We heard the first roar just as we were tucking into some delicious ugali (a type of porridge usually prepared from maize flour), stewed vegetables and assorted meats. A hush came over everyone in the dining-room tent. There we were, in the middle of the Serengeti in Tanzania, soon to retire for the night. And the pride of lions was near our campsite, marking its territory. This was more than the adventure we had signed up for! The staff assured us that we would not end up in the lions’ bellies — the fact that the camp existed was proof enough. Besides, they had plenty of tastier food just a huntaway. What really worked to make us go to our tent was a mixture of exhaustion and exhilaration.
Earlier in the day, after a two-hour flight from Dar es Salaam to Mwanza on the shores of the mighty Lake Victoria and a three-hour drive across the countryside, we had entered the 30,000 sq km Serengeti National Park from the southern corridor. The popular explanation is that the name “Serengeti” originates from the Maasai language and means “endless plains”. I offered no resistance to this explanation — all around us, as far as the eye could see, and beyond, was just land and sky.
Overwhelmed by the expanse, the silence teeming with life, we took a while to register the beauty of our surroundings. Sisti, our guide-cum-driver, started pointing out animals, birds and plants. We soon discovered that amongst his many qualities was patience, for our questions did not cease. For the next three days, we were amazed by his expertise at speeding along dirt tracks (there are no paved roads in the park as animals find it difficult to traverse those; also, it had rained two days earlier) and spotting the movement of an animal or bird far away. Out would come the binoculars and reference books and soon we would be admiring another feathered or four-footed creature.
We left the camp at 9 am the next day, armed with a generous picnic basket. Radio calls flew thick and fast between the guides as news came of a leopard having been spotted on a tree. But the shy animal had moved away by the time we reached the spot. We did get to see two young lionesses and a lion sleeping on a tree while an adult male seemed to be interested in a burrow nearby. Besides the majestic cats, we watched many other animals go about their lives — giraffes, elephants, zebras, wildebeests, hartebeests, buffaloes, leopard-backed tortoises, baboons, bat-eared foxes, antelope species like the dik-dik and topi, lizards and hippopotami. Birds in the Serengeti are a treat, too, with varieties of weaver bird, crane, heron, stork, spurfowl, lapwing, roller, bee-eater, ostrich, hoopoe, hammerkop and secretary bird. Butterflies, insects, plants — the park is home to all.
Tanzanians confess to living life “pole pole”, which means “slowly slowly”. We thought that was pretty good advice for our first time in the Serengeti. So, we stopped for longer periods to admire herds of elephants moving across the plains and witnessed a youngster scratch its front leg on the ground, as if to ease an itch; looked at giraffes gambolling around; saw baboons eating grass and staring back at us; marvelled at the beauty and variety of birds. Often, we just paused and let our eyes and hearts wander around the landscape. Our urban selves revelled in the calming quiet, the blue sky and crisp air.
As we drove to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in the Great Rift Valley the next day, we passed herds of zebras and wildebeest on their annual southern Serengeti migration, also known as the calving-season migration. With such vast numbers of prey, a cheetah was not far away and neither were hyenas. We passed the Olduvai Gorge, where deposits have yielded the fossil remains of more than 60 hominins (members of the human lineage). The Maasai are the only people who are allowed to live in the area, in harmony with the environment. The younger ones waved to us enthusiastically even as they kept watch over their cattle, their distinctive beads and red cloaks adding to their charm.
Although a part of the Serengeti ecosystem, the area is now treated as a separate space. The main attraction is the Ngorongoro Crater, which is actually a type of collapsed volcano called a caldera. This is home to many animals that abound in the rest of the Serengeti. As we drove down the crater rim through lush vegetation, we met an old tusker with a radio collar around its neck, a success story in the fight against human greed. On the grassy plain of the crater floor, lions (we counted a pride of 19), gazelles, zebras, wildebeest, foxes — basically all the animals we had seen earlier — shared space with greater and lesser flamingos, black rhinoceros, pelicans, cranes and storks.
We spent a few magical hours on the caldera floor. Apart from our exclamations of wonder, the silence was punctuated by the rustle of wings, the call of an animal and the stirring of a breeze. As the afternoon gave way to dusk, we had to get ready to leave as no humans are allowed to stay on in the crater after 6 pm. We spent the night in a hotel on the crater rim, advised not to wander around the premises in the dark since animals use the space, too. Sure enough, we saw a buffalo outside our verandah the next morning, munching on the dew-kissed grass.
Vineeta Rai is a freelance editor based in the National Capital Region.
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