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After your breakfast, the driver takes you towards Serengeti, Tanzania’s largest and most famous, national park. At the branch off to the bottom of the crater, the track leads you down from the crater rim on a bone rattling drive and you are off to a vast savannah habitat, equal in size to Connecticut or Northern Ireland (the Serengeti sprawls over 15,000sq.kms). The endless plains stretch out in front of you as far as your eye can see. Only grass and grass again, a treeless flat country, which surprisingly hosts an estimated three million animals, many of whom migrate in a seasonal event unrivalled in nature.

The Maasai word “Siringet” meaning ‘endless plains’ is the origin of the name of this huge National Park. It truly sums up your emotions when you have your first view of the plains from the slopes of the Olbulbul escarpment, as you drop down from the Ngorongoro Highlands. The feeling of space and huge skies is overwhelming, nothing but plains with some small trees and rocks and only little elevation change. The first thing you notice once you are down is that the plains are covered with short grass. That’s why this area is called ‘Short-grass Savannah.’ The grass is very much liked by wildebeest (or white-bearded gnu), Burchell’s zebra, Thomson’s gazelle and Grant’s gazelle.  During the season with more rainfall, the plains are the feeding ground of a large number of animals. But as the rains diminish the grazing becomes sparse and the water holes dry up; meaning at the onset of the dry season, there is a gradual movement to the better watered northwest, west and north of the Serengeti. Only a few animals can exist here on the short grass plains, using the remaining surface water lying in hollows and natural depressions.

Now your track leads you down from the crater rim on a bone rattling drive. To your left hand side appears the Malanja Depression, which is located between the crater rim and Ol Makarut Volcano. Here you can see Maasai cattle grazing among zebra and flocks of black Abdim’s stork. Your road winds down through the upper slopes of the crater, dotted with whistling thorn acacias. You can distinguish these trees by their conspicuous roundish galls. The galls, which are hollow and make a subtle high-pitched sound when the wind blows, are inhabited by biting ants that help protect the plant from browsing animals. Lower down the slope, whistling thorn gives way to mature stands of Umbrella acacia. That’s where you might see your first giraffe, probably the most gentile animal in Africa!

Along your way down from the crater highlands, you reach a sign board where the Serengeti main road is turning off to your right; if you are interested in fossils, your driver will take you for a visit to this famous archaeological site. The site, called Olduvai Gorge, is only about 5 km off the main road.

After your visit to Olduvai, your driver takes you on the Serengeti road further towards Seronera area, the so-called heart of the Serengeti. You are driving along a dusty bumpy dirt track, and your driver/guide is driving at a fair pace in order for you not to feel the bumps too much (you feel the bumps much more if he drives slowly and it becomes even more uncomfortable)

Hyenas rise from their burrows, stare at you and wobble away. There is only one species of hyena in the Serengeti, which is the spotted hyena, a scavenger who is also a successful predator. There an estimated 6,500 individuals in this national park. In much of Africa, hyenas are nocturnal, but in the Serengeti you can observe them quite often during daytime, wallowing in mud holes or seeking shade under road culverts. Many times you might see them in family groups or openly hunting on the plains. They are the most efficient hunters among all the predators. Their jaws are extremely powerful. Although hyenas look quite ugly with their heavy forequarters and sloping back, they are very sociable, living in clans dominated by females, who weigh around 70 kg; males are about 10 kg lighter.

Another common sight on the Serengeti plains is the jackal. Three species – black-backed, side-striped and golden – occur in the Serengeti. The side-striped jackal will be a rare sight, but the golden jackal will be easier for you to spot as it occurs mainly on the short-grass plains. The one, which you are going to meet most regularly, is the black-backed jackal, also called the silver-backed jackal. It is distinguishable by its silver-streaked black saddle, yellowish to rust coloured flanks and legs. Like all predators, they do scavenge, but I have watched them even killing a Thomson gazelle in the Serengeti. Male and female jackals also mate for life, which is another rare example among mammals.

As you head further northwards towards Seronera, you will notice, that the endless short grass plains begin to be covered by much longer grass. The change becomes marked near Naabi Hill gate: here is actually the physical boundary for Serengeti’s southern Short Grass Plains and the northern Long Grass Plains. Eventually you reach the gate, which is the main entrance to Serengeti. This place provides a nice side trip on foot around the hill to view some wildlife close by and some beautiful landscape from above.

The most common grass in the Long Grass Plains is the red oat grass. Its russet seed heads, look rather like an oat head – hence the popular name – gives this grassland its distinctive reddish/brownish look at dry times of the year. In the approach to Seronera, Acacia trees along with twisted Commiphora trees take command in this grassland, drawing a curved line along the Seronera Valley. Commiphora look rather like unpruned apple trees. Acacia tortilis, the flat-topped or umbrella acacia is predominant. Along the valley itself the Yellow-barked acacia (Yellow Fever Tree), Acacia xanthophloea, and the wild date palm, Phoenix reclinata, are much in evidence.

The savannah here is dotted with termite mounds, which are favourite vantage points for Topi. This is a powerful robust antelope belonging to the hartebeest family. If you see them standing on the mound, they may look half asleep but, in fact, keep a close look out. When they have sensed danger, you hear  hem snorting, then they run away in an odd, rocking horse-like canter. The Topi is superficially similar to the hartebeest, but it is much darker in colour. Its body has blue-black markings on the hips, thighs and upper forelegs. If you see a large group of them with the sun shining on their iridescent backs, this makes a really pretty sight.

Because Topi and Hartebeest are often seen in the same area (both of them are grazers), you may have some difficulty in distinguishing them. The hartebeest is similar in size and weight, but can easily be identified by the coloration and horns, which are markedly different. The hartebeest’s horns rise from a bony pedicle situated at the back of the head and grow outward, and sharply backwards; when you look at them from the side, they look rather like a letter S. As with topi, horns are present in both sexes. In colour, the hartebeest is fawn with a pale, almost white rump. It has a long, foolish-looking face.

In the same area, you might get really lucky to spot a cheetah sitting on a flat termite mound like a spotted sphinx, surveying the plains. Its spotted tail is flicking restless from side to side while it is focusing on a herd of Thomson’s gazelles, which are their primary prey. If the cheetahs are hunting in a group of 3 or 4, they can even bring down an adult Topi; such a kill, I witnessed myself back in the nineties. The cheetah should not be mistaken for a leopard. This is quite a big mistake. O.k. it has spots and is a large cat, but there the similarity just about ends. In fact, the cheetah is not a true cat, having blunt claws like those of a dog, which can only partially be withdrawn. In addition it is a lighter built animal with longer legs and a smaller head, although its general size is pretty much the same like from the leopard. But most easily you can distinguish the cheetah from the leopard by the true black spots of its fur (rather than the rosette spots of the leopard) and its dark ‘tear marks’, black fur lines which extend from the inner corners of the eyes to the corners of the mouth.

If you see the cheetah hunting, it first keeps its belly to the ground, while stalking an antelope or gazelle. But coming closer the cheetah’s method of hunting is revealed; unlike other cats, it is built for speed. It hunts by stalking close to the prey, but then races after it and brings it down before seizing it by the throat and suffocating it. If it has not caught its victim within 100 meters or so it will give up the chase. Sadly, the cheetah is one of nature’s losers: once the hunt is over, the cheetah lies with heaving flanks for up to half an hour before recovering enough, to be able to start feeding. In that time it is vulnerable and often loses its food to the more aggressive predators like hyenas, jackals and even lions. Vultures have also been known to snatch the prey from its jaws.

Once you have reached the central Serengeti, which is called Seronera, you’ll come across some of the most beautiful landscapes in the park. Your driver is moving along Seronera River, which is accompanied by beautiful riverine forests and waving fields of tall grass. The diversity of habitats ensures a good variety of animal life at any season.

Due to the Seronera River, a permanent water-course in the area, Seronera valley is one of Serengeti’s best wildlife viewing spots, where virtually all resident animals can be seen. The place is justly famous for leopard and lion, both of which you can usually photograph here without any difficulty.

During your tour of the valley, you will note that your driver/guide strains his eyes in branches of yellow-barked Acacia trees and also sausage trees. If you are lucky enough, his strain is rewarded by a sight of the rosette-like clusters of spots of the Panthera pardus, a lone leopard, lazing in the tree branches. It will be pretty hard for your driver and even harder for you to spot it, as it is a very secretive animal. With their coats offering such good camouflage in the dappled light under a bush and in a tree, even I, having spent almost half of my lifetime in the African wild can count on my fingers the occasions I have seen a leopard in daylight. Maybe it is not doing much other than lying there but it is still great for you to see such a secretive animal!!

Leopards drag their prey up in a tree and thus do not have to fight off lions or scavengers like hyenas and vultures; and they are capable of carrying animals three times their own weight high into the branches. Also they prefer to rest in those trees to escape the heat of the day. So sometimes you might see the leopard’s tail dangling straight down from the branches, which will alert you to his presence. Sometimes you might even spot the remains of a reed buck or any other small buck and you know, the leopard was there having a feast. Leopards are solitary creatures, the male only associating with the female during mating season. The leopard catches his prey by careful, stealthy stalking. It is particularly fond of the flesh of baboons and, when near human settlement, even dogs. It also prefers dikdik and game birds such as Guinea Fowl and partridge, as well as Thomson gazelle and the young of larger animals like waterbuck. Leopards do not roar like a lion, but ‘grunt’, ‘cough’ or make a noise like coarse wood being sawn.

The waterbuck you’ll find here in the bush of the riverine forests is the Defassa Waterbuck. It has a large light coloured patch on the rump in place of the ring of the Common Waterbuck. As their name is telling you, these bucks usually live near watercourses and will escape into the water, when followed by a predator. Only the males have horns.

Along the valley both Helmeted Guinea Fowl and Grey-breasted spur fowl are common. They form an important part of the diet of the smaller predators such as civet, serval and wild cats, genets, the larger species of mongoose and jackals.

The greatest attraction of the Seronera Valley is the chance to see lions again, many of which are resident here. If you come across several of them, they generally belong to a bigger pride. This pride consists of two or three male lions “possessing” a group of females (up to 20), which are all related to each other: mothers, daughters, sisters, cousins and aunts. Lionesses usually give birth to two to four cubs every second year, as the cubs are unable to fend for themselves until about eighteen months old (then they are also allowed to do the killing). Cubs of different females are often born close together and are raised by several females. The cubs can suckle from any lactating female and if a mother dies, her orphans will be adopted by the other females.

Now another day of spectacular game viewing is over. The evening light at the equator plays tricks on your eyes. With the sun setting behind them, animals look like painted cut-outs against a scenic backdrop.

Due to the Seronera River, a permanent water-course in the area, Seronera valley is one of Serengeti’s best wildlife viewing spots, where virtually all resident animals can be seen. The place is justly famous for leopard and lion, both of which you can usually photograph here without any difficulty.

During your tour of the valley, you will note that your driver/guide strains his eyes in branches of yellow-barked Acacia trees and also sausage trees. If you are lucky enough, his strain is rewarded by a sight of the rosette-like clusters of spots of the Panthera pardus, a lone leopard, lazing in the tree branches. It will be pretty hard for your driver and even harder for you to spot it, as it is a very secretive animal. With their coats offering such good camouflage in the dappled light under a bush and in a tree, even I, having spent almost half of my lifetime in the African wild can count on my fingers the occasions I have seen a leopard in daylight. Maybe it is not doing much other than lying there but it is still great for you to see such a secretive animal!!

Leopards drag their prey up in a tree and thus do not have to fight off lions or scavengers like hyenas and vultures; and they are capable of carrying animals three times their own weight high into the branches. Also they prefer to rest in those trees to escape the heat of the day. So sometimes you might see the leopard’s tail dangling straight down from the branches, which will alert you to his presence. Sometimes you might even spot the remains of a reed buck or any other small buck and you know, the leopard was there having a feast. Leopards are solitary creatures, the male only associating with the female during mating season. The leopard catches his prey by careful, stealthy stalking. It is particularly fond of the flesh of baboons and, when near human settlement, even dogs. It also prefers dikdik and game birds such as Guinea Fowl and partridge, as well as Thomson gazelle and the young of larger animals like waterbuck. Leopards do not roar like a lion, but ‘grunt’, ‘cough’ or make a noise like coarse wood being sawn.

The waterbuck you’ll find here in the bush of the riverine forests is the Defassa Waterbuck. It has a large light coloured patch on the rump in place of the ring of the Common Waterbuck. As their name is telling you, these bucks usually live near watercourses and will escape into the water, when followed by a predator. Only the males have horns.

Along the valley both Helmeted Guinea Fowl and Grey-breasted spur fowl are common. They form an important part of the diet of the smaller predators such as civet, serval and wild cats, genets, the larger species of mongoose and jackals.

The greatest attraction of the Seronera Valley is the chance to see lions again, many of which are resident here. If you come across several of them, they generally belong to a bigger pride. This pride consists of two or three male lions “possessing” a group of females (up to 20), which are all related to each other: mothers, daughters, sisters, cousins and aunts. Lionesses usually give birth to two to four cubs every second year, as the cubs are unable to fend for themselves until about eighteen months old (then they are also allowed to do the killing). Cubs of different females are often born close together and are raised by several females. The cubs can suckle from any lactating female and if a mother dies, her orphans will be adopted by the other females.

At this time of the day, before the heat has become intense, you might see the lions basking on the rocks. Later on, during the heat of the day, you see them resting in the shade of trees, as lions spend a large part of their day sleeping. It will be a pleasant sight for you to watch the way in which lions great each other, the approaching animal rubbing his head against the cheek and chin of the one being greeted.

The role of male lions is very different. A band of male lions, often brothers, have a range which they mark, patrol and defend. Within this range may live one or more prides and the males will join these prides and mate with any receptive female. The more prides they hold, the more cubs the males are likely to sire. In the Serengeti two or more male lions control several prides of females. A very large male lion can weigh up to about 260 kg when fully fed and measures almost three meters from nose to tail tip. It stands about 1,3 meters at the shoulder.

The older more experienced females do most of the hunting and their hunt usually takes place at night. But if you are lucky enough, you might see a kill even during daytime. A high proportion of their hunts are unsuccessful but of course it will still be fascinating to watch them, particularly if several females are hunting together. The main prey species in the Serengeti are wildebeest and zebra, but also buffalo and gazelles often fall to the lioness.

If a male lion roars, you can hear it about five km away, they roar mostly at night. Usually the roar begins with a few moans followed by a dozen or so full-throated roars and then concludes with a series of grunts.

When lions are feeding on a kill, you will see many vultures and Marabou storks around, either circling low over-head or sitting patiently in nearby trees. Six species of vultures occur in the Serengeti: White-backed, White-headed, Egyptian, Hooded, Ruppell’s griffon and the Nubian or Lappet-faced, the biggest by far. The mournful-looking Marabou stork is also a familiar figure close to a carcass. The adults develop a large air-filled pink pouch that hangs from the front of the neck. The function of this is not yet properly known.

You also might see a very distinctive bird in the surrounding plains, the long-legged secretary bird. It is about one meter tall and stalks across the open grassland with high stepping strides. Its name is derived from the long, black-tipped plumes that protrude from the back of the head, just like the quill pens, office clerks used to carry behind their ears. The bird is predominantly black and grey and while walking, it looks for snakes, grasshoppers and mice. Secretary birds are able to kill quite large snakes, which they overwhelm with a powerful stamp of their feet. Sometimes you might see their massive nest built of sticks and turf in the top of a flat-topped acacia tree.

The most common of the monkeys you will see even here in Serengeti are the baboons again. Together with the lively vervet monkeys, they are unwelcome visitors to your camps, and are always on the lookout for stealing food.

Occasionally you can watch Nile crocodiles as they bask on the banks of the Seronera River. But most of the time, you will see them in the water of the river. There, they are gliding about, resembling drifting logs. They are wary animals, their senses are finely tuned and they are quick to take offence. The biggest ones weigh more than one ton and measure over five meter. In that case they might be more than 70 years old. They have prominent uneven teeth with which they tear their prey into pieces. When they are small, they feed mostly on fish, but when they have grown large, they will eat (for instance during the river crossing) wildebeest, zebra, antelope, even buffalo and near human settlements also domestic cows.

Although the wildebeest has so many enemies in the Serengeti ecosystem (lots of them are eaten by the big crocodiles during their river crossing), it is one of the most successful herbivores in this area, their numbers having risen more than threefold in twenty years. The animal is really absurd-looking, a bit like a malnourished cow, but it is in fact just a big antelope.

Wildebeests are usually accompanied by Burchell’s zebras. The grazing pattern of the zebra helps the wildebeest; the zebra eat the long woody grass stems, which the wildebeest do not favour allowing them to reach the more succulent parts.

Zebra stripes are like fingerprints, the stripe pattern of every zebra is different and unique to the individual. Because of their stripes, zebras are very conspicuous in broad daylight, but at night, dawn and dusk – the hours when most predation occurs – the stripes seem to blend together and zebras become as hard to see as grey animals. The zebra is actually not a herd animal but lives in family units headed by a dominant stallion. Other groups are composed of bachelors, mainly immature males. The stallion in a family unit defends it both against potential rivals and against predators. In the Serengeti most of the foals are born between January and March, meaning you may have the chance to see those cute newborn foals. These can stand upright within an hour and begin to graze about ten days after birth. The zebra’s call is a high-pitched yelp somewhere between a dog’s bark and a donkey’s bray. It is a very familiar sound on the plains while you drive along.

Thomson’s gazelle, also called Tommy, is a familiar species on the Serengeti plains and a third component of the annual migration (but many are resident, they won’t migrate!). They are unmistakable in appearance, with a sandy fawn back and white rump with a black vertical stripe on either side. They have a short stumpy black tail, and they are rotating it all the time. Both sexes have horns, which are strongly ringed, curving upwards and gently backwards (male). The female horns are very slender and nearly straight and very short. When alarmed (it might be in the middle of the road and your driver approaches it with the safari vehicle), the “Tommy” often adopts that curious gait known as ‘stotting’. It will suddenly begin a series of abrupt, bouncing jumps, with head and tail erect and all four legs stiffly straight.

Don’t confuse the Thomson’s gazelle with the Grant’s. The Grant’s gazelle is much larger and lighter coloured than the Tommy. The black stripe along the flank is absent in the adults, but the young ones still have it. The only certain way of telling them apart is that in Grant’s the white on the buttocks reaches above the tail and in Thomson’s it ends below the root of the tail. The horns are lyre-shaped and heavily ringed. The Tommy is principally a grazer while the Grant’s is more a browser.

Now, to make your confusion even more complete, I should mention that the grazers operate a close symbiotic relationship. To avoid excessive competition over the grasses and vegetation, each species has developed their feeding strategy. The zebra associates with the wildebeest and waterbuck, for the latter can smell water many miles away, and the antelopes tolerate the zebra due to their excellent eyesight and predator warning calls. As already mentioned, Zebras eat the coarse long grasses that in turn exposes the grass leaves for the wide mouthed wildebeest to feed, which then clears the way for the Thompson’s gazelle to feed on the new growth and lower herbaceous plants. The topi and hartebeest have narrow, long mouths and only feed on the tender new shoots once access has been provided by their association with the other ungulates.

There are about twenty-five species of grazers and browsers in the Serengeti, some small and rarely seen, others large and more obvious. I can only mention to you the more obvious ones, but all of them are part of this unique and enthralling mix that is the Serengeti.

You might assume that the grazing animals are in a state of constant fear of predators. But, although they always remain very wary, they seem to know when a predator is not actually hunting, and at such times show remarkably little nervousness; provided of course that the carnivore does not get closer to them than the limit of their ‘flight distance’.

Your driver guide is the best companions possible. Your guide is eager to transmit all of his enthusiasm and knowledge, and day by day you will be learning more about game and their habits.

Now you reach Lobo , the most northern located area of Serengeti.

It’s a very photogenic corner of the Serengeti – some of the granite boulders in these kopjies are the size of a hand, others the size of a small tower block.

The real stars of the show are the scenery and the wildlife. The area has excellent resident game. On a guests previous stay in the vicinity, over just two nights in September, they saw two separate prides of lion, as well as a fleeting leopard (we’re told there are five resident leopards in the area of this large kopje) – plus a large herd of buffalo, a family group of elephants, and plenty of plains game. The best of these sightings were in the very early morning, so get going early here if you can.

The great migration passes through the Lobo area on its way south, down the eastern side of the Serengeti National Park and Loliondo Game Controlled Area, between about October and November. You may also see elements of the migration heading north around there, during August and September. So whilst Lobo works as a game destination all year round, it’s particularly worth going to between about August and November. Note that because it’s so far to the north of the park, the game-drive roads around here can be marvellously quiet – we had a whole-day’s drive north from here, in September, on which we only saw about two other vehicles.

You leave Lobo  in order to do another amazing game drive in this northern part of the Serengeti. You will pass some tributaries of the Grumeti and Mara rivers where you might see the large herds of zebras and giraffes, which gather wherever there are waterholes. They seem to be content with ambling backwards and forwards around the Lobo area and across the border from Kenya into Tanzania and back to Kenya. You might even surprise crocodiles asleep on the riverbanks. A hippo might be startled at you by splashing into the water only a few feet from where you stand at the hippo pool. And then again there are the lions, the rulers of the Serengeti plains.

Your day is bringing more and more spectacular finds,  including the Kopjes (a Dutch word) – ancient granite boulders left behind as the surrounding soil eroded and weathered. They are balanced one against the other, mountains that rise up from the plain as if God had been sweeping, and piled his debris in small heaps here and there. Technically Kopjes are inselbergs and are the result of lava bubbling up under the surface millions of years ago. Through wind and rain erosion these rocky outcrops were exposed to the sun, resulting in cracking into heaps of smaller chunks and boulders. You’ll definitely admire these beautiful rocky outcrops dotting the dry flatness of the Serengeti as they provide shelter and protection to many animals. It’s an island world amidst the savannah. During the day, the shade and caves made by them provide areas for game to hide out of the sun; in the night the kopjes are warmer as the stones radiate heat soaked up during the day. In cracks and crevices where soil has collected trees and small bushes grow.

It might be on the base of a Kopje that you see a pride of lions again lying in the shade with their cubs. Especially the Simba Kopjes (Lion Kopjes) are famous for their lion populations and the Simba Kopje was apparently the inspiration for ‘The Lion King’ story. You might even manage to spot a cheetah wandering through the long grass at the base of a kopje. It is tough to spot though as it blends in with the plain. A cheetah is smaller and more slender than a lion or a leopard, that’s why you might only see it for a few minutes before it disappears again into the high grass – even so it’s great to see it even for only a short time.

You’ll also see lots of hyraxes on the kopjes, furry little creatures which amazingly are related to elephants. From far away it is easy for you to see them, but they are wary and the whole lot swiftly disappears in rock crevices as you come closer. Being quiet, they will return to graze and after every mouthful of grass they look up and check the vicinity. Here in the kopjes they live in colonies of up to 50 individuals and are quite sociable animals. They have many predators including leopards and other cats, snakes and large birds of prey such as the Black-chested Snake Eagle and the Martial Eagle. In the trees around the kopje you can spot tree hyraxes climbing the trees and eating leaves by somehow perching on tiny branches. 

Look also out for pythons and spitting cobras on the kopjes and in addition it’s a favoured habitat for Klipspringers. These are rather small antelopes – just over half a meter tall – with a weight of only 15-20 kilos. Their legs appear longer than they actually are because the animals walk on their blunt hoof tips. They have superb climbing and jumping abilities which help to keep them safe from predators. You can often see them right on top of a large boulder, from which they observe the approach of a potential enemy. They feed on grass, herbs and shrubs growing among the rock boulders. If lucky you hear their call, it resembles the sound of a toy trumpet. Agama Lizards and Blue-tailed Skinks can also be seen catching rays of sun on the boulder walls, while African Rock Martins circle in the sky.

Serengeti wildlife has taken an erratic course in the last 30 years. The wildebeest, or gnu, population has increased from a quarter million to over four times than that; lion and cheetah have doubled in number to approximately 3,000 and 1,000 respectively. But other animal populations in this area have not been so lucky for instance the African Wild dogs have been nearly eliminated by distemper, and black rhinos have been poached to near extinction in the Serengeti plains.