Sadly, all good things (including our African safari) must come to an end. We had a great time on our trip through Tarangire National Park, Lake Manyara National Park and Ngorongoro Conservation Area in Tanzania. Fortunately our tour company saved the best for last – a wonderful Serengeti National Park safari. In this post I’ll close off on the story of our African safari and provide some final thoughts and advice to plan your own safari, including tips on experiencing and photographing The Great Migration – a bi-annual event that draws travelers from around the world.
Getting to Serengeti National Park
Getting to our Serengeti National Park safari wasn’t easy, but it was definitely worth the trip. The park sits in the northernmost part of Tanzania – east of Lake Victoria and south of the country’s border with Kenya. Serengeti National is a continuous wildlife area with the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. However, the border crossings between the two parks are heavily restricted, making this not a viable option. The main road into the park is a continuation of highway B144, which originates in Makayuni and runs through both Ngorongoro Conservation Area and Serengeti National Park. The part of the highway running through both parks is completely undeveloped: natural dirt and gravel, heavily rutted, and winding through the parks.
The best way to start your Serengeti National Park safari is via commuter plane. We flew a 12-passenger Cessna C208B Grand Caravan plane on Coastal Aviation Airlines. It was a quick 55-minute hop from the Lake Manyara Airport to the Seronera airstrip in Serengeti National Park. The flight affords some amazing views of Ngorongoro Crater and the Tanzanian landscape. Travelers should expect normal security scans while traveling to and from Serengeti: metal detectors, baggage scans, and the like. Also be aware that on most flights your bags will be weighed, as the airline has a limit of 17kg of luggage due to weight and fuel restrictions.Once your flight lands, your safari guide will likely whisk you away for a full day or afternoon of game drives. That was the case with us – our first game drive started within just a few minutes of landing.
Our Serengeti National Park Safari Begins…
After a quick introduction to our tour guide and new rafiki (friend in Swahili) Ricky, we were off. It didn’t take long until the small airstrip behind us faded into the trees and rolling hills. We soon had the feeling that we were in an unspoiled area untouched by the encroachment of civilization.What struck me the most other than the beauty of the land and the wildlife was how quiet the area really was. We live in a suburban area and because of life and our personal habits, we’re surrounded by noise of some sort or another most of the time. It was amazing and beautiful to hear the breeze, the sounds of the animals, and nothing else. Sometimes the animals were loud – like the braying of the zebra during The Great Migration crossings we witnessed – but most of the time they made only minimal sounds.
We found that October was a great time to be on safari. It’s cooler and drier than other times of the year, and it’s the time when certain animals – like giraffes – birth their young. As a result we got to see several giraffe calfs during our trip. It’s hard to imagine that the awkward and gangly youth we saw (like the one in the photo to the left) would soon turn into strong and graceful adults.I didn’t keep an exact count, but we definitely saw more giraffe in Serengeti than we did in any of the other parks. That may be due to its location or to the fact that it’s larger and more spread out than the other parks. Regardless, neither of us got tired of watching them eat, or move through the bush slowly and quietly, or take off at a trot for some reason known only to them.
Lions, Gnus and Zebras – Oh My!
I’d been somewhat disappointed in our trip up to this time, because I hadn’t been able to get a good photo of a male lion. I had shots of several females, but I really wanted to capture the raw power, energy and beauty of the male with his mane blowing in the wind. Our guide made it a special point to track down baba simba (a male lion) for us, and we were all pleased when we found not one but two, just relaxing under a tree in the hot mid-day sun.As with the other parks, we saw tons of gnus (or wildebeest) wandering the area. We were in the season for the Great Migration, and fortunately were able to have a once-in-a-lifetime experience to see the migration. More on that in my next section.The zebras in the park were also ubiquitous – we found them everywhere. Even though they were the most commonly spotted animals, we never lost interest in seeing them or watching their behaviors. Because of the time of year we were there, we saw several zebras who were ready to give birth, and several more young foals trotting alongside their parents.
The Great Migration
The Great Migration occurs twice a year as the wildebeest move to find the best seasonal grazing area. The migration occurs in a generally clockwise motion and runs from the Maasai Mara reserve in Kenya down to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in the south. The herds move to the north during calving season, from approximately January to March. The southward leg of the Great Migration typically starts in early November. However, due to the weather conditions that summer it began early. Many safari planning companies note that The Great Migration has a notoriously unreliable schedule and so we knew it would be a special bonus if we saw it.
About midday on our second day of game drives, our guide got word that animals were lining up to cross the Singita Mara river in the northern part of the Serengeti National Park. Even though we were just a few kilometers away, time was of the essence. He yelled out to us “Hold on!” as he took off at a high rate of speed over the bumpy and rutted landscape. In that moment we felt like real adventurers! As we drove he explained that The Great Migration is fraught with danger for the wildebeest and zebra when they cross rivers or streams: hippos and crocodiles both inhabit most of the rivers in the Serengeti.
Wildebeest and zebra move through the water slowly and are extremely vulnerable during their crossing. Typically, one or more zebra get out in front of the wildebeest to act as spotters, and then begin braying loudly once the coast is clear. The group follows the leader as quickly as possible to reduce any risk of being captured or killed.We reached the river just in time to see a wave of wildebeest and zebra getting ready to venture across the river. They moved quickly and quietly, and were quite a sight to behold. Catching a single wave of animals crossing rivers and streams during The Great Migration is unusual in itself – we were fortunate enough to see five separate waves of animals crossing the Singita Mara that day. Our guide told us that he’d never seen that many crossings all at once, and none of the other guides we encountered had seen that many either. We counted ourselves fortunate to see one wave of migration, let alone five waves!
Photographing The Great Migration
In retrospect I wished I would have planned better for photographing the majesty and beauty of The Great Migration. If you’re ever in Tanzania (or if I’m there again) and plan on photographing it, here are a few tips to keep in mind – advice that I’ll follow next time!
- As noted previously, the timing of The Great Migration is notoriously unreliable. Most tour guides advise against planning your entire trip around it. Look at it as a bonus if it happens, but don’t be disappointed if it doesn’t.
- If your guide knows that a migration is in progress or is imminent, make sure they position you near a river or stream. This is the best place to watch all the action.
- Ask the driver if it’s possible to sit with the sun to your back. On our trip I was shooting into the sun and we only saw the shaded side of the animals. If you have the sun to your back, you’ll naturally catch the well-lit side of the animals for a better photo.
- Longer lenses (200mm and above) are recommended to capture the animals during crossing. Because the animals don’t always follow a predictable pattern, your guide will likely position you away from the action for safety. Longer lenses will help you get closer to the action.
- Try using a slightly longer shutter speed in some of your photos. If your camera supports it, switch to shutter priority and set your shutter speed to 1/20th of a second or below. When the animals are moving you’ll get some motion blur, which helps convey a sense of movement.
- If you are going to try longer shutter speeds, make sure to brace your camera on either a short tripod or on the top of your touring vehicle. For safety reasons your guide likely won’t let you get out of the vehicle, so you’re stuck working with what you have. Either way, ask the driver to turn the vehicle off while you’re photographing – vibrations from the engine can introduce camera shake that makes your photos muddy.
- Try to capture not only the entire herd, but also individual animals as they cross or afterwards. A lone animal (or a small group of animals) that stays behind after a large group migration can often tell an interesting visual story.
Mara Under Canvas Tented Camp
Although we were far from major population centers, we never really felt like we were truly “roughing it” thanks to our wonderful accommodations. We stayed at Mara Under Canvas, another one of the fine properties owned and managed by Tanganyka Wilderness Camps. The camp is made up of semi-permanent tent structures that have all the amenities you’d want.
This was a tent like no other I’d ever stayed in. The tent was constructed over a wooden platform that provided us a stable surface, as opposed to walking over rutted ground. The platform was covered with canvas, which in turn was covered in most spots by comfortable rugs.
The tent had a very comfortable and large bed, running water, a flush toilet, and battery powered lights. We also had a “bucket shower,” which was a new (but fun!) experience for both of us. Every night we’d schedule our morning “shower time.” Camp workers showed up with 20-liter jerry cans of warm water, and they placed it in a bucket atop our tent (hence the name). We controlled the flow of the water using a rope attached to the shower head. It was a very relaxing and comfortable shower, and it saved them the trouble and expense of having to set up running water for showers.
The camp also had two main tents at one end: one for meal service, and one for relaxing. The tent for relaxing had comfy chairs and a couch. It also had recharging stations so that those of us with electronic devices could recharge them during downtime. Most importantly, afternoon cocktails were served in this tent! This is the place where I found my affinity for gin & tonic – even without ice (which, not surprisingly, is nowhere to be found in the camp) it was a cool and refreshing drink on those hot African afternoons.
Our safari was a high point for both of us – easily the best trip we’ve ever taken. There’s an old saying that “Those who go to Africa, return to Africa.” I’m happy to say I’ve been back to Kenya two additional times with another trip planned soon…and I hope to explore even more of Africa’s natural beauty and wildlife in the future!
If you want to see more of my photos, please visit my Serengeti National Park gallery!