.All Trips / Africa / Tanzania

Perspectives on East Africa: 1) Serengeti National Park. “The place where the land moves on forever”

1999 Tanzania Serengetti 001

It takes a l-o-o-o-ong time to fly from the western USA to Tanzania, at the limits of my travel endurance really.  But I’m about to head out on one of my greatest adventures, a week’s wilderness safari in Tanzania followed by a trek to the “roof of Africa”,  the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro.  Both have been on my travel “bucket list” for a long time and when I saw Wilderness Travel offer them as a combination, coupled with a seminar, “Perspectives on East Africa”,  I knew it was time to go.

The journey to the Serengeti:

My flight is on KLM airlines and the first leg is a nonstop red-eye flight, Los Angeles to Amsterdam, via the polar route, with a day’s layover at Schiphol airport (?did you know this airport is several meters below sea level?).  I have the remainder of that day so I take the train into Amsterdam and spend the time walking the canals, reacquainting myself with the ambiance of this pleasant city, finishing with a fine ham/cheese/mushroom pannekoek before returning to my hotel near Schiphol.  The next morning I continue the flight to Kilimanjaro International Airport in Arusha, crossing Germany, Austria, Greece, Egypt, Ethiopia and Kenya.  The plane arrives late at night and after clearing immigration and customs we meet up with our guides and head to our hotel.  Everything is pitch dark and you can’t see anything beyond shadows and shades of gray, but I enjoy the cool night breeze and my first smells of Africa.  It does have a scent different than other countries I’ve visited — a slightly spicy and wild odor.  I have bad jet lag and am up early with plenty of time to enjoy my first African sunrise!   After breakfast we head to a smaller airport for a small plane flight to Serengeti National Park, one of the gems of African wildlife viewing.

I enjoy the ever changing landscapes through my airplane window, bringing back memories of Robert Redford flying his plane in “Out of Africa“.  We slowly leave the urban and village landscapes near Arusha, over farms, then ahead of us the bulky collapsed volcanic crater that is the Ngorongoro Crater, which we’ll be visiting within the week.  This has recognized as one of the top national parks in Tanzania.  Afterwards the land flattens and is dotted by cinder cones and innumerable acacia trees, each resembling a stick of brocolli, the lower branches carefully pruned by the world’s most meticulous gardeners, the giraffe, who feast on its leaves.  We can spot wildlife from the plane and their numbers increase as we reach Serengeti National Park and begin our descent.

Lioness, Serengeti National Park

Lioness, Serengeti National Park

Land Rovers shuttle us to our home for the next few days, the beautiful Serengeti Serena Lodge, but any drive in this part of Africa includes game viewing and we see our first herds of zebra, impala, wildebeest and hippos.  Situated on a hill overlooking a large stretch of wilderness, we are greeted by the Serena’s staff with a cool tropical fruit drink and warm greetings of “Jambo”.  The place is truly beautiful and enchanting, from meticulous carved beams to carefully laid stone to the captivating views.  Each “room” is designed to look like an African hut, but they’re far from primitive.  These are among the fanciest rooms you’ll ever see.  The furnishings are lavish but best of all is my balcony which overlooks the Serengeti plains to the west.  In the coming days I spend at least a dozen hours on this balcony, often with my Canon image-stabilizing binoculars, studying the wildlife or enjoying memorable sunsets.  The Serena’s staff are friendly, the food good, and it’s a wonderfully relaxing place to get over my jet-lag and settle into Africa.

Wildlife safari in the Serengeti

The Serengeti (or Siringitu) is known as “the place where the land moves on forever”.  It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Preserve. The park itself is 5,700 square miles, with open plains to the south, clay plains to the west and acacia-dotted savanna in the middle.  When one adds the landscape of Kenya’s Maasai Mari Park to the north, it is an impressive bit of conservation that, to a large extent, owes its existence to famous anthropologist Louis Leakey (who strongly advocated for its creation before the swelling population would overtake it).

We’re in East Africa to observe the Great Migration journey (“Million animal migration”) which takes place between December and May.  This famous migration is of several of the prey species (wildebeest, zebras, Thompson gazelles) who follow the sporadic rain showers across the rolling landscape of East Africa to eat the newly sprouted tender grass shots.  The migration occurs both in Maasai Mari Park in Kenya and to the south Serengeti Park.  The latter months are prime calving season so you’re likely to see large numbers of baby animals, all very cute, even the homely wildebeest calves.  The migration is, of course, followed by predators, such as cheetahs, lions and hyaenas.  The migration provides one of the densest (animals/acre of land) concentration of wildlife on the planet and if you’re planning on going to East Africa be sure you time your trip to coincide with this great event.

Zebra, Serengeti National Park

Zebra, Serengeti National Park

We go on two game drives every day, one just at sunrise and another two hours before sunset.  While you’re near the equator, the altitude of the Serengenti is just below that of Denver, so you have surprisingly cool nights but very pleasant warm days.  If you come, be sure you have one warm jacket for the morning chill, as it can be cold in the open vehicles at dawn.    During these safaris we see dozens of species, far too many to list, including most of main animals of Africa with the exception of rhinos and leopards (which we’ll see later in the Ngorongoro Crater).

The park is more wooded to the north, grassy plains to the south, with a large number of rocky outcroppings known as Kopjes (on which lions like to rest and watch for prey).  We were caught in many heavy, short cloudbursts.  The park has a nice Visitor Center, with helpful interpretative displays that’s worth seeing.  We also went to the Serengeti Lion Research Center.

Perspectives on East Africa

Wilderness Travel focused a number of their East African trips around this series of seminars, all of which were great.  We have several lectures at the hotel every day, All by renowned field biologists.  I’ve pulled my synopsis off the shelf to remind myself of the list and here’s who spoke to us:

1) Lions of the Serengeti, by David Bygott.  2) Elephants of Amboseli, by Cynthia Moss.  3) The Chimps of Gombi by legendary field biologist Jane Goodall (hands down the best talk of the symposium).  4) Wildebeest Migration by Dick Estes.  5)  Rhinos by Esmond Bradley Martin.  6) Infectious diseases of the Serengeti, by Sarah Cleveland  7) Cheetahs, but Sarah Durant.

The talks were all excellent and it’s beyond the scope of this blog to discuss them in detail.  But especially memorable was the opportunity to talk to Jane Goodall over breakfast and having Dick Estes leading us on safari and educating us about the territorial aspects of the male wildebeest.  Truly a fabulous experience, in no way disappointing.

(Click on thumbnails to enlarge, then right arrow to advance the slideshow)

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