There are few places in the world that bring instantly to mind such iconic imagery as Serengeti National Park. Speak the word ‘Serengeti’ aloud in any place in the world and someone’s head will be filled with visions of an undulating, almost treeless expanse traversed by an array of exotic wildlife found in only a few places on the planet. The Masai word ‘Siringit’ means endless plains, an apt description for the Serengeti which covers 5,700 sq miles (14,763 sq km) and is contiguous with Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve. It is Tanzania’s most popular national park, in no small part due to the over one million wildebeest which migrate across the expansive grasslands. Though the wildebeest migration may be the Serengeti’s biggest drawcard, the park also boasts an incredible amount of wildlife, including lions, cheetahs, leopards, elephants, giraffes, and more than 200,000 zebras, just to name a few.
Nature lovers and photographers worldwide time their visit to Serengeti National Park with the annual wildebeest migration. It is a scene that we have all seen captured on film and video, but there is simply no comparison to actually seeing more than one million wildebeest crossing a vast expanse of treeless plains. Like a great moving sea, the wildebeest stretch across the southern section of the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Conservation Area during the rainy season between December and May when the wildebeest concentrate on the few remaining green areas. As these areas have few large rivers and streams, they dry out quickly forcing the wildebeest into large herds that migrate north and west in search of food. From about July to October, they graze in the Masai Mara before beginning south again in anticipation of the rains. Then, around February, the eons-old cycle continues as over 8,000 calves are born each day. At any stage, it is a sight so spectacular we simply cannot comprehend until our eyes attempt to take it all in.
Crossing into the Serengeti and over Naabi Hill, the earth fell away into an enormous plain stretching to the horizon through which a lone road traveled. Our first impressions of this famed national park were startling on account of its sheer vast and seemingly endless savanna. There were no trees or anything to be seen for that matter. It with just an ocean of grass split by a wide winding river that seemed to overflow its banks. That’s when we realized it was not a river at all; it was the wildebeests.
Stretching for as far as the eye could see, hundreds of thousands of wildebeests formed an incomprehensible ribbon of black across a sea of green grasses. The sight was so extraordinary, we could not believe our eyes. One after the next, a train of horned wildebeests poured across the road, linking with the vast moving herds that congregated together in untold numbers, feeding in plentiful grasses under the watchful eyes of hidden predators. Scattered amongst the herds were striped zebras and Thomson’s gazelles, both of which number several hundred thousand alone. To say the sight was extraordinary would be an understatement of truly African proportions.
The size of the annual wildebeest migration is only rivaled by the vastness of the Serengeti. For after ten minutes driving, the animals had all but disappeared and I was starting to wonder how long we would travel before spotting more wildlife. Then Baraka turned off the main road and followed another over a small crest where my question was answered in spectacular style. Stretching across the plains before us was a herd of 50+ elephants dotting the landscape with their unmistakable profiles. We shut off the vehicle and watched as these impressive creatures walked closer and closer. Monstrous, lumbering adults passed only a few feet away, ripping away high grasses with their trunks and stuffing their mouths. Juveniles played with one another, their big ears flopping in the wind as they wrestled together, eliciting the cheerful responses from us that only adorable baby animals can produce. And, through it all, our vehicle stood silent and motionless, seemingly unnoticed by the giant creatures that surrounded us while we gazed in wide-eyed appreciation and our cameras fired away.
From one unforgettable sight to the next, we traveled down the dusty dirt road leaving the elephants behind to continue their grazing while we scanned the Serengeti for more wildlife. The beauty of these parks is that the animals are so abundant, there is hardly a few minutes that go by without seeing something. Vervet monkeys hop through the trees while groups of sinister-looking baboons crowd the roadside. Small carnivores, like jackals and foxes, pop their heads out from roadside burrows. Hoofed animals, such as impalas, bush duikers, wildebeest, giraffes, and zebras, are too numerous to count. Beautiful birds dot the landscape, including lilac-breasted rollers, flamingos, secretary birds, kori bustards, grey-crowned cranes, maribou storks, martial eagles, and vultures. The abundance and variety is simply astonishing, but there are a few animals which stand apart from the masses, grabbing your attention at any moment they appear.
“Lions… in a tree!” My camera was firing before the vehicle could come to a stop. We had seen several lions already, but such a fantastic animal is always a welcome sight, especially when it is two females and their cubs perched in the branches of a lone acacia. Escaping the midday heat, the lions lazed in the crooks and branches, then one by one, they climbed down and together walked right past our vehicle and continued down the road. We had only been in the Serengeti a few hours, but we were off to a very promising start.
A half mile down the road we saw about a dozen safari vehicles gathered together in one spot. It was the most people we had seen since our safari began and immediately we knew it was something special. Up until that point we had been seeing only the animals that the three of us could spot. But now that we were in the Serengeti, we were far from alone, even in the low season. The method used by Serengeti guides is to spot and then share the location with fellow guides, either by text messaging or on the radio. Needless to say, word travels fast and the vehicles come pouring in, jostling for position and fighting to get their clients the best view. We saw lions nearly get run over and animals trapped between hordes of onlookers. It is an unfortunate practice, both for wildlife and tourists, but sometimes it is the only way you might find a particularly elusive animal.
In this case, the animal being swarmed was probably the park’s most elusive- the leopard. While it lazed on the branch of a lone acacia tree, safari vehicles raced up and down the road from every direction. We were near the back of the pack, content with our distant view, but most of the drivers were not so patient. While others tried to leave, newly arrived vehicles fought for their coveted positions creating a ridiculous Serengeti traffic jam. Then, when things seemed like they could not get any crazier, a second leopard appeared in the high grass on the opposite side of the road. Even our guide became visibly excited, exclaiming how lucky we were to see two leopards together.
The leopard, on the other hand, was not so lucky with its path blocked by a fleet of safari vehicles. Emerging from the grass, the leopard cautiously stalked its way across the road and between the vehicles while the cameras fired in every direction. Before long, it had safely navigated the crossing and reached the tree where it climbed up to nuzzle its partner, much to our delight. It was only a brief moment and then it returned to a spot on the roadside next to the line of vehicles where everyone clambered for a view. The sighting of not one, but two elusive leopards would be a highlight for us all, though you had to wonder at what expense to the animal. Three days later, we would find the leopard pair in the same spot, but with road rutted and muddy from the near-constant viewing traffic. The leopards had obviously been the envy of everybody in the park and I shuttered to think what this scene would be like during peak season.
We spent the next day exploring the Serengeti, searching out the few animals we had still not seen. The hippopotamus had not been checked off the list, but Baraka assured us that would not be a problem. Our first stop was a beautiful lake filled with flamingos and surrounded by buffaloes. A lone acacia tree stood near the lake reflected in its still waters, a scene of simplistic beauty typical of the African savanna. Time and time again, we remarked how beautiful these parks were, even without the wildlife for which so many visitors come. I would travel all the way to Tanzania just to photograph its picturesque landscapes; though when an exotic animal steps into the frame to accentuate the shot, I am reminded why so many other people come.
During the first days of our safari we were thrilled just to see an animal. Our first giraffe was so exciting that we snapped countless pictures, even though it was too distant for a good photo. A couple of days later we had seen so many giraffes that we rarely stopped anymore. The real thrills of the safari come not just from spotting wildlife, but by observing their behaviors. So when we spotted three giraffes in the midst of battle, we shut off the vehicle and settled in for the show. As if in an awkward dance, the three giraffes crowded against one another positioning themselves for the next move. Then one of their heads would drop and in a seemingly slow-motion Matrix-like move, their long neck would swing like a golf club and connect with the other giraffe. Though its effects were not obvious to us, clearly there was a great amount of force behind each blow. Then, the giraffes would continue their dance until the next neck came swinging in, sometimes finding its target and others missing altogether. Their fight was a bizarre spectacle to watch and it was difficult to see who the winner would be, but it was just this type of unusual behavior that made each day in the Serengeti an unforgettable experience.
With such a vast area to cover, one cannot expect to see all the Serengeti has to offer. The guides can communicate the location of animals, but much of what you find is based on luck. Twice we stumbled upon lions feeding, but someone else might have seen them make the kill. Stories of incredible encounters are as common as the animals that fill the plains. One can only hope to be at the right place and time to see something truly extraordinary happen.
Sometimes the best moments can come from the most simple of actions. We will always remember the baby elephant who flapped his ears wildly, trumpeted and made a mock charge; or when the lion took a break from feeding to lie in the shade of our vehicle; and the baby baboon who jumped on our hood and pressed his little face against the glass of our windshield. But the most satisfying moment for myself was born only out of patience, a key component for wildlife viewing. It could not have been more simple or mundane. All we wanted was the leopard to sit up.
For almost an hour, we watched as it lie sprawled out on a log under the blazing sun barely moving an inch. With an unobstructed view and a pretty backdrop of acacia trees, it would be the best view we had of a leopard yet; if only it would sit up. We waited, waited, and waited, sure that at any moment the scorching sun would force him into the shade of a nearby tree. The scene was perfectly framed and already I had taken countless photos at the sight of a twitching tail or moving head. If only the leopard would raise himself and show off its unmistakable profile, the photo would be perfect. But the minutes continued to pass without even a hint of action and several times we considered just moving on. But then it happened. Slowly, the leopard drew its paws beneath its belly and in slow motion it raised its body into a seated position. All one could hear was the inhalation of human breaths and the rapid fire snap of camera shutters. It only lasted a few seconds before the leopard disappeared off the log and into the high grass below; but that one simple action was enough to fill my heart with joy.
Ironically, after so many unforgettable encounters with African wildlife, the happiest moment of my safari would not occur in the endless plains of the Serengeti, but in the restaurant of the Serengeti Sopa Lodge. For the heart of Africa exists not in its exotic wildlife, but in the people that make these places so special. They were there each and every day, greeting us at the hotels with wet towels to clean the dust from our faces and cold drinks to quench our thirst. They carried the bags to our rooms and served us drinks at the bar. They waited on us at the restaurant and went out of their way to provide for our every need. They were the staff of fancy hotels frequented by high-paying customers who expect to enjoy Western standards of service in remote corners of the developing world. And they were the most under-appreciated part of the Serengeti.
We watched each day as these employees were ignored, disrespected, and mistreated by the same people they worked so hard to serve. This was their home and we were but guests in their country, yet arrogant and intolerant visitors treated them like servants and they endured it with smiles and apologies. We were appalled by the lack of respect that some people showed and in stark contrast, we treated them as friends. We asked them their names and where they were from and in just that small gesture we were offered a small window into their world. We laughed with them, joked with them, and discovered beautiful smiles and wonderful personalities that were hidden beneath the strict composure of 4 star service. Our treatment of them was far from exemplary or exceptional. We simply showed them the same kindness and respect that every one of us deserves. But our small gestures of friendship and equality brought forth a tidal wave of emotions that followed us everywhere into the hotel. Faces would light up upon our arrival and I could hardly leave for a few minutes without some inquiring where I had gone. Bartenders and waiters expressed their sincere gratitude and shared how much they hoped we would come again. We only spent two nights at the hotel, but when the time came for our departure, it felt as if we were saying goodbye to lifelong friends.
We gathered for a photo while baffled tourists looked on from breakfast tables, probably wondering who we were and what the fuss was all about. For as we hugged our new friends and bid them farewell, the outpouring of emotion seemed to fill the hotel. Even the hotel managers looked on with curiosity and wonder as we exchanged emails and embraced the employees. They struggled to attend to their tables and say their goodbyes, several of them abandoning trays full of food and drinks so they could get another hug. And when I saw three grown men with tears welling up in their eyes, I struggled to contain my own emotions. Finally, I had found the Africa of my dreams, not in the endless plains of the Serengeti or its exotic wildlife, but in the wonderful people that call this place home.