Since being a very young boy, the Serengeti, and the incredible wildlife that lives there, has been a place I have dreamed of visiting. Meaning "Endless Plains" in Maa, the Maasai language, the Serengeti region covers a vast area of 12,000 square miles, stretching from northern Tanzania, into southern Kenya, where it's named the Maasai Mara.
The diversity of the wildlife found here is astonishing, owing its place to not only the world famous grasslands but the swamps, woodland and kopjes that make up this remarkable place.
The Great Migration passes through this region every year, governed by the rains and the new grass that they bring. The dramas that unfold along the way are no doubt well known to all of you and whilst we weren't there in the absolute height of it all, to be caught up in the Migration itself, was one of the most incredible experiences we'd ever had in our lives. The sheer number of animals migrating is astounding and, of course, those animals bring out predators of every kind; particularly the big cats I love so much...
After crossing the border from Ngorongoro into the Serengeti, we came across a pair of Lions, coming towards the end of their courtship together. Lions pair up for a few days and leave the pride during this period, not leaving each other's side. I was lucky enough to capture the moment where the lioness let her partner know that she was none too happy with his advances; he was firmly put in his place and went off to have a breather on top of the kopje!
We later realised that although the Migration involves such an incredible number of animals, surprisingly it can creep up on you out of the nowhere! Our first experience of it was just a taster of what was to come.
Around this time, we also came across a Wildebeest carcass, that had probably died from natural causes, or exhaustion. The vultures, and the odd Marabou stork, came from far and wide to squabble over the spoils. Vultures get a lot of bad press but the job they do is of absolutely critical importance to the ecosystem as a whole. The acid in their stomachs is highly corrosive, facilitating the digestion of decomposing carcasses infected with diseases such as anthrax, cholera, botulinum toxin, and rabies that would be lethal to other scavengers.
After the excitement of the midday, we pretty much hit a blank and the rest of the plains were frustratingly deserted. As I mentioned in my earlier Ngorongoro blog, we had expected our visit to be in the midst of the Tanzania 'long rains' and so far, this definitely wasn't the case. Because of this the grass was very dry and way too long to be of interest to the migrating herds - the area we were in was very quiet indeed. As the sun began to set, we did have a couple of nice encounters with a small group of Giraffe and a troop of Baboon, on their way to their nightly roost, but those cats I craved to see were sadly proving very elusive.
That morning was an early start, 3.45am to be exact! Whilst a bit of a killer, it was all so we could travel to our site for a spectacular hot air balloon ride, over the plains. Our hour's journey, through the park, before we got to our flying site was an experience in itself and were lucky enough to see Hippo out of their daily waterholes and on the move; an impressive sight indeed.
The flight itself was really special and I hope to share some of the video footage I managed to get, once I get round to editing it all. We had a great time but from a wildlife perspective the plains were still barren and silent.
After our awesome breakfast under an Acacia tree (as you do!), it was back to the game drives and whilst the quiet theme continued, we did encounter some more Baboons and a small herd of Elephant, going about their seemingly incessant daily eating schedule!
As our spirits began to drop a little, just as before, the Migration arrived! Out of nowhere, endless lines of Zebra and Wildebeest flooded the plains, surrounding us at all sides. Following the herds, picking off the hordes of flies, were flocks of Barn Swallows; those same beautiful birds that signal the arrival of, hopefully, nicer weather when they migrate back to the UK from March onwards. It was amazing to see them over in Africa and think that any one of them could be heading back to our patch in Yorkshire!
As if that wasn't enough, out of nowhere a group of three lionesses popped up out of the long grass. This time they weren't displaying the relaxed demeanour we'd seen elsewhere, they were completely alert and focussed and definitely on the hunt! Being midday, we couldn't believe our luck, as lions tend to hunt mostly at night, not only enjoying the obviously cooler temperatures but when their superior night vision gives them a big advantage. Clearly hungry, they pressed on and our excitement ramped up as they edged closer to the migrating herds.
With the grasses still being so high, the lions had such an advantage. Whilst we could see everything unfolding from the higher vantage point of the jeep, the ever-skittish herds had no idea they were there. One lioness edged closer and took a gamble...
...but was too far away to make her ambush count.
The element of surprise had gone for the moment but soon enough the herds relaxed and another chance came; this time the lions didn't make any mistake. As you can see, the grass was way too long for anything but record shots but the experience will live with us for the rest of our days. It was mind blowing stuff and pretty indescribable; our hearts were in our mouths and whilst you have to feel for the loser in these encounters, the pure power and teamwork of the lionesses was truly awesome. For me, nothing can compare to witnessing this type of event in nature, it's primeval and raw and totally exhilarating.
After the carnage, everything settled down again, as the lions ate their fill, hidden away in the grass. We later learned that the senior lioness (with a collar on), left the kill site to bring the pride's cubs along but we were well gone by then. Before we left, a herd of Elephant cut across our path, with several calves in tow.
Not believing our luck, we were on a high for the rest of the day's drive and whilst we didn't see anything to match earlier, we had some good sighting of many different species, including (to name but a few) Hippo, Topi, Ostrich and, finally, Cheetah. We saw three individual Cheetah during our two days in the Serengeti but sadly both encounters were distant. Cheetah, along with Leopard, are high on my 'to do' list for my next trip and I'll be doing my best to focus more on these cats next time around.
That's it for this Serengeti blog and I hope this small selection of the pictures I took has been of interest to you all. Be sure to keep your eye for the final installment of our African adventure; Tarangire and it's amazing Elephant herds!