March is the beginning of the low season for safaris as the longer rains are beginning to fall and with things more lush and green, the animals tend not to congregate as much near the water sources for easy viewing. This is true everywhere in Northern Tanzania, that is, except for the Southern Serengeti and Lake Ndutu, where one of the most amazing spectacles in nature occurs every year at this time. March and April are the high season for Lake Ndutu which is where you can find the largest concentrations of migrating wildebeest and zebra at any one time. Sure, the crossing of the Mara River into Kenya in the Northern Serengeti is pretty darn spectacular in August and September, but for different reasons and, in particular, watching the waiting Nile crocodiles pick off unsuspecting animals as they’re trying to reach the other shore. For shear numbers, though, seeing them in the south can’t be beat and this morning we’re heading down to one of the migration camps on the shore of Lake Ndutu where we’ll spend the night “glamping,” which is the new term for glamorous camping made famous at some music festivals on the east coast.
We have plans for Yusef to arrive at our house at 5:45am for a departure of 6am that will put us at the Ngorongoro Gate at 6:30, right when they open. We have a several hour drive down to Ndutu and would like to get as much game viewing in as possible today before heading to camp later for dinner. We had packed our lunches along with a sandwich for Yusef, plenty of Coke Zero, cut up pineapple, a can of Jalapeño Pringles and some candy bars. Had we found ourselves lost in the Serengeti somewhere, we wouldn’t starve for at least three days with the supply of food we had.
Traveling around the rim of the crater once again was nothing less than spectacular as we first entered the clouds, but after a short while, the sun broke through and you could see down to the crater floor with it’s unique topography that is unequaled anywhere else on earth. We finally pass by the descent road as we leave the rim and begin dropping in elevation traveling by boma after boma in this very fertile and reasonably populace area. The views are just amazing and we are eventually down on what would be the Eastern Serengeti, passing by Oldupai Gorge, famous for the Leaky’s discover of oldest man here in the 1950’s, Oldupai George, otherwise known as Zinjanthropus. I am using the correct spelling of Oldupai, by the way, rather than the incorrect spelling of Olduvai that has been used every since the gorge was discovered back in the early part of the century before the Leaky’s. Oldupai, which is the Maasai word for a wild sisal plant that grows here, was what the gorge was originally named for. Oldupai is mecca or ground zero for anyone who has studied physical anthropology or the history of man. Interestingly, the river that runs through the gorge here dumps into Lake Masek and Lake Ndutu, our destination for today’s journey.
The road we’re traveling is full of washboards and dust as we traverse the Serengeti plains here and make our way to the northwest until we reach a small turnoff that will take us southwest in the direction of Ndutu. All across the Eastern Serengeti there are herds of wildebeest and zebra spread out grazing as the rains have been generous in the recent weeks and there is plenty of grass to be had. After the turnoff we are essentially following tire tracks that make up the roads here through the open plains until we reach a region of taller shrubs and low trees through which we pick our route that presents the least amount of bumps to slow us down. We’re finally to the shores of Lake Ndutu where the going is mostly flat except for the occasional stream bed that empties into the lake and causes us to slow down briefly. There are flamingos on the lake that we stop to photograph as they squawk and mingle amongst themselves with some unknown agenda.
We begin our game viewing by driving to the small marsh where we have seen so many things in the past including lion, cheetah and leopard, and in very short order we locate a sole lioness that looks a bit on the thin side and is making her way towards a large herd of wildebeest who clearly haven’t yet noticed her presence. She eventually moves into the tall grass that is situated on this end of the marsh where she begins to slowly move in the direction of the unexpecting herd. We situate ourselves up high above for a good vantage point to view any action and then break out our lunch while we sit and wait for her to make a move. We can see her head popping up occasionally in the tall grass along with a few hyenas who are obviously also hoping to benefit from a kill. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the time and as the wildebeest slowly move away, the lioness never makes a move and her opportunity vanishes as does ours and we eventually move on looking on for new sights.
On towards the big marsh, which is at the other end of the water way we’re following, where we find another lone lioness, this one resting atop a slope overlooking a watering hole, not far from where we witnessed four lionesses ambush a zebra herd seeking water two years ago. A young zebra was their victim then, but today, this lioness is not hunting which is probably a lucky thing considered there are two safari groups outside of their cars having lunch not far away.
We left the big marsh and headed out onto the plains in search of more cats considering the monstrous herds of wildebeest moving to and fro in long lines and occupying the horizon in every direction. Thousands upon thousands of them, many of the females with new calves that are typically born in Kenya and are older by now, but given the recent drought, many of the mothers have delayed their deliveries until the rains fell recently. The younger Wildebeest are much more attractive than their parents who have to be one of the homeliest looking animals I have every seen. I have called them “ugly” before, but have received grief from the others so have had to reconsider my critical assessment and finally settling on homely to be a bit more considerate.
In fairly short order, we were able to spot two groups of lions, one consisting of two lionesses and the other of two lionesses and one male lion, the latter who had a very coiffed ‘do with what appeared to be bangs. He was clearly no slouch, though, as he had his two women with him and I’m sure would have taken no slack from any of us had we decided to challenge him. After driving around for some time and marveling at the massive herds of “beesties,” we dropped back into the marshes where we were intercepted by two rangers who we had bumped into earlier when they were checking our permits and they now wanted to let us know about a cheetah that had been sighted not too far away. We sped over to the area where the cheetah was supposed to be and, although it took us awhile, we finally spotted it resting under a tree and not bothered at all by our presence. We watched for a bit as none of the others had ever seen a cheetah before and we were all by ourselves.
We eventually moved on to another wide open area where we spotted a cheetah in the distance under a tree which is usually how you find them resting in the daytime. Amazingly, as we got closer driving up we could see smaller cubs sleeping with their mother. They were the cutest little things, though much larger than some cubs I had seen here five years ago (that mom had five!) that still had their velvety coats of downy fur along their backs. They were all sleeping initially, but awakened intermittently to move around under the tree and interact in various states of consciousness, rolling over here and there, climbing on mom and grooming each other. We watched for sometime as they were all so adorable, but eventually moved on among the continuing herds of wildebeest while the sky began to darken with sheets of rain beginning to fall a short distance from us and moving in our direction. We were eventually caught by the grasp of the rain and were able to drop our roof in very short order so we wouldn’t be soaked, nor would our gear, as enough of the rain would have come in the vehicle to have taken care of each of those.
It was only about 4pm and much earlier than we had planned to go in for the evening, but the rain was making it difficult to see much along the way so our game driving was done for the day. The drive to Mbugani Camp was uneventful and we pulled up in a pouring rain. I had stayed at this camp last year and it has a wonderful overlook of Lake Ndutu. The tents have running water, hot water with some advance notice, a shower, toilet and perhaps the most comfortable beds considering you’re in the middle of the Serengeti. We first sat inside the community tent with tables and couches while we waited to get our introduction to the camp and walked to our own tents. We were the only group in camp that night so we had the run of the place. The girls stayed in tent number one, while Chris and I were staying in tent number four, a few tents further away from the safety of the mess and community tents. Chris and I were definitely up for showers after the long day, so after a few minutes we got the go ahead from the staff that they were ready. Unfortunately, they were really “lukecool” showers, a new term we coined for a temperature that had little or no warmth, but less shocking than a straight on frigid shower that we’ve had on occasion here.
We went back over the community tent after cleaning up as they did have WiFi there for us to check our emails and relax a bit. Jamie was napping, but Nan was there and, as the rain had stopped, she was walking around outside to check out our surroundings. I was typing away on my iPad when she said that she’d be back in bit, which just a funny ring to me and when I asked her where she was going, she calmly told me that she was going to walk down to the lake, perhaps a quarter-mile walk. Let me remind you that we’re sitting in the middle of the conservation area where we had just been watching lions stalking prey and hyenas stalking the lions. I quickly replied to her that she couldn’t walk to the lake for these quite salient reasons and the camp manager, who was also sitting in the tent at the time, suddenly took notice of our conversation as well. The beauty of this place often makes it easy to forget where we are at times and that around every corner lurks another part of the “real world” where we are no longer the top of the food chain.
Luckily, the rain had stopped for a long enough time for some of the firewood to dry so they were eventually able to get the fire pit going so we could watch the “bush TV” and relax a bit with the sun going down. Dinner wasn’t until 7:30, so we had plenty of time to enjoy the view and the wildlife between us and the lake, which at one point included a small herd of Coke’s hartebeest running, or really prancing, in front of us with their eyes reflecting in our torches, bouncing up and down, to and fro. They were apparently quite happy with the recent rain and were celebrating, or so we were told. When dinner was served, it was delicious butternut squash soup and then a buffet of amazing lamb, roasted vegetables and roasted potatoes. Jamie, being a vegetarian was served a stuffed roasted tomato that she said was quite delicious as well. I was quite happy with the lamb!
We all relaxed a bit after dinner and then walked to our tents, with escorts, of course, considering the fact again of where we were and the constant danger of animals coming into camp during the night. There was a cool breeze after the earlier rains so a chill was in the air, but it was delightful, and sliding in under our thick comforters after a long day never felt better. We were planning for a pre-dawn start to our morning drive and were meeting in the mess tent at 5:45am for some coffee and chai and a 6am departure. We’d come back to camp for breakfast and then bring lunch boxes with us so as not to have to return to camp later during our game viewing. At least, that was the plan when we fell asleep, little knowing what adventures the next day would hold for us.