Serengeti: The Circle of Life

On Tuesday morning we left after breakfast after making a donation to the Lodge’s African Roots Foundation. With very little money they make a huge difference in the lives of the Maasai by supplying them with water containers and a filter. Where the Maasai used to rely on tick brown water from a nearby pond, from which all cattle also drink, they now scoop that water into the filters and out comes crystal clear drinking water. This simple tool has drastically reduced illness among the Maasai. ARF also runs other projects, always aimed at improving the lives of people while protecting the natural environment. This is a great cause for individuals and schools to support.

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I knew that the Serengeti was a long way from home. We flew and drove for many days to visit this lifelong dream of ours. But no one told me it would involve hundreds of kilometers on the worst bumpy, dusty, rocky tracks… Bone jarring, teeth rattling miles of washboard tracks…. Everything in our car is covered in a layer of dust. The good pavement ends abruptly at the entrance gate to Ngorogoro Crater. The view of the crater is spectacular, with not much human influence in sight.

After that the track continues across hills and plains, up onto ever higher escarpments until we are at 2,400 meters. Once you reach Serengeti all you see if flat endless grasslands. Serengeti means ‘endless plain’ in Swahili, a very appropriate name. We were anxious to take a photo of us at an entrance gate of this world famous park. All we saw was a crooked little wooden sign. No fancy visitors centre, no impressive entrance to one of the most well known national parks in the world.

But here we were, finally, in the Serengeti! I did have goosebumps to finally see this place with my own eyes. Without the first half hour we saw four lions. And then the impala. Herds of them. More and more animals until, on the second day, we caught up to the migrating wildebeest and zebras. Thousands of them, sometimes grazing and drinking and running in different directions, yet always streaming toward the same unseen destination. Their ancient pattern follows calving, moving with the seasons to food and water. Thousands of dusty bodies moving in a river of animals across the plains.

Elephants, giraffes, lions, leopards, cheetahs… the plains are teeming with wildlife. The baboons are fun to watch as whole troops walk by. The young ones climb trees and pester the old ones. The tiny little ones ride cowboy style on their mothers’ backs or cling to their front. They stop, eat seeds, swing from bush to bush and walk along.

We have watched many prides of lions. Often a dominant male with several lionesses and young ones. We watch them stalk buffalo and wildebeest, hoping to separate one to hunt. My favorite pride was reclining on rocks that looked exactly like Pride Rock in the Lion King.

I woke at 4 AM to the grumbles of a lion and the call of hyena. At 5:15 we woke up and headed out to watch the savannah come to live with the first rays of sun. I asked, in camp, if they’ve had any animals nearby. “Yeah, last week a cheetah killed a wildebeest by tent #5,” was the response.

  • The numbers in Serengeti: 14,500 square KM
  • 300,000 zebras
  • Over 2 million wildebeest!
  • Swahili:

Jambo – hello

Asanti – thank you

asanti sana – thank you very much

karibu – welcome, you’re welcome

For two days we managed these early morning game drives, getting up at 5:30 to leave at 6 AM. We watch lions on the prowl, closing in on buffalo and wildebeest but not managing to make a kill. We watch a croc grab a wildebeest and try to drown him. But, after a long while, the wildebeest wins and escapes back to the herd, leaving one cranky, hungry crocodile to look for a new breakfast.Another wildebeest was not so lucky and got stuck in the thick mud, dying a slow death but supplying food for many animals who were patiently waiting.We watch days-old zebras and wildebeest gallop alongside their mama’s and an old, lonely lion wander the plains. This is ‘The Lion King Live’ and a bit surreal.Many animas gathered at waterholes, ever weary for predators hiding in the tall grass. The lions, perhaps, seem to have the best camouflage of all – looking like heaps of hay in the waiving yellow grass. All animals are vastly different, yet they all blend in perfectly in the same environment: the sand colored cheetahs with their spots of shade are hard to see. The pattern on the giraffes is just like that of shadows cast by the branches of the acacia trees they browse. We are lucky to see three caravels, very rare cats with pointed, tufted ears.In the cool, morning hours no flies bother us. But by noon, especially near trees, I become an all-you-can-eat buffet for tetse flies. We drink gallons of water all day and night. But if you have to pee during a game drive, you have a problem. There are not many spots where you can safely get out of the car… a lion or leopard can literally be behind any little hill.

We stopped by the Maasai Kopjes, a rocky place almost exactly in the center of Serengeti. To me, it looks identical to Pride Rock in The Lion King. I can just picture Simba on top of the tallest, straight rock looking out over the plains. We’ve seen sly, old Mufasa stalking. We’ve also met Poomba and Timone in person! The circle of life continues here: the Serenget shall never die.

 We enjoy learning from one of the young men in Kati Kati Camp (meaning ‘centre of Serengeti’). He is Maasai and told us in detail how he and 14 other young men from his village, set off into the bush for their coming of age initiation. Each brings a cow. They burn a stick into a spear and that is all they own. They may face lions, or elephants or any other dangers. And they live solely on blood, milk and meat. No water…! No alcohol, no women. These young men dress in black blankets, for this special period, and have faces painted black with white stripes. We see them, occasionally, on the side of the road as they wander the countryside. They have strict rules of conduct and serve almost as wildlife wardens when they see any poaching or illegal hunting.  This young man, who was a waiter at the camp, told us he wants to be an animal doctor. He has vast knowledge of traditional medicine and wants to learn more about modern medicine for animals. He has a meeting at the college in Arusha soon to see if they will let him continue his studies. “But I may have to sell another cow to have enough money,” he says wistfully.

Speaking several languages and a few words of Swahili now, has not helped with misunderstandings and confusions…At Kati Kati camp we were told that beer was four dollars and soft drinks were free. When we went to pay, after 3 days, we discovered that the ‘free’ was ‘three’…We asked for a wake up call at 5:50 but they came knocking at 5:15 because they misunderstood…During our visit to Oldevai Gorge we found out that the name really is Oldupai but a German scientist mispelled it many, many years ago. This world renowned valley where mankind’s oldest traces have been found by the Leakey’s, is a dusty, wind swept place. We expected an impressive museum, possibly built by Unesco. Instead we found one lonely Maasai guy manning a little gate. Once we entered the compound, there was a rinky dink old museum with old, faded photos on the wall. The story remains impressive: of how the Leakey’s and other archeaologists have unearthed, so to speak, the oldest footprints of humans found on earth: 3.5 million years ago a father, son and mother walked in this valley leaving tracks in volcanic ash.  It took me a while to figure out that the park ranger, who took us on a guided hike along the edge of the Ngorogoro crater, was not talking of cooking when he mentioned the Maasai kettles. Turned out he meant the Maasai’s cattle.He also kept talking of elephant pups. After a while I wondered if he really didn’t know that baby elephants are called ‘calves’, not pups. But then he poked in huge elephant droppings and I realized he was talking about the multiple poop of elephants… Interestingly, he explained that the partly digested, dry dung contains a lot of bark, plants and grasses that are medicinal. He said “we burn the pups (poops…) and put a blanket over our head to inhale the smoke to cure illnesses….” Suddenly, my grandmother’s bowl of menthol steam that I had to inhale as a kid did not seem so bad anymore…The many ‘bastards’ flying around Serengeti turned out to be buzzards… But the story that crowns it all was one I was told by a lovely lady who came home one day and her housekeeper, a proper Christian woman, told her in a loud voice that the fucking machine wasn’t working… “What?” she gasped. “Yes,” the housekeeper repeated very annoyed, “the fucking machine isn’t working.” It took a while until she finally showed her the machine in question that she understood it was the ‘vacuum machine’…Language barriers.. You gotta love’ em.