Late one afternoon, my son and I were sitting by the pool at the Serena Lodge overlooking a vast valley that stretched off into the distance. We were waiting for the driver to take us on a sunset safari drive. It was a hot day and I was dozing under the setting sun. All of a sudden my son called out to me. Handing me the binoculars he said, “You are not going to believe this!” Sure enough, far down in the flat land of the valley below I saw an unbelievable sight. The annual trek of the wildebeests was passing just a few hundred yards from where we sat. The line, about four or so wide, stretched in each direction as far as I could see. I learned from the safari driver that this migration is largest movement of mammals in the world. That fact helps secure this migration as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa, and as one of the 10 natural travel wonders of the world.
This migration of about 1.8 million wildebeests takes place in the Serengeti, which is a vast area in east-central Africa located in northern Tanzania, extending into southwestern Kenya, and spanning 12,000 square miles. Its vastness led to its name which means “endless plains” in the Maasai language. The Serengeti is also renowned for its large lion population and is one of the best places to observe prides in their natural environment. On one safari drive into a game reserve, we saw a pride that numbered into the twenties. The region contains the Serengeti National Park, Maasai Mara National Reserve, and crosses in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro. The Serengeti is also number 10 on the Smithsonian Institute’s list of “28 Places to See before You Die.” Along with the Northern Lights, Iguazu Falls, and Machu Picchu, it is in the sub-group called “A Matter of Timing.”
The Great Migration includes not only Wildebeests but also approximately 500,000 zebra and 200,000 antelope, all of which are making their way from the area around the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania northward through the whole length of the “endless plains” to Kenya’s Masai Mara – a distance of 500 miles. This cyclical migration begins in March and ends with their return of the animals in January. The migratory animals are following the annual cycle of rains and fresh grasses. During this journey, approximately 250,000 wildebeest alone die from thirst, hunger, exhaustion, and predation. Regarding the latter, I witnessed several hundred wildebeests crossing the Mara River during a daytime game drive. Numerous crocodiles were lying in wait near the top of the muddy water, their menacing eyes just breaking the surface. Any wildebeest that was young or crippled in some way was an easy target. As quick as a wink the crocodile would strike and the helpless wildebeest would disappear under the waters of the Mara River.
Apart from rhinoceros, long decimated by poachers, travelers to the Serengeti will readily observe every species of African savanna mammals. It is regarded at the top location in East Africa to see predators in action because of the open grass plains where the grazing animals gather. The predators are numerous and easily visible chasing their prey.
Small hills or mounds are found frequently throughout the south central Serengeti. These were formed as a result of exposed granite that has been shaped by wind and temperature. These mounds are favorite resting spots for lions. You may recall seeing these in certain romantic scenes in the movie “Out of Africa” filmed decades ago. Even Disney got into the act as these natural mounds were the inspiration for Pride Rock in Disney’s “The Lion King.”
During more than one million years, little has changed in the Maasai National Park. The wild animals, plants, and waterways are still largely intact as they were so long ago. In fact, scientists have unearthed here one of the oldest remains of a human dating to two million years ago.
The Serengeti landscape can be divided into two regions defined by their dominant vegetation: Woodlands and grasslands. From time to time, some areas are covered in a white ash spewed out from the only active volcano in the area. This lava turns white when exposed to air and during the rainy season it turns into a calcium-rich material that is as hard as cement.
Several years later I visited Arusha to see Mount Kilimanjaro. The Ngorongoro Conservation Area is itself a protected area and a World Heritage Site located about 100 miles west of Arusha in the Crater Highlands area of Tanzania. The area is a large volcanic caldera, the world’s largest inactive, intact, and unfilled volcanic area. The crater was formed when a large volcano exploded and collapsed on itself two to three million years ago. The crater is approximately 2,000 feet deep, and its floor covers 100 square miles. Estimates of the height of the original volcano range from 14,800 to 19,000 feet high. The elevation of the crater floor is 5,900 feet above sea level. The southeastern area of the Serengeti stretches out in the shadow of the Ngorongoro highlands and is composed of shortgrass treeless plains because this area does get rain. Some 43 miles west, acacia woodlands rise suddenly and extend west to Lake Victoria and north to the Loita Plains.
In order to peer into the lives of the diverse array of animals that roam the Serengeti, a doctoral student at the University of Minnesota began placing motion-triggered cameras, or camera traps, around the Serengeti in 2010. With the help of citizen scientists, Alexandra Swanson and other researchers identified the various species and quantified them. The study produced 1.2 million images, some of which were published in 2015 in the Journal of Scientific Data. This study has aided scientists in answering questions about how animals interact in various ecosystems. For instance, how do predators that survive on the same prey manage to thrive together in the same environment?
Aside from local tourists, approximately 90,000 people visit Serengeti National Park each year from all over the world. Because of the diversity of wildlife in the Park, it is among the most popular and well-known safari destination in Africa. Visitors to the park may see lions, cheetahs, African leopards, spotted hyenas, zebras, African elephants, black rhinoceros, African buffalo, cheetahs, gazelles, giraffes, African wild dogs, baboons, crocodiles, wildebeest, zebras, impalas, storks, cranes, and a variety of vulture species. Though a bit pricey, hot air balloon flights over Serengeti National Park are very popular.
I have traveled to the African Continent many times. I firmly believe that a carefully planned and timed trip to the Serengeti offers what few, if any, other destinations can. Namely, a safari with great opportunities to see wildlife in their native habits, the highest Mountain on the continent, one of the world’s largest craters and the Great Migration – the world’s largest movement of mammals anywhere.
It was Rudyard Kipling who once wrote: ‘One cannot resist the lure of Africa.” During my 16 trips to the dark continent, I have concluded there is nowhere in the world quite like Africa. From the vastness of its savannahs to its swarming cities to its populous game parks, Africa is a continent of extremes. Unparalleled beauty exists alongside devastating poverty. It gives us the Nile River, Mount Kilimanjaro, and the Pyramids. It also gives us resistive tribal cultures, rash dictators who oppress their people, wide-spread illiteracy, and pockets that exhibit the rapid spread of fatal diseases. Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a photographer’s paradise; a hunter’s dream. I believe that a journey to Africa will change your life in ways you cannot imagine. The contemplation of its beauty and vastness could itself be enough to make you value and celebrate the wonder of life.
Next time: “Iguazu Falls: A Magnificent Wonder of Nature”