It seemed like a long dusty drive to Serengeti National Park from Ngorongoro Crater where we’d left the sunshine behind along with an incredible morning of game viewing. Our jeep was taking us through hills dotted with Maasai boys herding livestock that were striking in their bright clothing against the bleak landscape and occasionally caught us up in goat traffic jams. After many twists and turns we rounded a corner and found ourselves high above a massive plain that stretched before us as far as the eye could see. No wonder the Maasai named this area Siringet which roughly translates to ‘the place where the land runs forever’. This name eventually morphed into Serengeti and is now known quite rightly as ‘the endless plains’.
We slowly wound down to the floor of the plain and after a long rough stretch of road that seemed to last for hours but probably only took about 40-minutes, we arrived at the entrance to Serengeti National Park where we took a short break and were soon approached by a group of Maasai boys wearing black with their faces painted with white chalk indicating that they are taking part in a cultural transition from being boys to men or warriors. The wearing of black and the painted faces showed that they took part in a circumcision ritual at some point in the past year and are awaiting the time when they can rejoin their village as men. You can click here to read more about it. They approached us to ask for water, something that is not only needed out there but that perhaps can be sold or exchanged. Maasai were evicted from the National Park by the British colonists in 1959 in order to prevent hunting, an act that remains controversial to this day. However they are allowed within the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.
Once we were inside the park the landscape looked devoid of anything except grass and sky. There wasn’t even a tree in sight and whilst this in itself was impressive to behold I did begin to wonder if this place was really as full of animals as it was said to be when we didn’t see so much as a bird at this point. However the first telltale sign that we were somewhere exciting soon revealed itself as a buffalo skeleton on the side of the road, clear evidence that big game were in the area so it was just a matter of finding them but with just a few hours left before sunset I wasn’t feeling very confident that we would see much that day.
Before long the odd lone tree appeared and soon a strip of grass became visible that seemed luminous against the gold and grey plain. It signaled the presence of water so it was no surprise that when we got closer we found impala and a small herd of elephants grazing. Thanks to the East African ivory trade during the 1800’s elephant numbers dwindled in this region but surged again during the 1960’s and 1970’s until they once again came under attack from ivory hunters. Anti-poaching measures have improved their prospects in the last few decades so that now the elephant population is over 2,000.
As we moved on from the elephants we noticed a few low hills in the distance as well as some limestone kopjes that really stood out on the otherwise flat landscape. The entire plain was formed 2 to 3 million years ago from a massive eruption that spewed an unfathomable amount of ash over the area that covered the earlier landscape. These kopjes (pronounced kopees) are much older rock formations that date from around 500 million years ago and were formed from even earlier lava flows underground. As the surface has eroded away they have been left poking through the plain and thus providing not only some stunning scenery but a great place for snakes to hang out as well as good observation posts for animals. Evolution has left the majority of animals in Africa well-camouflaged so if you are on safari and passing near a kopje be sure to pay extra special attention as you will almost always see something of interest there if you look hard enough. We saw a sleeping hyena but I was too slow to get a photo.
Whilst we made our way toward this area a thunderstorm developed in the distance creating an eerie light that lit up the grassland so that it had a surreal golden glow and there was a beautiful rainbow to top it all off. This place was starting to feel every bit as magical as Ngorongoro Crater had.
We were now entering an area with a lot more trees and most of them seemed quite mature. Some of them had clearly been struck by lightning at some point and they all looked amazing against the grassy plain particularly as some sunlight was starting to break through. We pulled up alongside a sausage tree to take to a look (top picture below) and noted that another nearby tree had a few jeeps around it. We moved closer and began to scan each branch for what we hoped we would find and weren’t disappointed. Straddled across one branch was a large female leopard. I won’t say where so you can see if you can spot her in the picture at the bottom. Leopard are abundant in Serengeti so if (like me) you have a love of these animals this is a great place to try to see them.
Suddenly the other jeeps took off with us in pursuit and a short drive away we found ourselves in a small throng of vehicles and whispered rumors were passed between tourists that there was a fresh lion kill. We waited our turn for a good spot and eventually found ourselves looking at one of the best game viewing experiences I have had. There was a pride consisting of three female lions and three sets of cubs, two very young and another a bit older. All of them were finishing up a wildebeest feast and we’d obviously only missed the kill by a matter of minutes.
The female pictured in the above photo appeared to be with the older cubs and she had one of the most beautiful faces I’ve ever seen on a lion so I was delighted when she focused on me for a second. Her ‘lazy eye’ gave her face character and somehow softened her but I may not have had the same opinion if I’d been there earlier when she was ripping into the poor wildebeest. Of the other two, one mainly stayed hidden in the grass and the other was distinctive due to an old injury on her nose. Her cubs were not camera-shy so we got to spend a long time watching them play with each other and their mother. We also got to see one of them feeding from her. They were so beautiful that I had a hard time choosing which photos to include in this blog so here are a whole bunch and there are even more in the slideshow at the end.
The sun was starting to set so we had to move on to make it to our camp before dark. As we made our way down a dirt road we spotted another big cat darting through the grass and if seeing lions and leopards within mere metres of each other wasn’t enough, Serengeti now gave us a beautiful cheetah to watch just a few minutes down the road. After that last wonderful hour and the incredible morning in Ngorongoro Crater it was only fitting that Africa should deliver yet another stunning sunset to top off a magical day.
We camped inside the park and went to bed early. I woke frequently in the night thanks to a lion roaring loudly fairly close by and at one point I was sure I could hear animals right outside my tent. Amazingly none of that phased me and I quickly dropped back to sleep but in the morning I checked and sure enough there was evidence that hyenas had been around in the night with tracks in the sand around our tents but more obviously, a completely overturned trash can with most of the contents dragged around the campsite. As we packed up our tents we saw a huge buffalo at the edge of the campground. Lone bull buffalo can be incredibly dangerous so we hoped he kept his distance. We left the campground early so we could get in some game viewing before making the long drive back to Arusha and ran into him fairly quickly. Note the oxpecker looking for insects to eat on his leg.
It was a beautiful morning with the low sun casting a lovely golden light over everything that led to some more spectacular sights including some close encounters with pretty impala and the humorous sight of a lion not caring one bit about a group of humans hot air ballooning past.
It was the second to last day of my 6-week overland trip through Africa. Around that time the next day we’d be driving into Nairobi where I’d say goodbye to my friends and head back to the real world. I was very happy with how everything had gone and was already turning my thoughts to leaving when Africa gave me one last incredible gift. We found the lion who kept waking me up in the night and he was exhausted from an evening spent mating with not one but two females. The three of them were lying in the grass, all tired out but the females wanted to keep going. They would flirt and cavort around him to draw his attention and although he made a few half-hearted advances he eventually decided he was done with spreading his seed so after an angry growl at them both he collapsed in the grass panting.
They were not happy because they know it is their duty to procreate and he had obviously led them both to believe that he was good at it so the flirting continued to no avail. Soon the females became alert to something that was going on behind us so we turned to find that whilst we’d been focused on these three another female lion was trying to make a kill behind us. It was right at this crucial moment that my camera battery died. I’d brought my charger on the trip but never managed to find a power outlet so I don’t have any photos of that or of another pride of lions we came across on our way out of the park. But I think it is safe to say that with more than 3,000 lions in the Serengeti area they are very easy to find and will provide some amazing safari experiences.
It was a very long and often bumpy drive back to our campsite just north of Arusha. The road was incredibly dusty so that I had to wrap my face in a scarf I happened to bring along but was still washing Serengeti dust out of my hair a week later in London. A friend snapped this photo of me on the jeep on the way out that shows just how desperate the dust situation was but we were still in good spirits. There was no way we couldn’t be after such an amazing experience not just on that day but for the past 6-weeks. I’ve got one more post to make about my trip up to Nairobi and my short visit there but for now I’ll leave you with the Serengeti jeep shot and there are a lot more photos in the slideshow.