Jambo, karibu sana and hakuna matata – ‘hello’, ‘you are welcome’ and ‘there is no problem’ are just a few of the friendly phrases Karine Lackner hears everywhere she goes in Tanzania on her African safari, but especially at the Four Seasons Safari Lodge right in the centre of the Serengeti National Park and the African wildlife.
Wherever you come from, the magic of a safari will move you like nothing else and the journey is indeed the destination. The animals are fuelled by pure instinct of survival, their graceful and determined ways a precious reminder of what it means to be born free.
Like most people, my impression of Africa has been shaped by wildlife documentaries, films and novels, so I can’t wait to see what it’s really like.
I arrive from Zanzibar directly at Seronera airstrip after an hour-and-a-half flight in a nine-seater plane. In real Four Seasons style, what should be awaiting me but a jeep, with canapés, bubbly and juice to hand? On the way to the Four Seasons Safari Lodge Serengeti it feels like we’re off on a game drive immediately!
Well, sort of. Giraffes, zebra, antelope, wildebeest, elephants, hippos and even crocodiles are there to welcome us and we arrive at the lodge stunned by the multitude of animals. After this, I am sure the next day is going to be overwhelming, and it is.
In the Serengeti, the morning sun is kind, gentle rays dancing with a breeze, and getting up early is rewarded by the cool wind. The unpaved roads of mud, stone and gravel do the rest to make you feel awake.
The Serengeti National Park is a fantastic wildlife sanctuary of natural beauty and an abundance of animals. The park supports large herds of wildebeest and buffalo as well as elephants, antelope, giraffe, hyrax, hippos, rhinoceros and warthog.
The major predators (lion, leopard, cheetah, African hunting dog, hyena and jackal) and more than 500 species of birds make the Serengeti one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on earth. It is also the starting point of the great annual wildebeest migration.
The coming of the short rains in late November and December is a time when optimum grazing is available in the southern short grass plains. Thousands of white-bearded wildebeest begin to gather. Around February they have their calves over a period of three weeks. But with so many calves around, predators are lurking!
At one moment I catch a whiff of a pungent scent in the air. We have arrived at the Hippo Pool, a viewing loop overlooking more than thirty highly social hippos. Here they spend their days cooling off in the muddy stream, some resting on other’s backs, some yawning (a warning sign of aggression), splashing and making all kinds of noises.
My guide explains that they will come out of the water only after dusk when they feel hungry and will then move to a nearby grassland where they can fill their stomachs before reverting to laziness. Nevertheless, hippos are one of the most aggressive creatures in the world.
Herds of curious Thomson’s gazelles (a small gazelle with ringed horns), zebra and impala (a medium sized toffee brown antelope) peer as the car approaches and disturbs their peaceful grazing.
Impala work as a team to escape their predators, the whole herd leaping about to create confusion. They can jump distances of over ten metres and up to three metres high, and can reach running speeds of about 90 kilometres an hour. On the run, they high kick their hind legs to release a scent from glands on their heels, which helps them to stay together.
I wonder what they think when they see this unusual animal with so many heads (us passengers in the jeep). ‘Oh’ and ‘wow’ and ‘so adorable’ are the usual exclamations when those heads get excited at what they see!
As we drive along and scan the bushes with intensity, look near and gaze far, I come across my favourite scene. When on a dark burned surface, a herd of zebra stands almost still and the white bodies with black stripes (not the other way around) create a beautiful contrast which almost looks like a painting. The dramatic skies do the rest to complete the perfect photograph.
You may ask yourself why burned surface? The rangers burn the grass, bushes and trees once a year, so new green can emerge and animals get fresh leaves to chew on.
The Lion King come to life
I know the Serengeti inspired the Disney classic The Lion King, but I could never have imagined seeing a whole family of lions before me, like the animation coming to life. A few other jeeps are already at the same spot, but the lions (five plus a cub) are not greatly disturbed. They do not run away but gracefully walk past our jeep.
I witness them drink from the waterhole; the lion and lioness exchange loving movements by rubbing their heads together and when the cub comes in between them, they show love for each other as a family. I realise that animals feel for each other and that a mother’s feelings are always a mother’s feelings, whether animal or human.
But nature and African wildlife is red in tooth and claw, and infanticide is commonly practised by lions when a coalition of bachelors ousts a pride’s male. When the incoming males take over they usually kill the cubs, allowing the new males to have their own cubs.
As we drive along the rough road there is a herd of dik-diks (antelope) and some of them are brave enough to cross over before the jeep passes by. A young antelope not following its mother fast enough is unable to make it and runs in front of the jeep in the opposite direction of the rest of the herd.
All of us in the jeep have only one thought, which is to see the youngster reunited with its mother, so the driver stops. The young dik-dik eventually dares to run back in the right direction, but it is confused as it cannot see its mother. After a minute or less, we observe the mother coming back to search for her baby and they see each other. A joyful moment!
Elephants at the waterhole
Back at the lodge after a six-hour game drive, it is time for a nice lunch with a view of the stunning, expansive hills of the Serengeti plains. And what a view at Maji Bar Terrace overlooking the pool and the waterhole where herds of elephants come several times a day.
Enjoying my delicious beetroot salad and mezze, I hear people shout ‘here they are’. Everyone stands up with their camera ready to shoot this incredible scene of elephant families within a distance of ten to 20 metres, separated just by the lodge’s pool.
Amon the African wildlife Elephants are deeply emotional animals, displaying joy when socialising and grief when mourning the death of a family member. Their tactile trunks are used to stroke, touch, explore and even defend themselves.
Back in my Terrace Suite with private pool, I remember that the attentive Idrisa from guest relations told me that I should not leave the terrace door open while inside. A sign on the sliding door indicates that baboons are keen to get in and look for food! They are fierce fighters, equipped with acute hearing and eyesight. So I carefully close the doors and even lock them. But I can still get a good look at nature. My room has a TV with live footage of the elephants at the waterhole.
And nature is about to get even closer! Gazing from the corner of the terrace before sliding down a railing, is a baboon! He sits down and looks straight at me. He is not scared, and has no intention of fleeing the presence of a human being. He rather gives me the feeling he is expecting something!
I love animals and I understand that it is not prudent to step out and hand over the apple which is on the table, so I wait until he leaves, and then I quickly open the door and put the apple on the railing so he can see it. Bingo, he does! In the blink of an eye, here he is. I presume he has been waiting round the corner. Clever boy!
I expect him to grab the apple and leave, but no, he takes a seat on one of the chairs first (hilarious!) and then decides to have a better view from the railing as someone might steal the apple! There is more than one baboon around. Normally they move in troops of 40 to 80 individuals made up of adult females and their young who often ride on the back of their mother. They forage in trees or on the ground, feeding on shoots, roots, flowers, seeds and even insects.
Discovering Maasai tradition and culture
Excitement never stops at the lodge and I am keen to experience the Maasai show at Boma Grill at dinner time. The ambiance in this very stylish African restaurant is amazing and the performance of the Maasai nurtures my interest in this tribe of proud, tall and handsome men in their red traditional outfits.
The discovery centre in the lodge gives me a deeper insight into their history and the story of the Serengeti before and after they were moved into a new territory at Ngorongoro Conservation Area in 1959.
A fascinating film explains how humans have been hunting in Africa and in the Serengeti for no other purpose than to show so-called trophies to their friends. From American presidents to rich visitors, they all came here to hunt before the government banned such expeditions and safaris in order to protect the animals in Africa, and the Serengeti National Park was born.
At the discovery centre, you can see in which month the animals migrate from which area to which place, read all about the history of the Serengeti, the different types of wildlife and animals living there, the hunting tools of the Maasai and the decorative beaded jewellery they make to decorate themselves; you can even watch different films daily to learn about history, animals and their behaviour, and talk to professionals who will give you the inside information you need.
After an exciting and eye-opening day, I am escorted by a Maasai guard to my Terrace Suite which we reach over a bridge built on a higher elevation as the ground of the lodge is not enclosed and animals are freely able to pass. Two dik-diks seem to have found their perfect place in the surroundings and as I walk by, I am amazed to see them peacefully resting for the night.
Migration and precipitation
The journey in the Serengeti has opened my eyes to a new world and I feel at moments my life has just begun. I will miss the animals and the hours spent searching for them, scenes that never repeat themselves. Every day is a new day, leopards in majestic acacia trees, elephants crossing and matriarchs guarding their little ones warily, wildebeest living with zebra as they help each other on their migration. And then the ‘small five’, the ant lion, leopard tortoise, rhino beetle, buffalo weaver and the elephant shrew, which are not easy to spot in this grassland, marshes, kopjes and woodland!
Towards the end of May when the grass turns yellow, the more than 1.5 million wildebeest begin their journey north to the long grass plains in a series of columns. They are joined by 300,000 zebra and Grant gazelles and their young.
And when the rain clouds gather in the south, the herds begin their long trek back to their breeding grounds in the Serengeti plains. It is a tough journey of 600 kilometres and every year an estimated 250,000 wildebeest don’t make it.
The Serengeti has two pronounced seasons: a green season from November to May and a dry season from June to October. To some extent, it also has two distinct rainy periods: the short rains that normally fall in November and December, and the long, heavier rains that tend to fall from March to May.
Partly due to its altitude, the Serengeti is a moderately cool ‘island’ in a much warmer region. The temperature remains relatively uniform throughout the year, but does vary a little with the seasons. Day-time temperatures reach around 28°C (82°F) in the wetter months, while night-time temperatures can fall to 13°C (55°F) during the drier months.