25.08.2017

Serengeti Journey

written by:
Sharyn Hodges

25.08.2017

Serengeti Journey

That “animal smell” and dust storms

It’s 00h32 and I am sitting in the business lounge at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International airport waiting for my connecting flight back to South Africa at 07h30. I tried to sleep but couldn’t, so here I am starting my first blog about Tanzania and in particularly the Serengeti (and surrounds). The cappuccinos are flowing (although I feel that I should open a bottle of champagne) and I am undecided whether I should eat my duty-free Lindt dark chocolate or keep it as a reward for finishing this blog.

When I was approached by Fell & Company to join them for a month in Tanzania to do a project for Easy Travel TZ, I honestly thought it was a joke; a belated April Fool’s revenge. I mean, these opportunities don’t usually cross paths with people like me –  a novice in photography terms, I have wild crazy hair, I hardly own make-up or a hair brush and I walk around in skirts and dresses. This is what EVERY photographer wants to do; travel the world and take photographs of “once in a lifetime ”experiences.

One of my first cheetah males enjoying some shade in the Western Corridor, Serengeti.

Our itinerary included places like Arusha National Park, Ngorongoro Caldera, Tarangire National Park, Zanzibar, Cradle of Mankind, and the Serengeti to mention but a few.  I knew this was an opportunity that would never come around again. Without a moment’s hesitation, I said YES. To be honest, I knew nothing about Tanzania. In fact, I didn’t even know how the flag looked like. While I was googling Tanzania and waiting for the images to download, I closed the browser tab. I wanted to go with NO expectations. I made my promise to Tanzania that I would go with an open mind and heart.

So here we go, the first installment of my blog-series will be about the Serengeti. I got to spend three nights in the Western Corridor (yes, we saw the Great Migration) and then four nights in the Central Serengeti.

I am sure you have seen a photograph of or a TV programme about the Great Migration of the wildebeest and zebra. I have seen this way too many times and National Geographic does such an unbelievable job in capturing this amazing instinctual migration. I never in my wildest dreams thought that I would bear witness to this myself.

I am an 80’s kid and grew up watching (and crying because of!) The Lion King. This high grossing animation propelled the Serengeti into the minds of people. Disney sent a team of animators to explore the sights, sounds, sunrises, sunsets, landscape, craters etc of Tanzania. Olduva Gorge (a 50km long and 90km deep canyon) is where that heart retching death of King Mufasa scene happened. With this childhood favourite firmly embedded in my mind’s eye, I couldn’t wait to get to the Serengeti. I was childishly excited about leaving footprints in the same places I imagined Simba, Nala, Scar and Mufasa to have roamed freely.

Having said that, there is more to Tanzania than game reserves and exotic beaches. Found on the road from the Ngorongoro Crater to the Serengeti National Park, is Olduvai Gorge, probably the most important paleoanthropological site in the world. All thanks to archaeologists Louis and Mary Leakey in the 1930’s when they discovered a series of fossils that would forever document the evolution of mankind.

One of these discoveries is the “Nutcracker Man” a Paranthropusboisei male estimated to be 1.75 million years old and ultimately securing the fact that the human race originates exclusively from Africa. Mary Leakey also found a series of preserved hominid footprints in 1976 at Laetoli, a site located some 45 kilometers south of the Gorge. The footprints are preserved in ash and proves that hominid species walked on two legs, some 3.7 million years ago. There is a small museum worth visiting and you are allowed to go down into the Gorge with a guide. Please don’t try and take anything with you as a memento; if you get caught, it really isn’t worth it. While you are there, take a trip to the mysterious Tanzania Shifting Sands. This fine, black volcanic ash dune is magnetic and moves approximately 17 metres each year. The Masai believe the Shifting Sands is a sacred place and often whent hey are in need of resources, they will visit these sands and ask for help.

     
Olduvai Gorge, between Ngorongoro Crater to the Serengeti National Park. Tanzania Shifting Sands. Some of finds at Olduvai Gorge can be viewed at the Museum.

Our Serengeti experience would be split into two parts: three nights in the Western Corridor and four nights in the Central Serengeti. The Serengeti has so much to offer and I could write about it for days, but I have chosen a couple of my most precious highlights from both the Western Corridor and Central Serengeti stays.

Before we embark on this adventure together, the word “Serengeti” comes from the Masai people (who had been grazing their livestock in the open plains) who describe this area as Siringet, which means “that place where the land runs on forever.”They sure got that one right! There is so much space, it never seems to end.

The Western Corridor

We flew from Arusha Airport in a little Cessna plane that we had all to ourselves. Part of the flight plan is to go over the Ngorongoro Crater (sadly it was very cloudy and we didn’t see much). But the closer we got to the Western Corridor and our destination of Grumeti Airport, we started to see the wildebeest in their thousands. They looked like little black ants scurrying for spilled sugar on a kitchen floor. Incredible.

The runway is a gravel strip that sometimes requires the pilot the fly low and chase the animals off the strip, turn around and try to land again. Welcome to the Serengeti!

I remember the first thing I thought as the door opened and we got hit by the heat of the Serengeti, was “I smell animal.”Yes, that is exactly what this “princess” thought. It is such a distinct smell. I was losing layers of clothing faster than a slot machine taking money.

Just another beautiful sunset in the Serengeti.

We checked into our very impressive Presidential suite at Mbalageti Tented Camp situated on Mwamyeni Hill that has the most breathtaking views of the vast Dutwa Plain. You can also enjoy the uninterrupted views of the plains toward the Mbalageti River, an ideal place to be enjoying the wildebeest migration. If you want to leave your room at night fall, either for dinner or to use the internet in the reception area, you are required to walk with a Masai for your own safety as the camp is not protected by fences. To be honest, it is actually rather exciting knowing that a predator like a hyena or lion could be lurking and watching. It definitely gets the heart rate up and makes deciding on a dessert more difficult, as this could potentially be my last dessert on this EARTH! It better be good!

From the sky

Our first activity was a hot air balloon trip with Serengeti Balloon Safaris. Having been on one before in South Africa, I thought it would be boring as the last time we flew very high above the ground and we couldn’t see much. Boy, was I wrong!

Just to show you how low we actually flew. Unbelievably close to the animals.

This was my favourite experience from my time in Tanzania. It was well worth the early morning wake-up call and free “Serengeti Massage” (this is the term we used for driving the bumpy roads). We had a quick introduction and safety briefing with our pilot, Shaun, (from Canada) and he turned what was already an amazing experience, into the BEST experience. His humour, stories and personality made this flight even more exceptional. Hot air balloon adventures are just that; an adventure. The balloon floats in whichever direction the winds blow that day, and as Shaun said, we know where we are starting, but we don’t know where we will land.

The legendary pilot, Shaun and myself.

We watched the sunrise over the Serengeti Plains and in the distance I could see the dust surrounding the wildebeest. We flew unbelievably low, we lifted when we approached trees and I could see monkeys jump from tree to tree. As we approached a ravine all of a sudden out of nowhere thousands upon thousands of wildebeest started to run and we were so low that I could feel the energy, hear the hooves and snorting. The moment was too much for me and I got a little “dust in myeye”. This is the moment people dream of; the moment most National Geographic photographers pursue and here I was, this small town girl, with big dreams and an open heart, floating above the Great Migration in a hot air balloon. My life as I knew it could not get any better.
The wildebeest creating a dust storm during sunrise.

We were treated to an African breakfast under an acacia tree, where we were entertained with great stories by Shaun while eating a delicious meal together.

Almost a lucky shot

Another special moment was after we chased the sunrise, we settled on the banks of a small river and noticed there were a few crocodiles in the water. The wildebeest and zebra were extremely nervous to get too close, but this is the Serengeti and it’s thirsty work. We must have camped out there for about two hours, convinced we would see a croc take down a wildebeest or the very least a baby one. Well, it nearly happened, the croc sneakily snuck close to the thirsty wildebeest and launched itself onto one. We, thought we were “in it to win it” –  lucky for the wildebeest, (unlucky for us!)it was a miss and the croc disappeared back into the water. So close, yet so far. Although the chaos in the water made for good images, this will be remembered as the moment that got away.

Spot the CROC!

Central Serengeti

I think the big attraction that lures people to come to the Serengeti is the Big Five. The Big Five consists of the lion, rhino, elephant, cape buffalo and the leopard. The only one I haven’t seen in the wild and that I was beyond desperate to see, were the elusive leopards.

Endeni promised me that if I didn’t see a leopard here in the Central Serengeti, he would dress up as one and climb a tree for me. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to see more: a real leopard or Endeni trying to climb a tree! Tough choice.

Our Central Serengeti stay would find us at Tortilis Camp. Yes, a tented camp, but not your average tent that you need a science and psychology degree to understand and operate. These tents are designed with comfort in mind and it’s hard to believe how big they are. Each tent has en-suite facilities, shower, basin and flush toilet. There is room to move around and a little “veranda” where you could get lost reading a book or enjoying a late afternoon cup of coffee before going out for your sunset game drive. Just like our previous camp, you are required to walk with a Masai for your own safety.

Mother and son, a morning I am still reliving in my heart.

We sat and watched these two for about 45 minutes. The little guy was so intrigued by our vehicles that he came and inspected what all the fuss was about. He tried his luck with our aerials and scratched at our tyres, he tried to climb up the bonnet, but then he spotted a sand bag that we used to stabilize our cameras. He elegantly leapt up and grabbed the sand bag. He continued to chew on and drag that bag around, but we needed it back. We got it back in the end after he had a play with it.

Those are not lions?!

So, with the moods visibly lighter, we went on to see what the Serengeti has to offer, driving along “Koppies” in hopes of finding lions. Suddenly Gman spotted two animals in the long dry grass.“Lions,” he exclaimed. “Finally!” I said, “finally we are going to see some lions!” I grabbed my 400mm lens, but then my heart just jumped, as I realized those were NOT lions. “LEOPARDS!” I shouted, “LEOPARDS, GUYS”! Two of them, mating. I was freaking out. They were walking towards us and our driver was on the radio to the other vehicle shouting in Swahili, what I could only think meant “Get your ass over here, we have leopards!”

A male leopard making his way to the “Koppie” and his lady!

This was another one of those “dust in my eye” moments; I was more than happy to see a leopard in the distance lying in a tree, but to see them walk towards us, mating as they went along, past our car and into the Koppies where they continued their little love affair – this was magical. Again, I had to put my camera down and just enjoy the moment for what it was. An experience of a lifetime. How many times will I see this? To put it in perspective, our driver, GMan, a game ranger (and anti-poacher) for many many years, has NEVER seen this. I am surely the luckiest person alive.

A very special moment, a Lion cub peering over Mum. My heart melted quicker than a hot knife through butter!

The Lion King and his family

Yes, we did see lions, the Serengeti has a population of 4 000 lions, the largest in the world.  We were once again on a sunrise game drive when we spotted a lion kill, a zebra, right next to the road. If you are squeamish, then a close-up of a kill is NOT for you. I felt a little nauseous just at the smell and the amount of blood. But, the real excitement of that day was when we spotted one baby lion cub suckling from its mommy right next to the kill. I can’t explain the cuteness overload. I just wanted to cuddle and kiss it (I was missing my fur baby tremendously at this stage!).

The last highlight of the Central Serengeti, the Hippo Pools. If you manage to get to see it, it’s hilarious. I don’t know how many hippos there are, if I had to guess maybe 300, bathing all together and in their own poop.

The Hippo Pools, one of the funniest things you will ever see!

So, why do thousands of people flock to the Serengeti?

I’ve concluded that there are multiple reasons why tourists love the open plains of the Serengeti. First and foremost, the Great Migration is probably what the Serengeti is most famous for, when over1.5 million wildebeest and about 200 000 zebra migrate from the north to the Southern Plains for the short rains every October and November and then swing westwards and north after the long rains from April – June. This instinctive migration can’t be stopped by crocodile infested waters, drought or gorge. This will go on and on forever and ever.

  Maybe it is because the Serengeti is the oldest protected conservation, established in 1929. It is 14, 763 km sq of grassland plains, riverine forest, woodlands and dry savannas. Making this the best opportunity to see the Big Five, with over 4 000 lions in the Serengeti. This is after all where The Lion King was “born”.

 

Apart from the Big Five, there area mple animals, which includes wildebeest, zebra, hyenas, impalas, Masai giraffe, waterbuck, warthogs, mongoose, cheetah, duiker, topi, eland, jackal, bat-eared fox, primates (baboons and vervet monkeys) and the abundance of bird life is ridiculous, I unfortunately don’t know many birds.

 

Whatever the reasons behind people’s decisions to visit the Serengeti, whether it’s the migration, the Big Five or just to find some peace in the vast open spaces of this land that never ends, surprises wait around every corner. The Serengeti has taken a piece of heart and I feel guilty about leaving without giving as much as I received.

I am home nearly for a week now and all I can say is, I am missing “that animal smell”.

None of these images could have been captured without my amazing equipment. Most photographers will tell you one of the most important pieces of equipment is your bag. At various stages my bag (and my back!) carried 17kg. So, you can imagine if your bag isn’t up to scratch not only your equipment will suffer but your back, too.

Enter the most amazing Manfrotto Pro Light 3N1-36 Camera Backpack, this bag is absolutely the best (or BEAST). There are SO many features that I love about this bag. I will try and mention only but a few of the features that made this bag the perfect travel partner for deep, dark Africa:

The safe laptop compartment. Being able to carry all my equipment in one bag makes life so much easier.  The bag also complies with air travel’s cabin luggage standard size, so your bag is always in arm’s reach. I flew 14 times and not once was there an issue with taking my bag on the airplane as hand luggage. Manfrotto bags come with their unique CPS (camera protection system) which has been specifically designed and laboratory tested to guarantee the highest level of protection and shock resistance where it really matters. This is my first bag that came with PROPER tripod attachments; again, it makes such a difference that you don’t have to worry if your tripod is about to slip out. This bag is also water repellent thanks to a special coating that has been applied to the fabric which is resistant to moisture. The bag also comes with a fold out rain protector that you can easily fold over your bag for maximum protection. Further, it comes with interchangeable dividers to ensure that you have the final say where and what equipment goes in. Apart from these awesome features, there is a compartment that allows for personal items, this is what I called my “snack section”. Loaded with water, snacks, sun lotion, gloves and a beanie.

Camera Equipment
Nikon D750 x 2
Nikon 80 – 400mm 4.5-5.6
Sigma 24 – 70mm 2.8
Nikon 14 – 24mm 2.8
Nikon 50mm 1.8
Nikon SB 90 Flash
Manfrotto Tripod 190 Go! Aluminium 4-Section Twist Lock tripod with Head
Elephants can be seen readily and we got to see four babies in this herd. They are just the cutest little things. When they run around with their trunk flying all over the place, giggles for days!

Sharyn Hodges

South African

Sharyn Hodges likes to describe herself as “just lucky”. Home is Plettenberg Bay, South Africa, a sleepy little sea-side village where the sun rises and sets in colours one can only imagine.

She is inspired daily by nature’s ever changing canvas of textures, colours and patterns.

Her work varies from weddings and events to nature and landscapes, but her heart lies buried in the vast expanses of Plett’s beaches and the sheer splendour of the surrounding Garden Route and South Africa.

Photography is in her veins; her mission is to capture those fleeting seconds of beauty which characterises this fragile adventure we call life.

Her travel companion, Nikon D750.

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