Remarkable Season

Remarkable Season

All around the hill, from horizon to horizon, was wall-to-wall wildebeest.
How can I estimate this? Was it a half, or a third, of the 1.65 million gnu?

A quarter to a third of hotel/lodge employees have been fired: Food and service are suffering. Maintenance and new building has halted. There’s less air service. And the weather is the weirdest in years. This was one of the best safari seasons in my career!

(I don’t want my glib rejoinder to suggest the situation for Kenyans and Tanzanians doesn’t merit serious concern from those of us better off. It was literally a daily chore for me to listen to plaintive if polite cries for help.

Usually each night after dinner – when all my clients thought I, too, had gone to bed – a former employee or friend of a friend would ask me to sit with him/her for an “evening tea.” That was an euphemism for “I’m really in trouble; dozens of family depend upon me; can you give me work or know where I can get it?”

There’s no social safety net for tourism workers in East Africa. If things get bad, you just pick up your bag and go away. No unemployment insurance, no pension, no severance.)

But if we have any hope for the future, we have to build on the positive, and the positive outcomes of this safari season were nearly unbelievable.

Start with the fact that my Great Migration Safari began at The Ark with a take-down (kill) of a bushbuck by a hyaena, literally ten feet below those of us looking over the water hole.

Take-downs are rare; I haven’t seen one for five years. Almost all kill attempts end in failures. With lions the failure rate is above 80%. Failed attempts are often linked to too many tourists watching, botching up the plan!

Well, we don’t have too may tourists, right now. The Ark can serve 125 people; counting us 10, there were only 27. Less noise, less disturbance, less intrusion on the wild nature of things.

I make it a point to avoid the crowds on my guided programs, but I can’t remember when I’ve had it so easy.

I was in the bush with clients for 24 days. The only time – the only time – one of our game drives encountered significant periods of other vehicles was in the crater. Otherwise, we were alone. In fact for almost all the time we were in the Serengeti, in Shaba and in the Aberdare, we were totally alone.

My first safari with the Gustafson’s from Georgia left Olduvai Gorge around 10:30a and traveled through the Serengeti pulling into Ndutu Lodge around 5 pm, having never seen another vehicle.

I can’t remember when the bush was so vacant of tourists. And while this is no scientific study, the list of email “special offers” I returned to suggests it is definitely true.

At what has become my favorite boutique camp in East Africa, Swala Lodge, we were the only ones there! The manager team, Steve and Maryann, the waiting staff, the cleaning staff, the kitchen staff, outnumbered us 2 to 1!

Phil Haney of the Gustafson Safari was within an arm’s width of being touched by an elephant’s trunk! We approach all eles carefully, and when they seem friendly, I coach my clients to be absolutely quiet. Phil was, and the old bull was apparently getting nostalgic about the loss of tourists!

The weather everywhere was unusual, especially to the north in Kenya. The rains approached El Nino intensity and the temperatures across the board were ten degrees F warmer than normal. That meant the tse-tse were bit more feisty than usual.

Conditions were therefore a bit uncomfortable compared to a normal year, we did gut stuck a bit more than usual, but of course the animals loved it! Colin McConnell at Ndutu Lodge confirmed my own observation that there have never been so many baby wildebeest as right now! It’s truly incredible. It’s almost as if every single female has a calve.

Painted snipe, Ovambo Sparrowhawks, Abdims and Open-Bills, and blue-cheeked and even carmine bee-eaters! Birds that either should have already left or not yet arrived!

My last morning on safari was Friday. The ten of us set up breakfast on Mesa Hill in the Kesio Valley in the southern grassland plains of the Serengeti. The flat-topped hill stands about 200 meters above the plains that surround it: Mti-ti and Lakes Masek and Ndutu barely visible to the east, Olduvai Gorge just below the hill, the endless Kusini flat plains stretching to our north, and Ngorongoro like the massive godhead it is taking up most of the southern horizon.

It was breezy, sunny, cool and fresh, with wisps of cloud foretelling the afternoon storms. The yellow bidens flowers dominated the veld, but there were also beautiful blood red flowers, both white and red glover, and as we raced over in our Landcruisers fabulous whiffs of wild sage.

But what dominated the scene at breakfast was the most massive, concentrated wildebeest migration in my memory. All around the hill, from horizon to horizon, was wall-to-wall wildebeest. How can I estimate this? Was it a half, or a third, of the 1.65 million gnu?

I knew it wasn’t all of them, because on our full day traveling from Olduvai to Ndutu – seven hours of driving – we never left the herds, and that was in a completely different part of the Serengeti!

I twirled around the hill with my binoculars peering out over Eden. Not a single other car. Maybe five or six hundred square miles. My heart ached for Balthazar, one of the best camp managers I’ve ever known, fired after 20 years service and no insurance to treat his gout; Mercy, a promising school-leaver with a degree in hotel management who could replace Desire Rogers in an instant, hawking newspapers in Nairobi traffic; or 48-year old Grace, my close driver/guide’s eldest daughter, appointed as a vice president to a new university that now won’t open, picking oranges on her uncle’s farm.

And my heart lept for joy as I saw the faces of my awestruck clients, breathless as they too looked out over the great migration.

Forget the math. Forget the social science for just a second. Africa’s experience is an infinite one, made even richer by its painful ironies. That last scene from Mesa Hill Friday morning is my lasting memory of this season, as inexplicably joyous as wildebeest numbers are inestimable.