Northern Serengeti in the Low Season

Northern Serengeti in the Low Season

Northern Serengeti in the low season

 

 

AMANDA MARKS

Sitting alone, a large, battle-scarred male with a chunk missing out of his top lip was trying to disassociate himself from the seven females and youngsters relaxing in the sunshine on the edge of a dry riverbed.

Not that we were counting at the time, but that made it twelve lions we’d seen that morning. Twelve lions (plus two small cubs), five oribi, two bat-eared foxes, six giraffes, four dwarf mongooses (so cute!), four elephants, four rock hyrax, three red hartebeest, two greater eland, dozens of zebras, quite a few impalas, hundreds of wildebeest, and a partridge in a … No, maybe not.

The point here is that I was in northern Serengeti in late November. This time is classed as the low season for this region: November to May. Ask around and you’ll find that the general received wisdom is that it’s not worth coming to northern Serengeti in these months because you won’t see anything.

Well, I’d like to let you into a secret: that’s nonsense!

The reason many people think June/July to October are the only months to consider for this area of the Serengeti is that these are the months when the migration is either resident here or passing through on the way to the Masai Mara. It is in these months that you are likely to see thousands upon thousands of wildebeest and zebras plus attendant predators, and it’s also the time when you stand a chance of spotting the famed river crossings. There’s no doubt that this is indeed an incredible place to be when this natural phenomenon is around, however, to dismiss northern Serengeti for the rest of the year is to act rather ostrich-like. Look around – the resident wildlife here is excellent!

Thousands of hectares of wilderness are yours for the exploring.

It just happened that my colleague, Tracy, visited the area in first week of November, and I visited in the last week in November. We both had superb wildlife experiences, but what made it even better was that we shared these experiences with almost no-one else. Really! Thousands of hectares of wilderness are yours for the exploring, and when you spot wildlife you’re not vying with a dozen (or any, in my case) other vehicles.

And it’s such a beautiful place. The granite rock boulders sprinkled liberally over the landscape shine with what seems like an inner light as the early morning or late evening sun warms them as it has done for thousands of years. It’s ancient land, and particularly when it’s empty, it still feels like the soul of the earth is speaking to you here.

Big cats love it: leopards love the rock kopjes and cheetahs love the flat grasslands of the Lamai Wedge. Lions are happy anywhere really, but they prefer it if they don’t have to make too much effort for their dinner, and if they can find a nice quiet place to sleep. The proud, scarred old warrior we met had chosen his spot well. Northern Serengeti is a good place to be.

Where to stay…

There are some fantastic camps and lodges that operate in low season in the Northern Serengeti. For example, Sayari Camp  is a deluxe camp next to the Mara river, while Lemala Kuria Hills Lodge  offers gorgeous glass-fronted suites with private plunge pools. 

NOTES:
Low season in northern Serengeti is from November to May. Camp prices are cheaper and there are far fewer people visiting at this time.

Rainy season is late March/ April to May, so many camps are closed.

 

A Tower of Giraffes please!

A Tower of Giraffes please!

A Tower of Giraffes please!

Sinead Bailey

Last October, I visited South Africa with my family – my husband and 2 boys age 9 (James) and 12 (Charlie). We travelled from Cape Town, along the Garden Route and ended with a safari in the Eastern Cape.

We all had our own highlights, and I asked the kids for their favourite bits – there were many!! Here are their Top 3!

Charlie’s Highlights (age 12)

1 Fat Scooters – Scootours Cape Town
With our guide, we jumped on fat wheel scooters and descended down both Signal Hill and Table Mountain. So exhilarating and great fun. The views were stunning, and of course the kids’ highlight – watching Mummy give it a go! (I thought I was quite good actually!)

2 Watershed – Cape Town
There are A LOT of places to eat on the V&A Waterfront, but this was hands down Charlie’s favourite. Just a stone’s throw from our apartment, the Watershed is home to many different food stalls – from dirty burgers to more traditional South African fare. Great for a quick stop. The lady at the smoothie stall recognised Charlie by the time we left!

3 Night drive on safari
Our final stop on the trip was the Amakhala Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape, staying at Hlosi Game Lodge. Lots of great sightings here, but Charlie’s high point was seeing three lionesses hunting on an awesome night drive. The red spotlight that is used on these night drives so as not to disturb the animals added to the drama. It was our David Attenborough moment.

James’ Highlights (age 9)

1 The Winelands
As James is clearly underage, this one may come as a surprise! But there were a few favourite moments from our visit to Franschhoek and the surrounding area. We started in Boschendal, where we hired bikes and cycled through the vast vineyards – followed by slumping on a bean bag under the shade of the trees and enjoying an ice cream.

A day hopping on and off the Franschhoek Wine tram was very entertaining – the guides are so lively and it’s a fun way to see a variety of the vineyards. James loved the hot chocolate, cheese and chocolate tasting alternatives for kids.

2 Paddle Boarding and Horse Riding
As we travelled further along the Garden Route, we arrived at Hog Hollow Country Lodge. A lovely option for families, and the kids made plenty of new friends here. There’s a number of activities available. An afternoon spent paddle boarding on the Keubrooms River was a real adventure, even when falling off! A glass of bubbly for the adults (balanced on the board!) was a lovely touch.

James and Dad also visited the stables at Hog Hollow, and spent a few hours riding sedately through the meadows and nearby forest. James nicknamed his horse ‘Hungry’, with lots of stops for grass munching!

 

3 Unsurprisingly, James also has a safari moment in his top 3! Our final afternoon on safari, we headed out with our guide, named Lucky. It was James’ turn to sit in the front and help with the spotting. After asking Lucky a million and one questions (all patiently answered, well done Lucky!), Lucky asked him – “What would you like to see on your final safari drive James?”. The answer: “A Tower of Giraffes please!”

We continued our safari, and as we headed closer to sunset, we saw the first few giraffes appear over the tree line. The vehicle slowed down, and we soon realised that we were surrounded by giraffes, at least 20, totally unfased by us and not going anywhere. We parked up, and as Lucky set up the sundowner drinks, we all watched in awe. It was breath-taking and I was even rewarded with hugs from the kids for the best holiday ever. Truly special.

Kwihala Camp

Kwihala Camp

Kwihala Camp

 RUAHA, TANZANIA SPECIAL 

Kwihala Camp

Tribes’ director, Amanda Marks, explored Ruaha for 2 weeks in June 2018. Staying at or inspecting all of the lodges and camps, game driving in the east, west and centre, and talking to the camp owners, managers and guides.

It was the post-lunch siesta time at Kwihala Camp – believe me, after a lunch like that you need a break just to reflect on how on earth the chef came up with that in the middle of the bush; the food here is as good as meals I’ve eaten in top class restaurants in London.

But I digress. There are 6 gorgeous en-suite tents at Kwihala, but I was sitting alone with a cup of green tea in the main lounge tent. It was just me, my notebook and the view. It was June, not the hottest month of the year by any means (try October/November if you want to experience real heat) but still in the late twenties, so with the heat, and the sleep-inducing lunch after the excellent early morning game drive, I was feeling drowsy. Writing my detailed notes of the last couple of days just wasn’t appealing. Instead, I found myself simply staring. In front of me was a wide sand river strewn with natural debris including a huge tree trunk deposited after the last flood. It was hard to imagine a flowing river here in place of acres of sand.

It turns out that a dry riverbed is a busy place. The sand is pitted with footprints of a myriad of different creatures, and as I sat in my only-half-awake state, I was aware of a couple of male antelopes walking on the other side of the ‘river’, and a small troupe of monkeys playing on the dead tree in the middle.

And then they came. Was it a dream? Or was I really sat watching a large family of elephants as they sauntered along the sand river as if it was a Sunday morning walk in the park? They were on the camp side of the river, close enough to want to hold your breath, yet far enough away to feel safe. The very little one was in playful mode and was pestering the adults who just gently ignored him. I had a good 15 minutes enjoying their antics from the comfort of my sofa. This was big screen TV and some!

When they eventually padded silently out of view, I heard something behind me, and a voice breathed ‘Wow.’  It was the waiter. He’d quietly shared the moment with me and was as moved as I was. It means a lot when the staff of a camp or lodge are as enthralled by the wildlife as the guests, and know when to stand back and let a moment happen. I wasn’t surprised – the staff at Kwihala are all excellent.  In some ways, it’s a shame I didn’t have my camera with me, but you know, sometimes just being there is enough. Being at Kwihala is enough.

 RUAHA, TANZANIA SPECIAL 

You can read Amanda’s various blogs from this journey if you’d like to know more, and she’s always happy to chat about Ruaha if you’re considering a safari here. Visit our Tanzania specialist site to find out more about a safari in Tanzania.

Other Ruaha blogs by Amanda include:

Kigelia Ruaha

Kigelia Ruaha

Kigelia Ruaha

 RUAHA, TANZANIA SPECIAL 

Kigelia Ruaha

Tribes’ director, Amanda Marks, explored Ruaha for 2 weeks in June 2018. Staying at or inspecting all of the lodges and camps, game driving in the east, west and centre, and talking to the camp owners, managers and guides..

You couldn’t make it up really – a tree that has fruits like whopping great Milano salamis. It’s known as the sausage tree (of course) but its proper name is Kigelia Africana. Woe betide you if you’re under the tree when one of those 15lb monsters falls!

This iconic African tree is the namesake of one of the camps I stayed in for 2 nights in June 2018 on my in-depth research safari in Ruaha National Park. Kigelia Ruaha is owned and run by Nomad Tanzania. They have 10 camps throughout Tanzania. Not only are these all very special camps in terms of location, but I also highly rate their accommodation (sometimes simple, as with Kigelia Ruaha, but always stylish), their food, their strong ethos as regards conservation and community involvement, and especially and very importantly for their guests, their guiding.

I was lucky enough to have my guide, Hussein, all to myself, so he could tailor my safari to what I was interested in. I’m quite a generalist, in terms of interests – I’m as happy watching birds, finding out about the trees and plants, and sitting watching a group of impalas or zebras, as I am searching for big cats or the big five. Ruaha has 4 of the big 5 (no rhinos, sadly, despite it being perfect black rhino territory), an incredible 575 species of birds, lots of elephants, a very strong population of lions … this is a park that impresses on many levels, including scenery.

Kigelia Ruaha is in a great location in an area central to some of the best wildlife viewing of the park. Not far away there is ‘Little Serengeti’, which, as the name suggests, is a wide open area of grassland and favoured by the park’s few cheetahs, and both the Mwagusi and the Great Ruaha Rivers are in easy striking distance. This is also a camp from which you can easily take the early morning hot air balloon flight over the park – an experience I loved, and wrote about in a separate blog (see below).

There are limitless options for a safari including Kigelia Ruaha, but may I offer my own personal ‘fantasy safari’ itinerary from Nomad Tanzania:
3 nights in Serengeti Safari Camp
3 nights in Kigelia Ruaha
3 nights in Greystoke Mahale

Ah, but then there’s Katavi too… Decisions, decisions!
What’s certain though is that you can’t go wrong choosing Kigelia Ruaha or any of its sister camps. The guys running these camps get it right.

 RUAHA, TANZANIA SPECIAL 

You can read Amanda’s various blogs from this journey if you’d like to know more, and she’s always happy to chat about Ruaha if you’re considering a safari here. Visit our Tanzania specialist site to find out more about a safari in Tanzania.

Other Ruaha blogs by Amanda include:

Ruaha Balloon Safari

Ruaha Balloon Safari

 RUAHA, TANZANIA SPECIAL 

A Hot Air Balloon over Ruaha

Amanda Marks, Tribes’ director, was on the inaugural flight of Ruaha Balloon Safaris on 24th June 2018. She gives her first-hand account of this memorable experience.

There is something magical about rising up slowly past treetops at the same time as an orange ball of sun rises up over the horizon. It is even more special when the landscape you’re floating above is some of the most spectacular you could imagine. Miles of savannah plains and acacia and combretum woodlands bounded by an escarpment, with leafless baobabs and ilala palms punctuating the grassy plains, and a river winding through the arid flatlands.  Ruaha National Park leaves you speechless.

I was on Ruaha Balloon Safaris’ inaugural flight, and it was a privilege to be one of the 12 guests on board. Captain Abeid Soka, a hugely experienced balloon pilot, filled me with confidence as we began our ascent. He judged the skimming of the vast baobab near the launch site with practised ease. I was pleased that I was tied to the floor of the basket with a safety harness – not that I intended jumping out, but it was still a comfort to a slightly nervous passenger.

I have to admit that this is not a cheap – $575 per person (up to end of October 2019) – however it is one of those things that will be indelibly etched onto my memory for years to come.

The whole experience begins with a very early morning so that you get to the launch site before dawn. You then watch as the balloon is inflated with a hot air blower until it’s expanded enough for the gas burner to be lit, at which point the flames leap into action. The excitement of the awaiting passengers is palpable, and even the sun begins to peep over the treetops to see what’s going on.

According to the captain, the winds in Ruaha are not generally as strong as those in the Serengeti, so this was a very sedate one-hour flight. Fine by me. As well as the stunning landscape spread beneath our feet, we saw giraffes and hippos, impalas and warthogs. I heard that the guests on the flight the following day saw lions swimming across the Great Ruaha River!

Our landing was as gentle as you could have wished for, and we were greeted by champagne – apparently a tradition in the ballooning fraternity. Then we were all transported to a site next to the Ruaha River for yet more champagne and a full English breakfast out in the bush. Everyone at the long table was smiling widely.

It was just after 9am when our morning ended. We’d seen the vast beauty of this incredible wilderness with the perspective of one of the eagles that we’d been watching for the last few days. Most of us were heading off on a game drive with our respective camp guides, but we set off with a different view (an overview) of Ruaha in our mind’s eye and in our heart.

 RUAHA, TANZANIA SPECIAL 

You can read Amanda’s various blogs from this journey if you’d like to know more, and she’s always happy to chat about Ruaha if you’re considering a safari here. Visit our Tanzania specialist site to find out more about a safari in Tanzania.

Other Ruaha blogs by Amanda include:

Mwagusi Safari Camp

Mwagusi Safari Camp

Mwagusi Safari Camp (The rock hyrax and me)

 RUAHA, TANZANIA SPECIAL 

Mwagusi Safari Camp (The rock hyrax and me)

Tribes’ director, Amanda Marks, explored Ruaha for 2 weeks in June 2018.  Staying at or inspecting all of the lodges and camps, game driving in the east, west and centre, and talking to the camp owners, managers and guides.

The small, grey rock hyrax looked daggers at me. He’d popped up about 2 feet from my head as I sat on the chair on my verandah.
‘This is my place,’ he said. ‘What are you doing here?’
No, really, there was no doubt about what he meant. His face said it all. He stared at me for about 20 seconds, willing me to leave (hyraxes don’t blink!), but when he realised that I patently wasn’t going to move, he left with a hrumpf.

As a welcome to a safari camp, I have to say that was one of the best I’ve had. And to add to the experience, the location could not have been better. My room was on the elevated rocky edge of the Mwagusi River, and it was stunning. However, I should probably mention that there was not a drop of water to be seen – this was June, and the dry season in Ruaha National Park was well and truly underway (the Mwagusi is a sand river from about April to November).

Mwagusi was the second camp to be built, many years ago, in this beautiful and remote park, and the owner, Chris Fox, walked the length of the Mwagusi to choose his spot. He chose well. I could have very happily sat all day long in my supremely comfortable hideaway watching the comings and goings in the dry riverbed. Hyraxes, mongooses, hamerkops and many other bird species (there are 575 in Ruaha) are commonly spotted here, but leopards like it here too.

As it was, I went out each day with my guide Geoffrey (pronounced Joffry please, not Jeffry!) who is one of the most experienced guides in the park having worked here for about 15 years. His guiding was excellent, and we saw a diverse range of wildlife from elephants to lions, the ubiquitous impalas to warthogs and zebras, and we even saw a honey badger make a dash for the undergrowth one morning.

I loved the bush breakfast we had at the confluence of the dry Mwagusi and the still-flowing Great Ruaha, and in fact all the meals I had at the camp were very good – perhaps not as fancy as some of the other more expensive properties I stayed at, but still tasty, varied and well-presented.

Mwagusi is one of those places which has an individual character and quite a bit of soul. It’s not part of a chain or larger hotel group, it’s a one-off.

A bit like the rock hyrax, I can see why you’d quickly get to feel that this was your place despite the other guests – I’d have stayed longer if I could.

 RUAHA, TANZANIA SPECIAL 

You can read Amanda’s various blogs from this journey if you’d like to know more, and she’s always happy to chat about Ruaha if you’re considering a safari here. Visit our Tanzania specialist site to find out more about a safari in Tanzania.

Other Ruaha blogs by Amanda include: