There is something very primal and exciting about setting off on safari. Seeing Mother Nature in its natural and comfortable environment, in its most pure and raw form; free from external influencing human factors. The animal kingdom – where every animal and everything for that matter knows its ranking and adapts to survive.
I have never been a big zoo person, I don’t get the same enjoyment factor most people seem to, and with air travel so accessible these days (and working in travel helps as well) I prefer to see wildlife and mammals in their natural habitat. I understand the principles behind zoos and paying to see the gorillas but it just makes me sad so I don’t bother.
I watched T.V shows growing up on the endless plains of the Serengeti, extending over grassy inclines and into lush valleys. Buffalo combed grasslands in the safety of herds, continuing the habitual migration under the watchful eye of predators. For me the Serengeti was the antithesis of the wild, and I’m not talking about ‘the wild’ as portrayed in the popular kid’s cartoons; I mean the wild where seasons and environment dictate the survival of the animal kingdom.
Departing Arusha with camera lens in-tow and canvas tent for nights under the star studded sky, we hit the dirt trails en route to the vast expanse and plains of the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater. Our first gentle reminder not to underestimate the untamed and unpredictable nature of where we had arrived, was in fact just upon arrival. We stopped within the borders of the national park to consume our boxed lunch like hungry beasts (only joking, although I was starving). As we left the safe confines of the open-top jeep, our local guide advised us to keep a sharp eye for eagles who could perhaps be more hungry than ourselves. Obviously being the well-travelled sort we laughed off his advice but kept a keen eye around us. Within seconds and out of nowhere an eagle had swooped down, talons extended, and literally ripped the chicken bone out of my hand. I don’t want to sound dramatic, although I have been known to be at times, but the sheer size of the eagle and precision in his chicken stealing abilities was enough to have us all scurrying back into the jeep – 1/nil Mother Nature.
The Serengeti is very much a driving national park, sure you could sit there for hours on end waiting for the mountain to come to Mohammed and if you were a professional photographer you probably would, but our goal was to travel as deep as possible into the park, in search of wildlife and understand what makes this park so touristic, yet unaffected.
I am fairly well travelled, I don’t make a big deal about it but have seen some pretty outstanding things in my time on planet earth. I would say this trip was by far one of the most outstanding and memorable trips due to the sheer volume of wildlife viewed. Day 1 we ticked off the big five – are you serious? I was blown away. If that wasn’t enough, here have a leopard up a tree ripping apart it’s prey with blood stained paws. Not enough yet? Take a dead elephant being devoured by a pack of vultures under the watchful rays of the sun. Still want more? We passed zebras cross-necked to survey the area for predators, giraffe towering at Acacia Tree level in order to reach the most succulent patches, and lions grazing with cubs by the water hole, learning the craft from their mother. Every direction we drove down unleashed a new sighting which was equally awe inspiring and marvellous. From the larger animals to smaller insects camouflaged in trees to termite mounds which always seem to intrigue me. These massive mud/dirt mounds are termite houses, extending out of the ground with intricate miniature tunnels branching down throughout the inside. They always amaze me much to the dismay of fellow travellers.
We free-camped within the confines of the camp but without fences, falling asleep to the sounds of owls and night hunters foraging for the weak and unsuspecting. I felt like there was a big piece of meat slapped on the front of my tent, with a note that said, ‘there is an even bigger fresher piece of meat inside, just let yourself in’. Despite this, I slept soundly and awoke to one of those delicious African sunrises that inspires the day to rise again the following morning. Yes everything is big in Africa, larger than life and equally is brilliant.
Next up was the surrounds of Ngorongoro Crater, bordering the lush and bountiful valley below and also home to many watering holes where a multitude of wildlife came to graze, drink and call home. The first night we camped on the rim, waking to the sounds of grunting warthogs patrolling the campsite in search of western food. We were warned by the guide not to keep food in the tent and this time we did heed his advice following the eagle incident. I could literally hear a cacophony of grunting directly outside my tent as I sat in the dark, gripped by fear grip with only a small mag light as my choice of weapon. I tell you, that was one lucky warthog right!
The next morning we drove down the hill and entered the crater. It really was a veritable goldmine for the wildlife enthusiast. The grass illuminated against dirt trails and with all rain filtering down hill, it was easy to see why animals came to drink. The lake shores were awash with a sea of pink flamingo, both black and white rhino stood solitary, zebra and giraffe ambled away from the our approaching jeep and lions stalked in the long grass. It really was a magical place.
This trip was an incredible experience and one I still look back on with with total admiration. If you love the outdoors, wildlife and photography you really need look no further. It is the kind of place you could return to time and time again and be rewarded by something very different with every visit. Changing seasons will either dry the grass turning everything a shade of yellow brown, or the rains will deliver new shoots of green and offer camouflage to the four legged inhabitants.
My advice – buy yourself a good lens, nothing lower than a zoom of 300mm so you can take close, clear images. Take spare batteries as there isn’t anywhere to charge unless you stay in a lodge or camp at Ngorongoro rim. Finally, download a constellation star finder app because one thing you are sure to find are those enchanting Africa star studded skies.
P.S – I managed to lose nearly all my pictures so have supplemented with what I had left.
By Iain Shiels