The Serengeti National Park – Life and death on the dusty plains


For a great many people, visiting a zoo will be the only way they can experience wild animals.  The quality of zoos worldwide though vary greatly.  I don’t dispute the good conservation work that a lot of them support with the aid of the funds they receive from admissions and donations.  Not to mention the important work of conservation of species decimated my mans thoughtless actions on this planet we all call home.  Safari’s aren’t cheap, but a safari adventure should be top of everyones travel agendas and one of the top safari destinations is the mighty Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.

Serengeti National Park entrance

The official gate that marks the start of the Serengeti National Park and the end of the Ngorongoro Crater National Park

Stepping into a a tired and beaten up looking 4X4 with extendable roof, for once we are the ones in the cage while the animals are free to roam naturally without borders, fences or human intervention getting in the way of the great circle of life.

If we want to see wild animals this is really the only way to experience them.  Up close and sometimes all too personal on a game drive in the fabled Serengeti National Park.  Sometimes what you see will not be comfortable viewing but it is gritty and it is real.  Real life playing out before your eyes.

serengeti cheetah, serengeti plains

A lone cheeta surveying the savannah. Mindful of the next meal or of becoming one herself.

I was initially sceptical about what I would be able to witness.  My visit in September 2015 did not coincide with the great migration which was, at that time, in the Serengeti but 400 miles north of the southern border I would be exploring.  What would there be to see?  I was worrying for nothing;  the next 3 days would blow my mind both in scale and variety.

Naabi Hill – Gateway to the Serengeti

The Serengeti is vast; from crossing the border into the park (complete with Masai Warriors plying for tourist dollars for their photos) it was a full half hour before the visitor centre came into view and proper exploration could start.

Serengeti welcome centre, Naabi Hill Serengeti

A panoramic view over the surrounding plains from the official welcome centre on Naabi Hill.

The drivers and guides, no matter who you go with, are top notch.  They have to be with the competition around, but animal sightings are shared between guides using radios so that everyone in the vicinity has an opportunity to witness something amazing.  Not to mention the odd ‘Tanzanian Back Rub’ as word of an animal kill comes over the radio and your driver sends the vehicle hurtling around the seriously bumpy tracks that criss cross the plains to get there in time.

serengeti lion cub

A dozing lion cub isn’t too happy as we trundle by.

Our guide first asked us a question.  How many lions would we see in 2 days in the park.  Lions are one of the biggest draws, for obvious reasons, but it’s the far more elusive animals that are sought after by the guides.  Cheetah sightings are rare but they do happen. As for how many lions we actually saw, I’ll keep you waiting a bit longer.  How many do you think we would see in 2 days?   One person in our group suggested 1 or 2, another said 5 would be fantastic.

serengeti lioness, sleeping lion

Just inside the main gate, trees provide shelter for lions to relax and get out of the mid day sun.

Trundling along the track that passes for the main route in and out of the southern eastern border of the park the van came to an abrupt stop.  So abrupt that from my observational standing position above the driver, I thought I was going to be flung out over the windscreen as some sort of sacrificial mascot for the group.

It reversed a few meters until a lion came into view.  Panting breathlessly in the heat of the late morning sun to cool himself while sitting under a tree that resembled more an unkept bush but it was the only shade in the parched plains for the next couple of miles from what we could see.

Our first lion sighting.  And he was so damn close.  And so big.  So close in fact we thought it best to close the windows in the vehicle just in case he saw one of us as an entree to the main meal his significant other was, no doubt, hunting down somewhere else in the park.

Serengeti lion

The heat of the mid day sun keeps this lion from moving, thankfully for us.

Leaving our panting lion behind in peace our driver and guide decided it was time to get off the beaten track as it were.  And this track was plenty beaten anyway.  Most other tracks in the park are the same.  Not noticeable roads (there’s no tarmac here) it’s just a trail of flattened grass or mud leading off into the distance;  most cunningly disguising pot holes the size of the moon.

Nothing goes to waste out here. Any animal carcasses are soon picked clean.

Or at least that how it felt when you are a prisoner in the back row that are first flung skywards until skulls say hello the roof then the top most luggage from the boot would make an entrance disguised as a baggage avalanche.  It doesn’t read too well does it but it was great fun and the cause of more than a few giggles.

 

Tracks criss-cross the plains in a seemingly unending maze of patterns that appear to go nowhere.  The drivers know this place like their own home towns.  Of course, there are the usual favourite animal hangouts.

serengeti cheeta family

A young cheetah mum and her 2 cubs take shade in a tree to rest.

Dotted throughout the never ending expanse of the Serengeti are ‘islands’ as it were, of rock called Kopjes that vegetation latches on to grow creating the ideal cover for sheltering animals such as lions, cheetahs, leopards etc and their growing families.

Serengeti Kopjes, Serengeti Plains

A small Kopjes in the middle of the Serengeti Plains.  A truckload of tourists are getting an up close view of a lion shading under the trees.

Looking at some nature programmes on TV you would think that the hunting never ends but the pace of life out here is slow.  Lions will generally avoid anything energetic for 18-20 hours out of a 24 hour day.

serengeti elephants crossing

Everything comes to a halt when some elephants decide to cross our dirt track.

Cheetahs likewise.  The payoff for the energy expended in the stifling midday sun just isn’t worth it.  Generally, the most activity you will see from late morning to mid afternoon will be other game vehicles crossing the plains on their own tracks far off into the distance.

The distances are so great you never really feel overwhelmed by the amount of people that are around here until word of a big kill or chase comes over the radio and vehicles launch themselves to the site like mosquitoes on a sunbathing tourist.

There are some mainstay stops that everyone will, at some point get to, such as watching the sun set over the wallowing, seriously stinky hippos in the hippo pool but no 2 safaris are identical.  They are driven by what the animals are doing.  There is no parading of anyone just for the tourists like in some zoos.  Here our timetable fits in with the animals.  Out here animals reign and that’s exactly the way it should be.

Serengeti hippo pool sunset

The hippo pool at sunset thankfully without the smell.

Pulling into our accommodation for the night just before sunset a giraffe popped his head round the next bush to say hello.

serengeti giraffe

A friendly welcome from the locals just after we pull into our camp on the first evening.

Tents with a view

There was no 5* luxury lodge for us.  We were camping for 2 nights in the middle of the Serengeti with no fences between us and the wild animals.  Our only form of defence was to the north, a rocky mound overgrown in vegetation and littered with poisonous snakes.  None of us dared venture up there seeing as the nearest anti-venom was a good few hours away.

Our electric starved communal building and toilet blocks had locks on them to stop the animals getting a peek or running off with tomorrows dinner.

We were under strict instructions not to leave rubbish or open containers of food such as crisps, chocolate bars or peanut butter lying around.  The hyenas round here have become masters at getting the leftovers and the last thing you want to be staring at in the middle of the night is a pissed off hyena.

Serengeti camp panorama

The aftermath of an overnight hyena visit in camp.

Dinner by torchlight surrounded by wild animal calls and poisonous reptiles was probably more romantic than most of us had envisaged before embarking on this wild adventure but this is the Serengeti.  It is wild, it is free, and this is absolutely the only way to experience it.  Up close and very personal out in the open with the wild animal calls, not cooped up in some overpriced lodge with pool, sauna and masseuse on hand.

There is no other place quite like the Serengeti.  Wild, untamed, never ending but always captivating.  Each adventure will be unique.  Each visitor will walk away with their own indelible memories etched in their minds.

A young mum doing her best for her family

For our group that memory was the small cheetah family unit feeding on a freshly caught carcass of a thomson’s gazelle just 6 feet from our vehicle.  They were unfazed by us showing up and allowed us to watch them feed for 15 minutes.  That was just one unforgettable moment that this stunning destination offered amongst so many others.

Serengeti cheetahs feeding, cheeta family

We arrive just after the young mum has taken down a small Thomsons Gazelle to feed her two cubs.

serengeti thomasons gazelle carcass

The death of this young Thomson’s Gazelle provides life to the Cheetah family.

I have so many precious memories from those 3 short days but one of the most surreal moments is a memory from 2am on our second night when an opportunistic hyena decided to raid our bins for supplies, got his head wedged in said bin and rolled into the side of my tent.

That’s not something you experience every day.  There are no scripts out here.  The animals will go about their business while allowing us visitors the honour of watching from a short distance.  The Serengeti is vast but you will be accompanied at all times by expert guides who want you to experience the best it has to offer.  Even on a quiet day that will be beyond what you ever thought possible.   When you are ready to have your mind blown, the Serengeti will be waiting for you.

As for the lion count.   Did your guess get close to the 102 we saw?

Only in the Serengeti!

Serengeti hot air ballon

A trail leads past a well traveled watering hole early in the morning on my hot air ballon flight (and thats a story for another time).

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