Serengeti

07.09.13

Walking With Wildebeests: Exploring the Serengeti on Foot

There’s nothing like a safari to disconnect from human life and get back to nature. But get out of the 4x4 and walk instead, insists Joanna Eede.

“The plane might duck and weave a bit from here to Kogatende,” said the pilot as she prepared to take off from a Serengeti airstrip. “There are lots of birds around, so I’ll have to maneuver to avoid them.”

“Why so many?” I asked, watching buzzards, white-backed vultures, and tawny eagles corkscrew skyward on thermals.

“The migration, it’s everywhere. And where there are wildebeest, there are birds.”

The annual migration of wildebeest through Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park to the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya has been called “the last migration” and “the greatest show on earth.” Every year millions of wildebeest, together with thousands of zebra and gazelle, leave the short-grass Ndutu plains south of the Serengeti and thunder northward, crossing the great rivers of Grumeti and Mara, until they reach the Maasai Mara in Kenya. Then after a couple of months, the arrival of the short rains calls them south again to give birth. Water controls this ancient cycle; the animals are forever following the rains that nourish fresh grass, and hot on their heels are Africa’s top predators. “This is boom time for meat eaters,” David Attenborough, naturalist and BBC broadcaster, once said.

The migration is unquestionably one of the great wonders of the natural world. And it is justifiably popular; approximately 90,000 tourists flock to Kenya and Tanzania annually to witness the migration. But classic “driving” safaris can feel removed from the action. I craved a deeper connection to the Serengeti. I wanted to be out in the thick of it, walking. And I wanted to sleep under canvas at night, not within the walls of an air-conditioned lodge.

Several years ago this would have been impossible. But recently, Tanzania’s parks authority granted permission to a handful of specialists to conduct safaris on foot. Two extremely experienced guides—Alex Edwards, bush pilot, safari expert, and owner of travel company Natural High and Jean du Plessis, one of Africa’s leading guides and a National Geographic television presenter—have since joined forces to provide multi-day walking safaris during which guests hike from one remote mobile camp to another. So instead of watching the greatest show on earth from a speeding 4x4, I would be out there on its stage, playing my own part: the watcher and, of course, the watched.

This was how Alex and I came to be flying through raptors in a 10-seater Cessna 208 Caravan one late September morning. We flew high above the orange-red soda waters of Lake Natron, where flamingos flock in the thousands to build summer nests on salt islands, and skirted the blackened mouth of Ol Doinyo Lengai, the volcano that rises from the floor of the Great Rift Valley and is sacred to the indigenous Maasai people. 

The Serengeti night belongs to the lion and hyena, and walking in the fading light is a reminder of why humans are afraid of the dark.

It was almost dusk when we met Jean at his Wayo Africa Green Camp, an hour’s drive from Kogatende’s red-earth runway. This northwestern corner of the Serengeti is a wild, remote country of rolling hills, small streams, acacia woodland, and rocky outcrops. It is almost totally devoid of tourists, yet only 15 miles across the border in Kenya, vehicles queue nose-to-tail, exhausts pumping, to give their passengers a glimpse of a lion.

But here, on the banks of the beautiful Mara River, there was only sky, a few tents pitched unobtrusively in long gold grass, and our group. In Maa, the Maasai language, “Siringit” means “endless plains,” and I could see why. Beyond the river, caramel plains rolled away to the distant horizon, spotted with acacia trees and slow-moving giraffe. My tent was under a giant fig tree; inside was a mattress with cotton sheets, a solar-powered reading light, a bedside table, and a canvas washstand, into which hot water was poured every morning by Wayo’s charming staff. A roofless yurt had been erected a few yards behind, providing a long-drop loo (with wooden seat) and bucket shower for fabulous moonlit soaks.

That evening, after a gin-and-tonic by the campfire, we ate outside at a table decked with hurricane lamps and watched stars fall out of an ink-black sky. The equator’s constellations were bright against the low light of the new moon: the silver belt of Orion, the giant hunter, with his magical dog Sirius, pursuing Taurus the Bull.

When Jean led me back to my tent, he swept the grass repeatedly with the beam of his powerful torch. “I’m looking for red eyes,” he said, “the sign of a predator. But you’re safe in your tent—lions perceive them as solid structures.” Once I had made peace with Jean’s lion/tent theory, I discovered that sleeping out in the African bush was reason alone to return to the Serengeti. The night was filled with a magical soundscape: the call of nightjars, the river rushing on its westward course to Lake Victoria, and, just before dawn, the rising who-ooop of a hyena on the prowl.

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Guide Jean du Plessis points out a new walking safari area to other guides. (Joanna Eede)

Walking always starts early, when the light is sharp and animals are busy in the cool of the day. After a sustaining breakfast, Jean double-checked his rifle, introduced me to George, the park’s armed ranger, and then ran through the standard safety drill.

“We’ll walk in silence. If I see signs of danger I’ll use hand signals to alert you. And if there’s a sudden charge, you must not run. George and I will handle the situation. But it is extremely unlikely that anything will happen.” The most dangerous animal to encounter when walking, I discovered, is not a lion but a cantankerous male buffalo.

September marks the end of the long dry season, when the Serengeti is dotted with yellow hibiscus and its grasses crunch underfoot. We walked single-file toward a wooded area, the two rifles positioned as reassuring bookends. A column of wildebeest cantered rigidly in the other direction—all spindly legs, candyfloss white beards, and sloping backs. “Animals with sloping backs have huge reserves of stamina, because it is a very economic gait,” said Jean. “Efficiency is key to survival, because the Serengeti contains the highest concentration of large predators in the world.” The wildebeest are easy prey for predators that patrol the fringes of the galloping herds, waiting to pick off the weak or unlucky. Their calves have evolved to stand upright within five minutes of birth, and to run alongside their mothers within 20. Even so, the plains were scattered with their bleached white bones.

As we walked, my nerves melted and a sense of exhilaration took over. Alex and Jean exuded an inspiring love of the African bush, and both plied me with their extraordinary knowledge of its unique ecology: that the claw marks on the papery-blue bark of a commiphora tree were made by a leopard dragging its prey into the boughs; that the African harrier hawk has developed double-jointed legs, which it stuffs into holes in order to retrieve lizards; that Nile crocodiles lurking in the Mara can hear the vibration of hooves on hard ground long before wildebeest appear. 

On foot, moving slowly, you appreciate the small things; even the black-shelled dung beetle that recycles nutrients into the ground is fascinating. With every step I rediscovered a childish wonder for nature. At the same time, I was reminded that the world works in constant juxtaposition: life and death, violence and beauty. One moment we were marveling at the exquisite azure under-wing of a lilac-breasted roller, the next we had caught the scent of a rotting wildebeest stuck in the shallows. “This is prime habitat,” said Jean. “Everything is in balance.”

The walking is not difficult, though it can get quite hot, and after five hours we arrived at our second camp just in time for lunch. Each site is chosen for shade, isolation, and heart-stopping views. All provisions are brought in from Arusha, but simplicity has no impact on taste; the meals were fresh, delicious, and varied from home-made beef samosas to vegetable curries.

“You have everything you need, but nothing you don’t,” said Alex. “A walking safari recalibrates your ideas about what is of true value. The point of it is the total immersion in your surroundings; it is very much a ‘slow cook.’”

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A buffalo skull lies on the dry plains of the Serengeti among yellow hibiscus. (Joanna Eede)

By the final day I understood what Alex meant. I was beginning to attune to my surroundings, which was a thrilling experience. My senses were sharpening, and I enjoyed watching my guides’ reactions to the subtle cues of nature.

“My mind is always whirring, watching for the alarm call of a bird or the flick of a buffalo tail. I never drop my guard,” Jean said as we approached a korongo, a seasonal river gulley, where buffaloes often sleep. He picked up a large stick and lobbed it through the trees; it crashed through branches, and we heard it land with a thump. Nothing moved. He clapped his hands loudly. Again, nothing stirred. “OK, coast is clear.” Minutes later, a flurry of oxpecker birds rose into the air. Jean stopped us and whispered, “Oxpeckers feed on the ticks of large mammals, so it usually means there’s something big around.” But out of the long grass shot a warthog, her tail antennae-straight, with piglets scuttling behind.

We reached our last camp as lighting pulsed through lilac-dark clouds over the Kenyan hills.  After three days on foot in the Serengeti, the less-is-more formula of Natural High advocates makes complete sense.  A five-star rating in Kogatende shouldn't be about inessential trimmings: wi-fi, air-conditioning, or plunge pools. The real privilege comes from connecting to the beauty and power of one of the oldest places on earth. Luxury lies in stripping away the conscious thought that controls our busy lives, and exposing the sensory, instinctive self to the scents and sounds of the wild.

After the rain ended, we took a bottle of wine to a slab of granite rock just beyond camp for a sundowner.  As the sun was setting, we made our way back, along a highway furrowed by hippos during their nocturnal forages. Silhouettes of sacred ibis, the mythical heralds of floods, flew overhead; a marabou stork settled in the crown of an acacia tree, its furled gray wings like a professor’s robe.

The Serengeti night belongs to the lion and hyena, and walking in the fading light is an easy reminder of why humans are afraid of the dark.  “We think we have lost the senses we once had, when everyone lived as hunter-gatherers,” said Jean, “but even a couple of days on foot in the wilderness slams them right back.”