Travel Diary: Exploring the Endless Plains of the Serengeti

The Serengeti is the oldest, largest and most famous national park in Tanzania and it’s not hard to see why. The area is huge and you never know what you might run into: crocodiles, hippos, elephants, giraffes, buffaloes, warthogs, lions, cheetahs and leopards – you name it: they’re there! However, almost even more memorable than the multiple animal encounters is the landscape itself. It’s hard to imagine anything more beautiful than the flowing grass of the endless plains and the sunrise colouring the savannah in splendid nuances of red, yellow and orange. Here’s a blog post about our week in Serengeti National Park!

Settling Down in Serengeti

Elephants in Central Serengeti
Elephants quickly became my favourite safari animal. I wasn’t expecting to see that many of them in Serengeti, but was pleasantly surprised. These guys we spotted in Central Serengeti.

After moving around quite a bit, we were looking forward to staying put for a longer time. Where we’d only had a day or two in Tarangire, Lake Manyara and Ngorongoro, we’d be spending almost an entire week in total in Serengeti National Park.

Missed the previous safari blog posts?

In case you want to check out my blog post about Tarangire, you’ll find it here: Travel Diary: Among Elephants and Baobab Trees in Tarangire National Park

I’ve also written about our visit to Lake Manyara: Travel Diary: Looking for Tree-Climbing Lions in Lake Manyara

And Ngorongoro: Ngorongoro and the Great Migration – Experiencing Some of Our Planet’s Greatest Wonders

Why Almost a Week in Serengeti National Park?

Lion in Serengeti National Park
Did you know that the female lions are better hunters than the males? The lionesses will do most of the hunting.

Not only is the Serengeti the oldest of all the Tanzanian national parks. It’s also the most famous. I’ve seen so many nature documentaries set in this region that when I think of Africa, the Serengeti savannah is pretty much the first image that pops into my head.

Serengeti is huge. The national park covers around 15.000 square kilometres and is home to countless different species. There are thousands and thousands of gazelles, topi, hartebeests, wildebeests, zebras, buffalos, impalas and dik-diks. And with all these herbivores come the big cats that eat them.

In fact there are an estimated 1.500-3.000 lions, around 150-300 cheetahs and around 1000 leopards in Serengeti National Park.

To see as much as possible of Serengeti National Park, our plan was to stay in two different locations within the national park. We were going to start off with three days in Central Serengeti and after that we’d move on to the newly reopened Eastern area of Serengeti, the Soit le Motonyi area.

Serengeti Lions and Traffic Jams

Travel Jael looking for lions in Serengeti National Park
If you happen to witness a hunt or any lion action whatsoever, consider yourself lucky. Lions will spend up to 20 hours a day resting. So if you spot lions during your safari odds are they’ll be snoozing, like these guys.

No sooner had we entered the park gates than we already spotted our first lions. Exciting as it was, it was also the first taste of what Central Serengeti’s heavy vehicle traffic means (just imagine around 200.000 people visit Serengeti each year).

The lions were relaxing in the grass by the road and there was a queue of around five jeeps, all trying to get the best spot for the perfect photo opportunity.

Conveniently located with its own airstrip, the Central Serengeti area is crowded and the biggest drawback is the amount of vehicles.

Thanks to the drivers’ walkie-talkie system (they’ll alert each other of animals sightings) pretty much everyone within a 10-kilometre radius would show up if someone as much as caught a glimpse of a leopard tail 200 metres away. In this area that could mean up to 20-30 jeeps. Like I’ve said before: people go crazy over big cats!

Camel Trophy Style Safari

Central Serengeti and jeeps crossing a flooded road.
Depending on when you’re going on safari expect mud and floods. After heavy rainfall some of the roads can be in very bad shape. This bridge in Central Serengeti was flooded, but the jeeps still managed to drive over it.

In addition to crowds, the other issue with this area of the Serengeti was the shape some of the roads were in. We stayed at Asanja Moru Camp – an absolutely gorgeous and peaceful camp with fantastic views and lovely service, but practically impossible to reach. The road to the camp was bad. Really, really bad. So getting in and out of camp was an insane ordeal. It would take us over an hour just to get out to the main roads!

And we were still lucky. We got stuck a few times but always managed to get help. One night we could spot a jeep from our camp that was stuck in the mud the whole night. I was assured by our camp staff that someone rescued the people at some point, but still. Perhaps not how you want to spend your safari days. Oh, and this was major tsetse fly territory – getting stuck was not only annoying it was painful as well!

Living My Best Serengeti Camp Life

Camp life on safari in Central Serengeti
After a whole day sitting in a sweaty and bumpy jeep, it sure felt amazing to relax with a nice drink watching the sunset.

Apart from the atrocious roads and the crowds near Seronera airstrip, Central Serengeti was amazing.

We had some unforgettable animal encounters including watching a pride of lions on top of a kopje (those large rock formations that look kind of like islands in the middle of the sea of grass), seeing a leopard cross the road right in front of us and admiring a hungry cheetah leaping over a stream. We also had the pleasure of watching a large herd of elephants with babies on several occasions. Babies learning how to use their trunks are just adorable to watch!

Although our camp was hard to access it still managed to become one of the highlights for me. I loved the tent we slept in and the views. Relaxing with a glass of white wine and looking out over the beautiful landscape was the perfect ending to any safari day.

Lions Roaring Outside Our Tent

Lions in Central Serengeti
Mufasa on Pride Rock? During daytime lions love relaxing, like these guys. Did you know that the roar of a lion can be heard up to 8 kilometres away?
Camp Life in Serengeti
Tent life is the best life – loved everything about our safari camps! Okay minus the enormous spiders we sometimes found, but when your view waking up is this, who cares?

The most memorable camp experiences came at night. We’d sit by the campfire and a Maasai guard would shine a torch towards the grass. Sometimes there’d be a pair of eyes gleaming back. Red eyes would have meant a lion, but we actually never spotted them. That would have been pretty scary to see.

We weren’t allowed to walk to our tents by ourselves. The reason why became very clear one night. I’d just stepped out of the dining tent and was about to start walking towards my sleeping tent when a hyena scampered by literally just two metres away from me! It was surprisingly big up close. My heart started racing so fast!

My brother and I slept with the tent flaps open, listening to the nighttime sounds of the Serengeti. One night we suddenly heard a lion roar, seemingly right by our tent! It was terrifying and exciting at the same time. Later we found out the lion had probably been over a kilometre away, but the roar is so powerful it really sounds as though they’re right there.

Luxury Living on the Serengeti Plains

Lions in Eastern Serengeti
This lioness just had cubs and was taking care of them together with another lioness. Both can nurse the cubs and while the other one is hunting the other one can take care of the cubs. Yay for teamwork!

After three days in Central Serengeti it was time for us to head east towards the Soit le Motonyi region. This remote corner of the Serengeti was closed to the public for two decades and reopened in 2014.

During the 20 years the area was closed the big cat populations recovered well and today this area is one of the most densely populated when it comes to for example cheetahs.

Lots of cats and no crowds whatsoever.  Obviously such exclusivity doesn’t come for free. There’s only one place to stay in this region, Namiri Plains Camp, and let’s just say a stay here isn’t cheap.

However, if your budget can stretch this far, I highly recommend this place. That feeling of truly being in the middle of nowhere as far out in the African wilderness as possible is worth the investment. The service is also impeccable, the views stunning and the food amazing.

Cute Cubs and the Famous Hyena Laugh

Lion Cub in Eastern Serengeti
One of several lion cubs we spotted in the Soit le Motonyi region in East Serengeti. The sound these cubs make is adorable!

Needless to say, with more or less no other vehicles around the experience in this area of the Serengeti was very different and animal encounters were on a whole other level.

The volume of cats in this region made sure we got our fair share of cat sightings. The highlights for me were seeing (and hearing!) both lion and cheetah cubs.

In addition to this my favourite moments of our stay included spotting the very rare caracal, a small feline creature that slightly resembles a lynx.

We also saw several clans of hyenas and heard that famous hyena laugh.

Sunrise and Sunset Over the Savannah

Sunrise over the African savannah in Serengeti
The sunsets and sunrises over the savannah are stunning. Make sure you get up in time to see them!
Open landscapes of the Serengeti
There’s something incredibly beautiful about these open landscapes. It might look like you could spot any animal here, but you’d be surprised. Leopards in particular seem to be able to become invisible whilst moving through the grass – remember to keep an eye out!

In the midst of all the animal excitement, it’s easy to overlook the beauty of the landscape. Serengeti is loosely translated to endless plains and I can’t think of a more fitting name. As far as the eye can see there’s just never-ending space.

A safari isn’t a zoo and naturally the animals don’t show up upon request. Large parts of the day will be spent just driving by, only spotting the occasional hartebeest. In Serengeti, the views are so beautiful it doesn’t matter – you’ll find yourself lost in them, completely oblivious to the world around.

The landscape is stunning during daytime, but it’s during sunrise and sunset that it becomes truly magical. Colouring those never-ending plains in hues of orange, red and yellow sunsets and sunrises are just spectacular. Make sure you never miss one; each one is unique in its own way.

No Crowds No Rules?

Serengeti landscapes, lonely acacia tree
On the grassy plains of the Serengeti there’s little shelter from the harsh sun. The acacia trees make for a welcome exception.

While the eastern part of the Serengeti appealed in its remoteness, for the first time during our safari in Tanzania I questioned how ethical it was. For me this is a major turn-off, especially if it involves animals. Naturally this cast a dark cloud over an otherwise fantastic experience in this region.

In the central part of Serengeti there were crowds, but that also meant there were lots of rangers present. Not once did I see jeeps driving off the roads or people behaving disrespectfully towards animals.

In the eastern part with barely no one besides us around, it seemed that there was little respect for rules.

The jeeps would drive wherever they pleased. If a cheetah was spotted lying down in the grass hundreds of metres from the road, the jeep would simply drive off the road and continue right up to the animal.

On one such occasion I myself was in a jeep with a guide that despite me voicing my concerns drove too close to a cheetah. It actually resulted in the animal getting up and walking away, clearly bothered.

More Rangers to this Region Please!

leopard in Serengeti
On our way to Seronera airstrip, literally just moments before flying away from Serengeti we spotted this guy. This tree is perhaps some 50 metres from the road, but with a good pair of binoculars (or good eyesight) you’ll see animals perfectly fine!

Yes, of course I made sure our guide didn’t repeat this (at least he didn’t do it with me in the jeep). But this didn’t stop the other jeeps in the area from doing whatever they wanted.

At one point I saw a jeep drive off the road and continue straight up onto a rock where there were two lionesses with their cubs. Another day I witnessed a gang of three jeeps drive right in front of a hunting cheetah, completely sabotaging any chances it had of stalking its prey. All for the sake of a picture!

This is just so unacceptable and unforgivable. I wish these kind of people would be fined and banned from entering national parks.

What Can You Do If You See Harmful Behaviour and People Not Respecting Animals?

Cheetah in Serengeti
This cheetah appeared from nowhere in Central Serengeti. We’d driven around for hours not seeing anything besides a few warthogs and hartebeests. Then suddenly this female just crossed the road right in front of us.

Should safaris be banned completely? Personally I don’t think so. I spent ten days on safari and most of the time people respected park rules. A safari is an excellent opportunity to learn more about our precious and fragile environment and all the amazing species living in it.

What I did see however, is that sadly, if there’s no one making sure everyone’s following rules people will bend them. To help prevent potentially harmful behaviour I think it’s important to do whatever you can.

Here are a few tips:

  • Make sure to speak up if you’re ever in a situation where your guide/driver doesn’t keep a respectful distance or doesn’t follow park rules.
  • Report it to your camp staff, tour operator and travel agency.
  • In addition to oral feedback, remember to give written feedback as well.
  • All of the above send a clear message that for most visitors animal wellbeing is priority number one and any game drives should be organised accordingly.

We had a shared jeep during these days of our safari. And yes, it’s a bit uncomfortable to be the goody two shoes telling someone else off. You might even have others in your jeep who think you’re “ruining all the fun”. But it turned out more or less everyone else in my jeep felt the same way.

In addition to oral and written feedback to staff etc, I also want to address the problem here to raise awareness. I think it’s imperative that something is done to make sure we protect this area. It was closed for 20 years to create a true haven for big cats. Let’s make sure those conservational efforts weren’t for nothing.

I’m hoping that if more people raise concerns, they might be able to increase surveillance and perhaps have more rangers in this region.

Is Serengeti Worth Visiting?

Elephants in Central Serengeti
The impressive size of these African giants is hard to fully grasp before you come close to them. Just look at how tiny those people in the jeeps are compared to them!

Although the last part of our safari left a bit of a bitter aftertaste, all in all I enjoyed Serengeti immensely. In more than one way it surprised me.

Serengeti was all about quality, not quantity. There was more driving around for hours without seeing animals than in the other parks, which was kind of unexpected. But once we did see animals it was usually even more spectacular than in the other parks.

I’d seen pictures of the landscape and I’d watched documentaries. I knew what the Serengeti would look like. Yet, I was still completely blown away by the beauty. I find myself daydreaming about those uninterrupted views and those amazing sunsets and sunrises.

I think Serengeti is an excellent choice if you have more than just one day of safari and you want to combine animal viewing with beautiful landscapes. It’s also one of the most convenient safari locations given that it has its own airstrip and quite a wide range of different accommodation.

Bit by the Dangerous Safari Bug

Travel Jael in Serengeti National Park
A good pair of binoculars is a must on a safari.

Serengeti was also the final part of the safari section of our Tanzania trip.

A fellow safari-goer we met in Serengeti said the greatest danger one can encounter on a safari is not getting eaten by a lion or catching malaria– it’s getting bit by a bug. The safari bug. At the time I thought that was a cheesy thing to say. But when I found myself immediately researching and planning my next safari I realised she was right.

You’d think that after ten days of sitting in a car, driving along bumpy and muddy roads and seeing more than our fair share of all animals possible I’d be satisfied, but on the contrary. I’m even more hungry for my next safari adventure and literally can’t wait!

African elephant in Serengeti
The African elephant is the largest land animal. It can grow up to four metres in height.

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