Saturday, 18 September 2010

Part 4 - Serengeti NP

Leaving the Ngorongoro headquarters around 9 in the morning, we set off for the Serengeti gate.  The Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) used to be part of the Serengeti National Park, but was annexed because the national park does not allow for human activity (which the NCA has with the Maasai living there).  So the NCA shares a border with the Serengeti; it's just a matter of driving from the NCA straight into the Serengeti Plains. 
Maasai village in the NCA
The drive itself from a scenery point is nice, changing from the montane forest of the crater rim, to the dry open plains with a few gazelles and giraffes dotted around.  The drive from a road point is an absolutely shocker... 

The road is so, so corrugated that it felt like the poor car was literally going to fall to pieces.  For anyone with a bad back, this is not the road for you!  It's really bad, and with our roof rack just holding on, with every jolt we were wondering if the rack was going to come crashing down into the roof! 

After what felt like a really long time (only about an hour though) we finally made it to the Serengeti boundary.  It was still another 40 km or so to the actual gate, and one of the safari guys told us when we met him at the boundary, the part of the road we had just travelled was the good bit!  He was right...

Boundary between NCA and Serengeti NP
The road from the boundary to the gate was actually more corrugated - hard to believe, but we finally made the Naabi Gate about 2 1/2 hours after we left the Ngorongoro HQ. The gate is on a little hill, and after paying everything, we got through and drove through seeing the mighty Serengeti Plains for the first time. 

It's absolutely spectacular - everything you've ever heard about and more!  For those that love wide open spaces, this is really the place to be.  We could just imagine thousands and thousands of wildebeest on the plains during the migration.  (Unfortunately for us, they were all crossing over to Kenya at this time)
Lilac-breasted roller
We still had another 56km to go to the Seronera River and the area we would be staying for the evening.  The road was almost as bad as the previous one.  Bear in mind that this road is actually a public road and connects the villages of the north to Arusha, so you actually see a few trucks and public buses in the middle of one of the most iconic national parks in the world... very odd :)

We didn't have to go far to see our first predator sighting.  Driving through the endless plains, you suddenly come across a few koppies (small hills made of big rocks) along the road.  It's appropriately called Simba (Lion in Kiswahili) Koppies since there were 5 lions lying on top.  It was amazing to us, because it was so incredibly hot and the rocks were black - they must have been boiling - yet this lions were just lazing on them in the sun and heat.  Awesome...
Not only that, about 500 m further down the road, we found another dozen lions lying on another rock... Wow, we'd knocked off 17 lions in our first hour in the Serengeti - we stopped counting lions after that :)
Tree hyrax
The afternoon drive was everything expected – and more – of the Serengeti.  After the lions, we found another pride of lions – about 10 of them just past the Seronera River, including some really small cubs.  Just after that, there was a game drive vehicle stopped – cheetah under a tree…

It wasn’t a good sighting but at least it was a cheetah.  The height advantage offered by the safari vehicles that can lift their roof is very distinctive here, and I suspect we are going to miss seeing what others can because of it.
Serengeti Plains
We got to the tourist centre and went in to just check where the public campsite was.  The tourist centre directed us to the office, within walking distance so we headed there.  After the guy directed us to the woman, who in turn directed us to the man, who was by then on his cell phone for 15 minutes, we finally got directions to the campsite – basically drive further up and follow the signs. 

We started heading there but decided half way to turn back – it was about 3.30 pm and prime time – we’d handle the campsite bureaucracy (if it was anything like the crater) when we got in at night… time to find more lions J
We decided to concentrate around the Seronera River – we’d heard that this was the best and most popular of the drives.   We headed down the river and then towards the Maasai Kopjes (unlike the Simba Kopjes with its lions, it didn’t have any Maasai on it :) ) where we only found a couple of vultures.  But we did see a couple of cars in the distance, so we headed that way.  On the way we stopped one of them – 5 lions were there and one of them was eating a gazelle – awesome!

We headed as fast as we could – although these roads don’t really allow for that, but soon enough came across a lioness near a gazelle kill.  Unfortunately, she was no longer eating, but we were entertained by her – with her stomach so full that she could hardly move – attempt a half-hearted stalk on 2 warthogs that had wandered her way. 

We finally left her and a few other lions sleeping and headed back to the other side of the river, where there were move game drive vehicles parked.  And yes, more lions – 3 of them sleeping under a tree.  Then one got up and walked toward our car, which gave us some great photo opportunities.  While that was going on, Dru was checking out the other side and found 3 or 4 more lions! And not only that, suddenly 2 of them started running – they were hunting!

One of them made a serious attempt at hunting a gazelle but just couldn’t make the corners that the Tommy could and he eventually got away.  An exciting few moments which eventually had one of the lions lying in what looked like the middle of the road and the others relaxing nearby.  And driving round we found them like that, sleeping after their hunting attempt J
As we meandered our way along the river for a while, and found our first elephants of the Serengeti – a nice herd of about 25 moving through, so watched them for a while.  By then, it was getting onto about 6pm and since we needed to be in the campsite by 7 pm, so we wound our way back. 
We reached the campsite in time, but found the drama of the campground that awaits self drivers – camping in the parking lot… 

The Serengeti NP (actually most of the parks) is not geared for self-campers, especially guys with roof tents.  Actually, throughout our trip we only saw a handful of self-campers, and even less with roof tents.  They cater for the mobile safaris and organised trips, where everything is organised by the crew - the tourists just arrive back from a drive, their tent is set up, the food is made, and they eat in a dining hall.  So essentially roof tent campers are relegated to the parking lot - not the most pleasant thing, especially when you're paying $30 pppn... 
To make it worse, it actually started to rain – something we definitely didn’t expect in the middle of the dry season.  We waited out the downpour in the car, and once it eased we decided to put up the temporary shelter, although by the time we’d got it up it was no longer raining – typical J
Serengeti sunset
We woke up at 5.30 am but it was just too dark to get out of the tent.  Plus, none of the stack of campers including the guides, were up yet, so we decided to wait in the tent for a while.  So we flashed around with the torch and there, about 100 m away from us, were about 10 pairs of eyes.  Once we flashed they all got up and started to walk to our right – we worked out that they were lions… interesting start J

Hot air ballooning over the Serengeti
We were the 3rd out of the camp – 2 of the game drive vehicles heading out before us.  And this is where it sometimes pays to be first on the road… 

The vehicle in front of us stopped and we spotted a couple of hyenas on the side of the road.  But there was another vehicle coming from the opposite direction and he was flashing his lights.  Turns out that there had been a leopard on the road, which had just disappeared into the bush when they arrived.  Though we were hopeful that he would appear again, he seemed to have disappeared and even the Topis (Tsessebee) that were around had relaxed so we figured he had moved on. 

We were lucky enough to see the pride of 10  lions that we had seen yesterday before we took a quick detour round the Maasai Kopjes (nothing) before heading north to Lobo, where we'd be camping for the night.  When we had spoken to one of the tour guides, he'd said that it had been raining up north, and if we were lucky we may catch some of the wildebeest migration.  So we were taking his advice and seeing what was around there.
From Seronera it was a bit of a slog north – again it’s the main road between Seronera and Lobo and the safari vehicles hammer through the drive so the road is extremely corrugated, though not as bad as the one from the gate to Seronera.

Instead of going all the way directly to Lobo, we took a turn about 30 km up towards the Grumeti River, the backdrop to many a documentary about the Serengeti.  The signs are a bit confusing and don’t quite agree to the map, but we finally found our way to the Migration Camp.  It seems to be a private camp, for when the migration passes through there, but it was closed so after doing a precarious u-turn on a big rock we finally found the road to the Grumeti.
Basking crocodile
The river is dry at this time of year, with only pools of stagnant water to support the animals, so we were surprised to find so many animals there anyway, especially zebra.  There were hundreds of them on both sides of the riverbank.  And tsetse flies – again thousands of them, with Dru taking the brunt of their attack.  They’re pretty frustrating – because their sting is painful you are constantly brushing them off to prevent getting stung, and it actually distracts you from enjoyment of the drive.
Tsetse traps
These are tsetse fly traps and are all over the parks, especially near the campsites – theory being that the flies are attracted to blue and black, so will buzz round there instead of people.  Doesn’t help if you drive a blue car…
While there weren’t that many predators we did spot a lone lioness and a cheetah under a tree.  We actually spent some time with the cheetah, having lunch there, as there was a herd of zebra and impala heading his way, and we were hoping that he would hunt.  But after waiting about 40 minutes with no sign of serious intent from him, we gave up and headed onwards, seeing quite a few elephants along the way.
We got to the campsite just after lunchtime.  They have a bunch of houses there for the rangers and their family and so we stopped there and met Dennis the ranger.  And after inspecting our permit, Dru asked him about the migration.  “Oh, do you want to see the migration?”  What a question! That’s why we’re up at Lobo in the first place! 

He pointed out of the map where they had been seen a couple days ago, so our plan was to go in that direction and hopefully see them.  Problem was that they were heading to the Kenyan border and we would have to be lucky to see them before they disappeared into the Maasai Mara for the next couple of months.
The elusive Eland
Turns out we weren’t that lucky to catch the wildebeest migration on our first trip into the Serengeti…  The way further North is a very scenic drive, with small springs coming out of the mountains so there is plenty of water around, supporting nice herds of zebra, some wildebeest and eland – that elusive antelope that we still haven’t managed to get any good shots of.
Spotted hyena

Unfortunately for us, it has been raining up there and the roads are black cotton soil, which makes them as slippery as hell with a bit of water on them.  And especially without 4WD, we just weren’t prepared to take chances.  So when we got to a small river crossing (apparently where the wildebeest were according to Dennis) we had to turn back (plenty of vehicles weren’t prepared to take that chance either). So we meandered our way further, until finally we reached the boundary of the Serengeti. 

Wildebeest grazing - the black dots on the hill are all animals
Since it’s also the border with Kenya there’s a gate to go through if you want to go to the Maasai Mara.  We stopped there for a while, but soon decided to turn back – the migration had definitely crossed into Kenya, even though there were plenty of wildebeest milling around – we presume it’s the tail of the migration which we’d probably missed by about a week of so.  We took a bit of a detour on the way back and when we stopped, we looked a little more closely at the hills in the distance.  And what appeared to be bushes and trees were actually wildebeest – hundreds of them roaming around.  While we didn’t catch the full extent of the migration, we did eventually get a taste of what it may be like. 

Young warthogs trying to suckle
After a while videotaping the wildebeest, we headed back to the campsite via the Lobo Hills route.  It was a nice drive and we saw some zebra and (unusually) elephants climbing up the hills, but the road was too far away from the water springs to have many animals.  We were lucky enough to encounter 2 spotted hyenas, and heard a lion roaring in the distance, but not much more than that. 
We drove to the campsite just before sunset to find only one other tent there – a total contrast to the previous night’s very busy Dik-Dik campsite. 

Again a problem – cars aren’t allowed in the campground, so that would mean we’d have to set up in the parking lot again – these guys really don’t cater to the rooftents!  The guys stopped us at the entrance to the campground to tell us our car wasn’t allowed in, but then relented and allowed us to camp in the ground for the evening.  So we got to set up camp in the actual campsite for the first time :)

We were up early again and wanted to catch a quick game drive in the area before heading straight back to Seronera.  While the Lobo area is very scenic, it just doesn't quite have the action the Seronera River has.  The one advantage is that it's nice and quiet with very few game drive vehicles, so apart from one safari vehicle who was looking for the airport (he was a bit lost) we had a nice quiet drive.  And were lucky enough to come across 3 lions - the male and female were mating, while the brother looked on with a couple of fresh scratches - guess him and bro had fought for the rights J
Mating lions
So after having our morning coffee with the lions, we headed back on the main road to Seronera and so started our action-packed day…

Along the way, we spotted a black-backed jackal on the road, heading like he was on a mission.  We soon spotted another jackal, only this one – presumably his mate – was eating something.  We watched her for a while before she disappeared with her spoils and her mate went in search of more food.
Not long after that we found a spotted hyena on the side of the road.  He also looked like he was on a mission, crossed the road, and joined 4 others.  A clan of 5 hyenas – besides the Ngorongoro, it was the biggest clan we had seen together – very cool.
We came across a troupe of baboons, and as they were pretty close to the road, wanted to photograph them – these are Olive baboons, not the normal Savannah baboons that we’re used to seeing, and the males have impressive “capes” making them look massive.  We were just slowing down to get a good shot, when one came running towards us – not only that, but he was carrying a baby Thompson’s gazelle! 

Although baboons mainly forage, they do take antelopes every now and then – and this one was still alive and bleating.  It was as if the baboon wasn’t quite sure how to kill it and just kept trying to suffocate it or holding it like a ragdoll.  The crying of the Tommy attracted other baboons and they started to chase him, so he ran up a tree holding his prize – it was quite a macabre, yet fascinating scene to watch. 

At one stage he dropped the gazelle and jumped down after it.  This attracted a bigger male who came after him and attacked for the antelope.  Suddenly, there was an almighty chase, with the gazelle dropped and forgotten.  Eventually the baboons returned to normal and one of the smaller baboons got hold of the gazelle.  We don’t actually know if anyone ate the poor Tommy, or if it was all just a powerplay, but still an action packed few moments.
After leaving them we drove further down, but our attention was captured by a couple of speeding game drive vehicles heading in the opposite direction.  Considering that there were 5 lions right on the side of the road, we knew this was something special so we decided to follow them.  They drove a lot faster than we normally do and we did lose them at one stage, but finally caught up with them and discovered about 10 other cars at the same spot – with the tourists all craning their necks in one direction. 
Again, we had a height disadvantage with them being able to see from high up, but knew by the reaction of a small herd of gazelles that there was definitely a cat somewhere in the grass.  It took us about 10 minutes to figure out what had been seen – a leopard up a tree had come down and crossed the road before disappearing into the grass.  It seemed that only a couple of cars had seen it though – us and the rest of the Serengeti had been a bit too late.

After a while of fruitless searching, we finally gave it up and headed back in the direction we had been going originally.  We got back to the lions who had moved down towards the river a bit, but were surrounded by almost of a dozen cars. 

We thought about hanging around in the hope that they’d drink, but figured that even if they did, our view would be blocked by the other cars, so left them and continued downriver.  Again we saw vehicles speeding, this time in the same direction we here headed. 

And soon enough, we spotted a massive traffic jam of cars – about a dozen again – this has gotta be good… And it was – a cheetah had just hunted and killed a gazelle, and was now proceeding to eat it right on the side of the road!  It took us a long time to actually get to the cheetah though. 

With all the traffic on both sides of the road, it was like a peak hour traffic jam.  The one advantage for us is that because all the cars are organised tours, they don’t tend to stay at any one sighting for too long.  Once the tourists have seen anything for a while, they move onto the next thing.  Indeed, we actually heard a couple of Americans saying to the guide that they wanted to move on to something else.  (even though you don’t get much better than this!)

So as the vehicles moved around, we managed to inch our way forward, until finally (although not without some dirty looks from the safari guides) we managed to get right next to the cheetah.  He was the only one who seemed quite unaffected by all the attention he was drawing, happily eating and only looking up in the opposite direction every now and then for other predators. 

We spent a long time with him as he crunched through his lunch (yes, another Tommy – they were getting hammered today!) and we only left after he had moved the now almost eaten carcass to the other side of the tree.  It was an awesome and one of the highlights of the day and our trip so far.

Once we left, we decided to head to the signposted picnic site for lunch, but never found it.  Although signposted at 2 intersections, at the third one there was no indication of which way to go and we obviously took the wrong one.  In the end, hungry we headed for the tourist centre, figuring we would have lunch there after stopping at the petrol station for fuel.

After visiting the petrol station, we decided to use our own fuel instead.  Fuel here is expensive and it wasn’t unleaded.  Although we have taken out the catalytic converter in anticipation of this problem of not getting unleaded, when the guy needed to get a stick to jam in the fuel nozzle, we decided to use 40l of our fuel instead – it was going to be more of a hassle to get this fuel in that ours off the roof. 

So we headed to the tourist centre, but when we got there it seemed like the whole of the Serengeti had the same idea – the whole parking lot was full.  So we went to the rangers’ office around the corner and used the shade of the tree to get the fuel down and fill the car up.  That done, we decided to have our lunch on the run,– there was way too much happening to spend half an hour eating at the tourist centre.

Back on the road, we headed past the cheetah kill again. By this by this time the cheetah had disappeared and only a bit of the carcass remained. We backtracked our route of the morning along the river, finding  the lazy lions again, this time on the other side of the road, lying under a tree sleep, kept company by some tourist cars.  With them not doing anything, we carried on and found a nice herd of zebra drinking. 

Although they all ran off when we arrived they soon settled down and came to drink again, giving Dru some nice shots.  We made our way back to where the leopard had been sighted earlier on, but there was no sign of the cat, so we carried on, spotting another 3 lions along the way, including a male with a very blond mane before heading back to where the cheetah had been.
Again, the 5 lions had not moved and the cheetah kill was now gone, but we did spot a big group of cars again, so headed in that direction.  More lions… but not where the majority of the cars were parked.  We stopped briefly to check out the lions – it looked like the lionesses and her cubs that we had seen on our first day.  While we were stopped though, a game drive vehicle told us that there was a leopard in a tree further on!  Aah, that’s the reason for the cars J

So of course we headed that way.  We actually spotted a lioness with a freshly killed Thompson’s gazelle in her mouth (the Tommys are really getting hammered today!) but because it was a bit far away – we’re getting spoilt with the sightings – we decided to rather go for the leopard – leopard trumps lion almost every time!
And there we found him – unfortunately not as close as we’d hoped.  Whoever spotted it has extremely keen eyesight – we always look specifically for leopards in trees, but don’t think either of us would have spotted it, he blended right into the colour and shape of the tree.

We spent some time with him, hoping he’d get into a better position, or maybe even climb down, but after it started raining, which stopped us taking photos, we planned to head to the other side of the river – the quieter side as we called it.  We headed to Maasai Kopjes in the hopes of catching another leopard – our own one ;)  But as before, it proved a fruitless search.  We did spot a nice black-mane lion though, sleeping in the grass. And it was nice timing since it was just when Dru was videotaping the Serengeti Plains.
The lion looked up when we approached – giving us a couple of nice shots – but soon afterwards he flopped back down and went to sleep, camouflaging him in the grass.  We carried on a bit, but since there was nothing around, we soon decided to turn back and head towards the main road. 

We hadn’t gone far when we passed another game drive vehicle who had also been driving around the koppies.  We stopped them and asked what they had seen, but the answer was nothing.  The guide was most happy to hear about the lion though – they had missed him when they had driven past.  After much thanks (we were blessed about 5 times), they turned and headed back, with the lion nice enough to sit up for them as well.

After all the excitement of the day, it was getting late and we had to head back to camp.  Again we were at the Dik-Dik campsite, but luckily it wasn't as busy as it was the previous time, and we were able to have showers straight away.  Unfortunately for us though, it started to rain... and not just lightly - it poured down!

We had the foresight to set up the temporary shelter (basically a canvas sheet attached to the side of the car) but the rain was more than it had ever handled.  In the circumstances, I think it did quite well - we had to prop it up with our spare gas lamp pole, and we couldn't sit on the chairs because they had got soaked :) Didn't matter about sitting anyway, because the covered area is too small to sit and cook at the same time. 

So there we were, standing under our dodgy shelter in the pouring rain, trying to make pasta while having a glass of wine J No doubt we entertained the organised tourists, who were watching us from the dining hall J  Still, all in good fun, and after a good meal (when we finally got it cooked) it was time for bed - our last night in the Serengeti.

We got up to a beautiful day, with no sign of the rain from the night before.  After packing up, it was time to head out the Serengeti.  The plan was to head straight from here to Lake Manyara, and we estimated that it was probably going to take us about 5 or 6 hours to get out of Serengeti and then Ngorongoro - Lake Manyara is about 60 from the Crater gate.  So aside from a quick stop at one of the Simba Koppies, we headed straight for the gate. 
We arrived at the gate around 9am as planned but then it was permit and paperwork time, including paying to drive through the crater to get through.  It’s a blatant ripoff – we needed to pay $50 each and $40 for the car just to drive the NCA, just because there’s no other way to get from the Serengeti to Arusha unless you do a 2 day trip from the West side.  If the road was good, you could justify it, but this one big corrugation calling itself a road was a nightmare.  And it's worse when you know what to expect...
Still, the Serengeti had been worth the drive – an absolutely awesome park.  Time to see what Lake Manyara had to offer…

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