Serengeti National Park – The Off-season?
Travel Report by Safaridude
All of us Fodorites know that the Western Corridor of Serengeti is at its best in June and July when the migration is likely to go through there. We also know that there is no point in going to Serengeti or Maasai Mara if you are not going to see the migration, right? This is why I raised a few eyebrows when I suggested that I would be going to the Western Corridor of Serengeti National Park in September. But I had my own reasons. I had seen the great migration twice in Maasai Mara. Both times, it was spectacularly fantastically splendidly great, but you can’t go home again. I chose the Western Corridor because of the good all-year round resident game, and because it allowed us the opportunity to traverse practically the entire length of the Serengeti by vehicle from Ngorongoro.
The day of the journey across the Serengeti will certainly be one of my top moments. The immensity of the place can only be properly felt there in person, not by reading about it. As you descend from the Crater highlands, giraffes, Grant’s gazelles, impalas and zebras peacefully coexist with the Maasai. Soon, a dry semi-desert landscape appears, leading to Oldupai Gorge. After a very educational 45-minute stop at the Gorge and its museum, we continued onto the short-grass plains, technically still inside the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, but part of the greater Serengeti ecosystem. It is here, when conditions are right, that hundreds of thousands of wildebeests, zebras and Thomson’s gazelles congregate between December and April. Having no permanent water, this area becomes a bit of a ghost town during the dry season. According to any number of research papers or books, the short-grass plains are supposed to be empty at this time, except for some ostriches and Grant’s gazelles, which do not need to drink regularly. But “Luca’s rule” was invoked again (see my previous post “Part I”), as we saw two or three times as many Thomson’s gazelles (who need to drink regularly and should be out of there in September) as we saw Grant’s gazelles. Incidentally, we saw several Maasai warriors on the short-grass plains, without exception walking alone, surrounded by miles of nothing. As Dom pointed out, they were simply going from “somewhere” to “elsewhere”. Where were they going? Do they realize the importance of hydration? I wonder.
Near the park entrance around Naabi Hill, the short-grass plains abruptly change to medium-grass plains. Still, the game is very sparse. Some distance past Naabi, a series of attractive rocky outcrops, collectively called “Simba Kopjes” appear. After Dom surveyed one of the kopjes for potentially dangerous animals, we settled in half way up the kopje for a picnic lunch. As we neared Seronera, the administrative capital of the park, storm clouds began gathering to our southwest. It was around 2pm in the afternoon, and the tourists around Seronera were still taking their siestas; we did not get the full brunt of the infamous throng of mini-buses. The Seronera river valley delivered in terms of its reputation for leopards, as we had a good viewing of one female resting in a sausage tree.
As we departed Seronera, the vehicle made a left at the fork, taking us toward the vast Western Corridor. The otherwise straight and monotonous road is surrounded by the distant bush-covered hills, giving the Corridor a unique look from the rest of the Serengeti. The Corridor road passes alternate areas of whistling-thorn bush and huge open plains. There had been some recent showers in the area, and previously burnt plains were green with new flush of grass. Thomson’s gazelles (who are not supposed to be found deep in the Western Corridor if you read stuff from twenty or thirty years ago) were the most conspicuous from the road. Impalas here have the biggest horns I have ever seen.
About half way to our destination (Kirawira Camp on the far western corner), the thunderstorm reached us. The only way to describe the deluge was that it rained big cats and wild dogs (we even got a little hail). At one point, very near camp, a small stream developed on the road itself. We were never in danger, but our vehicle could possibly have floated for a few seconds. I love the dry season in the Serengeti. For the afternoon, there would be no game drive – although experiencing the massive thunderstorm itself was worth it.
Kirawira Camp appears out of nowhere. It is strangely appointed in that sense. While the staff is friendly and the rooms nice, Kirawira serves as a classic example that big hotel chains like Serena (the owner of Kirawira) just don’t “get it”. Every smiling “what can I get you to drink?” is followed by “what is your tent number”? Just charge me $30 extra per day and include the drinks! (It is already a very expensive establishment anyway. As a side note, it took us 18 minutes to check out our last morning, because it took that long for them to add up all our incidental charges.) What they should have done also is to split up the camp into two (one a few kilometers down the road, perhaps). There are 25 tents at Kirawira, and they are trying hard to be intimate. It just doesn’t work. On the positive side, the food at Kirawira is hands down the best I’ve ever had on safari. Benjamin, the head chef, is a genius.
During the three days at Kirawira, we explored the open plains (Ruana and Musabi being two of the most immense you will find anywhere) as well as the nooks and crannies of the Grumeti River. Grumeti allows some of the very best hippo-viewing in Africa if you can stand the occasional tsetses. On the open plains, the numbers of topis rival those of Thomson’s gazelles. Small herds of wildebeests are found throughout the Corridor, never following the main migratory herd to the north. Most dated publications refer to the big resident herd of wildebeests on the Ndabaka plain in the very western corner of the Corridor, but according to the local folks, Ndabaka plain can be empty at times. Instead, the herds can be found scattered around Kirawira and to the east. The same publications refer to the absence of elephants in the Corridor. That is also no longer the case. Serengeti is constantly changing.
Currently, there is a local specialty in the area: a three-legged male lion named “Stumpy”. Stumpy apparently got his right hind leg caught in a poacher’s snare and either lost it or bit it off himself. We had two sightings of him, and once we saw him limping along quite nicely. His brother is one impressive male lion. He has a perfect, full, ginger mane. I would nominate him as the next MGM lion. Apart from his physical beauty, Stumpy’s brother is to be commended for thus far successfully protecting his brother from hyenas and would be challengers to their throne.
In the end, I would highly recommend the Western Corridor even in the off-season. There is plenty of resident game to keep one interested, and you can have all of it to yourself. With only Kirawira and Grumeti River Lodge around, vehicles are sparse. Apart from the notoriously shy leopards, sightings of lions and cheetahs are virtually guaranteed. The animals are noticeably shyer than they are in other parts of the park, but it seems more appropriate in this pristine wilderness. The landscape, is without a doubt, the most attractive, in all of Serengeti-Mara.