Dusk has begun to settle on the landscape when we drive through the gate and into the Serengeti. “You’re a little late,” says the park official who lifts the barrier to let us pass. “Drive carefully,” he warns, before offering one final piece of advice: “Watch out for lions.” The gate clatters shut behind us.
I feel a little like Alice passing through the looking glass en route to Wonderland, or Lucy entering Narnia in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”. One minute, my driver, Peter, and I are in the world of people, with their traffic and noise. The next, all is silence.
Lions, out here. The thought is sobering. We have to drive across the Serengeti, in near-total darkness, alone. If we break down … well, it doesn’t bear thinking about.
We’ve entered a realm where lions are not just possible, but likely. Lions may be in trouble elsewhere in Africa — they have disappeared from 95 per cent of their historical range and have fallen extinct in 26 African countries — but in the Serengeti an estimated 3,000 lions, more than one out of every 10 lions on the continent, still stalk the plains.
In the gathering gloom, the great savanna grasslands stretch to the horizon. A lone bull elephant strides in the distance. Umbrella-like acacia trees stand silhouetted against the darkening sky.
Then, it’s dark. Behind the wheel, Peter winds his way between puddles and potholes, our headlights thrashing like some strange creature in the night. Swarms of termites launch a full-frontal assault on our vehicle, drawn to the light. Without warning, two male lions appear, walking along the track in front of us, yielding for no-one. We have to drive around these lords of the night. Then, one of them stops and begins to roar: a deep-throated sound we can feel in our bones, seeming to come from the primordial heart of Africa. His mate joins in, and the entire Serengeti stops to listen, or so it seems. After they finish, the silence is absolute.
An hour or two later, we stop to let a lioness and her six cubs cross the road. Soon after, on the south side of the hill, we pull up alongside a long row of safari tents lit by lanterns at Esirai Camp. Smiling faces greet us, and helping hands carry our bags, offer drinks and a three-course meal, and lead us into a large tent with antique furnishings, Persian carpets and a fully stocked bar.
Out here, in the wilds of Africa, it feels like a miracle.
All across the southern Serengeti, people are enjoying a night like mine, with all possible comforts in the middle of nowhere. Esirai is part of a distinctly Serengeti phenomenon: the mobile camp.
Serengeti National Park covers 14,750 square kilometres — about three-quarters the size of Kakadu. Every year, the Serengeti is the scene of the natural world’s grandest spectacle: the great migration, where an estimated two-million-plus wildebeest and zebra, plus smaller numbers of Thomson’s gazelle and other antelope species, follow the rains and the resulting grasslands through the Serengeti.
Although exact dates can change from one year to the next, the year begins in January or February with the massed herds gathering in the Serengeti’s far south, where the wildebeest give birth en masse. Faced with the ever-present threat of predators such as lions, leopards, hyenas and cheetahs, wildebeest calves can stand within half an hour, and can run an hour or two later.
By March, the herds are on the move, coursing north through April and May in long lines, or in fronts kilometres-wide. By June, the herds make their way through the western corridor, crossing the Grumeti River, en route to the park’s north. In July, sometimes as late as August, the herds cross the Mara River, leaving the Serengeti and Tanzania behind for the promised land of Kenya’s Masai Mara on the river’s far shore.
Always on the move, the herds again become restless and, by October, they’re marching once more, this time southwards, back into Tanzania and down the Serengeti’s eastern perimeter to the plains of the south, nearly a year and 2,000 kilometres after their journey began.
Many safari operators follow the herds through the Serengeti. Two to four times a year, they set up camp close to the herds. When the herds move, so do the camps.
I wake at daybreak. From the entrance to my safari tent, with its ensuite bathroom and view of the plains, I can see the herds even further away to the south, a dark mass, like an ink blot, on the sea of green that extends to the horizon.
Something moves in the bushes to my right. I train my binoculars on the undergrowth. Nothing. Then a lioness stands, looks me in the eye and wanders a little further away, perhaps to get a better view of the distant herds. Without taking my eyes off the lioness, I inch my way towards the dining tent.
“I bumped into her last night on my way to the kitchen tent,” says Solomon Kitui, the camp manager.
“We were about a metre apart. We looked at each other for a while, then we both backed away before she ran off into the bush. She’s not dangerous.”
I watch as the lioness stands, stretches, walks to my safari tent, sniffing the tent flap, then lies in the shade of my tent’s porch.
Leaving the lioness behind, Peter and I meander along the back roads of the Serengeti, in a corner of the park so empty of people as to feel like earth’s first morning.
On grassland that seems to go on forever, wildebeest and zebra mill about. The wildebeest, with their long heads, grey beards and look of perpetual surprise, dance and kick like crazed horses as we approach. Some East African cultures believe that the wildebeest was created using the mismatched spare parts leftover from other, more perfectly formed creatures. Zebras keep their distance, suggesting that they are more intelligent than wildebeest, as many guides will tell you.
I spot the outline of the Gol Kopjes on the eastern horizon. The kopjes are piles of boulders — the remnants of molten rock that solidified hundreds of millions of years ago. Beloved as a refuge by lion prides and leopards, in the distance they look like the ramparts of mythic fortresses from long-forgotten African kingdoms.
Up close, the kopjes are silent places: islands of rock in the sea of grass. Thomson’s gazelles hover nervously, aware of the presence of lions that neither they nor I can see.
On the drive back to camp a cheetah appears ahead of us along the track, gaunt, yet full of unnerving grace. The cheetah’s legs — proportionally the longest of any cat and built for explosive speed, with a running stride seven metres long — effortlessly keep pace with our vehicle. The cheetah ignores us, eyes fixed on the horizon, until it veers away.
A little further on, we come upon a lone baby wildebeest. In herds the size of those in the Serengeti, it is impossible for every mother to keep track of her young; this one has been left behind. It calls out, runs a few metres, then stops to listen. There’s no answer, so it changes direction and tries again. When it sees our vehicle, it runs towards us as if we are its mother. Eager not to deceive the forlorn creature, we speed away. It follows for a time and then stops, staring after us, calling plaintively, this tiny thing alone on the plains. Without the safety of the herd or a mother to defend it, this young creature might survive the day, but will have no chance at night.
Before continuing north through the Serengeti, I am joined by my wife and two daughters in Arusha, northern Tanzania’s largest city, where they have arrived by plane.
Back when my daughters were seven and 10, I took them on a self-drive safari in southern Africa. Halfway through, my wife had to return to work. My daughters and I crossed from Botswana into Namibia, then continued into Zambia, all before lunchtime one day. We slept by the banks of the Zambezi River, then drove to Liuwa Plain National Park, one of the most remote parks in southern Africa.
It was there that things came close to unravelling. I have a photo of my youngest daughter speaking on the satellite phone and walking through knee-high grass where a black mamba, one of Africa’s most feared snakes, had been seen not long before. That night, we sat around the campfire eating tinned spaghetti as spotted hyenas circled us, uncomfortably close.
The next morning, my youngest spilled boiling water on her bare legs, prompting both a discussion with the park authorities about whether she needed to be evacuated by plane to the nearest hospital 500 kilometres away, and my own internal monologue questioning whether I was being a responsible parent. On a later trip to Kenya, my eldest daughter wandered off and grabbed an electric fence, just days after her sister had stepped on a scorpion, necessitating yet another conversation about emergency evacuation.
For all the danger, however, my daughters got to track Lady Liuwa, who was for years the last remaining lioness in western Zambia, identified birds even local experts couldn’t place and learned the etiquette of how to greet a local chief, by bowing and clapping as he approached. In an isolated Zambian village, while I interviewed local elders for my book “The Last Lions of Africa”, they spent hours playing in the sand with children with whom they shared no common language. On the later Kenya trip, driving from Nairobi airport through the mean streets of one of the world’s most notorious crime capitals, my eldest daughter waved enthusiastically from the car window to everyone, until even would-be criminals and stony-faced policemen smiled and waved back.
This trip to the Serengeti will be different, however. My daughters are now 12 and 15, and I know this could be the last time we go on safari as a family. Less risk-averse than they once were, they are now as concerned with the availability of Wi-Fi as they are with the animals they might see.
Where once we roughed it in isolated campgrounds, we now stay in high-end lodges and tented camps. Staying at the Serengeti Safari Camp — part of the Nomad Tanzania portfolio of elite properties — is an exercise in pampering. With its antique wooden chests, Persian carpets, safari memorabilia and old black-and-white photos, the camp captures the nostalgic spirit of safaris of old, when Hemingway and his band of happy hunters roamed the African bush. The old safari spirit also lingers in the sedate charms of afternoon tea, gin-and-tonic sundowners and the nightly campfire gatherings where people tell tall safari tales beneath an astonishing spray of stars.
Our guide, Ally Kea Mtui, regales us with stories. Like so many Africans, he is a natural storyteller, a warm and wise man who quickly feels like one of the family. He tells of the couple who returned to their tent one night, unaware that camp staff had placed hot water bottles under the covers to ward off the chill. The wife got into bed and screamed, whereupon the husband grabbed a sharp object and stabbed at whatever creature had climbed into their bed as camp staff came running to rescue them.
Mtui also tells of the newlywed woman who, sleepwalking, unzipped her tent and wandered towards a crocodile-filled river. Her husband ran from the tent to rescue her, found that his young wife was face to face with a lion and promptly sprinted back to the safety of their tent. She survived, no thanks to her husband.
Serengeti Safari Camp faces out onto the open savanna, with no fences in sight. During our stay, we spot a male lion subsiding in postprandial repose, barely able to move. Lions can eat up to 25 per cent of their own body weight in a single sitting, and this particular lion looks to have come close to a new record.
The next morning, Mtui takes us out onto the plains of the southern Serengeti in an open-sided, canvas-roofed safari vehicle with tiered seating, and brazenly drives into a great herd of wildebeest and zebra. I have never seen so many animals in one place: they stretch to the horizon. In a small clearing, surrounded by blarting wildebeest and wary zebras, we eat a full English breakfast.
Too soon, we bid Mtui farewell and drive north. Eight lion cubs with no sense of road safety skip and gambol from side to side across the main track. For 15 blissful minutes, I see on my daughter’s faces the wonder that I remember from their younger years.
Further down the road, just below the summit of Naabi Hill, the Serengeti grasslands unfold into eternity. Confronted by this vast miracle of the East African savanna, I feel something akin to vertigo.
A line of wildebeest, the vanguard of the northward migration, crosses our horizon. A mother buffalo wheels in anguish and alarm, trying to fend off hyenas intent on her newborn calf. An ostrich runs past at speed for no apparent reason; perhaps a predator is nearby, concealed by tall grass.
At journey’s end, we reach One Nature Nyaruswiga. One of the newest safari camps in the Serengeti, it was built by a couple who went on safari, fell in love with the experience and built their own camp so they could enjoy it whenever they wished.
No expense has been spared, with clawfoot bathtubs offering a view of the plains, four-poster beds, antique telescopes, brass binoculars and plush leather sofas. We also have a butler, an infinity pool and silver service meals. Soon, we, too, begin to wish that we didn’t have to return home.
On our final afternoon in the Serengeti, we see a lion and a lioness mating in the brutal, snarling way of lions; we are so close we could touch them. A leopard takes refuge in a tree, its rosettes — golden in the setting sun — perfectly camouflaged amid the leaves and dappled light of late afternoon. Wildebeest appear on the horizon, skittish and crazed by the mere thought of lions. The great migration will be here soon.
As we make our way back to camp, our driver takes a different route, winding up the slopes between the hills of Kamuyo and Makoma. There, high in the hills, beneath a perfectly formed acacia tree, the camp staff have laid out a feast, along with an antique drinks cabinet and cashmere blankets.
In the distance, an elephant family moves slowly northwards. Somewhere, not so far away, a lion roars. Then all is silence. We pull the blankets a little tighter around ourselves, climb into our vehicle and drive back to camp.
Here, at least, the Serengeti still belongs to the lions.