Thousands of gnu on the plains.
It’s that time of year again when most people in the tourism industry in Tanzania are winding down, closing camps and getting a break. The heavy rains have usually started by now, and getting around tends to be difficult or even impossible, especially in the southern parks. Many of the animals have dispersed to areas that do not have permanent water during the dry season. This year has been a little different with the short rains completely failing and the long rains arriving a month late, changing the animals’ typical patterns.
Young male lion in Piyaya.
I was excited to be able to take some guests to some of my favorite places on a last minute safari. I picked up my guests at Kilimanjaro International Airport in the afternoon and drove to Plantation Lodge in Karatu which provided us a convenient starting point for the safari. A variety of luxurious places have emerged in Karatu as overflow to the lodges on the rim of Ngorongoro Crater, but I very rarely stay there because one misses the most beautiful time in the crater. However, in this case, my guests had already seen the crater in the 60’s and preferred to keep those memories intact.
Sitting at breakfast the next morning, I unfolded the Serengeti Ecosystem Map and traced our route. There was no way to avoid the crowds for the first hour as we climbed the steep, winding road up and around the rim of the crater, but I took the first opportunity I could to leave the main road and drive one of the most scenic roads/tracks through the area down to the plains south of Ndutu. Suddenly we were alone except for a few Maasai herding livestock along the road. We didn’t see another person or vehicle until we again crossed the main road heading north to Piyaya. January and February were unusually dry, and therefore the wildebeest were on the edge of the plains where they usually are at the end of April, so we had to drive a little further than I’d planned when creating the itinerary. We eventually found them just in time for lunch and sat watching and listening to the thousands “nyu-ing” all around us. That evening we spent the night in one of my favorite areas that I’ve blogged about a few times. Despite the lack of rain, the game was great with two sightings of three cheetahs.
Preying on Grant's gazelle hider fawns.
The safari then took us north through Loliondo and on the road that may become paved as the Serengeti highway. I could not help thinking about how it would dramatically change the face of the area that is already slowly changing due to pressures on the land and conflicts between the Maasai communities and the government-controlled hunting concessions. Permanent Maasai homesteads have sprung up where previously there was only the occasional dry season “rancho” or temporary cattle enclosure. Only two years ago when I guided and managed a camp, there was almost no difference between the land inside and outside of the park. Now the boundary between the park and community land is obvious due to the extensive livestock grazing outside the park.
Another amazing Piyaya sunset.
It always surprises me when I end up alone in the Serengeti. We stopped at a small spring on the side of a hill where over 200 elephant were making their way in different directions through the valley. Buffalo, topi, ostrich, impala, hartebeest, warthog, eland, and zebra grazed peacefully as we scanned for predators. A female elephant with a newborn wandered past us. The cute baby was still trying to make sense of its surroundings. As we pushed on, our drive took us along the Kenya- Tanzania border, the cliché “sea of grass” literal as the red-oat grass rippled in the wind. We enjoyed the solitude of the single track as the panorama stretched out before us - open space. A male lion with his lionesses under a tree sat with his head up seemingly enjoying the vista.
"Arturo" the patient male on the periphery.
It’s rare that guests want to stay more than three nights in a place, but with five nights at Sayari we were able to experience the area slowly and without the pressure to find anything. Of course when this happens, the animals decide not to let you rest, and the second morning we were woken around 4 am by roaring lions. It’s surprisingly hard to find lions when you’ve heard them roaring in the night, but by 6:15 we were sitting with a pair of mating lions in what would be one of the best lion experiences I have ever had. Two big males sat on the periphery and watched as the pair mated in front of us every nine minutes. The mating male was anxious and kept staring in the direction from which we’d come. A resident guide from the camp had set off in the morning and called me on the radio; two other males were headed our way and were about to emerge on the other end of the plain. The details of what happened and which lion did what are too complicated and confusing to explain here but we witnessed a heart-in-your-throat battle between seven different males on the edge of their territories.
I’d never seen male lions in such great proportions; we’d only seen three lionesses so far. Needless to say, over the next days we found two prides: one with six females and eight 4-week old cubs, and one with 11 cubs and four females. In addition to these lion sightings, a mother cheetah and her three cubs entertained us on a couple mornings as we watched, hoping they would hunt. Come June, off-road driving in the area is being closed because of high-season congestion and I am glad to have had that last opportunity.