Tanzania is a bucket list destination for many. It’s the stuff African safari dreams are made of and the “grand finale” – the Serengeti, with its vast plains best known for huge herds of game and the largest land-animal migration in Africa – seldom disappoints. For Desiree and Simon Steadman of Ultimate Adventures their annual trek to view one of nature’s most aweinspiring spectacles is a highlight on their tour calendar.
An expedition of this magnitude is not something to be taken lightly. During the 10 000 or so kilometres (if you self-drive) you will be faced with some very tough conditions as east Africa is a completely different beast to its tamer cousin in the south. Cumbersome border crossings, atrocious road conditions and dodgy campsite facilities are just a few of the things that have tested our group of adventurers in the run-up to the “grand finale” – an experience that promises to let all of it fade into the distant memory banks…
When leading a tour to the Serengeti, I always try not to build it up too much in the beginning as we want everyone to stay in the moment and appreciate the little things along the way, immersing themselves in the whole expedition experience. However, as we head into the final leg of this trek that usually takes four to six weeks, the energy and excitement is tangible.
Our last stop – the incredibly beautiful Ngorongoro Crater – had already delivered some life-long memories and stories for the campfire arsenal. But the big one was waiting – the visit to the world’s most famous wildlife sanctuary. At this point I usually let loose with the tales from previous trips and how their minds would be blown on every game drive as the Serengeti, in my opinion, is by far the best game-viewing destination I have visited in my 15 years of travelling around Africa.
As I gave my pre-departure briefing that morning, I felt like Francois Pienaar giving one last speech to the team before heading out on to the field for the Rugby World Cup Final. With everyone raring to go, our convoy rolled out of Kudu Lodge and made its way through the Ngorongoro Conservation area to the bone-jarring road that leads to the Naabi Hill Gate in the southern part of the Serengeti National Park.
Whenever we have a testing drive ahead, I always say: “To get to the wild places, you need to drive the wild roads.” It certainly applies to this particular drive. The last 50km or so to the gate is one of the worst gravel roads you could ever imagine driving. It’s a combination of corrugations and bumpy, rocky gravel that rattles every cell in your body for over an hour. Luckily the reward at the end of the road is truly worth it and as you enter the Naabi Hill Gate and drive over a small rise, the Southern Plains of the Serengeti open up in front of you, giving you goosebumps from head to toe. “Welcome to the Serengeti!,” I always announce over the radio, to a mixture of “whoop whoops” and stunned silence. You have to experience it for yourself to really understand how this place gets into your soul and leaves you awestruck from sunrise to sunset.
The Serengeti National Park is a World Heritage Site that is home to over 2 million ungulates, 4 000 lions, 1 000 leopards, 550 cheetah and around 500 bird species, covering an area of almost 15 000 square kilometres. The habitats in the park vary from the endless plains in the south, dotted with acacia trees and koppies, to riverine forests in the western corridor along the Grumeti River. The Great Migration is, of course, the main drawcard for the park, with around 1.5 million white-bearded gnus and 500 000 zebras making their circular journey, constantly in search of grazing grounds that can support such a huge mass of hungry stomachs.
The migration is a continuous movement and can be experienced at any time of the year. After the big rains in December/January, the super herds gather on the southern Plains to drop their calves before slowly moving north through the park until they reach the Grumeti River around late June or early July. Once the masses have all reached the Western Corridor and the banks of the Grumeti, the most iconic wildlife spectacles take place as they make the treacherous trek through the crocodile infested river and continue north towards the Mara River. The latter is an even bigger obstacle for the herds to tackle before arriving in the Masai Mara National reserve in Kenya (usually around August), before returning to the northern Serengeti in October to complete the clockwise journey and arrive at the southern plains again in December.
We like to visit the park in the months of May to July when the herds can be found pretty close to the Seronera Valley. It is home to the public campsites, making it a short drive every day to find the herds as they slowly head north.
Watching this natural wonder on television is one thing but actually experiencing it for yourself and being surrounded by a super herd of over 100 000 wildebeest is something you cannot put into words. As you sit there and watch the spectacle unfold in front of you, your eyes do not know where to look first and the sound is deafening. Every time we visit the park and have our first migration encounter, it brings most of the group to tears, engraining life-long memories that you cannot compare to anything else you have ever experienced.
The best thing about self-driving in the Serengeti is that you are free to explore the far reaches of the park. The masses of game viewers, filled to the brim with international tourists, do not visit here frequently as they tend to stick around the Seronera area in order to keep to their scheduled game drives and have their high-paying guests back at the lodge in time for their lavish breakfasts and high tea. For me, there is nothing better than heading out onto the vast plains to enjoy a bush breakfast in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by your own National Geographic wildlife documentary. It’s moments like this that make the toils of the journey to get there seem irrelevant and it is what makes us overlanders tick.
But wait, there’s more
Do not for one moment think that the Serengeti is just about the Great Migration. Oh no, there is so much more to experience here during this time of plenty. From the picture-perfect sunrises and sunsets to the mind-blowing number of predator encounters, the Serengeti is relentless in its offerings on every game drive. I could go on for days about the amazing wildlife sightings we have enjoyed over the years, but I can recall one particular day that pretty much sums up the Serengeti’s game-viewing prowess.
We like to leave camp just before sunrise and find a good spot to enjoy a cup of tea and a rusk while watching the sun peak over the horizon through a perfectly formed umbrella thorn tree. On this particular morning drive, we were treated to sightings of a cheetah hunting a Thompson’s gazelle before calling in her cubs to practice their hunting techniques, two leopards lazing in trees a few metres from the road, three different lion sightings totalling 25 cats (some of them in their typical Serengeti pose on the top of a koppie gazing out into the great plains), more wildebeest than any of us could count, and a welcoming party of over 20 elephants just outside our campsite. All of this in just four hours!
Those who have travelled with us will know how obsessed I am with lions, so the Serengeti is like paradise for me. It’s not unusual to stop counting at over 50 lions in the first few game drives. One of my favourite things to see here are the tree-climbing lions as they rarely look very comfortable with their legs hanging over the branches. Watching them negotiate their way down from the treetops is quite comical. So, in a nutshell, if you want to experience a true African safari, the Serengeti should be first on your bucket list. I’m not going to lie; the fees are extortionate, and the campsite facilities leave a lot to be desired, but it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that you will cherish for the rest of your life.
On our last evening in the Serengeti, we decided that we would all meet back at camp to enjoy the sunset together and raise a glass to an unforgettable adventure. As we all sat there in our camp chairs with drinks in hand, you could feel the sadness running through everyone. It grew with every inch that the sun sank below the horizon, marking the end of our epic expedition and the start of the long journey home. The campfire stories continued long into the night as we all tried to savour the last few moments in this magnificent piece of African paradise before zipping up our tents and falling asleep to the distant roars of lions and whooping hyenas.
It is a privilege to visit places like this and we should all do so while we still can. Life is short and we need to live it to the fullest, cramming as many of these kinds of memories into our brains as we possibly can. Adventures like this are food for the soul and make you appreciate what a wonderful continent we live on. Now get out there and start exploring! I am going to sign off with a quote from the famous explorer, David Livingstone: “If you have men who will only come if they know there is a good road, I don’t want them. I want men who will come if there is no road at all.”
About Ultimate Adventures
Ultimate Adventures is run by husband-and-wife team Simon and Desiree Steadman. They offer top quality self-drive adventure tours throughout the continent and beyond, always going the extra mile with top-notch catering, courtesy of a chef on each trip. Their trips are immensely popular and the 2023 calendar is filled with amazing bucket list adventures:
Ultimate Botswana Adventure
8 – 17 February 2023
Iceland Arctic Trucks Experience
4 – 11 March 2023
Ultimate Kalahari Adventure
19 – 31 March 2023
North to South Luangwa Expedition
13 – 30 April 2023
Serengeti Fly & Drive
15 – 26 May 2023
Okavango Delta Adventure
10 – 21 June 2023
Kafue National Park Adventure
3 – 15 July 2023
Mana Pools Adventure
20 August – 2 September 2023
Morocco Sahara Desert Experience
30 September – 9 October 2023
Ultimate Madagascar Adventure
16 – 25 October 2023
Zambia Migrations Tour
4 – 17 November 2023
Ultimate Botswana Adventure
28 December 2023 – 5 January 2024
CONTACT: +27 84 447 4666 | firstname.lastname@example.org | www.ultimateadventures.tv