I was raised on David Attenborough documentaries, with Sunday nights spent watching the television, ogling over creatures I never imagined I’d see in the flesh. I didn’t spend my childhood thinking I’d ever travel or see some of the things I’ve seen, but as an adult I’ve had the privilege and excitement of some incredible wildlife exposure. The African Plains in the Serengeti National Park has always been a regular backdrop to these BBC programmes, and last February at the age of 35, I found myself bouncing up and down in the back of a safari jeep, sending a cloud of dust behind us as we went in search of Africa’s animals in that exact location.
Initially there was a dearth of vegetation but it wasn’t long before we came across a male lion who was just chilling out next to some abandoned man-made structure. He seemed a million miles from anywhere, but in the late afternoon, he just sat there, ignoring the presence of the couple of jeeps that had stopped to look at him. He had a few scars on his face and his mane was pale, and he barely moved. When we pressed on deeper into the park, we found a lioness asleep on top of a rock. Clearly hunting was not on any of their minds at this time of the day. As we continued, small pockets of acacia trees appeared and dotted in random places were rocky outcrops which broke up the otherwise vast expanse of the plains. In the far distance, hills were on the horizon, and they grew closer as we continued on the road in search of wildlife.
These rocky outcrops with their trees were potential wildlife hot spots, but with the coverage of the vegetation, spotting anything there was difficult. Luckily our driver guide was an expert at spotting things that our naive eyes couldn’t see. It also helped that we’d occasionally come across another jeep that was parked up which would allude to an animal’s presence, so when the word went out that there was a leopard in a tree on top of one of the rock piles, I was beside myself, straining my eyes to see it through the vegetation. I was grateful that my camera had a decent zoom on it, as this was pretty much the only way to spot it aside from binoculars. If I hadn’t been told it was there to know where to look, I’d have never spotted it on my own. The camouflage was incredible.
As we continued on our safari, the acacia trees grew taller. At one large singular tree we found a few jeeps parked up near its base, and we were quick to learn there was a lioness up in the branches. As we once more strained to see it through the foliage, we became suddenly aware of another couple of lions approaching from the other side of the jeep. As we watched, the numbers of jeeps grew and as the lioness in the tree climbed down to join her pride, I experienced my first annoyance about the management of safaris in this popular park. As the lioness walked on our right, and her pride walked on our left, the drivers of the jeeps ahead of us were so intent on their clients getting the ultimate view that they actively moved and blocked the path that the lioness was taking. She stopped to re-evaluate, her chosen path suddenly gone and the pride found themselves divided by several jeeps that kept jostling among themselves for a better view. We hung back where we were and I was grateful our driver was more respectful. Eventually, the lioness walked in front of the melee and joined the others.
The bulk of the jeeps drove off shortly after, leaving just our two jeeps behind. We stayed where we were, watching the social interactions from a distance. Suddenly my attention was drawn to a figure moving through the long grass towards us and I realised it was another lioness. She stood on a little mound right by my window and as I shamelessly took a selfie through the window, a juvenile appeared behind her, shortly followed by another one. Although the lioness left, these two older cubs hung around by us for quite some time, before the pride gradually joined together and began to move away. For a first safari in the Serengeti, it had been a magical start.
The cloud looked a little ominous as we headed towards our accommodation for the night. We had to pop into one of the local offices for me to pick up my ticket for an add-on that I’d booked onto the following morning. The office building had a bar and small shop attached to it, but wandering around the site were lots of little rock hyraxes, a peculiar looking creature that live in large groups. They ran fast making them difficult to photograph as they popped up and around rocks and logs. We didn’t have far to drive from here to where we’d be spending the night, and as we watched the sky grow dark and rain move across in the distance, we pulled up and unloaded our stuff. As someone who usually travels independently, I’m used to being responsible for the choices of where I stay, but probably because it was an organised tour, I either hadn’t bothered to read the itinerary or hadn’t really understood it if I had, but we found ourselves at an open campsite, our tents already pitched and waiting for us. I have no idea where this campsite was in the grand scheme of things, but here we were completely unfenced in the Serengeti, and at our briefing we were informed that there was no guard and nobody would be patrolling for wildlife through the night. For all intents and purposes, we were wild camping in Africa.
Another group had bagged the campfire, so we had a quieter dinner before watching the most stunning sunset that faded to a gorgeous purple sky as the rain clouds sweeped past us a little way off. We’d passed some kudu not too far away so knew at least that there were herbivores near by but what we found out was that hyenas patrolled the campsite at night, and as such there was a no-food-in-the-tent policy, and all food had to be securely locked in the jeeps. As darkness fell, we were given strict instructions not to wander further than the toilet block on the edge of camp, to always walk with another person and to have a head torch on at all times. In pitch black, as we readied for bed by visiting the toilet block, our headlamps picked up the sparkle of animals’ eyes not far away. On our walk back to the tents we discovered that a hyena had just run into the group by the campfire and stolen some of their dinner.
There was a nervous excitement as we nestled into our sleeping bags within our tents. In the darkness as we tried to sleep, the cries of hyenas reached our ears. I wouldn’t have knowingly chosen to camp in such a manner in Africa, but this was an experience like no other. I would sleep for a bit then get woken up by the sounds of something outside. Occasionally a hyena’s cackling laugh would pierce the air, and I would lie there still before eventually dropping back to sleep again. When my alarm woke me the next morning it was still pitch black outside. I had paid extra for an add-on activity, but I was the only one in my group doing so, meaning against advice, I had to walk to the toilet block on my own to ready myself for the day ahead. The toilet block had a security gate meaning it was possible to lock yourself in the building should an errant animal follow you there, and I had to hover nearby with just my head torch for company, waiting for my ride to pick me up. I was joined by another person who was part of the other group and before long, the two of us were collected and driven off into the darkness for an activity I’d never done before.