SERENGETI: The First and Last Eden
Jan 1, 2005
David Rich 1000 Words
SERENGETI: T h e F i r s t & L a s t E d e n
One last place remains inviolate, the main place where the world's most formidable animals roam free over an unfenced and complete eco-system vast beyond jaded imagination: Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Conservation Area in Tanzania, East Africa, the precise location where the species began, the first and last Eden.
"Oh, my goodness gracious sakes alive," is the typical reaction upon first sight of what may be the world's largest unbroken volcanic crater, this one crammed with trophy animals. The crater is bewilderingly huge to the television-shrunken eye as it stretches to the horizon, sixteen by nineteen kilometers (ten by twelve miles). Yet Ngorongoro Crater is only a respectable speck in the Serengeti/Ngorongoro eco-system covering thousands of square kilometers north into Kenya's Masai Mara Game Reserve. I teetered on the crater rim 600 meters (2000 feet) above roaming herds of zebra, wildebeest, elephant, lion and pink flamingoes further than I could focus eyes or binoculars.
The Land Cruiser slid down the precipitous windy track to the crater floor, past Masai warriors brandishing spears as they neglected their cattle in favor of tourist dollars for photos. First stop, a proud family of lions, the big guy acting bored among three sinuous females and two cubs, the group sitting and twitching as they gazed fixedly at an impala frozen fast onto the sultry ground a scant hundred meters away. Zoom. Ten Land Cruisers lined up instantly and the lions sauntered off, ignoring the impala. The Landies followed and game scattered like the black line of a tsunami in the lion fore-wake. Behind the lions slunk hyena and jackal, vultures circling hopefully overhead. Meanwhile my Landie politely stopped for a boxcar sized rhino (the first of six we saw) clanking its armor across the track. Digital cameras faked clicks like a swamp of crickets and the beat went on.
We drove by thousands of zebra and wildebeests serenely grazing, lions out of sight but hardly out of mind because of zebra and wildebeest babies sprinkled here and there. The baby zebras were more brown than black under their white stripes. I'd solved the age-old mystery whether zebra were black with white stripes or vice versa upon spotting a turgid papa zebra.
Our Landie rolled up to the hippo pool and for the first time after seeing hundreds of hippo during a month in Africa we saw entire hippos mincing into the water surrounded by white cattle egrets with red-billed oxpeckers searching for hippo ticks on two hippos that rapidly submerged. Our exit from the crater dragged us past 10,000 vivid flamingoes parading their stuff as they scoured shallow Lake Magadi for color enhancing algae.
A track off the road to Serengeti leads to the cradle of mankind at Olduvai Gorge where Louis and Mary Leakey found evidence of our forebears leading back millions of years. Extant footprints are dated 3.8 million years with almost human remains ranging up to two million years old and skeletal remains of prehistoric mammals with fantastic dimensions, horns and physiognomy.
During our first evening in Serengeti we saw a leopard lolling saucily and unconcerned with the single-filed Landies below him, high on a tree branch where he'd dragged a limp impala. The campground sign warned against wandering at night to avoid being eaten, causing many morning-swollen bladders. We hunkered in our tents, abruptly ceasing light-hearted chitchat with the first roar of lions, later followed by the rustle of hyena and skitter of warthogs.
Next morning, unscathed except by long toilet lines, we spotted a series of cheetah reclining craftily on vantage-sighted hillocks, carefully gauging the distance to their prey versus its speed. A healthy pride of lions obligingly climbed a house-sized boulder into a tree, three lionesses and two cubs as big daddy strolled the perimeter depositing markings of amber steam. Further on a warthog suckled, two hyenas humped and three zebras tucked their chins on neighborly rumps while a single file of a thousand wildebeests stormed across the track and a pod of elephants chewed Serengeti (Swahili for 'Endless Plains') grass. There were slews of giraffe, fantastically crowned cranes, eagles, falcons and a dozen species of deer-like sylphs for hearty eating by lions, cheetah and leopard with remains to the scavengers and insects.
I looked down as one such insect landed on my hand. It was a tsetse fly, the dreaded carrier of sleeping sickness. However, they're sluggish so I flicked it out the window before it could bite. Then I said, "Thank you, tsetse fly."
Without the tsetse fly Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Conservation Area with its abundant game wouldn't exist. The tsetse fly kept the Masai and African hunters away. When the European explorers arrived Serengeti and Ngorongoro were teeming with game and have thus been preserved. Without the tsetse fly the last Eden would not exist; only the first. So if you go, give a sincere thanks to the tsetse fly.
When You Go: You can fly into Kilimanjaro International Airport from Dar es Salaam, the capitol of Tanzania, or from most any European Capitol with connections from the States. Roundtrip flights from the States can be had from about $1500. Kilimanjaro International Airport is near Arusha, safari-central for expeditions to Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater.
I counted 75 safari companies in Arusha, ranging from Abercrombie and Kent to World Archipelago, all with references available at the Arusha tourist office, which also blacklists companies accused of scams and poor service. Touts terrorize tourists drumming up trade for the safari companies so check with the tourist office before you book, or book from home. The cost will range from $85/person/day and vastly upward. Some upscale safari lodges charge $450/night/person with safari rides extra. Hundreds of websites cover East African safaris. For useful links and hotels in Arusha see www.moja.com, www.tanzania-web.com, www.naomba.com, www.africaresource.com, www,tanzaniaodyssey.com and www.africapoint.com.