An Attenborough Style African Adventure
I have always loved watching nature documentaries, a night in with Attenborough is as good as a night out in my book! A world apart from the concrete jungle of South London where I grew up, I’ve dreamt of going on an African safari for as long as I can remember. Finally earlier this year I fulfilled my dream.
I’ve travelled so many places on my own but I thought Africa may be a stretch too far for me to navigate as a lone female traveller. I had never tried a group travel experience before and wasn’t totally enamoured with the idea. In the end though after researching where I wanted to go and how much distance I wanted to cover it made the most sense. I opted for a 21 day trip with G Adventures with my first few days on safari in the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania. In hindsight Africa was much safer to travel than I had initially thought, but being able to share this adventure with new found friends definitely added to the experience.
While I’ve seen some wild animals on my travels this was my first ever safari and I’ve never been so excited. From Nairobi we travelled to the Serengeti to start our first days game drives. The 2 hour wait at the National Park gates waiting for our permits was more than a little tenuous but that was quickly forgotten. As soon as we saw our driver with the permit in his hand we all rushed back onto the jeep, cameras at the ready. The jeep hood popped, we started our way into the park, the desert heat and golden dust washing over us. It quickly became apparent why the Maasai named this area the Serengeti, meaning “endless plains”. The wide open golden expanse seemed to go on forever and made spotting wildlife much easier than I expected. Given I don't have the greatest eyesight I was very grateful for this.
Just minutes into the park we saw shadows in the distance and headed towards them, You could feel the excitement in the jeep, we were really here, on safari in one of the world’s greatest National Parks. The jeep slowed and crawled to a halt next to a groups of zebra and impala grazing together.
For the first few minutes I just stood observing them, thrilled to finally be there, watching wild animals in their natural habitat. Suddenly the weight around my neck reminded me to pick up my camera and start snapping. I was surprised how comfortable they were with us just metres away from them. They carried on grazing away without barely a glance in our direction as if we were invisible in their world.
Our guide told us the nickname for these beautiful impala was “MacDonalds” due to the M shaped markings on their butt and the fact that they are common prey. Although it gave me a laugh, I did wonder hoe i’d feel if I saw one of these gorgeous creatures being hunted. Elton John’s “Circle of Life” played in my head for a while that day.
Our guide promised there was much more to see so we headed off again and very quickly my dream of seeing big cats in the wild came true. Our guide slowed as he spotted something, scouring the land at first I couldn’t see what I was looking at. Then just 20 metres away, camouflaged by the golden grasses, a cheetah emerges and struts towards us.
Everyone on the tour had a favourite animal they hoped to see and for me this was it. I never expected to see one so early into our drive, so this was an absolute highlight and a sign of things to come. She continued towards us, not in the slightest intimidated, padding softly until she was right below us. My heart was almost beating out of my chest, unsure whether to be scared or exhilarated by the proximity of this predator. We could see every hair as she moved elegantly past our jeep and out again into the grasses.
Everyone looked at each other, wide eyed and smiling at our first close encounter with a big cat. We were just half an hour in and I was already on cloud nine! Part of me didn’t want to leave that spot, I wanted to wait and see if she returned but our guide promised there would be more over the coming days and he wasn’t wrong.
As we continued on into the park we started to see some of Africa’s larger animals. Giraffes feeding from the treetops, watching us out the corner of their eye beneath those long eyelashes. They move so gracefully, even when they galloped away, it was as if they were in slow motion.
Later into our day we encountered our first traffic jam. Several jeeps had stopped ahead of us and a huge herds of elephants, moved slowly together across the track. Bulls, mothers, juveniles and calves all together, their thick skins, dry and wrinkled from the hot sun. The sheer size of one bull alone is pretty intimidating let alone a tribe 30 strong, yet they passed us by without trepidation, their calm demeanour disseminating any fear we may have had.
Heading in the direction of camp we drove around some waterways where we came across some creatures I’m more familiar with from back in Australia. Only just visible lurking in the shallows were crocodiles, no doubt waiting for some unsuspecting animal to come for some much needed water.
As the sun started to set, the golden landscape changed through oranges, and reds as we approached our home for the night. Our camp was pretty basic, there was one small building with toilets and showers and then another semi open block which would be the kitchen. No walls or fencing, we were open camping in the middle of the Serengeti! It seemed strange that while on the game drive we were not allowed out of the jeep and yet just a short drive from where we’d passed elephants, crocs and hyenas roaming, we were going to sleep with just our thin 2 man tents as protection. But this was the adventure we were promised and I was excited for it!
Our safety briefing was simple:
Don’t go anywhere alone.
Do not go more than 100M from our site.
If you do need to go to the toilet in the middle of the night, wake up your buddy.
Carry rocks late at night to throw and scare off any lurking animals.
If you do see a wild animal do not run. If you run you are prey!
After that slightly concerning talk we waited beside the campfire for dinner discussing what each group had come across on their game drives that day. After our dinner I went to work on a bit of night photography, it’s not often you get to experience dark like in the middle of a National Park. There were so many stars, like nothing I’d experienced before.
Crouching so close to the ground, away from the safety of the campfire I couldn’t help but wonder what was lurking in the darkness close by. A couple of new-found friends stood watch, turning the headlamps on to scan the vicinity between shots.
After a few drinks everyone headed to bed. I don’t think anyone wanted to drink too much, I for one didn’t relish the idea of a toilet run in the middle of the night armed only with rocks!
I lay in my tent wide awake, thinking over all the amazing things i’d seen on my first day and wired for the 2 more days ahead. The chitter-chatter from the other tents drew silent and I lay waiting, listening out for movements outside. Whether I was still awake or had awoken later i’m not sure, but at some point that night, hyenas came. Their calls got closer and closer and then i heard the rubbish bins go over. I knew hyenas were scroungers but I hadn’t expected wild animals to go through the rubbish for scraps. I tried to peek out but it was too dark to see anything as the campfire had burnt out. Slowly the noise subsided and I drifted off to sleep.
We were up again around 5 and quickly on our way for our second day in the Serengeti. The sun not yet up meant the air was cool as we drove out of camp. We watched the sun rise as we drove out spotting birds and monkeys along our way. It seemed this was the day for lion spotting. We started out back towards the waterways and our driver got notified of a family not far away so we headed towards them. Our first lion spots were a little distant and obstructed so we couldn’t get the best view but could se glimpses of several cubs playing with the lionesses sprawled out in the rising sun. We saw countless more monkeys and giraffe before stumbling across a group of juvenile lions sprawled out under a tree close to the track.
The lay there sleeping, taking advantage of the shade, the only movement being a flick of the tail or ears to shake away unwanted flies. They seem so docile and yet you could see their powerful muscles and huge paws and were reminded the harm they could do.
Throughout the day we saw all different species of birds from soaring vultures to colourful waterbirds, there were antelope, zebra, wildebeest and warthogs grazing beside the trackside.
Later we came across more of my favourites, a family young cheetah cubs hiding beneath a bush. Some sleeping while others sat awake keeping a look out. Their spotted coats all blending together and into the grass.
We continued on and I thought i’d seen a male lone lion walk through the bush. My eyes has tricked me a few time so i kept looking, squinting in the sun. But this time i was right and called out to Rashid to stop. He slowed and seeing the lion himself congratulated me on a good spot, this lion was a good 250m away still. I wasn’t expecting what happened next. My lion changed course from walking parallel with the road to coming toward the road. We couldn’t believe it, from being so far away he was now coming straight towards our jeep. His regal presence had an immediate effect, everyone was silent bar the clicking of cameras. Everyone willing him to come closer.
We watched in awe as he padded past, so close we could see the beating of his heart. Muscles visibly flexing as he shifted his weight slowly and elegantly from one shoulder to the other. He walked around our jeep to a tree on the other side of the track. He sat for a few minutes before retracing his footstep back past us and off again into the grasses. It was as if he had just wanted to show us this was his turf, he was not intimidated.
Our Big cat count was clocking up pretty quickly today! We were now getting quite ambitious and challenged our guide to find us a leopard. After several sightings over the radio, we finally had the illusive leopard in our sights. These guides know where to look, despite 6 of us on the jeep looking in all different directions, it was our guide Rashid that spotted 90% of our sightings. Our leopard was laying on the branch of a tree, cleverly disguise, his tail the only thing giving him away.
Although he was quite a way from us we had now seen four of the big 5, with high hopes of completing the set with a rhino the next day. The air started to cool and we set off back toward our second nights camping spot closer to the Ngorongoro crater.
A thick fog had drawn in and we changed into warmer clothes ready for dinner. As the evening went on, our camp drew darker, foggier and rains started to drizzle. Our head torches barely allowed us 2 metres visibility through the fog and a couple in our group got quite a surprise en route to the bathroom. A buffalo had wandered into camp and was grazing in the darkness between our tents and the bathroom block! Fortunately the buffalo was more interested in grass that anything else but we were all a bit more vigilant that evening. After a delicious meal and a few glasses of red to warm us up we headed to bed, eager to wake up and explore the Ngorongoro Crater the next day.
The next morning the rain was still coming down as we descended into the Ngorongoro Crater, home to the the highest density of predators in Africa.
This ethereal crater is vastly different to neighbouring Serengeti. Lush rainforest areas fringe the crater walls and mist clouds the rim above, creating confusion as to where the land ends and sky begins.
From the crater floor we saw drama start to unfold as four lionesses strategically moved in towards a herd of impala. We watched as they stalked ever so slowly, one step and a time, keeping their heads and bodies low to the floor.
After ten minutes getting into position, we were willing them to make chase but they hesitated too long and something spooked the impala first. As soon as one moved the whole herd were off, bouncing through the grasses faster than I ever imagined their little legs could carry them. The lions took chase but they had missed the element of surprise and were immediately on the blackfoot. They quickly gave up, it wasn’t worth wasting the energy, they had missed their chance. It’s hard in that moment to know if you’re disappointed not to see a successful hunt or just pleased the fragile impala lived the see another day.
We drove on through the rain towards the hippo pools. True to their name these muddy pools were jam packed with hippos. While some some stood still, submerged with birds resting comfortably on their back others moved deeper trying to get a better spot. But with little space, they soon encroached on another and then we got to witness the enormous jaws as they started to fight for space.
Behind us on the other side of the pool a pack of hyenas were devouring a carcass, their coats soaked red from the neck up. Although pop culture has us believe hyenas are cowardly scavengers, the spotted hyena actually kills around 95% of their food. If fact nothing about these hyenas appeared cowardly as they skulked around eyeing our jeep and dripping in fresh blood.
As the day moved on we began to move our attentions to finding the fifth and final big animal, the endangered black rhino. Our guide relentlessly searched for us until finally through the binoculars he had one in his sights. Unfortunately it was a good 500m away, only recognisable through binoculars or the telescopic lens on my SLR. But we could say it, we’d seen the big 5!
Despite the rain, the crater continued to deliver with more elephants, buffalo, hippo and wildebeest and giraffe. As the day drew to a close we returned to the scene of our earlier lioness hunt but this time we were met with a large male lion. It seemed he had been more successful in his hunt for food. As we watched we could see him dragging a dead animal away.
And with that final highlight we headed up the winding road to the rim, looking back at the cloudy crater behind us. My first ever safari was over, but the memories will stay forever and this was just the start of my African adventure.