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.