We could have chosen to balloon ride over the vast Serengeti National Park of Tanzania and taken it easy, just floating along, but how much we would have missed! As Abdul Meena, owner of Abrojaley Africa Ajabu Travel Company, who planned our whole trip for us, said, “You write Real Travel Adventures, so I’m giving you a Real Travel Adventure. If you stayed in the beautiful hotel lodges or fixed permanent tentcamp sites you would miss so much, because these are outside the parks and you would spend half of each day just traveling in and out to find the best viewing areas to see the animals.” And he was SO RIGHT! We had the most wonderful adventure, and here is how we slept: in the middle of the National Parks in public campgrounds that had adequate restrooms (some even better than primitive camping in the United States.) Although our experience of sleeping in tents prior to this were quite limited, we were so tired and happy by the time we hit our sleeping bags in early evening we went sound asleep, not even afraid of the animals that roamed freely through the campgrounds in the darkness.
We traveled in a very comfortable and completely outfitted Toyota Land Cruiser Safari SUV, with our superb and knowledgeable personal driver/guide, Manase, and our excellent cook/chef, Fulgence, who work for Abdul.
90,000 tourists visit the Serengeti each year. It encompasses 30,000 square kilometers, the size of Ireland or Connecticut. The flora and fauna are some of the oldest on earth and have remained virtually unchanged in millions of years. The boundaries of the park itself, some of which extends beyond Tanzania into Kenya, was set by the migratory route of the Wildebeests, who have made this their home and remained the same in body structure for over two million years. Archeologists have discovered evidence of humonids who walked upright and made stone tools three and a half million years ago in the Olduvae Gorge, which is also part of the park.
The Serengeti was the original tribal home of the Maasai People, who still have grazing rights for their flocks, and their stick and mud hut villages dot the Conservation Area nearby. Two World Heritage Sites and two Biosphere Reserves are in the Serengeti, truly one of the most treasured places on earth. We were in awe throughout our entire stay.
The migration of herds is one of the things that makes the Serengeti so fascinating. Over a million wildebeest and about 200,000 zebras move from the northern hills to the southern plains for the short rains every October and November, and then they migrate west and north after the long rains in April, May and June. But any time of year you can see hundreds of these animals because some are permanent residents of the plains, which can support them even in the dry periods.
Tanzania is one of the most stable and safest, though one of the poorest countries in Africa, and they take their tourist safety and the preservation of their wildlife and land just as seriously. They have worked hard as a nation and as individual tour companies to be sure that the tourists help them protect this wondrous place, Nature’s gift to the earth. Safari cars can only go on designated dirt roads, and people can only get out of the vehicles at designated picnic, restroom, and campground places. Though poaching still happens sometimes, the animals own the Serengeti, and people are just guests, who must help the locals honor and protect their environment and its wildlife.
Even though it was near the end of the dry period when we were there in October, the huge herds of wildebeest still found plenty of food and looked healthier than the domestic animals we saw in other places. These strange looking animals are well adapted to the climate and migrate over a thousand kilometers when necessary to find food. The herds we saw live permanently in these plains, where the small river is enough for them in the dry period.
One early morning we were privileged to happen upon five cheetahs surrounding a herd of gazelles and carefully stalking and singling out one weak one to kill and devour. It was a gruesome site to witness the actual kill, but this is the survival of the fittest, the law of Nature. However, it was fascinating to watch the cheetahs work together because alone, a cheetah cannot outrun a gazelle. Our guide explained that the meat-eater animals in the wild never kill except to eat, and when they are satisfied they go long periods before another kill. They only kill the weakest or oldest animals, which keeps the herd strong. We saw one dead fawn, which had been hit by a car, and the mother was standing by it in obvious mourning. Manase explained she will stay there about 24 hours, until the vultures arrive. Other predators do not eat animals they have not killed themselves; they somehow know it could make them sick. Thus, the carrion-eaters play an important role.
Even in the dry period there are lakes and mud holes abundant in the Serengeti plains, and the hippos were by the hundreds. It was amazing to watch them as they fought over territory, but never really hurt each other, just declared power like the above photo. Hippos cannot swim; they merely loll in shallow water and mud. There so many they appeared to be big rocks when we saw them in their favorite spots.
The easiest way to tell a leopard from a cheetah is leopards climb into trees with their kill, so no other animal will steal it from them. We saw several leopards, some awake and alert in the branches, others sleeping soundly after being sated, with the remains of their kill beside them on a limb.
We saw a huge herd of over 600 Cape Buffalo wandering along together in search of water. Since we are used to Texas cattle country, we could not help likening it to the movemnet of a herd of domestic cattle. It couldn’t quite register in our minds that these are some of the most feared and deadly animals in the bush. Their mighty horns are lethal. But while we watched they appeared very docile, some lying down to rest while munching grass, or hundreds ambling slowly along in a cloud of dust.