Our three days ended with a bulls-eye migration find at Ndutu. But a whole lot more, too!
There are several reasons that most safaris don’t overnight in Ndutu, even though that’s the best place to be to see the great wildebeest migration from late November through May. We did spend our last three nights here, and we had an incredible experience, finding the migration and much more.
I’ve always been irritated by so many companies talking about the “Great Wildebeest Migration” and then not truly featuring it, since they bypass Ndutu. Ndutu Lodge is the only permanent lodge in the southern Serengeti grassland plains. There are also many private camping sites. But all the other lodges in the Serengeti are between 3 and 8 hours further north.
Ndutu Lodge is a historic lodge, built by Margaret Gibbs years ago, I think in the 1960s. It has 27 rooms and doesn’t normally take groups. The rooms are very comfortable, but very simple. The public areas are all covered but opened to Lake Ndutu. The staff is old and loyal; the food is OK. It is not “Maasai Versailles” or anything close to it.
Nor does it belong to any chain of hotels like Sopa or Serena or Kempenski, and it doesn’t offer butlers like Grumeti or Klein’s, and charges are incurred for laundry and drinks. But it is almost a wonderful secret, used by those of us in the know who grow nostalgic the moment we leave. It has a fantastic setting, and there is absolutely no better place to stay during the migration.
I used to prefer a private camp, and there are many good sites in the area. But in the last few years the rains have grown heavy when they fall – I mean, really heavy. We like it that way, as do the wildebeest and other animals, and not least the spirits in the sky that produce unbelievable sunrises and sunsets. No matter how good your camp is, it isn’t fun when it rains hard.
So that leaves Ndutu Lodge. We arrived Monday evening after a fabulous journey through the eastern Serengeti north of Olduvai. Twelve days ago this was brown and dusty; now it was green and fresh, little dust. There were literally tens of thousands of Thomson’s Gazelle, some eland and a handful of zebra and wildebeest. The big herds weren’t here as they have been for me in most of the years past. But we enjoyed outstanding views of the Serengeti during our lunch perched on a kopjes opposite Lemuta, and we had the entire day from the moment we left Olduvai completely to ourselves.
We traveled for 6 hours from Shifting Sands, which remarkably was wet and not windy, likely covering about 50 miles. We encountered not a single other vehicle and certainly well over a hundred thousand animals.
We arrived the lodge just before a downpour. It’s exhilarating to be in the Serengeti’s rainy season storms, because there’s plenty of lightning and thunder.
The economy has really dampened tourism, but we talked with the other guests, other drivers and the wonderful Ndutu manager, Colin McConnell, and decided that our best bet for finding the migration was to more or less duplicate what I had done two weeks ago: go south towards Makau.
The heavy rains can shift the herds in a night. For one thing, they hate gushy grounds. And they are driven by a need for food, not water (especially now when it’s everywhere). Dried clumps of grass turn enticingly edible virtually overnight when it rains.
Reviewing my notes of many years I knew that if the locus of the migration weren’t south, that there would still be a lot of wildebeest there. The Ndutu-Makau-Kusini-Ndutu triangle that touches the Kerio Valley to the south, the Moru Kopjes to the north and Hidden Valley to the east, seems never without wildebeest during this season. This is probably because it is one of the flattest sections of plains just north of Ngorongoro, so it captures a lot of moisture. Anyway, this is where we went first. We had a second day if we needed it, to go elsewhere.
I venture there are probably few tourists who buy a “migration safari” who don’t come home and claim they’ve seen the migration. The following day we would travel through great numbers of wildebeest around Naabi Hill, the center of the park and where the main road passes. We’d see several vehicles stopped there on the main road as visitors popped through their opened tops to photograph large herds. But they had no idea!
How many did we find Wednesday morning? It’s really hard to estimate, but presuming that at any given time we would have 30-40,000 wildebeest in view 360 degrees around us, and that we spent several hours moving around this triangle, I’d say a quarter million.
When we stopped and set up breakfast in the middle of the plains, the wilde gave us a wide berth. It was as if we opened a hole on the prairie.
Everyone was famished. Even though all you do is look, it’s incredibly exciting. There was great conversation and much laughing throughout breakfast as Tim, Rob, Judd and Brad tried to sound like gnu!
Thursday we went to the Moru Kopjes, the prettiest part of the Serengeti. Yes, we saw more wildebeest, the same groups that most tourists see, but to us it was a drop in the bucket of what we had ourselves experienced the day before.
What impressed me most this time at Moru was how frightened the elephants were that we encountered. They acted like elephants of old, during the years of poaching. As soon as they saw us, the ears flapped, there was trumpeting, and they high tailed it away running madly. I don’t understand this. I haven’t seen this behavior in years and I hope it doesn’t mean there is poaching, again.
We were unable to visit the Maasai cave paintings, because other visitors were there first: lion! During our three days in the Serengeti we saw over 40 lion, including about a dozen very little cubs and a lioness about to give birth. We watched a leopard on his kill in a tree, and followed a family of 3 cheetah hunt.
And one of the great bonuses was an amazing series of sunrises and sunsets, among the best I can ever remember seeing. Someone remarked that “It’s Photoshop in Real.” Steve Coates said all we have to say at the debriefing is “Oh, my god!” The skies were ludicrously beautiful.
Ndutu and the Serengeti performed for us magnificently.