Serengeti Safari

Text by Jamie Barys, Photos courtesy of Sanctuary Retreats

As our single engine propeller plane drifts lower to the ground, preparing for a bumpy landing on the grass runway of Kogatende airstrip, the line that looked like ants from a thousand meters up sharpens into view. It’s a herd of wildebeests, just a couple hundred of the more than 1.5 million that make up the migration we’re here to follow through Serengeti National Park.

A severed gazelle’s foot greets us as we step off the plane, along with our guide for the next five days: Richard Chacha. A driver for Sanctuary Retreats, Richard is a short, stocky member of the Bantu tribe, with a rich voice that goes husky like a water buffalo whisperer when wildlife step into his view. Something of a Serengeti savant, Richard was the president of his class at the College of African Wildlife Management and knows the other guides and trackers – former classmates – as well as the instinctive path of the wildebeest.

His easy air of authority and the hushed respect he garners from the other guides is a boon for us, as guide camaraderie in the park comes in the form of whispered suggestions over the radio and shouted tips from passing land cruisers: “A pride of lions is stalking a Thompson’s gazelle just a couple kilometres to the north” or “A herd of elephants is on its way through the trees just east.”

As soon as we were situated in our khaki SUV, a crackle comes over the CB radio, and Richard floors it, directed in Swahili to some destination unknown to us.  Over the roar of the engine and the bouncing shocks, he shouts back to us, “This is something you see on Animal Planet or National Geographic,” his low voice reaching an octave higher as his excitement grows. “Something you will never forget.”

We slow to a crawl as we reach the Mara River, where a crush of wildebeests several hundred deep prance on the edge of its banks, waiting for the signal to stampede across the water. But a rogue Land Cruiser guns it up to the embankment, hoping for a front row seat of the river crossing that is nature’s way of culling the wildebeest population. A single misstep here means they will be fodder for the waiting crocodiles or trampled by their compatriots and drowned. The unnatural glimmer off the car’s windshield and mechanized growl of its motor frighten them back, and they set off down the river to find an crossing free from human observation.

“Hakuna matata,” Richard says, without a trace of irony in his voice as he, like Timon and Pumba before him, explain that’s Swahili for no worries. We have four more days to catch the wildebeests in their dangerous effort to quite literally find greener pastures. Right now, there’s plenty more to see, like The Big Five - elephants, lions, cape buffalo, leopards and rhinos - so named because they are the five most difficult animals to hunt on foot. Sometimes called the Fatal Five, European hunters in the 1800s stalked these big game with muzzle-loading guns that were only able to fire a single shot before the wounded animals could turn the tables and advance, often landing their own death blow before anyone could reload.

Richard leads our jeep past acacia trees stripped of their bark, some ripped straight out of the ground. A memory of elephants – just one of the safari collective nouns Richard shares - had just been by, he says, explaining that the giant mammals are natural ecologists of the savannah, pruning trees with their prehensile trucks and fertilizing the ground with their dung. Their ivory tusks, prized into the millions by poachers, are more than just decoration or weapons; elephants use them to bore into the ground as their innate senses lead them to high water tables during dry spells. A couple hours later, we stumble upon a herd – possibly the same one that leveled the oasis – with three babies bathing in a river, just upstream from a bloat of hippos.

After filling our memory cards with shots of a lone pregnant giraffe chewing her cud as she stared blankly at our idling car, ostriches bobbing up and down in the tall grass and the backsides of gazelles as they hightailed away from our scent, we head back to our tent… if one can call a canvas structure that when it’s equipped with hot showers, flush toilets and a personal butler. As the sun goes down over our sundowners, zebras and wildebeest traipse by, just a hundred metres away from the Sanctuary Retreats’ Serengeti Migration Camp. We watch the peripatetic animal kingdom walk by until a thunderstorm that lights up the darkening savannah forces us under cover.