The Telegraph Travel: Wild Response
Brian Jackman heads for the most remote part of Tanzania... and wallows in it.
In December, unseasonally heavy rains had swept across the Serengeti . At Ndutu, 10 inches had fallen in two weeks — the heaviest in 18 years. A fortnight later, the plains were still green and alive with wildebeest, which had come south to give birth; but now the dry wind blowing, but now the dry-weather wind was blowing, the same wind that brought the dhow fleets of Arabia down to Mombasa, and the sun shone from a cloudless sky as we drove towards the Gol Mountains .
Convoys of sand grouse poured overhead on their way to drink at Oldupai gorge. Their yellow throats were bright against the blue, and when we stopped for a picnic breakfast between Ndutu and the hill called Lemuta, their guttural calls came down to us. “Water, water,” they seemed to be crying.
My safari had started 4 days earlier at Gibb's Farm, a former German coffee farm on the slopes of Ngorongoro Crater Highlands. In 1948 it was sold to James Gibb, a British war veteran who, with his wife Margaret, converted it to a guest house. James died in 1977 but Margaret still presides over what has become one of Tanzania's best-loved tourist lodges.
From Gibb's Farm to the Serengeti is a good half-day's drive, and most people break it up with a visit to Ngorongoro Crater on the way. But I had time to stop only briefly on the crater rim and look down the 2000 ft below before moving onto Ndutu Lodge.
Surrounded by giant, flat topped acacias, with Lake Ndutu glistering beyond, Ndutu is the only lodge which you can witness the spectacle of the wildebeest migration in the calving season, and on a sunny day when the grass is green there is nowhere else I'd rather be.
The lodge itself has been refurbished since my last visit. Gone is the sign that one read “please do not touch or feed the gents” (put up by someone who couldn't spell genets). But the genets themselves — slender and feline with spotted coats — still play hide-and-seek among the dinning room rafters.
I spent two days here and every game drive was a celebration of life in all its diversity and abundance. Crowned plovers shrieked around our ears. We watched Serval cats hunting in Ndutu marsh and flurries of egrets falling like snowflakes across a multitude of zebras.
Out on the plains beyond the lodge, a lioness rose out of the land, her scarred muzzle covered in flies. Wildebeest were all around her in a wide cycle, staring as if hypnotized by the predator in their midst. But she was not hungry and when she walked unhurriedly towards them, they shrank aside to let her pass, then closed behind her like a returning tide. But that was yesterday. Now, having got the lions out of my system, we were moving onto a private campsite on the other side of the Gol Mountains. Breakfast was long past and already the heat was causing the air the tremble, distorting the knots of Grants gazelles that watched us from the skyline.
No road lay before us; not even a tyre track. Compared to the Serengeti most tourists see we were heading into uncharted Africa; a boundless steppe in which lonely granite inselbergs rise from the grass like castle ruins.
These inselbergs — kopjes — are the summits of ancient mountains, overwhelmed by seas when the surrounding volcanoes active, 3 million years ago; but the grasses that grow here are rich in the minerals that build young bones, and as we crossed this empty country we came upon a zebra and its new born foal. Tenderly the mother licked it wet coat as it tried to stand on spindly legs. Nigel Perks, my guide, was ecstatic. “Zebras usually give birth at night” he said. “This is only the second time I've seen it.”
Perks is an ebullient New Zealander who has become one of Tanzania's most sort after guides. “I've always been crazy about wildlife,” he told me. “As a child I used to go into travel agents and take their safari brochures.” In 1985 at the age of 21, he made his way to London and got himself a job with an overland company driving land rovers through Africa. “That's when I saw the Serengeti for the first time,” he said. “I knew it was where I had to be.”
By mid day we reached the monumental fig tree and turned east, heading for Nasera, the giant, weather stained monolith that dominates the entrance to Ngata Kiti.
Our camp with its olive-green tents and bucket showers, had been set up in advance at the entrance of Ol Karien Gorge, a narrow cleft running deep into the heart of the Gol Mountains. Of all the places I've camped in Africa, this was the wildest, the loneliest, the most remote. That night, before falling asleep, I listened to the hacksaw cough of a leopard echoing in the gorge. In the morning when we set off on foot we found the leopard's tracks at the edge of a pool.
The Ol Karien Gorge is an extraordinary place. For the Maasai it is the source of ochre, which they grind into a paste to adorn their bodies. But it is also known for Ruppells griffon vultures that breed in their hundreds on its ledges.
The griffons share their guano-splattered crags with lammergeiers and black eagles, with swarms of nyanza swifts and dainty klipspringers — small antelope that leap on tip-toe across the rocks. In some places the awesome canyon is scarcely wider than a vulture's wingspan; and from dawn to dusk its dizzy walls echo to the deep-throated chanting of speckled pigeons.
Next day we set out to look for cheetah. The Salai plains are classic cheetah country; open grassland, gazelles galore and no lions to terrorise them. “The Maasai leave them pretty much alone.” said Nigel. Almost at once as if to prove his point, we found a mother cheetah with five cubs lying on the edge of the Ol Karien River. Her belly was full. Even though we had left camp early, she had already killed and eaten. Now she and her cubs were resting.
By mid-morning we had reached the epicenter of the plains. The air dissolved in the quivering heat, creating cruel mirages of blue lakes across which floated a ghostly procession of migrating wildebeest; and all around rose the volcanic summits that mark the boundaries of these timeless grasslands.
We surprised a pair of Golden Jackals that moved off at such a trot that their feet hardly seemed to touch the ground; and a fringe-eared Oryx, a solitary bull with magnificent horns, which cantered away at our approach.
Perks has coined a new term for clients who love to stand and look out of the roof hatch while he is driving. “Rommeling,” he calls it, after Erwin Rommel, the German general who fought Montgomery's Eighth Army in North Africa. So Rommeling back to camp as the light turned to gold at the end of the day.
We crossed a dry bed of the Sanjan River. Here the plains were still lush and green and thousands of white storks — winter migrants from France and Spain — were feeding in the grass. Maasai herdsmen strode amongst them; biblical figures in blood-red robes, guarding their flocks of sheep; but these were not the Maasai who dress up and dance at tourist lodges. The Maasai of the Salai Plains are real. For them, God still sits on top of Lengai, and those who live in the shadow of its shadow remain true to their old ways as if the modern world has never arrived.