The Serengeti derives its name from the Maasai language Maa and means “endless plains.” It spans some 12,000 sq miles and hosts the largest mammal migration in the world. From August to October, approximately 2 million herbivores, primarily wildebeest but also zebra and plains game, travel from the northern hills of the Maasai Mara towards the southern plains of the Serengeti, swimming across the Mara river in pursuit of greener pastures. After giving birth to roughly 500,000 calves between February and April, the wildebeest recross the river, returning to the Mara in July-August.
Given this circular migration and the vastness of the Serengeti, it’s better to visit some months and not others. Because the wildebeest and zebras are still returning from the Maasai Mara in November, our trip came at a less than ideal time. In fact, we actually saw more animals grazing just outside the park boundaries than we did on our game drives. And where there is prey so follow the predators.
At least we were lucky not to have any rain. It had clearly rained hard for several weeks prior to our visit and quite often we found ourselves skidding along the muddy tracks left by other safari vehicles. We even saw several 4WD safari vans stuck in mud as we careened by, albeit fish-tailing right and left ourselves.
Unlike the Maasai Mara, which has many criss-crossing paths, the visitor traffic is kept on wide, well-defined roads in the Serengeti. In terms of conservation, it’s probably better to plow several roads through the game park instead of letting everyone off-road whenever they want. However, it does not make for very compelling game viewing.
Whereas we were able to get up close and personal to the big animals in the Mara, on this trip we frequently had to content ourselves with distant glimpses of these majestic animals. So while we technically saw the Big 5, a lot of these sightings left us underwhelmed [See also close encounters of the animal kind].
For instance, the leopard catnapping in a tree was just a speck in our camera’s viewfinder, while in the Mara we had a leopard pass by our vehicle within arm’s reach. Similarly, the rhinos we saw were so far away that we could not get decent photos even through our 200mm lens with a 2X converter [See a rare sight].
That said, we did see some things in the Serengeti that we had not seen on previous safari trips. We saw a lot of hippos and a few of them were out of the water; we saw enough dirty, mangy hyenas to last us a lifetime; we found some nesting sites of the tiny and elusive bat-eared foxes; we saw cheetahs on the prowl and a lioness dragging half a zebra carcass to her lair, stopping every dozen feet to pant in the heat of the noonday sun; and we saw a family of elephants circle up to protect their young after one of them rushed a tourist car that had gotten too close.
In the end, as Twain says, time smooths out one’s memories so that the annoyances of the trip disappear, leaving only the pleasantest experiences in one’s mind. We’re hoping that it is these images, which represent the best of this safari, that we will ultimately remember, forgetting along the way the long stretches when we rode through the empty plains without seeing so much as a single gazelle.