Day 5: Serengeti National Park
After many days of teaser / warm-up safari days, it was finally time to set out for the Serengeti. The national park is one of (but not the) largest parks in Tanzania, certainly the most famous. To get here, we drove through Ngorogoro Crater (pronounced “un-gor-o-gor-o”), which is a caldera formed by volcano millions of years ago. We’ll be back to the crater near the end of our trip, so more to come about it and the ecosystem there.
The drive through Ngorogoro was relatively uneventful, but getting there required a little extra effort. On the way there, we passed through a police “checkpoint” setup in the road. Our driver, Ben, was flagged for a crack in the windshield, which is very common here considering the unpaved roads (we got several new cracks driving the rest of the day!) Most windshields only last a safari or two before they need replacement. Anyway, although Ben had the proper paperwork stating he had ordered the replacement windshield and despite the appropriate stamps, the police here pretended that the paperwork was not in order. I say pretend because the police in Tanzania are notoriously corrupt and a major part of their job is to bother people for bribes. For the average Tanzanian who may not be well educated or know better, this is a part of their life, but Ben is very well educated and knew that he was technically in the right. After almost 30 minutes of debate, they finally agreed that we could go on our way if he paid a “fine” of 10,000 Tanzanian Shillings…… or $5 US Dollars! The police clearly pocket the money and we were sure to notice the diamond earrings and ring on the policewoman probably weren’t purchased on salary alone. While it does not seem like a significant amount of money, $5 USD here is a small fortune and can feed a family for a week!
Once we’d resolved the bribes, we continued for the Serengeti. The road was fairly bumpy and dusty, so it wasn’t my favorite of our drives, but certainly one of the most beautiful. The arrival into the Serengeti was marked with nothingness. Seriously. As far as you could see….. nothing. Flat. Not a tree to be seen. The only thing breaking up the horizon were the herds of gazelle nibbling on the grass. The midday heat caused a mirage effect as the ground radiated. On we drove and eventually ended up in the areas of the Serengeti that are closer to what I’d imagined; the odd tree, some rolling hills and the occasional dried up water hole.
We finally approached a side road where another safari driver indicated to Ben that there were some cheetah, so we detoured off the main route in search of some cats. We drove for awhile never finding cheetah, but the cats still showed themselves. This time it was a mother lion and her three lion cubs. The cubs were hungry and you could see ribs and bones, indicating they could use additional feedings. A little stream separated us from the lioness and her cubs, so Ben started driving to find a way across the stream to the road on the other side. As we proceeded, I spotted another pair of lions laying in the grass in the sun. We drove over to them and saw two adult lions, one who was just starting to grow his first mane, lounging in the midday sun. After watching them for a minute, we went back to the lioness and her cubs. She got up and started to lead her cubs away from the comfort and shade of the tree they were under and toward the other lions. We were hoping she was going to hunt one of the million gazelle ambling nearby, but she kept walking. She walked so quickly that her cubs fell behind, eventually separating her from them completely. Her walking ultimately also brought her within inches of the side of the truck - close enough that I could have reached my arm through the open window to pet her (I did not!). It was totally surreal to have a lion walk up on you like that, just inches away. I think I held my breath the whole time, but I did manage to take some shots!
Finally she went to join the other adult lions lounging in the sunshine, her children probably a half mile away and “lost” as far as we could tell. Ben tells us this isn’t all that uncommon, but we certainly were judging the momma lion’s parenting techniques to leave her young vulnerable like that!
The rest of our safari drive brought us more hippo, more giraffe, more elephant, more zebra, more monkey, more gazelle…… more animals! We joke that we’re starting to become choosy safari folks - the sightings that would have consumed us early in the trip are now waved on like “oh, another one of those.”
As the sun set, we approached our camp, the Kati Kati Camp, which is a roaming tent camp located squarely in the middle of the Serengeti plains. There is no fence, just a bunch of tents that are setup for a few months and then moved. As a result, you are smack dab in the middle of the animal action and not allowed to leave the tent after dinner. You are escorted to and from the tent in the dark and have a whistle for emergency, but are NOT supposed to exit the tent. Lion, hyena, zebra, giraffe, etc are all common sightings around the tents at night and I woke up several times to the sound of an animal right outside the tent. It was fascinating to also watch the sun set over the Serengeti from this vantage point and I’m glad we are here another day to enjoy it again.