Rob catches up with the migration herds in the southern Serengeti – March, 2014
Rob travels to Southern Serengeti to report on the spectacular Great Wildebeest Migration.
On several occasions, I have been fortunate to witness the vast herds of wildebeest, zebra and gazelle that migrate around the Mara/Serengeti ecosystem, but on my recent trip to the open plains of the southern Serengeti, I was still blown away by the sheer scale of this wildlife phenomenon.
On one especially memorable afternoon, we drove for well over an hour (a distance of probably 30km) across rolling plains literally covered in wildebeest as far as the eye could see. It was spectacular and a real highlight of the natural world.
Between the multitudes of ‘lowing’ wildebeest, cute Thomson’s gazelles twitched their ears and flicked their tails and ‘fat’ zebras grazed; only occasionally acknowledging us with a snort and shake of their head. Though normally the most skittish of African herbivores, we also passed close to herds of eland resting on the hillsides whilst vultures soared overhead on the thermals. It felt exactly like the opening scene of an Attenborough documentary or the serene tranquillity of John Barry’s ‘Out of Africa’ just before the music intensifies and the picture changes to show a determined predator watching with dreaded focus.
On that particular day however, predators were limited to mud-caked hyaena and pairs of golden jackals. With a complete lack of ‘cover’ or shade, the open short-grass plains are not the preferred habitat for lion or leopard. Cheetah do however enjoy them, and, providing they can keep away from the thriving hyaena populations, take advantage of the numerous young gazelles and wildebeest born in late January/February.
On the one hand, the southern Serengeti is easy to explain – huge open plains surrounded by woodland and interspersed with rocky outcrops and the odd drainage line, big cats, and migration herds. On a more detailed level, it is a vast and complex region and I enjoyed driving routes and visiting areas I had been unable to cover in the past. I spent a night at professional guide Alex Walker’s wonderful Serian Camp, located at this time of year on the very southern edge of the plains, more than an hour’s drive from any other camps. Wildebeest and zebra herds grazed in front of camp, and in the morning we walked through lovely hill country to the edge of the Rift Valley escarpment overlooking the vast Lake Eyasi, one of the least visited Rift Valley lakes.
I spent my last night in the equally exclusive Loliondo Game Controlled Area, which borders the Serengeti National Park to the east, and then enjoyed a stunning drive south through the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, travelling via Nasera Rock (a huge rock/hill with a natural shelter used by early man), the Gol Kopjes (a beautiful set of rocky outcrops typical to the Serengeti) and Oldupai Gorge (more commonly referred to as Olduvai – the cradle of mankind) to the Ngorongoro Crater. I had wanted to do this drive for a while, as on my previous visit it had been too wet and the roads were impassable. The scenery was spectacular, there was game to see the whole way and I only saw one other vehicle in six hours!
Speaking of ‘wet’, I did experience a couple of huge storms during my trip and it did highlight how difficult conditions can become in the southern Serengeti. Much of the land is black cotton soil which becomes very slippery and difficult to drive on after heavy rain. Although the main rainy season is April/May, it is the incidental rains from November through to March which transform the landscape and provide such perfect conditions for the herds that congregate at this time.
I also spent a few nights in the central Ndutu region, an area of lakes and woodland islands surrounded by the vast plains. Ndutu is predator ‘central’, not only very much the home for the lion prides but also for cheetah and leopard. As expected, I did find the area the most congested of everywhere I visited. There are many seasonal camps in the woodland and the high concentration of predators attracts tourists from near and far, but the game-viewing was spectacular – lions mating, cheetahs on a kill, elephants in the marsh, beautiful birdlife and in the middle of it all, big herds of migrating wildebeest milling around. In fact, when it came to the wildebeest, it was hard to get away from them!
Whilst most travellers visit the southern Serengeti with the prime objective of seeing the migration, it is worth noting that for experienced safari hands who are keen to walk, undertake night drives, experience traditional culture and escape the crowds, it is entirely possible to do so. A combination of Alex Walker’s Serian Camp in the south with Nomad’s Nduara Camp in the Loliondo region will offer the superb combination of all of these, as well as a warm welcome and excellent guiding.
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