Even for residents of Tanzania, visiting the Serengeti is generally a once in a lifetime experience, so Aimee and I wanted to take our time and see as much as possible. Arranging a visit independently can be daunting though, as there is no budget or even mid-range accommodation in the region, and public campsites are nearly impossible to reserve in advance. To make matters more complicated, Serengeti National Park is 15,000 square kilometers in size, and offers a wide array of habitat beyond its famous endless plains. We had discussed our options for months, it seemed, making little progress in answering practical questions about our trip. My colleagues were of little help as well, as many of them haven’t visited the region yet, or simply flew in and stayed at one of the expensive, high-volume hotels in Seronera. Finally, a few weeks before our vacation I stumbled upon a website for a movable bush camp called Serengeti Savanna Camp that followed the wildebeest migration throughout the year while offering hefty discounts for residents. In January, the camp would be at Lake Ndutu, which is just on the other side of the park’s boarder with the Ngorongoro Conservation Area ($50 per person per 24 hours). It was all part of the same ecosystem, I figured, and if the wildebeest migration were in this area at the time, then the predators would surely be there, too.
This turned out to be a fortuitous decision, as we would find out later after comparing the driving safari experience at Ndutu with that around Seronera in the national park itself, which we would visit on a long day trip. The drive from Mto Wa Mbu to Lake Ndutu was first an ambitious undertaking though, and we didn’t get started until close to noon, as I bounced around town with a mechanic all morning to repair the car. After u-bolt repairs, tire pressure adjustments, fluid replacements, and even a weld to our front grill, we raced into the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, which protects one of Africa’s most awesome landscapes, the world’s largest intact volcanic caldera, Ngorongoro Crater. The fertile grasslands covering the 260 square kilometer crater floor is densely populated with big game, including rhinoceros, elephant, lion, and cheetah, and we stood around in amazement at the first viewpoint from the crater rim. In a week’s time, we would be driving along the crater floor and then trekking many kilometers to the north to explore the crater highlands, so after a few photographs and some scanning with our binoculars we pushed on past the crater and towards the Serengeti.
The NCA is also home to the colorful Maasai, who live in traditional villages and raise cattle in the plains of northern Tanzania and southern Kenya. There’s a palpable tension between tourist and pastoralist around the crater rim, as most visitors long for an authentic wildlife experience while the Maasai gaze longingly with their cattle at the prohibited crater floor. There’s a fair amount of cultural tourism here too, and tour groups make short stops at Maasai bomas, or villages, so that visitors can negotiate the price of a photograph of a Maasai warrior or ornately decorated woman. While I’m certainly interested in the traditional people of east Africa, especially the few remaining groups of nomadic hunters, the vibe at the bomas didn’t feel right to me, and we only made one other stop along the crater rim to check out a Martial Eagle perched in the distance on an acacia tree. This massive black and white eagle was unflappable as several Cape Rooks harassed it from above. After winding down the back of the crater, the packed dirt and gravel road points straight ahead to the Serengeti, but its surface has been shaped by wind and traffic into a rigorous washboard that would cost us several hours. A few Capped Wheatears reluctantly left their territories along the road where we stopped to change a tire, after Mark nailed a sizable rock; meanwhile, the Landcruisers jammed past us at over 100 kilometers per hour, spraying dust and rock all directions.
Finally, we reached the turnoff to Lake Ndutu, and the rest of the way across the plain looked smooth and free of traffic. Thousands of Thompson’s Gazelle, zebra, and wildebeest munched cautiously on the short green grass, while Common Ostrich and Kori Bustard stomped about on their powerful legs. Larks, sparrows, and whydahs abounded in great quantities, but it seemed almost sacrilegious to ignore one of the great animal migrations for the sake of a few minor bird identifications. Plus, after a long day of uncomfortable driving, Mark and Aimee weren’t enthusiastic about parsing plumage differences between lark species. Approaching Lake Ndutu, we came to the edge of the woodland that surrounds the lake, spotting a Secretary Bird perched in the top of a large tree. After it flew off, we were surprised to see another adult pop out of the top of the tree, an obvious sign that this was a nesting pair. One of the most unique birds of prey in the world, the Secretary Bird is shockingly tall and gangly as it prances about the grasslands in pursuit of snakes and lizards. They’re also capable of soaring to great heights, appearing like a stork with its massive wings and long legs trailing in flight.
After cruising around the huge alkaline lake, we arrived at our bush camp and had a few sundowners around the campfire as the Maasai guard told us about the leopard he sees regularly stalking through the camp at night. Although I am principally interested in learning about the birds of the region, our primary goal during the next few days was to see the big game of the Serengeti Plains, especially lion, cheetah, and leopard. Hopefully, we would see plenty of birds in their pursuit, on game drives I was planning to follow other safari vehicles and to ask other drivers where we could find big cats, instead of aimlessly driving around and stopping for every bird call or flutter of wings. We breakfasted at sunrise the following morning, noting the Red-Cheeked Cordon-Bleu, Beautiful Sunbird, and distinctive Silverbird around the camp while we enjoyed an elegant spread. Although Seregenti Savanna Camp is advertised as an “everything you need, and nothing you don’t” experience, we were all impressed with the food and service during our four-night stay.
After consulting with two other drivers, I drove us out to the small marsh area a few kilometers from the camp, where big cats had been seen regularly. Within minutes we were meters away from two exquisite cheetahs that had languidly trotted down to a stream for a drink. A true pinnacle of evolution, the cheetah’s long and sleek body is capable of running at 70 kilometers per hour, as it chases antelope in the open plains. I had told Aimee repeatedly that I only needed to see a cheetah and a Secretary Bird to be satisfied with my Serengeti experience, and we had encountered both in just a few short hours of driving safari. An hour later we moved on, finding a large pride of lions asleep under tree, their legs and tails strewn about in apparently extreme exhaustion. Perhaps these lions were simply lazy, as they didn’t move their position until late that afternoon. Continuing past the marsh, we headed out to an open plain where there were thousands of migrating wildebeest, as well as several spotted hyenas loping around. Massive groups of Wattled Starlings consorted together, and a few Marabou Storks stood about, but the landscape was simply dominated by large mammals. Heading back to the camp for lunch, we spotted a striking Long-Crested Eagle perched on top of a bare tree. I circled around the tree in the car to photograph this small but impressive bird of prey, whose long, thin crest was blowing about rakishly in the wind.
Successive game drives in the marsh and woodland around Lake Ndutu proved equally rewarding, and we quickly grew familiar with the network of roads that wound about the confusing landscape, to the point where I could return to camp after nightfall without getting lost. Highlights include seeing mating lions, gorging hyenas, and a delightful bat-eared fox, as well as a host of new birds, including Steppe Eagle, African Cuckoo, White Stork, and the Serengeti endemic Grey-Breasted Spurfowl. The Silverbird around our camp would prove to be one of my favorites, a vocal and distinctive flycatcher that never quite let me approach close enough to photograph satisfactorily. The only Serengeti-Mara endemic we missed was the Grey-Crested Helmet-Shrike, which is thinly distributed in the hilly woodland in the northern section of the park.
From our base at Lake Ndutu, we made two long driving exursions, one into the Seronera region of Serengeti National Park (covered in a separate post) and another to Olduvai Gorge, several hours’ drive back into the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. The latter site is, of course, more interesting to an archaeologist than a naturalist, but it’s really a must-see for all visitors to the area. Aimee, Mark, and I elected to take a guided walk down into the gorge to see exactly where Mary Leakey and her team discovered the famous remains of early hominids, as well as of other Paleolithic animals that used to inhabit the area, including bizarre-looking giraffes and antelopes. The lookout above the gorge is a popular site for picnics, and several guidebooks promised a hoard of bird species would be in attendance at midday. All I observed were Vitelline Masked Weaver and Common Bulbul, missing Red-and-Yellow Barbet, Rufous Chatterer, and Purple Grenadier, among others. After our final night at Lake Ndutu, we drove back to the Ngorongoro Crater to meet up with the safari company that was running our five-day trek in the highlands to the north. By the early afternoon, though, I had fallen terribly sick with malaria, and Aimee and I were forced to bow out of the trek, leaving Mark to explore this remote region on his own.
Notable birds seen: Common Ostrich, Marabou Stork, Black Kite, Secretary Bird, Lappet-Faced Vulture, Augur Buzzard, Tawny Eagle, Steppe Eagle, Bateleur, Long-Crested Eagle, Lesser Kestrel, Grey-Breasted Spurfowl, Kori Bustard, Crowned Lapwing, Fischer’s Lovebird, Abyssinian Scimitarbill, Capped Wheatear, Wattled Starling, Silverbird, Greater Flamingo, Lesser Flamingo, Beautiful Sunbird, Purple Grenadier, Black-Faced Waxbill, Blue-Capped Cordon-Bleu, Hamerkop, White Stork, Egyptian Goose, Black-Shouldered Kite, Two-Banded Courser, Ring-Necked Dove, Woodland Kingfisher, African Cuckoo.