Tuesday 4 February 2003
Question: As you fly into land you see a herd of elephants drinking at a waterhole near to the runway. Then, as soon as you step out of the plane, sniffing the fresh air and protecting your eyes against the harsh midday sun, you are surrounded by brightly coloured superb starlings and topi graze in the distance. Where are you?
Answer: The Serengeti
Within minutes of landing at the Seronera airstrip, in the central Serengeti, my safari companion and I are driving through the Seronera valley when we spot a female leopard resting on the thick branch of a sausage tree. Steven, our driver, who I have known for over five years since he attended my wedding at the Mountain Village Lodge, near Arusha, and then drove my wife and I on our subsequent honeymoon, has already surpassed himself with this sighting and his amazing ability to spot well camouflaged flora and fauna. Later, we see a pod of hippos grunting noisily and an enormous crocodile sunning itself on the banks of the Seronera river. Later still we see another herd of elephants, maybe 40 strong, striding noiselessly through the trees. And all of this within 30 minutes of landing in the Serengeti - very quickly the long flight from London the day before and a disrupted night's sleep in Arusha are forgotten.
After watching the elephants going about their business for a while - and protecting their young by sandwiching them between the bodies of adult females as they do so - it is time to move on as we are relaxed (and excited enough) for the long drive south from the Seronera area of the central Serengeti to the Ndutu lodge, just outside the southern tip of the park. The journey is nearly 50 miles and takes you through the long grass plains which stretch as far as the eye can see before colliding head on with the horizon. Depending on the time of the year these plains are either empty or full of migrating herds of wildebeest and zebras – there is little in between. Now they are relatively empty as the migration is already further south. As you drive through this sea of grass you see the occasional kopje (or granite outcrop) which not only break up the scenery but which have been colonised by different grasses, bushes and trees, and are home to all manner of animals, birds, lizards and insects. Here you must be careful not to drive too fast as if you do so you may miss a lion or leopard sunning itself or surveying the surrounding plains for its next meal.
Other than these giant protrusions, today, everything on the plains is quiet. We stop at the Naabi Hill Gate and are immediately surrounded again by the ubiquitous and very tame superb starlings. ‘Do Not Feed The Birds’, reads a large sign upon which is perched five of these beautiful birds, eagerly anticipating a handout. As our driver, Steven, pays the park fees we climb to the top of the hill, observing the many different varieties of birds and the Agama lizards as we go. Once at the top we look out at the plains in all directions before noticing a tree full of black kites - and marvel afresh at the sheer scale of it all.
Approximately one hour later we are enjoying an excellent lunch at the wonderful Ndutu Lodge, just to the south of Lake Ndutu. I am a vegetarian but at 20 minutes notice the chef has whipped up a delicious vegetable bake from the extensive fresh produce at his disposal trucked in on a regular basis from the nearby Gibbs Farm in Karatu. As we eat we watch scarlet-chested sunbirds, white-headed buffalo weavers and still more superb starlings frolic in the bird bath just next to the dining area, and later, as we walk the two minute walk from the main lodge area to our chalet we see a huge old bull elephant feeding quietly about one hundred metres away towards Lake Ndutu.
After a short siesta, we have our first view of the migration to the north and west of the lake. On the gentle slopes leading up and away from these sides of the lake we see thousand upon thousand of wildebeest and zebra in all directions. Many of the wildebeest are still pregnant in these herds and although a majority of the zebra have foals there are not many wildebeest calves in evidence yet. In the middle of all these chomping animals there is a large circular oasis of empty grass. Intrigued, we drive into it and immediately spot three cheetah - a mother and two adolescent males. They are uncharacteristically nervous, perhaps having recently been chased away by other predators. We watch them for a while from a safe distance, admiring their understated elegance and general healthy condition, before continuing on up to the marsh, where yet more migratory herds are drinking.
This evening we have plenty to reflect upon over supper. As we do so we notice two pairs of eyes observing us from the rafters above us - two genets! These beautiful spotted creatures with long tails and slender bodies, resembling small cats, but actually closely related to the mongoose family are residents at the lodge and in fact some 14 (at the last count) live in and around the lodge - controlling the insect and rodent population effectively, as well as entertaining the diners!
That night we drift off to sleep to the sound of hyenas calling. Fortunately we have left nothing outside our chalet, as the next day we hear that a neighbour's pair of walking boots have been chewed up by a wandering hyena, and in the previous weeks, tents, all manner of clothes, and even a large pair of binoculars have been destroyed by these marauding thugs!