Serengeti Self Drive Safari Day One: Battered, Dirty and Lost
We wanted to see the volcano and flamingos along the shores of Lake Natron, which was well worth the detour. We had also seen on herd tracker that the wildebeests were in the north of the Serengeti crossing the Sand River into Kenya. So, we chose to drive on the desolate dirt roads from Lake Natron to Klein Gate in the North Eastern sector of Serengeti National Park.
The drive took eight hours, including a fantastic tire blow-out on some sharp volcanic rock on the road. That left us at the beginning of a four-day safari through the bush with only one dependable spare tire, one with a bush patch, and jerry cans full of dirty petrol from a village we happened by. Full adventure mode.
However, shortly after we passed the ranger station and entered the park, we realized we were not the least prepared ones there, and we were in for even more trouble than we imagined. In the first 30 minutes of our safari, the road disappeared into a bog, and we left the car to scope the situation. Fortunately, a professional safari car came from the other direction. After the driver scouted the bog himself, he deemed it passable. He charged the bog at full speed and launched his vehicle, full of tourists, into the bottom of the bog where he stalled out and remained. The tourists were hilarious, some dressed in all white, and soon covered head to toe in mud along with the rest of us.
We helped the driver find a smattering of large logs while the passengers all took pictures and watched. Then we managed to tow the car through to the other side with a thick nylon rope, snapping one of the steel carabiners. So now we were also down a functioning tow rope. We turned around and found another road going north. The only other car we saw was a tow truck pulling a flipped Landcruiser with a completely crushed carriage. By the time we arrived in the true north of the Serengeti, the sun was closing in on the plains.
Herds of wildebeest were scattered along the rolling hills of grass, and we saw of group of them that looked on edge. Circling around the side of the herd we found a male lion stalking them through the tall grass. The setting sun behind the herds silhouetted the acacia trees and while we lingered long enough to capture this quintessential Serengeti image, we had to push on to find our campsite before dark.
However, the small tracks eroded by the rains made for slow progress, and the dusk set upon us as we closed in on the grove of trees we thought were sheltering our campsite. We followed the flickering light of a campfire through the trees and arrived at a fancy pop-up tented camp. There we learned our intended campsite was far from where we though it was. We were lost in the Serengeti.
We were not fancy enough for this campsite, and they refused us permission to set-up camp on the outskirts of their space. However, they were kind enough to radio the rangers to come and lead us to a nearby campsite. We were not the only ones lost there in the dark. Two other self-drivers had gotten a flat tire in the bush. In the excitement of changing their tire with loins lurking around, they had forgotten to tighten the lug nuts on the new tire. It had bounced around until it stripped off all the threads on the bolts. The new tire bounced off, and it was impossible to put any tire back on. Their safari was over.
The rangers came an hour later and raced forth along the muddy dirt roads in the dark. We struggled desperately to keep up. Eventually, they circled into another grove of acacia trees, flashed their lights twice at us, and disappeared into the night. We set-up a perimeter of solar security lights and scrounged some dead branches from the bush. We all changed into boots when we saw some camel spiders and cooked a quick dinner on a small fire while drinking a bottle of whiskey. We could hear the rushing water of the Sand River close by and knew we would be up early to drive along its shores.
Serengeti Self Drive Safari Day Two: Wildebeest Crossing, Elephant Road Block
However, dawn brought bad news. In the darkness I had parked the car on the splintered top of a buried stump. I had punctured the tire, and now we were without a good spare. We would have to spend the next three days deep in the bush driving very carefully on treacherous roads.
The drive along the Sand River revealed a professional safari car on its side in the middle of the river. The bloated bodies of trampled wildebeests floated around it. We imagined the havoc that must have ensued. Surviving the crash unscathed would have been miraculous, but then you would still have been in the middle of a hippo and crocodile infested river, running fast enough to flip a car. We hoped those tourists were a bit more prepared than the rest we had seen thus far. We traced the banks of the river until we saw a group of several safari cars parked on an embankment. A guide was stepping down from his car and yelled at us to follow him into the bush.
We emerged on a sandy beach and the guide looked back to make sure we knew not to approach the water. There were crocodiles everywhere. A group of tourists stood in front of us. Immediately a herd of wildebeest from the Kenyan side of the river crossed back into Tanzania in front of us. The guides ran around moving tourists back from the edge of the water as they all spread out trying to take pictures. The instant the last wildebeest crossed the river, they ushered us back to the safety of the cars. It was obvious we had pushed the limits of safety, but it was quite a wild way to start the day.
We had a lot of bumpy roads to cover to get to our next campsite, and we left the river to find a sheltered place for breakfast. Driving past a large monolith in the plains we spotted two Klipspringers impossibly perched on its sheer face. We watched a while, suspecting they were sheltering from a nearby predator, but were never able to spot the hunter.
The rest of the morning was magical. The herds spotted the plains like stars in the Milky Way. We just kept heading south, choosing the largest track heading in the most strategic direction until we neared Klein’s Gate again. There we found a major dirt road heading to Lobo Public Campsite. We made good progress on the washboard roads, but the distance was too far. As the sun set, a great orange moon rose over the plains and our headlights reflected lion eyes on the sides of the road.
Arriving at Lobo Public Campsite, we were depressed by the large number of other campers there. We were no longer in the far north of the park, but in the heart of the tourist circuit and the bustle ruined our desire for wilderness. We checked the map and found a special campsite that seemed worth scouting as they are often deserted. We continued past Lobo and drove through the darkness until we got to a point where the road past through a grove of acacia. Two young rambunctious elephants were roaming around. We stopped and backed-up to give them some space, but they did not want our company.
With a great crack, the larger elephant knocked a sizeable acacia tree down over the road and trumpeted so loudly that we reversed the car back into the darkness just hoping we would not puncture any of our last good tires. Defeated, we returned to Lobo Public Campsite and had a wonderful night with the moon overhead. A fieldmouse visited our campfire, and we woke up in the morning to a herd of buffalo worryingly close to the tents.
Serengeti Self Drive Safari Day Three: The Iris of a Three-Legged Loin
Day three in the Serengeti was desolate. We found a small store near Lobo where we got more petrol and some groundnuts. Then we set off to traverse the park to the east. Most of the day was featureless. The Tanzania National Parks Authority (TANPA) had burned large portions of the park and swirling dust devils of ash wound across the parched landscape. The expanse of the burning seemed unjustifiable, but we tried to give TANPA the benefit of the doubt until they literally ran us off the road.
Driving East on one of the major park roads, a large TANPA cargo truck was coming at us so fast that I pulled our car onto the steep drainage ditch on the side of the road as much as I safely could. However, the reckless TANAPA driver still managed to swipe the side of our car, and then continue without pause along its way. It was hard to trust the quality of their stewardship of the land after that.
It is worth noting that it was volcanic ash from the Ngorongoro volcano that blew onto the plains millions of years ago that gave the Serengeti its original fertility. Thus, the burning is continuing to provide the plains with some of the essential elements it has always needed to thrive. As we progressed north, we neared some small rivers, and crouton bushes broke the monotony of the landscape.
It was at Ndabaka, where we encountered the moteliest crews of lions that must exist. We first spotted a male lion relaxing under a crouton bush and approached it to spend some time together. However, as we rolled to a stop and I emerged from the sunroof to capture the image, he lunged forward at us with a fierce snarl, and then hobbled off into the bush on three legs. We were shaking from the fright and speechless as none of us would have predicted that a three-legged lion could survive in such a harsh environment.
It was then we realized we were surrounded by lions. Two other females were crouched in the crouton bushes. Approaching them we saw one of them only had a single eye. They also seemed on edge, so we moved on and rolled into camp for the first time with enough light to set-up a proper camp and get some rest after another full day in the car.
Serengeti Self Drive Safari Day Four: The Wrath of a Raft of Muddy Hippos
On the fourth day we drove back West to Ndabaka where we had seen the motely loins the day before. They were gone, but we did find a bat eared fox that entertained us for a while scurrying around. We then crossed a small river and explored its banks. Most of the water had dried up, and all that was left was the muddy stench of hippos piled on top of each other fighting for space. We had a relaxing breakfast watching them jostle and fight.
A safari guide joined us as we were having breakfast on a bluff above the river. He knew the motely pride well and explained the male loin had been rescued from a poacher’s snare and was kept alive by very tough and loyal lionesses. It is quite a story.
With that our adventures ended. The trip really did feel wild, and despite the high prices of Tanzania we were glad we got to know the Serengeti. We saw lions at least twice a day and found the wilderness we were seeking. We recommend a self-driving adventure for those who are prepared to get run-off the road by the rangers, road blocked by elephants and snarled at by three legged loins. Safari really does not get any better.
Notes for Nomads:
We decided to do a four-day, three-night itinerary. However, if you can afford it, you could easily spend weeks exploring the Serengeti plains. We just could not afford to be in the park any longer. The first night we camped at Kogatende Special Campsite. There were no amenities there. However, it is right on the sand river, which is great for looking for crossings when the herds are in the area. The second night we stayed at Lobo Public Campsite. It was quite popular and had bathrooms and a closed kitchen for cooking. The last night we stayed at Ndabaka Public Campsite at the Western Gate (near Mwanza). It had bathrooms, but no kitchen.
This itinerary allows you to explore a vast expanse of Serengeti National Park, but the drive times between the campsites are extremely long, so it means very early starts, and long days in the car.