It does get crowded out there, what with a million and a half wildebeest (also known as gnus), half a million zebras, and hundreds of thousands of assorted gazelles. And the tourists, in lines of buses and land rovers, here to feast as well. The Serengeti migration is one of the greatest events you can plan to witness.
The pickings are rich. Lions, hyenas and crocodiles wait at convenient points on the river banks, licking their lips. The migrants push as far as the bank and wait. Then the throng becomes unbearable and the leaders are pushed forward. Many migrants are eaten; others panic and drown. From the assembled human gallery there are football cheers when a gnu gets through.
The great migration began a month early this year and finished a month late. Unseasonal rain may be changing the habit of a millennium.
It is all about food, a great circle of life like Elton John sang about. Animals head south from the Masai Mara game reserve in Kenya across the river into Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park in search of green grass.
Zebras eat the taller grass, chasing away the tsetse flies that harass the thinner-skinned wildebeest; wildebeest then eat the shorter grass.
They all have different talents. Zebras can see clearly, wildebeest can’t but have a sharp sense of smell; gazelles have good ears.
In all the Serengeti covers 14,700 sq km, about the size of Northern Ireland. Its name comes from a Masai word for “endless plain” and contains 2.5m animals.
You would think an impala could tell it was being stalked by the hum of diesel engines accompanying the cheetahs.
Nope. The cheetahs stalk. The engines hum. The tourists shoot. By now there are twenty vehicles on the Kenyan Serengeti in the Masai Mara. The cheetahs chase, an impala is grounded and the feeding frenzy begins. Quick eating before the hyenas get here. Quick photographing before the spectacle comes to an end.
Safari is exciting and it produces rich results. There are few experiences like the thrill of the chase and being allowed to see it at first hand. Safari is worth u65m a year to the Kenyans.
The most popular safaris are where the lions lurk. The guys with the loudest teeshirts, or the brand-new cotton hats and boots – “The boots that show you know Africa” says the first advertising billboard as you leave Kenyata airport in Nairobi. The guys who check-list animals they see. The guys with the cameras who see very little and bring home snatch shots of landscape with tiny, out of focus animals somewhere lost in the camouflage.
Your guide has seen them all. Like James Wainaina, who guides tourists from the Green Lodge Heritage resort on the Rift Valley. Here the pickings are just as rich, but less spectacular. He loads passengers into the white van that scours the plains (giraffes and zebras think it is a friendly animal) and negotiates the dirt road to the Crater Lake.
Easier said than done.
In dry season the cars limp along dusty and crumbling roads. Plumes of dust sow where the next vehicle is coming from. At one stage he brings his van on to the embankment to avoid the road below.
“Polite notice” says the politest road sign I have ever seen. “No Speed. Dusty Road.” They needn’t have bothered. You would be quicker walking.
Smashed up as the road is it is also teeming, bicycles, schoolchildren in lavender gingham dresses who walk ten kilometres to school, the village parson in white clerical collar on his bike. European cattle are in one well-irrigated field, vegetable nurseries behind another wall. Goods, visitors, staff are all bumped along this road.
An hour after it rains, James says, the road is right as, er, rain.
But now it is not right as rain. It is slow as dripping cactus juice. If Daktari was shot in real time we would see the closing credits before we saw a cat.
“In Africa,” James says, “everything has to be at a slow pace.”
And in among the animals, stands a tall Masai man with a great big 1970s transistor radio to his ear, listening to African swing music. He stands watch with his cattle like his ancestors did before him.
They get ten dollars a head for inviting strangers to the villages.
They will serve you tea in their hut and embrace you with the warmest hospitality.
They were there when the English came in 1901. Now it is international tourists with American dollars. Some of the Masai are still around, answering the call of their ancestors. The Ridge Valley. Home to all our Ancestors.
For this is where we come from.
BOTSWANA Famous for the Okavonga Delta and the Kalihari Desert. Years of stability and prosperity have made this a popular if pricey dual-centre destination with South Africa.
KENYA Lots of options with more than 50 National Parks, the Rift Valley, magnificent Samburu region, Masai Mara and the parks. Beach and safari twins, cultural safaris, adventure safaris, scenic safaris and all the animals.
MALAWI Inexpensive, beautiful and varied, try Robyn Foot’s horseback safari on Nyika National Park or the divine lakeside lodges.
MADAGASCAR Now better known as a beach location. despite the animated movie, check the unique species- most famously lemurs.
MOZAMBIQUE Only ten years out of civil war but with 2,500km of beaches tourism has jumped back to action. Limited safari but check out the eco-lodges along Lake Nyasa, accessible from Lukomo Island in Malawi.
NAMIBIA Pricier than South Africa, big and empty with a beautiful Namib desert and one of the oldest landscapes in the world. Fish River Canyon is the second largest in the world after the Grand Canyon in the USA.
S AFRICA Big Irish favourite, with nearly 40,000 visitors annually and a direct weekly air service in winter. Kruger National Park in the north east is the most famous safari location, Blyde River Canyon nearby is the third largest and only green canyon in the world. Kwazulu Natal has among the most ancient sites in the world.
TANZANIA Slightly more expensive than Kenya, it is home to the Serengeti (of which Masai Mara is an extension) and is home to Mount Kilimanjaro and the Ngorongoro crater. Home to a huge range of animals including chimpanzees, now rarely seen in the wild.
ZAMBIA Ideal safari location with 20 national parks, an unspoilt tourism arrival.
ZIMBABWE Access remains good. Although political instability and isolation have created problems for the holiday sector here the safari centres soldier on.
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