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Africa's Amazing "Great Migration"
Parked in a vast grassland in central Africa, you watch one of nature's most incredible spectacles: the so-called "Great Migration" of two million wildebeests, zebras and gazelles on their annual 1,800-mile search for water and green pastures. From your safari vehicle, you see the animals crossing the savannah, sometimes ambling in single file, sometimes galloping madly through a dusty cloud.
And they're not alone. Just a few yards from your fender, "hit squads" of lions, hyenas and cheetahs watch the animals, obviously thinking of this wildlife pageant of Biblical proportions as a major buffet. You're happy to realize that those hungry cats have absolutely no interest in you. Not so safe are the migrating animals, which in addition to dodging land-based predators, must run the gauntlet of mammoth crocodiles that lie in wait at every river crossing, ready to take them down as they enter the stream.
To be well positioned to view what Lion King fans know as Africa's "Circle of Life," you need to understand the seasonal rhythms that drive the movements of this herd on its circuit through an ecosystem the size of Belgium.
That circle usually begins during the January-March calving season, when as many as 400,000 wildebeests are born on the plains near the Ngorongoro Highlands in the eastern Serengeti. If that's when you go, consider staying at one of Africa's top resorts, the super-comfortable Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, which has sometimes been described as "Maasai meets Versailles." From this extravagant lodge-whose Italian architect was influenced by the design of a traditional Maasai village-a short drive will take you out to the see the Migration and a slew of brand-new wildebeests, or down into the Crater, a U.N. Biosphere Preserve that shelters everything from leopards and lions to a substantial population of black rhino.
Keep in mind that because Ngorongoro-like all lodges and camps in the Serengeti and Maasai Mara-is open and unfenced, predators wander its grounds at night. You will therefore be required to have a Maasai warrior escort-armed with steel spears-whenever you go outside after sundown.
Between April and August, the new wildebeests and other migrants move on to follow the rains to the crocodile-filled Grumeti River in the western Serengeti, passing under the Kuka Hills next to one of Tanzania's most hallowed lodges, Klein's Camp. In the 1930s, Charles and Anne Lindbergh reportedly flew into Klein's to see the Migration while they were charting new air routes; they returned in 1965. Klein's retains that Hemingway-era bush camp feel in its main lodge and 10 luxurious cottages, each with a veranda offering commanding views of the Serengeti. Klein's 20 guests also have exclusive access to year-round game viewing on the camp's 25,000-acre private wildlife sanctuary.
Another April-to-August possibility is the stylish Grumeti River Camp, located on the Migration's main track. But even after the Migration, Grumeti is wall-to-wall with animals, including lions that, on hot days, sometimes drop by to nap in the shade of the main lodge or lounge near the swimming pool (thereby startling two honeymooners just before I arrived). Since Grumeti is on a river teeming with hippos and crocs, guests are serenaded by an evening chorus of hippo chugs and snorts, along with the trill of hyenas and the night sounds of big cats on the prowl.
In September and October, you'll find the great herd marching across the border into Kenya's Maasai Mara Reserve, where they'll stay until their December trek back to the Serengeti.
You'll find no shortage of first-rate safari lodges in the Maasai Mara. A list of the best would include Bateleur Tented Camp, run by South African outfitter CC Africa. Bateleur's main lodge is a sprawling room redolent of colonial times, with overstuffed chairs, country-house furniture and vintage prints, along with a few whimsical touches. Your "tent" here will be nothing like the one where you earned that camping merit badge; it's a spacious room reminiscent of a British colonial officer's digs, with polished hardwood floors and a mahogany four-poster.
Another Maasai Mara standout, Governor's Camp, occupies one of the most hallowed spots in all safaridom. This sprawling lodge along the Mara River (actually three distinct camps) occupies what was once the private safari land of Kenya's colonial governors, the place where Theodore Roosevelt hunted in 1909. There's still more than a whiff of those original lodges at Governor's Camp, especially at Il Moran, the smallest and most intimate of the three, where, as Anthony Kaguathi of Micato Safaris put it, "the Migration's thundering herd makes an overwhelming noise as they pass by." Looking down on the Mara from Il Moran you'll spot dozens of hippos and crocs, while at night the occasional elephant sometimes wanders through camp. Hemingway would feel right at home in his tent at Il Moran-spacious, utterly private and furnished with massive hand-carved wooden beds.
No matter when you go or where you stay, you'll spend your days following the traditional safari routine. You'll leave camp every morning around dawn with your personal tracker-guide on a four-hour game drive, with breakfast on the "bonnet," to scope out the migrating animals and watch the lions and other predators in action before their midday snooze. After lunch back at the lodge and your own midday siesta, a late-afternoon drive will take you out again to view the cats as they prepare for a night of hunting. And all along the Migration route, you'll find abundant other wildlife, including herds of giraffes and elephants, packs of hyenas and jackals and more than 200 species of rare birds. At sunset, your guide will stop and fix "sundowners"-drinks to celebrate a perfect day spent witnessing this dazzling natural spectacle.
Bill Whitman welcomes comments and suggestions at:
Travel Fast Facts
What it is: The annual Great Migration, when two million wildebeests, zebras and gazelles march across 11,500 square miles of grassland in central Africa in search of water and greener pastures.
Where it is: The Migration route straddles two countries: Tanzania, where it is called the Serengeti; and Kenya, where it is known as the Maasai Mara.
Climate: Although both the Serengeti and Maasai Mara are generally sunny and balmy, daily temperatures vary greatly. During game drives at dawn and dusk, when viewing is best, the air can be quite cool, but midday temperatures can exceed 80 degrees F. Shifting rainfall patterns determine the route that the animals will follow.
Health and insurance: Check
www.mdtravelhealth.com to learn about health conditions where you're headed, especially whether malaria is a problem. If it is, ask your doctor about which medication is best for you. For certain locations, adventure travel operators recommend immunizations against yellow fever, tetanus, hepatitis-A, polio and typhoid. Outfitters highly recommend (and some require) that you buy a comprehensive travel insurance plan that includes medevac coverage.
Visas: Both Kenya and Tanzania require U.S. citizens to have an entry visa. Tanzanian visas can be obtained from its embassy at 2139 R St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20008, (202) 884-1080; application information and forms are available at
www.tanzaniaembassy-us.org. Kenyan visas are issued on arrival in the country or by its embassy at 2249 R St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20008, (202) 387-6101; for visa information, visit
More information: Since the agent who aced your sister's trip to Madrid may not be much help in planning your visit to the Serengeti, look for specialists in safari travel; and don't hesitate to ask for references. Safari outfitter and tour operator Micato Safaris can be reached at (212) 545-7111 or at
www.micato.com. The Web site for CC Africa, which operates Grumeti, Ngorongoro, Klein's Camp, Bateleur and other lodges in the Serengeti and Maasai Mara, is
www.ccafrica.com. For more information about Governor's Camp, go to
Traveler Report Card
Despite their remote locations, lodges and camps along the Migration route are exceptionally stylish and comfortable. The vintage design of some evokes classic safari days, while others, like Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, reflect a contemporary take on local culture. These lodges also offer superb service, from the friendly personnel who will look after your every need to the knowledgeable guides and trackers who will make your game drives and walks memorable.
You'll learn that top lodges and their chefs compete for excellence in cuisine as you swap safari yarns with other guests over flavorful dinners of dense soups, grilled chicken and meats, prawns and fresh vegetables. Add some prized South African vintages and a few chocolate-packed desserts for plenty of energy for that next day on the trail and you'll understand why Ernest Hemingway loved the safari life.
Although game drives will be the centerpiece of your stay, most camps offer other possibilities for up-close-and-personal views of the wildlife, including ranger-led nature walks through the bush. Other popular options include night game drives, birding expeditions and visits to nearby villages for glimpses of tribal life. Most lodges have swimming pools.
Except for the rustle of tall grass and the sound of galloping hooves, this timeless
landscape is immersed in silence. And back at the lodge, you'll find yourself surrounded by comfort and tranquility.
One Traveler's Experience
Last year, when California-based Michael McKenzie learned that his boss wanted to fly to Kenya in the company Gulfstream V, he started researching all aspects of the journey to try to avoid unpleasant surprises. McKenzie hadn't flown to Africa for five years and had never been to Kenya. "I had to do a little reading before we went there," he said, but overall, "it wasn't as bad as I expected."
Unlike flying in the U.S. and Europe, a trip to Africa presents safety, medical and security issues that often need to be resolved well before departure. For example, obtaining Kenyan visas for crew and passengers meant a visit to the local consulate, which accepts only money orders from local banks-not cash, credit cards or personal checks.
McKenzie consulted with pilots who had flown to Africa recently, refreshing his understanding of how pilots have to keep track of each other's positions because much of Africa lacks radar coverage. It was also necessary to obtain overflight permits for some countries three days in advance.
For ground services in Kenya, McKenzie worked with handling company Universal Weather & Aviation to plan for vaccinations, destination fuel, crew accommodations and security. McKenzie's Gulfstream isn't equipped with an alarm system, so he relied on a full-time security guard to watch the jet, plus his own security tape on the airplane's doors. "It's cheap insurance," McKenzie said.
Worried about what to do in case of a breakdown in Africa, McKenzie opted to depend on a Gulfstream operator based near Mt. Kilimanjaro instead of bringing his own technician on the trip. If all else failed, Gulfstream could send a mechanic to Kenya from its service center at London's Luton Airport.
McKenzie also purchased a medical kit from emergency medical services company MedAire and brought plenty of potable water as he wasn't sure whether to trust local water sources.
Landing in Nairobi, McKenzie wasn't surprised to find that pilots and passengers had to transit through the regular airline terminal customs and immigration lines. On departure, it took an hour to clear customs and security. Another problem occurred when McKenzie requested a fuel truck. After repeated assurances that it was coming, he was finally told that he was supposed to taxi the airplane to the fueling pit. In retrospect, he said, "Make sure everything is set the day before departure."
One problem on the ground was that only Visa credit cards were accepted, but bank ATMs worked fine for getting cash. Another problem was the $3.99 a minute price of voice and data calls on McKenzie's new iPhone-the one item he'd forgotten to check on before departure. -Matt Thurber (
To reach the Serengeti camps, you'll fly first into Kilimanjaro International Airport (
www.kilimanjaroairport.co.tz) near the town of Arusha. Kili is fully equipped with control tower, hangars, jet-A fuel service and an 11,800-foot tarmac runway. You'll then transfer to a Regional Air Services bush flight out to the airstrips at either Klein's Camp (also for Ngorongoro) or Grumeti, where brief landing delays while camp employees shoo animals off the runway are common. No airstrip in the Serengeti can handle private jets.
Depending on the size and weight of your aircraft, visiting Kenya's Maasai Mara means flying into either Nairobi's Wilson airport, Kenya's busy hub for light aircraft, or its main airport, Jomo Kenyatta International. Wilson has 5,052- and 4,798-foot asphalt runways and jet-A-1 fuel, while Jomo Kenyatta has one runway of 13,507 feet and jet-A-1. However, Wilson is the field that Air Kenya or other charter operators will use to take you from Nairobi to the strip at Governor's Camp or to Kichwa Tembo, which services Bateleur Camp. For more information, check out
www.kenyaairports.co.ke. No airstrip in the Maasai Mara can handle private jets.