Shortly after retiring as the Chairman and CEO of Appvion, Inc. in Appleton, WI, I took an epic journey with my three children. The ultimate African walking safari across one of the most breathtaking and dramatic landscapes on earth: The Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. We also took the opportunity to extend our trip to Zanzibar also known as the “Spice Islands” a super exotic place located off the coast of Tanzania in the Indian Ocean with a fascinating history. This blog will focus on the Serengeti portion of the trip.
For ten days we never set foot inside a vehicle. We hiked 10+ kilometers a day while stalking wildlife, and crossing meandering rivers eventually traversing the entire Serengeti. Using lightweight camps, the footprint was kept to a minimum. We dug shallow pits in the prairie each night to source our water.
The Serengeti is an immense, untamed grassland teeming with wildlife, and you are not on the top of the food chain, so uncertainty lurks around every rock outcrop. There are no roads, lodges, or other people for miles. In ten days, we maybe saw one or two airplanes at great distance. We traversed the breathtaking conservation zones of the park, which are off-limits to all others due to strictly enforced rules. When my family made the journey, the trip had only been permitted twice before. It was indeed, a rare event and one to be cherished. The brain-child for this incredible journey is Mark Thornton. This expedition provides a truly in-depth Serengeti experience for the traveler looking for an authentic wilderness experience. The trip has few equals in comparison. Simply put, the ability to walk up close to Africa’s signature wildlife and walk where few, if any, humans have before is an experience not soon forgotten.
The days treat you to beautiful sun rises, incredible vistas and wonderful walks through never ending grassland seas. An abundance of acacia, sausage and fig trees frame the expansive prairie with its waves of red oat grass. Don’t be surprised to come across ostrich and their ground nesting site with a single, large egg. You will walk up on the remnant of a kill from the prior night, which frames up the predator-prey relationship in vivid detail. Nothing goes to waste in the Serengeti; just ask the Dung Beetle.
Viewing the Big Five (elephant, lion, leopard, rhinoceros, and Cape buffalo) can be accomplished, but requires some luck and persistence. Be careful what you wish for because there is nowhere to run. During our ten days we experienced all of them!
Cape buffalo and elephant are more commonly seen. The Cape buffalo has incredible smell and hearing, but not great sight. This can make for tense moments when bushwhacking and unexpectedly coming into contact with them. We did this on more than one occasion and each time safely backtracked. Elephants operate in highly sophisticated pods. Their social behavior is incredible to observe in the wild. On a few nights elephants walked through our camp. We could feel their infra-sounds but could not hear their steps even though they were right outside our tent! We would also view them on the trail during the day.
We saw rhinoceros from a distance moving across a bluff where they stood out against the scrub. They are perhaps the most elusive to approach. Despite their poor eyesight they make up for it with their other senses.
At night, the lions and hyenas came to life. You learn to scan the surrounding areas with your headlamp looking for red glowing eyes before stepping out of your tent, or moving away from the fire. One night at dusk we were overcome with lion roars, chuffs, moans, grunts and growls. Nothing you have ever heard prepares you for such sounds. They were deep and powerful to the point where you could feel them as well as you heard them. Of course, we went off to investigate (along with our guides toting guns). From a “safe” distance we witnessed a pride of lion with a fresh kill. On the perimeter were the hyenas.
On another night, my two boys made the mistake of bringing a Maasai war club into their tent. They had found the club earlier in the day when our group had come across a poaching operation and chased the poachers off. My boys were kept up all night by hyenas walking around the tent making soft grunts, growls and squeaks. Hyenas have incredible smell and were attracted to the dried giraffe blood on the club head. Luckily, the hyenas couldn’t figure out the tent and eventually moved on.
Our best day was when we spotted a leopard dozing in a tree mid-day. They are an incredibly regal and beautiful animal. Their coat is luxurious and offers incredible camouflage. We were lucky to spot it. In a separate encounter, we awoke to witness the power of the leopard. Unknown to us during the night a leopard had pulled a dead Thomson’s gazelle into the tree right above my sons’ tent. They never heard a thing. The leopard is incredibly strong and can carry prey twice its weight into trees for safe keeping.
During our 66+ mile hike we viewed ungulates of all types. Beautiful herds and small groups of zebra, giraffe, gazelle, wildebeest, dik-diks, impala, hartebeest, topi and waterbuck to name just a few. We came across baboon too while traversing the Serengeti.
The evenings are beautiful and offer perfect star gazing conditions. The southern hemisphere treats you to an entirely new set of constellations, which make for engaged conversation. Another favorite evening activity is walking through the grass fields with headlamp on and pointed down to view thousands of reflective spider eyes. It served as a good reminder to shake out our boots each morning before pulling them on!
The Serengeti Traverse is truly a journey you will never forget!