Serengeti: The endless plains

A vast sea of grass swarming with wildlife, the Serengeti is the classic Africa of our imagination. The world’s most famous game park is also home to nature’s grandest drama: the great migration. By Alison Westwood.

‘Leopard!’ yelped my friend, who was standing on the seat behind me with her head sticking out of the roof. The Landie shuddered to a halt. It was the most perfect tableau imaginable: a huge male cat draped over a fallen tree trunk beside the road. In the middle distance was the fragile calligraphy of a yellow fever tree. Behind, in a violet sky, the enormous orb of a full moon rising.

I turned my head just in time to see the leopard’s rapidly retreating behind. ‘Sorry,’ she said as we watched a spotted tail slink into long grass and vanish. We sat and stared at the empty log, fever tree and moon a moment longer, then drove slowly into the Serengeti sunset.

I may have missed that leopard, but I couldn’t fail to spot the great migration. As the sun rose over Seronera’s plainsnext day, the nightly whoop of hyenas gave way to zebra barking and wildebeest bleating. The herds, fooled by unseasonal rains, had returned to the central Serengeti early.

On our way to the Seronera River, we passed elephants striding single file past giraffes whose silhouettes were dwarfed by the skyline. A herd of buffaloes puddled in belligerent black pools under the shade of umbrella thorn trees, three prides of lions snoozed up in sausage trees and two cheetahs hid hopefully behind a small bush.

These were all merely hors d’oeuvres for the main course: a sweeping plain packed with zebra and wildebeest, and sprinkled with Thomson’s gazelle. The honking, grunting masses undulated white, black and brown and merged into a dark line on the horizon. They milled about in what seemed a most brainless manner, trying to decide if it was safe to approach the river.

The lifecycle of the 1,5 million or so animals that make up the great migration is intimately bound up with water. These herds had smelt rain a hundred kilometres away and come running, but it was too soon. The grass was still dry; they needed to drink. We watched two lionesses watching them, waiting.

Gorged on game viewing, we stopped at a picnic spot for lunch. We were thinking about second helpings when our guide pointed at a nearby tree. ‘Leopard!’ he said and bundled us back into the vehicle. The spotted cat was slung over an outstretched branch, her legs and tail dangling high above golden grass. Dappled shade rippled over her pelt. She glared as we drew up beneath her. This time, no-one said a word.

Factfile

  • The Serengeti National Park and neighbouring Ngorongoro Conservation Area sustain the largest community of migrating ungulates in the world, including more than 1,2 million wildebeest and 200,000 zebra.
  • All the wildebeest calves are born in February, when the animals are massed on the open plains of the southern Serengeti. Wildebeest are able to run within minutes of birth.
  • Among the perils of the great migration are starvation, disease and predation by around 2,500 lions, 7,500 spotted hyenas and 200 cheetahs that live in the Serengeti.
  • For the Masai, each 12-month span contains two years – a year of plenty, olaari, coinciding with the rainy season on the Serengeti, followed by a year of hunger, olameyu, when the rains cease and the wildebeest migration heads north to the Masai Mara.
  • Wild Frontiers offers a comprehensive range of tours in the Serengeti, including camping, mobile and lodge safaris, as well as walking safaris inside the park. Tel 011-702-2035, e-mail reservations@wildfrontiers.com or web www.wildfrontiers.com.

First published in the April 2009 issue of Getaway Magazine

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