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Serengeti: Great plains

One of the world’s great natural theatres, the vast Serengeti savannah is famed for its two-million-strong wildebeest migration. But look more closely and Tanzania’s golden grasslands reveal a wealth of other creatures and plants living in tandem with the indigenous Maasai people

Serengeti: Great plains
Savannah viewed from a hot air balloon. Image: Stephanie Cavagnaro

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Suspended in a cloudless sky, an African white-backed vulture soars above a huddled mass. With wingtips outspread like fingers, it lowers dagger-like talons and arcs its back, landing in savannah grasses stained red with blood. Cracking bones and a satisfied hissing ripple through the Serengeti as scavengers greedily feed on the corpse of a wildebeest.

“When the wildebeest are back in this area, it’s like Christmas for all the other animals,” my safari guide, David, says. Before joining Four Seasons Safari Lodge Serengeti as a game driver, David studied ecology, wildlife management and conservation, and helped animals wounded by poachers in Arusha National Park.

Dirt billows into our Land Cruiser as we bounce along a dusty track. Pointing towards the unfolding expanse, he tells me the Serengeti takes its name from a Maasai word meaning ‘endless plains’. This boundless landscape is peppered with scruffy brush and thorny flat-top acacias, whose foliage resembles billowy clouds.

It’s hard to comprehend the prolific amount of wildlife present on these wide-open vistas. As we drive, I spot three ostriches balancing bulky black bodies on stilts, a bachelor herd of impala with towering lyre-shaped horns and a sounder of warthogs scurrying through grasses with tails raised like tiny flags. Further on, longer swishing tails and curved horns obscure the horizon. A group of bearded beasts bounds in front of our vehicle as others continue to graze. It’s early March, and as David surveys the wildebeest, he looks concerned. “There are some changes in migration pattern and movement,” he says. “The animals should be at the southern Serengeti, but many are up here now; they’re moving too fast.”

Nearly two million wildebeest and hundreds of thousands of other grazing herbivores pass through the Serengeti annually, typically when the rains end in May. However, this year, after unusually dry conditions in southern Serengeti, thousands have already travelled a portion of the 1,200-mile route in search of fresh grasslands.

David spots a lone wildebeest running across the flatland. Suddenly, something shifts. I squint into the distance, where two crouching cheetahs are camouflaged in golden grass, guarding their kill. The wildebeest gallops straight towards them, but they let him pass. Noticing my baffled expression, David says, “They already have food — but if they were lions, they’d have attacked.”

He exchanges words with another driver in Swahili, and we’re off to find the Serengeti’s lions. With more than 3,000 in the national park, these cats are remarkably easy to spot. In the mid-morning heat, we join a group of 4WD vehicles near a white acacia tree, where a pride are splayed out in a shady mud patch. Nearby, a lioness drags a fresh kill through the grass, stopping to let her cub gnaw at the carcass.

“Lions — we call them kings because they’re not afraid of anything,” David tells me as the lioness looks our way; her exposed, bloodied teeth giving me chills. Leaving her to her warm meal, we head back to the Four Seasons Safari Lodge Serengeti, my base for the next few nights.

Located in Central Serengeti, the Lodge is built on raised terrain, centred around a watering hole. The property is unfenced, with elevated walkways linking all 77 rooms, suites and villas, meaning guests are never in any danger from the animals that roam freely around the buildings.

To cool off, I slip into a turquoise-tiled plunge pool on my suite’s sun deck with full views of the water hole. Splashing around in tandem at   the water’s edge is a parade of more than 30 elephants. With a sudden uproar of trumpeting noises, the herd begins to move towards a nearby rocky kopje (outcrop), where a buffalo is looking longingly at the oasis. Earlier that day, David told me, “Elephants are very selfish — when they’re drinking, they’ll make sure no other animal is around them.” Sure enough, the elephants sway gigantic heads at the animal until he moves off through the grassland. In slow motion, a behemoth bull with lengthy tusks plods back into the shallows to guzzle fresh water undisturbed.

Maasai guide showing off a female wildebeest skull. Image: Stephanie Cavagnaro

Maasai guide showing off a female wildebeest skull. Image: Stephanie Cavagnaro

Walk in the wild

Wielding semi-automatic rifles, two rangers camouflaged in forest green stop me in my tracks. They’re part of the TANAPA (Tanzania National Parks) anti-poaching response team, and they’ve just spotted fresh buffalo droppings, indicating these dangerous animals are nearby.

One guard surveys the landscape as another tosses a log toward a shady, tree-lined ravine to flush out any lurking predators. The bushes tremble and, with a loud rustle, a startled dik-dik the size of a greyhound scurries into the flatland. Although most wildlife is scared off by our footfall, walking safaris can be risky. Which is why, in addition to the national park rangers, I’m accompanied by Kassi and Kinama, two Maasai guides, each wrapped in a red checkered shuka (blanket) and armed with a machete. Oliver Dreike has also joined me, a zoologist and general manager of the lodge’s Discovery Centre, East Africa’s first lodge-based conservation, research and education facility.

“Often, leopards or buffalo sleep in these sandy, cool gullies,” Oli warns as we approach the ravine. I scamper hastily down the slope and clamber up the other side to the relative safety of the sun-scorched plains, where tsetse flies eagerly converge around my exposed ankles. As a starling with dark blue plumage and a copper breast lands in tall grass, Oli explains the purpose of walking safaris is to understand how flora and fauna interact in this intricate ecosystem, and to “see the things you miss when you’re driving”.

Snaking around bulging termite mounds with volcano-like vertical shafts, we stop near a black thorn acacia. A yellow breasted, green plumed little bee-eater hops onto its tangled canopy of hooked thorns. Kinama tells me the Maasai use the branches to build barbed fences around their bomas (huts). “It’s very hard for predators to attack livestock like goat, sheep and cows because of this very small spike,” he says.

The Serengeti’s plants and trees are a valuable resource for animals as well as the Maasai. “It’s a constant arms race and struggle for plants; everything is trying to eat everything else,” Oli explains. To defend themselves, trees communicate by releasing pheromones that travel downwind. Plants receiving the signal will produce more bitter-tasting tannin. This explains why animals often eat into the wind — so plants ahead can’t tell they’re being attacked.

In a sandy area, my Maasai companions spot an antlion digging a shallow cone-shaped pit to prey on ants. The insect is one of the ‘Little Five’ — the smaller, less-noticed animals of the savannah. Demonstrating a game Maasai children play, Kassi tries to scoop up the insectivore with a blade of grass, but the creature burrows down into the earth.

We walk a few steps across cracked earth before Kassi picks up a green fruit from the Sodom apple plant, which the Maasai use to combat eye and stomach pain. He squirts its milky, viscous liquid on my finger, and I immediately smell an earthy, tomato aroma.

It’s just before sunset, and I’m tirelessly swatting at buzzing tsetse flies. A bird squeaks in an acacia tree, and the Maasai amusingly consult an iPad to confirm the species — a northern white-crowned shrike.

Nearby, a ranger cleans his gun with a leaf from the sandpaper tree. In Maasai culture, the plant is used symbolically in ceremonies and to make a tea for women after giving birth. Kinama tells me the Maasai also make toothbrushes with it, and urges me to try one. With his machete, he eagerly whittles a stick into a sharp toothpick, and instructs me to gnaw on the other end to create bristles. I begin to brush, and Kinama smiles proudly when I tell him my teeth feel clean and smooth.

Stepping over a female wildebeest’s skull and antlers, I notice a flash of red in an acacia. The Lion King’s Zazu is preening his plumage on an undulating branch. It’s a Von der Decken’s hornbill, Oli tells me.

Rounding a rocky outcrop, I find a table lined with spirits and Serengeti Lager. I order a gin and tonic sundowner, and scramble up a pile of rocks. From my vantage point, the view opens like a fan — flaxen grasses stretch towards infinity, only interrupted by emerald acacias and a herd of giraffe loping across the bleeding neon sky.

Wildebeest stampede across the savannah. Image: Stephanie Cavagnaro

Wildebeest stampede across the savannah. Image: Stephanie Cavagnaro

Up & away

Jolted awake by a blaring alarm clock, I check the time — it’s 4am. I hastily dress for the cold, and hop in a 4WD vehicle for a bumpy drive through pitch-black plains. Arriving at the Serengeti Balloon Safaris launch site, I meet captain Mohamed Masud, who’s performing last-minute checks on Simba, a flattened emerald-and-honey-striped hot air balloon.

The sky is beginning to blush, which means it’s time to fly. Balloons need to travel early to avoid turbulence created as the ground begins to heat up. As the 16-person basket tips horizontally I clamber into my top compartment and wait in a supine position. Mohamed fires the burner and the balloon bulges with hot air. With a few more plumes of gas, we’re gently lifted upright and above the ground, beating the sun over the ridges.

On foot, the Serengeti seems limitless, but from above, the sunburnt savannah takes on another dimension. Carpeted with scruffy brush, it looks like the surface of an inhospitable planet. Casting long shadows, bushy acacias are painted haphazardly across the landscape; dark lines where herds have roamed through the pale grass meander like wrinkles. We slip over the lowland, and an American passenger asks Mohamed if he’s ever hit a tree. “I’ve done that many times, but I’m trying not to today. Now you know why the trees are flat on top — because I’ve been here!” he jokes.

An orange-domed sun has slid into view, splashing light across the savannah. I scour the ground, and spot bat-eared foxes creeping through grasses and springy impalas grazing nearby. We’re swept towards the Seronera River, where lush green grass inches into the banks and nut palms droop heavily in the heat. More than a dozen slimy hippos happily wallow in the cool water; their backs shiny from above. With the wind, we glide towards faint, moving clusters of black, white and grey. Thousands of wildebeest and zebra thunder across the hazy scrubland, obscuring the landscape with exploding clouds of hot dust. Despite sailing at around 700ft, it’s hard to breathe as the wind takes us through the dusty air. Our shadow slips across the animals and disfigures as it rolls over treetops. Dwarfed by the scale of the terrain, tiny wildebeest chase the running outline. Each time Mohammed loudly releases gas into the balloon, they jump on spindly legs and scatter in all directions, grunting like a thousand honking horns.

Above the chaos, Mohamed suddenly blurts, “It’s a simba!” Below us, a lion has infiltrated the group, killed a large wildebeest and is bounding towards its calf. A groan ripples through the basket as the big cat sinks its jaws into the animal’s flank. “Ohh! He’s trying to fight back,” someone cries, as the calf struggles. But with a second, deadly bite the young mammal shakes and falls to the ground with a thump. One of our group gasps – the rest are gawping – as we watch the maimed adult wildebeest slowly rise and limp towards the herd. We will the injured animal on as we’re whisked away.

We descend to land, dipping over an umbrella tree, where a lilac-breasted roller’s pastel plumage is striking against a sea of gold and brown. The breeze is rushing us straight towards a 4WD vehicle. “Can you move that car?” Mohamed jokes, and we laugh nervously — until we see a man running towards the Land Cruiser and swiftly driving out of our path.

“There’s a termite mound coming — hold on!” Mohamed orders as our basket hits it with a bang. “Hold on — there’s another!” he shouts, and with one last thump we bounce to an abrupt stop. Scrambling out, I look across the hot flatland, and am reminded of the vast scale of this place as thousands of wildebeest stream past us through the wild, endless plains.

Essentials

Getting there
Kenya Airways and British Airways fly daily from Heathrow to Kilimanjaro International Airport via Nairobi.
Average flight time: 11h.

Coastal Aviation offers scheduled and private charter flights between Kilimanjaro and Seronera Airstrip, where a Four Seasons Serengeti vehicle will transfer guests to the lodge.

 

When to go
The Serengeti climate is moderate, with temperatures hovering around the late 20Cs year-round. Dry season is from June-October, but even during the wet season (November-May), it’s unusual for showers to last all day.

 

Need to know
Visas: UK citizens need to buy a £40 visa from the Tanzania High Commission before travel. Alternatively, single entry visas can be purchased on arrival.
Currency: Tanzanian shilling (TZS). £1 = TZS2,738. US dollars are widely accepted.
Health: Vaccinations and antimalarial tablets are usually advised. Consult your GP before travelling.
International dial code: 00 255.
Time difference: GMT +3.

 

More info
tanzaniatouristboard.com
Northern Tanzania. RRP: £15.99 (Bradt Travel Guides)
The Rough Guide to Tanzania. RRP: £16.99.
Serengeti Balloon Safaris

 

How to do it
Elegant Resorts offers seven nights at Four Seasons Safari Lodge Serengeti from £5,195 per person, based on two sharing a Savannah Room on a full-board basis. It includes two game drives, international and domestic economy flights, transfers and UK airport lounge passes.

Published in the November 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)