Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Vignette: Tanzania/ Serengeti -- Endless Plains? (March 2016)

Southern Serengeti, mid-March: we are surrounded by thousands of wildebeests on either side. We’ve stopped our vehicle to watch. We look left and right, forward and back: they are everywhere, a sea of life across this African plain. Running, jumping, grazing, nursing. Bucks and youngsters, mothers and babies. We are here at the end of calving season (500,000 calves are born each year, in a mostly condensed time frame near the end of February ) and the beginning of their annual migration (map here). They are gathering in the tens of thousands, nursing their young and congregating under trees. When we first see them, the grass is tall and wavy; near the end of our week we see large swaths of short stubble as they set out, following patterns of rains and grassland. Some 1.5 million wildebeests and 250,000 zebra travel a nearly 2000-mile clockwise route each year to move south to west to north (traversing national boundaries into Kenya’s  Mara Maarai game reserve as well), and then back again when the season comes round. Besides wildebeest and zebra, the migration also includes Grant and Thompson gazelles, impala and eland. We feel lucky and overwhelmed by the sheer numbers.


The Serengeti is named from the Maasai language, Maa: ‘serengit’ means ‘endless plains’.

Seeing this migration in the Serengeti takes some doing. You have to travel hundreds of miles (or thousands, depending on your departure point) just to get here, first by air and then over rough roads. Our focus was the southern Serengeti and the Seronera Valley, a grassy expanse of plain with granite kopjes offering shade and shelter for their own mini-ecosystems with thriving baboon families, snakes, chameleons and red-headed rock agama. How’d we come to be here, so far from our usual coastal living? A relative who visits every now and then said at the beginning of the month that he’d like to go on a safari – and invited us along. So we buttoned up Momo and flew to Arusha. From there, we travelled for a week with our binoculars and guide.

We learned more in a week than we’ve ever learned about animals, big and small. We sat in silence on the side of the road, day after day, awed by the vibrancy of life around us: elephants bathing, lions mating, giraffes loping, cheetahs feeding, rhinos grazing, eagles swooping, flamingos flapping, buffalo grunting, buzzards buzzing, weavers weaving. Even dung beetles pushing their oversized loads and tortoises sunbathing. We didn’t know what to expect when we said a spontaneous yes to the offer of a week in Ngorongoro and the Serengeti. We didn’t even know what The Big Five were. But we know some things now. We saw The Big Five, yes. We saw The Ugly Five. We even saw some of The Small Five. In a short week, days stretched from pre-dawn purples to the deep black of night. We drove and drove and drove. It made me feel very small, and very fortunate to be alive on this earth. It made me cry at the unspoilt beauty.


We fly back to Momo after our short sojourn inland, awe and wonder pushing up in our chests as we looked down at the expanse of land below us. We usually don’t have this kind of view – not in such a compressed period of time. We see the world slowly; we follow the horizon and travel with wind and current. We nourish ourselves with fish and whatever’s available at local markets. We don’t buy meat anymore – because it’s too hard to manage, because it’s overpriced, because it’s… Because.

We feel both exhilarated and overwhelmed by the wildlife of the Serengeti – by the numbers, by the variety, by the tenacity of nature. In 1972, when the United Nations met to set up World Heritage Sites, the Serengeti topped the list. These days, there's continued talk of building a highway straight through the middle of it.