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Ode To Serengeti

I’ve just returned from the Serengeti, which the Tanzanians say, is the 7th wonder of the world. I went to the Serengeti to witness and shoot the incredibly astonishing annual wildebeest migration. Our luxurious tented lodge or Glamp (glamour camp), was located right smack in the middle of the wildebeest migration route, next to the Mara River. 

We could sit on a plush sofa in our luxurious tents, Tanzanian coffee and fresh fruits on the side table, and watch the wildebeest, the zebras, the gazelles, the impalas and giraffes, idly grazing in their thousands all around us. When night falls, we could even hear the familiar “whoop whoop” call of the hyenas around us, and occasionally, also the deep roar of a distant lion. It was an amazing experience.

The Tanzanian Government will not allow any permanent structures to be built in their National Parks. In the interest of keeping everything unspoiled, only tents were allowed. Although they are tents, they have been luxuriously fitted and furnished. In addition, national park entry fees have been set at a high level to deliberately keep visitor numbers small, and thus minimize visitor impact on the environment, but maximizing revenue at the same time, and thus preserve the natural beauty of the Serengeti National Park – a very wise policy indeed and kudos to the government of Tanzania.

Sitting on the sofa, you’ll notice that once in a while, something, possibly a lion or a smaller predator would spook the wildebeest and Zebras, and they’d all be rushing away to another place, where they will then calmly continue grazing. Their communal strategy for survival is their large numbers. A few thousands may be killed annually, but the overall herd numbers are maintained, and even increased, by a prolific annual breeding frenzy, plentiful grass for grazing, and their constant migration following the rains.

Apart from wildebeest, the Serengeti plains are also home to lions, hyenas, rhinos, leopards, cheetahs, jackals, servals, aardwolves, and wild dogs. We saw and photographed all of those, including elephants, buffalos, giraffes, hippos, crocodiles, warthogs, baboons, velvet monkeys, zebras, gazelles, elands, kudus, impalas, nyalas, waterbucks, bushbucks, duikers, mongoose, honey badgers, ostriches, herons, flamingos, buzzards, vultures and dozens of species of birds.

At all our luxurious unfenced tented lodges, we were warned not to venture outside our tents at night, unless accompanied by one of the camps’ Maasai guards, lest we get attacked by predators mistaking us for a juicy warthog or a crunchy impala. 

We saw a first-hand demonstration how a pride of lions ran off with real fear in their eyes, when Charles Mpanda, my Maasai friend, chief guide, bush expert, protector, driver and facilitator, alighted from our safari vehicle, draped in the familiar red chequered Masai blanket that all lions know to fear.

Charles Mpanda, my Maasai friend, chief guide

Twice a year, in July and November, more than 6 million hoofs, belonging to a million wildebeest, 300,000 Thomson’s Gazelles and 200,000 zebras, pound the dusty Savanna, crossing deadly crocodile infested rivers to follow the rains in search of succulent green grass. The wildebeest jostle and fight, to mate and trek through the Masai Mara and the Serengeti, constantly looking for grazing grass and life sustaining water, in an ancient rhythm and cycle of life and death.

Together with other small prey animals like gazelles, impalas, and warthogs, the wildebeest are at the bottom of the predator food chain. So many wildebeest are killed that the golden plains of the Serengeti are littered with the familiar elongated whitewashed skulls of wildebeest, intact with their black scaly horns.

For about a month in February, in the south of Tanzania, the giant wildebeest herds give birth to more than 10,000 calves daily, in a population explosion to replenish the species. After the birthing frenzy, the massive herds move north again to reach the Mara River crossing around July. They loiter around the Serengeti plains, until a few brave and foolish wildebeest take the lead and plunge and swim across the crocodile-infested waters, followed blindly by thousands others behind them. The crocodiles have a killing frenzy when that happens. They grab the wildebeest and zebras in their massive jaws, and violently spin their bodies around to break the necks and backbones of the animals, drowning them and abandoning the broken bodies to continue the killing. Only the fittest and luckiest among the wildebeest and zebras will make it across the river.

When the herds have crossed, the river will be littered with dozens of carcases of the unfortunate animals that died. The giant crocodiles will then take their time to feed on the broken and rotting bodies, often swallowing them whole. The wildebeest survive by sheer numbers. While they cross the rivers, thousands of them will fall prey to vicious crocodiles, but hundreds of thousands will survive to continue to procreate. Crocodiles have a very inefficient metabolism system. Often, a single season of feeding will sustain their survival for months until the next wave arrives. And while the wildebeest trek on land, thousands more of their species will also be stalked, attacked, killed and eaten by land based predators – lions, leopards, cheetahs, jackals and hyenas. That is the sad rhythm and cycle of life and death in the Serengeti. It’s an amazing spectacle, a bucket list item that everyone should go and see at least once in their lives.

The Serengeti and the great game parks of Africa are noted not only for the wildebeest migration. When the migration is quiet, the Serengeti offers some of the most scintillating game-viewing in Africa – great herds of buffalo, smaller groups of elephant and giraffe, and thousands upon thousands of zebras, eland, kudus, topi, kongoni, bucks, antelopes, impalas, gazelles, warthogs and baboons – participate in the never ending dance of life and death on the savanna. And in between the sonnets, evil men poach elephants and rhinos for their tusks and horns, the latter believed by people from the most populous nation on earth, to be good for their flaccid dicks for creating more babies to put more pressure on the world’s scarce resources.

The spectacle of predator versus prey is a continuous mesmerizing dance in the Serengeti. Golden-maned lion prides feast on the abundance of grass grazers. Solitary leopards haunt the acacia trees, while a great number of cheetahs prowl the south-eastern plains. You can see all three African jackal species here in the Serengeti, alongside the spotted hyena and a host of more elusive small predators, ranging from the insect eating aardwolf, to beautiful serval cats. Gaudy agama lizards and rock hyraxes will scuffle around the surfaces of Serengeti’s isolated granite koppies, which cheetahs, lions and leopards use as a high vantage point to spot their prey and their predators.

There are also more than 500 bird species, ranging from the huge ostrich, bizarre secretary birds, and beautiful crowned cranes in the open grasslands, with buzzards, raptors and black eagles soaring effortlessly above. So the Serengeti is a bewitching must-visit place that will beguile you, and shock you, and please you, and astonish you. The huge flat and open space induces a liberating sense of vastness, with the dry sunburnt savannah shimmering golden as far as the eye can see. Yet, after the rains, this golden expanse of dry grass is transformed into an endless green carpet, flecked with wildflowers. There are also wooded hills, towering termite mounds, rivers lined with fig trees, acacia woodland stained orange by dust, and haunting one thousand-plus year old Baobab trees.

The biggest and oldest Baobab tree that I’ve ever seen in Africa was the 1500 years old Big Jack in the Makgadikgadi Pans of Botswana, which required 30 of my friends to join hands to go round its massive and stunted trunk. The Serengeti is so vast and with such varied attractions that when you are there, you might even begin to believe you are the only human audience when a pride of lions masterminds a siege, focused unswervingly on its next meal, even as a pack of scavenging hyenas lurks in the background to steal the kill, and hordes of buzzards and vultures circle overhead to pick the bones clean.

Despite having been several times to Africa’s great game parks such as the Serengeti, Ruaha, Tarangire, Mikumi, Sealous and Ngorongoro Crater of Tanzania, the Masai Mara, Samburu and Amboseli of Kenya, the Okavango Delta, Makgadikgadi Pans, Moremi, Chobe and Central Kalahari Reserves of Botswana, the Etosha of Namibia, the Kruger and Hluhluwe-iMfolozi of South Africa, and the South and North Luangwa National Parks of Zambia, I am never tired of returning again and again to these great national game parks of Africa. I am crafting a return to the Serengeti in July next year so do get in touch with The Grid if you want to tick this off your bucket-list.

Photos: Yusuf Hashim

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