Listen to this article
Studying the cycles of the Serengeti, nearly 6,000 sq miles of protected plains, hills and savannah in north-western Tanzania, I thought of Peter Pan, pursued by Captain Hook, who is pursued by the crocodile. Serengeti is a kind of Neverland, a place that has been allowed to retain the infancy of an Eden. Its spaces, herds and humbling skies are much as they were when our earliest ancestors occupied the Oldupai gorge, south of the park, 2m years ago.
Siringet, as the Masai named it, “the place where the land runs on forever”, is famous for the migration of its million-and-a-half wildebeest. They follow fresh grazing, which follows the rain, and they are tracked by lion and cheetah, eagles and vultures. These animals are in turn pursued by an annual 300,000 tourists. This cycle, which moves in a constant clockwise drift around the park, has spawned two orthodoxies: to experience the Serengeti in full, follow the migration, and do not go in the time of the Long Rains, from March to May. Alex Edwards, who runs Natural High, a small safari company dedicated to the track less beaten, disputes both.
“There is so much more to it,” he said. “And I think the rains are the best time. We’ll see some of the migration but then go the other way. It is one of the great journeys. Although we might end up huddling in downpours,” he laughed.
So Aubrey, three, Robin, 14, their mother Rebecca and I crossed our fingers for not too much rain, and flew to join him in Arusha, the gateway to Serengeti’s eastern plains. Travelling in this season minimises cost: many safari camps are almost deserted, with rates half what you would pay in the high, dry season, our summer, when game clusters around the rivers and lakes.
What arbitrary, flimsy things are maps and names, I thought, on the rim of the Ngorongoro crater, looking west. The plains below were a widening vision under sleepy sunlight. They fell away from my feet, where Aubrey studied an orange-liveried caterpillar longer than his hand. Our guide, Festo Msofe, said it would produce stinging sores if touched.
“I didn’t know places like this existed,” said Robin. We had read about them, and seen pictures, but no reproduction catches the 3,000ft depth of the crater, its peace and might, and the rock and roll of thunder. A storm was trapped inside, its detonations echoing off green walls. Grey dots below were elephants. The black mites were buffalo. We might have been on another planet and it was only Monday morning.
The rain came at lunchtime, smashing African rain that rivered the tracks, turning the red earth purple. Neither the giraffe, nor the Masai herdsmen, nor their cattle, seemed to heed it. The storm lasted an hour and cleared to brightness as we drove south through birdsong and smells of petrichor, the mineral scent of rain on dry earth. The children were delighted by ostriches and zebra foals. Wildebeest cantered away, heads nodding, as though running took great concentration. At evening we arrived at Lake Masek, where a giant slug of a hippo hauled himself on to an island. Flamingos trod delicately on their reflections.
Our accommodation, Serengeti Safari Camp, was a discreet collection of tents between which we were escorted, after sunset, by a Masai guard.
“Why has that man got a stick?” asked Aubrey.
“To protect us from lions.”
A lion roared his gusty grunt at supper time. The darkness was filled with the calls of tree frogs, doves and owls and dozens of birds I could not name. Night was never more alive, the horizon’s huge clouds luminous with lightning. We shared the spectacle with a Dutch dancer and a New Zealand financier who had flown in on a whim to see some animals. Although our plan involved much driving, the Serengeti is served by a network of small planes allowing painless transfer between camps. We would not have wanted to fly, however. Actually travelling it seemed the only way to understand the vastness.
In Tuesday’s early dew we found a lion by the lake. He stared at the flamingos, his ruddy mane warming in the sun and his great death’s head imperturbable.
Now we met the migration. First a dozen wildebeest, then 100, then 1,000. Every other tree held a steppe eagle, gazing over the herds like wedding guests contemplating a feast. Thermals of vultures were rising, swallows hunted flies, and here were jackals, and there white storks, so that the plain was everywhere alive. Cumulus clouds 30,000ft above made the tiny area around us and the actual scale of things seem impossible to correlate, the difference between a window box and a universe.
Now other four-wheel-drives circled the herds. Six vehicles clustered together around a cheetah. This was exactly the scene Alex and Festo were resolved to avoid. We turned away and found an old elephant drowsing against a tree, his eyes closed as his trunk huffed up dust and blew it over him in deep billows. We stopped 10ft away. Countless elephants in Aubrey’s books and cartoons had not prepared him for this.
The rain came again punctually that afternoon, and thunder like cracking rocks, avalanches of bass drums and cannonades. “Animals change in the rain,” Festo said. “Buck don’t like it, they stand with their backs to the wind. Lion and leopard are busy, hunting.” The sky changed, too, crushed lilac blues and, in the clear afterwards, stripes of alto-cirrus and elephant-coloured towers. We returned to the lake in the evening to the laughter and lowing of hippo.
The sun on Wednesday morning shone on heron-coloured clouds, softly saturated air and a giraffe outside our tent. The tracks were threaded with puddles of mirrored sky and we felt the invigoration of a day freshly washed and steaming. We breakfasted on the crest of Matiti, a double-crowned hill. Birdsong and mist rose from the plain where wildebeest were as profuse as lichen. We passed pyres of bones, and a lame vulture lying in the grass, and a jackal family on quick-stepping feet.
“Why did that zebra die?” Robin asked. Disease, Festo thought. The body was fought over by 50 vultures, hissing and croaking. Those that had had their necks inside the corpse were daubed scarlet, enhancing their monstrous aspect. Life and death surrounded us, not opposed or in linear sequence but entwined as a single power.
Alex’s assertion that the edges of the Serengeti and the rainy season were the perfect time and places to visit seemed justified, but he was not finished. As we journeyed north up the rim of the park he bet us that we would not see another tourist. Festo, with some uncanny understanding of the vastness, found a pair of cheetah by a creek. “They can see 3 kms,” he said, “They haven’t eaten — they look lazy, but when they are chasing, it looks like a thrown spear.”
We drove north to Piaya, our vehicle a tiny human speck in an ocean of undulating horizons, as though we were the first to see the granite kopjes and the plains, so rich in animals: pronking gazelle, jumping with all four feet, and zebra resting their chins on each other’s backs. Thunderstorms marched the plain behind us. Perhaps only the Galápagos give a similar sense of a world lingering at its beginning.
As we began to flag, a man with a tray of damp towels appeared from behind a kopje. He led us to a fire, with goat legs roasting. We had our camp, Nduara, to ourselves again, though it was sonically surrounded by nightjars and lion. In the morning Rebecca went for a run with a young Masai man. She returned glowing and uncharacteristically wordless. “We ran through antelope all the way to the edge of the woods,” she said, shaking her head at the unforgettable privilege.
Another journey north took us to Mkombe’s House in Kogatende, a luxurious lodge that looks across the Mara river to the last slice of Tanzania, known as the Lamai Wedge. A funnel of hills brings rain from Lake Victoria. There are always animals here, where Kenya begins with flat-topped hills in the distance. We stayed for two lovely days. The children spent most of them in the swimming pools, while Alex and Festo took me to see the golden grasslands on the other side of the river. “There are 3,000 permanent beds on the Kenyan side of the Mara,” Alex said. “On the Tanzanian side there are only 90.” His point is that orthodoxies and conventions of tourism should not be allowed to determine our vision.
We saw no other travellers. Instead, on the morning of our last full day, we found elephant and a tribe of iron-black buffalo attended by egrets, oxpeckers and swallows. It was the perfect daybreak, like the first summer morning. We were as small as songbirds here, our lives and stories of no more moment than the sway of the grasses in the wind. Perhaps this is where our tales of Eden came from, I thought. I could not decide if it felt more like a new world minted by a god who was standing back to admire it, or a simple miracle of the universe, a place somewhere in space, where humankind is a slight lifeform, passing through in wonder.
Horatio Clare travelled with Natural High Safaris (naturalhighsafaris.com, +44 (0)1747830950). Natural High is offering two nights free on a seven-night safari to Ngorongoro Crater, Serengeti and Mkombe’s House for travel before December 2016. £3,874per person sharing
Photographs: Alex Edwards