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A wild, wild culture

Serengeti, an iconic piece of African legacy, leaves R Mohan Babu in awe as he witnesses the great migration of wildebeest

Wildebeest migrating from Serengeti in Tanzania to Kenya PHOTOS BY AUTHOR

An expansive stretch of endless plains­ — this is what Serengeti means in the language of the Maasai, a large ethnic tribe in East Africa. The Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, spread over 14,700 sq km, is considered to be one of the top 10 wildlife destinations in the world.

The idea of visiting Serengeti was only made more tempting thanks to different TV channels beaming images of the world’s largest migration of wildebeest and scores of giraffes and elephants and countless zebras, Thomson’s gazelles and hippopotamuses roaming freely in the savannahs. Videos of cheetahs and lions chasing their prey were still fresh in my memory when my wife and I decided to travel to Tanzania in East Africa.

When we boarded our flight from Dar es Salaam, one of the major cities of Tanzania, to Seronera with a stopover at Arusha, there were less than 20 passengers on board the ATR42-500 aircraft meant for 48 flyers. To our shock, most of them deboarded at Arusha and our pilot even stepped out of the cockpit to inform us that we would be the only passengers flying to Seronera. Most of the tourists either charter a smaller aircraft or travel by road.

The flight landed at Seronera on a dirt track runway and it hardly looked like an airport. However, nearly half a dozen aircraft were parked in the “bay area”. After alighting, we completed the formalities and paid the park fee and stepped out only to be welcomed by a pair of zebras and scores of Thomsons that were grazing on the periphery of the airstrip. Our guide later remarked to us that the airstrip managers have to constantly keep the animals away from the airstrip to avoid fatal accidents.

We set out on a game drive (safari) straight away as we did not want to waste time while in the park, especially after paying a hefty fee ($130 US dollar for 24 hours per person). It really was an endless grass plain. We could see miles and miles of grasslands with the dotting of an odd tree or a bush and an occasional kopje (pronounced kopi) blocking our view of the vast tracts of Serengeti.

A lion relaxes after a heavy meal.
A lion relaxes after a heavy meal.

 

Wild encounter

After zebras and gazelles, our first encounter in the wild was with a troop of baboons, lazing around in the grasslands. As it was slightly hot, we could not spot many wild animals for about an hour or so. As luck would have it, we saw the first signs of the wildebeest migration. A few hundreds of wildebeest, interspersed with zebras, were on their annual visit to Kenya’s Maasai-Mara Conservation Area. Wildebeests are also called Gnus (pronounced like news) and closely related to cattle, goats and sheep. Our guide, Emilian, who has spent three decades in Serengeti, was all smiles on seeing our excitement and he remarked in his characteristic accented English: “This is nothing. You will see more”.

He could not have been more right as we drove into a large group with thousands of wildebeest and zebras — calves, adults and aged — in herds moving in a disciplined manner. Some were resting in the shade of Acacia trees. What caught our attention was that their grunts or “caw” could be heard from quite a distance in the breezy, open savannah. Though wildebeests look at visitors menacingly, they run away when vehicles go near them. This annual journey is arduous and perilous as confirmed by multiple carcasses, new and old that we spotted during our drive. In addition, they have to cross many streams with crocodiles or swampy areas where the inexperienced large African antelopes get stuck and eventually die.

Then came our first encounter with the pride of Serengeti — a few lions and lionesses that we could see from a distance. Nothing much came our way until we ended at the hippo pool at dusk. It was a sight to behold as scores of hippos were in the pool — baby hippos to massive ones. Some of them looked like huge rocks rolled into a rivulet. The young ones would raise their heads just above the water and then go down. Our guide wanted us to leave the place before sunset as hippos would venture out in the night and could be very aggressive. Even crocodiles and lions maintain their distance from the hippos, according to our guide. We also saw a pack of mongooses moving around the area. As we started returning to our accommodation inside the park, we were swarmed by tsetse flies. We had to pull up our window panes to avoid them as their bite can be painful.

We could not spot any animal moving towards the waterholes in the evening. But, luck smiled on us some 12 hours later when we set out on our second safari around 6 am, a little before sunrise. We spotted an animal walking on the track a little ahead of us. As we moved closer, there was no doubt about what the animal was!

A lion was walking lazily, possibly after a sumptuous meal. True to his name as the king of the jungle, he refused to acknowledge our vehicle and refused to move away from the road. Soon, we realised there were two more ahead. The three were ambling and their swollen bellies indicated that they all had had a heavy meal.

A giraffe nibbles on leaves from a tree.
A giraffe nibbles on leaves from a tree.

 

Lessons in discipline

Thereafter, we came across three more lions relaxing in the grasslands. Our joy knew no bounds when we encountered a big herd of nearly 20 elephants with a few calves. The herd was in no hurry to cross the road as vehicles switched off their engines and drivers waited patiently for it to move to safety. Also, it was a treat to watch elephants looking at both sides of the road before crossing the road like disciplined and trained school students! Road safety advertisement ideas, anyone?

A visit to Serengeti cannot end without seeing giraffes and we saw plenty of them. Besides, we were lucky to see Grants’ gazelles, impalas, a leopard, topis, cokes hartebeests, hyenas, a cerval cat, ostriches, black mamba, crocodiles, dwarf mongooses, vervet monkeys, warthogs, a golden jackal, dik-diks, flamingos and hyraxes. We were lucky to see the different parts of Serengeti, including the Musabi plains.

We went around to different parts of Serengeti such as Grumeti River, Moru Kopjes and Naabi Gate. We also visited the well-arranged Serengeti Museum and spent a couple of hours as it serves as a virtual guide to what is there inside the park.

Though Serengeti is known for its vast open grasslands, parts of them are also woodlands and savannas.

As visibility is very high, we spotted some fires while in the park. Our concerns were assuaged when our guide explained that the park management does that to manage the grasslands.

We were informed that fires are an important aspect of retaining grasslands like that; else they would eventually turn into woodlands.

In the past, natural fires and grazing animals would have ensured the existence of grasslands, however, with the increase in human impact on these environments, the natural phenomenon might not be sufficient.

Interestingly, there are no human settlements inside the park area and the Tanzanian government had evicted people decades ago.

Award-winning photographer-writer Boyd Norton, in his book Serengeti: The Eternal Beginning, says, “There is language going on out there — the language of the wild. Roars, snorts, trumpets, squeals, whoops, and chirps all have meaning derived over eons of expression... We have yet to become fluent in the language and music of the wild.”

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