A Month in the Serengeti

The Serengeti as a destination brings visitors from all over the world each year, photographers and safari enthusiasts alike.

I recently had the privilege of spending an entire month in Tanzania, visiting not only the incredible Serengeti, but other unique parks in Tanzania, each offering something unique and different.

Our typical 12 night Best of the Serengeti itinerary visits 4 parks in Tanzania including Tarangire National Park, the Ngorongoro Crater, Ndutu and the Eastern Serengeti.

In this blog post I would like to share some information about these parks, as well as some the highlights during our Safari at each of these destinations.

Tarangire National Park

Uncrowded and relatively unknown, Tarangire National Park covers approximately 2 850km² just south of Lake Manyara in the northern region of Tanzania. Famous for its vast herds of elephants and forests of enigmatic giant baobab trees, the rugged landscape is incredibly diverse and stands out from any other on the traditional northern safari circuit.

Tarangire is a park for those who want to step off the beaten track to experience a truly wild area.  Boasting large herds of elephant and buffalo, and a remarkable concentration of big cats, it is consequently one of the best National Parks in Tanzania.

The name of the park originates from the Tarangire River that crosses the park, the primary source of fresh water for wild animals in the Tarangire Ecosystem during the annual dry season.

Some interesting facts about Tarangire National Park.

  • Tarangire National Park is Tanzania's sixth largest of its national parks.
  • Tarangire River flows through the park and becomes the only water source for thousands of migrating animals in the dry season.
  • Baobab trees, common in Tarangire National Park, can grow to have trunks reaching more than 100 feet in circumference. One of these trees was once found that proved to be 1275 years old, although not in this park.
  • Tarangire National Park is believed to have the largest elephant concentration in the world. After Serengeti National Park it has the second highest wildlife concentration in Tanzania.

Here are some of the highlights during our time in Tarangire National Park:

Tree Climbing Lions in Tarangire

During our first afternoon in Tarangire we were looking for the usual large herds of Elephants that occupy this National Park.  However, with the amount of rainfall in Tanzania, and East Africa as a whole, these large herds of Elephants spread out a lot more than usual, finding water at seasonal pans instead of having to come down to the River.

As we continued our search, we found a Lioness in a tree not too far from the road.  This was an incredible surprise, and for me personally, the first time I had encountered Lions in Tarangire up in trees.

Lazing about as Lions usually do during the heat of the day, we were doubtful of any "action" from the two Lionesses, but decided to wait it out for a little while to see if there was any chance that one might get up and move.

Our patience was well and truly rewarded when one Lioness got up, stretched and then made her way down the tree (although not very elegantly).  The Lioness wasn't down long, disappearing for a brief moment before jumping up and returning to the same tree.  It was the absolute perfect start to our first day in Tarangire and a sighting that we weren't expecting at all.

Best of Serengeti

Best of Serengeti

Ngorongoro Crater

The Ngorongoro Crater is one of the most popular and well documented parks in Africa, both for it's incredible beauty and also the amount of wildlife there is to be seen here.

This year the Crater was especially green and even more beautiful than usual, with all the lakes filled up as water continued to flow from the rim of the Crater into the Lakes.

Best of Serengeti

With an abundance of wildlife to be seen in the Crater (an estimated 30,000 animals that live there) it should be on every wildlife photographer's bucket list.  Wildlife ranging from general game such as Zebras, Wildebeest, Thompsons and Grant's Gazelle, Warthogs, Buffalo to even endangered wildlife such as Black Rhino as well as amazing birdlife.

It is however the beautiful Lions, especially the big males in the Ngorongoro Crater that I always enjoy viewing, and this year with the lush green backgrounds we were treated to some amazing photographic opportunities.

Some interesting facts about the Ngorongoro Crater:

  • The Ngorongoro Crater was formed when a large volcano erupted and collapsed on itself. This explosion created a caldera approximately two and a half million years ago.
  • When it was a volcano it’s thought to have been a similar size to Mount Kilimanjaro, one of the world’s highest mountains. Estimates of the volcano’s original height vary between 4,500 to 5,800 metres. The crater itself is about 610 metres deep and 260 kilometres squared.
  • Approximately 40,000 people live in the conservation area. They share the land with an incredible amount of wildlife. There are around 30,000 animals ranging from leopard, cheetah, elephant and hyena to warthog, buffalo and impala. It’s also one of the best places to see the endangered black rhino and black-maned male lions.
  • You won’t find any giraffes in the crater. It’s thought they can’t enter as the sides are too steep for them to walk down. However you’ll still be able to find them around the crater.
  • The Ngorongoro Crater along with two others in the region (Olmoti and Empakai) were enlisted as an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. It’s also one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa.
  • The Ngorongoro Conservation Area is one of the most important prehistoric sites in the world. The fossils discovered there are said to be the earliest known evidence of the human species.

Big Male Lions and lush green vegetation

With the grass a lot higher and greener than usual during this time of the year, finding these incredible beasts proved to be a lot harder than normal.

Eventually we found them, hiding in the long green grass as we thought they would, occasionally lifting their heads.

Once again, patience was the name of the game and with all the flies present after the rains, it proved to be too much for the Male Lions, as they frequently got up and changed position, revealing their true elegance and beauty against the lush green background.

Best of Serengeti

Best of Serengeti

Best of Serengeti

Amazing variety

For a relatively small area (around 260 kilometres squared) there is a huge amount of variety in the Ngorongoro Crater.  It is the perfect place to get your close up portraits of general plains game, with the majority of them being totally relaxed with the presence of vehicles.

The birdlife is also incredible to witness with over 500 species being recorded, making it a destination that anyone and everyone will enjoy.

Best of Serengeti

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Best of Serengeti

Best of Serengeti

Best of Serengeti

Best of Serengeti

Best of Serengeti

Ndutu

Arguably one of my favourite places in Africa, I was super excited to get to Ndutu this year, especially after reports of all the rainfall and seeing the water levels at Lake Ndutu.

This area which forms the boundary of the Ngorongoro Conservation area and the Serengeti, is well documented for playing home to the annual calving of the massive herds of Wildebeest during the Great Migration.

Huge herds congregate along the plains of Ndutu, an area that is very rich in minerals and salts which is essential for the Wildebeest herds during the calving.  With the presence of these herds (both Wildebeest as well as Zebras) predators are abundant, opportunistic and competition intense.  Ndutu is home to a very healthy population of Cheetah, Lion, Spotted Hyaena, Leopard and Jackal.  The majority of these predators will follow the herds, seeking out the weak, young and injured and internally competing against one another with numbers often being the deciding factor.

Best of Serengeti

best of Serengeti

Best of Serengeti

Not only does Ndutu play home to all of this, but it is also an area known for unique behaviour of tree climbing Lions.  Resident Lions will usually decide to go up trees to not only get away from flies, but also to use it as vantage points to  get the upper hand on their prey.

Tree Climbing Lions at Ndutu

We were extremely fortunate during both the safaris I hosted that we were able to view and photograph Lions in trees.

During the first departure, we witnessed a Lioness peacefully resting and a beautiful male trying to get to where she was.

Best of Serengeti

Best of Serengeti

As is always the case when photographing wildlife, patience is absolute key if you are to achieve the results you are after photographically, and on two occasions during the first week we waited 4 and 6 hours respectively.  The results however are well worth it and most certainly bring an added value to your images, knowing how long you had waited for that particular moment.

Best of Serengeti

 

Lions and Elephants

One of the highlights during the second week, and probably during all of my time of going to Ndutu was when we had a 2 Lions being chased by a herd of Elephants.

We came across a Lioness, peacefully resting in one of the spectacular trees in Ndutu, and noticed a big male resting beside her in the long grass.  After spending some time with this particular pair, we noticed that they were mating, with the Lioness descending down the tree every now and then to advertise herself to the Male.  As the mating ritual continued, a herd of Elephants close by picked up the scent of the Lions, with the Lions slowly moving away...

Best of Serengeti

Best of Serengeti

The Elephants eventually got sight of the Lions and chased them for a few hundred metres before the Lioness found an escape route in the form of another tree and the Male seeking cover in nearby clump of thickets.

The photographic opportunities in this sightings were simply out of this world as I encourage my clients to shoot wide, getting both the distressed look on the Lioness's face as well of the Elephants in the foreground.

Best of Serengeti

Best of Serengeti

Best of Serengeti

A Day with a Female Leopard

On many occasions on safari, I wonder how many times we might have driven past incredible sightings, certain species and what we might potentially miss out on...  There is just so much ground to cover and so many different areas where animals could be hiding.

One of the days in Ndutu we had luck on our side.  We had just discovered where a Lioness was hiding her cubs (less than 2 weeks old) and were busy giving directions to another vehicle when, whilst they were looking for us, found a female Leopard casually resting in a tree.  As the radio call came in, we decided to head towards their direction to see if we could get a glimpse of the Leopard (we had a not seen a Leopard up to this point).

We found the Leopard casually resting in a tree, but after a few minutes she descended down the tree and disappeared in the long grass...  That's it I remember thinking to myself, at least we got a glimpse...  To my astonishment we saw her climbing up another tree a few metres away!  This happened throughout the day and we eventually lost count at how many times she would climb down one tree and up the other, frequently stopping to vocalise as well.

Best of Serengeti

Best of Serengeti

It is extremely rare that one gets so many opportunities to photograph a Leopard going up and down the tree, and we made full use of a variety of techniques such as shooting panoramas, slow shutters and various focal lengths to ensure that everyone got a wide variety of incredible images.

Eastern Serengeti

The endless plains of East Africa are the setting for the world’s greatest wildlife spectacle – the 1.5+ million animal ungulate (wildebeest) migration. From the vast Serengeti plains to the champagne colored hills of Kenya’s Masai Mara over 1.4 million wildebeest and 200,000 zebra and gazelle, migrate in a clockwise fashion over 1,800 miles each year in search of rain ripened grass. Tanzania’s 5,700 square mile Serengeti National Park makes up 97% of the ecosystem whilst Kenya’s Masai Mara, the northern boundary of the Serengeti, makes up 3% of the ecosystem. The Loliondo private community area borders the Serengeti in the east and the Grumeti Game Reserve borders the Serengeti in the west. The ecosystem can be divided into three areas: the southern grass plains, the Western Corridor and the northern Serengeti / Mara. The southern grass plains have endless, almost treeless, wide-open plains; the Western Corridor has rock kopjes and the Grumeti River, and the northern Serengeti / Mara is largely open woodland and rolling hills.

One of our main focusses during our time in the Eastern Serengeti is to focus on the Kopjes (rocky granite outcrops) which this particular part of the Serengeti is known for.

With the huge amount of rain that had fallen in the Serengeti over the past few month, accessibility to some of these regions proved to be impossible, thus limiting opportunities to visit most of the Kopjes.

The area that we focussed for the large majority of our time was Gol Kopjes, an area known for some of the best Cheetah viewing in Africa and it did not disappoint.

Here are some interesting facts about the Serengeti:

  • The Serengeti is one of the oldest and most scientifically significant ecosystems on the planet. Its weather patterns, fauna and flora are believed to have changed very little over a million years, giving the area a prehistoric feel.
  • The greater Serengeti ecosystem includes Serengeti National Park proper; Ngorongoro Conservation Area; Maswa Game Reserve; Loliondo, Grumeti, and Ikorongo Game Controlled Areas; and the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya.
  • The name, Serengeti, is derived from the Maasai word siringit, meaning “endless plains.” An accurate description considering the whole ecosystem stretches over 12,000 square miles (30,000 square kilometers)!
  • The Great Migration of the Serengeti was selected in 2013 as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa. The others are the Red Sea reef system, Mount Kilimanjaro, Sahara Desert, Ngorongoro Crater, Nile River, and Okavango Delta. (Notice that three of the seven are in Tanzania.)
  • The Maasai tribe had been grazing their cattle in the Serengeti plains for around 200 years when the first European explorers arrived. German geographer Dr. Oscar Baumann entered the area in 1892. The first Brit to see the Serengeti, Stewart Edward White, recorded his explorations in 1913. The first partial game reserve of 800 acres (3.2 sq km) was established in 1921 and a full one in 1929. These reserves became the basis for Serengeti National Park, which was gazetted in 1951.

We had some incredible Cheetah viewing during both of the weeks, but there were two other sightings that really stood out during both trips...

Best of the Serengeti

Tiny Leopard Cubs on a Kopje

The night before our Guide got information from a colleague that there had been a sighting of a Female Leopard and two Cubs at one of the Kopjes not too far from where we were staying.  As we gathered around the dinner table, we decided that we will leave camp before first light and make our way straight to where this sighting had taken place.

As we arrived at the Kopje where they were seen the day before, we thoroughly scanned the surroundings, desperately trying to get a glimpse of these elusive cats.

As the sound of shutters became a lot more evident, we found two tiny Leopard Cubs approaching from what appeared to be a little cave, the perfect hiding place for them.

The sighting was short lived, as after a few minutes the Cubs decided to return back to the cave to get some rest.  It was an incredible couple of minutes and we all decided that since we knew that the cubs were there and given the rarity of such a sighting, that we would stay put even if it meant spending the entire day there (we did have breakfast and lunch with us).

Once again, just as we were about to give up, our patience paid off and around 16:00 (8 hours of waiting) the Leopard Cubs came out, determined to burn all the energy they gathered during their nap.  Although the light was fading due to the overcast conditions, the sightings was one of the best I have ever had of these amazing animals.  We were royally entertained as the Cubs were jumping on top of one another, climbing rocks and small trees, jumping from one branch to the next...  It was simply incredible and definitely a sighting that I won't forget anytime soon!

Best of Serengeti

Best of Serengeti

Best of Serengeti

Every Safari and experience is unique and different, and that is what makes travelling and wildlife photography especially interesting.

If you are interested in dates for next year and joining us on this incredible journey, click here.

Till next time.

Johan 

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