Our entry into the park took longer than we anticipated. It was a bit of mayhem. There were different desks to file the paper work and then pay, and lines are not something they use there… It’s more of a mob mentality where you have to push your way through. The last time we had experienced this was at the border between Botswana and Zimbabwe the year before. I didn’t expect this as much in the tourist regions of Tanzania, but I suppose it’s because primarily only Tanzanians were frequenting the “lines”.
Once, we had everything squared away, we passed through the final checkpoint with our car where they verified our documents and then dropped the chain barrier so that we could officially enter the park. We still had quite a ways to our next hotel, which as you know, was an impromptu booking. On the drive in, we were ecstatic to see a hyena bathing in a big muddy puddle right on the side of the road. We were able to stop right next him, and as he got up and began to walk away we were able to move forward side by side. Even though, I have encountered hyenas in person (fed one by hand even!), and just seen them earlier that day in Ngorongoro, I had never been this close to one in the wild. I was electrified.
As we passed through the park “center” we saw a petrol station, and figured it would be a good idea to top off the tank since the park was so vast, and we didn’t want anything stopping us from exploring in the coming days. As it turned out, the petrol station in Serengeti National Park was the only gas station we had found in Tanzania that took credit card. haha. Brad was in utter disbelief, and it allowed us a good laugh.
Once we found our lodge, checked in, unpacked & got settled, we decided to head back out for a little while. The one thing we quickly learned about was the dreadful tsetse fly. They loved our big white SUV. Flocked to it, really. There we were in the African savannah constantly swarmed with massive gnarly flies. ..but it didn’t slow us down. …and it definitely did not stop me from hanging out the sunroof despite their aggressive bites, that had Brad cursing and swearing constantly as they snuck into the car.
That night, we were under strict instruction not to wander off on our own on the hotel grounds. We were to be escorted to our room after dark because of the wildlife. While dinner was good, but not exciting we didn’t linger too long. Instead we headed back to our room to get some rest which was aggressively interrupted in the middle of the night when we were awaken by a ghastly intense screeching roar. I had a feeling what we had heard was a leopard, and it was right outside our room. …no wonder they had the rule. I was accustomed to hearing buffalo or antelope or night, but I was not prepared for that bone trembling sound that I experienced. You know, the kind that even though you just turned 30 (literally, that was the early hours of my birthday) makes you want to hide under the covers and wonder if it could break through the tiny window by the door because it can smell you and your snacks!
That new day was my birthday, but not just any birthday, my 30th! …and I was ready to get the show on the road. I was eager for lions, cheetahs, leopards, anything and everything I could see, but especially the big cats I had never seen before in the wild. So, we loaded our gear back into the car & headed out once again.
With our sightings few and far between, mostly just giraffe, warthogs, baboons, etc… You know, the basics. We decided to call it a day since Brad’s stomach was starting to act up. We raced to get to our hotel in order to beat an incoming rain storm. We were navigating a very rough, and overgrown road, and at this point, the humidity and the bush areas of the park were giving us the royal tsetse treatment. It was the most we had seen, and even our hotel host couldn’t believe the amount of flies that we had brought with us.
As the rain began coming down, we hunkered down in the lobby. Our host told us that on occasion they have a visiting leopard that likes to come into the open air space and take up comfort on the sofa along the wall. I was hoping it was something I could bear witness to, but I did not have the opportunity, unfortunately. Wouldn’t that have been something??? To just wander into to lobby one day, and see a leopard ‘posted up like it ain’t no thang’. I don’t even know what I would do in that situation, but if I had to guess I would say that I’d probably just start talking to it! haha.
When we got to the room, it was clear that Brad was done for the day. He was feeling pretty crappy. He decided to soak in the tub, so I went and walked the grounds hoping to see wildlife. I got nothing, not even a monkey. It just wasn’t my day, which was very disappointing since it was my birthday, after all. My husband was sick, and I had no critter sightings. Romance & adventure were definitely out the window! When I got back to the room, Brad was in bed. I talked to our hotel host, who was kind enough to bring us some tea, ginger ale, and crackers. Their service was top notch which was great since the room cost us nearly 1000 USD a night. …but if you could see our view from our balcony, and feel the beds… It was worth every penny, and definitely the only place where Brad could be sick and comfortable at the same time! The massive tree house-esque tent was pretty luxurious considering we were in the bush!
We had a gorgeous view at dinner again overlooking the Serengeti. We sat on the patio and enjoyed a wonderful meal, until it started to drizzle again. They were kind enough to move us under cover to finish dining. Again, we were waited on hand and foot, and shortly after dinner they surprised me with a birthday cake and song! It was truly special to be treated in such a way in one of the most incredible places I have been. Despite the disturbances in our day with the tsetse flies and Brad’s intestinal troubles, the views and first class treatment were definitely easing my woes!
We finished off a movie before bed that night, and the following morning were packed up again before breakfast. It was a bright new day for wandering the savannah, as well as, Brad’s stomach. We found our way back through the high grasses that covered the rough muddy road, and were headed toward the next hotel which was the opposite direction. We spent the bulk of the day just driving around in hopes of something spotting magnificent.
With the luck we were having, I wasn’t expecting to see much more for the rest of the trip, but I tried to stay positive. We kept trying different roads, and watched where the other vehicles were headed, and sure enough we got lucky a couple hours later. In a new area we stumbled on a long line of cars overlooking a log with 3 lions lounging the day away. They had no interest in the tourists or their snapping cameras; just the cool breeze brushing through their fur and warm sun. It was perfect basking weather for a cat. After a little while, we moved along to let some other people in.
As we continued our journey on the opposite side of the main road, about 30 minutes later we were just doing our thing when we were caught completely off guard by a LEOPARD carefully settled in the middle of the road drinking out of a puddle. He blended so well with the color of the dusty road and the shadowy shades of gold and green behind behind him that we barely even saw him at first. It all happened so quick that at first I couldn’t tell if it was a leopard or a cheetah. Within a couple seconds of us spotting him and him spotting us he was on the move. He played coy for a bit hiding behind the grasses before crossing the street right in front of us and heading for cover in the overgrown pasture. While I stumbled to get my camera and focus in on the leopard I was in complete shock that we had just miraculously encountered this shockingly beautiful creature, whose movements were paced with poise. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that I was just gushing over this animal as we went our separate ways. As I lost sight of the tips of his blackened backs of his ears, it was as if he was waving goodbye with the tip of his tail.
Brad & I continued to traverse around that same area in hopes of seeing other big cats, but no luck was had. There were plenty of buffalo and birds, but then our luck continued to change. As we headed back to the main road, we noticed a group of cars huddled near a tree…. We new that meant only one thing: a sighting! We headed that direction with steep anticipations, and thankfully were towards the front of the pack with an excellent line of sight of a pride of lions, mostly cubs and a couple older females hanging out in a tree. Yes, your read that right. These massive kitties were in a ginormous tree. We were probably there for 20-30 minutes, but because of the nature of this sighting we ended up getting trapped in a massive mob of safari vehicles. Thankfully, because of our excellent position, we were not bothered to be stuck. I was having the best time photographing the sweet youngsters as they rested in the tree, and then one by one followed their mother across the dirt road to a new tree. This was probably one of my favorite and most special safari memories.
It was a good day for cat sightings, and we had our full day of adventure, but with the evening start to creep up, we decided to try to find our next hotel. It proved to be a massive challenge. Probably, the biggest of our trip. We attempted to follow the GPS, but it was of no use. We ended up heading down dirt paths in the completely wrong direction, so we tried a different route, but no luck. At one point, we headed to the Visitors Center to get help, however they were of no help. While they had sent us in the correct general direction, there was no possible way that we could have found the place alone. At this point, tempers were starting to flare as we had no idea what to do. We had passed another tented camp that I thought could have been it but there was no signage, it seemed to be in the wrong spot, and we couldn’t figure out how to get to it (because of roads). Thankfully, at this point after hours of trying to find our way, we met a safari guide on the road who was able to help us. In fact, he was headed to our exact same tented camp with other guests! It was an honest to God miracle! In that moment the Lord was looking out because there was no way we could have found this place on our own. We thought we were pretty far out, but it turned out that we had to go even farther!
We were in the middle of nowhere now & our hosts were telling us about how they had been having lions in the camp hunting… which we never saw, of course. It is safe to say, the tented camp was the least luxurious place we stayed while in Tanzania. It was just us in a giant hot tent with small dim bathroom amenities, but we still had an overwhelming thirst for adventure to compensate. Our dinner was incredible, but followed by a rough night of sleep. The winds were so aggressive as they whipped against our tent that I thought it might start to pull up from the ground or the roof might blow clean off. It was mind boggling!
We had a really early breakfast the next day, and our camp hosts were kind enough to pack us to-go lunches for the road. We spent the day mostly exploring the area closest to us. I loved seeing the large rocky outcroppings where I hoped to see a pride of lions chilling, or cheetahs resting…. but during the first half of the day, we only got one big loner male lion sleeping on top of a stone heap… Just his head was hanging down a bit, as the flies buzzed around his large snout.
Later on in the earlier hours of the afternoon, we were roaming solo on what felt like the southern most parts of the Serengeti. There was no one around. It was quiet and the sun was beating down on us through the windows, but we just kept driving hoping for a sighting while fighting the urge to give up. When we finally saw another vehicle we pulled up behind it, and noticed they were watching something in the far distance barely even noticeable to the naked eye. It was two female lions stalking a family of warthogs. The lions would come up and down from the tops of the waving grass whilst keeping a watchful eye, waiting for the pigs to unsuspectingly inch closer and closer. However, as far as I know things didn’t work out for the lions. Despite their patience and talent for ducking low, the warthogs headed farther away. We were disappointed not to see a mad dash for a meal, but I was, also, relieved for the pig family knowing they probably got another day to stick together. We ended up leaving with the suspicion that the lions were not going to be having warthog for dinner, and felt our time may be best spent elsewhere.
It was crazy how one day we had incredible success, and the next we saw hardly anything. It was hard to stay enthusiastic when all you wanted was to see more leopards, and even a cheetah for the first time. That’s what is crazy about doing a self-drive. It can really be an all or nothing gig. It’s all left to chance!
As Brad was ready to turn back & head to camp for the rest of the afternoon, I wanted to push on a little further as it was still early in the day with nothing waiting for us at camp; and thank God we didn’t! Lady luck was shining down on us after all! As we drove down the windy and very bumpy quiet road with no one even miles near, we stumbled upon a cheetah. One gorgeous cheetah who didn’t really want to give us the time of day, but also was in no rush to get away from us. We stalked her from a safe distance, hoping to respect her boundaries as she sauntered away, but all I wanted to do was leap from the car and walk along side her through the giant field while I stroked her back with admiration.
Feeling lucky again, we pressed on more, but nothing more came to be seen. At one point we lost track of the road, so we decided to stop so that we could figure out where we were at. I climbed on top of the car to get a higher vantage point, but I couldn’t see anything. We had no choice but to do a little mild off-roading. NOTE: Both getting out of your car & going off road are big No No’s in the Serengeti. You can get a big fine like Kristen Bell & Dax Shephard (complete with music video).
Once we found the road again just a short jaunt away, we knew it was time to head back. I was ready to be out of the car since it had been another long day on the road, and I was psyched to clean myself up and have a hot meal again. That night was, also, a rough night of sleep. I didn’t think it could be any noisier than it was the night before, but I was dead wrong. It was so loud, I was actually slightly concerned for our safety.
The next morning we were up early as usual, enjoyed breakfast, packed up our bags, and began making our way out of the Serengeti. The sun had barely risen, but we noticed a little tan head just above the grasses watching some warthogs in the distance. We sat and watched the patient girl for a few minutes, but then passed on figuring that this could go on for hours.
I was sad to leave the Serengeti, but was, also, kind of eager to head home since this trip had very much so had its challenges. That morning began our long journey back toward Arusha. We cruised around some of areas near the main road and actually had some fabulous encounters with elephants, impala, and even a chameleon crossing the street before we officially said goodbye and topped off our fuel.
…to be continued.
Here are some of our other photos from the Serengeti: