During the Serengeti Challenge, we would like to share stories about traveling across the Serengeti. For those of you have been there, the awe of its beautiful plains and sheer vastness never leaves you. And for others, we hope that these stories give you some sense of the beautiful landscape and the abundant wildlife on the vast plain.
Day 1: Departure from Naabi Hill Gate…on the road to Sametu Tented Camp
At Naabi Hill Gate, take the first few moments to appreciate the view from this grove of acacia over the vast landscape of the plains. Check your gear and expect sunshine and an average 25 degree C temperature. May borders the wet and dry season; rain may fall quickly and briefly, a welcome cooling effect.
As you head along the gravel path, you may see impalas, gazelles, Bohor bucks. They will keep their distance from you, as they search for grazing sites on the newly revived grassland. This area is also the site of the Naabi lion pride, certainly a ‘mane’ attraction for all visitors. Throughout all of the African national parks, the prides are a protected species. Because lions are apex predators, that means they are at the top of the food] chain. When the wildebeest and zebra are in their territory, they become the primary meals for lions. Your travel guide, George, will keep you safe at all times.
As you reach your overnight accommodations, you are welcomed to the first of the tented sites. Eager to please, the staff will offer you comfortable beds, a (very short) warm shower and a delicious meal. As to their customs, please take the time to connect with them personally. ‘Jambo’ means how are you. Ask about their family. ‘Asante sana’ means thank you. Enjoy your first down time, share your sightings and photos. Tomorrow is an early start.
Day 1: from Naabi Hill Gate to Baralu Kopjes
Naabi Hill is a fabulous starting point for Day One of this challenge. The Hill itself towers above the short, grassy plains of the Serengeti. Covered with acacia trees which shelter herds of antelope, elephant and giraffe, it is also the home base for the Naabi lion pride and a den site for cheetahs. In May, the last of the wildebeest on their great migration west can also be viewed.
This first day will take you through an astounding array of Kopjes. These distinctive, rock masses are granite boulders that jut out of the endless grass plains. They are the summits of ancient mountains that long ago eroded away. Because of their sheer size, they are important wildlife refuges for leopards, lions, and a host of reptile species. Watch carefully to see how many you are able to spot on your journey.
There is a good chance you will also view the world’s fastest land animal, the cheetah, sprinting across the plains in pursuit of the fleet footed Thomson’s Gazelle.
This evening your camp will be set up just south of the Barafu Kopjes. To the east of you, the Ngorongoro Crater lies, with its sleeping herds.
Don’t worry if you hear the grunts of lions in the distant Kopjes. The night watchman will ensure they are kept away, and you can sleep safely.
Day 2: On the Road to Camp Lobo
Sunrise on the savannah is 6:30 a.m.; such a beautiful sight to start the day, with the ever-glowing oranges and reds flowing into yellows. The weather is cool and will warm up quickly. George continues as your guide, a seasoned park ranger; he and his team are informative, ready to answer your questions. Their main responsibility is to protect all the resources and to deter illegal activities like poaching. To ensure your safety, they ask you to remain on the route and to travel with as little noise as possible. You are guests in their homes, tread lightly.
Your first elephant! Five of them circle around the youngest member. You know enough about this matriarchal society that the females and offspring form the family. Their social lives are complex, their loyalty to be revered. And every video you have seen of frolicking calves in water pales in comparison to this moment. More to come en route.
You have noticed unique rock formations. Today, we are close to the world famous granite rock outcrop of the Gol Kopjes, home to the highest cheetah density in Africa. Some time will be spent here, enjoying the breeze through the grasses, in anticipation of a sighting. This requires patience and some luck. Cameras ready. A dazzling sunset as you head to your tent.
Day 2: On to Maasai Kopjes, ending at the Serengeti Wildlife Lodge
As you rub your feet and gently coax them back into your shoes this morning, remind yourself that today, the great Serengeti Plains will be to the right of you the entire time.
You will pass the Barafu Gorge and kopjes, an outstanding series of seven pinkish granite kopjes that straddle the eastern border of the Serengeti. From your highest point, you will have a 360 degree panorama of rolling plains peppered with thousands of wildebeest, zebra and gazelle.
Your lead guide throughout this journey, is Emanual. Along with his staff, your walking will be safe, as they ensure you stay away from danger.
Your reward at the end of the day is a stay at the Serengeti Wildlife Lodge. During dinner in an open-air court, you may be lucky enough to see the gazelle and zebra grazing.
Enjoy a nightcap and sleep well, listening to the sounds of the Plains as you drift off.
Day 3: On the road to Mapito
As you travel closer to another Kopjes site, a pool of hippopotamuses know you are nearby. Rare sightings of the whole animal delight every traveller. Although many think they are cute, they are actually quite dangerous and ferocious. Look for their twitchy ears and big eyes poking out of the pool. The young will stay close to the parent….fiercely protective. Their unique sounds, like honking and grunting, can be deafening.
In this stretch of the savannah, zebras are plentiful and entertaining. George offers to take you by safari truck to view some wildebeest. By May, they are moving north, migrating to seek fresh grasslands and water. The Great Migration of the wildebeests is an incredible sight, upwards of 2,000,000 throughout the Serengeti. The gazelles and zebras tag along, forming columns of 100,000 animal travellers.
Day 3: Serengeti Wildlife Lodge to Seronera Valley
As you start your Challenge today, the whole of the Seronera plains will welcome you. A highlight along the way is a visit to the Serengeti Visitors Centre, where you will take a self-guided tour through the Serengeti’s history and ecosystems.
The rest of today’s walk becomes more remote. Few tourists have known this northern route. As you approach Soit le Montonye, a rocky outcrop, you will notice flocks of the Secretary Bird, large ostrich, and the Kori Bustard.
A slight detour west will take you past a large hippo pool. Here, you will view large numbers of hippos, while standing just ten feet above the pool!
Hippos are the third largest animals on Earth, next to the elephants and rhinoceros. They grow to 11 feet long and weigh up to 7000 pounds! Which explains why ancestors of the hippos are actually more whale-like than any other species. They love to roll and play in shallow water, and their offspring are possibly the most adorable creatures on earth. But do not let this fool you. Listen to your guide, as he ensures you keep far enough away from the hippo ponds. You have no chance of outrunning a charging hippo, so travellers, beware!
Where there are hippos, you will also likely view egrets, herons, crowned cranes and Egyptian kingfishers. Baboons and giraffe will saunter in the distance. What a delight! Not to mention a great opportunity for so many photos.
Evening will bring you to the Sametu Camp, a large, tented lodge. You will fall asleep in the Seronera Valley, with a view of the endless plains in the distance.
In the morning, you may be reluctant to leave your warm bed, which is in a tent with a raised wooden platform, and even has the convenience of a sink and toilet. But the lure of Tanzanian coffee percolating on the stove, will soon change your mind.
Day 4…on the road to Sopa
The Seronera River Valley is a unique ecosystem that supports a much greater diversity than anywhere else in the Serengeti. The Big 5 actually were designated by big game hunters. Throughout your trek you may see lions, elephants, leopards, the Cape buffalo and the black rhino. The human predators named them as the most exciting to hunt because of their ferocity when trapped. Fortunately, times have changed and the animals are protected. With the black rhino at its’ most vulnerable number since the devastating culls for their horns in the 60’s and 70’s, conservation efforts have risen the number to 160 in Tanzania. Consider yourself very fortunate if you have a sighting.
As you head into camp late afternoon, the Thompson gazelle, in the hundreds, are grazing seemingly without a care in the world. They live in harem herds of one dominant male to 6 to 60 females. Their unique horns are quite long and deeply ringed. This is a site of migration, in May, when many thousands will travel together.
Fortunatus, an expert gardener, explains to your group how he collects, plants and cares for the vegetables you are having for dinner. The challenges of weather, soil and pesky prey are taken in stride. You have a new and deep appreciation of ‘from field to fork’. Take advantage of the expansive sunset, just after 6:30 p.m. Rest easy.
Day 4: Sametu Camp through the Central Serengeti
After a hardy breakfast, your remote journey today will pass through the Maasai Kopjes. Here, the large Maasai lion pride can be seen, along with possible leopard sightings. These towering granite kopjes can be seen from miles away.
Leopards are one of Tanzania’s Big Five. Fierce, fast and elusive, to witness a leopard running on the plains, eating its prey while perched high in a tree, or gently sleeping on the plains, is a rare treat. Leopards hunt mostly at night, as they are nocturnal and mostly solitary creatures. Having been hunted for years as game animals and seen as predators by farming communities, leopards have declined greatly in numbers. Protected in the Serengeti, their numbers are on the rise once again.
Sleep well in your camp tonight, knowing that you are well protected by the rangers in your lodging camp. You will enjoy a hardy meal along with a glass of Kilimanjaro lager.
Day 5…on the road to Seronera
Another early start, well rested, well fed by your camp hosts. Your guide has informed you that their has been a cheetah sighting. Certainly a high speed cheetah chase and capture on the plain is a real life study of the survival of the fittest. It is the only cat that has the ability to take down the water buffalo. Because there is an abundance of large and small prey, you will not be breakfast.
Along the river’s edge, you may see giraffes, gazelles, zebras drinking side by side. The tranquility of this scene represents harmony amongst species…something for us to think about? This is your first sighting of the beautiful giraffe and with family in tow. Different species of giraffes make their home here, grazing on the leaves of the acacia trees or on the tall grasses. Do not let their slow lumbering fool you; they can travel at great speed and their powerful kicks can kill their enmities, the lion and the crocodiles at the watering holes.
After such an exciting day, take some time around the bonfire. Some of the staff are happy to ask about Canada and what ‘snow’ is really like. Be honest.
Day 5: Serengeti Plains
As you travel north on your journey, know that you are travelling the plains through which massive herds of wildebeest migrate each year. In search of greener pastures and more ample water supplies, over one and a half million wildebeest are on the move to race against hunger and thirst. This migration is deservedly listed as one of the eight Natural Wonders of the world.
Accompanying the wildebeest are zebras, gazelles, and many migratory birds.
Emanual, our guide, will ride alongside the trail, to ensure you have a safe passage through the herds of wildebeest.
The great migration begins in the south Serengeti. Within the first few weeks, 90 percent of all female wildebeest are impregnated. In the weeks following, as the herds move through the granite kopjes (where many of their predators await), mothers give birth to their newborn calves. As travellers journeying through the Serengeti, we witnessed many of these births from our jeeps. Within minutes of their birth, the calves suckled their mothers and immediately joined the large herds in their journey northward. Being left behind with an unprotected newborn at your side, was simply not an option. Seeing this was such a wonder to behold.
Today, you will also notice that large herds of zebra are intermingled with the wildebeest. With a heightened sense of smell and eyesight, the zebra is able to detect where the moisture is, and when/where the rains are beginning. Wildebeest know enough to stay close to the zebra, for a better chance of survival.
Day 6…on the road to Kusini Camp
Today your guide, George has asked an expert ornithologist to join you. (Give up?) A treat for the birder in you. Pull out your guidebook and binoculars in order to identify the Fischer’s lovebird and the Grey-breasted spurfowl, both endemic to Tanzania. Different websites suggest that there are between 500 and 1114 bird species in the Serengeti, hosting five bird species found no where else. The Secretary bird is distinctive because of their large size and eagle-like head. As fierce hunters, you may see them battle with small animals, then retreat to the top of the acacia tree to feed their young.
As you settle into a rhythm, today’s surprise is in an encounter with two young Masai men. They become warriors, through the ceremony of Emorata. (Maa for circumcision). This rite of passage means that the young men must prove their worth by being isolated from their tribe.
At the camp site, you are pleased to hand over laundry! You can identify your clothes drying on the bushes, but do not collect them. Your hand washed laundry will be returned…fresh for tomorrow. George regales you with stories of disappearing laundry to curious animals. A cooler night, you are happy to pull on comfy pjs for sleeping.
Day 6: Outback to Lobo Lodge
Awaken from your camp this morning to see the many acacia trees in the distance. These trees can exist for months with little or no water supply.
Acacias are the primary food supply for so many African animals, but particularly the giraffe and elephant. The giraffe’s height allows it the best advantage in all of the Serengeti, as its long neck is able to reach the tender leaves on the top portion of the tree. Elephants on the other hand, can simply uproot a small tree, lie it on the ground, and begin to feast on acacia leaves.
Did you know that the tongue of the giraffe is a whopping 40-50 cm in length? This helps them to rip off the highest of leaves, and also to avoid the long thorns on the acacia branches. It is surprisingly blueish/black in colour, as a result of the leaf pigment. This darker pigment also protects it against sun exposure, being high in melanin. Because of this, giraffes are able to happily chomp away all day long in the sun.
Emanual is able to provide you with much information on the wildlife and birds of the Serengeti, having studied it for years now. He once told me that the giraffe’s long legs are also its worst enemy. When they come to a watering hole, their front legs must bend at the knee all the way to the ground, so they are able to reach the water. This also makes them vulnerable to hungry prey. When food is scarce, even the mighty giraffe becomes a target.
Take notice today, of the complete silence around you while you walk with the giraffes. Despite (or because of) their long necks, they are silent creatures during the day. Their 4 metre trachea make it difficult to produce sufficient air flow to produce the vibrations required for noise. However, in the dark of evening when prey are most active, adult giraffe are able to produce a low frequency sound, ensuring the herd stays together.
On our route today, you will encounter much of the wildlife on the plains. However, the topography will show a gradual change as you near the spectacular Lobo Valley. This pristine valley is scattered with woodlands, open plains, and ranges of hills studded with spectacular kopjes. The valley itself is a place of great beauty and solitude.
By now, you have enjoyed the great hospitality of the staff who welcome you each day, to your tented sites and lodges. They ensure that you are comfortable, well fed, and cared for. In their kindness, they even offer a hot shower while warming water on their fires. Take the time to connect with these hard workers.
Day 7…on the Road to the Twiga Guesthouse
Twiga is the Swahili word for giraffe; the giraffe is used as a symbol for love, flexibility and friendship. Your interest is peaked by the flora and fauna in this region, a source of beauty, food, water and shelter for all species.
Because you are only 2 degrees from the Equator, this oldest ecosystem has varied weather conditions that impact the vegetation. Varying plant life also determines which species of animal live in the area. The few remaining black rhinos are found in the north, under thick vegetation while the wildebeest gather in the southern grasslands.
The acacia tree symbolizes the Serengeti. However, you may be struck by the majesty of the baobab tree. It is considered the tree of life for supporting wildlife and humans alike. They can live to 5000 years, can reach 30 metres in height and produce an extremely nutrient-rich fruit. The bark formation has inspired photographers and artists alike. You have your own collection of photos to challenge your talents, when you return home.
Day 7: On to Lobo Lodge
Before you begin your trek today, you will be taken by jeep in the early morning, for your first views of the Northern Serengeti. The permanent water sources of this region sustain an abundance of wildlife in the Lobo valley. Your driver will take you out for big cat viewing, including leopards and cheetahs.
Do not fear them on your hike today though. The abundance of antelope and zebra ensure that they are already well fed.
Where there are wildebeest and zebra, and plenty of meat available for predators, there will also be large African vultures. You will notice them perched above the acacia trees, looking for the remains of a kill after the lions have had their fill. In this photo, during a hazy Serengeti day, you will notice them perched on the highest branches, on the lookout for their next meal. These little monsters stand between 4-5 feet tall, and are able to scare off other poachers as they approach. Lions are one of the few animals that are not intimidated by their size or loud squawking beaks
Day 8: Looking for Leopards in the Tree
Before today’s trek, George takes you to an area where a leopard has been spotted. Recent information from the nearby Serengeti Research Institute indicates that the leopard population is reasonably healthy, although on the decline. Large reserves are key for survival of large carnivores. As the sun rises, off in the distance you can see this beautiful animal. It is in its’ perch, hidden by the branches of the acacia.
Day 8: Grumeti Tented Camp
Today we will leave the beautiful Lobo Valley, and head towards the plains of the Grumeti river basin. Here, the great wildebeest migration occurs each year, bringing with it a large crocodile population, anxiously awaiting their meaty feast. Despite this danger, the wildebeest and zebras stop at nothing to reach their final destination.
Other animals you will find swimming in the river and drinking from its waters include elephants, hippos, and monkeys.
Black and white colobus monkeys are found only in a few areas of Tanzania. Unlike other monkeys, they do not have thumbs. Their beautiful black fur strongly contrasts with their long white mantle, whiskers, and bushy tail and beard. These shy monkeys rarely descend to the ground. They use branches as trampolines and manage to lift off for leaps of up to 50 feet or more. They are strictly leaf-eaters, and prefer the higher treetops for their younger, tender leaves.
As you traverse this green region of the Serengeti today, you will notice that the beautiful canopy forest attracts many colourful birds, as well as redbuck, steenbok and impala. And with luck on your side, you may be able to view some of the Big Five. Of these, the majestic African elephant is the largest. It manages to survive in a variety of habitats in the Serengeti providing there is sufficient water.
Elephants form a matriarchal society. Females and their offspring form a tight knit family to protect young ones, and their loyalty is to be revered. While the elephant populations declined for two decades in Tanzania and other parts of Africa, it is now on the rise once again. This is due largely to a crackdown on elephant poaching for ivory, which still has a large market in China and Vietnam.
Tonight you will sleep in a Migration Tented Lodge, on raised platforms for protection. You will experience amazing views of elephant herds, giraffe and hippos. Enjoy an evening cup of tea while you watch the sun go down behind the acacia trees. Take time to sit around the bonfire tonight. Laugh with your hosts. If they are curious about Canada, tell them about the snow and what freezing rivers feel like. They will respond with how lucky they are to have warm homelands of Africa!
Day 9: Approaching the Gate
This morning, our guides relate how their families’ history and the history of the Serengeti National Park are closely linked. The closeness to the Oldupai Gorge in the Ngorongoro Crater prove that people have roamed the savannahs for 2 million years, making the area surrounding the park one of the earliest places of human existence. The park was created in 1959; it covers an area of 13,000 sq. kms. The name ‘Serengeti’ is derived from the Maasai word ‘Siringet’ which means ‘the place where the land runs forever’.
Under the pretence of protecting the wildlife, the Maasai tribes were forced to relocate outside the boundaries. George tells an ancestral story of his great-great grandfather, the wealth indicated by the number of cattle he had and his strength by the number of wives and children that lived within his boma.
As you travel today, you will begin to feel that the end of this amazing journey is only a day away. You will be tired and sundrenched. Take in all that you can today. When you leave tomorrow and resume life as you knew it, you will miss these glorious scenes. There will be no more silent plains, exotic birds, wildlife, and kind guides to protect and feed you. Take all of this in today.
Day 10: Crossing the Park Boundary and Meeting the Maasai
As you approach the Serengeti Park boundary, you will start to notice the Maasai people living at its borders.
The Maasai people of Tanzania were traditionally a nomadic group, living throughout the Great Rift Valley and its adjacent lands north and south. They lived alongside the animals they grazed, moving them to greener pastures in the dry seasons. The Maasai still depend on their cattle, and foods such as sorghum, corn, potatoes and cabbage for sustenance. At one time they populated the whole of the Serengeti. A proud, nomadic race, many still count their wealth in cattle and children. No longer allowed to bring their herds within the Serengeti, the Maasai people live in areas surrounding the park. They share their traditional melodies, dancing and ritual wisdom with those who seek to enrich themselves with such experiences.
Women share their lives together, preparing meals, caring for children, ensuring there is wood for fires and providing care. Those children fortunate enough to attend school walk 6 km or more daily, each way. Here they are provided by a meal of rice or ugali porridge. It is the women who gather water, sharing their sites with other animals. Carrying the jugs is a grueling task, made easier by talking, laughing and singing along the way.
To have the honour of witnessing Maasai women dance, is to experience great joy with them. Should you be invited to dance with them, seize the opportunity. Even though they will be able to jump much higher and last longer than you, they will welcome your efforts to dance as they do.