February in the Serengeti

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The Serengeti is arguably the famous of all safari locales. Just the word Serengeti conjures up fantastical images of vast open plains filled with a menagerie of animals with the the Lion King theme song invariably playing on repeat in the background. As somewhat of a safari veteran at this point, I was excited to finally visit Simba’s homeland and see the Serengeti “circle of life” play out before my own eyes. Highly energized from our amazing gorilla encounters, Barb, Gary, Garrett and I boarded a charter flight from Kigali straight into the Serengeti for the second part of our adventure.

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The Serengeti is most famous for the world’s largest Wildebeest migration. Depending on the time of year you visit, you will have the chance to see wildebeest in different stages of their migration throughout the Serengeti. The most famous images of the wildebeest migration come from the crossing of the Mara River in July – September. A photographer’s paradise – herds barrel over the edge by the thousands to make the often deadly traverse of the rocky river bottom. Crocs wait all year for the chance to snap up weak, slow or straggling members of the herd. We visited in mid February which offered a totally different viewing of the migration. From Dec – Feb, the wildebeests follow the rains to the southern Serengeti to birth their calves. Because the wildebeests move such large distances in a day, you really never know where they might be. They have an uncanny ability to detect where rain will occur and they will move hundreds of miles just to seek out fresh grass that sprouts up following even the lightest of rains. We did a mix of 3 different safari camps to give ourselves the best chance of catching the migration and seeing a variety of wildlife and landscapes.

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Our tent at Serian Kusini Camp

Our first two camps were mobile tented camps run by Alex Walker, a Tanzanian native who started his safari company at the age of 23. He uses temporary tented camps that move twice a year based on the patterns of the migration. Our first stop was Serian Kusini camp in the Southwest Serengeti. The camp was modest by safari standards but by no means roughing it. Our tent rooms were quite large and nestled underneath giant flat topped acacia trees which were spread out throughout the campsite. The tents were made up of a front porch, bedroom and bathroom – fully equipped with a sink, European toilet, and shower (bucket shower of course – but they were hot and had a shower head!). The décor of the whole camp had kind of a shabby sheik old world colonial feel with large candlelit chandeliers, Persian rugs, antique wood, black and white photography, oversized bean bags and floor pillows. I loved the it! The food was incredible too.

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We would leave for our morning drive at 6am then stop to have a picnic breakfast in the bush. These were seriously some of the best breakfasts I’ve had at any camp ever. I think breakfast can be hard to do well and they really nailed it with a different spread each day. Lunch was buffet style back at camp and dinner was a 3 course sit down meal. The quality, variety and freshness they were able to conjure up in the middle of nowhere was incredible. They are only able to replenish supplies of food and water once a week by driving 60 miles to the nearest town. The area around Kusini camp is rich in predators – namely lions, leopards, cheetahs and hyenas. It was quite dry during our visit so the wildebeest migration was not in the area. We also battled pretty heavy dust storms during our long game drives.

A major highlight was getting to watch 3 cubs, a lioness and around 8 larger males interact for hours. The energetic cubs would not stop playing and causing trouble. We found out that these cubs were not the children of any of the surrounding males making it a potential risk that the older males might try to kill the cubs to prevent the maturation of any competing dominant males in the area. The young male cubs kept playfully pestering the larger males despite the best efforts of the mother to keep them apart. We saw some pretty scary squirmishes where we thought the youngsters were goners for sure! Luckily the older males let them off the hook.

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Another highlight was seeing so many cheetahs. Nine in total including a mom and 3 cubs – seeing baby cheetahs was a major bucket list item for me!!! Our guide Barak was a serious bird lover – he pointed out more birds than I’ve seen on any safari! Lots of beautiful lilac breasted rollers, European rollers, secretary birds and ton of birds of prey in this area.

We stayed at Kusini for 3 nights, on the fourth day we drove 8 hours to get to our next camp destination – Serian Kakessio. Luckily the long drive was filled with wonderful game viewing including a playful elephant family, lions, cheetahs, a stalking cerval cat, and our first sighting of the migration!IMG_9398 copy

As we headed down the last stretch of road to the camp – we were rewarded with a view to hundreds of wildebeests spread out as far as the eye could see on the plains. It conjured up memories of “dances with wolves” and was unlike anything I had ever seen before. Wildebeest are not a particularly favorite animal to most people. They are muddy brown with stripes and gangly in appearance. They have long skinny heads with scraggly beards and eyes that stick out either side making them look hopelessly retarded. However, I have always had a soft spot for them – they are those kind of animals that are so ugly they are cute – especially the little ones!

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wildebeests as far as the eye can see

The best part of seeing the southern migration is the babies! Almost every adult female had a little one by their side. It was as if the whole of the Serengeti had turned into a giant nursery! I wanted so badly to see one of the females give birth. Everywhere you looked there was a baby taking its first steps into the world….but we were always just missing the actual birth. It was only on our last morning at the camp that we finally saw a birth! IMG_20170215_065131We spotted a female who basically had two tiny hooves sprouting out of her backside! The rest of the herd was still moving so she just kept walking because she didn’t want to get left. We could tell she was about to burst but wouldn’t just stop and lay down. She walked for about 30 minutes before she finally gave up.

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baby’s first steps

Once she laid on her side it only took about 2 minutes for the tiny calve to pop out! It only takes them a minute or two before they are on their feet and nursing. This is essential because the herds move very fast, especially when predators are near. It the babies can’t keep up – they are left! After the first birth, it was like a switch flipped and everyone started dropping calves! In just 10 minutes we saw 4 more births! We learned that wildebeests have the ability to control their labor. They can halt the labor if the timing is unfavorable or synchronize labor with other females when they are in a safe area. So cool!

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off and running within a few minutes after birth!

Seeing the realities of the circle of life play out was the hardest part of the trip. When you see a cute baby animal – you want to imagine it is cared for in the same way as human babies – with the whole heart and life-force of the mother….but this just isn’t the way the world works. There is little to no maternal instinct in many of the ruminant species on the plains. If a baby gets separated from its mother, there is almost no hope for its survival. The mother does not go searching for the baby and just moves on with life as if nothing happened. One of the more grim events we witnessed, was a baby hippo being tossed into the air and viciously bitten by one of the adults in the pod. It was then left to drown with no intervention by any members of the family. Heartbreaking. This is a sharp contrast to the tight-knit family units of the gorilla we learned about in Rwanda. Each member of a gorillas troupe will sacrifice its own life to fight and protect younger members of the family. When poachers used to come to steal baby gorillas to be sold off to zoos around the world – they would often have to kill the whole rest of the family because they would not stop fighting until the baby was safely back with them.

The highlight of the Kakessio camp was clearly the wildebeest migration but we also made a day trip over to Ngorogoro Crater. It was a much longer trip than we thought – about 10 hours round trip! This a major tourist trap but I must say still something you can’t miss if you are in the area.

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golden crowned crane

It feels somewhat like a Noah’s ark – providing a safe haven for all the animals on the plains. Within the relatively small crater (it was much smaller than I thought!) you have numerous ecosystems – savannah, marshland, lakes, and bushy trees. Animals aren’t safe from the predators of the plains – but they are safe from their biggest threat – humans. We also got a stunning viewing of the golden crowned crane in the crater basin.

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Another highlight was the sundowner on our last night. We were brought to a large rocky cliff (similar in appearance to pride rock!) and surprised with a campfire, pop-up bar and bean bags to enjoy the sunset. I can’t say I’ve ever had sundowners in such a unique and beautiful setting. We overall preferred Kusini camp over Kakessio even though they were very similar. We thought the food was far better at Kusini and we loved that Alex Walker, the camp owner, was there to host us. Aside from being very charismatic and gregarious, he had endless stories to share of his experiences in the bush. I would highly recommend his camps for anyone looking for a more authentic, wildlife focused, non-touristy safari. Although I loved the experience of being in the mobile tented camps- I was very excited to finish up the trip at more luxurious permanent camp. A week of bucket showers is just about my limit!

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view from our deck at Lamai Camp

Our last stop was Nomad Lamai camp in the northern Serengeti. The camp was even more posh than I expected! It sits atop a rocky hilltop and is beautifully built into the natural landscape. Our rooms were large, open and airy with wrap-around balconies that gave wonderful vistas to the savanna below. We were right next to the Mara River which is were all the action is during the migration months of June – Sept, but we were visiting in the off season when game viewing is unpredictable. However, we were very happy with our time there. I finally got to see baby leopards! Other highlights was the multiple black rhinos and a huge pride of 23 lions.

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I finished the trip feeling like we saw everything I could have hoped for and more! Gary did an amazing job of picking the perfect mix of camps and locations. Again how lucky Garrett and I are for getting to join his parents for his a fantastic journey!

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