Serengeti National Park: December 31, 2010

Although Lake Ndutu is technically inside Ngorongoro Conservation Area, lying on the extreme western border of the reserve, it is clearly part of the magnificent ecosystem of Serengeti National Park. Indeed, the endless grassland plains of the Serengeti continue well past the park’s borders, and the millions of migrating wildebeest certainly know no bounds as they follow the rains during the year through several countries in East Africa. Although Aimee, Mark, and I were staying near the shore of Lake Ndutu for four nights with Serengeti Savanna Camp and had already seen most of the great mammals and bird life that the Serengeti offers, including all but one of the endemic bird species, I simply had to drive into the park itself. We decided to make the three-hour drive to Seronera, a tourist hub deep within the plains, with the goal of finding one of the famous leopards that prowl along the tree-lined Seronera River. This would make for a very long day of driving, as we would spend over twelve hours in the car, but the trip would quickly prove worthwhile.

After paying our entrance fees ($50 per person per 24 hours) at the monumental Naabi Hill Gate, set on a massive koppes that rises abruptly out of the plains, we continued along the main road for several hours, the rough washboard keeping our average speed under 30 kilometers per hour. Wildebeest, Thomson’s gazelle, and zebra numbered in the hundreds of thousands grazing on either side of the road as far as the horizon. Among them Kori Bustard, Common Ostrich, and a variety of confusing kestrels and harriers could be seen. We passed a solitary cheetah in the distance, resting sphinx-like on a small butte, and we watched a few spotted hyenas wrangle over a carcass with dozens of aggressive vultures. After fruitlessly searching around several smaller koppes, or rocky hills, where a variety of chats and rock-thrushes can usually be found, we pressed on to Seronera with unabashed hopes of finding a leopard.

As soon as we neared the river, I spotted a large pile up of Landcruisers along an adjacent road, and we sped off to join the crowd. By the time we arrived, there were almost forty vehicles jostling for position to observe a leopard that had just killed an impala. Over the next twenty minutes the number of cars on the scene doubled, as every safari group in the park seemed to converge on the site. Along with the other drivers, I did my best to deliver good views to Aimee and Mark, as we struggled to catch a glimpse of the leopard dragging the impala into cover along the river, but ultimately it wasn’t the intimate wildlife experience we had had in mind. Abandoning the fray, we drove off to Maasai Koppes, finding a pair of Secretary Birds, Grey Crowned Crane, Grey-Backed Fiscal, and Coqui Francolin among the tall grass along the way. Again, we didn’t see anything of note among the rocks, although it was already well past noon and activity was no doubt low. Returning back to the main road along the Wandahu River, we found an impressive group of elephants drinking in a marshy depression, stopping to watch as a newly born elephant clowned around in the water.

On our way to a popular picnic site, Aimee asked me to stop the car and back up a few meters, thinking she had seen something move in the grass nearby. Mistaking a log for a lion is easier than you would think, especially when you’re scanning the environment all day for game, but there was no mistaking the giant male lion that emerged from the grass and stalked towards our car, its mane blowing dramatically in the wind. Frantically we cranked up our windows as the lion approached within a meter of the door, sidestepping the car nonchalantly at the last moment and crossing the road to lay down in the grass on the other side. Our hearts now racing, we scanned around and found the rest of the pride, including several cubs trying to climb a tree. Within minutes there were dozens of Landcruisers approaching from all sides, so we continued on to the picnic site, proud of our recent encounter but desperate to stretch our legs. Unwinding over lunch in the shade of a large acacia tree, I watched Superb and Hildebrandt’s Starlings, Red-Billed Buffalo-Weaver, and the endemic Rufous-Tailed Weaver battle each other over table scraps as other visitors tossed aside their crusts.

Passing by the site where we had seen the leopard, we noticed another large congregation of safari vehicles nearby; this time they were lined up to watch a cheetah stalk around nervously in the shade. Noticing it was growing late in the afternoon, we agreed to head back towards Lake Ndutu. Arriving at Naabi Hill Gate near sunset, we took a break from the car and climbed up to an outlook offering 360-degree views of the Serengeti and the famous wildebeest migration. Sure, the volume of tourist traffic had been a bit offensive, and, yes, there are plans to construct a two-lane tarmac road that cuts straight through the park, but from our perspective that evening the environment couldn’t have looked more wild and pristine. Picking up Silverbird, Banded Parisoma, and Montagu’s Harrier on the way down the hill, we got back in the car to race back to Lake Ndutu before darkness fell. Within minutes though we were flagged down by a group of Kenyans that were standing around their car, which had suffered two flat tires on the ruthless drive in. Amazingly, these were the only other independent tourists we had seen all day. Offering them our remaining spare tire temporarily, we drove back to the gate together so they didn’t have to spend the night stranded in the plains.

Notable birds seen: Common Ostrich, Black-Headed Heron, Egyptian Goose, Secretary Bird, Black-Shouldered Kite, Hooded Vulture, Lappet-Faced Vulture, African White-Backed Vulture, Brown Snake-Eagle, Montagu’s Harrier, Tawny Eagle, Lesser Kestrel, Helmeted Guineafowl, Coqui Francolin, Grey-Crowned Crane, Kori Bustard, Black-Winged Stilt, Blacksmith Lapwing, Crowned Lapwing, Little Bee-Eater, Lilac-Breasted Roller, Fisher’s Sparrow-Lark, Capped Wheatear, Banded Parisoma, Silverbird, Grey-Backed Fiscal, Northern White-Crowned Shrike, Cape Rook, Superb Starling, Hildebrandt’s Starling, Rufous-Tailed Weaver, Red-Billed Buffalo-Weaver.

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