Where the grass is greener…

Chosen as the name of one of Kenya Airways’ new 787 Dreamliners, the vast plains of the Serengeti National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site are witness to one of the world’s greatest wildlife spectacles as well as many of Africa’s most charismatic animals

SerengetiLionsThe tablecloth is laid carefully across the jeep’s bonnet, and from a wicker basket a thermos flask of hot chocolate is placed carefully on top. Then the napkins, the hot bacon rolls (on still-warm brown bread) and croissants (with fresh butter and homemade jam). It’s the rainy season and the sky is a bruised mauve, red-yellow, dark brown; the grass a vivid, rude green. It’s almost a struggle to fathom this level of beauty.

The West Serengeti, near Grumeti, at dawn, and we are alone (in human terms) and very much surrounded. From the jeep, we see a group of wildebeest and zebra skittishly darting across the grass plains some 3km away. “There’s probably a lion nearby, which is why they’re panicking. But that also means there won’t be cheetahs, as they avoid lions.”

Adele is one of the first female guides in Tanzania, and, at 28, part of a new generation of East Africans committed to conservation and aware of the precious value and threats to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Serengeti. With over 1.5 million hectares, the park has more than three million herbivores and thousands of predators. Wildebeest, gazelle, zebra and buffalo are the animals most commonly found in the region.

The story
The Serengeti can be divided into four regions. In the north it is hilly and wooded, in the southeast are short and long grass plains, in the western corridor are extensive woodlands and black clay plains, and in the centre is acacia woodland and savannah. Each vegetation area attracts different types of animals. The central zone – the Seronera – has the highest concentration of lodges, and the most traffic. The more remote wilderness of the western and northern edges of the Serengeti are more expensive to visit. We are on a private tour, far from the madding crowd.

The daughter of one of Tanzania’s first park managers, Adele was immersed in animals and the Serengeti since childhood. She reads the Serengeti landscape the way others read books – seeing all sorts of clues in the oddest of behaviours. She continues: “It really does make me feel like I am at the start of creation, or just really privileged, to see the Serengeti waking up at dawn. The variety, the diversity, it’s just incredible.”

Adele pulls the jeep over and turns the engine off. Several hundred yards away a group of giraffes are staring, motionless, into the middle distance. Speaking softly, she explains there is a predator near. The zebra also stop grazing and stand statue-like, arranged in a rough semi-circle.

“There’s a pair of young male lion brothers who live near here, but we’ve not seen them for a while.  They were forced out of their mother’s pride, I guess they’re back…”

The Migration
Nothing prepares you for the intensity of the migration. The snorting, flared nostrils, the whites of the eyes of terrified gazelles caught in a throng of wildebeest horns, the weird, lolloping, ungainly gait of the wildebeest in their wriggly lines. The older, vulnerable animals left behind and being plucked off by opportunistic hyenas or slithering crocs. The panic, chaos and noise, the peculiar visceral thud of hooves against parched ground, the way the herd switches direction as if all connected to each other; and, if you’re really lucky, the plunge into the river.

The Serengeti systems are influenced by the Indian Ocean Monsoons, and Lake Victoria’s local variations. The ‘short’ rains begin around late October. In late November and December, the herds of the wildebeest migration arrive on the short-grass plains of the Serengeti in the south and east of Seronera, around Ndutu. Scattered across these plains, wildebeest and their more jittery companions the zebra are everywhere – feeding on the fresh, nutritious grasses. But they move fast, so catching the herd needs up-to-date information. Amanda Corse of Tanzania-based Nomad Safaris says: “The general macro-level movement of the migration is predictable in that it moves in a pattern according to the rains, but the micro-level movement is less so. Wildebeest wander around in circles, go north and then come back south again, cross and re-cross the rivers and are perpetually cloud chasing, so it can be difficult to know exactly where they will be, particularly in June and November, which are transition months.”

The wildebeest stay on these plains through January, February and March, with most of their calves born in a short window around February. Gradually they spread west across these plains, then around April they start their great migration north. By May most of the Serengeti’s wildebeest are moving north, seeking out fresh grazing and water.

Around June the wildebeest pause on the south side of the Grumeti River, which has some channels that block or slow their migration north. The wildebeest then congregate there, in the Western Corridor, in high densities before crossing the river.

The wildebeest migration continues moving northwards during July and August, some heading through Grumeti Reserve and Ikorongo, others north through the heart of the Serengeti National Park. September sees the herds spread out across the northern Serengeti, where the Mara River provides the migration with its most serious obstacle. This river pummels down through the northern Serengeti from Kenya’s adjacent Masai Mara Game Reserve.

By October the wildebeest herds are heading south, returning to the green shoots that follow the rains on the short-grass plains of the southern Serengeti in November. Then it all begins again…

Need to know
VISAS You can get visas on arrival in Tanzania at both the land and air borders. You don’t need to bring a passport photo. It costs the same as getting it beforehand in the Embassy. If you’re transiting through Kenya, remember to ask specifically for the cheaper transit visa. TIPPING Expect to tip, but ask your safari company how much, and whether to tip to individuals, or a company ‘pot’. Some of the porters and less visible staff (cleaners, transport operatives) in camps rely on these tips and will share the money with many relatives. HEALTH Not all of the Serengeti has mosquitos, or malaria, but as a precaution, all visitors should take anti-malarial medication.

Don’t miss
Witnessing one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on Earth may be your main reason for making a visit to the Serengeti but there are also plenty of opportunities to take part in a range of specialist safaris (from hot air ballooning to birdwatching) and it’s not just about completing a tick list of the Big Five, either. For example, the predatory habits of cheetahs, cervals and African wild cats (and the difficulty in finding them) make for very satisfying viewing, and the hilarious antics of bickering, grooming, playful vervet monkeys can be watched for hours. In the Nduaro Loliondo (in the northeast of the Serengeti) the huge sky, the night walks and Maasai ceremonies of blood-drinking offer extras to the game drives.

Walking tours in the Serengeti are run by only a handful of licensed companies, and always necessitate an armed ranger. Specialist operator Expert Africa (www.expertafrica.com) remarks that: “With a little know-how, it is possible to explore the Serengeti on an almost ‘private’ basis. Sizeable sections of the Serengeti National Park have been designated wilderness areas where only walking safaris are allowed”.

The first company to be offered the walking concession in the Serengeti was African Environments (www.africanenvironments.com), and they are conscientious and very well informed. Wayo Africa (www.wayoafrica.com) offer less expensive safaris without compromising on comfort.

Elephant-watching safaris are enjoying a renaissance at the moment. Witnessing the incredible intelligence, migratory routes and the behaviours of their matriarchal groups are life-altering experiences.

Protected migratory wildlife corridors are essential to balance the complex needs of local populations of people and animals. A special way to get a literal ‘overview’ is on a hot air balloon safari (www.balloonsafaris.com). Every flight is unique, and the 4.30am pre-dawn starts mean you get a night drive thrown in too.

It is also possible to hire individual guides (see opposite) who will organise bespoke walking/fly camping combinations for you.

Specialist guides
Marc Baker
Birds, environmental issues, the Serengeti Ecosystem, bespoke tours – particularly hiking, volcanos. • Tel +255 (0)784448761 • www.carbontanzania.com

Jo Anderson
Conservation-based safaris. Twenty years professional safari and hiking guide experience. Specialist knowledge including Serengeti, Mountain Gorillas and Okavango Delta.
Email: jo@ei-tz.com • www.ei-tz.com • Tel: +255 27 2509738

Chris Rodgers
Walking safaris, off-road safaris.  • Email: info@kaskazihorsesafaris.com

George Mavroudis
Complex multi-country/multi-site safaris and combinations.  • Email: george@royalafrican.com

Tour company spotlight
Dorobo Tours is one of Tanzania’s older tour companies, and hugely committed to employing local people and making tourism sustainable. The results of this are seen in the levels of service and engagement on safaris. “Dorobo’s real niche is providing a source experience for clients to connect with local people close to the land. What this entails is long-term partnerships with local communities that are fair and transparent and allow for structured but un-staged encounters.” They don’t do itineraries; instead everything is bespoke. • www.dorobosafaris.com

Like this, try this…
• It is in the wilder, more remote camps outside the borders of the Serengeti such as Katavi or Greystoke Mahale that the wildness of the safari can really be felt. In these camps not only are you alone, but you can take a dhow miles out onto Lake Tanganyika and swim (the visibility of the water is amazing), do a spot of fishing, or spend an afternoon talking to communities who live round the lake.
• Lakes Natron and Eyasi consistently astonish – whether it’s the sheer numbers of the flamingos (in the soda lakes of Natron) or the paradox of intimacy and space. In both places walking on foot is easy. In Eyasi, mountain biking through baobabs, ilala palm and acacia forest and visiting ‘the oldest tribe in the world’, the click-speaking Wadhadzabe, are special highlights. For the opportunity to hunt, on foot, with the Wadhazabe people, stay at the Kisima Ngeda Tented Camp
•  www.anasasafari.com/kisima-ngeda/
• Shu Mata Camp (www.kamilisafaris.com) is a unique camp in western Kilimanjaro (known locally as ‘private’ or ‘South’ Amboseli). A permanent tented structure, it is unobtrusive, set among acacia forests and seasonal swamps. You will get right up close to elephants, with one of the most knowledgeable elephant whisperers in the world. This region, away from the busier tourism areas of northern Tanzania, is part of a vital elephant migratory corridor, and part of an innovative and unique project to encourage local Maasai to co-exist more carefully with elephants.
• Joanna Westermark, the dynamic owner of Kaskazi Horse Safaris (www.kaskazihorsesafaris.com), believes that her collection of spirited, sound and fit horses make a safari a much more sensory and absorbing experience. At present the company offers horseback safaris in areas within the Serengeti ecosystem, close to the boundaries of the park. One of the benefits of a horseback safari is that bull elephants are less afraid of horses than they are of jeeps, so from horseback you get to appreciate their size, presence and intelligence.

Where to stay
• Buffalo Luxury Camp, Kleins Gate (Intimate Places)
By virtue of its location on the border of the Serengeti National Park, Buffalo Luxury Camp offers a range of activities which are not normally available on the Tanzania Northern Safari circuit, such as night drives and game walks. • Tel & Fax +255 27 255 3885 • reservations@intimate-places.com • www.intimate-places.com

• Namiri Plains, Asilia
The migration passes through Namiri Plains from October to May and unleashes spectacular predator sightings during December and January as the resident big cats feast on the passing herds of wildebeest and zebra. • www.namiriplains.asiliaafrica.com

• Serengeti Safari Camp
The Serengeti Safari Camp was designed to be in the best possible location for viewing the wildebeest migration as it covers hundreds of miles of the Serengeti National Park each year. As founders Mark and Milly Houldsworth say: “For a few months of the year the migration is on our doorstep at Lamai Serengeti. But of course the wildebeest move and this is what our Serengeti Safari Camp is all about – understanding the Serengeti seasons and game movements and mirroring them. Each year, this bijou camp casts off from Lamai Serengeti and begins its own odyssey. Covering hundreds of miles and moving every couple of months along a route that the herds have travelled for thousands of years, Serengeti Safari Camp is where you come for your migration fix.  • www.nomad-tanzania.com

• Ndutu Lodge
“Surrounded by giant, flat-topped acacias, with Lake Ndutu glittering beyond, Ndutu is the only lodge from which you can witness the spectacle of the wildebeest migration in the calving season, and on a sunny day when the grass is green there is nowhere else I would rather be.”(Brian Jackman, Writer) • Tel + 255 (0) 736 50 10 45  •  www.ndutu.com

• Serengeti Serena Safari Lodge
The Aga Khan-owned Serena group properties really put into practice their environmental and community credentials: they train up local staff and all their managers are African. The safari lodge boasts an excellent central location close to the Grumeti River and Western Corridor. • www.serenahotels.com/serenaserengeti/default-en.html

Listen to the guides
“Working as a professional safari guide in the Serengeti is the pinnacle of every guide’s dreams… The Serengeti is the best place to view wildlife that is still just that – ‘wild’. The word ‘Eden’ keeps cropping up… this is what the world must have looked like in the beginning”.    Tim Elliot, guide

“Stepping away from a bouncy safari car gives us the chance to interact with both the horse and the wildlife – never forgetting that horses also once roamed free. The animals see us, and acknowledge us as strange, but they know we are peaceful, they are less afraid. If we set off at a gallop the zebras will join us, as the herd always run together.  On horseback you appreciate the small things: birds singing and mobbing one another, the alarm calls giving away a predator’s whereabouts.” Joanna Westermark, horse back safari guide

“The Palearctic bird migrants begin to arrive in Serengeti in late September and, depending on weather conditions, will stay around until March -April. The most enigmatic of these are the white stork (famous for nesting in Germany), Eurasian roller, Eurasian bee-eater, and both Montagu’s and pallid harriers. Seasonality also greatly affects the breeding behaviour of resident species – more grass, more seeds!”  Marc Baker, guide