Wow, was this an adventure! When we originally came to Africa in 2014, our first stop was a guided safari in the Serengeti and Ngorogoro region of Tanzania. We were traveling with my brother and his family in two Land Cruisers, driven by professional guides and staying in lodges and tented camps. It was very comfortable as everything was taken care of for us; airport pick-up, permits, driving, gas refueling, meals, hot showers, etc. were all arranged by our safari company. All we had to do was show up and enjoy seeing the sights. We considered doing another guided safari when we came back through but a combination of budget limitations and desire for a more independent experience lead us to do a self-drive through both areas. While not nearly as easy as in Southern Africa, self-drives are possible in the Serengeti, just a bit more complicated logistically. One must obtain permits and secure campsites in Arusha (the main town outside of the protected areas) prior to arrival. This took us many days of research and the better part of a day on the ground as there is no centralized location for information. Campsite names and locations change frequently so it is a challenge to know what to ask for when you arrive. Additionally, the two areas are administered by different entities so you must go to one office to arrange for travel through the Ngorogoro Conservation Area and a totally different location outside of town for the Serengeti National Park reservations. Once we knew where we would be staying, we headed to the supermarket to purchase provisions, to the petrol station to fill up our spare fuel cans, and purchase a SIM card so we would have some sort of connectivity in the park should the need arise. Loaded and ready to go, we headed in to the parks!
Our first night was at a public campsite on the rim of the Ngorogoro Crater. The site itself is large grassy area just off the main road. There are ablution blocks (shower/toilet), a secured camp mess area to use in case of animals wandering through, and a few fire rings. We were greeted by Saipi Sangay, the attendant on duty for the afternoon. Although limited in his comfort with English, he was a great help to us setting up camp and learning about the area. There were several overlanding groups in the camp as well, so the camp was lively with international conversation. We met a family (parents and 20-something daughter) from Poland who wondered how we could have the kids out of school for this long, a Spanish/Dutch pair who thought what we were doing was crazy but inspiring, a young woman from the US who hopes to write a book about traveling to all of the continents before she is 30 and a quiet Australian (unusual in itself) who gave us advice on how to circumnavigate Australia.
The camps in the Ngorogoro and Serengeti are not fenced which means that the animals are free to wander through at any time. Although we did not have any directly in camp, there were some on the perimeter. As the sun set and we were preparing to go up in to our roof-top tent, Colburn was enjoying a sip of Scotch whiskey at the campfire when he calmly said, “Hey, Deb, look! There is hyena just behind you.” Sure enough, there was a single hyena about 15 meters off of my right shoulder. He was not threatening, more like a coyote circling a camp curious to see what we were doing. At night, the Conservation Area has armed guards who walk the camp with an AK-47 to protect the area from any aggressive animals. Usually simply shooing them away works fine, but it was nice to know that they had fire-power if needed. We heard some other nondescript animals munching on the vegetation during the night, but nothing that impacted our sleep. The weather was cool, verging on cold, at 7,000 ft and sunrise came early.
Entrance to the park is only valid for one 24-hour period and the clock begins ticking when you enter. If you have not been officially stamped out of the park by the end of your allotted time, you must pay another full day’s worth of fees which are incredibly expensive – $200 dollars for the car alone! To maximize our experience, we got on the road early so that we could go to our favorite place from our last visit, Ndutu Lake. February is a fabulous time to see the great migration here as it is often when more than 600,000 wildebeest arrive and calve nearly synchronously to decrease the risk for individual offspring. We were not disappointed. Much like our last visit, lines of wildebeest stretched as far as one could see from horizon to horizon. Herds gathered in great clumps near the soda lake and up the drainages which feed the lake. The zebra congregate with the wildebeest for safety, a symbiotic relationship that allows for both animals to benefit from the other’s dominant sense. Seeing the mixed herds fo this size is a humbling, awe-inspiring experience.
We also found a couple different groups of lions, all sleeping in the shade through the heat of the day.
Of course, there are always giraffe, gazelles, antelope, hartebeest, and elephants.
Our second and third nights were spent wild-camping in the Seronera area. While these sites cost more, must be reserved and are assigned, there are no facilities or services available. Essentially it is a designated plot of wilderness with a small fire ring. You must bring in all of your own water, seating and sanitation facilities and all refuse must be carried out of the park as well. Without fencing or guards, you are on your own to deal with anything that comes through camp. Sleeping in our roof-top tent raises us off of the ground so buffalo, rhino, and hippos are not a concern. It also makes us look more like an inanimate object so leopards, lions and the like do not typically view you as food. The only real concern is for elephants because they are large enough to turn over the entire car if angered. The good news is that they really only do that if you’re bothering them so it is relatively easy to avoid. During our previous attempt at wild-camping at Ruaha National Park in Southern Tanzania, we miscalculated our timing and ended up in a very challenging situation at sun-down. This time we were prepared – we arrived back in camp with plenty of time to set up and eat dinner, we had two bright flashlights with us to light up any areas of concern, and we planned easy meals with little or no clean up. In contrast to Ruaha, everything went smoothly without so much as a hiccup.
Upon leaving the park, we all felt a sense of pride in our adventure as there are not a lot of people who self-drive the Serengeti. It is perhaps the most adventurous thing we have ever done. As we traversed the park, we noticed that we were talking with the driver/guides, not the tourists, when we would cross paths. They frequently wanted to know what we were doing, where we were from, and how we managed to do it on our own. Most seemed moderately impressed, especially with the kids in tow. In return, the guides would tell us what they had seen and how to get there. Perhaps this is part of what makes traveling a different experience than going on vacation. Traveling put is on equal footing with the local guides, not the paying guests, so showed us a different aspect of the amazing Serengeti.
Should you ever be interested in seeing the great migration or going on safari, we highly recommend it as it is a life-time experience. Yes, to do it is a large investment of both time and money, but it is typically a “once in a lifetime” opportunity that cannot be replicated elsewhere.