop, the land-cruisers would leave and a stormy yet tranquil beauty would descend on a landscape in recovery.
Whenever we had a gap, a break or a chance Jana and I would commandeer a rickety old supply vehicle and bugger off into the bush. We prioritised these adventures whenever we could, often taking members of our team with us to absorb and enjoy this miracle of a park. It was the best thing we could have done, it kept us motivated and inspired and taught us lessons about the Serengeti that are of enormous value to us still.
The Serengeti is massive and varied. Whatever the time of year, there will be a corner to explore or a journey to embark on that will offer a truly authentic wilderness experience along with unforgettable wildlife encounters. By all means travel to experience those pinnacle moments of the great migration, and accept them for the attraction and the spectacle that they are. But let’s give ourselves enough time and apply a little imagination, then we’ll find the other man (or woman)’s Serengeti, the secret Serengeti, the Serengeti Jana and I fell in love with and the one that those naysayers didn’t know existed.
On Christmas Eve last year, I shared such an experience with the DeSola family while guiding them through two fabulous weeks in the wild.
We drove from the southern extreme of Lake Ndutu to the Mara River in the far north and I documented the safari with a journal entry…..
24th December 2017 – DeSola Family Adventure, Southern Serengeti
We hit the road after an early breakfast with Laurence and the team at Serengeti Safari Camp, they have done a tremendous job, looking after us all and I was heartened to be delayed by the goodbyes and to see Mama Lucia a little teary to be leaving.
“big journey today guys, keep yourselves hydrated and your eyes sharp. Let’s keep Gabriel motivated with a great sighting or two, he has to do all the driving because I can’t be trusted! Shout if you think you’ve spotted something, we will stop and observe but we can’t dilly dally, there is a lot of ground to cover”.
Famous last words……
We head west to Kusini , we hope to find Cheetah on the plains and then take the road via Moru Kopjies, Seronera, Lobo and Nyamalunbwa. It’s a massive drive but perhaps the most beautiful one one can have in the park.
We find seven cheetahs before we reach Kusini, unbelievable. Between Kusini and The Simiyu River we drive through densities of wildebeest far beyond what we have seen further south thus far. Seemingly a large portion of the migration is nestled here on this green patch and very much enjoying it by the sounds of them.
Before we cross the bridge the flick of a dark tail tuft alerts us to a lioness, crouched in the reeds and watching a wildebeest as he approaches the very gully in which she is concealed. We hold our breath, the bull isn’t a youngster and he knows something is up. This stand-off lasts 20 minutes before he takes two steps forward, second guesses and by chance glimpses the big cat that’s almost upon him, he takes off like a rocket. The lioness seems fat and sated already, she doesn’t give the impression of regretting the loss as she disappears into a thicket of palm.
“Let’s press on team, time is running”
We cross the river and round a bend, wildebeest and zebra cover the plains to our right, ahead on our left a huge sausage tree stands with a land cruiser nearby, it comes to my mind that this is the only other vehicle we have seen this morning. Eight, fat looking lionesses hang like baubles, lazing on the limbs of this giant tree and happily observing the plentiful food on the plains beneath them.
“Folks, I get the distinct feeling we are going to be late….”
A mixed herd of fifty or so wildebeest and zebra come down to drink and the pool beyond the Sausage Tree. It’s an idyllic scene, a dream of Africa. And then it’s chaos…
Stripes, horns, beards and tails erupt in a splash of mud and water and charge off in all directions. In half a second we see a huge male lion, barrelling forward and into the confusion, dust settles and there stands the lion without the prey.
Hands slap heads… “how did he miss?”
The lion struts back from whence he came, trying not to make it look like a big deal. The lionesses in the tree regard him, seemingly nonplussed. It’s as if he’s always doing this.
“We are definitely going to be late guys”
Our drive up into the Moru Kopjies is glorious, we keep our eyes peeled for black rhino but they elude us this time. Covering good ground now and making time, we let the wind rush by us as we pass the main hub Seronera. Even this famously bustling area feels deserted at this time, we see only a handful of other vehicles and are entranced by a huge journey of giraffe.
Beyond Lobo, we find a great herd of zebra in the hills. I’m surprised to find them this far north but they’re smart, the grass here is lush and splendidly green. To further illustrate this point, two large herds of Cape Buffalo dot the hills on either side of us as we head towards the Bologonja River where we are halted in our tracks by a mating pair of lions. They are honeymooning outside the ranger post here.
“ooof, that’s going to keep them awake tonight!”
The light is beginning to soften as we cross the Nyamalumbwa Hills. Here as if in crescendo of this masterpiece of a game drive, a finale of elephants observes our passing. Several breeding herds and some large bulls appear to have settled in these highlands on their way North and are feeding precariously high up on the hillsides. We count more than seventy, the spectacle seems almost too farfetched to be real.
As we pull up at Mkombe’s house, my dear friend Babu welcomes us in. We worried him as we certainly are as late as hell and he is all the more delighted to bring the family in and fix the drinks. I cannot believe everything that we have seen on this day and for the most part there was not another human soul in sight. I’m filled with gratitude for the experience, it’s eleven hours since we departed Ndutu and we’re ready for a beer.