The Serengeti

We set out from Snake Park in Arusha early in the morning, packed into a minibus. I got stuck in the middle at the back, far away from any windows, and I was really very unhappy about that - I thought I’d never be able to take any decent photos. In the end it didn’t matter because the roof was open and we were all standing on the seats, but I didn’t know that at the time. The drive from Arusha to the Serengeti was long - six hours or so. At first it was interesting looking out the windows, but we quickly got used to the ramshackle little villages and shops lining the highway and the people going about their business. Our driver and guide, Mvungi, was grumpy and silent at first, but warmed up later. He brought us to a succession of souvenir shops and the like, but nobody was interested in anything but the toilets and fighting off the swarming hustlers, who were remarkably insistent even for the breed. I have to admit that I wasn’t having any fun at all and was starting to regret spending the money on the tour, especially after we left the highway and turned onto the road leading up to the rim of Ngorongoro Crater, which were in atrociously bad condition. We stopped for lunch - a box with some dried beef, stale bread and an egg - at a windy spot on the crter’s rim. There was a viewpoint close by and the panorama was incredible. The crater walls are 600m high, and they drop to a flat plain speckled with the dots of zebra and wildebeest. There’s a white alkali lake and some stretches of dark green forest, but most of the view was of tan and olive green grasslands. I could just make out the far wall of the crater, purple with distance and haze.

Alas, we didn’t stop there for long, but went on to the Serengeti over another two or three hours of very bad road indeed. I thought my teeth were going to shake loose from my skull, and the dust thrown up from passing trucks was choking. Our spirits were low already, but they sank through the floor when it started to rain. The combination of the bumpy roads and the rain had us all miserable. Mvungi said that the rain was good because it would make the green grass shoots come and there would be more animals about, but we all thought he was just trying to make us feel better. He was right, though, in the end. When the bumpy roads came to an end and we finally entered the Serengeti, the rains stopped and the savannah positively bloomed with new green. We all forgot our reservations instantly in the face of huge sweeping herds of gazelle and zebra darting everywhere in front of the truck, back and forth in zigzags. Huge, uncountable herds - we must have seen thousands.

The Serengeti is like no other place I’ve ever seen. The name comes from the Swahili Siringet meaning endless plain - and so it is. The grasslands are mostly flat, dotted with acacia trees and outcrops of rock here and there. The quality of light was incredible after the rain stopped - the sun came slanting down from under giant rolling blue and grey storm clouds and made the very air glow like a falling rainbow. There were animals everywhere in bewildering numbers and variety. The roof was off the truck by this point and we were all standing on the seats with our heads out the top windows, bumping along, pointing at some new thing every ten seconds. We had about four hours of good weather before we had to head into camp. Sheryl and Jamie kept a list of the animals we saw, which I’ve copied here:

Antelope, baboon, giraffe, warthog, zebra, gazelle (Grant’s and Thompson’s); a lizard called an agama with pink head and purple body, mongoose, cheetah, hyena, hippopotamus, elephant, lion, waterbuck, wildebeest, hartebeest, impala, water buffalo, topi, and vervet monkey. Of birds there were ostrich, secretary birds, herons and vultures, not to mention a host of unidentified kinds of many colours.

It was magic. In a way, for each one of us, it was a homecoming - humans first appeared here on the Serengeti nearly four million years ago, and have been here ever since. I felt some deeply buried atavistic part of me resonate to the landscape as we drove. T

The highlight of the day and the stars of the show were the lions, of course. E saw two of them lounging on a big rock - a female and a young male (who was the fattest lion I’ve ever seen), and two young males rolling on their backs in the grass like oversized housecats while their mother prowled on the other side of the road. Best, though, was the dominant male we came across lying majestically under a tree right beside the road - we passed only three or four meters from him.

We went in to camp at the last minute, I think. It’s forbidden to be outside the campsites after 7pm. I didn’t notice the time but it was getting quite dark a, and it was fully dark when we’d set u our tents and sat down to wait for dinner. The food when it came, was spaghetti with a meat–and-vegetable sauce, with sautéed vegetables for Sheryl. It felt like a long time coming since we were hungry, but there was another big group that needed to be served first. We w2ere all in bed and asleep by nine o’clock, which is like midnight in Africa. The camp was right in the middle of the Serengeti, but either we had no visitors or we were all too tired to hear them. I felt as if I ought to be nervous, considering that there were innumerable beasties out there fully capable of stomping the tent flat or ripping it open to get at the insides. I wasn’t really though - it didn’t take me more than ten minutes to fall asleep.

We woke early on the second day, unfortunately and unhappily to more rain drumming on the tent roof. It stopped during breakfast but started again as we drove off. We kept the roof o0pen and our raingear on, because we’d rather be wet, cold and miserable than miss an animal sighting. There were very few to be seen, though. Either they were all hiding from the rain or they were all in some other part of the part - it’s more than 14,0000 square kilometres after all - lots of room for animals to hide. We did see - beside the ubiquitous zebra and gazelle - giraffe by the road, a leopard far off in a tree, elephants, a dik-dik (which is more or less a gazelle) and lions hanging out in a tree hiding from the rain. The morning was mostly a washout, though, and after the magic of the previous afternoon e were all disappointed on reaching the visitors’ centre in Seronera at the centre of the park. Or me, I felt better when we realized that the whole place was crawling with rock hyrax - an adorable fuzzy rodent about the size of a small cat. They were lying everywhere on all the rocks, floor and railing, and were so tame or so lazy that they let you come right up to them and only moved if you actually poked them (which I did often, naturally). The grounds were also full of a colony of little red mongoose who were also quite tame, including a young one who kept coming up to me and posing for photos. There were a few zebras as well, but they were certainly not interested in posing and snorted warnings when I got close.

After the visitors’ centre it was back to camp to pack up the tents. We discovered we’d all set them up on top of underground termite nests and had to shake them all off before we could leave.. On the way out, though, far across the grassland, we saw two cheetahs facing off against an antelope-like top. The cheetahs were feigning indifference but the topi didn’t believe it and didn’t take his eyes off them for an instant. They gave up and walked slowly away through the grass, the older one leading and the younger one looking back over his shoulder, still clearly tempted..


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One Comment on this Dispatch:

November 6th, 2008

hey - so sorry to have missed your calls
sounds like you are having the best time ever - the trip must be amazing
i’m recouperating slowly but surely - never had anything hurt as much in my life - movement will be restricted in my left wrist permanently - but at least i didn’t lose the hand , which apparently they were afraid might happen
lost of love to you both - keep well and happy
love beth

Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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