The Serengeti is one of those places that is known world-wide, and the mere mention of its name conjures up childhood stories and adolescent dreams, or perhaps in today’s generation it’s more thoughts of the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet. Regardless of how one first became aware of this natural wonder, it remains a place of awe with magical powers that justly deserves its reputation for it is a place like no other in the world. Serengeti National Park was founded in the 1950s, before there was even a Tanzania, as the need to protect this region was clearly recognized by the British who were in control of the country until its independence in 1961, and subsequent merger with Zanzibar in 1964 to create the country we know today.
The word “Serengeti” is believed to come from the Maasai word, “Serengit,” which means endless plain, though regardless of the origin, there is little doubt that the Serengeti has become synonymous with the vast and endless expanse of land that makes up the national park and even continues on with a small portion slopping over the border into Kenya as the Maasai Mara. The Serengeti is absolutely immense – by area, the park is larger than the state of Connecticut and slightly smaller than New Jersey, yet there are no permanent residents other than the researchers and workers for the lodges and camps. Although the Maasai can live and graze their livestock in the adjacent areas including the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, their cattle are not allowed within the park boundaries, nor can they camp in the park.
The great migration of primarily wildebeest along with their friends, the zebra, with whom they have a symbiotic relationship given the latter’s fine sense of sight and hearing that helps to protect the herds from the always present threat of the lurking carnivores looking for an easy meal. The migration is the largest of any land animal and is the continuous clockwise movement of over two million wildebeest who are following the rain and the grass, calving from the north in the Maasai Mara, all the way to the Lake Ndutu region in the south. The massive herds seen crossing the Mara River in the north while avoiding the open jaws of hungry Nile crocodiles occurs in late August and Early September. I have now been to the Serengeti on countless occasions and have never once tired of seeing these incredible sights and experiencing this remarkable land for the Serengeti is much more than just the animals, the kopjes, the trees, the sky, or the place each alone. For it is about sum total of all that exists here and can be found nowhere else in the universe.
As I’m sure the residents appreciated, we were not leaving at the crack of dawn to today’s expedition, but rather were being picked up by Patrick at around 7:30 am along with Turtle which he had checked out the day earlier. We had our lunches packed along with our snacks for the road and were on our way back through the Loduare Gate as the same route to the crater is used to get to the Serengeti. The weather was cool and especially so on the rim of the crater as we traveled back around as if we were going to descend into it, except this time that wasn’t on our agenda as we passed the entrance to the crater on the far side and continued towards Naabi Gate, where we would be entering the Serengeti later today.
But first, we had a stop to make at Oldupai Gorge, which is Mecca for those of us like me who are anthropology nuts, and an incredibly important site even for those who are not. The Gorge, which was discovered by a German neurologist in 1911 who had been studying sleeping sickness, or trypanosomiasis, in the area and found numerous fossils of extinct animals here. When first publishing his find, he misspelled the word “Oldupai,” which is the Maasai word for the local sisal plant there, and called it instead Olduvai Gorge, which unfortunately has stuck ever since. Following WWI, with the British control of East Africa, further exploration discovered what were believed to be stone tools which eventually lead Louis Leaky to the site in 1931, and his wife, Mary, in 1935. Together, they spent season after season working here until, in 1959, Mary discovered the skull of Zinjanthropus, or Australopithecus bosei, who Louis later nicknamed “Nutcracker man” for the large molar teeth used for its diet. Zinj dated to 1.75 million years ago and was the oldest homonid, now homonin, that had been found to date.
When I first came to Tanzania in 2009, there was absolutely no way I was going to miss visiting Oldupai Gorge and, so, I dragged both of my children here to see what was so important to their father. I know they both appreciated the visit we made there as they have told me so since, and it is for this reason that I have brought almost every group of residents here on our way to the Serengeti. When we first came here, the museum was a one-room affair that looked like it had been put together on a shoestring, but several years ago, a new and incredible museum was built that would be worth a visit on its own.
Driving up to the gorge, it’s a dry and very desolate place that’s not at all imposing until you walk to its edge and realized exactly what you are looking at. In front of you is something akin to the Grand Canyon on a much smaller, though no less significant, scale and consists of multiple layers of sediment that are the result of erosion and volcanic activities over the millions of years it took to create such a masterpiece. From the viewpoint amphitheater, the Leakey’s camp is still visible and is now a living museum. I had first visited there before it was open to the public and it was a magical place. Mary Leakey’s original Land Rover sits there exactly as she left if in 1986, her last season at Oldupai.
I had the luck to meet a wonderful anthropologist several years ago who is still currently working at Oldupai, Professor Paulo Masaki, and each visit, he gives a very nice presentation to the visiting residents about the gorge and its importance for the history of man. When I had first met him, we had visited Leakey’s camp and a fossil storeroom there which contained only non-hominid fossils, but still had amazing pieces that were an archeologist’s dream. Professor reached into one shelf and pulled out a three- or four-foot section of a mammoth tusk and all that I say was, “don’t drop it!” Walking the same ground as the Leakey’s that day was something that I’ll never forget.
Everyone went through the museum at their own pace (I think Anya was the slowest as she was the one most excited about visiting here) and we then visited the gift shop, where Mark posed with the sternest of face with a Maasai shield and spear. After the gift shop, the residents found a few close by giraffes that they could take photos with before we decided to depart for Shifting Sands. The route to this incredible display of volcanic force took us down into the gorge, across the river that runs through it, and then up the opposite side. The road is not particularly marked well, but there are multiple paths heading in the right direction though not incredibly reassuring to one who doesn’t know the area. Finally, in the far distance, we could see the mound of volcanic sand that was ejected from Ol’ Doinyo Lengai hundreds of thousands of years ago and is slowly moving across the plain traveling some 3-5 meters a year blown in one direction by the wind. The miraculous thing is that the sand stays together due to its magnetization and, therefore, doesn’t lose much, if any, of the pile along the way. It’s a sacred site to the Maasai and many were there when we arrived.
After leaving Shifting Sands, we traveled by way of a small, out of the way road that bypasses the main road with the benefit being that you miss the horribly wash boarded section of gravel with vehicles passing the other direction at high speed and the risk of shattering your windshield like we did last year. This road, if you can call it that, as it is more of a trail, travels on the far side of the gorge for some distance until it peters out at the point where you meet the main road again. We eventually arrived at Naabi Gate in time for lunch, but before getting there, we were able to appreciate the huge number of wildebeest that were aggregating around the gate and on the other side. They were as far as you could see in all directions and pretty much everywhere.
After eating lunch, we officially entered the park and, within minutes, found a pride of lions that were spread out in several groups. They had obviously been feeding on the wildebeest herds that existed nearby. There was also a mating pair of lions that were a short distance away, though they didn’t seem to be in the mood given the heat, or either they were a bit shy as there were several vehicles sitting with us hoping for a show. As I’ve mentioned in the past about lions who are mating, they do so every 30 minutes for about 48 hours and each mating is literally seconds. The persistent mating for 48 hours is to ensure that the female is impregnated as the male’s penis is very short requiring the frequent copulation to achieve the desired outcome. I can allude to the many funny comments that I’ve heard along the way when encountering a mating pair of lions, though the best were from Kelley Humbert and Laura Mainardi when we came upon a male mating sequentially with three females in his group.
Shortly after leaving the lions, we stumbled upon a cheetah with a fresh wildebeest calf kill very close to the roadside. Cheetahs are unable to take down a full-grown wildebeest on their own, though they are quite capable of managing a calf along with their normal diet of the smaller antelopes – Thompson, Grants, and impala. We left the cheetah to enjoy its meal on its own and slowly made our way in the direction of our camp, about an hour away. We encountered some rain which necessitated putting our top down and it seemed that every time we put it back up, it would rain again for a short spurt. We eventually made it to camp just before sunset so there wasn’t any difficulty in everyone knowing where we were.
I’ve stayed at this camp many times before and it is very comfortable. We were met with warm washcloths to clean all the dirt off we’d accumulated throughout the day and fresh mango juice to quench our thirst. It turned out that in addition to a single couple staying there, we were the only others in camp for the evening. The camp has fourteen tents in total, but given it’s the low season, there are far fewer traveling now. The meals at the camp are typically buffet, but given the small number of guests, it was going to be ala carte tonight, so we chose from the menu what each of us wanted as well as when we were going to meet back for dinner. Hot showers were available as well which I believe all of us took advantage of before dinner. There were zebra and Cape buffalo roaming around in front of camp and as the night went on, you could hear hyena in the distance. It was decided at dinner that we would be heading out before breakfast for a pre-dawn departure for a full day of game viewing. Animals are most active in the morning and the evening, so getting on the road early is always a plus.