Serengeti National Park (Part One)

Northern Circuit, Tanzania

I wake early, possibly a little jet lagged. Outside the tent there are all sorts of unfamiliar bird sounds, along with the usual roosters, cows and calls to prayer at the local mosque that I’ve heard in countless other countries. I eagerly head to the hot shower but I'm disappointed to find the water pressure is only a trickle. Still, it's better than the cold water shower at the hotel the day before. I quickly discover that my tea towel is quite inefficient in the drying procedure. 

 

Bag update: one bag has made it to Moshi, arriving at the airport last night. The other is still in Addis Ababa, due to fly in tonight. No one has any idea how that happened. 

 

The initial journey involves a slow climb through the mountains, with occasional sweeping views across a barren landscape. We are stopped at a police check, one of dozens we pass by throughout the day. An inspection by the officer informs us that we don’t have one of the required stickers displayed on the window. It turns out it is still in the office back in Moshi. Twenty minutes later a photo of the sticker is sent through to Richard, which is enough to appease the officer. We continue on.

 

As soon as we enter the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, the paved road turns to a gravel, rocky, bumpy track. We are told that we won’t see bitumen again for days. Everything inside the car is immediately covered in dust. The elevation keeps climbing, from 900m up to 3000m, where the vegetation becomes green and lush, but shrouded in cloud. The temperature immediately plummets, and I am astounded that the Maasai people, wearing only simple cloth robes as they herd their cattle, are not freezing. It is completely different to the desert-like landscape we came from. A viewpoint on the way reveals nothing but white. Other than a lone elephant by the road, partly hidden by grass and fog, there is nothing to see along this section. 


Coming down the mountain sunlight suddenly appears, bringing with it blue skies. The air becomes warmer and it ends up being a perfect afternoon weather-wise. Flat lands return, stretching forever off into the distance, with only small hills and a couple of lakes break up the land. 

 

Upon reaching the main gate for Serengeti we stop for lunch, where we receive a crustless sandwich with tomato, cucumber and strawberry jam. This is definitely a new culinary experience for us, and not one I'll be going back for. I spend much of the break watching the pink, red and blue agama lizards, fascinated by their unique skin colour. A store at the gate offers a whole wall’s worth of bottles of wine, clearly catering for the Western market. We didn’t oblige.

Serengeti means endless plains, and that’s exactly what we got. It is so flat it is hard to believe that animals have anywhere to hide - surely we can spot them from miles away. But there are long periods when we see nothing, when out of nowhere a whole flock of animals appears. Describing it as a dry, empty nothingness makes it seem incredibly boring, but in fact it is quite beautiful in its simplicity and naturalness. 

 

Our on-route game drive, as we travel towards the campsite, reveal the following animals (and tree), in order:

  • Superb starlings. Still just as stunning as yesterday.

  • Jackals. Still just as ugly.

  • Thomson’s gazelles. Very similar to impala, the only differences (that I can see) being the location of their thin, black stripes and the curvature of their horns. For an hour we watch a continuous stream of gazelles, prancing along beside the car as they try to outrun us.

  • Hartebeest. Much more pleasing to look at than the wildebeest. 

  • Warthogs. Also ugly but somehow really cute too. 

  • Saddle-billed stork.

  • Egyptian geese. They look nothing like regular white geese.

  • Secretary birds, so-called because they apparently look like secretaries (black top and bottom with a white collar). 

  • Female ostrich. Females are a bland grey colour, which aren’t nearly as impressive as the black and white males. 

  • Sausage trees, with sausage-shaped fruit hanging down from the branches.

  • Giraffe.

  • Hippos, in the water. The grey lumps are not at all exciting.

  • Crocodile, also in the water. Like the hippos, when they don’t do anything they don’t hold my attention for long.

  • A lion, walking straight down the road towards us. It glides right by our car, so close I could pat it if I was game, not caring at all about our presence. We are all deathly silent during this time, and I find myself wondering if they would jump through the window or the open roof to attack us if they felt threatened. Thankfully this doesn’t happen. It's the highlight of our day.

  • Buffalo. A huge herd, hundreds of them, but hidden in the (rare) trees and long grass. 

  • Zebra. I can't explain why but they are a favourite of mine. 

  • Elephants, way off in the distance.

  • A honey badger, too fast for my camera.

 

Over the entire three-hour drive we pass only two other groups, both of whom turn up just after the lion walks past us. Otherwise, it's another day of having the animals all to ourselves.

The campsite is extremely basic compared to last night’s accommodation, and when we arrive we are the only people there. Usually at this time of year (peak season) there are up to 200 tents vying for space, having to pitch around the toilet blocks and in the car parks. The kitchen hut should be packed with cooks, talking loudly and playing music. I’m grateful that it’s not like that for us, that we can relax with plenty of space in the clean, serene surroundings. I’m also grateful for Western flushing toilets, running water, rubbish disposal and WiFi. I don’t go near the cold showers and we have no use for the dining hut. I’m surprised there’s no fence around the site, which has me wondering how safe I will be if I have to pee in the middle of the night. 

 

Once we assemble the tents we relax in the cool dusk conditions, shoveling down another plate of popcorn that Dickson has prepared for us. Dinner soon follows, consisting of a wonderful leek soup, ugali, spaghetti, a vegetable tomato sauce, plus a meat curry for the boys. I’m amazed how Dickson has created all of this on a single burner portable gas stove. In normal years a “refreshment van” travels around to the public campsites, offering drinks to thirsty campers. It’s a shame that it’s not running this year.

 

After dinner another car arrives, carrying two young German guys on a self-drive tour. Their car has a pop up tent on top of the vehicle, which seems a lot safer than our tents of the ground. We get chatting, and they say they have been planning their Tanzania trip for four years. We don't mention that we only spent two weeks planning our holiday. Over the last couple of days they have seen many cats, including a whole pride of lions. I hope this is a sign of things to come for us.

 

Just before bed I use the toilet, and after I finish I see a chunky, black spider climb up the outside of the toilet bowl and hop onto the seat, right where I had been sitting only seconds ago. My heart almost explodes out of my chest. I guess I'll need to be more vigilant in my bathroom routine from now on.

 

Richard warns us to put everything inside the tent - clothes, food, shoes, bags, etc., as hyenas regularly appear and steal anything that is not tied down. Definitely not a warning I've ever received before, or ever expected to. It's a good thing we listened though, as the next morning the Germans say they saw a whole pack of hyenas hanging around the kitchen hut last night. I’m relieved I didn’t know they were there, otherwise I probably wouldn’t have gained much sleep.

Throughout the night I hear many strange noises, and I am way too scared to get up to relieve myself. Danny braves a toilet run. He isn’t eaten by a lion.

I awake about 6.30 a.m. and the sun hasn’t risen yet. I need the bathroom badly, so I risk venturing outside. Other than a few hares running about I see nothing that will eat or trample me. I eagerly await sunrise, camera at the ready, but it is an unceremonious affair.

 

Dickson has prepared a surprise for me for breakfast: vegan pancakes! I’m not certain how he made them but he assures me they are vegan-friendly. They are thin, crepe-like, and go fantastic with banana and peanut butter. 

 

We leave for our game drive straight after breakfast, and the air is way too cold to stand up in the open roof. I stay seated until the animals appear, then it’s a quick photo before ducking down out of the biting wind. The day starts off hazy, but once the sun climbs higher in the sky the weather is fantastic. 

 

Richard drives out to the east side of the park in search of cats. On the way out we spot a jackal, several topi, a large pack of giraffes close to the road, several zebra, and an oribi. The oribi is performing some sort of crazy morning exercise routine like with a kid with ADHD, running at high speed for several paces then randomly switching directions, over and over again. It is hilarious to watch. 

 

In our attempt to find the cats, Richard travels from rocky mound to rocky mound, isolated tree to isolated tree, looking in the usual spots that the cats hang out. Apart from the ubiquitous gazelles and the hartebeest, there are long gaps between animal sightings. I wonder if all this searching is worth it. 

 

For the rest of the morning we see:

  • Hyenas, slinking through the grass.

  • A rock hyrax, which looks a little like a possum without a tail, and is appropriately sitting on a rock. 

  • Vultures, high up in the trees.

  • An eland, far away. I couldn’t differentiate it from any of the other antelopes at that distance. 

  • Guinea fowl. 

  • More secretary birds. 

  • Ostrich. I’m beginning to learn that they are never found close to the road.

Finally, we catch sight of two female lions, sunbathing on top of large boulders. We can only see half of them due to their high positioning, and they don’t do anything while we sit and stare. It’s a bit of an anticlimax. 

Continuing on, we pass by hyenas sharing a small lake with warthogs, while gazelles, topi and hartebeest graze nearby. It's nice to see the animals co-existing so close together. Then we hit the jackpot: a male and female lion, lying together under a tree. It’s our first male lion, and I am suitably impressed. There’s something about the bushy mane that makes it feel like more of an achievement. Now I can officially tick lion off the list. Richard tells us this couple are on their honeymoon. While on a lion honeymoon, they separate from the group for six days to mate frequently, sometimes every 15 minutes. We wait. They don’t do it.

 

While the scenery is extremely monotonous, the time flies. We are enraptured by the thrill of the hunt, being constantly on the lookout for the next animal, hoping one will suddenly appear from within the grass. 

 

All morning we only see one other car, also looking for cheetahs. No luck for either of us.

 

Lunch is eaten in the middle of nowhere, under a tree. Richard doesn’t seem too concerned about being eaten by a carnivorous animal.

The pursuit of cats continues in afternoon. Again, there’s a lot of driving and not much sighting. We see:

  • Ostrich, running away from us.

  • Several mongoose, hiding in a hole, sticking their heads out periodically to see if it is safe to resurface.

  • Elephants. A large herd, including a cute-as-a-button baby elephant.

  • Leopard! 

 

With the assistance of radio contact between guides in the park today, we see a leopard lying lazily in a tree a long way from the road. I couldn’t have identified that it was a leopard without the high-powered zoom on my camera, and I have no idea how any of the guides found it. Two other safari groups are here too, the only other tourists we see all afternoon.

 

At first it’s a little underwhelming, watching a speck in a tree, but it eventually wakes up, jumps over to another branch and starts munching away on a well-chewed carcass. It doesn’t respond to our wishes to come closer to the road so we can actually get a decent view of it. Richard tells us that leopards are solitary creatures, often living by themselves far away from everyone else. Leopards are also animals that kill for fun, storing their conquests in trees where other animals can’t reach them. They don't sound like animals you want to be friends with.

 

We’ve now ticked off four of Africa’s “Big 5”. I'm not holding my breath for a rhino.

 

On the way back to the campsite we stop at a visitor’s centre, where Danny buys beer for the group. Mongooses and rock hyraxes scuttle about, and I am more interested in these than the beer. Just after leaving the centre we watch a group baboons grooming each other, which is our final animal sighting today. 

 

We are the only guests at the campsite tonight. I am desperately hoping we don’t have any unwelcome late night visitors. 

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