Serengeti Safari We had chosen a 4 day/3 night safari. 1 day more than we were looking at doing from Mwanza and 1 day less than we probably would have liked, but given the state of our finances it was probably a good middle of the road option. The safari incorporated Lake Manyara NP, the famous Serengeti NP and the world renowned Ngorogoro Crater Conservation Area (NCCA).We were collected early in the morning, and then drove round to collect Kefet and Jonathon from their hotel before heading back to the Shidolya office. There is a saying in Swahili that is commonly thrown about, "pole pole" (pronounced polee polee) and it translates to "slowly slowly". The saying is a general reflection of Swahili life (excluding their driving), and this was typically evident the morning of our tour.We sat in the office that morning, twiddling our thumbs and waiting for our guide and cook. I assume they were out buying supplies and fuelling the vehicle, things that would any most other nations be done prior to the beginning of the tour, but in Swahili Africa its just the way things are done and there was no point getting worked up about it. By the time we rolled out of the office it was late morning, and even then we stopped for more supplies on our way out of town. We weren't the only ones in this situation, I am almost positive all the tour companies were the same, not least because we passed so many of them on our way out.By now we had gained our 5th member, Christian the German army commander. He was a middle-aged man, tall, loud and as you would expect from someone in such a profession, quite decisive and direct. He was a jovial character though, and his booming laugh caught us off guard the first couple of times. Kefet and Jonathon (K&J) the Israelis were much quieter, but as well very friendly and we were glad to have been lumped with a good bunch of people. Id had nightmares of being stuck with geriatric bird-watchers, possessed by a pursuit for the red-breasted savannah warbler, or perhaps a wannabe photographer with 6 tonnes of gear intent on capturing that perfect shot of a buffalo standing on 1 leg. K&J had been married in Israel a couple of days prior, and this was their first day of their honeymoon. We joked that we wanted our tent on the far side of the campground.It was only a couple of hours to the first campsite just outside Lake Manyara National Park. Twiga campsite was nice, it had grass and a swimming pool, and we set up camp before tucking into a late lunch. It was 3pm on the first day and as yet the only wildlife we'd seen were a couple of mangy dogs and the odd suicidal chook dodging the continuous line of safari vehicles. The afternoon had been set aside for a game drive but not until the sun had dived a little lower. Perhaps that is why there had been no hurry in the morning, but then why would they pick us up at 8am.We must admit, we weren't too fussed about going to Lake Manyara NP. The animals we were expected to see, we had seen before and despite Manyara being famous for tree climbing lions (apparently the only place where you can see this), it was the wrong time of year and highly unlikely. There was also a minor chance of spotting leopards, but all in all we saw Manyara as a soft introduction, mainly for those who had never been on safari before, that was tacked on to the start of most tours because of its proximity to Arusha and relatively cheap park and camping fees. We saw plenty of animals that we had seen before, elephants, hippo, giraffe, zebra and buffalo, and whilst the others got excited over baboons and vervets (admittedly we had the first time we saw them too) our enthusiasm didn't really elevate until we spotted a dead bloated hippo and then later in the game drive when we stumbled across a cute family of elephants. The grown elephants were much smaller than those we had seen in Kruger, but the babies just as cute. There were 3 of 4 of the young ones, wrestling and playing and running about. It was great to watch them and their little games, and this was one of the things we really enjoyed when game driving. They were totally unphased by the vehicles and approached within only a couple of metres, but eventually their games led them off into the bushes and it was time for us to move on. It was time to head back to the park gates when our driver got word that a leopard had been spotted just a couple of minutes away. We sped off and stumbled across the animal……………and about 10 other vehicles. The leopard seemed unconcerned by all the commotion, vehicles jostling for prime viewing position, but we were too far away to get a decent view and simply had to wait our turn for others to move off. The leopard began moving round the fork of the tree, his curiosity aroused by the sweet smell of impala grazing near our vehicle. Then the beautiful healthy cat suddenly caught a glimpse of the herd. He climbed down from the tree and gracefully slinked his way towards them, walking straight past our vehicle. Having been last in line, we were now first and so reversed up to follow him, the rest of the 4x4's following in pursuit. The leopard had taken cover behind some small bushes and slowly stalked round the back of a dirt mound hoping to surprise the alarmed group of impala. All along they knew what was happening though, they were skittish at the best of times but now all the impala stood to attention facing where the cat was hiding, stamping their feet and barking loudly. It was awesome to see, our first potential kill, but the leopards cover had been blown and he was never really a chance. I felt sorry for the big guy, surely with all these cars around revving their engines and people making noise it must make his job a little harder - at least at night he would have the place to himself. We were now running late for the gate closure, and all the vehicles sped off in convoy hoping to avoid a potential fine or ban. There were so many vehicles we were sure they would only enforce it in extreme cases, and as expected there were no problems.We arrived back at camp to freshen up before our dinner feast. We chatted about what we had seen, and what we had hoped to see, and Karen and I were pleasantly surprised by our Manyara experience, one of the benefits of having low expectations I guess. Had we not seen the leopard I would here writing and telling you not to waste your time coming to see dead hippos, but for us the infrequent leopard sighting (and so close), coupled with our elephant encounter put a positive spin on the whole place. It was the first time we had seen a leopard in the wild, despite trying our best for 9 days in Kruger NP, and already the benefits of having a local speaking guide who could communicate with the other drivers were being realised. We were unsure whether there would be a competitive streak between the rival companies, but on face value it seemed they were all friends and mostly happy to help each other out.The following morning started a little earlier than the first, and it was nice to be out the gate well before lunch this time. We had a long drive ahead through the NCCA to the Serengeti National Park and eventually our camp at Seronera. We stopped to pay our fees at the gate to NCCA, and whilst signing our life away where accosted by a bearded Aussie and a ginger haired Scot, it was Boner and Susie, returning from their safari. We had a brief chat about the past couple of weeks but our group was waiting for us, so we cut it short and waved them goodbye once more. Minutes later and we were stood atop the Ngorogoro crater rim, the vast sunken earth below us. It was incredible, spectacular and just like we had seen on documentaries back home. This amazing ecosystem, a diverse mammalian habit, it was fantastic to stand and view in awe. Even more remarkable, hundreds of metres below were a thousand black dots, like poppy seeds on a bun ……… elephants, zebras or wildebeest grazing on the lush green grass. We could've stayed for hours watching them move about, but we needed to push on and soon we were back on the road. We would be back for a close up view in the crater on our last day, but beforehand the Serengeti beckoned.The roads were dry and dusty as we descended from the crater rim, terribly bumpy and packed with safari 4x4's.Think of the Serengeti and your mind conjures up all sorts of images of vast open grassy plains with cheetahs atop termite mounds, and silhouetted giraffes in front perfect orange sunsets…………….it wouldn't be too far wrong.Wildlife documentaries and pictures of the Serengeti go hand in hand, it is one of the worlds premier game parks. Karen and I had both long wanted to see it for ourselves and were really excited about the prospect of our first safari there.It was mid morning by the time we arrived at the Serengeti gate entrance, and we had a fair distance to cover to make camp by dark. The plan was to drive directly to the camp, game viewing along the way. Whilst and park fees were being paid, we spent some time arguing with our cook over whether we could open the roof for better viewing, like every other vehicle in the car park. This would normally not have been a problem, but our supplies strapped to the roof were partially blocking the pop-up section and the cook was too lazy to do anything about it. It was frustrating the hell out of me, often you only get one chance to get a good view of an animal and with the roof closed it would be difficult for all to see. His comment was that "we could fix it for tomorrow", but all of us in the car were having none of it and eventually sorted the problem ourselves. It was typical of the laziness of many people we had met along our travels.The Serengeti is massive place, seemingly endless savannah grassland, and at this time of year, dry and dusty in the east at least. Our first stop was for lunch at Olduvai Gorge, the cradle of civilisation and where there oldest ever humanoid remains ( XXXyrs old) have been found. I was keen to see where our eldest ancestors had once roamed, and probably against popular opinion insisted we go there. There was a viewing area for the gorge, and a small anthropological museum which I at least found interesting, but soon after lunch we were back in the vehicle and heading west.At first there was little wildlife to be seen, then increasingly more Thompsons and Grants gazelles, zebra and wildebeest. Our guide got whiff of cheetah lazily cruising the road shoulder up ahead. We had yet to see a cheetah, and before arriving in Africa assumed they would be roaming the plains everywhere, but in fact they were like leopards sightings, quite infrequent. The cheetah was thin, old looking but still graceful in the way he moved. It was awesome to see as he lay down beside the road for a quick rest, and then eventually moved off in search of his next victim. Wow, we had managed another close cat encounter and for Kaz and I the last big animal to tick off our list.We continued on, passing the odd jackal and hyena with their unmistakable gaits. We had expected the plains would be continuously teeming with animals but this was not the case at all. We would drive for long periods without seeing anything at all, and then we would stumble across hundreds of animals, all bunched together. Where the grass grows the grazers are, and where the grazers are the predators follow.Again our driver got word on the radio that there was something interesting ahead. We sped forward to where other vehicles had stopped only to see a second cheetah devouring a small wildebeest it had recently killed. Again, we were close maybe 10 m or so, but perhaps suggesting we weren't quite close enough, the cheetah picked up the kill and dragged it closer, halving the distance. He nervously devoured the small animal, sitting upright after every few mouthfuls to ensure no danger was lurking, his face covered with blood, small bits of flesh hanging from his mouth. It was fantastic to see, a real life documentary unfolding, and for it we had front row seats. With the roof popped we could see perfectly. Again I could have sat there for hours, you don't stumble on a cheetah kill every day, but with time the enemy we needed to move on and so reluctantly pushed ahead, leaving the cheetah to finish his meal before the hyenas or lions arrived.We saw many more animals that afternoon, all that you would expect to see, elephants, giraffes, warthog the list goes on, but only lions at quite a distance. We eventually arrived at our camp, a simple unfenced clearing with a couple of cages and a drop toilet. We had heard the camps in Serengeti were unspectacular despite being ridiculously expensive, but we weren't too fussed, we weren't here for the camps, we were here for the animals. Being unfenced, animals were free to wander through camp and as nightfall descended on us we were told to be careful where we walked, take a torch and stay close to the tents. With scavengers about, lured by the smell of food, hyenas and jackal mainly, cages had been erected in which the food was cooked and eaten. It was sort of a reverse zoo I guess, and that night we were on show. Tummies full we retired to our tents, to fall asleep to the jackals howling and hyenas cackling. We were up early before sunrise, and as we walked about camp we could here the laughing hyenas just beyond the bushes. When we had gotten up for a loo break in the middle of the night I had seen a couple of jackals in my torchlight, but fortunately no hyenas. Hyenas are renowned for having the strongest jaw in the animal kingdom and have been known to chew through car tyres, presumably when extremely hungry. Anything that might be left lying around camp may inadvertently become the next hyena meal, but we've been told that if you stay in your tent they won't bother you - I hope theyre right.After a light breakfast we ventured out to watch the sunrise. Typically beautiful, typically African, typically the Serengeti in fact. A reddy orange fireball slowly rising behind silhouetted umbrella trees and acacias being browsed by giraffes. It really was the stuff that takes your breath away. The sun gently floated above the plains and as the shadows lifted, the morning dew sparkling in the new light, dozens of giraffes gangled unconvincingly between the thorn trees like an acrobats on stilts. We drove around for several hours spotting more of what we'd already seen. We'd hoped to see some lions up close, but with the days now hot and the grass long, they lay low for cover. Given the time of year, Karen and I had also hoped to come across the great migration, wildebeest congregating and moving in their 100's of thousands. We had hoped we would see them retuning to the Serengeti plains to feast and calve but timing is unpredictable and dependent on the rains. We were told that the main group had moved on, beyond our reach that morning, and this was disappointing for us. The great migration is apparently the greatest wildlife spectacle on earth and a sight to behold.We returned to camp to pack our things and make our way back the way we came to Ngorogoro Crater, the wildlife piest de resistance. Along the way we again saw much of the same but we were happy to stumble on some tardy wildebeest herds, returning from the migration. They were galloping almost single file and the line extended as far as the eye could see, there were perhaps a 1000 or so and we could only imagine the full monty.We arrived atSimba camp on the Ngorogoro rim in late afternoon. The grassy campsite, surrounded by lush vegetation and overlooking one of the best views you could imagine, the crater. As the zebras wandered nonchalantly munching the green grass, we were surprised by the appearance of a large bull elephant. This was crazy stuff, he had appeared out of the dense forest and slowly lumbered towards us standing by the safari vehicles. We were 5 or so metres from the beast, perhaps a little too close and we backed away as the animal flapped his ears and warned us back. We were fairly lucky, this one was used to human presence and was a regular at the campsite, he'd come for an easy drink, slurping the water from the water tank. Again it was great to just stand and watch, so close you could hear the giant slurps. It was unforgettable.The thing that initially struck me about the Ngorogoro Crater Conservation Area was all the people wandering about. This had traditionally been Masai land and outside the crater itself the area was still used extensively for cattle grazing. The tall thin Masai wander about in their traditional tartan-like shawls, scowling at the tourists driving through their land. They seem unhappy about the tourist presence and dislike the voyeurs photographing them. Our guide told us they would throw rocks at the car if we took photos. The Masai issue is definitely a sensitive one and I can see both sides of the argument, conservation v culture, but for the time being it seems a reasonably happy medium has been reached. It is because of the Masai presence that Ngorogoro, often labelled the 8th natural wonder of the world, is labelled a Conservation area and not a protected National Park just like the adjacent Serengeti, whether or not it remains so I don't know.It was a touch chilly that evening, camping at 2200m, so after dinner and a couple of cool beers it was off to bed to prepare for an early start. We had planned to get in the crater early as we had heard the vehicle congestion could get pretty bad later in the mornings, and we wanted to sample the serenity of the crater ourselves. It would mean missing sunrise over the crater from camp, but we decided it was worth it.As luck would have it, the clouds were thick, and the sun was nowhere to be seen when we descended into the crater soon after the gates opened. At 23km in diameter there was a lot of ground to cover and like all, we had a half day pass to explore. Unfortunately, the serene isolation wasn't to be, and soon after arriving on the crater floor the safari vehicles had banked up and were driving single file. We watched along with about half a dozen other cars, some lions wander past at a reasonable distance, but soon broke away from the group. We curiously followed an overly pregnant or perhaps morbidly obese hyena, hunted down a wandering hippo and admired some prancing crowned cranes. There were animals everywhere, the density amazing and for the most part they all lived happily and peacefully in harmony. There were zebra, warthog, wildebeest, gazelle, flamingos, buffalo, lions, the list goes on………….. It wasn't long though before we were back in convoy, and spotted a black rhino in the distance, before a small pride of young male lions. We moved to intercept the lions a few hundred metres along but by the time they had arrived at the road there was perhaps 15 vehicles lined up and jostling for prime position. It's a common gripe I know, but it really did annoy me and detract from the whole experience. Here were these amazing animals parading in front of us and drinking from the potholes on the road, and meanwhile cars pushed closer and closer, almost running over the poor cats in the process, it was a zoo alright, but we were the animals.The lions were great to see, so powerful and so close, but it had really annoyed me too. We decided to move on, and later came upon a lioness eating a bloated buffalo. Again it was chaotic mess of vehicles and it reminded me of Kampala bus station, even the poor lion seemed disturbed by it all and eventually she wandered off into the grass for some privacy.We cruised pass an elephant graveyard, somewhere the older animals go to die. The grass was soft and lush here, and gentle on the old mammals teeth, but eventually they would starve, no longer able to chew. We saw some rangers loading some monster tusks of one recently deceased into the back of a ute, the ivory collected and given to the government to sell once the animal had died.The day was getting on and we were heading out when we witnessed a small face pop out of the grass. It was a rare serval cat that I had hoped to see, and although it was obscured by the grass I was just happy there hadn't been 30 other vehicles around.We climbed out of the crater and headed briefly back to camp. Our safari was all but over. It had been enjoyable, we had seen some beautiful animals and experienced the African plains. For us, the crowds were perhaps a little too much. We were glad we had chosen 4 days, it was the perfect amount of time, and speaking to people who had chosen longer, they often remarked that 4 days would have been ideal. We were also lucky to have had a great bunch of people, the new group a refreshing change of faces, and we farewelled them over dinner later that evening.