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What it’s Like to Go on a Serengeti Safari


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Written by: Vicky Philpott

Extraordinary Wildlife in Tanzania

Inside the jeep my fellow wildlife spotters and I were silent. Five minutes ago we’d been happily bouncing through the Serengeti in our specially adapted safari 4WD, singing ‘a-whimba-wah-a-wimbah-wah’ while casually looking across the landscape for any sign of movement.
Now the entire group’s eyes were fixed on one spot.
A female lion was following her two cubs as they stalked through the long grass just a few metres away, while a huge male lion was looking on with sleepy, satisfied eyes. It was impossible for any of us to look on and not think of the cute little cubs Simba and Nala from The Lion King. Out in Tanzania, though, in the harsh animal kingdom, these cute little cubs were learning to be killing machines who’d most likely gorged on one of their fellow beasts in the recent past, judging by the contented look of the dad.
Lion cubs on safari
It could’ve been the same family we’d seen earlier that day enjoying their lunch –another moment in the day where our eagle-eyed guide had stopped the jeep before we’d even seen an animal was there.

Life and death in the Serengeti

Lions had been gathered around the unmistakeable carcass of a zebra, tearing off chunks with their teeth. We watched for at least ten minutes without them even noticing we were there – they were so engrossed. Once they finally did look up, we could see through our binoculars their mouths were covered with blood. I could imagine they’d have a tasty cleaning session before bedtime.
The lions were surrounded by rows of eager, hungry hyenas transfixed by the possibility of a meal when the lions had had their fill. They were such dirty scavengers, just like Shenzi, Banzai and Ed on The Lion King. One decided he’d waited long enough and went in for a bite of zebra before the lions had left. The lion swiped him round the face with a paw to remind him who was boss and he whimpered off.
A few minutes later and it was their turn. Tens of scrawny hyenas packed in like vultures around the destroyed carcass as the lions slunk off. As they fought to get the best bits of the meat they made sounds I’d never heard before, or since.
Hyenas on safari
Life is tough in the Serengeti, but so damn exciting.

Two days on safari

Going on safari is a waiting game. You could search all day for animals with no reward, or you could go on a two-day safari in the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater and see the Big 5, like I was lucky enough to do.
I saw lions, buffalos, impalas, wildebeests, a rhino (from behind, in the distance, but still), elephants, and even a leopard. I was on an organised group trip with G Adventures from Zanzibar to Nairobi with a stop for a safari in between. As we drove around the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater we tried to seek out the African wildlife for ourselves but our eyes were no match for the trained vision of our guide. He could literally spot them a few miles off.
You could go hours without seeing anything and then all of a sudden be in the midst of a herd of elephants, a tower of giraffes or a flamboyance of flamingos. It was incredible.
Seeing wildlife in the Serengeti

Don’t get too close

There have been cases of tourists getting too close to the animals and being hurt. Regardless of whose fault that has been, you should always remember these creatures are wild and could do serious damage, so give them the space they need.
When we stopped to look at the family of lions, the group in front of us were getting on top of their jeep to get a better view, to take better photos. Our guide was disgusted and tried to wave at their guide to get them down. Apparently the animals are used to the shape of the jeeps, but once that shape has changed (i.e. by people on the roof), they’ll feel threatened, which is exactly when they’re more likely to attack.
I can totally understand how it happens. You’re so close, you want to be that little bit closer, just for that shot, you take a picture like this for that ultimate selfie and forget that in a second that lion could absolutely annihilate you. In hindsight I’m probably too close on this pic but I, like many others, got carried away.
Zebras and flamingos on safari

Step away from the viewfinder

I swear 50% of the people on my tour were stuck behind their cameras the whole time. If you just want to look at photos of animals you could save yourself a lot of time and money just Googling the images. Take a moment to soak up what it’s like to actually be on safari, to feel the silence of the savannah, the excitement of seeing the day-to-day life and death, and the potential to see a new animal at every turn.

Sleeping with the animals

If you’re planning to do a safari, be sure to choose a tour company that has time for you to sleep over in special tents on the plains. We set up the tents and had dinner in the Serengeti before we travelled on to the Ngorongoro Crater.
Our tour guide strongly advised us to avoid going to the toilet at night if we could help it, as I slowly put my water bottle down and vowed not to drink another drop. There was no way I was leaving my tent that night, even if that meant wetting myself. I’d assumed we’d have some sort of barrier protecting the tents from the animals, but oh no.
As I drifted in and out of sleep my malaria tablet-infused brain was visualising myself as Simba in the gorge – the wildebeest were on the move and the hyenas were chasing them towards my tent.
My tent buddy woke me…
“Something just brushed past our tent,” she whispered.
Not sure if you’ve ever tried to sleep with a possibility a lion is outside your tent, but it does make nodding off a little more exciting/impossible.
“Did you hear that?” I sat bolt upright.
The lions were definitely outside. I could hear them grizzling. I lay back down and must’ve lost myself in the sounds, the next thing I knew I was being roused for our early morning game drive.
The Lion Queen

I was alive!

Apparently it had been hyenas. Another member of our group had stuck their head out in the night to be greeted by too many pairs of eyes staring back at her. So glad I stopped drinking that water.
Driving away from the camp in the morning, alive, with a dazzle of zebras running by our side as the sun rose is one of the most incredible sights I’ve ever seen.
The whole safari experience was a lot of fun, if a little scary.

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