They say that curiosity, as much as devotion, makes a pilgrim, If you spent as much time as me watching films set in the Serengeti conjecturing about what exists outside the aspect ratio of the TV screens you'd understand why this trip is almost spiritual for me.
Serengeti gets its name from Serengit, Maasai for "Endless Plain", which brings me to the whole truth about this place that none of the documentaries or any of my pictures will (or can) tell. It truly is vast and plentiful beyond belief. The drive into the park is so featureless with no undulation, tree or rock, that it can induce land-sickness. The monotony is interrupted by the occasional jackals, gazelles or the Maasai in his red dress watching his herd! The reason nothing grows here is that a volcano deposited ash over the plains and the thin top soil above that layer supports only grass.
Once you are inside the protected area of the park the vast grasslands are dotted by the characteristic acacias and big granites jutting out, called Kopjes. Of course there are animals and birds in numbers and variety that are mind-boggling. (This without the 2 million migratory wildebeest, zebras and buffalos that are spending this season across the border in Kenya).
Wildlife documentaries don't capture the sense of infinity that you feel in Serengeti. They also misrepresent the rhythm of the place. The herbivores go about the business of eating all day. The carnivores range from Lions, which seem to do nothing but sit around, to the hyenas scanning the plains continuously with their busy gait. The hunts that films focus on are infrequent punctuation that I never get to see in the 3 days I spend there. The closest I get to that is this leopard who had brought home a gazelle to eat both for dinner and the following brunch.
On the second evening I also meet my favorite big cat, the Cheetah. He is at least a hundred meters from my car and he's scanning the horizon for an early dinner. He seems to spot something and starts trotting in that direction. We try to keep pace with him and I notice that we are traveling at nearly 40 kmph. His path diverges from ours and within a minute he's so far that I can't even see him with my binoculars. Having seen his scale of operations here I don't think I can excuse putting a Cheetah in a zoo anymore.
In the two days I spend at the park I see dozens of species of birds, countless ungulates, a male Ostrich getting lucky, a falcon guarding its nest from my intrusions, countless lions, and many more. The safari doesn't end when we get back to the camp, because our tents are right out in the open and we are visited by wildlife at night. On the second morning I see a Zebra just outside my tent and a few minutes later hear a Hyena not more than a few meters away.
On the third morning we drive off to visit Ngorongoro, and on the way out I try to drink everything in. Three days haven't left me accustomed to the vastness of this land and I'm left with that feeling that characterizes all pilgrimages, that feeling of sacred awe.