Friday, October 20 – It’s off to the Serengeti, take two…

Kelly’s sunrise while running

It had been a very late night for me as the Phillies, who were playing in the National League Championship Series against the Diamondbacks, were now in Arizona and with the time difference, the game would start at 11 pm EAT. There were high hopes given that the Phillies had taken the first two home games in this best of seven series that would determine if they would be going back to the World Series in consecutive years. Obviously, there were very high hopes given the first two games, but as we all know, anything can happen. In addition to the listening (I’m unable to stream the video here) to the game, I was working on posting a blog as I would have no internet at our camp for the weekend.

The view of Oldupai Gorge

Vitalis, who had been our amazing guide on the first trip three weeks ago, was again going to be driving us to the Serengeti with virtually the same schedule as before, at least for today. We had planned to leave at 8 am and Turtle, with Vitalis driving, arrived early, which is always a good thing as it is typically the opposite here no matter how hard we try. We still had to buy some provisions and top off our fuel for the weekend, but that would be very quick. The little fuel station just at the junction has lots of take-out breakfast items along with the water we would need for the Serengeti. The “bites” as they are often referred to here were delicious, and one in particular was more than worthy of creating an entire food truck for in Philly for it was that amazing. It was essentially a rolled chapati with an incredibly tasty beef and onion mixture that just hit the spot. There were samosas, vitumbua (incredibly tasty, but greasy rice cakes), doughy donuts, and several other snacks to purchase, but those chapati were to die for and definitely the hit of the morning.

Professor Masaki and the group (he is holding an oldupai leaf)

Having topped off the tank, purchased the water and breakfast snacks, it was now time for us to depart town and head for the Ngorongoro Conservation Area gate to begin our weekend journey. There were so many vehicles at the gate that I was glad we came early last weekend when we were going to the crater. Thankfully, though, the wait was not long, and we were soon on our way up my favorite road to the crater rim. While nearly everyone else was stopped at the overlook, we blew past since we had been there less than a week earlier and continued around the rim and past the descent road, now on our way to the Serengeti. But first, there was our stop at Oldupai Gorge and Shifting Sands.

The crescent leading face of Shifting Sands
Kelly and Caroline at Shifting Sands

I could never get enough of Oldupai, which is good as I’m there four times a year with the residents. We met with Professor Masaki, my good friend, who gave the residents his orientation talk about the gorge and the many layers as well as the important work that’s been done there by Louis and Mary Leakey and so many others. The museum, which was new about six years ago, is an amazing demonstration of just how important this site is to our knowledge of human evolution and the various lines of our ancestors, some more successful than others. That the Leakeys had spent 28 years here before finding their very first hominin (Zinjanthropus, or Paranthropus boisei – also known as Nutcracker Man) is a true expression of dedication and determination. Though Louis died in 1971, Mary continued her work at Oldupai for over a total of 50 years and their camp is now a living museum. The footprints at nearby Laetoli that were discovered by her team in 1978 was one of the last great finds for this amazing paleontologist whose contributions to science were profound. The footprints, which were made by several Australopithecus afarensis individuals 3.7 million years ago remain as one of the earliest demonstrations of bipedal, or upright, gait. To say that the region surrounding Oldupai is the single most important anthropological site in the world would be an understatement. (For more information on the Ngorongoro-Lengai UNESCO Global Geopark:

The markers in the distance designate the movement each year

After finishing at the museum, we now drove back in time as we descended into the gorge and through its many layers, before heading up the other side on our way to Shifting Sands, another remarkable site of a much different nature. Shifting Sands is a unique geologic feature that was created several thousand years ago following a large eruption of Ol Doinyo Lengai, known as the Mountain of God to the Maasai and is considered sacred. It remains an active volcano with the most recent volcanic activity earlier this year and the last eruption just several years ago. Shifting Sands is a large dune that is comprised of black ash that is magnetized and slowly being blown west across the plains by around 15 meters per year. The dune, which is about 5 meters high and many more meters in diameter, has a crescent shaped leading edge that slowly engulfs any vegetation in its path. As the black sand is magnetic, it is never blown away by the wind and the trailing edge remains sharp as any stragglers are quickly attracted back to the main group. As Ol Doinyo Lengai is sacred to the Maasai, so is Shifting Sands.

A giraffe among the whistling acacia

From Shifting Sands, our route takes us mostly cross country on the most minimalist of trails through regions that are shared by the Maasai herds of cattle, goats, and sheep, and the herds of Thompson and Grant’s gazelles, though in March, during the migration, this region is completely filled with the leading wildebeest herds and the big cats that come out to take advantage. This route is wonderful as it completely bypasses the heavily traveled main road to the Serengeti with its rocks and dust. We intersect this road just before crossing the border into the park but miss the majority of it which is quite preferred in my mind.

In KiMaa of the Maasai, “Serenget” means “endless plains.”
A small Kopjes entering the Serengeti

At Naabi Gate, the administrative entrance to the park, we stopped for lunch, though avoided the massively crowded lunch area with its tables and benches, instead choosing to eat standing at our vehicle. We were parked at the old gate that was in use until just months ago and walked into the snack shop that is no longer frequented by the tourists given the location of the new gate. Cold Coke Zero hit the spot for me and was a welcome refreshment given all the dust and heat that we’ve been driving through all morning.

It was now time to pop the top on Turtle and begin our afternoon game drive as we entered the Serengeti and on our way to our camp. There were many large herds of wildebeest and zebra the closer we got to the central region, and it was clear that the head of the migration was here rather than to the north. These huge herds were wonderful to see, though a bit unusual at this time of year when the expectation would be that they had crossed the Mara River to the north and were on their way to Kenya. Though I’m sure that variations such as this are not that unusual, one can’t help but think about climate change and where things are heading in this regard. It had been raining over the last weeks and the Central Serengeti was much greener than we had expected for this time of year.

A mating pair of lions

Everything was new, of course, for the residents, none of whom had ever seen the immensity that is the Serengeti, and we took our time once we found objects of interest. At one point, we came upon several vehicles whose occupants were gazing into a grassy area with a tree nearby that looked as though it would have been perfect for a leopard. When we asked the clients in the vehicle next to ours what they were looking at, they replied that they had seen a leopard earlier that had run into the grass with a Thompson gazelle but hadn’t seen it surface since. When we asked how long they had been waiting for it to show itself, we were a bit shocked when they replied that they had been there since noon, and it was now 3 pm! That would be true dedication towards finding a leopard and, though we did watch with them for about 15 minutes or so, it was clear that none of us was interested in waiting around for something that we hadn’t seen to begin with. Thankfully, we would get to see several more leopards before the weekend was over.

A rufous-crowned roller

At one point, we came across a pair of lions which is usually a tell-tale sign that it’s a couple that has left the pride to mate. This is a rather protracted affair in which the couple spend anywhere from 2 to 5 days mating every 30 minutes like clockwork which is intended to ensure that the female is impregnated. The reason this is necessary has to do with the fact that the male lion’s penis is extremely short making it far less likely that a single mating will end in success. The actual mating may take only a matter of seconds and having witnessed this event on numerous occasions, I can assure you that this is, in fact, the amount of time it takes. Obviously, the protocol they’ve developed has been successful and has managed to overcome any shortcomings (full pun intended) given the number of lions and lion prides that currently exist in the Serengeti and the surrounding regions. Interestingly, at one point during their activities, the male lion became extremely protective and a bit agitated, charging one of the other vehicles with a loud roar that was not easily misunderstood. It was quite clear that he only intended it to be a veiled threat for there was very little for anyone to worry about.

Lions relaxing at one of the Kopjes
Cubs checking out the birds in the tree above

We continued in the direction of our camp, which was located in an area where there lots of herds of wildebeest and zebra, and eventually arrived to camp just after sunset. This was the same camp that I stayed in several weeks ago and it was equally hospitable as it was previously. The camp sits on the hillside and each tent is on an elevated wooden platform with a balcony to sit on and watch the wildlife. The two main tents are wonderfully appointed with comfortable chairs and couches and large dining tables for our meals. Each of our tents were incredibly comfortable with sitting chairs and a lovely bathroom area with two sinks, a shower, and a toilet.

We had enough time to take showers before dinner, and even enough time for a drink after the hot and dusty day that we’d had. Dinner was, of course, amazing and they had vegetarian choices for Kelly that were equally tasty. After dinner, we all retired to our tents and watched the zebras collect within reach of our platform. In fact, as I sat in my tent and did some writing, I could swear that the zebra were practically ready to climb into bed with me. They are very loud eaters (no manners, I suspect) and continued to chomp as I drifted off to sleep. We were leaving at the crack of dawn, or actually beforehand, so it would be an early morning to rise. We would bring breakfast and lunch with us so we could explore as far as possible and were planning to see the Western Corridor of the Serengeti and the Grumeti River.

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