I start the day with a spot of bird watching as the sun comes up.
White Rumped Helmetshrike
Dung beetle for breakfast anyone?
Unusually, we take breakfast in the lodge this morning, before setting off for another day of game viewing.
When asked if he would like egg and bacon, David jokingly says – in a lowered voice as the waiter walks away – “mushrooms, baked beans…” Of course, that is exactly what he gets!
On our last couple of safaris with Calabash, I bantered with our guide Dickson about wanting to see an aardvark, and that I will keep coming to Tanzania on safari until I do.
Today I finally get to see my aardvark, in the grounds of Ndutu Lodge. Shame it is made from metal – I guess I can’t quite tick it off my wish list yet.
These birds have a symbiotic relationship with the giraffes. The giraffe provides a happy home for ticks, which the oxpeckers eat, relieving the giraffe of the annoyance the insects can cause.
Today's host is an old male giraffe.
Black Faced Vervet Monkeys
As the leopard’s favourite food, the vervets go to great lengths to hide their whereabouts from their nocturnal predator, including smearing their poop on the branches at night, rather than letting it drop to the ground so that the leopard cannot easily detect where they are sleeping.
He is showing off his bright blue testicles again.
On the prowl across the grasslands, looking for snakes.
These guys have not moved from the spot where we left them resting last night, although the missing ninth lion has rejoined them.
A couple of them head our way, coming right up to the car, sniffing the tyres and eventually settling down in the shade of the vehicle. That’s pretty close!
I think that means we have a symbiotic relationship with the lions – we provide them with shade, they give us some great photo opportunities.
This guy does not look too sure about Chris. It makes me wonder how high they can jump.
Woolly Necked Vultures
Ten minutes after leaving the lions, the engine coughs, splutters and then dies. After a few tries, Malisa gets it going again, but not for long. We joke that he’s filled it with ‘jumpy diesel’, but eventually he cannot get it going again just by turning the key, and has to get out and under. Oh dear.
An area filled with lions, cheetah, leopards and hyena is not the best place to lie down on the ground under a car, so I am relieved when Malisa gets the car going again reasonably quickly – a wire had broken from all the off-roading.
Having a trained car mechanic as a driver-guide certainly has its advantages. Well done that man! I am surprised that breakdowns don't happen more often - this is the first one we've encountered in the four safaris we've had with Calabash.
Short Grass Plains
Heading for the entrance gate to Serengeti, the track runs across what is known as the Short Grass Plains, for obvious reasons. One of the great things about a safari on the Northern Circuit in Tanzania is that even as you drive from one place to another, there is always an opportunity to do some game viewing, and this morning we see a few animals along the way.
Here we can see Naabi Hill in the distance, which is what we are aiming for - the official entrance to the Serengeti National Park.
As we approach, panic mode sets in and these enormous flightless birds start running around like headless chickens. “Don’t panic, don’t panic!”
We leave the Ndutu area behind a join the main ‘road’ to the gate.
Just before the entrance, we spot a lioness with two cubs resting in the shade of a kopje.
It is fairly unusual to see a giraffe drinking from the ground like this, as being in that position makes him very vulnerable to predators.
It is even more unusual to see a three-necked giraffe!
Towering above the grassy plains of the Serengeti, Naabi Hill is the location of the main entrance gate to the park, and offers amazing views over the Endless Plains below.
While Malisa goes off to get our tickets and sort out the registration, we take a short walk on the Kopje Trail that leads up the scenic observation point on top of the rocky outcrop behind the information centre.
The kopje appears to ‘float in the sea of grass’ that is the Serengeti Plains.
From the summit we can easily understand why the Maasai named this place Serengeti – 'a vast land that runs forever, where endless plains meet the sky' in the local language.
It is said that the only way you will get a better view of Serengeti, is from a hot air balloon, and that is definitely not on the agenda for this trip, not at $539 per person!
Naabi Hill is a haven for lizards, who lounge on the sun-baked rocks along the path, totally unperturbed by passing tourists.
Exit is through the shop, as usual.
While we wait for Malisa to finish up the paper work, we do a spot of bird watching.
Juvenile Ashy Starling (I think)
Juvenile Hildebrand Starling
Lappet Faced Vulture
After a while I comment that the entrance formalities seem to be taking a particularly long time today, which considering how quiet it is, I find a bit strange. It turns out that while we have been waiting for Malisa outside the information centre, he has been at the car, wondering where we are. Doh!
Serengeti National park
This has to be the most renowned wildlife park in the entire world, and for good reason; with over 10,000 square miles of pristine wilderness, it’s like stepping in to a wildlife documentary. The variety and abundance of wildlife here is unmatched anywhere else in Africa. Serengeti is unparalleled in so many ways – not only does it have the world's largest herd of migrating ungulates, but also the largest concentration of predators in the world.
Most people think of the Serengeti as being a vast endless grassy plain, as well as totally underestimating its size. In reality the park is comprised of a wide range of ecosystems, with some parts featuring areas of acacia forest, others granite mountains and soda lakes, each with its own different character and range of wildlife.
Rather than taking the main road this morning, we head east towards Gol Kopjes, an area where we need a special permit to visit.
Aren’t they just the cutest when they run with their tails straight up? They do that so that the babies can see their mums in the long grass.
A naturally occurring optical illusion, a mirage is caused by light bending rays, giving the impression of an oasis in the distance.
For one spine-tingling moment we believe he has picked up a snake; until we realise he is merely nest building.
It is still pretty cool to see him carry it away in his beak though.
This has to be one of the ugliest birds in existence, surely?
In the distance we spot a couple of lions. We are becoming almost blasé to them now – there is not much point in hanging around when they are so far away. We have seen them nearer and better before…
Nicknamed the ‘world’s largest Japanese rock garden’, this is a picturesque area, with a series of granite outcrops (kopjes) dotted on the otherwise flat short grass plains.
This area is said to have the highest concentration of cheetah in Africa, but it is not a cheetah we spot sleeping on the rocks, but a lion.
When we go closer, we see it is in fact a collared lioness. The head of the pride, she is an exceptional hunter, which is why the authorities want to monitor her.
As this girl is a well-known matriarch, it’s a pretty good bet that there are more lions in the near vicinity; and we don’t have long to wait before another lioness appears on the top of the rock behind.
With a full belly she walks slowly and lazily, settling down in the shade of a tree.
A heaving brown lump in the long grass indicates a male lion panting heavily. The lions have obviously recently eaten and are all full to bursting.
This one seems to have the right idea.
The collective noun for vultures is committee, and here we have Rueppell’s Griffon, Woolly Necked and White Backed Vultures, as well as a couple of Marabou Storks.
It’s that time of year – two Tommy males spar for the attention of a female.
This poor little beetle is trying to roll his ball of dung into a hole in the ground, but is finding the earth too hard. He eventually just rolls it into the grass cover.
Another kopje, another lion pride. Such is life in the Serengeti.
The one ‘security guard’ left out on the sunny savannah looking after the remains of dinner (probably a baby wildebeest) gazes longingly at the other pride members resting in the shade.
One of the animals on my wish list this year is a tortoise, and this morning one strolls right by as we are watching the lions.
Judging by the droppings, I'd say this is a favourite perch of his.
After finding a large pride of lions at each of the last three kopjes, Lyn is not at all happy about getting out of the car when we stop at another rocky outcrop for our picnic lunch. “Is it safe” she asks Malisa, but eventually - after plenty of reassurance - she reluctantly alights the vehicle.
Malisa teases her about it, and even takes a photo of her still in the van to send to Tillya.
As we drive away from the picnic site, Lyn jokingly shouts out “Oh, look: simba!” pointing to a non-existent lion near the kopje we had just been sitting next to. Much to our amusement, Chris falls for it!
A bachelor herd full of young wannabes.
After one quick look at us, he takes off. Literally.
Non-resident, they are European migrants – just like us then.
We come across a small herd of migrating wildebeest.
A few minutes later we see this lone youngster, probably left behind when the herd moved on. He seems to be rather dazed – no wonder they call a group of wildebeest a confusion.
He looks suspiciously towards us, then misled by his very poor eyesight, runs off in the opposite direct to the group we saw earlier.
Having eaten too much for lunch, I feel like the lazy lions we encountered this morning and all I want to do is go to sleep in the shade to digest the food. I have a little nap in the car and wake up when we stop.
Malisa surmises that this wildebeest mother fell during a stampede and got trampled on, and has now become food for the vultures and Marabou Stork. Each of the different vultures have beaks that are designed for different actions, so as not to cause competition at a kill. The only one who can open a carcass is the Woolly Neck; so that's who they are all waiting for.
The saddest thing about this scene is the baby wildebeest just standing there, watching the scavengers eating her mum. That really breaks my heart.
In the middle of the road there is another, much younger baby wildebeest. We are guessing that his mother has probably been taken by a predator; this guy is so weak he can hardly walk and way too young to make it on his own - he is literally just waiting to be someone’s dinner.
That’s the stark and sometimes cruel reality of the wilderness.
Long Grass Plains
As we drive further into the Serengeti, we notice that the plains change from the short grass that is typical around Ndutu, through medium grass plains around Naabi Hill to the longer grasses in this area. The plains are framed by rocky hills and river courses, swelled by the recent rains.
So why is the length of the grass worthy of a mention?
It is not so much the grass – although length does matter dontcha know – it’s the fact that the change of grassland also brings a change in the balance of the species – for instance, we see many more hartebeest and topi here than anywhere else on this trip.
Another point - sometimes we can only just see the tops of the animals, one of the disadvantages of travelling in the Green Season.
One of the other downsides to coming here at this time of year is that often the tracks become just pure mud after a heavy rainfall.
Some even turn into impromptu streams and become totally impassable.
Malisa engages the 4WD to make sure we can get through OK – we don’t really want to have to get out and push unless absolutely necessary.
It’s easy peasy when you have the right tool for the job.
A breeding herd – or obstinacy – of buffalo.
White Bellied Bustard
Kopjes – an Afrikaans term referring to isolated rock hills that rise abruptly from the surrounding flat savannah – are remarkable in that they have their own little ecosystems with a range of vegetation and wildlife.
Maasai Kopjes are home to a large pride of lions, who are the subject of numerous studies by the Serengeti Lion Project. We study them sleeping for a while this afternoon.
White Headed Vulture
Malisa excitedly informs us this is a very rare sighting – it is certainly a new bird to us.
One lump or two?
Greater Blue Eared Starling
Pin Tailed Swallow
It seems that stripes are in this year.
The rains being a month late arriving this year has confused the wildebeest, and instead of being up in the Western Corridor now, they are found in great numbers here in Central Serengeti.
Lappet Faced Vulture
He makes the most peculiar sound – as if he is laughing.
White Rumped Helmetshrike
Some formidable dark clouds are building up and the light is extraordinarily intense with the low evening sun creating remarkably saturated colours! I think we might be in for some rain before long…
And here comes the rain – bringing with it some even more bizzare conditions: the sunset reflecting in the water drops with a rainbow behind.
We move on a bit further and are able to see the whole rainbow, with the dramatic light constantly changing.
By the time we reach our camp, it is dark and the rain has really set in – what was a gently drizzle, is now a heavy downpour. It’s the first ‘proper’ rain we’ve had on this trip, so we shouldn’t complain.
A small army of porters with umbrellas meet us in the car park and take us to the reception. It seems a long walk.
After the usual formalities, we are shown to our tent – which ironically is half way down to the car park again. Apologies for rubbish photos taken hand held in almost pitch black.
The tents are very spacious, with two huge four-poster beds, a seating area and a writing desk. Attached to the back is a modern bathroom with double basins, shower, toilet and changing area. This is my sort of camping.
This place is as much of a surprise to me as it is to Lyn and Chris. When he knew the wildebeest migration was changing route, Tillya changed our accommodation to a more convenient position – that is one of the numerous reasons we keep coming back to using Calabash Adventures – their customer care!
I love it!
Just after we get to the room, housekeeping arrives to carry out the ‘turn-back service’. A young girl is being trained and they seem to take forever - I know they prefer to come and do it while we are in the room so that we’ll tip them; but its a bit of an inconvenience as we have just a short time between arriving back from safari and going for dinner.
So we have a drink instead of a shower. Shucks. Life is hard.
The tents are all facing outwards on the edge of the camp, overlooking the kopje (or you would be looking at it if it wasn’t pitch black). Buffalo graze in the long grass the other side of the path.
A gentle man with a big spear, little English and a contagious laugh escorts us from the tent to the restaurant.
On the way he shines his torch at the rocky outcrops, illuminating a huddle of rock hyrax.
The dinner is impressive, arriving served under large silver domes, all four of which are removed at exactly the same time to reveal the piping hot food underneath.
Both David and I have Kuku Wa Kupaka – a local dish of chicken cooked in a coconut cream with ‘coastal spices’.
Lyn and I share a bottle of white wine, David and Chris have red.
The dessert gateau is a disappointment apparently, as is my self-serve cheese and biscuits: there is next to nothing left.
The servers and kitchen staff serenade an Australian couple celebrating their silver wedding anniversary, just as the staff did for us in Maramboi.
We retire to our rooms after another spectacular day on safari with Calabash Adventures. Thanks again guys!