MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the tag “Serengeti”

Wildlife of Tanzania

From the open-spaces of the African Plains, to the slopes of the continent’s highest mountain, I saw an incredible array of wildlife in Tanzania. While the Serengeti is probably well known to a lot of people, a regular backdrop of wildlife documentaries, there is more to Tanzania than just this national park, although it offered me so much in terms of incredible sightings. Across three national parks (Kilimanjaro, Lake Manyara and Serengeti) as well as one conservation area (Ngorongoro), I had an incredible two weeks in a country that I found to be full of some very friendly and welcoming people. It was my second time in the African continent and this trip did not disappoint. From Africa’s Big Five to some of its smallest creatures, I was ecstatic with all that I saw.

 

MAMMALS

Warthogs

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP, Serengeti NP

 

Olive Baboon

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP

 

Manyara (Blue) Monkey

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP

 

(Hilgert’s) Vervet Monkey

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP

 

Common Impala

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP, Serengeti NP, Ngorongoro Conservation Area

 

Wildebeest

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP, Serengeti NP, Ngorongoro Conservation Area

 

African Buffalo

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP, Ngorongoro Conservation Area

 

Plains Zebra

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP, Serengeti NP, Ngorongoro Conservation Area

 

Giraffe

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP, Serengeti NP, Ngorongoro Conservation Area

 

Bushbuck

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP

 

African Savannah Elephant

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP, Serengeti NP, Ngorongoro Conservation Area

 

Black Rhino

Sightings: Ngorongoro Conservation Area

 

Southern Grant’s Gazelle

Sightings: Ngorongoro Conservation Area

 

Thomsons Gazelle

Sightings: Serengeti NP, Ngorongoro Conservation Area

 

Eland

Sightings: Serengeti NP, Ngorongoro Conservation Area

 

Topi

Sightings: Serengeti NP

 

African Lion

Sightings: Serengeti NP, Ngorongoro Conservation Area

 

Leopard

Sightings: Serengeti NP

 

Rock Hyrax

Sightings: Serengeti NP

 

Cheetah

Sightings: Serengeti NP

 

Hyena

Sightings: Serengeti NP, Ngorongoro Conservation Area

 

Dik Dik

Sightings: Serengeti NP

 

Hippo

Sightings: Serengeti NP, Ngorongoro Conservation Area

 

Mongoose

Sightings: Serengeti NP

 

Rat

Sightings: Arusha, Serengeti NP

 

Serval Cat

Sightings: Serengeti NP, Ngorongoro Conservation Area

 

Golden Jackal

Sightings: Ngorongoro Conservation Area

 

BIRDS

Streaky Seedeater

Sightings: Moorland zone of Kilimanjaro’s slopes

 

White-necked Raven

Sightings: Moorland zone of Kilimanjaro’s slopes

 

Alpine Chat

Sightings: Moorland zone of Kilimanjaro’s slopes

 

Dusky Turtle Doves

Sighting: Alpine zone of Kilimanjaro’s slopes

 

Southern Ground Hornbill

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP

 

Saddle Billed Stork

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP

 

Grey Heron

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP

 

African Jacana

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP

 

African Spoonbill

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP

 

Cattle Egret

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP

 

African Swamphen

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP

 

Hadada Ibis

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP

 

Squacco Heron

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP

 

Von Der Decken’s Hornbill

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP

 

Helmeted Guinea Fowl

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP

 

Ring-necked Dove

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP

 

Flamingo

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP, Ngorongoro Conservation Area

 

African Fish Eagle

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP

 

Egyptian Goose

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP

 

African Pied Kingfisher

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP

 

Common Sandpiper

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP, Serengeti NP

 

Grey Crowned Crane

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP, Ngorongoro Conservation Area

 

Speckled Mousebird

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP, Ngorongoro Conservation Area

 

Tawny Eagle

Sightings: Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Serengeti NP

 

Marabou Stork

Sightings: Ngorongoro Conservation Area

 

Ostrich

Sightings: Serengeti NP, Ngorongoro Conservation Area

 

Caped Wheatear

Sightings: Serengeti NP

 

Superb Starling

Sightings: Serengeti NP

 

Oxpecker

Sightings: Serengeti NP

 

Hooded Vulture

Sightings: Serengeti NP

 

Finch

Sightings: Serengeti NP

 

African Black-winged Stilt

Sightings: Serengeti NP

 

 

Shrike

Sightings: Serengeti NP

 

Red-winged Starling

Sightings: Ngorongoro Conservation Area

 

Abdim’s Stork

Sightings: Ngorongoro Conservation Area

 

 

REPTILES AND OTHERS

Long-tailed Admiral Butterfly

Sightings: Ngorongoro Conservation Area

 

Mwanza Flat-headed Agama Lizard

Sightings: Serengeti NP

Close Encounters

Although to this day, I have no idea where exactly our camp was within the great expanse of the Serengeti National Park, I knew that we had a long drive out of the park ahead of us. So although we were leaving this incredible spot behind, we would still effectively be on safari for another morning. The campsite had been in an area rich with acacia trees and with a backdrop of a mountain range, so animals aside, there was plenty to see as we sat in our jeep watching the world go by. We didn’t need to travel far to see antelope, including a dikdik, one of the smallest antelopes in the World. Our driver was great at spotting things that were well hidden, and he pointed out a mound just visible beyond some grass where a clan of mongoose sat astride. At first I thought they were meerkat, not realising at the time that they don’t exist that far north, so had got exceptionally excited only to be a little disappointed on realising that they weren’t.

 

We took a convoluted route through the nearby grasslands, finding ourselves at a muddy quagmire that we drove over before skirting around a nearby pool of water. Huddled at one end was a large congregation of hippos. The rest of my group had come here the day before when I was up in the hot air balloon, so I was grateful that the driver made the effort to take me there too. My companions didn’t seem to mind the second chance to watch them, as the melee of hippos farted and jostled for space, occasionally shoving another hippo out the way. Every now and again one would yawn or groan, displaying some impressively long and discoloured teeth, and this was the only evidence of their immense power, the bulk of their gargantuan bodies hidden by the murky waters below the surface.

 

When we came across a large troupe of mongoose nearby, I was more excited because not only were there some adorable babies running around, but they were just as fun to watch as meerkats. There were those on sentinel duty, standing up on their hindlegs and looking around, those digging around in the dirt, and those berating or herding the juveniles around. Whilst not as eye-catching as meerkats, there was just as much activity to watch as they ran around in groups.

 

As we continued, the landscape began to open up again, the trees thinning out and the land flattening somewhat off into the distance. A few mounds in the ground offered a platform for topi to stand tall on, and we passed them by, a few buffalo off in the distance. These were the first buffalo we’d seen since Lake Manyara National Park and even from far away, they looked chunky and formidable. At some point, the call came out that elephant were afoot and suddenly there they were, a family unit just milling around in the grassland. Among them we spotted a very small baby elephant that was just visible through the long grass. It was well protected by the adults, rarely being in full sight as the adults shielded it and herded it between them. It is hard to think about how much these creatures have been decimated by poaching, and I guess that made it all the more special to see them. At one point as they moved, a flock of birds stirred and flew through the herd, and it reminded me of nature documentaries I’d watched as a girl. It was one of those unbelievable ‘pinch-me’ moments.

 

Some distance away, we came across a parked jeep and stopped to see what they were looking at. There were a few patches of bare ground in between long grass and it took a moment to spot the object of their attention. The camouflage out here was incredible at times, and in the end, it was a muddy face that gave it away. Once we’d spotted one muddy lioness, we realised there was a whole pride of females and cubs here, most of them covered in mud. Barely visible there was a mud patch, which I’m not sure if they’d been playing in, scent-marking in or trying to drink out of. The cubs especially were brown from head to foot, and a pair of them chased each other joyfully through the undergrowth. They were completely unfazed by us, the adults rolling onto their backs and rubbing themselves down, younger cubs staying close to mum and the older cubs chasing each other. We sat in hushed glee watching them for a long time.

After a bit more driving we seemed to turn down what looked like it would be a dead end. We had been summoned here over the radio and on arrival we found ourselves to be one of about 10 jeep jostling for prime position under an acacia tree. We ended up hemmed in towards the back of the group, the odd jeep occasionally shuffling its position to try and regain the optimum viewing spot. These were the moments that irked me about the safari, the overcrowding and unwillingness to give some of the wildlife space. The object of everyone’s attention had vertical space though, as it lounged on a branch high up in the large acacia tree. I’m not sure if the presence of the vehicles was a noise nuisance or unwanted attention, but not long after we arrived the gorgeous leopard we’d been watching stood up on the branch. She turned and stretched, contemplating her surroundings as she moved down the branches, continuing to stretch as she lowered herself. Once on the fork of the trunk, she paused briefly, almost level with our eye line now, licking her lips as she looked beyond our vehicles. She was simply stunning, and as she turned to leap out of the tree, she flashed her beautiful spotted coat before she was swallowed up by the long grass. Immediately the jeeps leapt into action, those that were in a position to move tried to follow her, whilst those of us that couldn’t had to wait for the other jeeps to shift. She was quick to disappear from view though, and before long, the jeeps were backtracking onto the main road and gradually drifting off on their separate routes.

 

With the hills and mountains directly behind us, I knew we were heading out of the park now. In the distance a group of giraffes wandered among the tall trees that we were leaving behind. Out of nowhere we arrived at a large expanse of water. Judging by the colour of the ground at the water’s edge, I suspect it was a salt marsh rather than freshwater, and as such it was almost deserted. A few wading birds wandered along the shoreline, and a little way into the water, a buffalo skull poked above the water line. With little to see we pushed on, returning to open grassland where we spotted a group of hyena. They were trotting through the undergrowth, looking initially like they were concentrating hard, but once we were passed them, they stopped and stared at us. There were no other animals visible, so whatever they were hunting was out of sight to us.

 

There was a long drive back to the entrance gate and offices of the park where there was a picnic site for us to enjoy another delicious meal on. There were a few birds flitting around, including the gloriously colourful superb starling that were hopping around the place. I even spotted a rat, which probably shouldn’t have been surprising with the amount of people eating here. The glorious blue of the starling though was the main distraction, the sunlight breaking through the foliage and causing it to shimmer. I spent most of my time there trying to capture it in a photograph.

 

Our campsite for the night was high on the ridge of the Ngorongoro crater, and even from here there was still a large expanse of African Plains to cross before the road was to cut back up. The wildlife grew sparser as we travelled and there was no point in stopping until suddenly a serval cat appeared. I’d briefly glimpsed one in the headlights on the drive to the hot air balloon the day before but it was great to see it in the daytime, even if it was brief. When the flat Plains gave way to a rise in altitude, we found ourselves back among the giraffes, these seemingly gentle giants roaming peacefully among the taller foliage. This time round we didn’t stay with them for long, pushing on towards Ngorongoro.

 

The road pushed higher, skirting round the Maasai village as it climbed eventually onto the crater rim. We stopped at a lookout where we could see not just the road that we’d be taking the next day, but almost all of the crater floor. About a third of it looked to be made up of a large lake and it didn’t seem possible that there was much wildlife down there. It didn’t feel like we were that high up, but the whole thing was an optical illusion as we would discover when we headed down on to the crater floor the next morning. Along the ridge we arrived at our campsite just before 4pm. We were the only ones there to begin with but as the hours went by more people arrived. This was one of a few campsites dotted along the crater rim, and being so high up, I didn’t really think we had much to worry about in terms of wildlife. With a few hours of daylight left, I took a walk around the margins of the camp, studying the flowers and berries, repetitively coming across signs stating ‘Danger, do not go beyond this point’. Behind them, the bush was thick, and I imagined that it could hide all sorts of creatures, not to mention that the slope of the crater lay hidden among it also.

 

The skull and leg bone propped outside of the food hall was the clue to what we had to contend with in the night. As we ate our dinner, we were given a briefing on camp safety. It was similar to the nights before in the Serengeti: go to the toilet in twos, remain in your tent, and do not engage the wildlife. As darkness fell there was again a nervous excitement as we wondered what the night would bring. It started off quiet enough and we got to sleep fine, but both myself and my tent companion woke at some point to the sound of munching and grass ripping, not far from us. Occasionally there were footsteps, and the munching sounds would grow quieter or louder. Our tents were set up in 3 rows, and we tried to guess how close they were as they moved around. At one point, the noise was directly behind me, just through the fabric of the tent, the loud ripping of grass followed by chewing the cud. There was just a mere piece of tent fabric between me and one of Africa’s Big 5, the large and powerful, Cape Buffalo.

 

The two of us in our tent stayed hushed, occasionally whispering in stifled panic as it walked around us. We were immensely grateful when it moved on and after a period of near silence, we decided to make a group trip to the toilet block. We didn’t see anything on the way there, but as we headed back to the tent, a brief outline of a dark hulk of an animal was picked up at the back of the tents as we hot-footed it back to ours. We lay there with a flourish of adrenalin before sleep took over once more. I don’t know how long I slept for before once again the sound of ripping and munching of grass woke me up. There were two of them now, one walking past our tent, another a little further away. Even in the darkness, there was an impression of a shadow as its hulk past us by. It was close to us, then further away, then suddenly behind us, again just separated by the tent fabric. The adrenalin was flowing as the pair of us whispered once more, and as the tent suddenly shook, we both bolted upright. The beast clearly had a bit of an itch, and despite its large curved horns, it decided that the support pole of our tent made a good scratching post, rubbing the bulk of its head up and down as our tent shimmied and shook at the force of it all. We had no idea how many buffalo were in the campsite, and we had no idea what the others were experiencing in their own tents, but this was as close an encounter as either of us wanted to have with the wildlife of Tanzania.

We were given a brief reprieve as it walked off to munch more grass, but it wasn’t long before the itch returned and our tent pole seemed to be the only one that was good enough. In the darkness we remained glued to the vision of our tent shaking as the vague shadow danced in front of us. The ripping of the grass and the munching was so loud through the fabric and the sound of the head against the rope was no quieter. After a good bit of rubbing, something finally gave way at the front of the tent, the sound changing and the sensation of the shimmying changing also. I’m not ashamed to say I was a little scared at this point, worried that it would proceed to bowl our tent over. Thankfully though, the main tent structure held true, and after what seemed like forever, the sound of the ripping and munching grew fainter and we were able to get back to sleep. We had an early alarm for a sunrise safari, and as we tentatively stepped out into the ongoing darkness around 5am, there was not a buffalo in sight. The one side of our tent porch had collapsed where the buffalo had pushed the support post over, the only sign of the night’s excitement. Incredulously we discovered that others in the campsite had slept right through undisturbed. For three nights running, our campsites had offered an incredible and unique African experience, and there was still another day of safari to come.

Serengeti Safari

There’s no shortage of animals in the Serengeti. In fact in no time at all of me rejoining the rest of my group after a delightful hot air balloon ride were we in the company of giraffes. I enjoyed seeing so many of the animals roaming around Africa, but for me, the giraffes were something special. They don’t particularly do much, but their gait and their stature is just marvelous. Had I been left to my own devices, I would have hung around with them longer, but the rest of my group had already had a close encounter with them without me, and the park was huge, and we had so much to explore. It was really difficult for me to get my bearings, and I had no idea where we were, or where we were headed, or how it all related to where we camped at night. Our driver guide obviously knew where some of the wildlife hot spots were, and we just sat back and let him take us there. We passed zebra and spotted a well camouflaged leopard up an acacia tree next to a rocky outcrop, pausing briefly below it waiting to see if it would move. It just stared right back at us, an occasional flick of the tail its only movement.

 

In what might as well have been the middle of nowhere, we found a lioness hidden among some long grass. When it came to spotting lions, it was often the presence of a parked jeep that caught our attention. If you were a lion in the Serengeti, it was very difficult to be left alone, and sadly they would often be surrounded by multiple safari jeeps which regularly irked me. On this occasion, it was just us, and frankly she just looked hot, showing us little interest as she flapped away the ever present flies from her face. Two more lionesses were making the most of some shade under a tree. Even in that cooler spot they looked like they were struggling and one of them was fully lain out whilst the other sat up as if on guard. I spotted a tracking collar on one of them as we moved to the side before leaving. The vegetation grew sparser as we drove deeper and deeper into the park, so it was unsurprising to find yet more lions in the shade of a solitary bush, resting in the intense heat of the African day.

 

After a while we found ourselves on the true plains and this is where the herbivore herds seemed to be hanging out. In fact, the zebra herds stretched for miles into the distance, as the individuals spread out in smaller groups to feed. Visiting in February of last year, we were just a little early for the great herd migrations, but there was a ridiculously large number of them there already, and among them we could spot the odd juvenile. In the midst of them all, we pulled up on the track and sat listening to them bickering and barking, whilst watching them milling around, occasionally jostling with each other, and just generally meandering about. They walked in front of us and behind us, and the odd oxpecker bird flitted among them looking for a feed of flies. The odd zebra looked our way from time to time, but most of them didn’t care that we were there.

 

We drove for some time across the plains, a mix of deserted sections and those with zebra dotted around. On the horizon there were no landmarks visible, and it felt like we could drive on forever. Occasionally we would be aware of the odd other safari jeep but for the most part we felt like we were out here on our own. Serengeti National Park is a very popular place for safaris, and it has led to crowd problems at times. On a few occasions I hadn’t liked how many jeeps were parked up by some of the animals, especially the big cats, and wasn’t comfortable being part of the problem. Out here though, it was great to get away from the crowds, and our guide explained that they weren’t allowed to drive off the established tracks, meaning there was plenty of undisturbed land for the wildlife to wander. This all changed though when a flurry of chatter came over the radio. The conversation was in Swahili, but we’d learned the odd word to know what animal was being talked about. This time though we had no idea, and our car suddenly took off, meaning it was potentially something good. As we got nearer we could see a line of other jeeps, and we quickly turned off the track, taking a wide arc over the land to join the other jeeps. I was silently annoyed that we’d broken the rule about off-road driving, but immediately conflicted as I spotted what we had driven so hurriedly to see: a cheetah. I had been hoping to see one whilst in Tanzania, and this was to be the one and only cheetah sighting that we had out there. It strolled past us all, fresh blood smeared across its face: it had killed recently. Shortly finding a small rise in the land to stand up on, it surveyed its surroundings as the multitude of jeeps formed an arc behind it, complete silence falling on us as it stood there. Within minutes of its arrival, it slunk off into the tall grass, and we left it there, cutting back onto the road as if nothing had happened.

 

After the excitement of the morning, we pulled up in the shade of a large tree and bundled out to stretch our legs. Then, in a surreal moment, a picnic was presented to us, and we tucked into a feast of cold but delicious foods as we surveyed our surroundings for any wildlife. You never knew what could be sneaking through the long grass, but all we could see was the odd topi and gazelle in the distance. Thankfully there was some shade, because the heat outside the jeep was oppressive. With no toilet in sight, it felt like we were all marking our territory as the only spot to get some privacy from the rest of the group was behind the back wheel of the jeep, and one by one everyone took their turn to relieve themselves, thanks to all the water we’d been drinking in the heat. Not a single bit of litter was left behind by us, but just like hiking up Mt Kilimanjaro the week before, it was another eye-opener to the effect of tourism in nature.

Initially we took a similar route back, passing once more through a large herd of zebra. This time we could see more juveniles, and we could spot the odd pregnant female. At some point we cut off on a different road and this took us to a rudimentary water hole where a number of zebra were congregating at one end. Amusingly, a hyena slept in the muddy margin in full view of the herbivores, and even though it didn’t flinch, it was given a wide berth and many eyes remained on it whilst they drank. As we sat and watched, a warthog and piglet came running to get a drink as well, simply fitting in among the many legs of the zebra. When we eventually left here we spotted a large eland wandering through the herd of zebra, and a topi beyond that.

 

After some time of driving we spotted a well camouflaged lioness in the long grass. She was barely visible so we left her behind, eventually finding a solitary male lion. He wasn’t in great shape, his spine poking up dramatically behind him as he lay in the shade of a tree. His face and ears were marked, and as he opened his eyes to pant, a broken canine became visible. As he rose to his haunches, he looked pained and it became clear as he struggled to walk, his back left leg weak and almost dragging behind. This was the great circle of life in action. As a vet, I’m acutely tuned in to the suffering of animals, recognising it and feeling it more than the average person, my entire career being built around being an advocate for the welfare of pets and a voice for the creatures that can’t talk. But whilst the rest of my group struggled to see the sight in front of them, pleading with our driver to contact someone to get a wildlife vet out to treat it, I stayed silent, much more accepting of the fact that nature was doing its thing. At their prime, the lion kills other animals, and in its decline, it will feed other animals. I have a very different opinion when a human has caused the animal’s suffering, and am very opinionated about the myriad of animal cruelty that goes on in this world, but playing out in front of us was nature. A snapshot in the great circle of life on the Plains of Africa.

 

Only a short distance away, we found a trio of much healthier males, and our guide informed us that the four were brothers. It was likely they would keep the injured male fed where they could, but as he was unlikely to be able to keep up with them, I suspected he would eventually be left behind to starve. I’ve seen enough wildlife documentaries to know that a hunt can go wrong, and it is possible the injured male was kicked by his prey, or thrown off during an attack. These other three males were beautiful, the typical colour and mane of every lion you ever see on tv, and they had no cares in the world right then, one of them completely rolled on its back to expose its belly as it slept. We stayed with them for a while, watching them do nothing, before eventually we pushed onwards. As we gradually worked our way back to our campsite, the acacia trees began to pop up more and more. A couple of vultures were spotted on the top of one, and at some point we spotted a dikdik in the long grass. They are one of the smallest antelope and would be easy to overlook were it not for the keen eyes of our guide.

 

As the sun was on its downward arc, and as the acacia trees grew taller, I was excited to see some elephants wandering through the long grass. The herd was a little spread out, but there was a mix of size of elephants, including a couple of youngsters who were only just visible above the grass. We’d seen some in Lake Manyara a couple of days prior, but seeing them here in the much more open landscape was just a little bit more magical. The landscape evolved constantly after leaving them behind, and as we returned to familiar looking surroundings, we circled round a small pond which had a hippo in it. It eyed us up with an evil-looking glare before we left it too behind, passing warthogs and lots of antelope before eventually finding ourselves at the office block with the bar that we’d stopped at the night before. Like last time, the rock hyraxes were running around everywhere, and as this was to be our last night in the Serengeti, we all got some booze to take back to our campsite.

 

The sunset was just as spectacular the second night. This time round we were getting prime spot by the fire pit and we gradually congregated in the lowering sunlight to soak up the alcohol in an incredibly stunning location. Some little birds bathed in the dust by our feet, and in the rocks behind camp I spotted more hyraxes jumping about. We ate as the light lowered, but while no hyenas rushed in to steal our food, we could occasionally spot the eyes in our headlamps just beyond the nearest bush. There was a nervous excitement knowing they were there, and I for one wished that we’d get the thrill of one coming in to camp, but they remained just out beyond the boundary while we sat there. Again in our tents with no security or fencing to protect us, we slept in bursts, intermittently disturbed by the calls of the hyenas, and the sounds of things we couldn’t recognise. It had been a thrill to camp wild in Africa, but even though we were moving locations the next day, we didn’t yet know that the next campsite would provide an even closer wildlife encounter.

Above the Serengeti

In the darkness of the early morning we drove across the Serengeti. I had no idea where we were in the park or where we were going, but after rounding up people from various accommodations that popped up out of the darkness, we took off at great speed along a road to nowhere obvious. Knowing that animals are often more active at night, I furtively scanned the outside world looking for the glimmer of eyes reflecting in the darkness. I couldn’t see a thing. As we drove further and further away from our starting point, suddenly an unusual cat appeared in the headlights for such a brief moment as to almost be forgetful, but long enough to know I’d seen something special: a serval cat, one of Africa’s lesser known cats. It was the only wildlife we spotted on the drive that eventually took us to our destination just as a hint of dawn filled the air.

It was freezing cold when we got out next to a multitude of other jeeps, and next to us were the shadows of a multitude of hot air balloons. As we stood waiting for them to be readied, the horizon turned blue, then lightened gradually before a hint of red and then yellow arrived. These balloons were huge and took a lot of preparation to get them ready for boarding. We had to climb into the basket whilst it was lying on its side, meaning we had to lie down on the side of the basket staring up at the sky until everyone was loaded and ready to go. I was one of the first people to get on, and it felt cramped by the time we were fully loaded. As more and more hot air was pumped into the balloon, we were assisted to upright and among such a large group of balloons, I was excited to be on one of the first to take off. I’d never had much desire to go ballooning beforehand, but when the option had landed at my feet to balloon across the Serengeti, I jumped at the chance despite the added expense. I decided it would be one of those once in a lifetime experiences, and it certainly proved itself to be just that.

 

The sun broached the horizon just after we took off, quickly gaining momentum as we left the other balloons behind. The sky was by now a mix of orange and purple and as we silently lifted high above the ground, I no longer felt cramped in the basket. I couldn’t move much, but I was able to turn around, look up and over and absorb the expanse opening up right in front of my face. We’d taken off in an open area of the park, but we drifted towards hills, flying over a grazing topi and a large expanse of vague greenery. We spotted the odd safari jeep that was out early for a sunrise safari, including one that was parked up under a large acacia tree where no doubt a leopard was probably resting in its branches. Behind us the other balloons had finally taken off also and so began the balloon dance across the Serengeti National Park.

 

Initially flying low, we gained a bit of height in preparation for the hills that we would traverse over. Aside from the loud bursts of flame blasting into the balloon, the flight itself was incredibly quiet and it felt utterly peaceful to just drift over the land below. When we reached the first hillside, we flew tantalisingly close to the tops of the foliage, and I scoured the land for signs of life. For a while there wasn’t any animals, but eventually we spotted some giraffes among the trees, one of which looked up at us as we floated by. A little further was a small herd of cape buffalo who paid us no attention whatsoever.

 

After another rise we floated over a beautiful green stretch covered in trees, framed by small peaks and hills that rolled off into the distance. I presumed we were heading in the direction of where I’d camped for the night but really couldn’t be sure. We got quite close to a large herd of antelope, although they seemed unsure how to respond to the noise of the balloon flames, some of them scarpering, and others pausing to look up at us. In groups, their stripey bottoms stood out from a distance, with large groups of females being patrolled by an antlered male. Some of them looked positively inquisitive, others just plain confused.

 

For a long time we just drifted over an acacia-filled landscape. Occasionally we floated over a stream, some buildings, or another hill. We spotted a couple of zebra, and later a warthog took off at full speed. Behind us the other balloons continued to dance. I didn’t want the experience to end but sadly it had to. It was still so early in the morning, and there was so much of the day still to come, but after what did not seem like enough time, our landing spot grew closer. We were given instructions on how to brace for the landing, and we watched the first balloon come in to land ahead of us, a group of helpers ready immediately to assist everyone off and pack up the balloon. Then sadly it was our turn to return to Earth, and we had the smoothest landing possible and disembarked with ease.

 

The ground crew were incredible at herding the various groups over to some tables laden with flutes, and there in the early hours of the morning, I found myself drinking champagne in Africa. Standing somewhere unknown in the Serengeti, I watched as the other balloons lowered and landed nearby. All of them touched down gently apart from the last one which bounced before landing, a scream coming from one of the passengers within the basket. A little away some giraffes wandered by and I spotted a few antelope too. Once we’d had our fill of bubbles, we were whisked away to another spot that also felt like it was in the middle of nowhere, where a set of large tables had been set up for a banquet breakfast in the shade of a large tree. In the centre was more champagne, and across courses of fruit and bread and meats and coffee, all of us at the table were in heaven, and I myself felt warm and merry as the champagne continued to flow. A short walk away an open-sided tent had been set up so that you could look out at the open space of the national park whilst sat on the toilet seat.

 

From the sunrise to the peaceful flight over the plains, and from the champagne welcome to the gorgeous banquet in the shade of an acacia tree, the experience was one of my highlights of my time in Tanzania. I had missed out on a morning safari with the rest of my group, but I returned to them mid-morning with a lot of excitement for the day ahead. I’d missed out on a couple of close encounters, but with the day still young, we had a full day safari ahead of us and a lot more wildlife spotting to come.

Serengeti National Park

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.

Maasai and the Serengeti

As someone who usually travels independently, it can be hard to know that the money is going to the right place when using an organised tour company. This was my second G Adventures trip, having toured the Galapagos Islands with them a few years prior, and I had so far been impressed with them from the Kilimanjaro portion of the trip, having spoken to the local guides and porters who seemed happy to work for them. The company is linked with Planeterra, a not-for-profit organisation that funds social enterprise projects and supports healthcare and conservation projects around the World. One of those projects was the Clean Cooking Stove Project which was helping families reduce the air pollution in their homes created by the fireplace that would be traditionally used. This particular project was also empowering women by teaching them the skills to install the new chimneys and stoves, and our first stop of the day was to a small Maasai village to see the project in action. As a portion of G Adventures profits goes directly to Planeterra, it was effectively a show and tell of where some of our money was going in to the local communities.

I’m incredibly introverted, so always find these kind of things awkward, especially when some of the women and girls seemed very overwhelmed with the group of strangers that came into their small homes. That being said, it was interesting to see how they lived, and the huge difference between the homes that didn’t have the clean stove, and those that did. We met the ladies who were currently installing a chimney and they showed us how they did it all by hand. The village chief was lovely, and he spoke a little English, with our guide aiding with translations where required. Those of us who had climbed Mt Kilimanjaro the week before, had already picked up a few key phrases of Swahili, and although the Maasai language had some key differences, the chief seemed genuinely excited when we spoke what little we knew. Maasai men are polygamous so each house we visited was inhabited by a wife and the children that he’d fathered to that wife. The age range was incredible, and the youngest wife looked to be in her teens, and frankly looked like a deer in headlights when we went into her home.

 

A few of our Kilimanjaro porters were of Maasai descent so we had learned a little about their culture from them during our climb up the peak. It had made a few of my companions indignant to hear about the forced marriage of women and the adult circumcision of the boys (without anaesthetic) upon coming of age. What we’d also learned though, was that the traditional nomadic lifestyle of the Maasai was gradually losing its traditions, and this was evident on the village tour, not just because of the houses that they lived in but also by the motorbike that the chief drove about on. As we wandered around, the children were either fascinated by us or scared of us: the younger ones hiding behind mum, the bolder ones following us and laughing at us. A few of us played games with them, and surrounding us all, a large herd of goats milled around the place, tearing up what little vegetation there was to eat.

 

Returning to Mto Wa Mbu where we’d spent the night in our large tents, the road heading west climbed almost immediately upon leaving the settlement behind. The altitude gain brought us to a lookout overlooking Lake Manyara and the National Park that we had visited the day before. It was hazy, so we could only just make out the lake margins, and we tried to work out where exactly the different features we’d driven past were. After stopping at a large tourist trap near the top of the ridge, the landscape opened out again and for a long time we drove through a red landscape, past towns and villages: open, empty lands merging into urbanised hustle and bustle. After what seemed like forever, we reached the gate for Ngorongoro Conservation Area, beyond which lay the large expanse of the Serengeti.

There was a lot of paperwork involved in entering these more western parks, so this was to be the first of many stops hanging around waiting for permits to be okayed. After finally getting cleared to proceed, we were immediately into thick bush and from here onwards, the road climbed high up the edge of Ngorongoro Crater. It was such a contrast to the arid landscape we’d been through in the last couple of days. The bush was unbelievably thick and green and as we climbed higher, we got sneak peaks of the view far below, although it wasn’t until we reached the crater rim, that we got our first sight of Ngorongoro Crater floor itself. From a lookout at the top, the crater looked green below us, but it seemed difficult to imagine that it was teeming with life. We knew we would be doing a safari here in a few days, but from so far away we couldn’t make out herds or much in the way of animal life at all. With the amazing zoom on my camera, I did spot a rhino which was an exciting find, and my mind wandered to thoughts of the safaris ahead.

 

We’d been warned that the picnic site we were stopping at for lunch was patrolled by birds of prey that liked to harass people for their food, so we were given the option of eating outside or eating on the jeep. It was stuffy inside though, and I, like most of us, opted to eat outside. Sat on some well placed logs, we started to tuck into our chicken drumsticks, sandwiches and snacks, all the while watching as 3 tawny eagles circled above us. Every now and again they dropped down suddenly, and we watched as they swooped on some other people that were there. I thought we were doing a good job of looking out for them when all of a sudden I was whacked on the back of the head, and as I realised what was happening, I saw out of the corner of my eye, the hawk that had just hit me with its wing, grabbing the chicken drumstick out of the man’s hand that was sitting opposite me. Amongst the hilarity, several of my companions retreated to the jeep, but I remained steadfast, eating the rest of my food al fresco. What appeared next was one of the weirdest looking birds I’ve ever seen, a marabou stork. Large birds, they looked both reptilian and jurassic, and reminded me of pterodactyls. Their size was almost intimidating, and the look they gave you uncomfortable, but although they were there to scavenge, they didn’t try to steal, instead just wandering around the site looking for scraps. I spent the rest of our time there just staring at them in awe.

 

As we descended down the far side of the crater wall, we passed by another Maasai village where incredibly, wandering among the villagers and their goat herds were zebra, antelope and wildebeest. We’d left the lush vegetation of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area behind and were back to open, deserted landscapes again. The odd animal was spotted as we drove, but when we reached a ridge where the road dropped down, there were some trees again, and to our delight, this area was rife with giraffes. I adore giraffes, and they were one of the species I was most excited to spot. At first, they were far from the road, and again surprisingly mingled with some nomadic Maasai walking their goat herds. As we continued along this stretch of road however, we came across some that were close by, and I was grateful to spend some time here and watch them.

 

Once on the valley floor, it was full speed to the Serengeti National Park. It was a long drive to reach the sign that marked our entry into the park. There were a few herd animals visible in the distance, but from this point onwards we were officially on an afternoon safari, so as we headed west deeper into the park, we stopped to see some ostriches and kudu, and even spotted our first lions. The females were just sleeping on the rocks, and knowing that there would be much more to see, we didn’t stay with them for long. Eventually we reached Naabi Hill Gate, the official entrance to the park where once more, we had to bundle off the jeeps to wait for our permits to be sorted. A colourful bird entertained me in the picnic area, and behind the office, a short trail climbed up a small hill to a rocky outcrop where we got a bit of a view over the complex and the African Plains beyond. There were lizards everywhere, different sizes and colours lounging on the rocks to warm up. They were entertaining to watch, and filled up what seemed like an endless time to get the paperwork sorted at the gate. I’m as interested in reptiles as I am in birds and mammals, so although my companions weren’t fussed, I was happy to be entertained by these little creatures. Finally though we were allowed access into the national park properly and now we were officially on safari. The initial sightings had been a great start, but boy was there so much incredible things to follow.

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: