Serengeti National Park

Ever since I was a young girl, I have dreamed about going to Africa and seeing the Serengeti. When we were about 10 years old, my best friend Kara and I were determined that we were going to go to Africa and save the (endangered) cheetahs. It was just that simple to us. We could save our birthday money, raise donations, and go. We even started collections in our small town to try to raise money for the World Wildlife Fund’s conservation efforts. We decorated coffee cans with colored pencil animal drawings and placed them in convenience stores around our small hometown in southwestern New Hampshire. We wrote letters to the WWF detailing our efforts, and included some campaign ideas and a check for probably no more than $50, after adding in our own contributions. Weeks later we received a thank you letter with a couple of trademark WWF panda stickers, and we were the happiest kids on the block.

While it was always a tremendous aspiration to visit the Serengeti, I guess I never truly considered it a realistic possibility. At that moment, as I passed under the unadorned, wooden entrance gate to Serengeti National Park, I could feel the excitement surging through my body. It was all I could do to not leap from the moving vehicle and sprint at full-speed through the tall, golden grasses.

Soon after we entered the park, and stopped for our first glimpses of wildlife, Francis asked what each of us was most excited to see. I abruptly and enthusiastically replied, “cheetah,” which was met with a hesitant, “okay… well… we don’t always see those.” Francis then turned to Stephan, who said he would love to see a rhinoceros. Francis dropped his head and chuckled with consternation. Critically endangered, due largely to poaching, the black rhino population is currently around 5,000. Kenya is home to the majority of East African black rhinos, while a smaller number reside in northern Tanzania. While he initially thought he had his work cut out for him, I think Francis quickly realized that we were equally thrilled to sit and look at brightly-colored starlings and adorable baby gazelle, which I would eagerly point out every few hundred yards.

We spent two days leisurely exploring this incredible park. The savanna was an infinite expanse of green and gold-colored grasses (Serengeti fittingly means ‘endless plain’ in Maasai). Sparse flat-top and umbrella acacias dotted the rolling landscape, providing a minimal amount of shaded refuge below their gnarled branches. A stark contrast from their surroundings, kopjes protruded intermittently from the barren countryside. These enormous, rocky projections covered with small trees were almost like little oases in the sea of dry grass – providing cool, protected hiding spots for smaller animals and a premier vantage point for large predators, such as lions.

Surprisingly, not long into our first afternoon in Serengeti, we happened upon a female cheetah, resting contentedly atop a termite mound. I could barely contain myself. Stephan graciously handed over the 400mm, and I snapped several pictures of the beautiful cat. She continued to relax undisturbed, while we just sat and watched. It was unbelievable – to be fortunate enough to see a cheetah… to be so close to the animal in her natural habitat… needless to say I was consumed by the moment and completely in my glory.

I could write volumes about all of the magnificent wildlife we saw everywhere we turned – majestic giraffes gracefully roamed the open grassland, striking zebra with young foals gathered in the woodlands,  watchful gazelle bounced through the tall grass, and regal leopards and lions lazed about the trees and grass. We saw numerous members of the antelope family – gazelle, eland, topi, waterbuck, impala, hartebeest, reedbuck, and dik dik – as well as small predators, such as the spotted hyena, golden jackal, and side-striped jackal. Vervet monkeys sat watchfully in scraggly trees and olive baboons protectively carried their infants along the dusty roads. The warthogs entertained us with their awkward mealtime posture – the animals graze on their knees due their unusually short necks, and look as if they’re bowing before their dinner. We intently observed the host of creatures from the early morning to dusk, and each Serengeti sunrise and sunset was epic – igniting the sky and washing the otherwise dull landscape with vivid pastels.

I think perhaps the animals we enjoyed observing the most, though, were the elephants. We watched numerous family groups interact, all with such obvious personalities. They were so playful, loving and cooperative with one another, and watching them persistently tear thorny acacia limbs with their trunks was just amazing.

Late on the first afternoon, we stopped to visit a hippo pool. Here we were allowed to exit our vehicle for a closer look. I was a little apprehensive, as the animals are known for being quite aggressive. We kept our distance and watched with amusement as the tightly-packed ungulates lazed in the cool water, repeatedly splashing water and mud onto themselves with their tails in an effort to cool down. Baby hippos were scattered amongst the adults, and watching the little calves nuzzle their parents was all too adorable.

Similar to our experience at Manyara, we were taken aback by the number of different bird species we were able to record in the Serengeti. Again, Francis was simply unbelievable with his extensive knowledge. He told us it was a pleasure to be able to share the wonderful birds of Tanzania with us, as they often go unnoticed to those more interested in the large animals.

In total, we recorded 41 different species within Serengeti National Park, and we were fortunate to find two of Francis’ favorites – the African Hoopoe and Silverbird.

We stayed (both evenings) at the Seronera Wildlife Lodge, in the central region of the Serengeti. The lodge was constructed around a rocky outcropping, and designed to blend in seamlessly with the surroundings. The accommodations, again, were basic but comfortable. A number of southern tree hyrax and yellow-spotted rock hyrax scurried around the grounds. Small juveniles accompanied some of the adults and I, of course, was taken with the furry critters. While we initially thought the hyrax were large rodents, we later learned that the creatures are shockingly one of the elephants’ closest living relatives (having derived from a common ancestor) and are also closely related to manatees.

Our room at Seronera faced out into the scrubby brush of the national park, and provided a serene view. When we looked out our window after arriving, we were surprised to see a tall giraffe grazing in a nearby acacia. More hyrax chased each other in the grass below, racing up and down the small trees. Overnight, we were awoken by the sound of monkeys calling boisterously in the crisp, night air.

In the early morning hours of our second day, we departed the Seronera Lodge for a hot air balloon safari over Serengeti National Park. We arrived at the launch site in total darkness. There were four balloons being launched that morning, and we were assigned to the ‘Simba’ along with 8 other passengers. After being inflated, we climbed into the basket with the balloon on its side. The pilot then righted us, and with one loud firing of the burner, we were off! Our balloon rose gently over the tops of the acacia trees, just as the sun peeked over the horizon. Soon the sky was aglow with fiery hues of orange and pink from the blazing African sun, and the acacias were silhouetted in the bright sunlight.

We drifted slowly over the savanna, watching as giraffes roamed the open landscape, herds of elephants grabbed a morning meal, gazelles scampered about, and hippos lounged in a small pool. We even spotted a family of three cheetahs looking up at us from below. Our pilot, Captain Mohammed, steered the balloon to varying altitudes, which afforded us a closer look at the animals below, as well as sweeping vistas of the vast grasslands with the three other balloons off in the distance. In some areas, the savanna was crisscrossed with complex networks of feeding and migration routes. The stark pathways stood out against sections of burned grass, looking almost like spiderwebs from high above.

After an hour-long ride, the Simba began to descend, passing over a group of zebra as it floated softly to the ground. We stood in the middle of the Serengeti and awaited the arrival of the three other balloons. After everyone had landed, we celebrated with a champagne toast – maisha marefu (long life)! We then drove a short distance, where the balloon safari company had set up long tables under a large acacia, and enjoyed an extraordinary breakfast. There was an unbelievable spread, full tea service, and bottomless mimosas made with champagne and mango juice. As we gazed around in amazement, we spotted a soaring giraffe grazing from an acacia just up ahead. It was overwhelming to be sitting out in the middle of the tranquil Serengeti, with nothing around us, taking in all of the natural beauty.

Early on our last morning in the park, we were fortunate to have a unique and intimate encounter with three lions – two males and a female – that were walking along the dirt road. The males were lagging behind the disinterested female by 20–30 feet. Longing for her attention, they would approach her. She would, in turn, stop and snarl angrily at them, and they would retreat with reservation. As she eventually made her way into the brush, she allowed them to continue to trail behind her, albeit at a considerable distance. Francis suggested that they were probably two young males who had recently ousted the reigning male of the pride, since they both were marked with some fresh scars. He said that the females typically don’t trust new leaders right away, and that the new males will have to earn their loyalty.

We continued our slow drive out of the Serengeti and headed to the Ngorongoro Crater, about an hour southeast. One of the most unique geological and ecological areas in the world, we were excited to visit the crater but also very sad to leave the Serengeti. I had realized a childhood dream, and will never forget the incredible time I spent in the park with all of the magnificent wildlife.