A Home in the Serengeti
Hucklberry B and I never expected to be so comfortable in the wilderness.
Our journey to the Dunia Camp, in Serengeti National Park, was a long one. We flew from London to Kilimanjaro (after changing planes in Amsterdam) before being driven to the nearby city of Arusha where we stayed at Onsea House; a beautiful guest house run by a delightful Belgian couple.
We arose early the next morning to fly from Arusha to the Seronera Airstrip in a small 10-seater aircraft (including the pilot). Our home for the next three nights lay an hour’s bouncy ride away in a four-wheel drive safari vehicle, but we decided to delay our arrival by launching straight into a morning game drive. More about that adventure later.
We arrived at the Dunia Camp at around lunch time. Nestled amongst some trees – beyond a river and in the shadow of a large mountain – the Dunia Camp boasts a majestic view of the Serengeti bushland and the endless plains of light brown grass which extend all the way to a distant horizon.
Each of the eight tents was positioned so that guests could literally lie in bed and watch the sunrise. And when I say `bed’, that is exactly what I meant. Our tent was furnished!
The first room of the tent featured a chair and a day bed. The bedroom was dominated by a bed of generous proportions with a headboard which doubled as a bedside table. The back of our tent housed our private washroom, complete with basin, toilet and shower facility.
I have never seen a toilet in a tent before; but there it was: a porcelain toilet of customary design which flushed in the normal way. I have no idea how the plumbing worked and would probably prefer not to know. It worked just fine.
The running water supply was limited to the toilet, however, and we had to fill our basin manually from a large bucket through the use of a jug. This was hardly a chore, though. The bucket never ran dry and was regularly replenished by our very hardworking and gracious hosts, as was our supply of bottled spring water which we used to brush our teeth.
The shower facility was also very welcome, particularly given the hot and dusty conditions. Each evening, the staff asked what time we wished to be woken and how many showers we wanted; one or two. The question was an important one because – very unlike home – quite a bit of work went into providing us with the pleasure of a morning shower. First the water had to be heated. This operation was conducted in a clearing some 20 metres behind our tent. Then the heated water was poured into a canvass bucket which was hoisted to a position above the back of our tent. Once in place, our dutiful host would call out, “your shower is ready”, whereupon we pulled on a chain and the water sprayed from the shower head. From what I could work out, a large pit had been dug in the back right hand corner of our tent and we stood on a lattice construction of sturdy wooden planks whilst showering, so that the water flowed into the pit and was eventually absorbed by the ground.
The Dunia Camp also featured separate tents for a dining room and lounge area, together with a nearby public toilet. Given our isolation, the standard of food was extraordinary. We were served fresh fruits, fried eggs, sausages and tomato for breakfast. Lunch featured more fruit and buffet of salads and meat. Each night we enjoyed a three-course meal, complete with a frozen dessert. We were in no danger of starving.
Whilst we slept in a tent for three nights and we were far from civilisation, I am reluctant to claim we went `camping’. That would be an insult to those who have endured a genuine camping trip.
Even before our small plane landed on the dusty airstrip, we could see the animals grazing below us.
We saw a huge variety of wildlife during our three days at Serengeti. Indeed, the sight of animals so close to the airstrip encouraged us to embark upon a three-hour `preliminary’ game drive rather than proceeding straight to the camp. Our next three days were dominated by four to five hour game drives in the morning and delightful three hour safaris late in the afternoon.
During our stay, we were privileged to see a variety of species, including:
- A bountiful supply of zebras grazing on the endless African savanna,
- A healthy party of wildebeests (usually accompanying the zebras),
- Tight-knit extended families of elephants waddling between the flat top acacia trees,
- Elegant giraffes batting their lustrous eyelashes as they nibbled selectively from the branches,
- Countless Thomson gazelles bounding about the plains,
- Stately impalas strutting through the grass,
- Clans of mischievous baboons climbing trees or sitting in the sun, and
- Cute little warthogs ploughing the dry earth with their little tusks.
However, the clear stars of the show were the big cats.
Shortly after we touched down, our driver, David, received a radio message that a leopard had been spotted, taking a nap on a low tree branch, not far from the airstrip. We arrived at the location in short order – as did a large number of other utility vehicles – and could see the large, lethal cat lying on a branch, her long tail hanging down in a tell-tale curl. She would have been less than one hundred metres from where we parked (and remained safely) in our jeep.
Later that evening, our permanent guides, Harry and Thomson, took us to an area where a pride of lions were known to live. It could have been a scene out of “Born Free”; wide brown savanna land punctuated by outcrops of smooth rocks piled on top of each other in unlikely formations. As we approached one of these formations, Thomson calmly tapped Harry on the arm and pointed ahead. As the vehicle came to a halt, our attention was drawn to a pimple rising from the apex of the rock. It was only when we used our binoculars or our zoom lenses that we could see that the pimple was, in fact, the proud head of a lioness basking in the sun.
We drove around the rock formation and, to our delight, the lioness rose to her feet and started walking slowly down to the ground. We were in no danger as she was walking away from our path. However, it was evident that there was some intent in her stride. Suddenly, Thomson lowered his binoculars and announced that there was a cheetah lurking in the shadows. Moments later, the lioness broke into a run, her powerful muscles propelling her gracefully across the ground. I was lucky enough to find the lioness in my binoculars just as she engaged the cheetah in earnest. I saw the cheetah sprint away with the lioness in very hot pursuit. The cheetah spun to the left and the lioness followed, dust being kicked up by the eight frenzied feet. Ultimately, the cheetah had too much speed and made her escape. The chase, however, was a majestic sight.
On our second afternoon, we were driving along a dry riverbed, with tall grass on each side. In similar fashion to the previous evening, Thomson spotted a lioness’s head poking up above a mound of earth. As we drew closer, we could see that there was more than one lioness sleeping on the mound. Harry brought the jeep to a halt and turned off the engine. We sat there for first ten, then twenty and then thirty minutes watching the lionesses and waiting for them to stir. They were no more than fifty metres from our position.
Finally, each lioness woke up in turn, strolled lazily onto the dry river bed and stretched her back like a cat. They kept on coming; first the lionesses and then some cubs. In the end, there were twelve of them. A family of twelve lionesses and cubs waking up and mobilising for the late evening hunt.
Then came a chilling moment.
To our left a sole Thomson gazelle skipped into view. Each of us in the jeep focussed our attention on the cute little antelope. However, we were not the only ones to have noticed her arrival. When we returned our focus to the family of lions, we saw twelve heads turned in the gazelle’s direction, watching her with evil intent. I let out an involuntarily gasp. As I watched the family of lions decide whether the single gazelle was worth the effort, I questioned whether I wanted to see the carnage which was possibly about to occur. Whilst I recognise that it would be nature at work – and lions have to kill in order to eat – I recognised that I had no desire to see it. I realised that Huckleberry B had reached the same conclusion when I heard her whispering urgently in the gazelle’s direction, urging her to turn around and run away upon springed heel.
Fortunately, the lions resolved that the gazelle represented a pre-dinner snack, at best, and decided to leave her alone. After a time, they gathered together and stalked off into the long grass on the other side of the river bed. We were left to wonder how their hunt would fare.
Whilst watching the lions at sleep and at play was a true highlight of our stay in the Serengeti National Park, one of my favourite moments came during our final morning game drive. After several hours of slim pickings, we came across an enormous herd of zebras and wildebeests congregating around a water hole. We were told that zebras and wildebeests enjoy a symbiotic relationship. Whilst the zebras enjoy skimming the top of grass when they eat, the wildebeests prefer the middle section. The warthogs then come along to eat the roots. Moreover, whilst the wildebeests have very poor hearing and eyesight, the zebras excel at seeing and hearing their mutual enemies. By contrast, whereas a zebra has difficulty smelling trouble, this is where the wildebeests come into their own. It is not surprising, then, that where zebras graze, you are sure to also find wildebeests.
The scene at the water hole was remarkable. There must have been several hundred zebras queuing up to drink some water and bathe their legs. If they all stormed the water hole at once, it would have been chaos. Instead, the zebras galloped into the water hole in groups of ten or twelve before galloping back to the safety of the nearby plain; before another delegation of zebras would gallop into the water to take their turn. We don’t know who was in charge of crowd control, but he or she did a sterling job!
All in all, our days in Serengeti National Park were extraordinary and have left us with some truly wonderful memories.
The World Game
Excitement was high in the Dunia camp each evening after dinner. The local staffers were football fanatics. After their work was done for the day, they congregated in a staff mess tent to watch the World Cup, from South Africa, on a satellite TV. We were encouraged to join them.
And so it was that Huck B and I sat down in the middle of Serengeti National Park – a galaxy of gleaming stars over our heads – and watched the Socceroos line up against Germany in (not so far away) Durban. An assortment of bugs of uncertain lineage buzzed around the single light hanging from the tent and crawled across the TV screen.
The African night was abuzz with anticipation.
If only the game had lived up to the occasion.
My beloved trudged back to our tent at half-time. I stuck it out to the end, hoping for an unexpected miracle. Come the full-time whistle, our small band of Tanzanian friends gave me a consoling smile. Our guide, Harry, was there. He remarked that it had `not been a good night for the kangaroo’. There was not much I could say. Everybody knows we played dreadfully.
The most galling aspect was the commentary feed from South Africa. They were not very kind to our boys. At one stage, late in the first half, one of the commentators joked that `Australia had come to the party, but didn’t know the tune’.
As I walked back to our tent – close to midnight at the Dunia camp – I felt crestfallen, particularly compared to my mood after Australia’s last World Cup fixture in 2006, against Italy, which B and I watched in Lipari, off Sicily. Whilst profoundly sad at being knocked out four years ago, I was proud that we took the fight to Italy. I could not honestly make the same assessment of our performance against the Germans.