Friday, March 18, 2011
Located at the center of these three areas is Lake Ndutu, an expansive soda lake on the edge of the Serengeti Plains. Lake Ndutu draws migrating animals by the thousands and is a prime wildlife viewing area for giraffe, lion, leopard, hippo, elephant, and the largest wildebeest herds on earth. Huddled on the shore of the lake is Ndutu Safari Lodge, a cozy enclave of gray stone and wood buildings. Legendary big game hunter George Dove originally established a bush camp here in the 1960’s. The lodge retains the humble feeling of its origins and it has become a favorite with visitors who prefer isolation and access to untrammeled areas to five-star lodging and luxurious trappings. The main building, dominated by an airy dining room and bar, is a low open stone structure with exposed beam rafters that faces the glimmering waters of Lake Ndutu. Small but comfortable stone cabins have replaced the original tents.
The Whites being Brits, they offer us afternoon tea, which we quickly gulp down—after all, we came to see animals-- before jumping into Land Rovers and bumping off into the Serengeti. Simply put, the Serengeti is Africa’s most spectacular destination, a bustling stew of wildebeest, zebra, lions, gazelles, giraffe, elephant, birds, Cape buffalo and dozens of other species of birds and mammals. At the height of the annual wildlife migration the nonstop parade of wildebeest and zebra followed by ever-attentive lions and cheetahs is unforgettable.
Paul heads for a nearby marsh, an oasis of green in the unending brown plains, where wildlife congregates in the dry season. Clouds of birds swoop low over the verdant grass and Paul is energized. Birds are his thing and he calls out several species in rapid succession--birds we’ve never seen before, and some we’ve never heard of--Secretary birds, Bustards, African kites, and on and on, colorful birds, colorful names.
We finally crest the rim of Ngorongoro Crater and spread below us, as far as we can see, is a vast concentration of wildlife, 250 square kilometers of zoological paradise. Thousands of ant-sized dots (we are still 1500 feet above the crater floor) are telltale signs of herds of wildebeest, zebra, and impala. Too many ants we think; there can’t be that many wild animals here. But as our Land Rover grumbles and bucks down the narrow rim road to the crater floor, the dots become larger and we can begin to make out distinct shapes: Cape buffalo, Thompson’s gazelle, eland, more variety and numbers than we had dared hope to see.
Ngorongoro is a constant stream of African vignettes. A daft lioness stalks and then charges two massive adult Cape buffalo who initially flee and then, coming to their senses, turn on their attacker and chase her off. A drying waterhole, one of the few remaining open bodies of water in this dry season, has become a grim charnel house of dead and dying animals. A large family of hippos dominates the shrinking open water. Around the open water is a large ring of deep and entrapping mud and in this mud is a scene of sickening carnage. Hippos, Cape buffalo, and zebras have become mired in the thick muck as they try to reach the water for a drink. Hyenas have waded in to feast on the trapped animals and have themselves become victims. Vultures swoop in to pick at the dead and the dying. It is a sad and sobering sight and another reminder that this is not some amusement park but Africa at its rawest.
On the way back to the lodge, we pass by the Olduvai Visitor Centre, snuggled in the middle of the Olduvai Gorge, made famous by anthropologists Mary and Louis Leakey who found evidence of 3.7 million year old Australopithecus Afarensis. This could be the cradle of human existence and standing at the bottom of this 300-foot deep, 30-mile long trench it is impossible not to be awed by its meaning.
Our last night in the Serengeti I was gripped with a sense of melancholy, knowing that the next day I would be leaving Ndutu. But then I remembered something a British mountain climbing guide once told me. “Africa never leaves you,” he said “Once you visit you leave a part of yourself there.”
He’s right of course, Ndutu is unforgettable, a dreamlike memory that I return to frequently.
(This article originally appeared in Marco Polo Magazine)