Into the wilderness of the Serengeti with no one else around!

With the sudden onset of Covid hitting Tanzania and tourism a mighty blow we make the decision to keep our Serengeti and Arusha Luxury Camps in place with a skeleton staff …of two! …in each to look after them. A couple of months (and several skeleton staff changes!) later we felt we should take a trip out there to check on the staff and the camp.

We were fortunate to get two of our daughters and one fiancée back to Tanzania before the airlines shut down ……. And there was another boyfriend waiting here in Tanzania! So we were six …. The perfect number for a safari……

Glorious weather and bristling with cameras we set off from our home in Arusha. We scooped our youngest daughter and her boyfriend up enroute as they had spent a couple of night in Tarangire where his family owns a lodge…..

Passing through the villages and small towns as we crossed the Rift Valley we were struck with how ‘normal’ everything felt – farmers were out tilling their fields, red robed Massai were herding their cattle, shops were open and brightly dressed people were walking the streets – maybe half of them were wearing masks but that was the only sign of the upheaval shaking the world.

Stopping briefly in Karatu, the last town before the Parks, we topped off our fuel tanks and bought a few last-minute supplies before heading to the park gate.

It was at the Park Gate that we first noticed the change ……. Normally a bustling hive of activity with car loads of tourist checking in and out, trucks and busses entering and everyone taking advantage of the toilets! ……. But now It was eerily silent …. No other vehicles and just a couple of rangers rather than the usual compliment.

We wound our way up the steep road to the crater rim and popped out onto the viewpoint overlooking the vast Ngorongoro Crater spread out 2000 foot below us ….. and again, had the place to ourselves. We spend 15 minutes staring though our binoculars …easily spotting herds of buffalo and zebra and a few elephants – the challenge became to spot any vehicles! ….. even on a quiet day there will normally be 50 of more safari vehicles in the crater ….. but we failed! We couldn’t spot even a single vehicle. Even more eery.

We cruised on round the crater rim until we could look out over the vast Serengeti plains far below us and found a spot for a picnic – our daughter Lucy had made the sandwiches and her love of marmite showed! ….. but a beautiful spot with an outrageous 50 mile views and a curious giraffe made it a perfect lunch.

Heading down down down several thousand feet on to the edge of the Serengeti plains the temperature rose a few degrees and amongst the herds of Massai cows and goats we began to see more and more wildebeest ……. A bit of a surprise as with the end of the rainy season the plains were drying up and these herds should have been heading west a few weeks earlier …… it seems that about 10,000 wildebeest ‘forgot’ to migrate! And now face the challenge of crossing 50 or so miles of drying plains to hook up with the rest of the herds. There were a few columns starting the trek but many hadn’t made the decision yet.

Naabi Gate – the entrance to the Serengeti was another ghost station – no other cars there and just a couple of rangers manning the desks. Chatting to them revealed this was the new normal and they could count the number of vehicles entering each day on one hand.

Taking pictures of the Elephants with the sunset

Coming though the Seronera area at the centre of the park – we stumbled upon a herd of elephants browsing. All still very relaxed about vehicles despite not having seen one for ages. They munched their way around the car – sometimes no more than 5-10 feet away – totally ignoring our presence.

One of the fascinating things about sitting quietly with elephants is the variety of different noises they make ….. from the ripping sound as they tear off branches and shrubs to the thrashing to get the soil off the roots and then the loud chewing (they definitely don’t keep their lips together when they eat!) and then the stomach rumbles that area actually a form of communication – these low frequency rumbles can travel through the soil and be heard by other elephants up to 6 miles away!

We sat too long enjoying the company of the elephants and the playful antics of the juveniles….AND watching the spectacular sunset …the result – we arrived in camp after dark! …. But the crew of Nelson and Robert were still delighted to see us and had a great campfire waiting.

Chatting around the camp fire after a day of game driving.

Sitting around the fire later we heard some movement and with our torches spotted a couple of hippo grazing on the lush short grass of the firebreak around camp. We don’t usually get hippo in the area around camp so they must have come upstream in the swollen river after all the rain.

Relaxing in the tent in between meals

The next day dawned bright and clear. After our long drive out we had a relaxed start with a ‘wake up coffee’ around the campfire with a bit of bird spotting. We had decided to challenge ourselves to see how many different bird and animal species we could identify on the safari – we ticked off a few of the easier and more common ones on the drive in but now the challenge was to keep the momentum going.

Heading to the shade netting for morning coffee

We decided to head west and explore that part of the park to see if we could find how far the migration had moved on its journey. We came across literally thousands and thousands of wildebeest milling and dashing through the woodlands of Seronera – charging wildly across the road in columns hundreds strong.

A stalking lioness

Where there are a lot of Wildebeest there are always a lot of lions! ….. we managed to spot one pride stalking and sat and watched them for some time – the way they communicate and coordinate their attack is quite unbelievable – it sometimes seems as if they most have walkie-talkies the way they move as one!

After another great day of game viewing we got suckered into watching yet another stunning sunset, this time with a few thousand wildebeest in the foreground – so arrived back at camp at dusk AGAIN – but this time in a thunderstorm! ….so no campfire, but snuggled up in the lounge tent before another stunning meal from Robert.

Wildebeest in front of the sunset

Having gone West the day before we decided to head south today …. Heading for the desperately beautiful Moru Kopjes area …… with a few stops along the way, most notably a delightful half hour coffee break watching the antics of a delegation (yes that really is the collective noun for mongooses!) of dwarf mongooses.

A dwarf mongoose

As we approached the Moru area we could see towering plumes of smoke – the grassland was burning!  The National Park burns the grass on the plains each year at about this time – the key is to burn just after the rains have stopped to the fire passes though quickly and doesn’t burn too ‘hot’  Fires occur naturally in this ecosystem and over the millennia the plants and wildlife have learned to adapt and thrive on the regeneration that the fire leaves in its wake. The trees can survive the ‘cool’ burns early in the dry season and the grasses sprout with a fresh green flush of sweet succulent shoots that the wildlife loves and needs. Across the front of the fire rollers and other birds swoop to grab crickets and insects fleeing the fire … and behind the fire – often very close – follow maribu storks and others eating the bugs and small reptiles, frogs etc that couldn’t outrun the fire. As always nothing goes to waste in the Serengeti!

Wildebeest rutting

Passing through Moru we came upon another huge herd of wildebeest – but this time there were signs of the beginning of the annual Rut – or mating fest! Male wildebeest try to round up as many females as they can – running round and round them – BUT the females are not particularly interested at this stage and keep ‘wandering off’ AND other males are constantly trying to ‘poach’ females for their own hareem. The result – non stop drama! With males dashing hither and thither – great clashes of horns as they challenge other males and frustration as every time they turn their back another female wanders off. It’s a breath-taking scene and we sat mesmerised at the ebb and flow of the hareems and the boundless energy of the males.

Moving on only half a mile or so we spied two prides of lions perched on Kopjes about a quarter of a mile apart ….. almost inevitably we managed to get stuck in the mud about midway between the two! With someone on ‘lookout duty’ we reeled out the winch cable and dug in a ground anchor and managed to claw our way out without too much drama.

On our way home (late again!) we spotted an elusive Caracal – these gorgeously elegant cats with their distinctive ear tufts are quite rare on the plains … a good one for the mammal list!

Today was different! …… leaving the car behind we set out on foot! … walking safaris have long been my favourite thing to do in the Serengeti. There are vast areas set aside where you just never see another soul – and there is so much out there still to explore. We chose an area of towering rock kopjes close to a river.

Walking through the kopjes

The wonderful thing about walking safaris is that you feel PART of the ecosystem – you use all your senses, not just your sight – you hear things you wouldn’t normally hear, you smell things you wouldn’t normally smell (buffalo are particularly pungent!) – all your senses are heightened and your heart races a little.

Wandering through the rocks and clambering up we reached a fantastic viewpoint and could see a large group of wildebeest heading our way along with some herds of impala and zebra. Climbing down we made our way forward to try and get closer – finally stopping on a low kopje to watch the herds stampede past us – oblivious to our presence.

A view over the Serengeti wilderness area

It was about then that we realized we weren’t the only ones with an interest in the wildebeest – about 100 yards away we spied 6 lions on a neighbouring kopje.

Hearts beating a little faster we crept closer to the wildebeest, whilst keeping a wary eye on the lions, and managed to get within about 30 yards of them – so thrilling!

Sundowners on the roof of the car

Then back to camp (late!)  again for another of Roberts feasts and a final campfire. On the way back out of the wilderness area towards camp we just had to stop and get this shot  – it had been such an amazing day and all of us we hyped about the things we had seen walking, then driving back cross country towards camp we came over a rise to see this flaming African sunset and simply had to stop!

Finally back in camp there is something about sitting around a campfire knowing there isn’t another person for miles and miles, listening to the competing roar of the prides of lions around camp or the call of the hyena echoing across the plains, about looking up and seeing so many stars with the absence of  any light pollution, about feeling your place in the universe – and about shared experiences – family time – a chance to slow down and revel in each other company.

Leaving camp the next morning having bid farewell to Nelson and Robert we set off back across the plains – not sad but happy to have had such a unique opportunity to see the Serengeti as it really is – with few people and brimming with wildlife – we even spotted a pair of huge male lions and eight females flopped down close to the road on our way back to Naabi Gate, they really couldn’t have cared less that we were there – this was their land and they knew it.

Picnic in front of a tower of giraffe

We stopped a bit further on in a grove of acacia trees for lunch and again had a curious giraffe come and watch us eat ….and a flock of cheeky iridescent shimmering superb starlings hopping around us stealing crumbs ….. all wonderful memories …. I am sure we will be back out in the Serengeti again before too long, after all someone needs to go and keep Robert and Nelson company out there in the wilderness.

Robert and Nelson at camp