Trip Report: Serengeti Calving Safari, February 2016

Marlon duToit All Authors, Marlon 13 Comments

The Serengeti is a name firmly embedded with in the safari culture of both days gone by and the modern era.

It has inspired filmmakers, drawn in countless wildlife photographers and romanced lovers from all around the world. It is a constant source of inspiration with an abundance of natural beauty thats never seems to wither.

The Serengeti stands alone in it’s marvelous ability to deliver an extraordinary encounter with Africa’s wildlife unlike any other.

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At Wild Eye we are extremely careful when selecting destinations for our guests to experience. It took us some 4 years to launch our first Serengeti Calving Safari a year ago, taking time to select only the finest camp & location.

This year was no different and we have now found ourselves firmly entrenched in a beautiful way with this iconic park, offering our guests a safari experience that will be hard to match.

The fun and excitements started in Arusha as we boarded our 2 safari vehicles and made our way towards the endless plains of the Serengeti. What a beautiful thing to drive through this African city, alive with movement as everybody keeps themselves busy with their daily ongoings. Markets, plant nurseries, clothing stores, construction sites and motorbike-taxis all form part of the crowd along the way!
Soon we started climbing up the rift valley and on to the rim of the iconic Ngorongoro Crater, and what a sight to behold! Nothing can prepare you for that view!

From there the journey took us through Maasai land and onto the plains of the Serengeti. Already we started driving through hundreds of wildebeest & zebra. We also spotted two groups of Giraffe, both over 20-strong. Unbelievable!

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We arrived in camp in the early evening and were met by the wonderful staff from our Ndutu camp, called Naisikia Mobile Tented Camp, a part of the Maasai Wanderings offering.

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The area surrounding Ndutu is incredibly varied. Over the course of the week our guests had the opportunity to search for predators within the surrounding woodland, head on to the open plains to search for hunting cheetah, explore the Acacia woodlands surround Lakes Masek & Ndutu for tree-climbing lions, or enjoy vistas offered by the Ngorongoro Crater.

How’s that for beauty & variety on one safari experience?

Gerry van der Walt - Wild Eye - Wildlife Photography

We started our safari in search of the large migratory wildebeest herds on the open plains surrounding our camp and found a large pride of lions feeding on a wildebeest instead. There were several young cubs and the feeding activity was intense.

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The migratory herds tend to spend about 2 to 3 months of the year in the area surrounding Ndutu. Here they have fresh grasses to feed on with constant rain to keep the grasses growing (a big drawcard), large open plains for relative safety and less tsetse flies, and a constant source of water.

The obvious focus for the safari would be to see the large numbers of general game and then also to explore the rest of what the area has to offer. Trust me, there’s alot of that as you’ll soon see by the imagery below.

Early the following morning we returned to the general area only to find the lions lazing about with bellies filled to the brim. Realising not much was going to happen with the lions we continues our search for the large herds and shortly found ourselves amidst hundreds of thousands of wildebeest, zebra and gazelle.

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We did however find this magnificent male lion on the way there. He lay out in the open and allowed us to photograph him for about forty minutes. It was incredible as the soft sunlight lit up the side of his face.

I have on many occasions before played witness to the great migration, but never before had I seen so many concentrated in one area. As far as my eyes could see were the dark bodies of wildebeest.

See, during the months of January, February, March and April the herds gather around the Ndutu region as the mother wildebeests give birth, all within a close proximity of each other. It’s one of nature’s most incredible sights to behold as new life floods the plains of the Serengeti.
Wherever new life occurs in nature, predators will follow. That’s no different here.

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Lions, cheetah, hyena and leopard all enjoy the abundance found within Ndutu this time of year. What may seem “sad” or unfair to our human emotions is seen as an opportunity by the predators to feed and provide for their families in abundance. Nature can be challenging for both predator and prey, so when these events come by predators will take full advantage.

It’s not all gone & lost for the wildebeests as there are incredible numbers of them. This is a good thing as it’s virtually impossible for predators to make any significant impact on the number of babies born during February & March. There’s just too many.

A sight we wanted to provide for our guests was cheetah hunting on the open plains. The Serengeti must surely be the best environment for these speedsters of the savannah. Whenever we set out to search for them, it would never took us long to find a cheetah through careful searching and regular scans through binoculars.

We followed several individuals as they combed the herds for young wildebeest and also for any weak or injured animals. Cheetah are very selective and once “locked-on” to prey will often avoid easier targets as their focus is set on the one they originally chose. It’s not easy to change you mind or direction when you are traveling at the speeds that they do.

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What was interesting was that even in the midst of all these wildebeest and young calves, they would still more often than not pick out the small groups of gazelle.

On one occasion we watched a female cheetah make several attempts. The first was at a small group of gazelle but to no avail. She then turned her attention towards an approaching line of wildebeest. She had a go at them and also had no luck. Then she walked towards the large body of grazing wildebeest. She seems very nonchalant as she passed by several groups, all keeping an eye on her.
All of a sudden she broke into a full run and quickly chased down a young calf! It was fascinating! After the first two attempts failed she changed her strategy completely and it was a huge success.

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She quickly moved the kill into some tall shrubs. On these plains she needs to be careful as other predators are always watching, most notably hyena.

Our guests were thrilled that they got see a cheetah kill from beginning to end. We all agreed to keep a distance from her so she could kill successfully. Several cars would move in too close and it no doubt disturbed her. As soon as all backed off her she had success and we could all enjoy the moment with her.

Other highlights on the open plains included wildebeest giving birth as well as hyenas feeding on several carcasses.

On one occasion we played witness to a sight that left our guests with a very real idea of just how hard and raw nature out here can be.
A wildebeest had collapsed for some unknown reason. Soon enough a large hyena walked on to the scene, the ever opportunist. The hyena started feeding on the wildebeest whilst it was still alive, a sight hard to stomach for us humans. It’s nature in it’s most raw and beautiful way. Who are we to judge? This is the purest form of survival, there’s simply no place for the weak.

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We also encountered two incredible male lions. They were relaxing right on the road, almost as if they were waiting for us to come and view them. We spent some time with them and two see the one resting his head on the others back was such a memorable moment and made for stunning photography.

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The open plains surrounding our camp afforded us with amazing photographic opportunities and memorable sightings. That’s exactly what we wanted for our guests.
The beauty of the Ndutu region of the Serengeti is the diverse variety. There’s so much to see and we wanted our guests to experience some of the other areas too.

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It started with a day trip to the Ngorongoro Crater.

This world-renowned wildlife haven is something that should be on every nature lovers bucket-list to see. The sheer scale of such an eco-system is beyond belief. To stand there on the crater rim, to look out upon the views from up there, what an encounter. I can only imagine the look on the Westerners face who first happened upon this scene, what a privilege that must have been!

Once inside the crater the beauty of it starts to really manifest. You would have to work very hard to NOT take a great photograph. Wherever you point your lens, something seems to appear that leaves you firing your shutter time and again! There’s just so much beauty, so many colours, such space and so many animals!

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As we drove into the crater we were met by large herds of wildebeest & zebra, fighting zebra, some buffalo, a golden jackal, a large tusker and some lions lying close to the distant lake soaking up the morning sun. Can you ask for any better?

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As we drove across the scenic crater floor many photo opportunities presented themselves. Equipped with wider lenses our guests made the most of the vistas surrounding them. By mid-morning we arrived at a beautiful picnic spot where we could stretch legs and take in the magnificent sights we enjoyed thus far.

Soon afterwards we came across a fantastic scene where 4 lions had lost their buffalo carcass to nearly 20 hyenas. The crater itself must contain some of the most studied predators in Africa, especially spotted hyena. We watched for some time as the hyenas fought between themselves for the spoils of the kill, some running away with legs and ribcages. The lions were simply out numbered and could not do much other than watch.

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After a short drive through the Fever tree forest we made our way back to our camp in Ndutu. That said, the day was not yet over for us.

As we entered the stunningly scenic Umbrella Thorn woodland not far from camp, we found some lions lying around in the trees themselves! Our eyes could hardly believe it and needless to say that within seconds the cameras were in hand and ready to work!

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Ndutu is well know for their tree-climbing lions. The undergrowth can at times become very dense and hot, and by gaining access to the top of the trees you are presented with a constant cool breeze. There’s also less biting insects up here, most notably in summer. By scouring the landscape from the top of trees they also gain a better view of their surroundings and can spot approaching prey from some distance away.

Photographing lions in trees is something none of the guests in our groups have done before. You can only imagine the immense excitement!
The first sighting was of a young lioness up a tree on her own. Her soft contact calling suggested that the rest of the pride were not far away at all. She tried several times to get down this tree but to no avail, she simply could not muster the courage to go down the way she came up.

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After several attempts she eventually decided on another tactic.

On the one side of the tree a thicker branch hung lower than the rest. She decided that this branch presented her with the best option of escape. She very unceremoniously managed a way down which in essence involved hanging on for a while and eventually just letting go and hoping for the best. Fortunately it was not a long way down and she managed to saunter off to meet up with the rest of the family, her pride somewhat in tact.

One of our eagle-eyed guides noticed another lion up a tree in the far distance.

We moved a little closer and much to our delight it turned out to be a fully grown male lion, comfortably seated in the fork of another Umbrella Thorn. As soon as we caught sight of this scene all drama broke lose in our vehicles as guests scrambled for telephoto lenses, converters, beanbags, shoes, glasses and who knows what else! We knew that at any minute he could exit the tree leaving us with a missed opportunity.

We could not believe what we were seeing! A male lion up a tree!!

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Well, the truth is that he stayed like that for another 30 minutes! We eventually managed a way through a muddy drainage and joined the stunningly poised male lion. This was a sight few had ever seen before. We all had to take a moment to steady ourselves and to calm our jittery nerves as the moment seemed way to big for all of us!

We had the opportunity to photograph him at many different angles allowing for breathtaking photography! It was surreal, to such a large lion so very comfortable up a tree. We were also late for camp and eventually had to leave him just after sunset, still enjoying his view across his Ndutu kingdom.

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For the last two days we decided to once again visit the open plains and enjoyed a lovely time in the company of a cheetah.

Gerry’s safari vehicle managed to slip into an abandoned warthog burrow and firmly entrenched itself. After a few minutes we managed to free them and were on our way to relocate the cheetah. Upon finding her we surprised to not only find her but also a second female not ten meters from her. What an experience, completely unexpected and unplanned!

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The scenic beauty and tree-climbing antics of the woodlands lions had won the hearts of our guests, and we decided that the remaining afternoon and morning safaris would be centered within this area. It turned out to be a fantastic idea!

As we enjoyed lunch on the last day in camp, some dark clouds rolled in accompanied by light rain to the East. The sun was still out to the West and I made a quirky comment. I mentioned how insanely awesome it would be to see lions up an Umbrella Thorn with dark clouds behind and framed by a rainbow. Yeah right!

Well…

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We could not believe our fortune, what a beautiful sight that was! What turned out to be a joke at lunch became a reality a little later! It was one of the most beautiful sights in nature I have seen, simply spectacular!

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As you can imagine the spirits in camp were on an absolute high that evening. We spoke about all the incredible events that built up to that magical afternoon and were astounded at just how much we got to see. The Serengeti really provided for our guests!

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As we sat around the campfire after dinner, stars up above and a full moon rising to the east, we decided that for our last morning we would venture back into the woodland, photograph the rising sun across Lake Ndutu and then go search for the lions one last time.

It once again turned out to be a great choice.

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The sunrise, wispy clouds, reflections off the lake & flamingos made for a breathtaking scene. After spending a short time here we started moving towards the area we left the lions at next to the smaller Lake Masek. As our good fortune would have it, the lions were right next to the lake itself where they had killed a wildebeest during the night. The cubs were feeding on the carcass and slightly obscured by long sedges.

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We had to be back for breakfast at 9am and decided to hang around with the lions until time called for us to leave for camp. As it always happens when you have a plane to catch, the lions decided to give us a lasting memory.

In the lake itself were several carcasses of wildebeest attempting to cross the lake. Wildebeest drownings in Lakes Masek & Ndutu have been documented as far back as the 70’s. The Lakes fall right in their migratory paths and many will die each year in an attempt to cross, most notably the young calves. There are several muddy flats which end up also trapping individuals as they attempt to cross.

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A lioness we had been photographing out in the open calmly stood up and walked past our vehicle and right in to the lake to feed on the closest of 3 carcasses. We however reacted not-so-calmly and hastily repositioned our game viewers in order to photograph the unbelievable scene in front of us! I could hardly believe my eyes, what a powerful scene! A few cubs soon joined her in the water and they too stared feeding.

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She then moved to the second carcass to investigate, soon lost interest and moved back to the first carcass. All the while our guests were treated to the experience of a lifetime! These kind of sightings don’t come around all that often and we were well aware of that, taking in as much of the experience as we could.
What were we not aware of was the time and the fact that we were almost late for our flight! Lucky for us the lioness and cubs lost interest and moved back towards where we originally found them, ensuring that at least for that time being we did not miss out on any more action. Photographers tend to suffer from a severe illness known as “fear-of-missing-out” syndrome.

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To say our 2016 Serengeti Calving Safari was a huge, massive enormous success is a complete and utter understatement. It surpassed all of our expectations in every way. The location of the camp, the kind & friendly staff, the fire-side conversations with hot coffee in hand, the incredible numbers of wildebeest, the tree-climbing lions and so so much more!

There are very few people in the world today not familiar with the Serengeti. It’s one of the most iconic destinations with a reputation that precedes itself. You can’t help but travel with a small sense of expectation. The Serengeti always seems to deliver, it’s just too good not to!

We will launch all the new dates for our 2017 Serengeti Safaris at our Wild Eye Seminar in early April. Soon afterwards the dates will go LIVE online and you’ll have the opportunity to join Gerry & Marlon on safari in this incredible & diverse African paradise.

The Serengeti is one of a kind. Come and experience it for yourself.

About the Author

Marlon duToit

Passion, enthusiasm and an unquenchable thirst to explore and introduce you to our natural world’s wildlife perfectly sums up my ambitions. I can’t imagine myself doing anything else. Through my African adventures I kept my photographic passion alive. Behind a camera aimed at a lion or a leopard is where I am most at home, my heart skipping a beat at the mere thought of it. My intention has never been solely for recognition but for the plight of what’s left of our natural recourses. Using my love and understanding of wildlife I am able to convey to the viewer more than an image or a fleeting moment. I aim to tell a story, to bring that moment alive to you and to capture your heart through it.

 

 

 

Comments 13

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      Marlon duToit

      Vanessa, I can’t effectively put in words just how incredible this experience is! It really is something that’s best experienced and as promised I will let you know soonest regarding the 2017 dates & details. Thanks again for taking the time, really appreciate it!

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  1. lyne vechik

    Marlon, if I were 60 years younger, I would be with you there–so thanks for bringing it to me in my living room–it was an incredible trip-spent the 1st hour of the day in Africa ! ! ! Love it–so thanks again ! ! !

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      Marlon duToit

      Lyne, this really means alot to me, thank you kindly! I am so sorry you can’t join me on safari! If ever you find it within yourself please do let me know and we will make it happen! Thanks for following along, for taking the time to comment and for staying in touch 🙂

  2. Marc

    This is awesome man! My girlfriend and I follow you closely on all your trips and we do a few trips a year ourselves. One day we promise to join you and see some unimaginable scenes like the ones in this report. Love your work Marlon!

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      Marlon duToit

      Thanks Marc, really appreciate the kind words and the support! I look forward to the day that the two of you will join me on safari, sure we will have an awesome time!

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