After wrapping up our Rwanda visit, we flew to Nairobi then on to Kilimanjaro airport in Tanzania. The Southern Serengeti would be our first destination in Tanzania with a several days of game drives before continuing to the Northern Serengeti for wildlife watching.
We met up with Sana while in the Nairobi airport while Jen was already awaiting our arrival in Tanzania. While were set to spend a relaxing evening at a villa we didn't arrive until after 2 am due to numerous issues with our aircraft. Despite the travel hiccups, all of us were now together and eager to experience the Serengeti. We would be departing at 6 am later that morning.
The Serengeti region in East Africa is one of the most expansive and diverse ecosystems and features a great variety of large mammals. The Serengeti National Park and neighboring Ngorongoro Conservation Area are both designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
We would be spending the first half of our time in Tanzania in the Southern Serengeti, near the Maswa Game Reserve. It was near the end of February. The month prior many zebra foal were born and this month would bring many wildebeest calves. March would bring rains from the North and these migratory animals would start roaming in a circular manner in this southern region to find food. This would be the start of their Great Migration as they follow the rivers and the endless plains to Kenya.
I had thought the Great Migration was a singular event but it seems like the herds are always doing something different each month as they seek good grazing lands and safe areas to inhabit. Though the traditional thought of seeing massive herds crossing vast crocodile-infested rivers is later in the year between July to November.
Traveling around the remote parts of the Serengeti is a task for small planes and dirt airstrips. Still tired after only a few hours of sleep, we left at 6 am and drove an hour to a small airport in Arusha.
We boarded a small Cessna Caravan propeller plane on our way to the Serengeti South Airstrip. These planes are treated somewhat like buses and often stop to pick up and unload passengers. We made one stop at an airstrip in Kuro to pick up two folks that had spent a week there.
After ~90 minutes in the air we were greeted by our two guides at our destination.
Our gracious guides for the next few days, Filbert and Siggy, gave us the rundown on what we would be doing next. We would be traveling in two impressive open safari vehicles at all times—this was great news and made photographing much easier as there would be spare seats so we could move around a bit.
We opened up some cold beverages courtesy of the mini-fridges in the back of each safari vehicle. Then, we were shown some fly whisks that would prove vital to shooing away tsetse flies (large, biting & disease-carrying flies) as the day got hotter. These flies were a huge nuisance on the entire trip, despite wearing permethrin-treated clothing and strong insect repellent. Tsetse flies are attracted to the colors blue and black, which we were explicitly told to avoid wearing.
I didn't know what to expect with our first game drive. I had no idea how close we would be able to get to the animals, how often we would see them or what it would feel like to see such magestic creatures in their natural habitat. Right out of the gate on our first drive we saw a sleeping lioness as well as numerous zebras and giraffes.
Each game drive is unique and you could get lucky and see a lot on one ride and nothing of note on the next. This is why most folks suggest you spend at least 4 days riding around to get the full experience.
Our lodging, meals and safari drives were part of a migratory camp called Sanctuary Retreats. We slept in private and well-outfitted tents, with our meals and lounging time spent in one large tent overlooking the Serengeti. The tents had real toilets and shower stalls but they functioned via a water bucket hoisted up high behind the tent. In the evenings we would tell our host what time we'd like a shower and they would bring a hot bucket of water.
One other item we were informed about: since we were in the middle of the wilderness, animals would be roaming around the camp at night. As such, we were instructed to never walk alone at night for our protection. When we wanted to leave our tent we had to use our flashlights to get the attention of a camp staffer to escort us.
After getting situated and having a bite, we ventured back out for a late afternoon game drive.
As we were wrapping up our game drive we came across a lion pride that had just finished having a meal and were surrounded by vultures waiting to have their piece to eat. This was our first up close lion sighting of the trip and it was surreal to see how close we were able to get to them. The lions didn't care about our existence at all and just ignored us.
We were running behind schedule a bit and it began to get dark. Our guides became a bit concerned and were in a rush to get us back; either we didn't have permission to be out here this late or it was not safe at night.
A full cocktail bar and fire pit was ready for us outside the main tent when we returned. We all enjoyed a meal together in the main tent afterwards. We were the largest group at the camp, probably making up more than a third of the guests there.
Depending on how you look at it, one of the benefits of sleeping in tents in the Serengeti is being able to hear all the animals in the distance and get the real safari experience.
Except that I woke up at 2 am to an emergency air horn. My sister had just blown it twice trying to scare away some kind of large animal that was on our porch and shaking the tent (and get some camp staff to come to our tent). We thought it was a lion due to the loud and close growling sounds. Fast-forward an hour we finally make it back to sleep—only to start hearing another animal digging near our tent.
When daylight greeted us we asked the camp manager what those sounds could have been. We were told it was likely a buffalo and a honey badger and that they were harmless. That put us at ease.. until the last night in our tent when we heard the same loud growling sounds right at our tent and found out that was a lion roaming around the camp again.
Another early morning but this one was more than welcomed to get a chance to see a beautiful African sunrise over the endless plains. It was chilly in the morning so we all had a few layers with us. After a short drive we found an open area and hopped out of the safari vehicles to watch the day begin.
At one point we came across a herd of wildebeest crossing our path.
We then had our first of several cheetah sightings of the trip. They were not as large as I had expected but they were extremely curious and a few of them came right up to one of our vehicles. Some of them were lounging around and resting while others were focused on monitoring the horizon for a meal to catch.
Breakfast in the bush
After about two hours roaming around we found a nice spot under an acacia tree—and satisfactorily far enough away from any large mammals—to set up a table and have an impressively well-prepared breakfast in the bush.
We made it back to the camp by noon for lunch and had a few hours to relax and nap in our tents before going on a shorter late afternoon game drive at 4pm.
Eventually our guides—who were ridiculously adept at spotting animals in the distance—saw a leopard in a tree. Leopards are noctural creatures and tend to be solitary. They typically stay high up in trees while resting or searching for prey. They also bring any caught prey up into the tree to eat and keep away from other animals.
After a while waiting and some maneuvering of our safari vehicle, I was able to get a clear shot of this stunning leopard.
We then came across a watering hole where dozens of zebras (and a hyena closely watching them) came for a drink.
After a particularly long day we returned to the camp for another evening of cocktails, dinner and conversation.
Up until now we had been doing two shorter game drives per day and avoiding the midday heat. But this meant we couldn't venture out very far if we limited it to a max of 4 hour drives each time (sounds like a long time but you don't go too fast on this kind of terrain, even at a low speed you still get an "African massage").
We decided to change that and go on a full day game drive heading north towards the center of the Serengeti. This also meant we could sleep in one more hour and leave at 7:30 am. We would end up returning around 4 or 5 pm. At this point we had seen a great variety of wildlife but were hoping to see a either a hunt in progress or a critically endangered black rhinoceros.
Our guides had started hearing chatter on the radios that there was a black rhino sighting near the Moru Kopjes. Kopjes are small, rocky hill formations—usually made of granite—that dot the horizon of the Serengeti and provide refuge for some types of wildlife.
The few black rhinos that inhabit Serengeti National Park are said to call this area home. Black rhino sightings are so rare that within minutes there were more than a handful of safari vehicles that drove over once they heard about it. Unfortunately, after much roaming around and looking in the distance we were not able to see any rhinos this time.
We took a break from our wildlife spotting to visit Gong Rock among the Moru Kopjes. Around the kopjes there are traces of Maasai history with paintings left on the walls of the rock. One particular painted section was in a rock overhang of sorts, not quite deep enough to be a cave but obviously had provided shelter at some point.
Nearby was the Gong Rock. It was carved out as kind of a lithophone. There are carved sections out that would make different sounds when tapped by a rock. It was possibly used as a communication device by the Maasai long ago.
By now we were getting hungry—and those of us who hadn't yet answered the call of nature while on the road definitely had to use the restroom. We ended up going to a rest area that had restrooms as well as shady areas to sit down for a meal. Our guides had packed lunch for us so we stayed for lunch, had some wine and enjoyed the shade.
We stumbled across some lazy hippos resting and cooling off inside their own little hippo pool. But they had no interest in getting out of the pool or showing more than a part of their face.
After a long day on the road we enjoyed some relaxation in our tents for a bit and then another evening of conversation over dinner. This evening they had a barbecue set out as some folks in the camp were leaving the next day and they had planned a bit of a celebration with some singing, cake and champagne. We enjoyed this while there was a massive lightning storm far in the distance.
After a long day yesterday, we opted for some shorter game drives on our last full day in the Southern Serengeti. We left for our first drive around 7:30 am and returned for lunch, followed by a two hour drive in the late afternoon.
I woke up before sunrise and walked over to the edge of the rocks of our campsite to watch the sunrise, as well as spot the few curious animals roaming around our camp in the early morning like baboons and a large Marabou stork.
Most of the other camp guests had departed by now so we enjoyed a serene lunch by ourselves, followed by a tranquil nap and reading time against the backdrop of a rain shower.
Our guides rolled up the plastic windows on our safari vehicle and we set out for our last game drive. The post-rain game drive was much different. Aside from interesting cloud formations, animals were much harder to spot and must have found rain shelter further away.
We returned to camp for one last meal. The next morning we left at 7:45 am to catch a flight to the Northern Serengeti to continue our trip.