I wasn’t sure what to expect more than seeing animals. What awaited me was something so special and much larger than myself — something that would change me forever.
I must confess, it was never really on my bucket list. In fact, after watching some terrifying videos on YouTube on animal-human interaction, I was too scared to even go on a safari, let alone see animal migration.
I must also confess that a recent experience made me realise how one can have a truly paradigm-shifting experience, or miss out on one, by simply being willing to take risks. So as opposed to saying no a year and a half back when my husband chalked out a complete plan for experiencing animal migration, to his surprise, I said yes.
As we set out on our journey to Tanzania, we flew via Nairobi to Arusha, where we stayed a night and then headed off to see one of the eight Natural Wonders of the World, the Ngorongoro Crater in the protected Ngorongoro Conservation Area, approximately 180 kilometres west of Arusha.
As our jeep reached the first vista point, from where one is able to see the whole crater, I was a little disappointed.
It was a nice sight, rather beautiful, but not something I hadn’t seen before. After taking a few pictures, we started descending into the crater and on our way down, I kept thinking to myself, is this it? Perhaps, I was looking for something extraordinary.
As we descended 610 metres into the crater, the idea that there once stood a magnificent volcano in the 259 square kilometre-area shook me to my core.
The Ngorongoro Crater is the largest unbroken ancient volcanic caldera in the world. The nearly three-million-year-old site was designated a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1979, and home to roughly 30,000 animals, including some of Tanzania’s last remaining black rhinos.
We got to see four of the Big Five in the crater: elephant, cape buffalo, lion and rhinoceros. Some of the other animals in the crater included zebras, wildebeest, gazelles and hyenas.
The crater only reveals its beauty and magnificence once you descend into it and in comparison to Mother Nature, it makes you feel humble — almost irrelevant.
After a couple of hours in the crater (one can spend a maximum of five hours on a day’s fee), we were scheduled for another two and a half hour-long journey to reach Ndutu Safari Lodge, located in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area on the edge of the Southern Serengeti.
The Great Migration takes place in Ndutu in early March, when herds of wildebeest, zebras, gazelles and other animals migrate through the Serengeti National Park looking for a new grazing land. Also, February is the calving season and one is expected to see a lot of adorable babies along with mums migrating.
Our jeep mostly stayed on mud tracks with few paved roads in between, but after about an hour’s drive, we suddenly ended up in the wild plains.
The sight that lay ahead was difficult to put into words, the emotions impossible to capture on paper.
In the middle of nowhere, the vastness of the land evokes the nostalgia of the glorious breadth of the sea, with the land stretched all around as far as the eye can reach, the beautiful setting sun painting the sky in liquid gold and the silhouettes of gazelles, zebras and wildebeest with pronking gait racing beside our jeep — the sight was both peculiar and magical.
We kept standing throughout in the eight-seater Land Rover Defender Safari Vehicle with a pop-up roof to get an uninterrupted 360-degree view.
At times, we called out to each other to look at something and other times we just stayed quiet, absorbing the vivid scenery into our hearts, etching it in our memories forever.
After sunset, the dreamy evening sky with hues of deep blue and pink and the silhouetted trees topped with vultures eyeing our lone jeep in the wild were both stunning and scary.
Around 7:30pm, we reached Ndutu Safari Lodge and found out that due to safety concerns, the government has put a curfew of 6:00pm for jeeps to return to camp.
Rangers also patrol the area and if caught, one is charged with a hefty penalty: a fine plus a nighttime game drive charge, which is almost double the amount of a daytime game drive.
The following morning, we left for a game drive at 6:00am. Most animals enjoy basking in the sun. We got to see 26 giraffes, each with their unique beautiful pattern, posing for us, allowing us to photograph and admire them to our heart’s content.
Unlike their popular image, we saw lions panting and cuddling like dogs and wildebeest, and zebras playing with gazelles. And although we didn’t witness a live kill, we had sights of big cats feeding on fresh kills of zebras and wildebeest, while hyenas and vultures waited their turn to feed on what was left.
We learned so much about animal behaviours, and our knowledgeable driver, Cosmas, left no opportunity to tell us more — how giraffes were shy, or how it’s better to come across a lion than a cape buffalo which, if it feels threatened, can get aggressive and attack.
Once, an elephant approached very close to our jeep (about 50m away) and Cosmas asked us to be completely quiet. He told us that elephants have a great memory and if any of them have witnessed poaching, they sometimes get furious and attack as humans and cars can remind them of the killings.
We saw lions so up close, with us hanging out of the roof trying to capture the sight with our cameras, that I hope it was the closest we ever got to them; yet, they peacefully walked by our jeeps.
We then proceeded to the migration site in South Ndutu. The magnitude and scale of the migration was both surreal and overwhelming. We had never seen anything quite like that; it was truly a larger than life experience.
Thousands of wildebeest all around us were moving in one direction, some resting, while others walking or playing with each other. According to government statistics, there are nearly two million combined wildebeest, zebras and gazelles migrating each year.
One night, staying in the unfenced lodge, I opened my cottage door around 1:00am to get rid of the odor from the insect repellent spray and had the most unexpected greeting by a zebra that was standing right outside my door.
We kept looking at each other for a few seconds and then it continued to graze. There were five of them altogether
The animals were calm in their habitat and throughout our stay, I didn’t see any animal getting furious or aggressive other than when there was a need to hunt for food.
Unlike the popular notion of wild animals being aggressive, I realised that even ‘wild’ animals, if given due space, do not create any nuisance; I found them much more civilised than humans.
Their generosity and hospitality was unparalleled, be it by their king that let us enjoy his royalty and didn’t scare us beside being fully aware of its power, or by the beautiful giraffe tower that almost orchestrated a formation for us, as if honouring our presence.
You see the animal kingdom, proudly and gracefully living together in its habitat with the most gravitas, and it boggles your mind. You feel small in front of it as it seems much more progressive with its unsaid rules, living the potent message of respecting each other, and are open to people of all races, colours and creed to come meet them — rather, learn from them.
Without uttering a word, it makes you feel guilty of destroying its habitat around the world, almost reminding us of our moral duty towards Mother Nature and its beings.
The earth belongs to the animals as much as it belongs to us, but they are the real peace keepers as they have cared for Mother Earth far more than humans, the ‘so-called’ superior beings, have.
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