TOP 8 THINGS TO DO IN SERENGETI NATIONAL PARK

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Credit to Piper Mackay Photography

The Serengeti is one of the most famous national parks in Africa and offers some of the best wildlife viewing in the world; however, there are a number of things to do in the Serengeti other than game drives. The Serengeti has earned the titles of one of the “Seven Natural Wonders of Africa” and one of the “Ten Natural Travel Wonders of the World” for being the site of the largest terrestrial mammal migration in the world (about 2 million animals!). However, even without the Great Migration, the park sports the densest lion population in the world and is home to all members of the Big Five and almost 500 bird species. The Serengeti fits well into most people’s dream of an African safari with its abundant wildlife, vast golden plains dotted with thorny umbrella acacia trees, kopjes, and sausage trees, and its crocodile and hippo-filled rivers. When planning your time to this amazing place, you’ll want to take into account its large size and the timing of your visit to ensure the best viewing experience. In addition to the traditional daytime game drives, you might consider seeking out an alternative view of this beautiful ecosystem on walking safaris, night drives, and even from atop of a horse, hot air balloon, or plane! Including education and cultural activities such as visiting a local Maasai village or learning about the important paleoanthropological findings at Oldupai Gorge can also enhance a visit to this region. We loved our time in the Serengeti and below we’ll share our guide to visiting this amazing area. First we’ll share some practical information and then we’ll cover our list of the top ten things to do in the Serengeti. Below is our list of the top eight things to do in the Serengeti. This article originally appeared in Independent Travel Cats blog. 

Credit to MojoPort
Credit to MojoPort

#1 Spend Time on Game Drives. Obviously, one of the highlights of most visits to the Serengeti is the wildlife drives and the Serengeti is particularly renown for its migrating wildebeest, its dense lion population, and its good birding opportunities. What might not be as obvious to many potential visitors is that given the large size of the Serengeti, you can’t explore all the areas in a few days and you shouldn’t try. The distances are long and the roads can be rough so expect plenty of “African massage” along the way. Not all areas of the Serengeti are created equal and you should think about what you are most interested in seeing here and plan accordingly based on your sightseeing priorities and the timing and length of your visit (a good safari company should be able to give great recommendations here). See the “Best time to Visit” section earlier in the article. Serengeti is the stuff that African safari fantasies are made of and was hands down our favorite park during this visit. I can’t list all the animals and birds we saw in the Serengeti, but the list includes an amazing number of predators, including several cheetah, a leopard, hyena, jackals, and a ton of lions. We saw all the “Big Five” here except the elusive and rare black rhino. “Oh, it’s just another lioness” and “I don’t want to see any more hippos” were actual phrases we dared to utter on our last day here after seeing so many of these amazing animals! Our Amani Afrika guide, Muridy, was great at spotting animals for us and we learned so much from him about the animals, trees, birds, and ecosystem.

Credit to Independent Travel Cats
Credit to Independent Travel Cats

#2 Stop at the Serengeti Visitor Center. The Serengeti Visitor Centre is worth a stop for its self-guided walking path that provides informative signs and exhibits about the history of the Serengeti, its ecosystem, and its wildlife. You are likely to even spot some wildlife along the path, including rock hyraxes (we probably saw close to a hundred of these little critters!), birds, and brightly colored agama lizards. A great place to stretch your feet and let children expend a little energy. This is also an excellent place to stop for a lunch break as the center has an outdoor picnic area, restrooms, a snack and coffee shop, and a gift shop. This was our favorite visitors center among those we stopped at in Tanzanian game parks. The center is located in the Seronera area and is open daily. 

Credit to Little Observationist
Credit to Little Observationist

#3 Visit a Maasai Village. The Serengeti ecosystem has long been home to the Maasai, a semi-nomadic people who live in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania along the Great Rift Valley. They are the most well-known local tribe in East Africa to visitors due to their residence near and within many of the popular game parks, their continued engagement in their traditional ways of life, and their distinctive traditional clothing. Many Maasai villages, also called Maasai bomas, welcome visitors to visit and learn about their customs, traditions, and lifestyle. Most visits last an hour or less and include a brief dancing ceremony, a visit to a traditional boma made of sticks, mud, and cow manure, a visit to the village school, and the opportunity to purchase handicrafts produced by members of the village. Along the way, an elder will explain some of the customs related to raising and herding livestock, marriage, construction of the homes, education of the children, and traditional dress. Ethan and I had mixed feelings about the village we visited that was located between the Ngorongoro Crater and the entry to the Serengeti National Park. I do  think that all visitors should learn about the Maasai and their culture, but the touristy village visit felt “icky” to us.  We felt like there was way too much emphasis on making money and selling stuff and we got the strong impression that residents spend the whole afternoon waiting for each tourist group so they could perform out-of-context ceremonial dances. The worse part was that the adorable school children at the school were clearly reciting a script (alphabet and numbers in English) while we visited and it did not appear that they were actually being educated as there were no books, few supplies, and the chalkboard contained only the recited alphabet and numbers. How could they possibly learn anything if they have to perform for tourists all day? While not all villages are the same, we heard that many other visitors to other villages had similar experiences and we hope that these visits change to offer a more enriching cultural experience for visitors (that doesn’t feel so choreographed and commercial) without disrupting the daily life of the villagers, particularly the school-aged children. Most villages charge an entry fee and then many also suggest a donation for the village school or “hospital” as well as a strong sell of their handicrafts.

Credit to ForWallpaper
Credit to ForWallpaper

#4 Experience a Night Game Drive. A night game drive allows you the unique opportunity to spot a number of nocturnal animals, such as civets, bush babies, nightjars, and aardvarks, and possibly even predators on the hunt. Seeing new animals is definitely a highlight of these evening game drives, but these drives also give you the unique chance to see your surroundings from a very different perspective. While night game drives are not allowed in most parks in Tanzania and I don’t think anyone has permission to take guests on night game drives within the Serengeti National Park, certain lodges and camps have permission to do night drives on land located just outside the Serengeti. There are no fences around the park so there is still great wildlife viewing along the borders of the Serengeti. So if you are interested in a night drive in this area, look for lodges and camps located just outside the national park and let your safari operator know you are interested in this experience. For instance, some camps and lodges within the Ikoma Wildlife Area, such as Ikoma Safari Camp, have permission to do night game drives. Klein’s Camp sits on private wildlife concession land leased from the Maasai and has permission to do night drives as does Buffalo Luxury Camp which sits on privately owned land located just outside Klein’s Gate. We had the opportunity to do two night game drives at Buffalo Luxury Camp and were able to see bat-eared fox, chameleons, skinks, bush babies, impala, topi, wildebeest, giraffes, dik diks, gazelle, impala, zebra, scrub hare, jackals, mongoose, and hyena. While we were lucky to spot a lot of different animals, there is simply something thrilling about being able to drive around at night and hear all the night sounds of the wildlife. Tim, our wonderful guide, told us about some very exciting nighttime game drives he’d been on recently involving a group of hunting lions!  We didn’t see anything quite that thrilling, but we were content to just watch the delightful big-eyed bouncing bush babies!

Credit to Dr. Ken Firestone
Credit to Dr. Ken Firestone

#5 Visit the Moru Kopjes. Kopjes are interesting weathered gigantic rock formations that rise out of the central Serengeti plains like little mountains. Islands in a sea of grass. Trees, vines, and bushes sprout out of many of the formations and you can see them scattered around the Serengeti Visitors Center. These rock formations provide shade, small water pools, and a great vantage point for many animals, including lions, leopards, and cheetahs. The Moru Kopjes are the most frequently visited kopjes and some kopjes contain African rock paintings done by Maasai cattle herders and at least one of the rocks, nicknamed the “Gong Rock”,  is believed to be an ancient musical instrument. While we didn’t see any kopjes that were quite as spectacular as The Lion King‘s Pride Rock and there were no baboon presentations of newborn lion cubs going on during our visit, the kopjes are a good place to spot big cats and smaller mammals such as hyraxes so point your binoculars here when on game drives. The Moru Kopjes area is also the best place to spot a black rhino in the Serengeti National Park.

Credit to Piper Mackay Photography
Credit to Piper Mackay Photography

#6 Witness the Great Migration. The Serengeti is the setting for one of the world’s great natural spectacles: the Great Migration of herds of over a million wildebeest as well as hundreds of thousands of other hoofed animals, including zebras, eland, and gazelle. Who has not seen at least one of the amazing videos or photos of hundreds of thousands of these animals crossing the Mara River in a line and hundreds being dramatically pulled down by crocodiles!? Now this event could also be termed the Great Misconception as people seem to think the migration consists of just a single event (river crossing) or happens over a short time frame, but in fact it is a cyclical event that essentially never ends. Here’s a rough sketch of the cycle: January-March: the wildebeest are concentrated in the northern Ngorongoro Conservation Area and southern Serengeti area grazing and calving (February is prime calving month typically), April and May see the herds beginning to head in a northwest direction in search of green grass and May is generally the beginning of the mating season or “the rut” for the animals, June often finds the herds beginning to concentrate on the western side of the crocodile-infested Grumeti River (river crossings), July and August the herds continue to move in a northeast direction towards the Mara River and the Kenyan border (time of dramatic Mara River crossings), September-December the herds graze in the Maasai Mara in Kenya and then begin to slowly migrate in a southwestern direction back into Tanzania to begin the process again! The actual movement and timing of the migration depends heavily on the rainfall and weather so do let your safari operator know if you are interested in seeing the Migration so they can best maximize your chances to see the herds. The herds can be quite unpredictable, especially regarding the river crossings, so if this is high on your list make sure you plan an adequate amount of time in the area to maximize your chances of seeing it. We were only able to see a small number of animals cross during our time alongside the Mara River, but the prior day tens of thousands of animals had crossed. Next time! But seeing the large wildebeest herds congregate and then move in single-file columns is very impressive even without seeing any significant crossings.

Credit to Bon Gossip
Credit to Bon Gossip

#7 Step Back in Time at Oldupai Gorge. Lying only a few miles south of Serengeti National Park, the Oldupai Gorge (also called Olduvai Gorge) makes a convenient stop for those traveling between the Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti. The actual gorge is a steep-sided ravine that is about 30 miles long. The site is famous because it is here where the Leakey’s discovered human fossils and tools dating back to over 2 million years ago. Fossils remains of over 60 hominids (human ancestors) have been found in this area, making it one of the most important paleoanthropological sites in the world. The discoveries here have been instrumental in furthering the understanding of human evolution. The small Oldupai Museum (small entrance fee) was founded by Mary Leakey and contains information and artifacts related to the  Leakey family, the fossil discoveries, the gorge, and the Laetoli footprints. Nearby is also the Laetoli archaeological site, which is famous for its 27m-long trail of hominid footprints that are believed to be 3.6 million years old! While this small museum might not be a must-see for some, it is a good way to add in a bit of non-wildlife education. Many visitors spend about 30 minutes in the museum and break for lunch here. We had planned to stop here but regretfully ran out of time and needed to keep going in order to make it to our lodge on time that day. One of the many reasons we want to return to this area, although we did get to check out the Natural History Museum in Arusha which has a section dedicated to human evolution and the fossil discoveries at Oldupai Gorge.

Credit to Travel Cats
Credit to Independent Travel Cats

#8 Stay at a Camp or Lodge that Allows you to Hear the Wildlife at Night. Sleeping in a camp set off by itself where one can lay back and hear the chirping of the crickets, the cry of the African Fish Eagle, the rustling of the giant elephant, the “laughing” of the hyena, the yelping of the jackal, and the roar of the lions can be a magical part of the safari experience. The great part is that you can have this experience sleeping on the ground in a basic tent at a $50/night campsite or while sleeping under a down comforter in a $1,000/per night luxury tent as its the location that is most important here, not the tent. Our stay at Asanja Africa, a small luxury tented camp in central Serengeti, gave us the best feeling of sleeping in the African bush during our trip. We heard birds, jackals, hyena, and lions during the night from the safety and comfort of our tent. Just note that while the animals may seem very close (and they may be!), you can hear a loud lion’s roar from miles away. However, this experience is definitely not for everyone and we heard people complain about hearing the wind and being very upset when a lizard entered their tent at some places we stayed. Another experience you may want to consider when choosing lodging is a bush dinner as these can be a fun way to watch the sunset and enjoy a meal under the stars near a roaring campfire. We enjoyed a great group bush dinner at Buffalo Luxury Camp. No matter your preferences, you should communicate with your tour operator about the kind of lodging you are looking for so that they can help you have the best experience as everyone’s vision of the ideal African safari is different.