Our friends in Tanzania recently journeyed through Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti to check in on the camps and staff for our post-climb extension to Climb Kilimanjaro, and were pleasantly surprised to be one of the only safari vehicles in both parks!
When the coronavirus COVID-19 struck Tanzania and tourism, we decided to keep two of our staff at each of our Serengeti and Ngorongoro luxury camps. After a couple months, our group of six took a trip out there to check on the staff and the camp.
With glorious weather above us and cameras in hand, we set off from our home in Arusha. 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 Maasai were herding their cattle, shops were open, and brightly dressed people were walking the streets—around half of them were wearing masks, but that was the only sign of the upheaval shaking the world.
It was at the Park Gate that we first noticed the change. Normally, a bustling hive of activity with vehicles brimming of safari-goers 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 dozen or more.
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 2,000 feet below us—we had the place all to ourselves. We spent 15 minutes staring through 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 or more safari vehicles in the crater, but not today. We couldn’t spot even a single vehicle. Even more eery.
We cruised around the crater rim until we could look out over the vast Serengeti plains far below us and found a beautiful spot to enjoy the perfect picnic lunch, with amazing views and a curious giraffe nearby.
Heading down, down, down (several thousand feet!) to the edge of the Serengeti plains, we began to see more and more wildebeest, a bit of a surprise as it was the end of the rainy season.
These herds should’ve been heading west a few weeks earlier, but it seems about 10,000 wildebeest “forgot” to migrate! And now they face the challenge of crossing 50 or so miles of drying plains to meet up with the rest of the herds.
The entrance to the Serengeti from Naabi Gate 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.
Coming through the Seronera area at the center of the park, we stumbled upon a herd of elephants browsing. All still very relaxed about vehicles despite not having seen one for months. 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 are actually a form of communication–these low-frequency rumbles can travel through the soil and be heard by other elephants up to six miles away!
We sat for a long time enjoying the company of the elephants and the playful antics of the juveniles, and of course, watching the spectacular sunset, but that also meant we arrived in camp after dark! But the crew, Nelson and Robert, were still delighted to see us and had a great campfire waiting.
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.
The next day dawned bright and clear. After our long drive out we had a relaxed start with some coffee around the campfire with a bit of bird spotting. We challenged ourselves to see how many different bird and animal species we could identify on the safari and 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.
We explored the western 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.
Where there is a lot of wildebeest there is always a lot of lion! 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 must 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.
Heading South towards the stunningly 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!) of dwarf mongeese.
As we approached the Moru area we could see towering plumes of smoke, the grassland was burning! The national park actually burns the grass on the plains each year at about this time. The key is to burn just after the rains have stopped so the fire passes through 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, small reptiles, frogs, and more that couldn’t outrun the fire. As always, nothing goes to waste in the Serengeti!
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 so other males are constantly trying to “poach” females for their own harem. The result—nonstop 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 breathtaking scene and we sat mesmerized at the ebb and flow of the harems and the boundless energy of the males.
The next day we left the car behind and set out on a walking safari, my favorite 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.
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 of our presence.
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 six lions on a neighboring kopje. Hearts beating a little faster we crept closer to the wildebeest, while keeping a wary eye on the lions, and managed to get within about 30 yards of them—so thrilling!
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!
That night, we enjoyed sitting around a campfire listening to the competing roar of the prides of lion around camp or the call of hyena echoing across the plains, looking up and seeing so many stars with the absence of any light pollution–a wonderful way to slow down and revel in the company of our group.
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 once was–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.
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. 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.
—Text and photos by Richard Beatty, Ngorongroro Crater and Serengeti Extension.