That's what "Serengeti" means, in Swahili. (So "Serengeti Plain" like "tse tse fly" is redundant.) Serengeti National Park is Tanzania's and almost certainly the world's most famous wildlife preserve. Except for a few dusty roads and spare camp sites, the area is totally undeveloped and across its dizzyingly unbounded, and mostly treeless, plains roam literally millions of hoofed animals (and quite a few pawed ones). Moreoever, with the beginning of the rains in November comes the Great Migration when truly huge herds of wildebeest, gazelles, zebras, and antelopes return to Serengeti for the good grazing. And where the grazers are massed, you know the predators lions, hyenas, leopards, and cheetahs will not be far behind.
Nearly adjacent to the Serengeti is Ngorogoro Crater if anything a more stunning setting for visiting, and game viewing. Formed when a 20 million-year old volcano collapsed into itself two million years ago, it is the world's largest unflooded caldera. Ngorogoro Conservation Area is also a World Heritage Site, a Biosphere Preserve and home to 20-25,000 large animals at any given time. At first blush, it appears to be pretty much a big sunken bowl. But, in fact, deceptively large, it has terrain: a lake, two swamps, a standalone forest (a pretty tropical one), and some tall-grass highlands in addition to all the flat plains. Because it is a conservation area, and not a national park, people can live there and do. The Maasai those wacky guys with the red togas, cattle-poking sticks, and distended earlobes are the most numerous. But they're hardly the first: fossils of Australopithecus afarensis, homo habilis, and homo erectus have all been found here meaning people have been living and visiting the crater in a pretty unbroken chain from nearly two million years ago to our visit today.
We're picked up from our camp site near Arusha by three tricked-out Toyota Land Cruisers, with pop-out roof panels, sent by our side-trip guides, Victoria Expeditions. We five veterans from the Cape me, Mark, Laura, Jamie, and Susan self-segregate in our own vehicle. Our mood is bright: it's a beautiful morning, we're going to the Serengeti, we all know and like one another and this jaunt has a valedictory feel to it, after many days and nights adventuring together.
The drive north is long and bumpy but already getting pretty Serengeti-looking. We begin spotting a lot of Maasai alongside the road; but you don't get any pictures, because I'm not all that comfortable shooting people (however exotic-looking) as if they were wildlife. We climb up over Lake Manyara, but we won't be stopping in the park here (which is famous for it's tree-climbing lions).
We're also to pass around the rim of Ngorogoro Crater the first day. The plan is to push straight to Serengeti, which is our farthest and northernmost stop; do a bit of an evening game drive; camp there; and do a dawn game drive in the morning. Then we will return to the Crater in time for sunset of the second day; camp; and tour the crater starting at dawn the third day. But we do get an early peak. We stop at the visitors center, which has some good exhibits and info as well as this huge armored beetle with crushing jaws!
As we ascend to the rim, it's hard not to feel this place really does have quite a vibe to it. We reach a vantage of the whole shebang: Holy cow. (*) As for the earlier comment about the deceptiveness of the size, Exhibit 1 is the fact that you can see (in the photo above) that it is raining, on the far side, in the center. Exhibit 2 is this thundering herd of something or other, which I could just pick out on the crater floor, at full zoom.
We also stop over at the spot on the rim where we'll be camping. Here we find a couple of malingering Maribou storks truly the Vulture of the Stork World. Also, a number of brown kites cavort overhead. I burn an insane amount of battery power (which soon comes back to haunt me), spending nearly a half hour trying to shoot them. Ultimately, I get two entire shots. My damnable digital shutter delay is killing me.
Anyway. Back onto the road and onward to the plain. The local flavour of antelope is the Thomson gazelle, and we spot a number before even entering the park proper. More interestingly, we come upon a lioness. She was looking all reposed and soulful until our three Land Rovers came up and basically started herding her. As she kept trying to brush us off, I couldn't avoid the feeling that we just couldn't take a hint.
We stop again at the Serengeti NP welcome area, which also has a hill-top observation point, from which we can just pick out some giraffes below. We have colorful close encounters with an agama lizard and some superb starlings, before getting onto the road into the heart of the park.
We pop the roof panels, marvel at the scene around us, and spot a line of wildebeest in the distance. Before we make any more progress, though, we come across another Victoria Expeditions truck broken down. Five vehicles sit there letting the light slip away, while various people take cracks at auto repair. Ultimately, we end up tying it to ours and performing tow truck duty on our nickel. Unfortunately, I also allow myself to get (vocally) frustrated about this.
Another lion is spotted on some rocks, and the caravan careens off the road to take a look. We have to untie our dingy first, and when we finally arrive, the lion is turning to leave. As plussed as I am about the fading light, though, it sure is pretty. We go and find a nice giraffe to play with instead; and get close enough to nuzzle.
And then we stumble upon The Hunt! Two lionesses are moving intently through the grass. Soon enough, we spot their target: an entirely hapless hartebeast. Watching the lions work stealthily in on their prey is kind of painful, as the hartebeast seems quite oblivious. The one nearest us passes right by the road, and circles around to the far (right) side of the antelope. The other continues on a direct vector to the target. Soon, they've got a trap in place, ready to spring. Fluttery with excitement, we spectators figure it's all over now but the bloodshed. However, we've lost track of the salient fact that a plain is a geometric plane, rather than a line: the hartebeast finally gets a clue (probably a scent, actually), and slips the noose by turning and heading off at 90 degrees. The lions call it a day as soon as the jig is up; they know they're hopelessly outmatched in a straight-up footrace. A bit anticlimactic; but thrilling, nonetheless.
Sunset on the Serengeti? Don't mind if I do! one | two | three (those are wildebeest in the final foreground).
We call it an evening ourselves, and head toward camp. But, this being the place that it is, it's got one more first for us: two male lions, brothers one of whom rapidly goes from looking regal to silly all the way to positively goofy. The other, presumably big bro, keeps his composure.
Next: Serengeti Morning, and Ngorogo Crater.
My goal here was pretty straightforward. In the earlier game parks, I was naturally enough really focused on the animals and, usually, on getting the tightest shots of them I could. (I also wanted to get them doing amusing things, where possible.) The animals are only half the appeal of the Serengeti, though the other half being the plain itself. So I've kind of graduated to really wanting foreground/background shots: the animals as close as possible, but framed by the amazing setting. By that standard, I'm moderately disappointed with the results. I definitely got few of these "Call National Geographic on the Red Phone" shots (which I may also collect at the end); but not nearly as many as I'd have liked.
Moreover, I initially found shooting here an exercise in massive frustration. Here are the things I had working against me: Firstly, our driver who kept not stopping at all, stopping in not quite the right place, stopping for not long enough for me to get my shot, and his signature maneuver pulling away just as I was in the process of getting my shot. He also had an amazing and seemingly uncanny ability to create the perfect shot simply by starting the engine and leaving. It wasn't as if he was trying to screw me up; quite the opposite, actually. But I decided we really needed a driver with a much better sense of lighting and composition (too much to ask for, I know).
My second bete noir was the fact that the truck was what I had to set my monopod on, which worked great until people started moving around, clambering in and out of the roof holes, and rocking the suspension (which was most of the time). The third was the squadrons of flies that seemed to be able to sense when I was getting a shot, and thus descend on my face when I had no hands free to threaten them. The fourth and final was my own damn fault: the power (and thus my battery charger) has been flakey the last couple of stops, and I'd gotten cavalier about making sure the batteries were fully charged. So I went on this three-day marquee side-trip with two sets of NiCads with not-quite-known charge states, no charger, and only one set of backup alkalines. Not entirely brilliant particularly when I killed the first set before even getting to Serengeti (with those stupid kites). Result being that I couldn't sit there with the camera turned on waiting for the animals to be cute (or the driver to be savvy) for nearly as long as I ideally would have.
The other thing I didn't bring was the laptop. I have three memory cards for the camera, and figured, Hey, 268 exposures ought to be enough for anybody, right? Wrong. By the end, I was going through and deleting to make new exposures for myself.
Anyway, as a result, I felt strongly that with these constraints my photographer classification was taken down from "highly accomplished amateur" to "basically capable tourist." Still, in a place like this, you can only miss your mark so much of the time. (hide)