Tanzanian Safari: The Serengeti

Last February I spent two weeks on Safari in Tanzania. Starting the north in Serengeti National Park down to the Ngoro Ngoro Crater, we moved through the Oldupai Gorge and through Maasai country.  We spent each day bouncing around from place to place in massive green rovers with open tops to stand and shoot pictures through. We lived in our temporary camp, which the crew hauled from place to place — a cluster of  fantastically stylish olive tents. I've written and shot a series of articles coming up in the next month detailing different aspects of the adventure, but for this first one I wanted to go straight to the reason we were all there. The wildlife.

I counted 60 different species in my notes from the trip, from predators to herd animals, reptiles and birds. And despite fastidiously marking down every animal I remember our guide identifying (except for some of the birds, because there's WAY too many of those), I know I didn't quite get them all. Here's a collection of images and information from the first four days, as we wandered around the rocky kopjes of the Serengeti National Park.

Silver-Backed Jackal in The Serengeti (© Kaitlyn Ellison)

One of the first predators we saw, the silver-backed jackal is known for being monogamous, creating family groups and fiercely guarding their territory. Unfortunately, the trickster often gets targeted by local farmers for preying on livestock, a bit like the coyotes that roam the fields by the house I grew up in. We later saw this guy's relative, the Golden Jackal, which I'll feature in a later post.

A mother and her newborn  (© Kaitlyn Ellison)

This was definitely one of the most amazing experiences in our trip, a mother elephant and her baby, probably born the night before the morning we saw them. The little guy was only 3-5 hours old, you can partially tell by the white color around it's feet, which is apparently a marker of age. Elephants detach from the herd to have their offspring, this one probably went down to a marshy, palmy ravine. The mom will dig up a soft spot with her tusks to drop the baby into, after 22 months of labor. The two then make their way back to their herd. This baby was so small that it still had trouble walking, and the mom had to help stabilize it with her trunk.

Purple in the Serengeti (© Kaitlyn Ellison)

My insufficient notes don't tell me what this is, but my internet-stalking guess is that it's some sort of Solanum flower. Different varieties of the plant bear edible fruits sold in the markets of Arusha, around Tanzania. 

The lilac breasted rollers perch on the tops of trees and branches, super visible — they're on the lookout for food.

The observant serval (© Kaitlyn Ellison)

One of the smaller cats with long legs and big ears, the serval hunts small animals by sneaking up behind them and pouncing on them from above. It's usually nocturnal, but the one we saw saw sneaking around in the grass during the day — an unusual sight, according to our guide.

A herd of elephants in the Serengeti (© Kaitlyn Ellison)

Elephants live in matrilineal herds, with the eldest (and often largest) leading as a matriarch, followed by the other mothers and their babies, both male and female. When they're old enough to mate, the adolescent males strike off on their own or join groups of other males. 

Sunset over the Acacia (© Kaitlyn Ellison)

Acacia, specifically in this case the Yellow-Barked Acacia, are those classic thorned trees you see in any picture of the plains, highlighted here against the sunset. With a tall thin trunk and interwoven branches spreading out horizontally, it provides wonderful shade in the sunny Serengeti. It's also a great place to see a giraffe sneaking around underneath, camouflaged with their spots in the dappled shadows, using their long tongue to get around the thorns to the sweet leafs underneath.

The road through the Serengeti (© Kaitlyn Ellison)

These are the official tracks running through the park systems for the safari goers. You can't just wander off wherever you want, for the protection of the animals, but also just to keep you from being the target of a territorial beast. And it's rough country. Even on the roads a giant range rover can get stuck and have to be pulled out. An untrained or unsuspecting driver could get in all sorts of trouble bushwhacking. In addition to the tracks, there's one highway that goes through the Serengeti, a dirt road moving North to South. There's talk about building a paved road through the country, but there's concern that it moves straight through the migration zone and could interrupt the migratory pattern of the area's herds.

Birds of the Serengeti (© Kaitlyn Ellison)

There are 17 different varieties of owls in Tanzania — my guess is again from online research, that this one is a Verreauxs Eagle Owl. In my notes I only marked owl.

The Superb Starlings were everywhere, and the only bird I remember seeing more of were the cackling guinea hens that alerted us any time there was a predator in the area. The starlings are beautiful, deeply gem-hued and iridescent, but with these incredibly silly-looking faces. And they weren't afraid of people — they would come close, hopping around on the ground, searching for dropped scraps of food.

Baby baboons (© Kaitlyn Ellison)

The baboons rove around kopjes in gangs, sunning themselves on the rocks or padding through long grass. Honestly, I know I'm supposed to be amazed by all of the animals we saw, but I thought these guys were super creepy. They just look mean, roaming around in hordes through their territories. But the babies are ridiculously cute and very playful, running around chasing one another while their parents hang out looking for food. And you've got to admire a parent who can get anything done with a baby attached to their stomach underneath them.

The belles of the ball (© Kaitlyn Ellison)

The giraffe in Tanzania are the Masai variety, distinguished by their jagged spots and large size. They're super graceful, a bit shy and hard to see up close. At first sight they'll often run away, in an epically slow-motioned lope as their long legs take them away from you quite quickly.

The picture can't really do it justice, but the impala are beautiful. They're delicate and thin, and their coats are in rich shades of tan, gleaming in the light. They look flawless and clean, where a lot of the animals you see have either scars from fights, or dirt used to cool or groom themselves.

Courting leopards (© Kaitlyn Ellison)

One of our prime targets to see in the area were leopards, an elusive creature not particularly active during the main part of the day when you're out and searching for animals. After some serious scouting by our expert guide, we came across a mating pair of leopards — the male was trying to woo the female by licking her around the head. He’ll have to wait and woo until she’s ready, she’ll know instinctively when the best time is for her to conceive and won't give it up until then.

Chartreuse Serengeti (© Kaitlyn Ellison)

Though it does have a variety of geographies, the Serengeti National Park is covered largely in grassland plains and savanna. Mostly flat, the large open spaces are spotted with the small hills of rocks known as kopjes, perfect hiding place of predators. The park is famous for the huge diversity of wildlife, from the migrating herds of wildebeest and zebra, to the classic lion, elephant, and giraffe, to hundreds of varieties of birds.

Also on Safari: Ngorongoro and Tarangire, The MaasaiThe Journey