On a journey to the north of Serengeti National Park, Laura Griffith-Jones discovers that you don’t have to focus on the river crossings during the Great Migration to have some exceptional wildlife encounters. Picture copyright Michael Poliza
Our red-letter day began just before dawn in a dark tent in a remote corner of the northern Serengeti. The music of the nocturnal African bush played loud in our ears as we crept along the torch-lit pathway a hyena had trodden the evening before. Clambering into our Land Cruiser, bleary eyed, we set off towards the Kogatende Airstrip and the Mara River. The engine growled sluggishly as the night sky became pinker, until it was stained deep purple. Our guide Bahati slowed the car to a halt and we watched in silence as the horizon turned mauve, then crimson, and the huge golden orb rose from the hills.
I would have come to this 14,763sq-km park to experience that sunrise and nothing else. But most people flood here each year with one aim alone: to see the Great Migration, the ‘World Cup of Wildlife’, where nearly 1.7 million wildebeest, 400,000 Thomson’s gazelle, 300,000 zebra and 12,000 eland trek in a vast cyclical route between Tanzania and Kenya on an eternal quest for fresh water and grassland.
“My favourite months in the Serengeti are between February and April in the Ndutu plains,” Bahati divulged, much to my surprise. “When the wildebeest are dropping their young. Some 300,000 to 400,000 calves are born within two to three weeks of one another, and there is lots of action, with hyenas and jackals stealing babies and big cats hunting. It’s a feast for predators.”
But most tourists dream of witnessing an iconic ‘river crossing’, when two million animals traverse the Mara River between the Serengeti and the Masai Mara, with crocs snapping at their hooves and rapids battering their bodies. The best time to observe this epic drama is allegedly between July and October, yet nature is unpredictable. Migration movements are dependent on the weather, so chance plays a big part. “You could spend a lifetime waiting for the typical migration. It is a dynamic process which defies predictions,” writer and photographer Jonathan Scott once said.
It was October; and despite being here late in the season, we were secretly hoping we might be lucky. But soon it became clear this was unlikely. It was an unusual year, we learnt from camp staff and fellow guests, as the Mara was uncharacteristically dry and the ‘short rains’ had arrived early in the south, breathing life into the land. The fickle herds had already proceeded onwards to relish the new flushes of growth. We had seen hundreds of wildebeest on our drive north, near the Lobo Hills, but Bahati had corrected us: “No, I’m afraid this is just a low number. During the peak of the migration, everything would be black as far as the eye can see.” We had quickly quelled our disappointment and reminded ourselves that this part of the park had plenty more to offer. We would embrace the ‘lesser’ encounters: the sandpiper teetering in a stream, the klipspringer hopping between boulders, and the comical secretary bird tiptoeing among clumps of Maerua edulis.
Driving onwards, we soaked up the warmth of dawn, enjoying the picturesque scenery. The landscape was different to the Seronera Valley in the central Serengeti, with undulating hills, kopjes and termite mounds where pangolins enjoy midnight feasts. The boulders and hillocks also make top-notch hiding places for hunting predators, so viewing big cat action is a real possibility here. We were busy observing a handsome yellow-throated longclaw when Bahati muttered urgently: “Lions.” And there they were — a pride of five females — basking in the sunshine on a cluster of flat boulders and staring at a herd of wildebeest, zebra and giraffe, and a family of warthogs, all nibbling the velvet grass nearby. They knew the cats were there; their ears quivered and their eyes darted towards them, alert and aware.
Could the lionesses be hungry? We would have to wait and see. After some time, one of them sprung down to the grass, crouched low and began to stalk a docile giraffe. When she was close enough, she accelerated. But the elegant giraffe had noticed her and galloped away to safety with long, slow-motion strides. The disgruntled lioness’s eyes honed in on another target: a warthog. Again, she charged, but the speedy little hoglet swiftly scampered off. Chest heaving, she took stock, and began to creep, like a soldier, slowly, towards a young wildebeest, grazing serenely. Then she bounded, and with powerful paws, pounced and seized the youngster’s rear with her claws. The wildebeest lashed out but made no sound when her razor-sharp teeth latched onto its throat, dragging it down. On the ground, it struggled no more, as if it knew hope was lost.
Watching a real-life kill is thrilling but ruthless. Unlike on Attenborough, this was in the flesh — and raw. Soon the others sauntered in, like lazy teenagers, and began to chew their prey’s still-heaving belly. We were willing the victim to die — but nature is harsh and, with terrified eyes popping from its skull, it continued to gasp fearfully until, to our relief, it fell silent. The five bloodstained lionesses growled softly, flicking their tails to ward off the flies and relishing their breakfast. Butchering the sinewy meat was methodical: with lipstick-red jaws, they first consumed the liver, then the stomach and the ribcage. Nothing was left to the imagination. One lioness tore off a hind leg and carried the bloody limb away to enjoy alone. Looking away from the gruesome scene, I appreciated the sun-kissed surroundings. There were no other vehicles to be seen. Beyond the banqueting pride, verdant hills and valleys stretched before us — specked with granite boulders, black-barked acacia trees and wild olive trees whose bark is used by the Maasai for medicine and toothpaste. The other game had wisely moved away from their deceased compatriot.
Soon it was time to continue. By now, the sun was fully awake, as were the scavengers. Rüpell’s griffon, white-backed and lappet-faced vultures soared above us, swooping in from far-off roosts to claim their share. “There are many vultures in the northern Serengeti,” explained Bahati. “Because of the Great Migration, there is plenty of food for them.” As we puttered along the track, Bahati revealed that this was good leopard habitat, too. We didn’t hold out much hope since they are notoriously difficult to spot. However, our fortune remained. Two other cars had beaten us to it, but we gazed in awe as a pair of leopard nuzzled and nibbled one another beneath a shady orange-leaf croton bush. They were displaying the utmost tenderness and affection, their limbs intertwined and their eyes sparkling. “They are courting,” said Bahati (rather stating the obvious, I thought), and added with a twinkle, “Male leopards know how to make love. They will do anything — caress the female, groom her. He would carry her if he could.” It was a remarkable sight to behold. The tension between these rare and magnificent beasts was mesmerising.
We left reluctantly. The northern Serengeti is astoundingly wildlife rich — beyond the big cats and wildebeest — so don’t overlook the smaller creatures. The rippling countryside is home to the klipspringer, a shy antelope with a yellowish coat and specially adapted hooves for skipping between boulders and climbing steep crags. We spied one as it lay stock-still, as if fastened to its rock, and then sprung up and dashed away. We also glimpsed a banded mongoose and, uncommonly, a pancake tortoise slipping into a trackside lagoon. And soon the Mara River came into view, its treacherous mud banks walnut brown against the green of the Lamai Wedge and Kenyan hills beyond. We had been informed that there were only 25 rhino in the area so we were very pleasantly surprised when a family of black rhino plodded across the wide-open savannah dotted with white ink flowers and vivid orange fireball lilies like pompoms.
At first, we were too preoccupied with the rhino to notice the herds congregating on the opposite bank. But Bahati was already glued to his giant binoculars. Then he looked at us, with a boyish expression, and announced: “I think the wildebeest are going to try and cross.” We couldn’t believe it. The Great Migration may have travelled south but the stragglers were still here. “We must wait until the first one goes, if it goes… Then we will rush to the bank,” he said. “You are very lucky. There hasn’t been a crossing for two weeks. And it may last only half an hour, so if you arrive late you will miss it.” Now we understood why tourists are cautioned to have realistic expectations. Blink and you miss it, literally.
Anticipation mounting, we sipped our coffee and ate breakfast under a black-barked acacia, with swallows pirouetting overhead.
A cardinal woodpecker tapped a tree trunk nearby; a boubou called; and an African hoopoe piped away — a knell signalling impending death soon to ensue. But would the wildebeest do it? This late in the season, crossings are few and far between. But before long, the first one took the plunge, and in a frenzy, we flung everything into the Land Cruiser and zoomed towards the riverbank to secure our spot. Other vehicles were doing the same, but far fewer than in peak season. I couldn’t help but feel a little amused by the ludicrousness of humanity. There we were swarming, like wasps to a jam jar, to watch something that nature has performed every year for millennia.
Adrenaline pumped through our veins as, one after another, they leapt down the vertiginous bank into the frothing jaws of death. We understood why they are known as the ‘clowns of the savannah’ — it seemed suicidal. Many were struggling against the strong current, slipping and sliding, increasingly battered and bruised. There was an eruption of bubbles as a crocodile snatched one. Two were trapped between rocks and we watched their heads become submerged and then disappear beneath the torrents. It was brutal. But the survivors charged away from the river, skittish with relief, before settling on the emerald pastures this side of the river. With about 400 wildebeest, this was small-scale compared to a peak-season crossing, when tens of thousands can stream continuously over the river for up to two hours, but the experience was enthralling nevertheless.
After such a breathtaking morning, we were tempted to end on a high and go home. But instead, we traversed the river to explore the Lamai Wedge, a remote sector, right on the Kenyan border between the Serengeti and the Masai Mara. We stumbled upon two enormous, full-bellied male lions, approached a petulant hyena and observed wily black-backed jackals stalking baby warthogs. Buffalo and wildebeest grazed the plains; topi frolicked like spring lambs; and a pair of eland shyly trotted away from a waterhole.
On our drive back to the camp, the distant hills were turning purple and foreboding blood-red wisps of cloud streaked the sky like ribbons. “The rains are falling in the Mara,” whispered Bahati. “Perhaps now they will go back.” And indeed trails of wildebeest were beginning to move towards Kenya, faithfully following the smell of the rain.
Our red-letter day had proven that the northern Serengeti is a year-round destination and that travelling here in October, late in the season, can have its benefits: the possibility of witnessing a river crossing and other extraordinary wildlife encounters in a spectacular, lush setting with few tourists. Fortune must smile on you, but besides, there is far more to the region than the Great Migration, great as it is. Whether you are searching for big cats or more captivated by the smaller animals and birds, this is a wildlife lover’s wonderland in every season.
The million-dollar question
John Addison of Wild Frontiers gives his insight on when to go
The northern Serengeti is fantastic all year round, with the exception of the big rains in April and May, when it is muddy and the grass is long. But many go to this region in order to view a ‘crossing’, when herds of wildebeest swarm across the Mara River, sometimes going back and forth three or four times in a week.
Any time between July and October (peak season) will give you a good opportunity to witness this amazing spectacle — but be sure to give yourself a couple of days there to optimise your chances and have realistic expectations. This is nature and the animals do not run to a schedule! And even if you are right in the thick of it, you may be half an hour late and see nothing.
Travelling at the end of the peak season — in late October — may come with more of a risk of missing the herds but there will be fewer vehicles, which is a great advantage. So try and perceive a crossing as a bonus — and instead focus on all the other wonderful wildlife that resides here, too, such as the rock-hopping klipspringer.
• Getting there Kenya Airways, KLM, Qatar Airways, Ethiopian Airlines and British Airways fly to Kilimanjaro Airport, near Arusha. From there, you can drive the 325km to Serengeti National Park, which takes around eight hours. From the Naabi Hill Gate, it’s a long drive to the northern sector near the Mara River, so break your journey in the Seronera Valley. Alternatively, fly with Coastal Aviation from Arusha or Kilimanjaro to the Kogatende Airstrip. Arrange your trip through a company. The writer travelled with South African-based Wild Frontiers, an excellent tour operator specialising in East, West and southern Africa, with camps, lodges, guides and operations in South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda.
• Where to stay There are several good accommodation options to suit every style and budget. But if you have booked through Wild Frontiers, you will stay at its ‘seasonal’ Serengeti North Wilderness Camp (doubles from US$700, full board), a short drive from the Mara River. The 10 tents are simple but comfortable, each with a verandah and an en-suite loo and ‘bush shower’. The food is delicious and the staff friendly.
• Health Visit your local GP well in advance of your trip to find out which vaccinations you need and the best antimalarial to take.
• Further reading Read Bradt’s Tanzania Safari Guide (7th edition) by Philip Briggs and Chris McIntyre or visit tanzaniaparks.go.tz.