Category: Serengeti.

Call of the Serengeti: How to take a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Tanzania

The ultimate bucket list travel adventure

BY Yvonne Yorke, NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

Yvonne Yorke/ Serengeti sunset & wildebeest migration

Yvonne Yorke/ Serengeti - male leopard in tree.

If there was ever a bucket list of ultimate travel experiences, the migration on the Serengeti surely makes the cut. In one of the greatest spectacles on Earth, millions-strong herds of wildebeests, zebras, antelopes and gazelles journey across the vast grasslands of eastern Africa.

From New York, it’s a 16-hour flight to Johannesburg on South African Airways, then onwards on Precision Air to Arusha-Mount Kilimanjaro airport via Dar es Salaam, Tanzania (flysaa.com, precisionairtz.com). I can’t think of a more breathtaking welcome to Africa than the sight of the snow-capped Kilimanjaro, the highest peak on the continent and the tallest free-standing mountain in the world.

As we pass through traditional Maasai villages in a 4×4 Jeep on our way to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, our safari guide, Ephata Lotashu from the African Adventure Company (africanadventure.com), tells us we’re fortunate to have a clear view of the usually mist-shrouded peak. We reach the 3,200-square-mile World Heritage Site. Tanzania has over 25% of its land set aside for wildlife conservation, and tourism is strictly regulated through park fees and permits in order to protect the delicate ecosystem.

For a bird’s-eye view of the Ngorongoro Crater, we head up a mountain and see the world’s largest unflooded intact caldera (formed from a long-extinct collapsed volcano), spread out in a circle over 100 square miles, and surrounded by mountains that rise 2,000 feet above the crater floor. The crater boasts the game-viewing Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo) as well as countless other animals.

After a restful night, we set off for our first morning game drive in the crater. It isn’t long before we come across a pride of lions, crouched low in the grass, leisurely finishing off an earlier buffalo kill. Sated, one male lion wanders over to a lioness and nuzzles her neck. She rebuffs the advance, and his continued efforts, until he finally gives up and lies down for a nap. As with humans, it seems to be the female who decides if there’s going to be any action.

While lions, elephants and buffalo are relatively plentiful, rhino sightings are rare due to poaching that has reduced the population of black rhinos in Africa from 60,000 in 1970 to less than 2,000 today. There are only 25 black rhinos in the Ngorongoro, and this is why a top safari guide is invaluable.

Serengeti cheetah bares teeth(Yvonne Yorke for News)

With his intimate knowledge of the park and his sharp eyes, we don’t have to wait long before Ephata spots one in the distance. Unlike southern Africa with its private game reserves, public national parks in eastern Africa such as the Ngorongoro do not allow off-road driving to track game, so be sure to bring your long zoom lenses. (A few people in my party only brought along their point-and-shoot cameras and had to comically resort to placing their camera up against binoculars for a picture – with disappointing results.)

A short flight west on a propeller plane takes us to the Grumeti Reserves in Serengeti National Park – Tanzania’s largest and best-known park, with the highest concentration of migratory game animals in the world.

Millions of wildebeests and hundreds of thousands of zebras and gazelles make the annual trek after giving birth in the southeastern grasslands, and head west in a clockwise circuit across the savanna wetlands, eating as they go, before crossing the crocodile-infested Grumeti and Mara rivers.

Those who make it that far continue north to the Maasai Mara National Reserve to graze for a few months, and when the grass there is depleted, they return to the south to mate and begin the circle of life again. Only the strongest animals will survive this grueling journey and escape from the jaws of predatory lions, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas and scavengers on the prowl.

The migration spectacle must be seen to be believed – wildebeests as far as the eye can see, running in formation across the plains. “The Magnificent Seven” theme song starts playing in my head, and pretty soon our whole Jeep is humming the catchy tune, growing progressively louder until it reaches a crescendo – much to our driver/guide’s amusement. When the wildebeests are not roaming, they keep cool standing en masse under the shade of the acacia trees.

A dazzle of zebras takes turns drinking at a watering hole. First, six or seven form a line and dip their heads in unison for a few sips, and when they are done, the next group steps up on cue to do the same with the perfectly choreographed, synchronized style of a John Woo action sequence.

Of course, we still want the see the last of the Big Five – a leopard – and are richly rewarded with not only a leopard sleeping in a tree (the best place to find them during the day), but, mere feet away, a freshly killed gazelle hanging upside down from the branches, out of reach of other predators looking for an easy meal.

We can barely contain our excitement when we spot a second leopard on another game drive. I’ve seen quite a few leopards on other safaris, but this one is massive – almost the size of a lion, with giant paws and a deceptively cuddly demeanor. Other cat sightings include a lithe cheetah camouflaged against the grass and baring its fangs as we inch ­closer in our vehicle.

Our accommodations at the Grumeti Reserve were the Singita Explore Camp – a mobile luxury camp that looks like it belongs in a Ralph Lauren/“Out of Africa” advertisement. The fully equipped tents have solar panels, running water, hot showers and beds with mosquito netting.

One final bucket list tip: Be sure to ask the staff during turn-down to keep the outside flaps of your tent open, and you’ll be rewarded in the morning with the once-in-a-lifetime experience of watching the sun rise across the Serengeti plains with your head still on the pillow.

For information, contact: Tanzania Tourist Board, tanzaniatouristboard.com [Article link]

Category: Serengeti