Exploring the Serengeti

The Western gate to the Serengeti is much less used than those on the East (which are within striking distance of Arusha). On that side it is over touristed with guides using radios to alert others to key animal sightings. Stories abound of up to 40 safari vehicles being gathered at sightings and the kiwi guy we met in Moshi said it’s not uncommon to be at the front (where you want to be) and then spend 2 hours trying to get back out of the traffic cluster. While they are there for the huge concentrations of wildlife it’s not our idea of enjoyable wildlife spotting, hence we’d chosen to go into the park on the west side.

The gate should open at 6am but at our campsite the guy recommended we go for 7am as they’re often late. That suited us, early mornings and long hot days are already taking their toll and any excuse for extra sleep we’re more than happy to take.

On the way to the gate we passed the pond above us full of the hippos we could hear in the night.

There were two others ahead of us when we got to the gate, one was local tourists and bizarrely the other was a Dutch couple we met in Arusha who were staying on the same guesthouse as us. They’d hired a RAV4 as they’re cheaper but hire companies will only allow land cruisers to be taken into the Serengeti because of the bad condition of the roads, so they’d spent the day before looking for a driver to take them in. It proved difficult and the only driver they found spoke no English so they were already having a challenging time. He didn’t know the information he needed to provide at the gate so clearly wasn’t familiar with the park, he was most likely just a bloke with a land cruiser willing to do the job.

The ‘main road’ wasn’t as corrugated as we’d expected, and was certainly much better than Tarangire. We explored the top end for a couple of hours and then found a sign to a picnic site. We needed coffee and breakfast. We got lost on the way but found it. A collection of metal tables with a shade near some ranger buildings and a toilet in one of the random sheds behind. There were monkeys around and the hippos were calling from the river directly behind through the bushes, so we were super cautious of not moving far from the vehicle.

After we explored the river edge a bit. There were heaps of zebra, wildebeest, buffalo, antelopes but we couldn’t get a clear view of the river, so we back tracked and carried on down the main road to get deeper. We’d pulled over and we watching a hippo that was out of the water when the Dutch couple caught up with us. They’d just seen a pride of lions under a tree and they had a kill, so likely wouldn’t move for the rest of the day.

Before we turned round and headed down the track we had seen them on another safari vehicle from one of the park lodges stopped and asked us if we’d seen anything. We hadn’t seen any other vehicles and with there being so few others around the usual guide system of radioing each other about key sightings wasn’t in play. It was a case of stopping and talking to the few others out there.

There were now 2 of us looking for the pride and they were in front (as they were facing the right direction when we passed) and they had a guide that knew what to look for. We would have found them anyway, there were a few vultures around and they were easy to spot.

At least 3 lionesses, 2 lions and some cubs were under a tree and in a nearby bush. As we watch a small antelope came bounding almost between them. Sensing danger it stoped and froze as if it didn’t know what to do. Eventually it decided to shoot between them. This got the attention of a lioness. Clearly they hadn’t had their fill as she started to slink through the grass stalking it. The others got up from their lying position and watched it too. The antelope wasn’t hanging around, it almost teased them with a bound around and then buggered off quick. It was super cool to see.

When they’d all relaxed again we resumed going deeper into the park. We found a tortoise of all things just walking down the road! We also found heaps of crocodiles in the river. We found some giraffes and some elephants but both were quite far away.

Like Tarangire the only couple of other self drivers we saw were local. One set of tourists we spoke to across our vehicles called us brave for self driving. Mildly stupid maybe. All the drivers who stopped had a good conversation with us, because Emma will speak to them in Swahili and that makes them super interested as to how she can speak it. She has to keep explaining she learnt off the internet (and often they don’t believe her). So often people will teach her new words or ways to say things and the correct way to pronounce something she doesn’t get quite right.

We headed back to the picnic area for a late lunch (as the only safe place we could get out of the vehicle). Again we stayed close to the vehicle. The hippos were loud and close and we had zebra and antelope not far away and we knew there were buffalo around. A family of mongoose wandered past while we ate.

Before heading off we went back down the river track. We turned the first corner and found a hippo wandering round. We were between it and the river, it wasn’t bothered by us but it showed us how right we were to stay very close to the vehicle and not take ‘picnic site’ as a place of safety. We found some big herds of zebra and wildebeest heading to the river and there were more buffalo around staring at us.

Back on the main road we went down it until we had really had enough of being bumped around and then started to work our way back exploring the side tracks. We found more elephants and giraffes. We’d just discussed swapping drivers then as we were passing a place with long grass something moved in it. 2 spotted hyenas were not far away from us. This was the first time we’ve seen hyenas, though we’ve heard them cackling at night before. The closest sat and looked at us as bold as anything. It really wasn’t far away and they will attack humans, we couldn’t believe how bold it was. We left the engine running and did the windows up a bit.

Stoked with having seen something we haven’t before we kept working our way back until we reached the turn off to take one more look at the pride. A far nicer track than the main road we decided to go back that way to see if they were still there. They were.

Our vehicle has safari hatches so we can stand on the seats (they have canvas covers on, the whole vehicle is rugged, even the door panels have lots of screws holding them on, we had quickly discovered why when in Tarangire we found a couple of nuts and screws in the footwell. We’ve now worked out that a new rattle generally means a screw has been rattled out. Sometimes we can find where things have come from and sometimes we can’t. We have a growing nut collection of origins unknown.

We left the park knackered after 9.5 hours with the sun getting low. It had taken us longer to get back than we’d thought so the sun was pretty low by the time we reached the exit. As we headed back to the same campsite as the night before we found a bunch of people and vehicles stopped on the road watching something. A elephant was right next to the road just down from our camp.

No one had arrived at the campsite and it was just us again. By the time we’d set up the tent and organised our camp it was a late dinner and later to bed. But we did manage to back all the photos up in case anything happened to the camera. With the wifi on we’d also managed to get the general photos we’d taken on a phone off too.

The temperature hadn’t dropped as much as it had and we were shattered but restless come bedtime. We slept with all the canvas flaps open trying to get some airflow. It took a while but eventually we fell asleep.

Marie was woken just after 1am by a vehicle. Not long after falling asleep again the sound of breaking branches woke her. That sound could only mean an elephant. Having seen the elephant earlier on the way back to camp we’d expected they would be around in the night. Awake but having not bothered to sit up and look through the netting of the open sides eventually noises a little way off to the side triggered enough curiosity to look at. Half asleep she thought that someone had arrived really late and was setting up a tent. 5 minutes later the camp owner’s Land Rover comes weaving through the campsite trees at speed with lights on full. It lit up an big hole in our hedge protection. We watched as one of the guys were thrown through the hole while the land rover headed back out the campsite through the gates, on the road and off down that side. Torches were going in all directions and we heard shouting to the guy who had gone through the hedge ‘where is it’ a couple of minutes later the Land Rover ending being stationary revved hard and blowing its horn told us they’d found it. We watched as they then looped behind the back of the camp, torches still shining all over the place, then back on the track and down towards the village beeping his horn to wake the villagers up. Shouting from the villagers and the trumpet of an annoyed elephant. The Land Rover came back up did another loop of camp and then was up and down the road. More revving of the engine and sitting on the horn told us they’d found another.

Marie had been sat on the edge of the tent opening, feet on ladder watching the Land Rover and torch lights, too much excitement going on to sleep. Em soon got bored and went back to sleep. The campsite guys had a busy night but eventually we heard them return. The Land Rover was not put away but left ready, they didn’t get much sleep.

Talking to them the next morning it seems the tent Marie though we being put up was actually an elephant in the campsite eating the stand of bamboo. The guys had gone flying out the gates to drive another one away, meanwhile this one had broke down the hedge and had got in! The owner used to be a guide so understands their behaviour – they see a nice lush green area and want in – and says he can’t complain about the lack of sleep they get protecting the campsite as they are in the tourism business and want the elephants there so that is the trade off.

We were quite a lot later leaving camp than we’d intended as they told us about their nighttime antics. There was quite a lot around. He also told us a lot about elephant behaviour. They don’t run in a straight line. They are smart and will run zig zag as they try and hide behind trees with their bum to you (to hide their white tusks) they also know that when they are back on the other side of the road it is their place and villagers will all go home.

They have had elephants break in when they have had ground tents, but an elephant will never stand on a tent, it will step round them (the risk is it hitting them with its trunk). He said that elephants are very kind but they remember well so when on safari if they react for no reason it could be because they are remembering something they didn’t like from the days before. They also hate the sun bouncing off the windscreen and into their eyes and they can react to that. He said you are never safe in the park until you know the behaviour of every animal in it. The majority of people who have been killed in the park have had guns. The best defence against most animals is being quiet and not reacting. Buffalo are the most dangerous animals in the Serengeti he told us. When they charge they don’t stop until they hit. When watching buffalo the engine should stay running and they should always be to the side of the vehicle not somewhere in front. They were certainly more brazen than we have seen before as a number we passed were looking directly at us and watching. We’ll be more wary of buffalo in the future!

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