Serengeti National Park - Safari Part 3
While you can crack the safari nut countless ways, we decided to save Serengeti National Park for last, spending our final four nights there. Maybe it was to give us more time to listen to Toto before arriving, or maybe (actually) we just liked the logistical flow of working from east to west.
But, at the end of the day, “As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti [not accurate…], I seek to cure what's deep inside, frightened of this thing that I've become [absolutely ludicrous lyrics…].”
Out of the Highlands and Past Oldupai Gorge - the “Cradle of Humanity”
Leaving Ngorongoro, we descended from the highlands into the plains leading towards Serengeti. Within a morning’s drive, you pass through lush jungle, rolling highlands, and eventually to seemingly endless, windswept plains. And, as we drove into the outer edges of these plains, we mixed a little history stuff in with the this-is-the-most-stunning-scenery-we’ve-ever-witnessed stuff.
Midway between Ngorongoro and Serengeti’s eastern gate, a massive statue of two skulls sits on the side of the road. With little to no paleoanthropological (had to look up that word) background, neither of us recognized its significance. Turns out, we’d arrived at the entrance to Oldupai Gorge - site of the earliest evidence of our human-ish (not a technical term) ancestors.
After getting some background info from Salim and the plaque on the monument, we learned why there were two skulls. Each represents one of the early hominins (technical term) found in Oldupai - a larger-brained homo habilis and smaller-brained paranthropus robustus.
The scientists who discovered these ancient ancestors also happened to be a husband and wife team - Mary and Louis Leakey. Kind of puts our “accomplishments” into perspective.
Random person at cocktail party: “What do you two do?”
Chipp and Jenna: “We travel around, work a bit, drink a bit more, and eat a ton.”
Mary and Louis Leakey: “We discovered the earliest human ancestors known to man.”
Check and mate.
Ndutu Plain and the Great Migration
Continuing northwest from Oldupai, we drove into the Ndutu Plain (named after a lake in the middle of it). The name itself didn’t initially mean anything to us - until Salim tied it in with our limited National Geographic knowledge.
Ndutu serves as one end of the Great Migration, the annual movement of over two million wildebeest, zebras, Thomson’s gazelle, and others - plus the predators that feed on them. Every year, these animals have their young in the Ndutu Plain, feast on the lush, seasonal grass, then follow the rains 800 kilometers northwest, ultimately crossing the Mara River into Kenya. From there, they turn south and backtrack to Ndutu, retracing their footsteps “home” (though minus more than a few of the party to massive crocodiles patiently waiting in the Mara River).
We arrived in late November, just as these millions made their way back into the Ndutu area to have their young - incredible watching baby wildebeest and zebras stumbling around on shaky legs, trying to gain a semblance of stability. While the timing varies slightly with each year’s rains, these little ones would spend the next few months gaining their strength in Ndutu before starting the whole migration over again.
Driving through these plains - seeing herds of animals as far as the eye can see - definitely qualifies as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Add to the stunning surroundings the ability to stand up in the jeep, wind blowing in your face, and you can’t ask for much better. But, a word of caution:
Salim to Chipp standing in the back: “Make sure to keep your sunglasses on - the dung beetles fly up and can take an eye out!”
Acacia Seronera Camp - Another “Tent” in Name Only
As with the rest of our safari, we stayed in an unbelievable spot in Serengeti. In name, it was a camp. In reality, “camp” couldn’t be further from the truth. Honestly, “glamping” almost doesn’t do it justice either.
After a long first day’s drive into the park, we eventually pulled up to the Acacia Seronera Luxury Camp. From our time in Tarangire, we knew about acacia trees (and how sharp their thorns are!). Seronera - the second part of the name - is the area of central Serengeti where we stayed. Luxury camp? Well, that speaks for itself.
Acacia consisted of about a dozen overnight “tents” - really suites - plus a bar and dining area. Checking into the place, we drank delicious fresh fruit juice, snacked on Indian-style samosas, and eventually settled into our home for the next four nights.
For the remainder of our time in Serengeti, this place would be an absolute highlight. The staff couldn’t have been warmer, the food was unbelievable, and the beer was cold! While Jenna rolled her eyes, Chipp made a clear point of repeatedly emphasizing how awesome it was to A) pull into camp around 4 or 5 every afternoon, coated with dust, and B) walk straight to the bar - in the middle of “the bush” - and have an ice cold Safari beer put in your hand. Life is good!
Serengeti Game Drive Highlights
After four full days of the coolest wildlife experiences we could imagine, it’s tough translating everything we saw into a coherent narrative. Every day was another firehose of incredible sights. So, instead of trying, we’ll just provide some highlights:
A cheetah mama and her cubs: For a cat lover like Jenna, it’s hard to overstate the “oh-they’re-so-adorable” nature of a cheetah mama watching over her four goofy cubs. But, this also raised a conundrum for her. That is, what’s more adorable - cheetahs or tiny gazelles? What happens when the former eats the latter…?
“Towers” of giraffes: One of the cooler/nerdier aspects of our daily game drives involved naming conventions for different groups of animals. Some made sense (e.g. “tower” of giraffes), some didn’t (e.g. “business” of mongoose/mongeese/mongooses - never answered the plural question for that one). Seeing groups of giraffes - especially the baby ones - run never failed to amuse us. With such long, gangly legs, it seems like they almost run in slow motion. And, what “Rikki Tikki Tavi” fan wouldn’t love seeing a mongoose - or dozen?
Lions lounging and a lioness surveying: From our limited interactions with them, it seems male lions lead a nice life - pretty sure all they do is sleep, eat, and mate. The lionesses, on the other hand, have their hands full raising cubs and hunting. Seeing a mama lioness standing on an elevated branch over her little cubs, scanning the horizon for prey - wow.
A rare rhino sighting: Salim was good. He’d spot game before we even knew he was looking for something. For us, it became a point of pride seeing an animal before Salim. Pair this with the small population of rhino - an unfortunate side-effect of years of rampant poaching - and spotting a rhino was an absolute highpoint. Driving through some tall grass, Chipp saw what looked like a tusk rising above the vegetation. When he pointed it out, Salim reacted with a kid-on-Christmas-morning excitement, pulling around to another path for a clear view of the massive guy. Due to their endangered status, Serengeti has implemented an extensive rhino conservation program in the park’s Moru area - about 50 kilometers south of where we spotted this one. Apparently he’d “broken out” and gone on a bit of a stroll.
Jenna’s student-becomes-the-teacher moment: In Tarangire, Salim taught us the technique for spotting leopards - look for tails dangling from acacia trees. On a day cruising around southern Serengeti, Jenna suddenly let out a “Leopard! Leopard! There’s a leopard in that tree!” Not only was she on the money, this one decided to grace us with his presence. Nimbly hopping down from the tree in the distance, he strolled towards us, crossing the trail about five meters in front of our jeep - one of the most elegantly-beautiful-and-terrifying-at-the-same-time interactions we had.
“Encouraging” the flamingos: In southern Serengeti, there’s a lake with what seemed like thousands of pink flamingos, casually snacking on algae in the shallow waters along the edge. As we hopped out on the shore to stretch our legs and take some pictures, Salim asked if we’d like to see the birds fly. Well, yeah, of course - but what magic are you going to use to make it happen? With a grin on his face, Salim cupped his hands and let out a couple loud claps, sending the birds into flight as one, cruising across the surface of the lake, and settling back into their snacking routine on the far side.
Mama elephant nudging her “little” one on: Not much to say about this one - just pure (albeit huge) cuteness!
Hippos - and a Changed Opinion of Catfish: Hippos are not cute. They’re actually quite terrifying. They have teeth like absolute daggers, and they can open their massive jaws nearly 180 degrees. They’d rip a human in half with a single bite, and, when they fight each other, it’s generally to the death. We saw tons of them lazing away in pools, with only their heads and backs exposed, so it was surprising to see one on its side, partially submerged on a river bank:
Salim: “Looks like that one was killed.”
Chipp: “I think it’s alive - the legs are moving.”
Salim: “Nope - that’s the catfish eating the carcass…”
Yes, the river catfish were so savagely tearing at the hippo meat that the massive legs looked alive. Wild.
False Conclusions and Chipp’s Confidence vs. Competence
Chipp will be the first to caution: do not confuse confidence with competence. Ironic, as he often falls victim to this situation, something demonstrated by his thoughts on tsetse flies - the merciless, biting equivalent of a horsefly on steroids.
Every morning, as we walked from our tent to breakfast, we’d run a gauntlet through these swarming menaces. From an outsider’s perspective, it’s fairly entertaining watching people walk while futilely batting away at the air around their heads. But, when you’re the one waving your arms to avoid a painful bite, it’s far less entertaining.
Applying some logic - and false conclusions - Chipp declared that tsetse flies must prefer sunny areas, as they only swarmed as we walked the path in the bright morning sun. Once we settled into a shaded chair on the porch, they faded away.
Salim: “Tsetse flies actually prefer shade - not the sun - but they’re attracted to movement.” So yeah, definitely a false conclusion. These pests didn’t attack us due to the sunny path - they attacked us in spite of the sun due to our quick movement. Finally dawned on us why no one else windmilled their arms around like idiots to fend off the tsetses - the movement makes them want to swarm more!
Lessons: 1) don’t let Chipp’s confidence keep you from questioning his competence; 2) tsetse flies are the worst.
A Serengeti Thanksgiving to Remember - Thanks, Acacia!
Our final night in Serengeti also happened to be Thanksgiving. Learning this, our Acacia hosts decided to put on a special holiday dinner for us.
After returning from our last full day’s game drive, we headed to the bar for some holiday pre-dinner beveraging. Robert - Acacia’s maitre d’ - had set us a white-table-cloth-style dinner out on the deck for a Thanksgiving dinner under the stars. A wonderfully kind and thoughtful touch, this treat made being thousands of miles from home, friends, and family easier - a lot to be thankful for!
We also had the pleasure of a tableside bonfire, something we saw as a means to create more of a “romantic” feel. Nope. As Salim explained the next morning, fire keeps away lions and hyenas at night…
Sparkling Grape Juice Toasts
As with the end of any great trip, our final morning was bitter-sweet. We’d spent 8 to 10 hours every day of the past week and a half driving around with Salim, getting to know him, learning about his family, and just generally becoming close. We couldn’t have asked for a better guide and person to lead our first (but hopefully not last!) Tanzanian safari.
To wrap up our time with a little ceremonial flair, Salim coordinated a last breakfast surprise with Robert. As the three of us sat out on the porch enjoying breakfast, Robert came out with a chilled bottle of sparkling grape juice - a Bright African tradition. Over a few toasts, we finished our meals, swapped stories, and absorbed a final few minutes looking out over the Serengeti.
What a time!