Tanzania: The greatest show on earth

How do you find a birthday present for a man who has everything and has been everywhere? It took months of planning but as our pilot began the descent towards the small sandy runway, a strip across the African bush, I knew I had found the answer.

The gift? A week’s safari at Serian Serengeti North. The camp is located in the Mara area of the Serengeti in northern Tanzania, and is owned and operated by the capable guide and wonderful host, Alex Walker. This is a mobile camp, and its location is governed by the annual migration of the wildebeest. From mid-June to mid-November, along with 1.6 million gnus, the camp is situated in the far north of the Serengeti plains, just to the south of Kenya. The camp is set two kilometres back from the Mara River, making it the best campsite from which to experience the mighty crossings of the wildebeest.

Bison in AfricaThe annual migration of more than a million gnus across northern Tanzania and Kenya is one of the most glorious wonders of the natural world

The Serengeti is truly one of the most spectacular places on the planet. It covers an enormous portion of northern Tanzania and the majestic Mara River, which snakes south from Kenya running through it. This river is famous for its staging of the unbelievable spectacle of the wildebeest river-crossings. The scenery is spectacular. Think vast expanses of wide-open spaces, a million acres of sky, and mega-herds that have to be seen to be believed.

We flew from Arusha to the Kogatende airstrip with Coastal Aviation. As our plane bounced to a stop, Alex Walker ran towards the craft. Never have I seen bags unloaded and then reloaded into a transport vehicle so quickly.

Alex brimmed with enthusiasm. He started up the jeep before we’d even pulled closed the doors. “I know you’ve had a long journey but, if you’re up for it, the wildebeest have started their crossing, so we’ll take a detour to watch them before we head for the camp, OK?”

We nodded, spellbound.

This is why we had come to the middle of the African bush. After watching the David Attenborough filming of one of the ultimate wonders of the world – the magnificent migration of the African wildebeest – we were now going to see it first-hand.

Wildebeest – or gnus – spend their lives on the move, travelling 30,000 kilometres in their lifetime, across the huge plains of the Serengeti, and for a few short months a year they have to cross the Mara River in their quest for fresh green grass. Their route follows the African rains in a huge circle through Tanzania and Kenya.

Alex raced the jeep out of the airport compound, calling to the other vehicles on his radio to try and pinpoint the actual spot of the crossing. It seemed that the wildebeest herd had broken into two columns, both of which were looking for good points to cross the river. The rains started again. We held onto our seats as the car bounced over several rocky river beds to gain access to the main river system and then we stopped suddenly. In front of the jeep, three male leopards peered out from a shrubby bush. What a wonderful dilemma. Do we stay and take photos of the lazing leopards, or aim for the riverbanks to witness “the greatest show on earth”? Well, this was Africa. And in Africa there was time to do both.

And so it was, our introduction to the amazing Serian Camp of Alex Walker.

Leopards, zebra, wildebeest trying to escape from the jaws of crocodiles, cheetah, elephants, giraffe, lions and hippos. We saw them all. Over the next five days we enjoyed the hospitality of the camp, the experience of watching the animals in their natural habitat and the enormity of the African bush. Some of the time we explored the surroundings in our jeep and some of the time on foot. And in the evenings, with a drink around the communal campfire, we exchanged stories of the day with our fellow travellers. As darkness fell, the whole camp came together for a shared dinner, with the background music of the bush, all under a huge canopy of stars.

Husband in copper bathtubOn the evening of my husband’s birthday, we returned to camp a little earlier than usual so that he could enjoy a private bath, set up in the middle of the bush (right). Armed with a gin and tonic he sat in his copper bathtub, in front of a campfire and the setting sun.

It was an experience that will stay with us always, made all the more special by the people and the animals that helped to create it.

Getting There: From Nice, we flew Air France/KLM to Amsterdam and then onto Mount Kilimanjaro via Nairobi. We had a one night stopover in a lovely hotel Onsea House and Cottages (www.onseahouse.com), and were driven 50km to Arusha airport.

Exploring: Alex Walker’s Serian: www.serian.com/we-call-it-home/serengeti-tanzania

Caren Trafford writes environmental books for kids – see www.planetkids.biz – and lives in Provence.

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