Wildebeest migration in the Western Serengeti

Western Serengeti: Gnu Day Rising

Safari lodges try to portray themselves as oases of calm amid all the intense activity of a safari. However, it is a little difficult to chill when the room service book contains information on the following:

  • What to do when baboons approach you.
  • What to do in the event of a scorpion sting.
  • How to call up your armed guard to escort you to the restaurant.
  • Information on the mating rituals of scorpions.
  • How to catch tsetse flies and identify them using your binoculars.
  • What to do if a snake enters the room. (You will be relieved to know that the hotel will switch rooms for you if they cannot find the snake).

No mention of lions, leopards, or cheetahs. Maybe the hotel has made its point after mentioning the snakes. Its a jungle out there. Well, a grassland. Thank you Mbalageti Serengeti Lodge for making the stay seem scarier than going for a pee out in the park!

The lodges, of course, have plenty of the deadliest animals on the planet. People. In all their miserable glory. Bitching about the food, the service, the rooms, color of the sunset. I sometimes wonder why some people bother leaving their houses. The lodges are the major employers in the area. I’d hope they pay half decent wages since I would rather stay in the village and swat flies than deal with all the tedious ingrates we saw at Mbalageti!

Anyways, I guess we are here primarily to gawp at the non-humans so a little annoyance is a price worth paying. After all, there is no easy hip and cool way of doing a safari. For us, a lodge was the lap of luxury. Maybe for the average safari-goer, it was equivalent to roughing it! It’s all relative, right?

Mbalageti Lodge
View of the savanna from the restaurant at Mbalageti Serengeti Lodge.

Mbalageti Serengeti
Serengeti beer. Not as tasty as it looks.

Anyways, it was our home for two nights so we ignored the in-humans and got on with enjoying the incredible sunsets and garish Africana decor of the lodge.

Amid the Great Migration

Wildebeest migration
Hordes of wildebeest

The Great Migration was really picking up pace, so most of the next day was spent in the midst of tens of thousands of gnu, zebras, gazelles, and other four-legged herbivores. They formed vast processions miles long. Sometimes something would spook them and a charge would pick up. The beasts were moving at quite a pace and kicking up beast-made dust storms.

Wildebeest migration
Wildebeest migration

Wildebeest are also called gnu. One minute in the company of a gnu herd will tell you why. They communicate with a nasal grunt that sounds like “gnu, gnu, gnu.” We spent many an hour making gnu sounds at gnu. We even convinced ourselves they responded to our calls. The less said about our daft gnu jokes the better! I doubt Saturday Night Live will be calling us any time soon. But, here are a few all the same.

What do you call an annoying wildebeest?
A gnuisance.

Where did the wildebeest go to take off its fur?
A gnudist camp.

What do you call a wildebeest bride and groom?

Two wildebeest went to a restaurant. What did one wildebeest say to the other wildebeest when the check came?
Dinner’s on gnu.

There were plenty of other animals vying for attention too. Huge giraffes, maribou stork sniffing out carrion perched atop a tree, cute warthog families running around, beautiful harems of impala, baboons aplenty, and a rare black giraffe on its lonesome.

We had an astonishing close-up of a couple of lions too. It proved once more that Serengeti animals are utterly unconcerned by the presence of car loads of people. We drove within feet of them and they barely batted an eyelid. They were damn hard to see though. Their color is a near perfect camouflage in the golden grass.

Down by the River

Yawning Hippo
Yawning hippo (a territorial gesture)

Silly hippos
Silly-looking hippo

It is not all grassland though. Anyone with a passing interest in nature TV programs will be familiar with the Grumeti River and the gruesome gnu feast that the crocodiles partake in. The wildebeest have to cross the river to continue their journey north, running the gauntlet of crocs licking their lips. We never saw that particular delight. The crocodiles were there and so were the gnu. However, the gnu weren’t that desperate to cross the river at that moment. It is quite tense watching the gnu tentatively approaching the water and the crocs silently patrolling in readiness.

Hippo Raft
Hippo river panorama

The real stars of the waterways, though, are the hippos. It is quite an impressive sight to see just 10 of them. We pulled up at one spot where there were at least 100 of them. Two hundred tons of territorial, bad-tempered beasts that are surprisingly quick on their feet when pissed. They are responsible for more deaths in the Serengeti than lions.

Hippos spend most of the day in the water to keep cool. They have no sweat glands so when the temperatures rise they head to the water. Even the crocs kept their distance.

Wildlife of the Savanna

Zebra cluster

Lion in the grass
A lion hiding in a bush

The drive back to the lodge to re-engage with our mortal enemy, the irritating fellow traveler, was equally splendid. We saw a few more lions including one with a rather impressive mane. We hadn’t seen any really big males and this was the closest we got. The female lions do most of the hunting so I guess the lazy ass big boys just chill out on a rock somewhere. A small giraffe family were tending to a cute gawky, awkward young one. A preposterous horny pink-legged male ostrich was strutting around trying to impress the ladies. Ground hornbills were scurrying around for bugs and seeds. Big herds of topi were gathering and making vacation plans to Kenya.

Back at the lodge, noisy Germans were bemoaning the lack of good beer, sunburnt Texans were moaning that the curry was too hot, and Australians were explaining their wants in very slow English to hotel staff that spoke better English than they did. We fought through a pack of baboons, flicked away the snakes with a stick, swatted a swarm of tsetse flies, and watched scorpions mate before we tumbled into bed after a long and eventful day in the field.

To The Airport, Detour for Hippos

Hauled-out hippos
Hippos hauled out on the riverbank.

You don’t get many rides to the airport like this one! The gnu army were in full-on marching mood. If they were armed, I am sure Kenyans would be quaking in their boots right now! Vultures, jackals and hyenas were fighting over carcass rights. Colobus monkeys overran trees and peered out as we rode past. Baboons flipped off crocodiles on the river banks. And, in one last display of awesome blubbery power, a herd of hippos hauled ass onto the sands. Thirty or more all cuddled up tight. I pitied the poor little ones when daddy rolled over. A fantastic sight on signing-off from the safari.

Group shot with Eddie at Grumeti airstrip

Group shot with Eddie at Grumeti airstrip

Eddie drove us up to Grumeti Airstrip, sorted our plane passes, and deposited us safely on the, er, runway. Fair Travel prides itself on paying living wages to all its staff and makes a big point of telling guests that tips are not expected. However, Eddie had been absolutely fantastic for the entire trip so it would have remiss of us not to thank him in the time honored fashion for a great job done well. We group hugged, parted ways, and squeezed into the tiny plane cabin.

Flight over the Serengeti

The flight path follows the main road through the Serengeti. It was fascinating to see the roads we drove along from above. The vast lines of gnu and zebra and lumbering herds of elephants were all in full effect. If you don’t like take-offs and landings, you will hate this flight! We dropped in at Seronera and Manyara airstrips before finally disembarking at Arusha. A short stop and quick transfer to another plane and we were on our way to Zanzibar. All well organized but very casual. It was more like jumping off one bus and getting on another instead of the usual annoyance of air travel.

And so ended our first safari. Tanzania joined my list of countries that ABSOLUTELY MUST be visited while you are still on Planet Earth.

‘Gnu, Gnu, Gnu’


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