Throughout our trip I have been desperate to see a lion up, close and personal. I refused to take a photo of a lion if I needed my big lens. I would also settle for an in-your-face roar that resonates in your stomach. A fence between us would be nice, but as long as the lion is not hungry, that’s not so important…
My wish came true in the Serengeti, probably the last National Park we would visit this year.
25 – 28 August 2015
The Serengeti (/ˌsɛrənˈɡɛti/) ecosystem is a geographical region in Africa. It is located in northern Tanzania and extends to south-western Kenya between 1 and 3 degrees south latitudes and between 34 and 36 degrees east longitudes. It spans approximately 30,000 km2. The Kenyan part of the Serengeti is known as Maasai Mara.
The Serengeti hosts the largest terrestrial mammal migration in the world, which helps secure it as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa and one of the ten natural travel wonders of the world. The Serengeti is also renowned for its large lion population and is one of the best places to observe prides in their natural environment. The region contains the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania and several game reserves.
Approximately 70 larger mammal and 500 bird species are found there. This high diversity is a function of diverse habitats, including riverine forests, swamps, kopjes, grasslands, and woodlands. Blue wildebeests, gazelles, zebras, and buffalos are some of the commonly found large mammals in the region.
Serengeti is derived from the Maasai language, Maa; specifically, “Serengit” meaning “Endless Plains”
Much of the Serengeti was known to outsiders as Maasailand. The Maasai are known as fierce warriors and live alongside most wild animals with an aversion to eating game and birds, subsisting exclusively on their cattle. Historically, their strength and reputation kept the newly arrived Europeans from exploiting the animals and resources of most of their land. A rinderpest epidemic and drought during the 1890s greatly reduced the numbers of both Maasai and animal populations. The Tanzanian government later in the 20th century re-settled the Maasai around the Ngorongoro Crater. Poaching and the absence of fires, which had been the result of human activity, set the stage for the development of dense woodlands and thickets over the next 30–50 years. Tsetse fly populations now prevented any significant human settlement in the area.
By the mid-1970s, wildebeest and the Cape buffalo populations had recovered and were increasingly cropping the grass, reducing the amount of fuel available for fires. The reduced intensity of fires has allowed Acacia to once again become established.
In the 21st century, mass rabies vaccination programmes for domestic dogs in the Serengeti have not only indirectly prevented hundreds of human deaths, but also protected wildlife species such as the endangered African wild dog.
It was 1913 and great stretches of Africa were still unknown to the white man when Stewart Edward White, an American hunter, set out from Nairobi. Pushing south, he recorded: “We walked for miles over burnt out country… Then I saw the green trees of the river, walked two miles more and found myself in paradise.”
He had found Serengeti. In the years since White’s excursion under “the high noble arc of the cloudless African sky,” Serengeti has come to symbolize paradise to many of us. The Maasai, who had grazed their cattle on the vast grassy plains for millennia had always thought so. To them it was Siringitu – “the place where the land moves on forever.”
The Serengeti region encompasses the Serengeti National Park itself, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Maswa Game Reserve, the Loliondo, Grumeti and Ikorongo Controlled Areas and the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. Over 90,000 tourists visit the Park each year.
Two World Heritage Sites and two Biosphere Reserves have been established within the 30,000 km² region. Its unique ecosystem has inspired writers from Ernest Hemingway to Peter Mattheissen, filmmakers like Hugo von Lawick and Alan Root as well as numerous photographers and scientists.
The Serengeti ecosystem is one of the oldest on earth. The essential features of climate, vegetation and fauna have barely changed in the past million years. Early man himself made an appearance in Olduvai Gorge about two million years ago. Some patterns of life, death, adaptation and migration are as old as the hills themselves.
It is the migration for which Serengeti is perhaps most famous. Over a million wildebeest and about 200,000 zebras flow south from the northern hills to the southern plains for the short rains every October and November, and then swirl west and north after the long rains in April, May and June. So strong is the ancient instinct to move that no drought, gorge or crocodile infested river can hold them back.
The Wildebeest travel through a variety of parks, reserves and protected areas and through a variety of habitat. Join us to explore the different forms of vegetation and landscapes of the Serengeti ecosystem and meet some of their most fascinating inhabitants.
The road between Ngorongoro and Serengeti was horrible with very bad corrugation. As recommended by other visitors, we avoided the main road and used the less-travelled side roads. Entering the Serengeti cost us the rest of our arms and legs. On recommendation of the South Africans we met in Ngorongoro we asked to stay in Tumbili Campsite. It was not as popular with the overlander trucks and therefore much quieter.
The Serengeti indeed did justice to its name, “Endless Plains” or “The place where the land moves on forever”. Plains of grass moving lightly in the wind, as far as the eye can see, with rotskoppies (rocky outcrops) here and there, touching the clear blue sky on the horizon. Hugo loved all this open space and we both wished that we could have stayed here longer than our self-allocated three days.
Soon after entering the park, we came upon our first predator sighting. A few vehicles were parked next to a tree (the same rule Jonathan taught us in the Mara, rang true here. Under or in every tree you will find an animal…), watching or waiting for something. We couldn’t see anything on the ground and started searching in the tree, where we saw a half-eaten gazelle. Now to find the leopard… We only saw it briefly as it came down the tree and then immediately disappeared in the tall grass.
Tumbili campsite is beautiful, set on a gentle slope with acacia trees. The grass was mowed short by the many animals visiting, you could spend a whole day in camp, game viewing from your chair. We saw elephants, zebras, blue wildebeest, impalas, thommies, grant’s, giraffes, baboons, just sitting there. Plus hyenas, walking through camp in bright daylight.
We took it easy on our first morning here as Gustav vomited in the night. The poor child has been nauseous and vomiting very often, we think it might have something to do with the malaria medication. We are however not willing to take the risk to stop the medication, malaria is far worse than nausea.
In the afternoon we drove to the Information Centre for fuel and to have a look-see. And saw a massive snake, we are guessing some kind of cobra. After a bit of history and ecological education we headed back to camp for our second night, where we had cold showers in an otherwise very nice, clean bathroom.
During our first and second nights in Tumbili we heard lions and hyenas, the hyenas were not very far away, and sometimes came up to the tent. I strained my ears, but the lions stayed far away. The camp attendant told us that they had lions in the camp the night before we arrived. He was kind enough to help us collect firewood for a fire to keep the hyenas at bay while we sat outside.
On our second day here, we went on a long drive in the vicinity, we were still in love with the beautiful landscape. We did not see anything exciting, but we did see masses of most animals. And hyenas, again. The children found some stretches of the road very boring with nothing to see, we were happy to just look at the extraordinary scenery. Often Hugo had to remind me to take photos, I was enjoying it to just sit and watch. I read somewhere that being obsessed with taking photos can sometimes take away part of the experience, as you forget to look past the photo opportunity. It rang true for me, I take photos because I like the picture, or to memorise something, but I love the sounds and smell of the bush just as much. I often comment to the children about sounds and smells and tastes, like that of a late-afternoon thunderstorm. They have started to do the same thing when certain sceneries, smells or sounds reminds them of something: “Mamma, this road reminds me of the one on ouma’s farm.” Or: “Smell the wet dirt! Do you want to eat it, Mamma?” Don’t ask…
Anyway, we went back before the children drove us mad in the car.
That night, we made a big fire, I wanted to sit outside until the fire went out, or I heard my lions close-up. Hugo got tired and refused to let me sit outside on my own, so we put everything away (dirty dishes in the car, food in the fridge or locked away, and so forth). We have a rule, well, Hugo has a rule, to not leave anything looking or smelling like food out at night.
I fell asleep having just heard hyenas. Hugo said he was awake, reading, listening to countless hyenas laughing in and around the camp when all of a sudden everything fell silent.
Then I woke up with a start at two in the morning. Something was underneath our trailer, bumping around the bag of tent poles. Hyenas! And then with an almighty noise the tent poles were dragged from under the tent and whatever “caught” it ran far away with it. The bag of poles was just short of two metres with quite a number of poles, we used only two this time. We had almighty spotlights with us but it was really hard to see through the mesh of the tent, but we heard “them” play with their prey some distance away. The bag ripped and we heard poles scatter.
In the meantime I smelled something vile, I said to Hugo, bloody hell, the food we ate made my breath smell like an open grave. It couldn’t be anything else, the smell was right in my face. But when I blew into my hand, I couldn’t smell anything. Hugo was shining his spotlight everywhere and while I was musing about my breath, he saw something standing a metre from me, at our kitchen veranda’s pole. He yelled: “daar is die bogger! Wat!? Dis dan ‘n fokken leeu!!” “There is the bugger! What!? It is a freaken (okay, he said fucking, sorry) lion!”
Stinky breath solved! It wasn’t me, phew! We woke the children up to, one: get them to relative safety and, two: to see the lions. Just when we saw the lioness near us, she grabbed Hugo’s dirty towel that he uses for odd jobs from the pole and ran away with it, maybe they wanted to build their own tent with the rag and the poles. Oddly enough, none of us felt threatened or scared, they were probably a group of young lions just having fun. Hugo counted at least five lions and he saw a young whelp as well. They kept on coming back and circling the tent, then went back to play with the poles
All of us were very excited and struggled to go back to sleep. We decided that the children should stay with us in our bed, on top of the trailer instead of in their beds on the ground. THIS is why we have our massive bed… After some time, Gustav and Sophia (yes both, in their own ways) asked: “Mamma, are you happy now? Your wish came true!” It did indeed, and in a very unexpected way, on our last night in the Serengeti and in a National Park. This was one of the best experiences of our lives, and we do not have even one photo, sometimes the best pictures are those in your head.
The next morning we went on a hunt for our tent poles and found it about a hundred metres away, scattered in the bush. The bag was opened nicely on the one side but had a small rip on the other end, full of lion slime. Hugo washed it off but we decided that we will not repair the rip, it would always remind us of this night.
The rest of the day proved to be almost or just as exciting. We had to check out of Serengeti at 1:55 in the afternoon, or pay a fine of US$300. As usual, we were slow having breakfast and packing up, so when we finally left Tumbili, we said that we will now only stop for two things: wild dogs (we have not seen any this year), and lions in a tree. Sophia laughed when I said it, it sounded like I wanted to see both wild dogs and lions in a tree! The Serengeti and Lake Manyara National Parks are renowned for their tree-climbing lions. I asked a guide a few days ago whether there were specific areas these lions frequented, and he answered that lions all over Africa climbed trees! I just walked away. Yes, they probably can, but they don’t really do it, they might climb up a big tree trunk lying on the ground, but otherwise it is very seldom seen.
Nobody really knows why lions in this region often climb trees. Some say it is to escape tsetse flies or other insects, some say it is to see further, others say it is for the cool breeze and to escape from the heat on the ground. They agree that it might be a learned behaviour, and that nobody told the lions of the Serengeti that they are not really supposed to be able to do it.
Heading back to the park exit, we took the longer, scenic route. Something I’ve learned from my father is that you always take the little loops and the river drives. There being no river, we took all the odd little loops with little vehicle tracks. At one dead end, we spotted one other vehicle. And then Hugo shouted: “Look! In the tree!” True as Bob – lions in a tree! Wow! Just, wow!
The excitement and adrenaline rush almost had me hyperventilating, I struggled with the big lens to keep it still enough, even with the beanbag in the window. The other people left soon after we arrived – I guess they saw lions in trees every day – and we could drive up and down to try and take photos from the best angles. Everybody was so excited, again they asked me whether I am happy with having my wishes fulfilled? I was, very, and I still am. The best part was to be able to share it with those I love most. I hope they will also remember and cherish this special day…