Friday, March 10, 2023

More African Adventures, Part 9 - Four Days in the Serengeti

January 16- 20, 2019

Four Days in the Serengeti

January 16 - Muddy Adventures on the Road to Serengeti National Park

After another wonderful Gibbs Farm breakfast, we left the Karatu Region under sunny skies for our long drive to the Serengeti National Park.  Our first stop was just down the road from the farm, a workshop where men were creating fantastic masks and sculptures out of wood.  Some of the faces were created entirely out of animal shapes.

We retraced our route past Ngorongoro Crater, but this time we zipped past the road that leads down into the crater and continued on through the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, which spreads out on the outer slopes of the crater and beyond on a great plain that extends all the way to the Serengeti.  This is Masai land, and we could see many bonas, the extended family villages comprised of small round mud-daubed huts with conical thatched roofs, scattered over the landscape.  The Masai count their wealth in cattle, and there were many herds of cattle, sheep, and goats all along the route.  Masai children, some of them looking as young as five or six, and some teens, tend these herds.  We saw the adults working in the villages, tending garden plots or meeting together in what appeared to be council meetings.  Others were walking along the road, easy to spot in their bright red and blue robes.

A Masai village in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area

After a couple of hours of slow driving along the dirt road, we passed the turnoff to Oldupai Gorge, made famous by the Leaky family who identified the bones of some of the earliest known hominids.  We had visited Oldupai Gorge on our last trip to Tanzania, so we had not included it on our itinerary.  I was a little disappointed about this, as we had seen the beginning of a new large Oldupai Gorge Museum and Visitors Center on our previous trip.  Albert told us that the new center is now finished and is quite spectacular.

Near Oldupai Gorge

A Masai herd of cattle

Soon after passing Oldupai Gorge, we began seeing large herds of wildebeests.  At this time of year, the Great Migration is here in the southern region of the Serengeti.  Following the rainy season, the grasses in the area are lush and green and provide abundant food for the huge herds of wildebeests and zebras who migrate together.  Albert showed us a map of the migration throughout the year.  On our first trip, we had visited in July and had found these herds at the far northern end of the Serengeti and the Masai Mara in Kenya.  On this trip, we would explore the mountainous southern end of the Serengeti.
First sighting of wildebeests

We stopped several times to see the other wildlife that roams around this "Endless Plain."

Hyenas crossing the muddy road

In the late afternoon, we finally reached the southern border of the Serengeti, and our weather luck changed.  Black clouds of rain squalls darkened the horizon in front of us.  Albert was anxious to reach our camp before the rains hit us, and it soon became clear why.  The rain had obviously passed over the plains earlier in the day, and the dirt roads were slick tracks of mud, and some of the time, we were not even on roads.  I was amazed that Albert could find his way over this vast plain!  It was very slow going for the next two hours, slipping in mud and swerving around huge pools of water.  

We were so happy to arrive at Sanctuary Kichikani Camp at 4:00, six hours after leaving Gibbs Farm.  We were greeted warmly by the staff with hot towels and cold juice.  After a brief orientation, we collapsed into our roomy tent.  The camp is in a beautiful setting, atop a rocky platform looking down on a forest of acacia trees below.  Our tent was the best location in the entire group, as our "front door" opened up to the fabulous view.  As we unpacked and settled in, a huge Marabou stork strode right across our doorstep.

The dining tent at Sanctuary Kichikana Camp
The view from our front door

We were once again completely worn out by the long and difficult drive, so after dinner we fell into our comfortable king-size bed and fell asleep to the sounds of booming thunder and the rain tapping on our thick canvas roof.
"Welcome" was spelled out in beans on our bed.

Rain squalls in the distance.

January 17 - A Muddy Day on the Hills of the Serengeti

We woke to sunshine, and our stork sentinel was there to greet us as we went to breakfast in the communal dining tent.  

After the difficult drive over mostly muddy roads yesterday, we wondered if a game drive might be impossible.  But at 8 a.m., Albert appeared with our Land Cruiser and we set off to give it a try.  The wet weather made our game drive this time quite a different feel than our first visit to the Serengeti four years ago.  First Visit to the Serengeti    In that dry summer, our drivers were able to roam the plain for miles, and we visited many different areas of the park.  This time, the very muddy roads made for slow going so we were confined to a more limited area.  The animals, too, were making themselves scarce, taking shelter in the forests where they were much harder to spot.  But the landscape was beautiful, lush and green, and I reminded myself that this is not a zoo.  This is the real Africa, and the animals are doing exactly what they are supposed to do.

Even with these conditions, we had some special sightings.  A pair of bet-eared foxes, a rare sighting because they are nocturnal, had probably been pushed out of their den by the rain and were lying in the grass.  We saw several impalas and baboons through the forest trees, and a leopard tortoise crossed the road right in front of us.  (It is one of the "Little Five," five animals sharing names with the "Big Five.")

The blue and black fabric, which was hung throughout the forest, attracts and traps the tsetse flies.

One of my favorite features of the Serengeti are the kopjes, the beautiful granite outcroppings that dot these plains. On one of them this morning, we saw a lion prowling on the rocks.  As word got out over the drivers' radios, more and more vehicles arrived and the lion disappeared into the bushes atop the rock.  We ended up spending an hour there, as Albert jumped out to help others work to rescue a vehicle that was solidly stuck in the deep mud.  Rob took advantage of the break to get a little exercise.

Animals use the tops of the kopjes as lookout posts.

Helping a safari vehicle stuck in the mud.

And, of course, we saw wildebeests - Thousands of them!  A huge herd thundered across the road right in front of us, and we sat there for almost fifteen minutes as they kept coming and coming and coming.  We kept saying, "Oh, that must be the last of them," and then a few more would appear on the horizon, trotting to keep up with the herd.

This thunderous herd looked like it was coming straight at us!

We returned to camp for lunch, and George, our tent attendant, prepared hot "bucket showers" for us.  That afternoon brought more thunder and rain, and we were quite content to hang out in our tent reading and napping.  Later we went to the group lounge to visit with other travelers and enjoy a delicious dinner.  Sundown is early here, and hanging on for dear life in a bouncy safari vehicle is actually pretty tiring, so we were happy to go to bed early.

January 18 - Day Two on the Serengeti

Albert picked us up after breakfast and we set out in the same direction as yesterday.  Once again, we did not spot many animals, but the ones we did see were great.  There were more of the adorable bat-eared foxes, scampering around poking their noses into the bushes searching for beetles and other insects, their main diet.  

We saw a tiny dik-dik and a steenbok, the two smallest of the antelopes, nearly hidden in the underbrush.  I am always amazed by our guides' ability to spot the forest creatures!)


After wresting with wet roads, Albert decided to try another path, and off we went across the grassy plain where we found a large tower of giraffes and a herd of zebras.  I love the graceful giraffes.  They always seem so serene, striding slowly and majestically across the landscape.  Best of all, this group had several babies, one of them obviously just born - still very pale in color and with an umbilical cord still attached.  Best sighting of the day!

Evidence of our bouncy, muddy drive!

Baby giraffe with mother

Male and female impalas

Albert was also knowledgeable about the plants here.  He pointed out different kinds of acacia trees: the umbrella acacia (which always symbolizes the African savannah to us), the yellow-bark acacia, the lehai acacia, whole park provided the original red dye for the Masai clothing, and the ant-gall acacia.  I had noticed a lot of trees with little black balls stuck all over them.  Albert shook the tree, and hundreds of little ants came swarming out of the balls.  It is a symbiotic relationship between the trees and the ants.  The tree provides the ants with food, and the ants provide protection against overeating by the giraffes.  When giraffes feed on this tree, the ants will rush out, causing the giraffe to move on to another tree.

Another of the acacias uses a chemical reaction for protection.  As the giraffe feeds, the leaves secrete a chemical that causes the leaves to become bitter, encouraging the giraffe to pick another tree.  (I recently learned from David Attenborough's wonderful The Green Planet series that there are a number of plants with this chemical response to being eaten!)

We had been up since before dawn, so we were glad of the chance to shower and rest awhile before lunch.

Our shower - the hot water flows down from a bucket atop the tent.

A weary traveler

After lunch, our tent steward, George, took us on a short hike up the kopje right next to our camp.  It was a steep and slippery climb, but the views from the top were breath-taking - 360 degree views of the plains and forests far below, made even more beautiful by the golden granite kopjes poking up all around us.  

My favorite picture of us from this trip.

Rob and George explore the landscape

Agama Lizard

The rock hyrax is closely related to the elephant!

After dinner, we could once more hear the lovely sound of thunder booming in the distance.  It was a lovely lullaby to help us fall asleep.

January 19 - A Sunny Day on the Serengeti

We were happy to wake up to sunnier skies today, the sunniest we had had here on the rainy Serengeti.  The muddy roads were much drier as we began our very last game drive of the trip.  In the sunlight, the bushes and trees were vivid shakes of green.  Albert took us first into a thick forest with lots of great birds.  We didn't see many animals in the forest, but we did spot a few impalas, a tiny dik-dik hiding behind a bush, and a few cute dwarf mongooses.  The best part of the forest was a drive up to a large granite mound where we had more spectacular view of the Serengeti forests and plains spread out at our feet.

Evidence of a lion's meal?

Rock Hyraxes

Dwarf Mongoose

This herd of impalas seems to be very focused on something in the woods.

We continued to the open grasslands.  Here we spotted several zebra herds, which were so common that I didn't ever bother to stop and take pictures.  There were also lots of giraffes.  Most were just grazing on the tops of the acacia trees, but two of them were "necking," winding their long necks around each other and giving each other gentle whacks.  I understand that this behavior can become quite violent during mating season, but today, these two just appeared to be having a minor disagreement.

As we were watching the giraffes, Albert's radio crackled and we took off at high speed across the fields.  Lions had been spotted!  There they were - two male lions with gorgeous full manes, and one female.  As we watched, a flock of egrets took flight right in front of them, and the female leaped up and, with one lucky swipe, knocked an egret to the ground.  All three of the lions had full round bellies, so it was obvious that they had just finished a much more substantial meal of wildebeest or zebra earlier in the morning.  The female plucked half-heartedly at the feathers of the unfortunate egret, but the bird was all feathers and a very tiny amount of meat, so the lioness finally gave up and joined the males in an afternoon nap in the shade of a tree.  The lions looked so calm and serene that I wanted to jump out of the vehicle and cuddle them.  (I very much suspect that they would not have remained calm if I had done so - but a girl can dream!)

Flock of egrets

What a fantastic way to end our safari!  Back at camp, we relaxed in the Big Tent, then packed up for our trip home.  Our marabou stork was still standing guard over the camp.  We would miss him!

The Fabulous Birds of the Serengeti

The many wonderful birds of Africa always thrill me.  We saw them every day of our three days in the Serengeti, but I saved them all for their own special section.
Augur Buzzard

Secretary Bird

European Stork

Crowned Lapwing

Grey-breasted Spur Fowl

Black-shouldered Kite

Ring-necked Dove

African Hoopoe

Female Von der Decken's Hornbill

Male Von der Decken's Hornbill

Cape Starling - look at all the blues in that plumage!

Grey-headed Social Weavers

Northern White-crowned Shrikes

White-headed Buffalo Weaver


Bare-faced Go Away Bird

Tawny Eagle

Lilac-breasted Roller

Grey-breasted Spur Fowls

Swahili Sparrow
Marabou Stork

African Grey Woodpeckers

Fischer's Lovebird

The next day we would say farewell to the Serengeti and begin our journey home.


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