Following the great migration

In 2007, my wife and I had our first safari experience in South Africa. It was a fruitful trip, and we were lucky to see all the Big Five - a term coined by big-game hunters to refer to the five most difficult animals in Africa to hunt on foot. These are the African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard and rhinoceros.

Almost 10 years later, we returned to the continent to reprise our safari adventure - this time, in the grasslands and environs of Tanzania.

Our itinerary spanned 10 days, and the timing of the trip was chosen to coincide with the crossing of the wildebeest at the Mara River during their annual migration between the Serengeti grasslands in Tanzania and the Masai Mara grasslands in Kenya.

We covered three national parks, one conservation area, and stayed in some unique safari accommodation.

Wildlife galore

Our adventure in Tanzania began when we arrived at Kilimanjaro Airport. We rested for a few hours at a guesthouse and then travelled to the domestic airport of Arusha for an early morning flight to Tarangire.

From the air, we sighted a herd of elephants as the pilot made the approach to the airstrip, comprising just a gravel runway, a waiting shed, a toilet and a small office building.

Our guide was waiting for us on the tarmac and light refreshments had been laid out in the waiting shed. On a picnic napkin were two thermos flasks of coffee and tea, porcelain cups and some biscuits.

We were keen to head straight to see the animals, but our guide was unhurried and sat down to chat with us, attentively listening to what we hoped we could see during our time there.

Naturally, the list included leopards, cheetahs and lions - animals that were higher up the food chain.

Before we got into the jeep, he gave us a reassuring smile and said he would do his best to make sure all our wishes were fulfilled. Over the next three days, he did not disappoint us.

There were plenty of big cat sightings - leopards perched high up in the branches of trees and a lion feeding on the carcass of a young elephant.

We also spent almost an hour photographing a pair of cheetahs that were scouring the bushes for their next meal.

We saw herds of buffalo and elephants, and also large numbers of wildebeest and zebras. Adding to our rich experience were ostriches, giraffes, monkeys and small families of warthogs.

We also went on a walking safari, where we learnt more about the flora of the park, and how to identify different animal footprints.

Throughout the trek, we kept our distance from any animals we came across, under the watchful eye of two rangers armed with rifles.

Our accommodation was a luxurious tent that overlooked a watering hole. There were no fences - just the walls of the tent separating us from our surroundings.

We would go to sleep and wake up to the sounds of nature all around us, and on our second morning, that meant the roar of a lioness just outside our tent and later, the pecking of a woodpecker just outside the door.

On our final morning, we watched as several majestic elephants walked across the misty jungle about 100m in front of our tent.

Bidding Tarangire farewell, we headed to Lake Manyara National Park. The park is famous for flocks of flamingoes as well as tree-climbing lions, but we did not manage to photograph either of these.

The flamingoes were too far away from the shores of the lake, and there was not a lion in sight, either up in the trees, or on the ground.

Instead, we came across families of baboons, several blue monkeys and some interesting birds such as the silver-cheeked hornbill and a pair of red-and-yellow barbets.

The next day, we rose early to get a good start to the Ngorongoro Crater, a large volcanic caldera within a conservation area, about an hour's drive away.

The weather was chilly but warmed up by the time we reached the crater floor, which is mostly open grassland and home to a variety of large animal species.

The first animal we came across was a lone zebra crossing the dirt road but subsequently, we were amazed by the sheer size of the animal herds in the crater.

There were large herds of zebras, buffalo and wildebeest, but we also came across a pride of 12 lionesses sitting around in a circle.

In a small lake within the crater, we saw a baby hippo clinging on to its mother, while a group of almost 20 adults lay partially submerged nearby.

We even saw a lone jackal close to where we had seen the lions. We ate our packed breakfast from the safety of our Rover, not far from a large male rhinoceros that had sat down in the grass.

A few hours later, we were walking around one of the rest areas in the reserve when an angry-looking elephant wandered towards the parked vehicles.

We scrambled back into the Rover but several tourists tried to get close-up shots of the animal. The elephant did a mock charge but fortunately turned and walked away.

It was then on to Serengeti for the last leg of our journey. Upon arriving at the airstrip, we met our guide, one of only 10 female safari guides in Tanzania at that time.

Before we drove off, we overheard a couple - from another group that had just flown in from Kenya - claim they had seen three wildebeest crossings there.

World Cup of wildlife

Our primary objective on our trip was to witness what has been aptly named the "World Cup" of the wildlife world - the wildebeest migration - and as we boarded our Rover, we kept our fingers crossed.

There are about 12 points along the Mara River that the animals usually cross at. Some of these are fairly shallow and easily raversed, while others have steep drop-offs, strong currents, and require the animals to swim across.

Fortunately for us, we did not have to wait long to witness our first crossing. About two hours after arriving, we witnessed hundreds of wildebeest making their way across a narrow section of the river.

The scenes were as noisy as they were chaotic, as a constant line of wildebeest leapt into the water, skipping and splashing their way across the river.

We witnessed a total of five crossings during our stay. The most poignant and emotional viewing was the third crossing, where we observed many of the animals drown.

The first few animals to attempt the crossing had made it across safely, but several that followed drifted away from the landing point, and could not get up the steep riverbank.

A stampede ensued, and many wildebeest began clambering on top of others in an effort to get to safety.

Those that survived the stampede eventually turned around and returned to the other bank, thankfully avoiding a couple of crocodiles that were lurking in the water.

About half a kilometre downstream from that point, hundreds of carcasses had washed up and the stench of rotting flesh filled the air.

The vultures were having a veritable feast, and there was more than enough food to go around.

As we looked back on our trip, save for the pesky tsetse flies that were a constant source of irritation, ours was a comfortable and leisurely holiday.

Yet we were always aware that beyond the safety of our accommodation and vehicles, Africa's constant cycle of life and death played on.

On the banks of the Mara River, we witnessed one of the greatest natural sights we will ever come across - a few moments in time that we will treasure always.

In Brief

Getting there

We flew in and out of Tanzania's Kilimajaro Airport on Turkish Airlines via Istanbul in Turkey.

Traveller's tips

- Be sure to take a course of antimalaria tablets before and during your stay in Tanzania. You should also consider yellow fever and typhoid vaccinations as precautions.

- A long zoom lens (beyond 300mm) is absolutely essential to get good photos of the animals.

- Follow the instructions of the park rangers at all times, especially at night.


This article was first published on July 26, 2016.
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