As our jeep heads from the city of Arusha, in northern Tanzania, toward the entrance of Tarangire National Park, kilometres of coffee plantations, Maasai pastoralists herding livestock and dry corn crops are eclipsed by massive baobab trees, three-metre-high termite mounds and a display of large animal skulls.
My sister, Melanie, and I have just been fetched by our driver and guide, nicknamed Kakae, who will take us on the safari of a lifetime. It will culminate with the greatest wildlife show on Earth: the Great Migration, an annual 800-kilometre trek of about 2 million wildebeest (gnus).
We have timed our trip perfectly, from late July to early August, to see this migration en route from western to northern Serengeti National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Located predominantly in northern Tanzania, the Serengeti spans 1.5 million hectares of savannah up to Kenya’s Masaai Mara National Reserve.
The wildebeest move clockwise in the park from south to west, north and back south, over the course of a year. Their migration follows their cycle of life, which begins with birth of calves in February and March during the rainy season, and continues with the search for greener pastures and water through the summer dry season. Death-defying escapes from predators — or not — happen all year long.
Leading up to the Great Migration, like a slow drum roll, we’ve planned visits to several of the world’s best game parks, with our first stop at Tarangire. It doesn’t take us long to spot our first fauna.
Just inside the park, a giraffe — Tanzania’s protected national symbol — nibbles tree leaves with its long blue tongue, and two cheetahs devour a kill in the short beige grass. The sparse foliage and shortage of water in summer make the park’s abundance of animals easy to spot. We part seas of wildebeest on dusty dirt roads as a prelude of what is to come.
The animals don’t even flinch at our presence inside the jeep, carrying on as if we aren’t there. Right in front of us, a memory of elephants (affectionately called “eles” by Kakae) use their trunks to toss red earth onto their backs for sunscreen and insect repellent.
“It’s like an elephant Holi, the Indian festival where they throw coloured powder on each other,” Mel says, laughing. Calves try to emulate their parents by clumsily tossing around their trunks. Kakae points out the “zeebies” (zebras) also rolling in red dirt, an effort to remove biting insects, which turns their white stripes dusty rose.
Later, at the Elewana Tarangire Treetops lodge, Mel and I observe a multitude of zebras take their turn at a watering hole until a buffalo bullies them away from the edge. “Please, move back to the lodge,” warns a Maasai guard, noting that the temperamental buffalo is the most feared of all animals.
At sunset, the buffalo is replaced by a parade of elephants, which elegantly descend to the watering hole with a multicoloured sky behind them as if on a movie set. We watch in awe as dusk turns to dark and “eles” to silhouettes.
At night, we hear animals pass underneath our room-on-stilts. “Is that a buffalo?” Mel asks warily, as a snort comes from close range. She’s right, so we wait for silence before we go onto our balcony to marvel at the Milky Way, Southern Cross and other constellations, all twinkling in the pristine sky.
During our following game drives, the cacophony of birds reminds me of news commentators, the ones flying in the air warning friends on the ground of predators. Impalas lock horns over a territory, a wounded zebra finds safety among his kind, and vultures and marabou storks clean up carcasses. A sated lion walks with a protruding stomach along the dry bed of the Tarangire River. These activities are all part of a continuous cycle of life and death in Tanzania, which culminates in the Great Migration.
Continuing to the Lemala Ngorongoro Tented Camp atop Ngorongoro Crater, Kakae drives us uphill into dense rainforest, where the temperature cools. Located in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, the collapsed volcanic caldera is home to roughly 30,000 animals, and about a half million wildebeest are born in this area every year. On the crater floor, they’re everywhere, sometimes blocking roads by the hundred.
“Every side you look, there’s an animal,” Kakae says to us on a game drive. “Sorry, sorry, we have to go through,” he apologizes to the wildebeest, moving the jeep slowly like a big cat stalking.
Not only do we see several animals by the hundreds, but also, it seems, about a hundred different types. This includes the Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and black rhinoceros) and very rare creatures, like the African wildcat.
The biodiversity and vastness of the Ngorongoro Crater is evident as we fly over it 48 hours later in a bush plane to the Serengeti. From above, we can see sporadic giraffes and thousands of migrating wildebeest.
“We cannot land because wildebeest are on the runway,” announces the pilot of our 10-seat plane. “We must circle around while airport staff clear them off.”
These wildebeest are among the millions migrating across open plains, followed by about 500,000 gazelles, 400,000 zebras and an uncountable number of opportunistic predators, including lions, crocodiles, hyenas and leopards scouting for meals.
The next morning, Mel and I rise with the sun, which turns the vast savannah bright shades of orange. It is the moment we’ve anticipated all week, and for years leading up to this.
We drive from Nimali Mara lodge to one of 14 crossing points on the nearby Mara River. While the whereabouts of wildebeest are easy to track, there is no guarantee of catching a river crossing. We wait patiently as thousands of these animals gather on a steep riverbank. Sometimes it can be hours before they make a move.
We’re lucky: After about an hour, suddenly, one by one, the wildebeest leap off the cliff in a thunderous, exhilarating stampede and cross the “river of death” infested with huge crocodiles. They practically trample each other in a thin line in the water, swimming and bounding in arcs where necessary. It is not only a river crossing, but the most populous one our guide has seen in the Serengeti in 13 years.
A few wildebeest don’t make it, but the rest carry on running overland to find suitable grazing area again. Our jeep jostles over bumpy roads as we track them, emulating their motion.
Little calm comes after the wildebeest storm, as we spot a cheetah sunbathing on a rock. It suddenly creeps down to chase after a Thomson’s gazelle — but its swipe misses.
Our safari of a lifetime revealed to us both the fragility and ferocity of wildlife. Ironically, we leave feeling more alive than ever.
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