I had awakened early today with the anticipation of viewing sunrise as there is nothing more magical than sitting out on the Serengeti Plain with all the sounds of nature around you and nothing else, while the horizon to the east begins its transition from a soft glow to the brightness of the new day. There is nothing like a sunrise on the Serengeti for all the reasons you can imagine and no matter how many times I’ve seen it before, it never fails to amaze me that I am here and experiencing it. The night was cool with steady breezes along with the frequent howls of the hyenas and an occasional low growl of the male lion to remind us were we were. I had slept exceptionally well last night and we were all looking forward to the full day we were planning to spend on a game drive.
With the sun fully up by 6:30am, I wondered over to the dining area to see if they had hot water for tea, which, of course, they did, so made myself a mug of Kilimanjaro Earl Grey and sat in a chair looking over the area in front of our camp just admiring the many sights and sounds that filled the air. Several groups of animals such as topis, zebra and even a small band of wildebeest, made their way by the camp in their daily trek looking for their perfect grass. It is like their daily commute, though certainly much less congested than those that we know.
The camp crew is up very early so had prepared everything already for breakfast, another buffet style meal, though now had a table out front to make eggs to order, including omelettes made to order. The omelette chef was wearing his white apron and chef’s hat as if we were in any fine restaurant for breakfast. As everyone met at the arranged time of 7am for our meal we had to keep reminding ourselves that we were in the middle of the Serengeti. The food was again delicious including the little mini mandazi, small pastries that were similar to donut holes, though not as sweet so were eaten with a bit of honey.
Simon had brought the car around already and after breakfast, we grabbed our cameras and things we’d need for a full day away from camp along with our lunch boxes, and headed out for adventure. The air was cool with the sun low still low in the sky, but you could still feel the warmth of its rays on your skin in welcome contrast. We initially drove off to the east of camp out of the hills and towards the many kopjes that dominate the topography of this region of the Serengeti. Kopjes are small outcroppings of rocks that are like little islands in a sea of grass, each one serving as its own community. Lion prides will often remain around a single kopje for a time and then move to others in their territory as they serve as a fantastic vantage point to look out over the plain and to plan their next meal. They do this very much as the cheetah do on their termite hills. These islands of life also include smaller animals such as the dik-dik (the smallest of the antelope), the rock hyrax (a small animal that looks like a rodent, but is actually a relative of the elephant) and various reptiles including the blue and red agama lizard.
In the Serengeti National Park, you must drive on established trails, but they pretty much crisscross everywhere between the kopjes, often consisting of two very narrow tire tracks. We traveled from kopje to kopje heading further east into the bush until we finally came upon what seemed like an endless sea of wildebeest. Each time you thought that you had seen the bulk of the herd, though, you crested a hill and realized that it continued for ever and in all directions. We were in the middle of the main group of wildebeest that made up the Great Migration, the largest single movement of land animals in the world. They migrate in a circular motion following the grasses and were now in the Central Serengeti, but would soon move on to another more promising area depending on the weather. There are about two million wildebeest that migrate between the Serengeti and the Maasai Mara (the contiguous land across the border into Kenya) and even though we weren’t counting the animals before us, I am certain that we were seeing hundreds of thousands of wildebeest stretching out over the hills before us.
As we meandered along the trails amidst the herds of wildebeest, we would occasionally run across their predators, the lions here, that feast on the migration when it is here. One male lion slept in the shade of a kopje alongside its half eaten wildebeest kill from the morning or night before. Another, particularly handsome, male lion that we ran across was walking from a nearby watering hole to one of the larger kopjes as the wildebeest kept a wary eye on him to make sure he wasn’t still interested in them. He eventually meandered over to the kopjes and climbed to its highest point looking like a scene from The Lion King movie. We ran across many other lions that day, many with cubs and all of who looked quite healthy clearly relating to the presence of the wildebeest in the area. We had hoped to see a kill today, but it was not to be, though we were very happy to have seen the Great Migration in all of its glory.
We eventually made our way back to Seronera, the cluster of lodges and camps in the Central Serengeti, and where the airport sits. We decided to have lunch outside the visitor center there and then begin our afternoon game drive. We had seen lots of lions and cheetah in the morning, but we still hadn’t seen a leopard, so that was our main focus for the remainder of the day and with any luck, we’d find one. Leopards are most commonly found in river areas where they rest in their tree during the day and typically hunting at night. Leopards drag their prey into their to protect it from lions and hyenas and so they can feed on it over time. You can often spot what is left of old leopard kills hanging in the trees after they’ve abandoned the carcass and sought a new kill. They are quite powerful and one of their favorite animals to prey on are baby and younger wildebeest, carrying the entire animal into the tree with them.
During the afternoon we found many, many more lions, some with cubs and even found a group of four cheetah, which is very uncommon as they are solitary animals who typically hunt along. This group was made up of a mother and three adolescents who were probably all about ready to leave the nest. They were resting under a tree to avoid the hot sun which was unfortunate as it would have been amazing to have seen this group hunt. Cheetah will typically not pursue large prey on their own, sticking mainly with Thompson gazelle or impala, but in a group such as this they could have easily have tackled a wildebeest and that would have been a sight, For now we have to just be happy to watch them for a bit and then move on.
We eventually ran across a telltale sign of a leopard which is a large group of safari vehicles all stopped on the road. Sure enough, when we were finally upon them as we had originally seen them in the distance (the vehicles, that is), there was a beautiful leopard sitting up in her tree (the way it was straddling the branch made it more likely it was a female) resting, but awake and moving around. She didn’t have a kill with her that we could see, but she didn’t look interested in hunting so she had probably eaten that night. With the sighting of leopard, Neena, Whitley, and Sara had now seen the African big five consisting of the elephant, Cape buffalo, lion, leopard and rhino, albeit the rhino from quite a distance on the crater floor through binoculars from the overlook. Black rhinos in Tanzania are very endangered with perhaps only 200 existing in the wild, less than 30 of those being in the crater and the remainder in the Northern Serengeti primarily. I have had the luck to see eight rhinos in one day on the crater floor which was amazing luck and had actually seen a mother and calf in the Northern Serengeti before. White rhinos, that are almost twice the size of the black rhino, live in the southern part of the continent and are far more numerous as they are not endangered.
After spotting the leopard, with our game drive near complete, we continued to look for more animals as we roamed along the river area eventually heading back in the direction of our camp. We ran across more lions on the way, including an unusual group of four juvenile males, probably brothers, who were sleeping together under a tree in the shade. Though the females do most of the hunting for a pride, these four males would certainly be a dominant force when hunting together and would each eventually begin to look for their very own pride to adopt or take by force.
Our day had been quite worthy of the safari experience everyone had hoped for and the Serengeti once again did not fail to impress. I have been here numerous times and have seen the migration in the south and the north (even a difficult to see river crossing at the Mara River), but had never seen the migration spread out in front of me in such a fashion. As far as the eye could see, on every hilltop, in every direction, and then far beyond as we traveled through this conflagration of wildebeest there were more and more animals that were just never ending. Their honking was not deafening, but it was constant and reassuring, even soothing at times as we drove amongst the herd, that reminded us all of the importance of this miracle of nature that has existed long before civilization and long before humankind as we know it today. These animals migrated long before our ancestors’ ancestors and very likely were responsible for their survival.
We returned to camp well before sunset and with time enough for us all to relax and shower as the dust during the day was all encompassing. It was a lovely evening, much as the day had been for the air was never hot nor the humidity high. We all looked forward to another wonderful dinner and, of course, we weren’t disappointed. Sitting at our table that faced out overlooking the savannah in the fading sunlight, it was clear to each of us that what we had encountered today was truly a gift that would remain with each of us for the rest of our lives. It is difficult to fully describe the feeling one has driving through such an immense area as the Serengeti and to see what we have seen today, but save it to say that it is an experience of a lifetime.