Whilst most people probably feel it is not the ideal time to travel right now, we have taken a different view. Although we are aware of the risks, and are taking the necessary precautions very seriously, we have also realised that with so few other people travelling, there has never been a better time to travel to normally busy national wildlife parks in Africa.
East Africa and Tanzania is the birthplace of the quintessential African Safari and with it being one of the few countries open for business right now, travellers from all nationalities are welcome. In early November we took the opportunity to visit Kogatende which is the northern area of The Serengeti whose boundary is located along the banks of the famous Mara River.
The area is best known for the opportunity to see the great Wildebeest Migration as well as seeing herds of wildebeest and zebra cross The Mara River. This is normally the primary reason for wildlife tourists to visit this particular part of The Serengeti, but we were also very much hoping to see and photograph cats on kopjes. Due to the habitat, Kogatende is also well-known for providing these kind of opportunities.
We have visited many superb lodges in Southern and East Africa but none come close to Lamai Serengeti Lodge in terms of spectacular locations. The lodge has been cleverly incorporated into a series of giant boulders that stand some 20 to 30 meters above the surrounding area. The view from the dining and communal areas, as well as that of the rooms are out of this world.
It has been done in such an unobtrusive way and decks, pathways and rooms alike are built around the natural features.
When we arrived I felt as if we didn’t need to leave camp at all, such was the feeling of being so completely transplanted into the African bush. Our lunch table sat overlooking the expansive area and as we sat there trying to take it all in, white backed vultures and a black chested snake eagle all soared majestically in front of us.
Being on safari means most of your activities from game drives, to meals and sundowners are in all the outdoors with plenty of social distancing and fresh air.
After the heavily imposed living restrictions for covid in South Africa, I cannot think of a better escape and I feel privileged to be in the position of being able to travel, especially to a destination such as this.
For me, being in the bush it is never just about what you see. A huge part of the experience is how your other senses are stimulated. The night sounds are to me particularly special.
On that first night I lay awake a long while just listening. In the distance the echo of a hyena’s call could be heard as well as the faint contact calling of a lion pride. Croaking frogs and trilling crickets were a constant feature until finally in the pre-dawn they were joined by early morning birdsong.
Each year approx. 1.6 million white beaded gnu (wildebeest) migrant from the Maasai Mara, through the Serengeti, and finally to the fertile feeding grounds in the foothills of the Ngorongoro Crater.
Prevailing weather conditions dictate when and where the wildebeest move but calves are mostly dropped in the southern part of the Serengeti. Here the area is more open and opportune predators who are patrolling for an easy meal of young wildebeest, can be spotted a little easier. There is still a high mortality rate but at least chances are somewhat fairer with better predator detection.
The onset of rain in certain areas mean fresh green grass shoots will spring up and this ultimately stimulates the migration. Of particular importance is the extremely nutritious grazing around the foothills of the Crater. Volcanic ash, fallen from volcanic activity thousands of years ago, has created soil that is very rich in minerals. This in turn has made the grass extremely nutrient rich and is very valuable grazing for young wildebeest. Once this is depleted, and rains begin to fall in the Maasai Mara area again, the long trek back begins.
Of course the journey is hazardous, and in the Serengeti a number of dangerous rivers need to be crossed.
Looking at the Mara River that presents such an important but arduous border for the migrating wildebeest to cross, one can only imagine the dramatic and intense scenes that have played out here over hundreds of years.
With the area being so quiet in terms of visitors, we realised what a unique opportunity had been presented in terms of being able to watch a crossing without the usual mass gathering of vehicles.
At this time of the year it is at the very tail end of the migration in this area and at any moment the last of the herds would be passing through. Despite this, over our 3 day stay we were extremely fortunate to see three different crossings.
In their quest for getting to better grazing, so many perils have to be overcome. It can come with a great cost, and sometimes the ultimate price is paid.
Chris recounts the drama, emotion and intensity of observing and photographing a crossing …
Of Crocs and Greener Grass, the Crossing of the Mara River can be read here.
Leopards on Rocks
Our second reason for wanting to spend time up here in the North was the chance to see predatory cats on Kopjes, especially Leopards.
Serengeti is the Maasai word for “endless plains” but here in the northern part of the Serengeti, the areas adjacent of the Mara River are dotted with many clusters of kopjes. These are made up of various sizes of granite boulders and it looks as if at the time of creation, boulders were generously sprinkled in tight clusters over a number of small areas.
In reality, during volcanic activity, molten magma solidifies underground and turns into granite. Over hundreds or even thousands of years, erosion takes place and eventually these granite boulders are exposed. Exposure to heat, cold and rain withers away at the granite boulders creating cracks and fissures, sometimes even splitting the rocks completely. All this gives the boulders their present day character.
The landscape here is truly breath-taking and it was our hope to have the opportunity to see and photograph a leopard on one of these spectacular granite boulders.
Close to the lodge, a female leopard with 2 young cubs was frequenting a cluster of kopjes. She was well-known to our guide, Lazarus and he knew her to be very comfortable and relaxed with vehicles. They were making particular use of playing around a large granite boulder that was also home to a large Rock Splitter Fig tree.
Only a tree with huge character could have such an awesome name! These trees belong to a genus of fig trees that anchor themselves in rock and during their growth, they can and will eventually split the rock they have made home to bury their roots even deeper. They are simply incredible!
Most mornings and evenings we would spot and spend time with the leopard family and were treated to some fantastic sightings. Finally, on our last morning, we were given a photographic opportunity that we had pictured many times in our imagination …
Chris’s account follows here: Grace and Granite
Although our time here was short, the experience was unforgettable.
It was not just the incredible wildlife experiences we had, it was also the Nomad Tanzania experience itself. The fantastic culture that exists within the company was particularly evident. One does expect your guide to be knowledgeable and passionate about the wildlife, but here the managers, and especially the waiting staff were fully into the birds, snakes and every other wild thing they were exposed too. We particularly enjoyed bird watching during lunch with them where resident wire-tail swallows provided constant entertainment.
I’d also like to make particular mention of our guide, Lazarus. He was so respectful to the wildlife in the way he drove and positioned the vehicle and one could see how important it was to him to be as unobtrusive as possible. We so appreciated this quality, as well as his excellent bush and behaviour anticipation skills. So often on safari, guides are under huge pressure, particularly from photographers, including ourselves, to push boundaries and get closer. Lazarus first and foremost did what was good for the creatures he was a custodian of, and if he felt our requests were within his boundaries, he obliged. This is a quality that we greatly admire and wish was more prevalent.
We were also very impressed with the community and conservation programs Nomad supports. Having community buy-in is essential to long term conservation of any wild area. A large percentage of staff from the surrounding communities are employed by the lodge. Important initiatives are in place, one of which is vegetable seeds being supplied to the community, the harvest of which is then purchased by the lodge. Plans are also underway to build a commercial butchery. Not only will this provide further employment, but the lodge will also purchase from here, along with other lodges in the area.
By realising the value of protected areas, and experiencing the personal benefits from it, very important conservation needs are being met. Social support, especially for young women, is also being given to those in need.
We were also particularly impressed to hear about a project whereby animal snares are collected in the park and buffer zones by a team of local community members. This metal is then melted down and sold on for lodge and housing material.
As I sit here writing, it pretty amazing to reflect on just how much they are doing.
Worryingly, the corona virus pandemic is having a massive knock-on effect to a system that was balancing so well an unforgettable safari experience, protection of wildlife areas and upliftment of local communities.
Whilst great for our own personal experience to have very few other people in the National Park, it is so important to keep the aforementioned recipe in working order.
During this trip we met two different groups of people who were on an African safari for the first time. With so many countries imposing travel restrictions, different options are now being sort and Tanzania is certainly catering to this. In short it is the perfect time to broaden one’s horizon, or if it’s been a while since you were last on safari, I hope this motivates you to visit again.
If you have the penchant for travel, and are fortunate to have the means to do so, Tanzania should certainly be on your radar.