Serengeti Rewind

From time to time our various international satellite representatives send through some wonderful travel stories for us to share with you. Delta Willis, based in the USA, has recently returned from a trip to Tanzania and has sent through this lovely account of her experience…

“In Ngorongoro Crater, I saw a wildebeest being born. Watching a calf take its first wobbly steps is a reminder of the life and death equation that plays out in Africa every day. Within minutes of hitting the ground, the calf struggles to its feet, nurses, then canters off beside with its mother. Calves must learn to walk quickly, else they become prey.

We see a cheetah mother with four young to feed, and a pride of lions feasting on a breakfast of buffalo. I prefer this tooth and claw battle to news headlines, happily avoided while on safari. Cell phones off, we experience a migration that puts us in touch with our nomadic selves, the very desire to travel.

Following the migration requires flexibility, but even a long drive in search of the herds proves breathtaking. One morning I stood up through the vehicle hatch to admire magnificent kopjes, rocky outcrops that had drawn every filament in my soul here like magnets. My own little head (the Dutch meaning for kopje) swiveled like an owl’s to take in endless plains, or siringet for Serengeti. I felt enveloped by the warm color and sway of these beautiful grasslands, once thought so vast that the end, where the sky meets the earth, could not be reached in a lifetime of walking.

Dr. Mary Leakey, who worked nearby at Olduvai Gorge, once said humans may have begun to walk upright in order to “follow the meat.” The wildebeest migration has encircled the Serengeti ecosystem for millions of years, sweeping by Olduvai, where you can learn about her discoveries, including the 4 million year old footprints of Laetoli. Did our ancestors know to follow the rains, or learn it from the creatures that surrounded them? It’s said that wildebeest can sense distant thunderstorms in their hooves, moving towards greener grasses before they even sprout.

There is a lovely scent when the rains finally arrive, a musty combination of dust and drops. Called petrichor, it symbolizes hope after a long dry season. To see a curtain of indigo rain slide across the African horizon is theater at its best. To rewind this story, my introduction to the migration was in a dark screening room in New York.

As the publicist for the film by Alan Root, I nearly wore out the sprockets of “Year of the Wildebeest.” The 1974 documentary spawned many imitators, creating a traffic jam along the banks of Kenya’s Mara River, where gnus cross in July/ August. Having seen gigantic crocs taking advantage of thirst, I favor the Tanzanian leg in January/February, to witness the dawn of a brave gnu world.

Just when I felt I knew this script by heart, I was surprised to see a jackal, running flat out in a silver blur, surprise a stork, its wings beating a split second too late. It was a good reminder to live life to its fullest, to experience this and every grand spectacle while you can.”