We slither out of bed after our late night trying to pay the bills, pack up our stuff and head to the common area to wait for pick-up. Our first site of the Landcruiser is a bit of a shock; it is absolutely filled to the brim with mattresses, gas bottles, coolers of food, camp chairs and tables, tents and other assorted equipment no doubt essential for survival in the wild; definitely not going to be a basics camping trip. Abdul notices my slightly raised eye-brows and ensures us that for most of our game drives the equipment will left at the camp site, so the cramped conditions are not permanent. Once we’ve found space for our own bags and meet Daniel our cook we’re soon on our way to the Ngoronoro Highland Area (NHA) and the Serengeti. After we’ve exchanged pleasantries with Abdul and Daniel, the car ride goes a bit quite. Abdul seems fairly shy (especially for someone who’s primary job is talking) and Daniel is almost wordless. This isn’t a bad thing since both me and Farah are exhausted from our late night and the break in the conversation allows us to doze for the first hour or so of our journey.
As we drive through the country side, we’re surprised by two things; one, how spectacularly clean it is (especially compared to somewhere like Narok in Kenya, the entrance to Masai Mara and an absolute bomb site with plastic bags and bottles everywhere) and two how amazing the road is. Abdul tells us that the road is actually built and maintained by a Japanese firm, after a number of Tanzanian firms couldn’t complete the works satisfactorily. Still, it seems like a crying shame to have those jobs going overseas when they are so badly needed for Tanzanians. Our first stop on the way to the Serengeti is Mto wa Mbu, which means “Mosquito River” in ki’swahili – talk about brand potential. Despite the name, it’s a pretty little town with a large number of banana plantations fed via an extensive irrigation system, a big array of dikes, which is something of a rarity in East Africa. We stop here so that Daniel can supposedly purchase some bananas, but the fact that we stopped right outside a curio store makes us think that there may have been ulterior motives. Given our disinterest in carrying carvings (as amazing as they were) all across Africa, Farah continued to nap in the car while I missioned off to find a quick cup of coffee at one of the tea houses across the road.
Although we will spend the first part of our trip in the Serengeti, to get there we must first pass through Ngorongoro. After Mto wa Mbu, we begun to climb up towards the highland area and got some great views over Lake Manyara NP. The entrance to Ngorongoro was very different from the Masai Mara, being significantly more built up with an attached information centre and a large plaster model of the area. The Maasai ladies selling curios at the gate we’re also missing. Once through the gate, we kept one eye on our right to try and catch a glimpse of the famous crater and the other on the left for any wildlife, although have no luck with either. We continued for about an hour until we go to the Ngorongoro viewpoint. Saying the crater is impressive is a massive undersell, an unbroken caldera 19 km across, on first sight it doesn’t quite look real. Down in the crater we could spy some of the larger herds but Abdul tells us that there are many more that aren’t visible.
We continued through the NHA, a spectacular area of rolling green hills filled with some of the largest Maasai settlements that we had seen. Some zebra grazing alongside the Maasai cattle gave us our first wildlife sighting of the trip (Abdul proclaims that “Yes, they are friends”) shortly followed by a herd of giraffe. After an hour or so we descend into the Serengeti plains and come to the official entrance, a gate with no fences. Within the first hour of being in the park we spot our first set of lions, a pair of males – far off in the distance. Me and Farah wonder if we would have been able to get a bit closer in the Masai Mara, even if we did feel bad about damage to the grasslands. Our speculating didn’t last long however as within the next twenty minutes we had our best lion sighting to date, a pride including both cubs and a large male, eating the remains of a wildebeest around a rocky outcrop.
Shortly afterwards we arrived at the park office and while Abdul is seeing to the important business of paying the bills me and Farah climbed a nearby hill. From here we get our first impression of the vastness of the Serengeti plains and the size of the wildebeest herds, impressive even during the shoulder season where many of the animals are in Ndutu, south of the Serengeti and officially part of the NHA. From the office we continued our drive through the park with some sightings of plain game and a herd of elephants before arriving at Serenera, our camp site for the next couple of days. The camp is unfenced and unguarded, and it’s wonderful to think that you’re surrounded by true African wilderness. After quickly setting up our tent as the sun set we had our first meal cooked by Daniel and were very impressed, especially with the potato soup starter. When we went to thank him for the meal he finally found his voice and we had a good chat and joked with the other chiefs. We headed to bed really pleased with the start and excited about what our first full day in the Serengeti could bring.