For the first time, instead of self-driving, we opted for going on a paid safari. Couple of factors influenced us - 1st: our car had recently broken down 200km from Dar and we'd had to spend New Year's day at a dodgy mechanic who took out half the engine to fix it... although the car was driving, we weren't confident enough to drive it 600km to Arusha and then into the parks and back again. And we were right, it broke a month later when we were again 200km outside of Dar! (Read all about our dramas here). The 2nd thing was the time - we only had 5 days and it would take about 1 1/2 days to get to the Serengeti - that's 3 days of traveling and 2 days of game park... So we chose to fly to Arusha the night before and head out first thing in the morning and spend 4 nights in the Serengeti...
We finally got through the Serengeti’s Naabi Hill gate around 2.30pm, and started the 50+ km drive to the Seronera campsite through the Serengeti Plains – nothing like the first sight when you come over the hill and see the mighty plains! We were surprised at how dry it was looking – expecting it to have more of a green tinge, but apparently the short rains didn’t fall so it explains the lack of prolific game on the open veld. Still, we did see the usual Thompson’s gazelles dotted around and a nice big bull elephant grazing along the side of the road.
And Simba Koppies didn’t disappoint – fittingly we had a lioness standing on top of one of the rocks. She looks like she’s just had cubs, judging by the belly, but no sign of them.
And about 5km from our campsite we had one of the highlights of our trip first up…
Cars had stopped up ahead of us, but when we got there they had started to move off. Of course we stopped, but couldn’t see anything, especially in that tall grass. Just as we were moving off, Dru suddenly shouted “Stop! Serval!” There, behind the car, a serval had appeared on the road, and not only that, but he was chasing a hare! The rabbit made straight for our car with the serval chasing after it, but gave up the chase when the rabbit managed to run in front of our car and dart off into the grass again. He stood for a moment looking at us before heading off into the grass again, giving us enough time to get a few shots off, although unfortunately not with the rabbit in the frame.
We waited 5 years in Botswana to catch a glimpse of a serval, and now we’d seen one on the first day of only our 2nd trip to the Serengeti – Awesome! We do know that they are sighted here quite often, but great to have it be us sighting it!
We had a nice morning with the spotted hyenas, an animal that seems largely ignored in the Serengeti – probably because you see them so often here and they’re not as glamorous as the cats.
We’d spotted one sitting on a mound catching the morning sun and stopped to photograph him before heading off but spotted some more heading to the mound so spent time with them watching their greeting rituals. Dru turned out to be right when he predicted that it was a den, soon enough a couple of cubs popped up and joined in with the family greetings.
We were just leaving them and heading up the road when we had a wildebeest calf running alongside our car – strange… Turns out he was being chased by one of the hyenas! They took off down the road with us following and trying to take shots at the same time – not the most successful attempt! Though the wildebeest calf had the speed, the hyena had the stamina and we thought it was just a matter of time, but amazingly the calf made it to another herd of wildebeest and the hyena gave up the chase. He did have another half-hearted attempt, but no hot breakfast for him ;)
Our guide had a pretty good idea where the majority of the migration herd were, so we headed down there first thing in the morning. Although not all together at once, the amount of these animals you see is absolutely amazing – thousands upon thousands. The camera doesn’t quite do it justice, the sheer numbers just don’t get captured – and of course the noise! The grunting and groaning goes on all around you – it’s pretty amazing to just sit there and listen and watch one of the greatest migrations on earth.
We don’t think that wildebeest are the brightest antelope out there… They’ll all be walking along calmly, when all of a sudden one of them will seemingly panic and start to run… This creates a domino effect and suddenly you have hundreds of wildebeest thundering towards you! And then just as suddenly, they’ll all stop and start walking again… This happens over and over and is pretty amusing to watch.
What is quite amazing though is the amount of dust and sand that gets kicked up when they start to run. Suddenly a massive cloud forms above them and completely obscures more than about 7 rows back – fantastic to witness, but extremely hard to capture on camera.
After a satisfying day spent with the migration, we headed to spend the afternoon around Seronera, a mecca for predators and conveniently located near the public campsite, so not much driving to get to camp in the evening. Our guide managed to miss a sighting of a leopard, luckily Dru urged him to stop and we got a nice look at him although the photos weren’t great since it was a bit far away.
We’d heard a lot of radio chatter and after some urging from us, the guide told us there had been another leopard sighting. Of course at our insistence, we headed over there. By the time we arrived the leopard was in the grass and unsighted, but thanks to our patience, he finally moved and ended up standing on a mound, giving us some shots before getting back to the tall grass and disappearing. From there it was to Maasai Koppies and another leopard sighting, this time in a tree and a lot closer, but true to form the leopard was in an awkward position and all we could see was his back end. Still we decided to wait him out and after 2 hours he finally moved. There had been cloud cover for most of the afternoon, but for a brief period the sun came out and shone directly on the tree. At that moment, the leopard decided to look up for a couple of seconds. We only got off 2 shots each, but in the end it was all that was needed…
The plan on the 2nd morning was to head to the migration again, this time taking a different route. The herds had been moving north and our guide estimated where they would be, so we were hoping to catch up with them again. On the way we spotted the Seronera lion pride, an almost super pride of about 20 lions. We’d seen them on our last trip as well and were happy to see them again. Although the males weren’t in the area, some the females and cubs – about 14 in all - were catching the morning sun with the cubs quite active, playing with each other.
After the morning spent with the migration again, It was back to Seronera for the afternoon, and we hit luck almost immediately. Our guide had spotted a leopard in a tree, but too far away for good photos. From there we found 3 cheetahs – a mother and her 2 grown cubs – resting under a tree. They were just too far away though, so we decided to leave them and keep going. Although we did see another leopard in a tree (told you they’re all around) and more lions, we missed out what would have been a fantastic sighting. We got back to the cheetah and found that not only had they hunted, but they’d made a kill and were now feeding on it! They spent a long time feeding (again, a bit far away for great shots) before heading back to their same tree we’d left them at. Just shows, patience pays off…
Leopard mom and cub
We had found a leopard mother and grown cub playing in the grass first thing in the morning. Unfortunately the grass was too tall and all we could see was glimpses of tails while they were playing. We were hoping that they’d climb a tree close by so we’d positioned ourselves perfectly, but it wasn’t to be. Eventually they lay down and disappeared in the grass. Once that happened, most of the cars moved off, but (learning our lesson from the cheetahs) we decided to stay and have our breakfast there in the hope that they would make another appearance.
The waiting paid off – they started to move again towards us, and the mother walked straight to the cars and after squeezing between our car and another, decided to lie down at our driver’s door and rest! It was amazing and where the roof hatch became so handy! This is her looking up at us taking photos of her!
Shortly after this she disappeared across the road, leaving her cub safely hidden on the other side. We waited a long time to see if the cub would follow but eventually he moved off as well, although they were reunited later that afternoon. Another fantastic start to the morning!
The second-fiddle migration
Everyone knows about the million-plus strong wildebeest migration, but at the same time there are 500,000 gazelles and 200,000 zebra that do the migration route as well. Today we stayed around the Seronera area and caught up with the zebras, which move ahead of the wildebeest. And again, the sheer numbers were breathtaking, they were just everywhere, and especially drinking towards noon.
We went from one waterhole to another just watching the zebra drinking. They’re such photogenic animals and drink “photogenically” as well – all in one long row ;)
And of course with the drinking comes the panic as well. After a tentative start, the zebra actually wade quite deep into the water, some of them up to the necks. So of course if one panics, they all do and need to get out the water as fast as possible. We’d got there shortly after they had started drinking and this was the same pattern that seem to go on forever. Drink, panic, run, stop, wait, move towards water… repeat…
And in the end we know why… while watching one herd, we spotted a crocodile in the water eyeing his chances. Unfortunately the zebra had been disturbed from the waterhole we’d been watching and had moved to another, where the croc was now heading towards, but we knew if we moved we’d scare off the herd… a dilemma… In the end, we had to go – we had to sort out fuel and a fix on the car and preferred to do it in the heat of the day rather than at prime cat time. Turned out we should have waited around…
We got back to the same waterhole a couple hours later and there was a dead zebra in the water with 2 crocodiles attempting to eat it! They’d gone for the kill and had been successful. Nevertheless, despite missing the kill, it was quite fascinating to watch; every now and then one of the crocs would go into a “death roll” to pull off chunks of meat. And they swallow it whole – bones and all – by tossing it up in the air and catching it. We watched them for a long time, as did a crew of Marabou storks, no doubt waiting for their chance to scavenge if anything washed ashore.
After the crocs, we found a couple of lazy male lions sleeping it off under a tree, but didn’t pay much attention to them. Instead, after driving further down, we found a couple of lionesses, still with blood on their faces – it seemed that we had just missed another kill! In the middle of the afternoon – amazing. There were so many cars around them though and no sign of the kill (that we could see) and since they weren’t doing anything but lying there and panting, we decided to check up on the leopards that we’d seen the morning. And we found both mom and cub on a tree – just unfortunately not the nice close one we’d hope they’d climb in the morning. The one was far and we were shooting straight into the sun. So once the cub had climbed down and disappeared into the grass, we left them in favour of the lions.
We got back to the lions and spotted the zebra carcass which had been hidden from our view earlier by a bush. We positioned our car next to the carcass, which was right next to the road (man – to have seen that kill up close!) and as luck would have it, shortly afterwards one of the lionesses got up and came to the carcass to eat, giving us a few shots, albeit with her back to us. After eating a bit, she dragged the half eaten carcass about 5 meters into more grass – it was quite astonishing the power that she had as a lone lioness to drag an almost fully grown zebra that far with apparent ease!
For the rest of the afternoon we jostled between lions eating zebra and crocodiles eating zebra. We finished by sitting with the 2 males hoping that they’d sit up and give us a couple of nice shots, but they were a no-show – typical!
Our last night in the bush was a wet affair – it had started raining in the afternoon, and although it cleared enough for us to sit outside our tent and have a couple of drinks, we knew it wasn’t going to last! It rained in the evening, and the next morning, making for a damp job to take the tent down ;)
Soon enough though, we were heading out of the Serengeti through the plains. We had a quick stop to sort out the paperwork and walked up the hill to get a last high rise view of the Serengeti plains – pretty spectacular from up there even if you’re warned that you’re the first ones going up for the morning and to make a noise in case there are lions in the area!
Once again the Serengeti National Park didn’t disappoint, and we’re counting the days (and the pennies) until we can go again!