Being in the Serengeti during the Great Migration is a once in a lifetime experience.
We see the ribbons of black from miles away, kicking up the dust as their inner voices tell them they must go, following the sea of wildebeest tails in front of them. Our driver and guide from Kaskaz Camp, Henry Akeyo, tells us that they will probably cross the Mara River at crossing point number six, and we bump across the plains to get ahead of the thousands of sleek-sided animals.
We pull up at a spot on the bank, joining a swag of other vehicles. The wildebeest have picked a bad spot to cross, with a pile of huge boulders in the middle of the river and a rather large crocodile waiting in the wings.
“They are going!” Henry yells, and all hell breaks loose. The seething tide of animals surges into the water, battling each other for somewhere to put their feet. They climb over the rocks mid-stream, plough through the water on the other side and then sprint up the hill on the opposite bank to join the throng of their comrades who have crossed to this side earlier. They grunt and push, stirring up a dust storm that coats everything and everyone. The croc gets so close his mouth opens ready to take a bite, but somehow, he keeps missing. Eventually, one of the wildebeest is not feeling it anymore and decides not to cross and all of the others behind him stop. And just like that, the crossing is over. At least for today.
I am in the northern part of the Serengeti in Tanzania, kissing the border with Kenya. We flew in a small plane from Arusha to Kogatende Airstrip, and after we were met by Henry, he makes us a spot of tea before we drive to the camp. We see our first animal 50 metres from the airport – a large Nile crocodile snoozing on a rock, with a herd of elephants, including three babies, just up the track.
Over the next few days, we see an A to Z of animals in a head-spinning experience. Literally. Like meerkats, we are looking here, there and everywhere as wildlife of all shapes and sizes appears. We come upon a serval snacking on a cobra, a leopard sunning herself on a shaded boulder, birds of all colours, a red headed agama lizard with a bright blue body doing push ups, herds of elephants, so many lions, two cheetahs under a tree, mongoose, kneeling warthogs, ostriches, giraffes, impala, Thomson’s gazelle, topi and waterbuck.
Back at camp, we have drinks to watch the sunset, then indulge in a wonderful three-course dinner in the dining tent, chatting with other guests about the sightings of the day. Conversation flows as well as the mostly South African wines, before we all head back to our tent suites to charge phones and cameras, as well as our tired bodies. It is very pleasant indeed to fall asleep in the gorgeous mosquito-netted bed, with the tent flap open and just the flyscreen zipped.
As the dawn breaks, I am woken with a cup of hot tea, and wonder if I dreamt I heard something eating outside my tent last night or not. I wasn’t dreaming. At breakfast I hear they were wildebeest and Henry announces that today we are going to see a crossing.
He is true to his word. After visiting many of the crossing points along the Mara River, we see the aftermath of a recent crossing at number nine. There are 59 vultures, 10 hippos and seven huge crocodiles, two of which are working in harmony to eat a wildebeest that didn’t make it across in the frenzy.
These crossings are the most dangerous part of the Great Migration. Every year around 1.5 million wildebeest along with 200,000 zebra migrate north from the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, chasing the rain and the rich grazing grounds the precious rainfall brings. They go clockwise in a wonderful circle of nature, ending up in the Maasai Mara, and come November, they head back to the Seronera, to the place where it all began. All up, the round trip is around 1000 kms.
When I witness the event myself at crossing number six, my mind is officially blown. I ask Henry why they cross when it is so dangerous? He says quietly “to get to the other side, where the grass is greener from a recent rain. Soon, the land here will dry up. The land here will regenerate, the crocs will hibernate with full stomachs and the wildebeest will start moving south again, to the Seronera.”
And so I too migrate south to Seronera, leaving the wonderful staff at Kaskaz Camp behind. With Mohammed at the wheel, we traverse the changing landscapes of the Serengeti in true safari style – which is going from camp to camp.
After what turns out to be a game drive in itself, we pull up at the luxurious Ehlane Plains Camp, the newest in the Nasikia Camps family. The location was selected by Naseeb Mfinanga, who together with his Australian wife Donna Duggan established the Nasikia Camps to work hand in hand with their tour company, Maasai Wanderings. Sadly Nas didn’t get to see the final product, as he was killed in a crash in November 2017.
Donna is at Ehlane Plains when I am there, and says quietly that he would have been very proud of it. And indeed he would have, as the camp’s eight glorious tented suites are spectacular. I am lucky as I have one of two suites with a stargazing bed and I can’t wait for bedtime to come around so I can go to sleep under the Tanzanian sky.
The Seronera’s landscape is a little different to the northern area, with the plains going on forever under an alluring light, as well as rocky hilltops, or kopjes, that often hide lions and leopard. On the first game drive from camp, Mohammed pulls up on the road and points out a cheetah snacking on a kill in the grass, a committee of vultures patiently waiting their turn on the roadside. Not two minutes up the road we find another cheetah, also digging into a fresh meal.
But Mohammed goes over and above the next day, when shortly after breakfast, we hit the road only to be forced to stop because of a traffic hazard – a pride of 15 lions asleep and spreadeagled on the road.
We stay put watching them, until one of the lionesses gets up, stretches, and pads off through the grass, setting off a chain reaction as the others follow. She stops atop a small rock, joined by three others, while the rest go back to sleep in the grass. Mohammed says she is hungry and looking to hunt. Another lioness sets off in a different direction, sitting down and gazing intently into the distance. She must spot something because she gets up and starts moving, directly past our car. The others follow suit and all 15 lions stroll right by our vehicle.
We go in the same direction, thinking they are going to attack some grazing gazelle, but they walk straight past. Once again Mohammed is reading their behaviour and we drive past them to a spot he thinks they are going – a group of warthogs going about their business in the long grass. One lioness goes into stalking mode, dropping low and heading to the left of the unsuspecting Pumbas. Another slinks to the right, and two come up behind, with the rest of the pack waiting in the wings.
The lioness on the left attacks, and the resultant shriek tells Mohammed she has been successful. We go straight to the scene and find a tangled knot of lions, all 15 of them desperate for a slice of the warthog pie. Soon, several pull out with their share, leaving the rest to the growling melee.
Our dinner back at Ehlane Plains is much more civilised, a beautiful three course meal with good wine and great conversation with guests from around the world all on a high.
But my stargazing bed is calling me and I say goodnight and am escorted back to my suite. The bed is on a secure timber platform, its crisp white bedding and ethereal netting glowing in the dark. I snuggle in, warm as toast in the chilly evening air, and gaze up at the stars in a dreamy haze of wonder.
The Serengeti has well and truly captured my heart, and I will undoubtedly feel the invisible pull back to its magical plains again.
And like the wildebeest, I will be unable to resist.
Photography by Helen Hayes and Jacqueline van Wyk.
WHEN TO GO
To experience the Great Migration in the north, visit between June and October. To see it in Seronera, visit from October to May, however the resident predators are there all year round.
WHERE TO STAY
• Arusha: Should you need to spend a night in Arusha before flying to your camp, Legendary Lodge is magnificent. Located in a coffee plantation the rooms are stunning, and the restaurant, located off the original farmhouse built 120 years ago, is lovely. legendarylodge.co.tz
• Kazkaz Mara Camp: This camp is open all year round and is located in the northern Serengeti near the Kenyan border. The eco-friendly camp has 10 tented suites all with lovely bathrooms and solar heated hot water and the main dining tent has a comfortable lounge area. nasikiacamps.com
• Ehlane Plains Camp: Asister to Kaskaz, Ehlane Plains opened in February 2018 in the Seronera area of central Serengeti. Ehlane has eight tented suites including two with the magnificent stargazer beds and one family suite. Sleeping under the stars is something really special. nasikiacamps.com
• Johannesburg: For a night in Johannesburg stay at the exceptional AtholPlace Hotel & Villa, a member of Relais & Chateaux. With just nine suites, all a little different and all magnificent, the property is elegance personified. The restaurant is also sublime. The property is owned by Morukuru Family. morukuru.com; relaischateaux.com
To book a stay at one of the Nasikia Camps, go through Classic Safari Company. They are safari specialists and look after every aspect of your trip. They can also book side trips to other African locations including Mozambique. classicsafaricompany.com.au