Place of Endless Plains

Reader Andrew Siebörger discovers the attractions of Africa’s vast Serengeti on a recent tour to Tanzania and beyond

Thompson’s gazelle and thousands of lesser flamingos on Lake Magadi, in the Ngorongoro Crater
Thompson’s gazelle and thousands of lesser flamingos on Lake Magadi, in the Ngorongoro Crater

God’s grandeur is revealed in the Serengeti where the overwhelming sense of vastness has the power to surpass all other experiences.

That vastness reveals itself in the rituals of its animals and birds, the timeless yet surprisingly diverse landscape and one’s own limitless sense of this unique place on earth.

The word Serengeti is derived from the Maasai language – “Serengit” roughly translated means “Endless Plains”.

Yes, the flights there are tiring and you might have a few hiccups on the way back to SA, as we did, but those are minor hassles.

All the lodges we stayed at during our recent Seregenti tour hosted by Linde van Niekerk, owner of Jeffreys Bay-based Seagull Tours, were superb and our driver/guide was excellent too.

The Serengeti is in northern Tanzania and spans about 30,000km².

It hosts the second-largest terrestrial mammal migration in the world, and is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa and one of the 10 natural travel wonders of the world.

After flying into Kilimanjaro Airport in Tanzania we stopped at Arusha, a large town, and from there drove across the African Rift Valley.

Our group, six in all, commandeered a Land Cruiser; two by two, as Noah ordered.

That night we stayed in a lodge high on the escarpment edge of the western plateau.

The view was beautiful as we looked out over fertile plains, forests and Lake Manyara.

The first lodge set the tone for the four to come in terms of excellent accommodation, service and food.

The first “vastness” we were to experience was lots of mysterious white blobs on the trees, onto which we looked down from our lofty perch.

After breakfast we drove down into the rift valley in four safari vehicles. Salim had been specially selected as our driver and guide because he had an incredible knowledge of birds – most of our group were avid birdwatchers – all the fauna and flora, the country, the inhabitants of the area, its geology and ecology.

He was very patient and gentle with the ignoramuses in his bus. “STOP! There’s a bird there. What is that one?” With a cursory glance Salim would say: “That’s a long-toed lapwing”. We knew that, didn’t we? We were indeed blessed to have a masterful driver who soon became a valued member of our group.

As we approached Lake Manyara National Park, the white blobs on the high trees came into magnificent focus.

They were large birds – storks and pelicans – probably at least a thousand of them.

Lion cubs in the Serengeti, carefully camouflaged in long grass
Lion cubs in the Serengeti, carefully camouflaged in long grass

This park, interestingly, is known as the “Home of Tree Climbing Lions”. No, we did not see any lions, but in the smallish park we saw hundreds of wildlife species, majestic trees and colourful birds, some of which we could not identify.

In the afternoon we set out for the Ngorongoro Crater and that’s where some began to cry.

From the lip of the extinct volcano the vista is breathtaking: vast plains, forests, lakes and multitudinous dots of animals on the crater floor. For most of our group this was the high point – literally as well – of the entire trip. The view is indescribable.

Back on the plateau we began to appreciate the trees and plains of the Serengeti – “the place where the land goes on forever”.

In the late afternoon we started to see the migration of the wildebeest, sparse at first, then in torrents from horizon to horizon.

At sunset – and we had no idea where we were, because there were no roads at all – we came upon a huge herd at a shallow lake. That’s where we learned about the density of these snorting beasts. We were surrounded.

At Ndutu, the south-eastern corner of Serengeti, we were ensconced in tents. It was glamping at its best with indoor and outdoor showers, his-and-hers basins and a four-poster bed with mosquito net.

North to the centre of the Serengeti National Park, plain after plain, we started to run out of herbivores.

Seronera is the centre of the park where four types of topography converge: the short grass plains and the tall grasslands; the forests; the hills and the koppies. Stopping for two nights we were enthroned on a high hill.

Once more we had a marvellous sunset view resplendent with trees, plains, lakes and animals. At the lodge we had to have three chaperones to our cute beehive-looking suites at night: a human and two buffaloes. The previous night we also needed a guard; I’m not sure whether the lions or the tourists had more to fear.

Zebras follow the annual wildebeest migration across the Serengeti
Zebras follow the annual wildebeest migration across the Serengeti

Again we witnessed the majesty of the plains. There were hordes of zebras – we hadn’t realised they migrated in conjunction with the wildebeests. We also saw vultures circling above, a good 70 or so.

There were lots of lions in the area, all sleek and fat. The four drivers communicated by radio. “Cats!” they called in Swahili and so we zoomed down on the kill.

On arrival, sure enough, there were the tawny or the spotted varieties, most somnolent, with bleary eyes. We only saw one leopard and a cub in the cracks of a koppie. Surrounding her were 11 Land Cruisers. The pop-up roof of our vehicle was fantastic as it offered an unhindered panoramic view: Our group had a self-ordained animal-cum-bird-spotter-and-photographer.

In the Serengeti we saw a good few small herds of elephants. In SA we have our Springboks but they have hundreds and thousands of other gazelles – Thompson’s and Grant’s.

Leaving from our favourite lodge we headed south, then east. In the afternoon we began to ascend the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater.

Maasai women at their cultural village in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area
Maasai women at their cultural village in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area

We stopped at a Maasai village for a taste of the local culture. Wearing their bright, tartan-like gowns the men carried sticks and the women wore beaded neck collars.

The men danced in their traditional jumping competition while the women sang. We entered their tiny huts and school; they taught us how to make fire Survivor-style and told us about their polygamy – the “Happy Boys” and their subservient possessions, the “wives”.

On the crater rim we settled into another amazing lodge built of volcanic rock. The next day, before a chilly sunrise, we jumped into our trusty vehicles to visit the crater floor. Again we were flabbergasted by the beauty before us. We even saw rhinos in the distance and could finally tick off the Big 5. Probably most spectacular were the huge flocks of flamingos. On our final night we stayed at the splendid Arusha Coffee Lodge.

Our last dinner was very special and here we paid tribute to our seasoned tour leader Linde.

Back home in Jeffreys Bay there are no big beasts, just cows. The only small creatures are geckos and our big birds are gulls and hadedas. At least we have thousands of photographs and marvelous memories of Tanzania.