Few people forget their first encounter with Serengeti National Park. Perhaps it is the view from the summit of Naabi Hill at the park’s entrance, from where the Serengeti’s grasslands appear to stretch to the very ends of the earth. Or maybe it’s a coalition of male lions stalking across open plains, their manes catching the breeze. Or it may be the epic migration of animals in their millions, following the ancient rhythm of Africa’s seasons. Whatever it is, welcome to one of the wildest places, one of the greatest wildlife-watching destinations on earth.
It’s here on the vast plains of the Serengeti that one of earth’s most impressive natural cycles has played out for aeons as hundreds of thousands of hoofed animals, driven by primeval rhythms of survival, move constantly in search of fresh grasslands. The most famous, and numerous, are the wildebeest (of which there are some 1.5 million) and their annual migration is the Serengeti’s calling card. There are also resident wildebeest populations in the park and you’ll see these smaller but still impressive herds year-round. In February more than 8000 wildebeest calves are born each day,although about 40% of these will die before reaching four months old. A few black rhinos in the Moru Kopjes area offer a chance for the Big Five, although they’re very rarely seen. The 14,763 sq km Serengeti National Park is also renowned for its predators, especially its lions. Hunting alongside the lions are cheetahs, leopards, hyenas, jackals and more. These feast on zebras, giraffes, buffaloes, Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelles, topis, elands, hartebeests, impalas, klipspringers, duikers and so many more. It’s an incredible birdwatching destination, too, with over 500 species.
ROAD ACROSS THE SERENGETI?
In 2010, Tanzania’s president announced that the government planned to build a road across Serengeti National Park to connect Mto wa Mbu with Musoma. The government argued that the road was necessary to bring economic development to this remote and often-neglected corner of the country. Conservationists were appalled. The impact of increased traffic (including freight trucks) upon wildlife and the natural environment within the park, they countered, could be catastrophic. They also pointed out that any such road would run counter to Tanzania’s international obligations to protect and preserve this Unesco World Heritage-listed site. In June 2014 the East African Court of Justice ruled that a tarmac road would be unlawful. In response, the government declared the ruling to be meaningless, ‘because the government had long decided not to build the road across the Serengeti’.
One NGO representing Maasai communities in the Ngorongoro and Loliondo areas complained that the decision would perpetuate the isolation of many Maasai from economic opportunities in the rest of the country. Despite the ruling, conservationists remain concerned that the government, under pressure from the local authorities in Arusha, may be planning to take the tarmac portion of the road to the borders of the Serengeti, with an upgraded but unpaved 50km gravel road across the park still on the agenda. In October 2014 the Tanzanian government announced plans to appeal the regional court’s ruling, arguing that the court had no jurisdiction to forbid the construction of the road.
You’ve come to see the wildebeest migration, but how can you be sure to be there when it happens? The short answer is that you can’t, and making the decision of when to go where always involves some element of risk. What follows is a general overview of what usually happens, but it’s a guide only:
January–March During the rains, the wildebeest are widely scattered over the southern and southwestern section of the Serengeti and the western side of Ngorongoro Conservation Area.
April Most streams dry out quickly when the rains cease, nudging the wildebeest to concentrate on the few remaining green areas, and to form thousands-strong herds that begin to migrate northwest in search of food.
May–early July In early May, the herds cross northwest towards the Western Corridor and the crossing of the crocodile-filled Grumeti River usually takes place between late May and early July, and lasts only about a week.
Mid-July–August By the second half of July, the herds are moving north and northwest into the northern Serengeti and Kenya’s Masai Mara. As part of this northwards push, they make an even more incredible river crossing of the Mara River.
September–October In early September, the last stragglers leave the Serengeti and most will remain in the Masai Mara throughout October.
November–December The herds usually begin moving south again in November in anticipation of the rains, crossing down through the heart of the Serengeti and to the south in December.
Exceptions to these general guidelines are common. In November 2013, for example, it began raining in the Masai Mara when the herds had already crossed into Tanzania, prompting the wildebeest to return en masse to the Mara. There they remained for three weeks before resuming their southwards push. And in June 2014, unseasonal rains in the southern Serengeti prompted the herd to split in two – most continued north as usual but a significant number of zebras and wildebeest occupied the plains south of Seronera into July.
Serengeti Visitor Centre
Telephone: 0732 985761
Opening Hours: 8am-5pm
The Serengeti Visitor Centre at Seronera has an excellent self-guided walk through the Serengeti’s
history and ecosystems, and it’s well worth spending time here before exploring the park. There’s a
coffee shop with snacks and cold drinks.
Getting There & Around
The park has four main entry and exit points, plus two lesser-used gates at Handajega and Fort Ikoma.
Naabi Hill Gate(6am-6pm)- The main (and most heavily trafficked) access gate if coming from Arusha; 45km from Seronera.
Ndabaka Gate(6am-6pm)- Main gate for the Western Corridor; a 1½-hour drive from Mwanza and 145km from Seronera. Last entry at 4pm.
Klein’s Gate(6am-6pm)- In the far northeast, it allows a loop trip combining Serengeti, Ngorongoro and Lake Natron, the latter just two to three hours from the park. Last entry at 4pm.
Bologonya Gate- This gate would be on the route to/from Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve, but the border is closed and unlikely to open any time soon.
Air Excel, Coastal Aviation and Regional Air have daily flights from Arusha to the park’s seven airstrips, including Seronera and Grumeti.
Although not ideal, shoestring travellers can do their wildlife watching through the window of the Arusha–Musoma buses that cross the park, but you’ll need to pay US$110 in entrance fees for Serengeti and Ngorongoro. The buses stop at the staff village at Seronera, but you’re not allowed to walk or hitchhike to the campsites or resthouses, and the park has no vehicles for hire, so unless you’ve made prior transport arrangements it’s nearly pointless getting off here.
Driving is not permitted in the park after 7pm, except in the visitor centre area where the cut-off is 9pm. Petrol is sold at Seronera. Almost everyone explores the park in 4WDs, but except during the heaviest rains 2WDs will have no problems on the main roads and can even manage some of the secondary ones.