Despite my reservations about the bugs that had been jumping about all over the washroom the night before, I braved a shower at the campsite near Lake Manyara. We were given a breakfast feast of fruit, toast, omelette, pancakes and, letting the side down somewhat, a dodgy-looking, spongy hotdog sausage.
The drive to the Serengeti was incredibly misty. We couldn’t see two feet ahead as the jeep wound its way along bumpy mountainside tracks. The road passes by Ngorongoro Crater – the final stop of the four-day tour – but we couldn’t see it as we pulled up at the first view point. I desperately hoped this wasn’t a sign of things to come.
Thankfully, as we lost altitude, the crater appeared and we stopped to take some photos. Some local Maasai accosted us, offering to be in our photos for a small charge and trying to sell us traditional jewellery. I wasn’t looking for Maasai souvenirs, but this would have been a good place to buy some. There may be limited choice, but at least you know your money is going directly to benefiting a local family.
By early afternoon, we had arrived at a car park just within the entrance to the Serengeti reserve. Perhaps 10 other jeep-loads had congregated there for lunch. We ate at a picnic table surrounded by iridescent birds that scavenged for crumbs. It was a far cry from London’s pigeons. Then, with a few minutes to kill before our guide was ready to set off, we climbed a small hill with 360° panoramic views of the Serengeti plains.
Our guide took the roof off the jeep and we were able to stand on the seats and lean through the vehicle’s metal shell. We set off on a barely visible track and, before long, we’d lost sight of any other vehicles. It was an incredible feeling to be bombing along dirt tracks in such an expanse of wild terrain with the sun on our faces and the wind rushing through our hair, in the knowledge that we were about to witness some of the most impressive spectacles of the natural world.
It was hard not to be totally in awe of everything we saw – a herd of elephants plodding lazily through the scorched grass; hundreds of zebras grazing; two lionesses basking in the afternoon sunshine, cautiously eyeing our approach.
But the highlight of the day was watching a cheetah chasing a gazelle. It had been waiting motionless, camouflaged among the grasses and I’d only just tracked it with my camera zoom before it charged. With mixed emotions, we watched the gazelle narrowly escape with its life, and the cheetah wandered off, defeated.
As the sun began to sink towards the horizon, we picked up speed, stopping only for a few minutes to watch a tree full of climbing lions. Our guide was anxious to arrive at camp for 6 pm to give us just enough time to pitch our tents in the remaining daylight.
There was a dinner hut fenced off from the plains, but I was surprised to find that the camping ground had nothing separating it from the open wilderness of the savannah. You wouldn’t like to stay here if you’re partial to sleep walking. We crammed ourselves around a tiny table alongside other safari groups and tucked into some very tasty spaghetti bolognese, with a mug of wine from a box we’d bought in Arusha. The guide and chef joined us for some drinks before bed.
In the night, we heard many unusual noises – the exhalation of breath from a nearby wildebeest, the distant roar of a lion and the unmistakable heavy placement of hooves uncomfortably close by.
We got up at 5:30 to make sure we were in the jeep and out of camp by the time the sun rose. The idea was to crawl from our rented sleeping bags straight into the jeep, returning a few hours later to pack up camp – easier said than done when it’s pitch black, you’re sleep deprived and you have to figure out how to put in contact lenses while holding the lens, a mirror and a strategically angled torch!
The morning drive was beautiful. We could just make out the silhouettes of wildebeest – their eyes occasionally reflecting the light from our vehicle or the flash of one of our cameras. As the sun rose behind a typically African umbrella thorn tree, we watched a solitary hyena creeping through the grass. In the space of a few minutes, the sky went through various shades of vivid reds, oranges and gold, eventually settling on solid blue.
It wasn’t long before we came across one male and two female lions resting very close to the track. They were only feet away and our guide stopped the jeep. The sun was now shining with full strength and creating silhouettes of our group on the path by the lions. For a few minutes one lioness pawed at the moving shadows the way a domestic kitten might and we were reminded of the vulnerability of these powerful beasts and their reliance on human conservation efforts.
Although the tour groups generally did their best to stay spread out within the reserve, when we saw a line of jeeps in the distance, we had to investigate. They’d briefly seen a leopard among the rocks on the top of a small hill. Despite stopping there for about an hour, we only caught a quick glimpse of it. Our guide explained that the most obvious difference between a cheetah and a leopard was that cheetahs had tear-shaped white markings below their eyes. We had now seen four of the ‘big five’ safari animals: elephants, buffaloes, cheetahs and a leopard.
Unfortunately, he said rhinos had become so endangered that even in protected areas such as this, they were rarely seen. We hung about in the midday sun waiting for the leopard to reappear but it was either hiding or had skulked off down the other side of the hill.
We drove to a visitor centre where there was an exhibition with information on the park. We shared the boardwalks with hyraxes – a very strange creature that looks a bit like a guinea pig – and learned that sometimes their congealed faeces and urine are used to treat epilepsy. This interesting lesson was followed by lunch back at our campsite, where we packed up our tents before driving out of the Serengeti towards our final stop – the magical Ngorongoro crater.