The Great Wildebeest Migration at Mara River I

15 September 2020 | Kieke van Maarschalkerwaart

Tanzania, Arusha and Serengeti September 15-16, 2020

Eef’s life expectancy is so bad that next Christmas has become a challenge. So we don’t have time to wait for a corona vaccine. Tanzania or East Africa may seem like a crazy choice, but for us a well-considered choice. To be clear, we are not going to be civil disobedient and go on a wildlife safari at all costs. But we still have some wildlife dreams together. One of these is the migration of the wildebeest. Currently taking place in northern Serengeti. We have not been able to do that before. So now a new attempt is to be made. Howevr you will never have the certainty of actually seeing it… it remains wildlife.

Due to the weekly chemo we are now able to leave for a maximum of 7 days. In itself quite a long flight for 7 days off, but when time is ticking away like a time bomb, reconsideration is a gift. And 7 days is still more than not going at all.

Can you still travel in corona time, we ask ourselves? And should you only travel in Europe? Is the world outside of Europe a greater risk? We don’t think so. But the risk depends on the place and what you want to do. Almost the whole world is code orange, so what to do… Such a nice color, the Dutch national team also plays in … No, just kidding, we are aware of the risks, but also of the cancer that rages through Eef’s body like a loose cannon.

Our travels during Corona check-list in the last phase of life:
• Marjolijn from Explore Tanzania knows our situation and knows Tanzania like the back of her hand and if she does not trust the covid situation there, we will return to her call one way.
• Preferably fly as direct as possible with our KLM. The Netherlands as your home base, if there is trouble and you need something to be arranged, you can do so in Dutch and the Dutch corona rules apply. We are also always very satisfied with KLM’s service, thinking about options and changing tickets free of charge. In addition, the fantastic staff, who always take care of us very sweetly in the air.
• Make sure you have leeway to always get back to the airport on time by land if there is something wrong with the domestic flight such as the Cesna’s propeller is rusted by dust or a family lion sleeping on the landing strip. You never know in Africa. And the weekly chemo is sacred.
• What about the travel insurance and the health insurance: with our additional insurance we are covered for everything, including covid care and even repatriation.
• Do we have enough medicines with us should our holiday be extended by Corona, that we can deal with all side effects and possible complications.
• We estimate that the queue at the checkout in the supermarket where people without a mouth mask are still panting on your neck at that time is more exciting than boarding at an airplane.
• The airplanes have a good ventilation system
• In Tanzania we go for the safari and have little to do with other people. And there too they have hygiene regulations.
• And what do we ultimately have to lose if life expectancy continues to shorten?

On Monday we get a chemo ‘quickly’ in the afternoon. Then we eat a snack at Jos & See (uncle & aunt Eef), who then take us to Schiphol for an overnight stay in the CitizenM hotel near the airport. That saves a lot of energy for Eef to be used the next day, when we fly.

There we are at a completely deserted Schiphol with here and there a lost tourist hidden behind a mouth mask. We have never seen it so quiet at the check-in desk. We play tracker and follow the feet on the ground, which indicate the walking direction. Really bizarre, you don’t have to play twister to avoid people. How unbelievably quiet it is. The pictograms department at Schiphol has also had a fantastic time and, in our opinion, there can be no ambiguity whatsoever about the purpose. Even for a Chinese who only speaks Mandarin it should be clear. At customs there is plastic separation and you can take off your mouth mask to check if you are you and if you can still smile. Armed with a small bottle of hand sanitizer and some extra masks, we board the plane. The plane is only half full, so there is enough space to stretch out on 4 seats and to keep enough distance from the other passengers. The KLM staff takes excellent care of us. It is a quiet flight where Eef can do an after chemo nap.

We arrive at Kilimanjaro airport in the evening. It is a relatively small airport the size of a Dutch bus station. Everyone neatly disinfects their hands, fills in the health declaration and wears a mouth cap. Nobody sputters when measuring the temperature, the armed men in army suits also take care of that. Jean the local agent of Explore Tanzania arrives right with us and we drive with him through the African night and chat about Covid and all the collateral damage that Tanzania is experiencing. The Tanzanian government does not publish Covid infection figures, but the neighboring countries are a good indicator with roughly the same measures and the figures do not rise drastically anywhere. Actually, we don’t think that is very strange. The average life expectancy (early 60s) in Tanzania is much lower than the Corona risk group. Obesity and other chronic conditions are more in line with Western living standards than African ones. Most of life there also takes place in the open air. And during the first years of life, however hard, a natural selection takes place. Of all the Tanzanians we speak to, no one knows anyone who has had or died from Covid. Today, malaria and TB are still a much bigger threat. And let’s not forget the economic damage caused by the disappearance of tourism. That literally leads to no bread on the table here, because there is no social safety net. Many children have also been at home without education for months. Homeschooling is not really an option here.

The next morning we have a domestic flight to get around as quickly as possible during the so precious vacation days.
So we replace 10 hours of bouncing in the jeep with a beautiful smooth flight over the moon-like landscape of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. The crater landscape was once a mountain landscape, but a number of mountains have imploded. Unfortunately we had to scrap the Ngorongoro Crater on this trip. It is the largest intact caldera (sort of a collapsed volcano. They think it should have been about 5km high).
During our flight we see Kilimanjaro towering above the clouds in the distance. We can also take a look at an active volcano. Slowly the landscape changes to a more sloping terrain after which it changes into the savannah, the Serengeti. It means endless plain and is derived from the Maasai word Siringet.

We fly all the way to the north of the Serengeti and land on the Kogatende airstrip. So let’s runaway! Just before landing on the turf we fly with a big bend over the Mara River, with thousands of wildebeest on both sides in a kind of pulling strings. This is where we have placed our hopes. The migration of the wildebeest and preferably when they cross the Mara river.

Then the party starts with the biggest white Colgate smile from James, our guide and driver for the next few days. He is waiting for us with his jeep next to the runway. Kieke has already experienced an adventure in Tanzania with James when they visited the Hadzabe for her work at the Jimmy Nelson Foundation. (Read the full story here)

It is still quite early, so we load the travel bags in the back and take out the cameras. No hospital for a while and no worries for tomorrow, but do what we are best… on safari and spotting wildlife. We start with a small mini safari on the way to the lodge. At binoculars we spot the first cats, 2 cheetahs in the shade of the bushes. We take a look at the various crossings sights and spot some overheated hippos, who undergo a beauty treatment on a sandbank. The oxpeckers are busy getting rid of nasty parasites and other annoying shit flies. Hippos aren’t the most handy toilet goers, but filthy poo sprinklers. We totally understand the mutual friend service. We are even a bit jealous, because here and there the tsetse flies terrorize us with their nasty pricks. They are hiding somewhere in the jeep and then just when you are taking pictures… Little Bastards !!!

Our home from home is Sayari lodge. Sayari means in the Swahili universe. A beautifully situated super luxury safari tent camp near the Mara river. It is located on a hilltop surrounded by a rock formation here and there, while you have an endless view over the landscape with the ever-changing skies above. We also have a lovely outdoor shower with a view.
It is an open camp and the safari tents are quite far apart, so the wildlife can stroll through it quietly and you have an unobstructed view from your private veranda. The perfect place for a relaxed sundowner. It also has a few consequences: take a good look around you before walking towards the restaurant in daylight and stomp hard to keep the reptiles at bay. From dusk, use the walkie-talkie if you want to move around and call a tough Masaai guard, who will accompany you to a campfire, bar or restaurant. We also have a kind of fog horn in our tent, if someone wants to take a nap on the porch and your walkie-talkie has cures, that is your last resort… and indispensable… a super good flashlight. Well searchlight is a better description for looking into the night.

After lunch we went for a game drive. Kieke has been a tour leader in Africa for 2.5 years. Not normal how quiet it is now. There are hardly any other tourists. We are just on the road when James hears another driver on the radio going crazy in Swahili. A crossing close to our neighborhood. James knows Northern Serengeti like the back of his hand. Usually you can see from a file of safari jeeps where something special is going on, well not now. There are 2 jeeps on the high river edge while a few hundred wildebeest plunge into the river. We can just enjoy ourselves and our first river crossing is a fact. We would not have dared to dream that and that already on day one. Who knows, we may be awarded even more river crossings in the coming days … Who knows with thousands at the same time … And who knows, maybe even from the other side so that the wildebeest will come to us … Fingers crossed!

It’s a restless night and the lions are busy collecting enough steak to provide all the kids with a feasty meal. The roar comes closer and closer, then the zebras strike and panic arises around the lodge. Then we hear a kind of rumbling and the ground starts to shake. Thousands of wildebeest and some stray zebras thunder through the camp at full speed. You feel a kind of resonance in your lungs as if the bass is too low or too loud at a concert. Clouds of dust whirl up while we watch the spectacle pass by on the veranda with our mouths open. With sand between our teeth, we are not aware that everything can bump up in the back, which can easily jump onto the veranda and we can also belong to their menu option. Then suddenly they all come to a halt. Oh oh is that the ambush laid. We will go back in soon, because you never know. I hear what you don’t smell and I see… nothing in the pitch dark. After an hour we hear a lot of giggles in the bushes and the hyenas have started the after party and we hear the carcass cracking between their jaws. Wow…. So close …

Tanzania, Serengeti September 17, 2020

The 17th it is very early day. We have breakfast with a beautiful view over the savannah, where a brute murder somewhere in the high grass has occurred last night. A lot of colorful witness birds tried to tell us with cheerful tunes that they had nothing to do with it. The normally tough buffalo quickly hides behind a rock and does not want to give a testimony. He’s too glad that his steak bottom is still on his behind after last night.

After breakfast it is time for a crime scene investigation. It appears that some more wildebeest have died in the night battle. There is not much left than some gnawed spare ribs, hair, skin and a loose skull. Near the kill, we find two brothers of the grassfloor, trying to get rid of gory evidence while licking their wild hair clean. They are not very tough yet, because their mane looks more like a tuft than a full, impressive forest. Furthermore, they are mainly bulging out and in the way of a new group of wildebeest, who today have to go to the river via a detour.

Then the clean team arrives. Many beaks make light work and in no time the last remnants of the crime scene have also been removed, by the marabou and his mates: the vultures.

Today we see a lot of wildebeest. Small strings that join larger groups. As an individual, they are more likely to make it across the street. We will take a look a few times at various places where the wildebeest can cross the river. There are more and more, but none dare to take the plunge into the river. Or would they wait until they sniff the first rain on the other side.

Then we see some movement in the tall grass, the contours seem to resemble the feline here. We drive towards the edge of the tall grass and there the shadows change into a whole family of lions. One by one we see Mufasa, his harem ladies and lots of little Simbas and Nalas emerging from the grass. Timon and Pumba are understandable…. in no way to be seen to complete the lion king cast. Mufasa is a bit grumpy and doesn’t feel like playing. On the other hand, Mommy and the aunts are in the rough and cuddly courage. While the sun slowly turns to a red ball, we watch the family prepare for the nightly escapades.

On the way back to the lodge we find 3 males with a few females, so there is no shortage of lions today.

To conclude, we sit comfortably by a campfire, under an amazing starry sky, while behind us in the high grass something rustles…. Is it the wind or something else? Sleep tight!

[Also published with more beautiful photos from Kieke on Travelsoap October 26, 2020]

Tanzania - The Great Wildebeest Migration at Mara River


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