Thursday, 25 December 2014

Serengeti NP: Christmas in the rain

Storm clouds gather over the Serengeti plains at Simba Kopjes
Another Christmas and another plan is hatched to spend Christmas under the stars in the best park in the world. The last time we were here in the Serengeti was to check out the Mara crossing and there is no way anything would top that. We were or course following the herds once again, and like the previous year, the rains were chaotic and the herds we running out of synch. 

Once again they were not running down the Eastern plains but straight down the middle and were already in Seronera in the central Serengeti 2 weeks before we arrived. All reports were they were heading South early this year but we were not really chasing the migration but obviously no trip to the Serengeti would be complete without getting excited about the Migration!

Kiboko Lodge Arusha - a cool stop over on the outskirts away from the crowds. 
Once again the drama with the TANAPA (Tanzania National Parks) and NCA (Ngorongoro Conservation Area) pre-paid card system had to be dealt with and once again, thanks to Selma and Ngomi (Makasa Tanzania – check these guys if you want go on safari). After getting ice from the Butcher shop in Dar and packing up, it was the usual early morning start from Dar heading to Arusha for the first night. White Parrot in Korogwe was the first stop for lunch. 

We picked up our TANAPA and NCA cards in Moshi and were told that the NCA had made things even more complicated by requiring you to obtain the entry card in the town of Karatu as opposed to the gate! Why would you make it easier to check out a great destination? 

We arrived at Kiboko Lodge on the outskirts of Arusha before dark, our first stop. This is a cool stopover, nice spot off the beaten track set amongst thick trees and run by a charitable institute. They have a nice deck overlooking an overgrown lake to bird at. We spotted our first lifer of the trip with a White eyed Slaty flycatcher making it onto the birdlist.

Storms breaking over the Serengeti plains - it was going to be a wet one. 
Next morning, destination Serengeti and the horror road from the NCA to Naabi hill gate had two pleasant surprises. First the migration was around but not in huge numbers and second, TANAPA had spent some of the tourist dollars in grading the road from the NCA border to Naabi hill. Just as we were sorting out the paper work at the gate, an almighty storm struck Naabi hill to remind us that this time we would have to deal with the rain. We had been tracking the weather predictions leading up to our trip and were in no doubt that this time we would have a few soakings!

First night at Dik Dik's campsite. 
We reached our campsite just before dark with not much to report in terms of sightings but happy to be in our favorite spot. We had heard of a super pride (lose term for a pride up to 30 lions) in the area on our last visit 6 months ago and knew the pride was still around and was our main target for the trip. 

The plan was to ask questions over the next few days and work out where the pride was hanging out and try and catch it. With no information at this early stage, it was decided to check out the area next to the Mwanza Bridge, which we suspected was where the super pride hung around. It was also the area we has seen the largest pride in the past and seemed a good starting point. 

The big pride was out first morning as planned!

First thing in the morning headed to the areas as planned and drove up to Lion rock with no signs of anything! On the way back we noted a couple of Impala that certainly had seen something but we couldn’t see a thing. Getting to a different angle to check out what the impala were looking at we had our first sighting of a cat, a Lion. 

Then there were more and suddenly there were a whole heap heading towards the road. The whole pride crossed the road right in front of us and it was a huge pride, possibly members of the super pride. What a start and we hadn’t had coffee on the first morning yet. The pride settled in the open and played around but too far from any road to get decent shots.

Pride crossing the road - perfect start to the trip.

Next we headed on a recently opened one way road which vehicles were going both ways on. 'Hot air balloon landing road' was the name being thrown around and it was a nice long drive connecting the plains to the small hills. Except for a few hyenas and some plains game, there wasn't anything too interesting. 

Two banded courser 
What was most noticeable was the gathering of storm clouds and soon we were forced to flee the Seronera area where the rains were falling and headed to Lake Magadi where things looked clearer. A vehicle stuck in the mud was a clear warning that we needed to be careful getting off the main track this time around. 
Looks like trouble!
Our search for the Magadi pride only resulted in a small herd of elephants on the road but an interesting drive after the rains. A passing vehicle informed us that parts of the migration were behind the Sopa Lodge road near Dunia camp, an area we hadn’t been to before.  Sure enough there were huge numbers of wildebeest and zebra all over the place but the prize was the discovery of a Bat-eared fox den. This was a first, a den with heaps of pups at different stages all running around!

Anything on the road is always exciting

Bat-eared fox den - the den was a first for us. 

Bat-eared fox
We didn't react well to the alarm call of impala and only spotted a leopard after we had passed it. The leopard crossed the road behind us and disappeared in to the Kopjes on the road to Allan Roots residence. Having just picked up his book, it’s fitting this pioneer of the East African bush would settle down in this corner of the Serengeti. 

This little slender mongoose posed for the camera. 

Throw some rain on this black cotton road and its a different story. 
The road got tricky so it was time to head back hoping the storms had cleared in Sero. After a little debate it was decided to check out to Lake Magadi which turned out to be a fruitful move as there were two male lions sleeping in the open right next to the road at the turn off to Lake Magadi, which also had some Flamingos. What’s more on the way back a leopard crossed the road moments after a vehicle had sped off looking for the lions.

One of the Lake Magadi males, the other refused to look up.

The leopard gave us one look before it went off. 
Greater Flamingo's at Lake Magadi. 
Heading back we noted that the herd of buffalo was much closer to the road but a vehicle was checking out something else on the opposite side of the road – a prized sighting of a Serval! What’s more it was a Mother with a cub and was not looking to run away. The Mother made a few moves towards the car and we thought she wanted to cross the road but the cub refused to budge. 

Finally, she made a move straight towards our vehicle and picked up a rat she had killed for the cub. This was an unbelievable sighting being this close to the road. The plan to head to Magadi to get away from the rain proved to be one of the best ever game drives :)    

Clear shot of a Serval despite the long grass was awfully lucky. 
A Serval that didn't want to disappear was also lucky. 
No luck with the cub showing up to get the mouse. 
We went to bed that night knowing the first day would be hard to beat and surely was one of the all time best days of game viewing. That night the roars of lions kept getting closer and woke us up several times. Finally, at dawn when it was time to get out of the tent, the roars were almost on top of us! 

Sure enough as we were leaving the campsite a lioness was chasing a hyena towards the camp site. Then a stack of lions were walking down the road led by a male. There were 22 lions in all, 17 on the road just meters from the campsite – the super pride had come looking for us! Unfortunately the light was really bad and once the pride headed off the road, we headed to Maasai Kopjes chasing a possible mating pair of leopards.

17 lions on the road just meters from our campsite

The pride was still around in the evening. 
The rest of the day was spent dodging storms between Maasai and Sero and catching up with the various sightings on offer. A massive herd of buffalo had made its appearance as had a couple of cheetah but the cheetah were too far to shoot and would be the only cheetah for the trip. 

Buffalo often try to stare you down

Banded Mongoose
In the evening we finally had a sighting of one of the leopards who was up a tree with a kill but out of camera range. A hundred yards away on the next set of rocks a pride of lions rested – two of Africa’s prized sightings were next to each other. We also found a single female on her own on a third rock which we suspected to be a nursing mother. She crossed the road and headed in to the plains sizing up a hartebeest, but it was getting too late and we had to head to camp.

Yellow billed Ox-peckers on a Buffalo
Coke's Hartebeest 
A baby Olive Baboon hitches s ride. 
Day three and all effort was on getting decent sighting of the Maasai Kopje leopard with the possibility of a second leopard with it. Leopards mating would be first prize but getting a sighting of such a rare event would be a life time event. We were beaten to the rocks by other vehicles and signs were there was no leopard in sight. 

Superb Starling with breakfast
We did see the lions on the plains miles away though. Other vehicles came and went but we stayed circling the rocks and finally found the male leopard on a tree close to the road. It must have just gone up as we and others passed the spot a few minutes ago. It was a case of perseverance paying off and we got ourselves in to a decent position before the hoards arrived.

Finally caught the Masai kopjes male on a tree
The leopard kept us waiting for close to 2 hours before it finally got up and moved. All of 30 vehicles sped off in a mad rush expecting to catch it on the opposite side of the rock. We know well not to get tangled up in this cat and mouse chase and kept a safe distance before the leopard appeared on our side again. 

Once again we had a great spot as the big male Leopard made its way across rocks and all of 30 vehicles scrambled back to get prime seats. The leopard made its way high in to the rocks to where the female had been hiding. She showed up and appeared relaxed at a distance. Certainly looked like a mating pair probably coming to an end of their mating ritual as despite spending hours with them, there was no sign of actually mating.       

After a couple of hours, finally it made a move.

The female showed up but no mating!

Thoroughly satisfied with the two leopards we spent the rest of the day trying to work out how many lions were hanging around a log in the plains in the middle of Seronera. One of the females showed signs of wanting to hunt but made a meal of her attempts but we never really got a good sighting. 

Greed Wood-Hoopoe
As evening approached we decided to check out the Hyena den. They had moved the den a couple of hundred yards, the pups from 6 months ago had grown up a bit, but they were as curious as ever. All hyenas made a beeline for our vehicle with some actually running towards the car. 

Hyenas drinking on the road
We were aware of this behavior from previous visits to the same den and put it down to a research vehicle that parked next to the den in the past. The animals had got totally used to vehicles and would sniff around and bite at anything the car offered. They also seemed keen to just hang around the car which is a nice way to spend the evening before heading to camp.

The only case we have encountered where the game heads for the car

A Hyena appears happy on the road next to the car. 

Hyenas drink on the road with storms gathering in the distance 
The next morning lion fever had hit us again and we decided to chase the super pride again but not much joy. In fact our luck appeared to be diminishing by the day but the Serengeti kept pulling something out for everyday. 

Today, in between storms, the pride on the log in Sero finally showed itself out and it was a decent pride. At one stage most of the pride lay on the log offering a cool sighting but we were still complaining about it being too far. 

Lion on a tree is always amusing
A couple went up trees and few more adults stayed well away from the youngsters on the log but it was an interesting sighting despite our complaints and the rain and light taking turns to make shooting difficult.  


With so much rain around driving around was a serious challenge. The main roads have a layer of gravel which leaves them easy to negotiate. However, the side roads that don’t have this layer seemed like driving on ice. There is a lot of black cotton soil around and this is a total disaster to negotiate in the wet. 

Giving way to an elephant in the rain can become tricky
With the Serengeti being flat, the roads act as secondary streams and for water to find its way to the main channels. Also on the flat terrain, any depression becomes an instant pool of water. Getting out to test roads is not really an option all the time so knowing the terrain and knowing when to stay out of trouble is critical to keep driving around. 

Negotiating elephants on a slippery road
We had to turn back on several occasions and on one occasion we pulled out under a tree for lunch. The rain arrived and turned the road in to a river and going forwards was not an option anymore. What all of this also means is you can’t get away from the crowds as everyone is restricted to a few roads.

Roads turn in to streams, quickly! 

Day 5 and the car is covered in mud

The final morning our main aim was to get out and very much aware of huge flood ways that would easily become impassable along the way. The plan was to have a look around central Sero and head out around 10am. We did the customary up and down the Sero river and decided to have coffee with the only lion sighting of the morning. 

Helmeted Guinea fowl AKA Chobe Chook.
A vehicle pulled over, and the guide informed us that wild dogs had been sighted but in an area we only had a vague idea of and were soon to find out, the road to reach this part of the park was a nightmare. Dogs however were good enough to take a chance and we made our way towards the picnic sight and tuned towards Mukoma where the road looked a muddy mess. Vehicles were getting through and after making inquiries decided we should push on.

Martial Eagle

While bellied Bustard

Ground Horn-bill
Once we reached the higher slopes of the road, it calmed down but there long sections of battling black cotton that were just passable – another shower of rain and we would have trouble getting out. What was first a 3km drive, which after about 5 kms turned to be another 6kms, we finally caught up with a pack of 6 dogs resting in the open.  

As always the dogs were very chilled around cars and this was our first good sighting of dogs in Tanzania and didn't ever expect to see dogs in the Serengeti. We hung around with the dogs who didn't do much other than chill out until it was time to head out knowing we had to negotiate the tricky road to the main road.

First prize of the trip - African Painted Dogs

Dogs are always very chilled around vehicles

Soon it was apparent the whole park had got word of the dogs and were thrashing along. We met a male lion along the road and negotiated the mud which was a bit easier as it was downhill and an hour of sun seemed to have made a significant difference. 

Thoroughly satisfied we were on our way out when Serengeti was still not done with us giving us a prized sighting of a caracal. Unfortunately it was moving away and by the time we backed up, it was all but gone, but what a collection of sightings we had racked up.

Rare caracal sighting

Close to the gate and with all the rain, the migration had arrived with thousands of animals spread throughout the plains. The Serengeti had once again delivered a full house of animals with cheetah being the most disappointing sighting. We were aware that the cheetah were all in Ndutu for the Gazelle migration so no complaints. 

Zebs family portrait

More Zebs family portraits
Another highlight was the storms gathering over the flat plains which you could see for hours before arriving. It was yet another mood of the Serengeti that we enjoyed very much and despite being here 8 times in the last 4 years, we will be back again and again if given the opportunity.   

Grants Gazelle

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