Serengeti

Endless wonders of Serengeti

Print edition : June 12, 2015

A lioness resting after a meal in Serengeti.

Lord of all he surveys. A lion at the Serengeti National Park.

Lionesses impervious to visitors in Serengeti.

Grant's gazelles in Serengeti.

Zebras migrating across the savannah in search of water and grass.

A wild elephant visiting the Ngorongoro camp.

Giraffes at the Ngorongoro Conservation Centre.

A herd of elephants crossing the path at Manyara.

An agama lizard.

A rare sighting of a cheetah in Serengeti.

Masai women in their brightly coloured dresses in a village outside Serengeti.

Masai men demonstrate their jumping prowess for visitors in the same village.

Thousands of wildebeest during their annual ritual of migration across Serengeti.

A spotted hyena at the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.

A moment's respite for a warthog at the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.

A hippopotamus with its calf in Serengeti.

There is something primordial about Serengeti with its profusion of wildlife and starkly beautiful landscapes where ancient rituals of life and death continue to play out. Text & photographs

Skirting the rock cluster, we are almost upon him, a full-grown lion in all his mane-ly glory. His shimmering halo silhouetted by the flaming African sun, he is standing on tiptoe, snout upturned ever so slightly to catch the scent of zebras milling about in the distance. This cat is massive, perhaps 10 feet long from tip to tail; every muscle in his body is taut and raring to go. Instinctively, I retreat into the entrails of our vehicle, just in case. But he could not care less. After all, every day, he sees hundreds of SUVs like ours, their blathering occupants gawking and gesticulating, their lenses and binoculars protruding comically out of the open top.

Then we spot her, the prima donna of the pride, sprawled elaborately on the shady side of the rock, her sides heaving with shallow pants and her haunches shining like polished bronze, and yet another female, a yard away, busy swatting flies. A third one lifts her head to regard us with disdain and turns away with a yawn. As we drive past, we spot a few more members of his harem, and several cubs, all in various states of abandon, relaxing as only lions know how. It may be siesta time now for the lionesses, but soon they will have to band together to hunt and feed their patriarch while he sits regally on top of the rock, yawning. These big cats are the apex predators in Africa, but they have little stamina. That is why lionesses hunt as a pack and adopt ambush tactics. Brilliant blue agama lizards dart furtively, trying to catch the flies that torment the pride. They do not take too many liberties though. Do they not know how notoriously bad-tempered lions can be?

We are in the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, a unique haven for wildlife. There is something primordial about this land that shelters such a profusion of wildlife. My mind is awhirl with the variety of animals we have already seen within the first hour. Every 10 metres yield a new species—a slinking pair of jackals with elaborate black lace patterns on their backs; a wary warthog couple with their impressive curled horns shepherding a brood of six youngsters through the tall grass; a congress of baboons led by the belligerent alpha male, his harem and progeny ambling behind him in search of fruit trees; huge herds of zebra and wildebeest, skittish despite the strength of their numbers; gracefully gliding Thomson’s gazelles that can put a ballerina to shame with their nimbleness; inscrutable wild buffaloes; hobbling spotted hyenas that hunt in packs; indeed the savannah (African grassland) serves up endless wonder.

Serengeti lies in the East African Rift, a continental rift zone that extends over thousands of kilometres. The top layer of the soil here is volcanic and fertile but so thin that it can offer purchase for no trees other than acacia, that iconic symbol of the savannah. The Serengeti National Park shelters the largest population of ungulates on the planet. Some five million hoofed animals, wildebeest, zebra and gazelles roam the savannah, sustained by the abundance of grass, which, in turn, follows the rain. Once the rains stop, the grass stops growing and the herd, if it is to survive, has to move on to where the rain falls. Thus, every year, the herds trudge more than 1,600 kilometres through more or less the same trail, following the rains. This is the Grand Migration, a unique spectacle on our planet. A small portion of the migratory trail protrudes into Kenya and goes by the name of Masai Mara. Unencumbered by passports or visas, the herds cross into Kenya, swimming across a frothing and foaming Mara river, risking life and limb. Literally thousands perish, some that survived the currents caught in the jaws of hungry crocodiles lying in wait for their annual feast. Yet, despite the dangers, it is a journey that the herds must undertake to follow the primordial cycle of life.

My journey to the savannah actually began in Zanzibar, an island off the coast of East Africa. After a few days in Zanzibar’s Stone Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I decided to check out Serengeti, for which the jumping-off point is Kilimanjaro, an hour’s flight from Dar es Salaam, the principal city of Tanzania. From school textbooks, we all know that Kilimanjaro is the tallest peak in Africa, but it was only during this journey that I discovered how much Mt Kilimanjaro dominates the psyche of Tanzanians. The catamaran that took us from Zanzibar to Dar es Salaam was named M.V. Kilimanjaro. The taxi which took me to the airport in Dar es Salaam was sent by Kilimanjaro Cabs. At Dar es Salaam’s Julius Nyerere airport, I boarded an aircraft emblazoned with the word Kilimanjaro across its belly; on board, I was served Kilimanjaro soft drink and Kilimanjaro toffee and offloaded in, you guessed it right, Kilimanjaro airport to a glorious view of Mt Kilimanjaro, resplendent in his lofty snow crown.

My family joins me at Kilimanjaro for a memorable wildlife safari that would bring us face to face with the most exotic and prolific wildlife on our planet. Paul Roberts Shayo of Shayo Treks and Tours is waiting at the airport to receive us and whisk us off to Moshe, a small town that sits adjacent to four wildlife parks in northern Tanzania—Lake Manyara, Kilimanjaro, Tarangire and Serengeti. The week-long safari will be in a four-wheel drive. Paul packs the vehicle with tents, sleeping bags, lanterns, cooking stuff, groceries, even foldable chairs and tables. Suvale, our cook, sits at the back amidst pots and pans. There are no permanent structures in any of the national parks except for toilets and showers. Travellers take their own equipment and bring it all back meticulously without leaving a trail.

The next day, we drive to Lake Manyara in the hope of seeing the millions of flamingos that flock here to feast on the krill (small crustaceans) in its salty marshes. But the birds are at the other end of the lake and all we can see is a shimmering pink wave. But on this bank, there are other African game galore, especially large groups of hippos, dozens of giraffes, warthogs, zebras and gazelles. Manyara is also home to several herds of African elephants. We watch mesmerised as a huge herd crosses our track, ears flapping like pankahs in a Mughal court. One by one, they come straight at your vehicle, tower over you, just inches away from your nose, only to make a last-minute turn, deftly avoiding collision. It is a bit unnerving to have wild elephants come so close that you can hear their breathing and count the crinkles and creases on their skin. Unlike their Indian counterparts, females of the species also sport tusks.

The highlight of the trip to Manyara is a lioness with a pair of gambolling cubs. The mother is busy tearing into a buffalo which she has just killed while the curious cubs cross the dry riverbed to investigate our vehicle. The anxious mother abandons her kill and comes bounding. With a nudge, she guides them back to their spot under a tree trunk where she can keep an eye on them while feeding on her kill. We move on, reluctantly.

The next day, we head towards the Serengeti National Park. We go through a densely forested and hilly Ngorongoro Conservation Area before entering the park. En route, we make a brief stop at a Masai village. For a fee, the handsome Masai men and women, all decked up in their traditional gear—bright red and blue sarongs and mounds of jewellery made of cowries and horn—come out of their thatched huts and perform a dance. Then they jump one by one to demonstrate their agility, which once used to be judged by their ability to kill a lion with bare hands. We are taken on a round of the village and shown their way of living. Earlier, in Dar es Salaam, I had seen a few Masai tribesmen in traditional dress riding scooters, weaving in and out of the city’s horrendous traffic jams. Tall, ebony-hued with chiselled features and shaven heads, the Masai are indeed strikingly handsome and their colourful attire tells them apart.

Masai villages used to dot the Serengeti plains, but in the last 50 years, most of them have been moved to the periphery of the national parks. The Masai people are perhaps not the original inhabitants of this land but were itinerant pastoral people who, in recent times, settled down in villages scattered across eastern Africa. The Masai claim they do not hunt wild animals. That they have lived in peace alongside wildlife for generations gives credence to this claim. However, they have learnt to move with the times and make the most of what tourism can do for their economy. The chief of the village we visit speaks impeccable English as he explains Masai customs to visitors. He tells us that they herd cows as much for their blood as for their milk. “We draw blood from their necks once every few weeks for drinking, but without killing them.” He also tells us how the practice of female circumcision has been discontinued. Malaria and the tsetse fly, which transmits sleeping sickness, are the two factors that limit the Masai population. The Masai have never farmed, a fact in which they take much pride.

The Serengeti safari begins long before you enter the gates of the national park. There is such a profusion of game en route that you wonder where the park begins or ends. Half a dozen giraffes amble alongside your vehicle, making you feel like a character in a Jurassic Park movie. Giant ostriches take a break from their pecking to regard you with curiosity. Their claws are so powerful that with one blow, they can crush your vehicle. Playful zebras butt each other and then stand companionably neck to neck as if to let you know they were only bantering. And thousands of wildebeest kick up dust as they cross the road single file. Seeing so many of them, you are lulled into a sense of complacency. Surely, nothing can be wrong in a planet where so many animals roam freely in the wild.

Our lunch stop is at Naabi Hill, an elevated rocky mound in the heart of Serengeti. It offers unhindered 360 degree views of the horizon. I trudge up to the top to take in the views, dodging dozens of agama lizards. Standing here, it is easy to believe that the earth is one flat burlap-coloured expanse. The black dots we spot yonder are wildebeest. There is an interpretation centre at Naabi Hill. A few shops sell souvenirs. Serengeti is a money-spinner for Tanzania. Ecotourism employs 6,00,000 local people and brings in a billion U.S. dollars annually. Yet, Serengeti also cleaves Tanzania and makes the northern half of the country inaccessible. Arusha, the second largest town in Tanzania, nestles at the foot of Mt Kilimanjaro, in the far north of the country. In recent years, a newly discovered gem called tanzanite, similar to blue sapphire, is being mined in Arusha. More expensive than diamond, and marketed aggressively, the tanzanite trade has lent some urgency to connectivity between the north and the south. The soda ash found in Lake Victoria, oil from Uganda and cotton also have to travel to markets in Dar es Salaam and beyond.

Currently, access to Arusha and Lake Victoria is only possible by air unless you are willing to take a very cumbersome detour. For many years, the Tanzanian government toyed with the idea of building a road through the savannah to link Arusha to the coastal towns in the south. The Serengeti Highway would have run for hundreds of kilometres south to north, but crucially, 53 kilometres of the proposed highway would have cut through the annual migration route. There was much debate within the country and internationally, and eventually, when the government decided to go ahead with the construction of the highway which should have been completed this year, the African Network for Animal Welfare, a non-profit organisation, moved the courts and obtained an order against the construction.

We halt at Seronera Camp for the night. There are about a dozen tents. A zinc-sheet-roof cookhouse is a beehive of activity, with a dozen cooks rustling up fresh food for their respective clients. A huge tank provides fresh water, which is brought in daily. Suvale knows how to serve a meal in style, even in this wilderness. He has everything one might think of. Fresh fruits, desserts, coffee.

After dinner, we gaze at the zillions of stars hanging on a moonless sky. It was an indescribably beautiful night. However, in the middle of the night, we are woken up by the blood-curdling howl of hyenas. There must have been dozens of them. We could hear them scampering around our tents, wailing and howling in chorus and at times thrusting their snouts through the thin tent cloth. It was an eerie experience, waiting for these beasts to rent the tent cloth and gore us for a meal. But the tent holds up and eventually we learn to relax.

The next day, we go in search of two of the most elusive cats of Serengeti. Even after repeated nudging, Paul is non-committal about the chances of our spotting a cheetah or a leopard. There are lions aplenty in Serengeti as they are social cats, unlike cheetahs and leopards, which are loners.

But then, this happens to be our lucky day. We sight three cheetahs within minutes of each other. The first one is stretched out on an anthill, surveying her surroundings. After some distance, we see a second one, much closer, crouching in the grass and eyeing a gazelle. Unfortunately for her, the gazelle has also seen her and is alert, ready to sprint at the sign of any movement. Our arrival on the scene distracts the cheetah and robs her of her potential meal as the gazelle leaps away to a safe distance. We see yet another at a distance, stretching and showing off her sleek flank.

A leopard is dozing off on a tree trunk and is hardly noticeable except to an expert’s eye like Paul’s. After much squinting we find him, legs dangling and face resting on a branch. In the foreground, Grant’s gazelles graze, secure in the knowledge that the leopard is nocturnal and is unlikely to stir himself now. In Serengeti, awareness and alertness could make the difference between life and death.

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