The Serengeti





The Serengeti is one of those last places on earth. It is the home of migrating wildebeast, zebra, buffalo, and the predators that allow only the fittest to survive. First, though, we'd need to survive the trip to get there.

I flew business class down from Amsterdam; this was a bit more comfortable and had more movie selections, but still there were none worth watching. I did attempt to upgrade my mother, but it would have cost 2800 Dutch guilders, and we all agreed that was too much. The MD-11 had more movie channels than the 747, which was a minor surprise. Another Indonesian meal, and a bit of rest on the flight. We arrived at Kilimanjaro airport at 9PM. I got through immigration very quickly, and the rest of my party soon followed. Getting luggage off the plane was faster here than any US airport, too.

Kilimanjaro International Airport is a single runway and a terminal building. One side is for the departure lounge, one side for arrivals. I think it gets about five flights per day, mainly from Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam. They roll stairways to the plane, there are no jet-ways.

We went from the airport 50 kilometers into Arusha, where we had a very late dinner and spent the night at the Arusha Resort Center. Not exactly the Ritz, but functional. Initially, the light in my room did not work, but over the dinner they fixed the light situation. I did need to have my portable fan running to keep me cool as I slept, as the air was hot and still. We all woke early the next morning, as at 5AM the local mosque broadcasts their morning call to prayers over the loudspeakers. I tried to find the ATM that was alleged to be in Arusha, no such luck. French toast for breakfast, before which we did some birding. We saw a baglafecht weaver, fire finch, yellow-billed kites, a variable sunbird, and a pied crow. After breakfast, we set off for the Serengeti.


The lion at rest

We drove from Arusha to our camp at Lake Ndutu. This was a very long drive, with stops along the way to see a brown snake eagle, steppe buzzard, and other wildlife. This was a long drive, about 7 hours, and only about 2 hours were on paved roads. We went past Ngorongoro crater on the way and saw a pale chanting goshawk. I napped for a bit on the drive, which considering the quality of the roads, was somewhat amazing. We pulled into camp at 3PM, and were served a lunch of tilapia. I settled into my tent, and at 5PM we went on a game drive. This time, we take the roof out of the land rover so we can stand up and view the wildlife. It was a pretty good game drive by the lake, as we saw hornbills, lilac breasted rollers, Eurasian rollers, and four lions. All four lions this afternoon were female, the first was a solitary female, and the latter were an adult female and two adolescent lions.


Stilts

We came back and showered before dinner. After dinner, I slept like a log, and I missed the hyena calling. I woke at 3AM and saw the Southern Cross, but went back to sleep for a normal wakeup.

We stayed in tents. During my last safari we stayed at a luxury tented camp in Samburu; I set some expectations based on this that were not to be. Samburu had running water and toilets, these tents did not. The tents did have beds, tables, and a (dim) light. Not quite bright enough for reading, but enough to get around at night.

Each day in camp we had the same basic ritual. There was a camp crew of 12 people who provided our basic needs. We'd be awakened with a tray of tea, coffee, or hot chocolate, usually 30-60 minutes before breakfast. Breakfast was usually fruit, gruel (porridge), potatoes and eggs. We'd often also have sausage or bacon. (Early in the trip, I'd opt for French toast with sausage and bacon, by the end I was just having potatoes.) Then, we'd go on a game drive. Usually, we'd be back in camp for lunch. Our camp crew prepared some excellent meals for us; better meals than I had in the lodges on my last safari. During the morning game drive, the crew would collect any laundry we had, and clean it. We'd have clean clothes delivered to our tents after the afternoon game drive.

After the afternoon drive, we'd take showers (just a 5 gallon bucket of quite hot water, but it did get you clean) and then sit around a campfire until dinner. Dinner was usually around 8PM, after which we'd head to bed.


Four hunting cheetah


Yellow-billed stork

The first full day in the Serengeti wasn't in Serengeti National Park. Instead, we explored the Ngorongoro Conservation Area near the camp site. This is an open grassland and is where the wildebeast migration ends. We first looked at some birds. Lots of storks, some bustards. The abdim storks were abundant. The wildebeast were present in large numbers, feeding on the grasses, and raising their children. There were a large number of wildebeast calves in the herds.


A silverback

As we headed out into the grass, we happened across some silver-backed jackals. There were a large number of jackals on the Serengeti, so eventually they faded in importance, but we did check each one to see if it was a different jackal. Anyway, at one point, a wildebeast separated from the pack and chased to calves in the general direction of the jackal. The jackal found this quite interesting, and started to chase the wildebeast calves. It never caught one, but it did give it a good run.

We then saw a knot of rovers, and went over there. Turns out there were four cheetah stalking some Thompson's gazelles. We stayed and watched this for a while. Sometimes, we'd lose sight of the cheetahs as they'd move lower. The gazelles had a scout that was pretty attentive to the cheetahs, so we felt a kill wasn't likely. We then moved on to see hyena, zebra, and other wildlife. Ended up swinging by the Serengeti entrance before heading back to camp.


Kori Bustard in display

Lunch was quite tasty, some curries and paratha. After lunch, I took a brief nap in the hot, hot sun. Our tents were facing west and would get quite warm in the afternoons. The afternoon game drive was again by the lake. Lots of harriers (mainly Montagu's) and shore birds too numerous to count. We did see an immature fish eagle which caused some debate, as it was not an easy call to make.

Dinner was pork chops and mashed potatoes. I slept like a log.

Unfortunately, I woke up at 4AM the next day, even though my tea wasn't until 5:45. I looked at the stars for a while, as the southern sky is absolutely beautiful.

The morning went normally, but my breakfast was late because they made an error on my order. My food arrived after everyone else had finished.

This day was to be an eventful day. We went to the Gol Kopjes, a set of rock formations in the eastern Serengeti. This was grasslands, with occasional piles of rocks. Since the area is normally restricted, we had to get a ranger at the Naabi Hills entrance station, who traveled with us. She sat with me in the back of the vehicle, which was quite uncomfortable. The vehicles were not really designed for two adults in the back, there was no regular seat, just two shallow benches perpendicular to the regular seats. With one adult, the person can stand for much of the time, but the opening isn't big enough for two people to stand continuously.

Anyway, we headed off for the kopjes. There were quite a few ungulates out here. Our first feline encounter was with a lone cheetah. This cat looked well fed, and was just in the sun. She found some tall grass in which to lie, and relaxed.


An upset lion

The lion gets angrier

Protecting his mate

A dung beetle

A vulture

Two zebras grooming
Click on any image to see a larger picture

Our next feline encounter was much more eventful. After looking at some more gazelles, topi, eland, and wildebeast, we happened across three lions. There were two male lions with a female, and apparently, there had been a battle between the two males earlier in the day. We settled in to watch them for a while. Our driver, Peter, moved the vehicle to the opposite side of our original stop, and as I bent down to change lenses, the alpha male charged. None of the drivers had ever seen this happen. Jim Brett, our leader who has been to Tanzania more than fifty times, had never seen it before.

The lion went back to the female as I was sitting in the back. We decided to do a little research. I stood up. As I stood up, the lion's ears flared and the mane ruffled. We made eye contact. I started to bring the camera up, and the lion charged. He went from 25 meters to 8 meters in three strides, less than 2 seconds. I ducked, almost as fast. I did get a picture of the lion as he was standing up to charge, but the act of ducking meant that I had no pictures of the lion charging.

We don't know, nor can we know, why the lion charged. There are a couple theories that may make sense:

(1) The lion perceived me as a threat. I was wearing a hat with a long rim at the back, and if the wind caught it, it may have looked like a lion's mane being ruffled. It was windy on the grasslands.

(2) The lion had memories of being tranquilized by a ranger, and either my appearance or my camera lens reminded the lion of that.

Then again, the lion could just have been in a bad mood. (Now I know how the mouse feels when it is being fed to the python!)

We then continued along the grass, where we saw four female lions on a kill (zebra), and a hyena with a broken foot. That hyena would not have survived the night. The last sighting was a dung beetle, rolling its dung to a nest.

We then stopped for a picnic lunch. Having been cramped in the back for a few hours, my knee buckled getting out the back of the rover. I was unhurt. Lunch was a meat patty, a cheese sandwich, and stoney tangawezi. After lunch, we saw three more male lions sunning themselves on the rocks, and we returned to camp.


A spotted genet

Thirty minutes later, we were out again. The afternoon game drive was perhaps the most interesting of the trip. We saw a pair of vervet monkeys who were fairly aggravated. There was a spotted genet (a small cat) climbing their tree. We watched for a while until the genet gave up. We also saw a spotted eagle owl, cardinal wylie, and a brown snake eagle. Excellent!

Dinner that night was lamb with ginger, roast potatoes, green beans, and chocolate mousse. I slept with memories of the lion.

Our last full day on the Serengeti featured a normal breakfast, and then a drive up to Seronera, to see hippos and maybe a crocodile. Once more, we were the third of three vehicles, which meant that if the first saw a bird, we'd end up waiting with a bad view, or no view at all. We'd get our best looks when we let the others get far enough ahead that we were effectively on our own. Once we were behind, we saw a fan-tailed widowbird, golden backed jackson's weaver, and a termite mound with banded mongooses. But the real highlight was watching a gabar goshawk tearing into weaver nests. We watched the goshawk feed for a while.


Girafe

Resting lion

Secretary Bird

Cheetah on the prowl

A mousebird

Silverback Jackal

Bat-eared Fox
Click on any image to see a larger picture

Nearer Seronera, we found the other vehicles, and we was some hippos and a solitary crocodile. After a brief stop at the lodge, we drove back to camp for a late lunch, and an afternoon game drive at the lake. This time, we saw a bat-eared fox, as one of the leaders spent 20 minutes trying to rescue a doomed chick. I did finally get a photograph of a lilac breasted roller.

I've forgotten what our last dinner at the Serengeti was. It was good, that much I remember. After dinner, I started to pack for the drive to Ngorongoro.

The next day featured a long drive. After breakfast, our crew broke down the camp to move it to a camp site in Ngorongoro. We switched to a travel configuration, where I rode in the front seat, three people sat across in the middle, and the back area was filled with luggage. I packed away my camera, which was unfortunate, but there wasn't room for it with me.

As we were leaving, we saw a cheetah mom and cub. The cub would race ahead of her mother and "ambush" her as she walked past. The mother ignored it. We watched the cheetah hunt for a while, but she didn't get close to a kill. So, we left and went to Olduvai Gorge.




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All images are © Copyright 1991-2001 James C. Armstrong, Jr.