The Greatest Show On Earth

There are no infinity pools or Michelin stars here. But as a backdrop for African wildlife, the Serengeti leaves the usual luxe safari in the dust.

Before the introduction of Château Margaux and pedicures into the bush, the event that totally changed the African safari was the accession to power of Nelson Mandela. After his election, the pall of opprobrium that had been hanging over South Africa lifted and capital flowed into the country's tourism industry. Local entrepreneurs set to work building a succession of ever plusher lodges. They sunk plunge pools into ground where running water had been previously unknown; they carved wine cellars from the bushveld; chefs trained in Provence perfected the exotic repertoire of "safari cuisine"; and acolytes of Starck and Liagre erected exquisite minimalist pavilions in regions where leopards and hyenas routinely roamed by night. Within ten years the process reached its inevitable culmination when two South African safari lodges, Mala Mala and Singita, were each designated the best hotel in the world by prominent U.S. magazines.

I personally love Singita, Royal Malewane, Kwandwe, and all the other six-star establishments by which southern Africa has distinguished itself. It's just that somewhere along the way the primary reasons for a safari—to observe wildlife and experience wilderness—started to seem faintly peripheral. A guide at one of these lodges once told me that some guests would stay for a week, sign up for an initial game drive, and spend the rest of the time lazing around the pool. It was at that moment I began to feel a little sated with safari deluxe and to hanker for the splendor of East Africa, for the epic herds that blacken the savanna, for the grandest wildlife spectacle on earth. Never mind that on such a trip the cushiest accommodations are often found under canvas. Or that safari vehicles are frequently of venerable age and the food is rarely a gastronomic treat. It was time to cast off my seaweed wraps and to forsake the fillet of kudu—time, in short, to get back to the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, where each year 1.3 million wildebeest give birth to 400,000 calves over a span of six weeks and, following an immemorial cycle, epic herds migrate en masse for hundreds of miles.

As it happened, when I arrived in Tanzania (at the Kilimanjaro International Airport), I found I was slightly out of date. Times are changing in East Africa, however slowly. The Johannesburg company Conservation Corporation Africa, one of the chief instigators of the high-end safari revolution, has expanded northward and in 2003 added a new lodge to its portfolio, bringing the total number of properties in Tanzania and neighboring Kenya to six. (The company's Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, open since 1997 and just southeast of the Serengeti park, has some of the most stunning interiors anywhere on the continent.) However, in this region the roads remain potholed, the economies slide from disaster to catastrophe, and customs officers are tyrannical if not overtly corrupt (virtually everything has to be imported). There may now be a place or two where ostrich carpaccio is served, but it will be a while before the folks at Singita have to watch their backs.

The land itself is sensational. The name Serengeti derives from the local Masai word siringet, meaning "endless space," and the famous Short Grass Plains stretch for 30 miles on all sides—a terrestrial ocean interrupted only by enigmatic islands of rock, which shelter many of the park's 3,000 or so lions. Once the nomadic Masai wandered at will throughout the East African highlands. And although their cattle are now barred from the national park, tribal Africa lives on in the surrounding regions, where the tall and elegant warriors, draped in their startling scarlet cloaks, still stride unconcernedly through the bush, armed only with knives, spears, and maybe a rudimentary bow and arrow. Away to the east, along the rim of the Great Rift Valley, volcanic highlands rise to more than 10,000 feet. Three million years ago these volcanoes created the Serengeti Plain by depositing a thick layer of ash that eventually settled into a sort of immense polo field. The hardened ground became too dense for trees to take root, but it was ideal for certain types of grass. And being volcanic, the soil is rich in nutrients, so that every year after the October and November rains, the grassland accelerates into luxuriant growth. Which is unqualified good news for the migrating herds when they are ready to birth their young. Marching shoulder to shoulder across the plane, they form a wide-screen panorama of astounding proportions.

The Serengeti isn't the biggest national park in Africa, but it's plenty big. At 5,700 square miles, it's smaller than Massachusetts and larger than Connecticut. And when you include contiguous controlled regions through which the migration passes (such as the Ngorongoro Conservation Area), the ecosystem swells to 11,500 square miles, nearly the size of Belgium. Added to the unesco World Heritage List in 1981, it is the largest intact plains ecosystem on earth, and its annual migration of two million herbivores, chiefly wildebeest, zebra, and Thomson's gazelle, is unique. Once herds of some four million bison traversed the Great Plains of North America, but now only the caribou—up to 500,000 strong—that wander the wastes of Canada and Alaska form a remotely comparable mass movement of large mammals on this continent.

The ultimate way to experience the Serengeti is by staying at a private camp with its own plane, vehicles, and guides. Preferably the plane will be a Cessna Caravan, which, thanks to its spacious cabin and reliable turbine engine, has revolutionized African safari travel. It's a six- or seven-hour drive from Kilimanjaro to the edge of the Serengeti Plain, and Tanzanian roads being what they are, you'll be glad you missed the potholes and the dust. Besides, the view from the air is majestic. Lake Manyara and then Lake Magadi, on the floor of the Ngorongoro Crater, slide beneath the wing, both covered with what looks like bright pink algae but turns out to be tens of thousands of flamingos.

My plane landed at a rudimentary airstrip in Ndutu with a thump and a rattle, inducing a familiar, fleeting intimation of peril. The settlement is in the southeastern Serengeti, a patch of scrubby acacia woodland next to a pair of brackish soda lakes—a fairly unassuming place. But drive for ten minutes in any direction and you will find yourself in the treeless, windswept immensity of the Short Grass Plains. Here, from the end of December to the beginning of April, you will be in the company of more than a million animals, grunting, cavorting, giving birth, feeding, fighting, and dying. Throughout the years Ndutu has become a kind of zoological Lhasa or Lourdes, a site of pilgrimage for wildlife documentary filmmakers; it was here that for over a period of three-plus decades Hugo van Lawick (and for a time his then-wife, Jane Goodall of chimpanzee fame) virtually invented the genre, collecting eight Emmys in the process. Today's camera crews stay at a basic but comfortable lodge where they can recharge the battery packs for their video equipment and satellite phones. More pampered travelers will likely head, as I did, for a tented camp set up by Nomad Tanzania, a firm owned and run in part by Mark Houldsworth, one of East Africa's most highly respected wildlife guides, and a partner of his, Roland Purcell, who besides handling managerial duties pilots the company's Cessnas.

The Serengeti migration is a circuit of 1,800 miles in which the animals travel to find fresh grazing and take advantage of varying rainfall patterns. Nomad has two mobile camps that jointly spend the year tagging along with the herds. The Serengeti Safari Camp operates near Ndutu from December until April, then moves 20 miles northwest, to Moru Kopjes in the Western Wooded Grasslands. After three months, in mid-June, the camp carries on for another 30 miles to the Western Corridor, to sites such as Bela Bela, adjacent to the Grumeti River. The second camp is based in Loliondo, just outside the northeastern boundary of the park, where from July to December the herds are concentrated and funneled by the Lobo Hills as they cross into Kenya for a three-month sojourn in the Masai Mara Game Reserve.

My safari guide, Proti Nagai, an exceptionally affable and articulate thirtysomething Tanzanian, met me at the airstrip. We set off in his Land Cruiser, a robust vehicle equipped with both shortwave and VHF radios. (It's reassuring to know that in the event of a breakdown somewhere off-road in the middle of the Serengeti, you can just call up the office near Arusha 200 miles away.) As it was June, the migration had left Ndutu some weeks before and only a handful of resident animals were left. Still, within an hour we had stopped to watch a cheetah and her two grown cubs, a lioness stretched out on a distant rock, half a dozen elephants, and a miscellany of smaller animals and birds. Although the vast majority of the Serengeti's herbivores join the migration, a few always remain behind. Science is in the process of discovering genetic differences that appear to cause such radical behavioral discrepancies among members of the same species. The Serengeti's predators, however, are fiercely territorial; they stay put even after their principal food supply has departed. A few hyenas routinely take their chances, following the wildebeest through the turf of rival clans, as do a modest number of young lions. But in general the carnivore's year involves two or three months of feasting and nine months of relative privation.

It was late afternoon when we reached the campsite that had been erected for us. Four fatigue-green sleeping tents and a mess tent with a dining area and bar had been set up at the foot of a kopje, one of the giant heaps of granite that geologists estimate have been in the Serengeti for a few billion years. Falling instantly under the spell of the place's magical antiquity, I sat in the canvas chair at the doorway to my tent gazing out across the plains, suddenly conscious that this scene would prove indelible, one of those African moments sure to resurface intermittently throughout my life.

After a further spell by the fire, watching the planet Venus burn ever brighter in the deepening purple, I was invited, with Proti, to the mess tent for dinner. There, in the steady glow of hurricane lamps and the hesitant light of candles, we ate carrot soup, beef casserole, and apple pie, all accompanied by a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon from the Cape. The food was simple and had been cooked on an open fire, but after a day in the sun and the wind, adrift in the immensity of the savanna, it was impossible to conceive of anything finer.

The idea of camping as an enjoyable experience probably strikes some as suspect; top-of-the-range tents like these, however, are quite amenable, with proper beds, a dressing table, adequate storage, rugs or rush matting on the floor, and a separate bathroom with a shower (you must request hot water, though). And for me at least, listening to the lions roar while I'm safely zipped up in the womblike darkness is one of the great experiences of life.

The following day Proti and I drove to the Western Corridor, where we expected to catch up with the migration. The birth of the wildebeest calves on the Short Grass Plains in February and March is justly billed as one of the planet's most phenomenal wildlife parades, but the weeks in June when the herds cross the Grumeti contain moments of equivalent splendor. It's not the river itself that represents a tremendous obstacle—indeed, some years the water is so shallow and sluggish by June, it scarcely appears to flow at all. For a wildebeest, every stagnant pool contains the potential for atrocious death.

The biggest Nile crocodile on record was 21 feet four inches long, weighed 2,300 pounds, and came from northern Tanzania. It is the average size, though, rather than the dimensions of this single nightmarish leviathan, that is so extraordinary. Sixteen-foot, 2,000-pound crocs are not uncommon. You see them on every outing; prehistoric monsters big enough to seize a 500-pound wildebeest on the bank, toss it almost casually into the river, and drown it in a flurry of foam and spray. (Part of the reason Grumeti crocodiles attain such prodigious proportions is that they have adapted to the annual glut of protein provided by the migration. Having gorged themselves, they then become dormant; in this stage, their heartbeat slows dramatically as they live off the accumulated fat in their tails.)

One of the problems with many African safaris is that, frequently, not much happens. People conditioned by wildlife films, which generally take a year or more to shoot, tend to expect nonstop action and are dismayed to find the bush in daylight a rather quiet place. I have seen sweet-natured, silver-haired ladies, the sort who run the children's book sections of their local libraries, clamoring for blood, demanding to see a wildebeest eviscerated before their very eyes. "We haven't seen a kill yet," they report mournfully while descending from the vehicle. "Those darned lions just spend their whole time sleeping." But the Serengeti is different. Go to Ndutu in February, or the Grumeti in June, and action is virtually guaranteed.

Proti parked our vehicle on a high bank overlooking a spot where the wildebeest might either cross the river or come down to drink—and risk being abruptly seized by the nose. Bubbles rose to the scummy surface, signaling the presence of submerged hippos, and from time to time a pair of bright pink ears would emerge. A delicate, long-legged waterbird, an African jacana, picked its way fastidiously over patches of Nile cabbage, apparently unconcerned about what might lie beneath. A large male baboon, however, was much more wary, scooping water into a leaf at arm's length then hurriedly retreating a safe distance away to drink. Groups of 400 to 500 wildebeest clustered 20 or 30 feet from the edge, shuffling, staring at the water, too scared to move any closer. "Sometimes they stampede and the ones at the front get pushed in," Proti explained. "Then the crocs don't have to do anything except feed."

We waited, watching a group of black and white colobus monkeys swing through the branches of a wild fig tree. Eventually, impelled by thirst, one wildebeest plucked up courage and approached the water. Almost simultaneously a huge crocodile slid off a mud bank and disappeared. Jostled from the rear, three, four, eight, and finally ten wildebeest arrived at the edge and stood staring at the surface. Nothing happened. Emboldened, one lowered its head to drink; right then a 15-foot brownish-green missile became briefly airborne, seizing the creature and dragging it, thrashing, into a churning maelstrom. Pandemonium. Hundreds of frantic wildebeest crashed through the bush in headlong retreat while in the river some two dozen immense gnarled backs swiftly converged on the sudden commotion.

So this is what it amounts to. There are certainly more remote, less visited regions of Africa. There are better places to see leopard—Botswana's Okavango Delta, Zambia's Luangwa Valley, and South Africa's Sabi Sands are a few. And the continent's chicest lodges are all 1,500 miles to the south. But if I could visit Africa only once more, it would be to the Short Grass Plains. As a setting for the raw, existential, often violent drama of birth and death, the Serengeti has no equal.


WHERE TO STAY

Lodges
GRUMETI RIVER CAMP, in the Serengeti's Western Corridor, has ten colorfully decorated permanent tents with king-size beds and fully equipped bathrooms. There is also a pool, a chef serving excellent African cuisine, and a charming collection of African artifacts. Besides enormous crocodiles, the resident animal population teems with buffalo and zebra. Rate, $560 per person; 888-882-3742; www.ccafrica.com.

KLEIN'S CAMP rivals South Africa and Botswana safari lodges at their best: ten stone-and-thatch cottages perched on a steep hillside, in a 25,000-acre private concession on the northeastern edge of the national park. Each cottage has polished wood floors, a fully equipped bathroom, and a veranda. Meals are a sophisticated affair, made with fresh produce grown in the camp's gardens. The views from the poolside terrace are magnificent. Rate, $560 per person; 888-882-3742.

KUSINI's nine permanent tents are set among giant boulders in the southern Serengeti, an hour's drive from Ndutu and close to the Short Grass Plains. The accommodations are stylish and comfortable; the food and service are top-notch. This is an ideal base from which to witness the most dramatic events of the migration, from January to March. Rate, $525 per person. Contact Abercrombie & Kent, 800-554-7094.

NGORONGORO CRATER LODGE consists of 18 extravagantly decorated suites with baroque chandeliers hanging from the vaulted ceilings and pristine views of the crater. The food is excellent and the staff obliging; maintenance, however, can be patchy (a reminder that this is Tanzania, a place still catching up to the high standards of South Africa). A phenomenon in itself, the crater—as wide as 12 miles in places—can be crowded with tourists. You see animals but 20 vehicles as well. To avoid the crowds, hire a guide to take you to nearby craters Olmoti and Empakaai. Rate, $995 per person; 888-882-3742.

Private Camps
NOMAD TANZANIA operates mobile camps accommodating up to eight people in four seasonal locations: Ndutu, Moru Kopjes, the Western Corridor (near the Grumeti River), and Loliondo. The tents have proper beds and furniture, and each has a separate bathroom. But since the camps are transitory, there is no piped-in water (huge bucketfuls of water are fashioned quite effectively into showers). The food is simple but delicious; the staff is superb (they even do laundry); and the rangers, who have their own vehicles, schedule game drives and excursions on demand. Rate, $5,140 per person per week, including four nights in a camp, two nights at Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, ground transportation, charter flights within the Serengeti, game drives, park fees, meals, and drinks. Contact Catherine Ronan, the Ultimate Travel Company; 44-207/386-4656; www.theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk; www.nomad-tanzania.com.

Other Africa specialists have similar camps in the Serengeti. Rates for each range between $3,500 and $7,000 per week:
ABERCROMBIE & KENT 800-554-7094; www.abercrombiekent.com

GEOGRAPHIC EXPEDITIONS 800-777-8183; www.geoex.com

KARELL'S AFRICAN DREAM VACATIONS 800-327-0373; www.karell.com


Serengeti Basics

WHEN TO GO
DECEMBER TO APRIL Wildebeest in the thousands converge on the Short Grass Plains near Ndutu and Moru Kopjes, trailed by zebra, gazelle, and numerous large predators, chiefly lions.

JUNE The herds migrate 50 miles north to the Grumeti River, where the wildebeest confront giant crocodiles.

JULY AND AUGUST En route to Kenya, huge concentrations of animals move through the northern section of the Serengeti into the Loliondo area, just outside the northeastern border of the national park.

GETTING THERE
A number of major airlines fly into Kilimanjaro, including KLM (direct from Amsterdam; www.klm.com), Precisionair (from Nairobi; www.precisionairtz.com), and South Africa Airlines (from Johannesburg and Nairobi; www.flysaa.com). Smaller domestic aircraft can land at Arusha, about 50 miles closer to the Serengeti. To reach Ndutu, just outside the national park boundary, take a private plane—ideally a Cessna Caravan. Most tour operators can facilitate a booking; Nomad Tanzania (see "Where to Stay") provides charter flights as part of their fee.

WHAT TO BRING
In addition to a sun hat, binoculars, and a camera with at least a 300mm lens, pack a fleece jacket. Much of the Serengeti is more than 5,000 feet above sea level and it can get chilly. Malaria pills are essential, as is a strong insect repellent—the mosquitoes and tsetse flies can be vicious.