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- Find out what the lions are doing in the Serengeti -
Table of Contents
The Serengeti, meaning, in Swahili, endless plains, has all the wildlife anyone could ever want to see: from lion to spectacled elephant shrew, from elephant to bush hyrax and from bateleur eagle to red billed oxpecker, it possesses possibly the greatest array of wildlife and wildlife habitats over its more than 15,000 square kilometre area, in the whole world. But how does one get the best from it? What is the best way to see the most animals? What are the best lodges to stay in? And what are the best locations to go to and at what time of year?
The first point to remember is not to expect to see everything on the first day. You may well do so, but expectation – if not realistic – inevitably leads to disappointment and the Serengeti is the last place where anyone should be disappointed. The second point is that you will not be alone. Thousands of visitors come to the Serengeti every year, and although the Park has far fewer visitors per square mile than the Maasai Mara in Kenya or the Ngorongoro Crater, you are still likely to come across many vehicles in the course of an average three hour circuit. Having said this, with an experienced driver there are many routes that can be taken – especially in the northern area of the park in the vicinity of the Lobo Lodge, where you won't see another vehicle all day. I can recall watching a pride of twenty lions feasting on a recently killed zebra for two hours without seeing another vehicle. Moreover, if you make it clear to the driver that you are less interested in seeing the ‘big five’ than in actually experiencing what the Serengeti has to offer as a wilderness experience, then you can easily escape the crowds – and if you do have the good fortune of seeing anything special, you will have the sight to yourself.
The only real way to view the Serengeti is by motor vehicle. There are a small number of areas where travellers can dismount and walk around a little, but these are few and far between, and there are no walking safaris permitted. Also, unlike in India, and due to the temperamental nature of the African elephant, there are no elephant back safaris. People sometimes find it quicker and easier to get from lodge to lodge by way of light aircraft, and this can provide a spectacular aerial view of the famous plains, although often at too great an altitude to see much in the way of wildlife. In addition, balloon safaris can be taken from the Seronera lodge at dawn. These provide an unparalleled view of the Serengeti and its wildlife. On the one occasion I took this trip, the balloon followed the course of a river and we saw a pod of some thirty wallowing hippos that would have been invisible by road even though the track passed literally only twenty metres away. We also saw giraffes peacefully browsing from the tops of Acacia trees, a cheetah trotting through the waist high grass, and herds of zebra and wildebeest roaming the plains below. Each balloon trip ends with a champagne breakfast, set up in the bush where your balloon comes to earth – a truly unique experience.
Apart from the above exceptions, your safari will take place by vehicle and herein lies the importance of selecting the right safari company.
Arusha is awash with safari operators, which provides a daunting choice for those who arrive without a safari pre-booked. Most people however prefer to book in advance, either with international tour operators, who use a local safari company, or through the local companies direct. There are several decent guide books (for example the Spectrum Guide to Tanzania or the Bradt Guide to Tanzania - see Book Store) which provide information on some of these companies. Basically, you get what you pay for, and accordingly, what seemed like a bargain at the time may not seem like such a bargain, when the broken down old jeep used by your budget safari operator has over-heated and you are stranded in the mid-day sun by the road side half way between Arusha and the Serengeti.
I have travelled twice with a company called Wildersun Safaris and have found their service to be absolutely first class. They are very professionally run, their vehicles in top condition, and their drivers likeable, smart, courteous, and very knowledgeable. I cannot recommend them highly enough. They also arranged my wedding in the Mountain Village Lodge, Arusha, three and a half years ago and did a fantastic job!
When booking a safari it is possible to go on a prearranged trip with a set itinerary and a set number of passengers. Alternatively you can put together an itinerary of your own choice and book a vehicle and driver just for yourself. Obviously if your group comprises only two people then this will be a more expensive option, but if you are travelling in, say, a group of six, the difference in price will not be so great. My wife and I have travelled twice to the Serengeti with Wildersuns and had a whole Land Rover to ourselves, and I have gone once with a group in a minibus with another company. All I can say is that as long as I can still afford to do so I will be doing the former! It is more comfortable, you get a better view, you get to tell the driver where you want to go, and you don’t have to put up with anyone you don't like.
To request further details about their first class safaris click here to contact Wildersun Safaris.
The Serengeti covers an enormous area, and not surprisingly there are a number of lodges (and campsites) in different parts of the park which vary both in price and quality. If you were spending a whole week or more in the park a good idea would be to split the safari between two centres – one in the south and one in the north. Or perhaps one in the south and one in the west. Again, there are several good guide books which discuss the merits of the different lodges, but I will only speak about the ones in which I, personally, have stayed. The less expensive options are the Seronera Lodge in the southern central area of the park and the Lobo lodge towards the north. Both lodges are run by TAHI (basically the Tanzanian authorities) and are in superb locations. Both sit atop kopjes (rocky outcrops) and the Lobo lodge commands spectacular views of the surrounding plains and has a swimming pool from which you can sip cocktails and watch the animals coming to drink at a waterhole far below. When we stayed here, one afternoon when we were out on safari a troupe of baboons broke into our room and emptied the contents of our suitcases all over the floor – we had closed but not latched shut our windows!
The Lobo lodge (comprising around 150 rooms) is unlikely to be busy, and when we were there – in September – there were only about ten guests. The rooms are good enough and the food okay, although if you are a vegetarian, expect the same dish to be served under different names for lunch and dinner. There are large prides of lions in this area as well as decent numbers of buffalo and elephant. The grazers come and go according to the season and the migration passes through at certain times of year (see below).
The Seronera lodge is similar in standard of accommodation to the Lobo – and not in the same league as the more luxury lodges - but similarly, it makes up for this with the atmosphere of its location - to get to the dining area and bar of the Seronera you must climb up between two immense boulders. The area also has many lions and each night we kept awake by the whooping calls of hyenas. Multi-coloured Agama lizard and rock hyrax abound in the rocks around the lodge.
Not far from the Lobo lodge is the Migration Camp, which is a semi-luxury tented camp situated near the banks of the Grumeti River. Food and accommodation here is excellent and it is one of the few places in the Serengeti where you can be taken on a short walking safari with an armed ranger. Each tent has its own ensuite toilet and shower and is either raised on stilts above the ground or perched on granite boulders. Each tent also has its own guard to ensure you do not receive any unwelcome visitors in the night, and at evening meal time your guard will escort you with a flash light safely to the dining platform - a two minute walk away. It is an intensely atmospheric experience to sleep in the Serengeti with only a layer of canvass to separate you from the wildlife outside – and here it can be done in complete comfort. Also, the game viewing is good and on one morning we were scarcely two miles out of the camp when we saw a large male leopard ‘courting’ a female as her nearly fully grown two cubs looked on nervously. Our excellent guide, Steven from Wildersun, told us that it was the first time he had seen four leopards together in over twelve years of being a guide! But it is not only the large animals that make the Serengeti so magical. One early morning we were taking coffee on our personal little ‘terrace’ over the boulders in the Migration Camp when we were visited by a group of twenty or so Fisher’s Love Birds darting around drinking nectar from a flowering tree growing between the boulders just a few feet away from us.
Not far from the Seronera lodge are two luxury lodges; the Serena and Sopa lodges. Both are part of two competing chains of lodges and both offer superb food and accommodation – including vegetarian. There is not much to choose between them – the Sopas rooms are larger and more luxurious but the lay out and grounds of the Serena are more magical. Whereas from the outside the Sopa looks uninspiring, the Serena comprises a number of thatched rondevals (each one consisting of two rooms), with interlinking and lit pathways. The Serena also has a nice swimming pool – which has apparently, in the past, been used by a lion for midnight drinks!
The received wisdom is that the best times to see the animals is first thing in the morning and late afternoon just before sunset. As it is not possible to go on night safaris in the Serengeti, this is undoubtedly correct. It depends on each individual as to the exact timings but, to get the most out of the trip, I like to start early – maybe six am – and then stay out for around four hours before returning for a well-deserved breakfast. Others may prefer to start later – say around eight am and stay out for three hours. The general rule of thumb is that the later in the morning – and the warmer - it gets the less likely you are to see the animals actually doing anything, although this is not necessarily always the case. For an example of what I saw in the heat of the day at three pm in the nearby Ngorongoro Crater see Travellers Tales. In the afternoon people tend to go out again at around three-thirty to four pm depending on the time of year.
In terms of what to wear and what to bring people tend to wear neutral colours – so as not to distract the animals – with green, brown or beige khakis being popular. Sunscreen is obviously important, as is mosquito repellent for the evenings. Decent binoculars are a must, as is a camera with a telephoto lens of no less than 300mm if you are serious about taking good pictures. Camcorders are also popular for recording those close encounters with the big five.
People often cite the great migration of some two million wildebeest, zebra and gazelle as being one of the main reasons for visiting the Serengeti. With normal patterns of rainfall the migration will usually be in the southern plains between roughly January and March; in the Western Corridor between June and July; and in the north of the park in September to October. However, wildlife and weather can be unpredictable and so these timings should be used as a guide only. Basically wherever it rains new grass will spring up within days, and this will attract the grazers. If you want up to date information on wildlife sightings in the Serengeti please view the Serengeti update page.
(Click on the thumbnail below for a full size map of the area)
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