Up Close & Personal on a Serengeti Safari

Sarah Freeman on 15 October 2018
There aren’t any direct flights from Manchester, so I flew with Emirates to Dubai and then onto Kilimanjaro. I’d pre-arranged transport and after a 70-minute drive reached Arusha – my home for one night.

I stayed at the Four Points by Sheraton in the centre of town near the Clock Tower, which marks the spot halfway between Cairo and Cape Town. A good-sized town, Arusha’s Central Market is a hectic but interesting place to visit, here you can find unusual spices and foods or if you enjoy bargaining, visit the Masai Market. If you enjoy shopping, there are three main malls with food courts and entertainment. I would recommend visiting the Cultural Heritage Centre which is on the outskirts; there’s a host of curio shops here selling jewellery, antiques and local crafts.

I was picked up at 8am to head out on the long drive to the Serengeti. I was pleased to see the Land Cruiser was robust with a raised ceiling for great game viewing and cushions on the seats to prepare for the rocky roads ahead. On the way you pass through small town after small town of ramshackle shops and ladies wearing the most beautiful and bright outfits you’ve ever seen. The first national park we hit was Lake Manyara known for its large flamingo population. We continued onwards, climbing steeply through rainforest and along bumpy roads up to the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater. This national park has one of the highest density of animals in the world. The crater is a huge depression in the landscape and jaw-dropping to see. After a quick photo stop we continued to a picnic site and bumped into a giant marabou stork and watched a Belgium couple get dive bombed by a black kite!

After lunch we continued around the crater, passing Masai tending to livestock and saw our first few game sightings – a group of zebras and a giraffe. Continuing along uneven terrain we finally reached the gates of Serengeti and entered for an amazing 4-hour game drive. From giant impala to warthogs, buffalo and elephants to crocodiles and baboons we were spoilt. The two best parts of the day were the hyena who were stopped in the road and the pride of lions we saw cooling off in the shade. The dirt tracks can be pretty precarious so expect to be bounced around but it’s all good fun – we actually ended up rescuing a pair of honeymooners whose jeep had broken its chassis and dropped them off at their lodge. I stayed at the Sopa Lodge with amazing views over the Serengeti plain – the rooms were large and comfortable, the restaurant served high-quality food and the staff could not have been more welcoming.

After an early 7.30am start, the animal viewing started pretty much immediately with a herd of over 30 elephants passing by the vehicle. From there around the next bend we came across zebras and multiple types of antelope. We were out for a full 11 hours today so I hoped that we’d see a lot and the Serengeti didn’t disappoint. We were fortunate to see a lioness with four cubs resting under a bush, a group of 10 lions hanging out on a rock and then a couple of hours later we spotted a cheetah and her two cubs with a fresh kill. Next up were herds of water buffalo which can be fairly intimidating when staring right at you! We drove around various water holes and saw some amazing birdlife from the giant secretary to plovers, storks and a kori bustard to name a few. We also spotted groups of hippos wallowing in the mud – at one point there had to be well over 50. We saw a hyena chase a baboon and jackals, at least three types of monkeys including the velvet monkey, plus a ringed mongoose and tree hyrax.

An unbelievable day today! Set off from the lodge and immediately came across two male lions and a short distance away the remains of a water buffalo carcass that was being attacked by vultures and a hyena. Next up was a herd of elephants that were busy breaking tree branches and surrounded the jeep as they walked across the road. We had a quiet spell as we drove around the vast plains but then the driver’s walkie-talkie blasted to life – he spun the jeep around and we got there just in time to see a leopard lounging in a tree before he took over after a group of gazelles. Then we had another call and raced over to a small river to watch a group of lions who headed our way and came within two feet of our vehicle! The rest of the day we saw plenty of other animals and birds including an eagle and watched c.400 water buffalo take ownership of the plain as they headed to a waterhole.

In the afternoon we headed to the Ngorongoro Crater where I’d be spending one night. We stopped at a Masai village on route which was something I’ve been longing to do. After a $50 donation to the village, I was thrilled to watch a welcome dance and song by both the village, then I was taken around by the chief’s son, and he explained how the Masai live, showed me inside their huts, I met the children in the school house and then purchased some handmade souvenirs.

The hotel was perched on the rim of the crater with amazing views down into the game viewing area and only 15 minutes from the descent road. The crater has a much different weather pattern than the Serengeti so heavy mist/cloud cover hangs over the area and makes the temperature very cool with a good chance of drizzle. The crater is home to an amazing collection of animals, that thrive with the great vegetation and constant access to fresh water.

As soon as we entered the park we came across a family of baboons busy grooming one another, then close by we had to stop the jeep to allow what seemed like 1,000 water buffalo and wildebeest cross the road. While the variety of animals we saw in the crater didn’t seem to match the Serengeti, the sheer number of animals we came across was immense. From large dazzles or herds of Zebra, groups of roaming elephants and at least five different prides of lions (including a poor male who had been in a recent fight). The birdlife was amazing with pelicans, grey-crowned cranes and masses of flamingos. You won’t find giraffes actually in the crater itself, but we saw three amble across the rim way above us. The highlight of the day was spotting a black rhino and her baby, while too far away to take a decent photograph, just being able to see them in their natural habitat made my day. After a great final game drive, it was then time to head the three hours back to Arusha to rest up and get ready for the next part of my Africa adventure.