Of all the iconic African names the Serengeti is arguably the most recognized. The name inspires images of wide open plains, big skies and animals spread into the horizon.
This is the coffee table book image of this great wilderness and although this image is not untrue there is a lot more to the Serengeti than the game-filled plains.
What most of these images do not show are the Serengeti Plains during dry times when the great herds are in the north, when the horizon and sky melt together in a dust-greyed entity and the dust blowing off the plains parches the throat. Gazelles dance in the mirages, mocking the discomfort one feels and you begin to wonder why you booked this time of the year to visit this dust bowl.
In plenty and in wanting
I have been privileged to see many of Africa's great destinations - in times of plenty and in times of wanting. It is in the times of wanting, in the dry season, that I truly appreciate an area, when survival instincts are at their peak, when each day is a struggle to survive.
'I can't believe the Serengeti looks like this! I thought there would be animals instead of dust ...': I overheard this comment whilst standing at the top of Nabe Hill looking out over the silent plains of the southern Serengeti, silent but for the light - and the dust. The rains had not yet fallen and the landscape looked bleak - with dust billowing from the wheels of the tourist vehicles that were racing across the plains.
I pondered the comment and the ideals of people with regards the wildlife areas of Africa and realized just how postcard images and slick marketing had skewed our ideas. Even in Africa's most iconic area the choking dust and heat are an integral part of the wilderness. This, however, often leads to disappointment when experienced by visitors.
But even in this dust and heat the Serengeti offers a memorable experience. The great herds of wildebeest are in the northern reaches of the great wilderness area but within the seemingly arid space there is life. Gazelles decorate the plains, giraffe break the horizon and sleeping lions dream of the return of the herds.
No rain in November
I had been eagerly anticipating viewing the great herds of the Great Migration arriving on the southern plains of the Serengeti to give birth and take a breather form the strains of migration. I had followed the migration updates on various websites for weeks leading up to my departure for Tanzania and all seemed to indicate that the herds were headed south. What I had not been monitoring was the rainfall in the Serengeti.
When I left South Africa the herds were already leaving the Masai Mara in the north on their southern trek and I had worked out in my mind that they would probably be arriving on the southern plains at about the same time as me.
The first stop in Tanzania was Tarangire National Park - a place where baobabs and elephants compete for the status of giants - before moving on to Ngorongoro Crater. The fact that the crater was bone-dry escaped me as I anticipated the views on the Serengeti plains.
Leaving the crater highlands and descending onto the wide expanse of the Serengeti eco-system I slowly began to take in the fact that no rain had yet fallen in the area and the realization that my dream of seeing the great herds on the southern plains would not be fulfilled this time.
Far from being disappointed I marveled at seeing Africa's most iconic wilderness area in such a state a state of wanting. The earth was crying out for rain and the dust was teasing the senses.
I had fallen into the trap of presuming that the wilderness moves to our rhythm and that we can predict what should happen. I marveled at the dust and white light for the Serengeti was showing me a vulnerable side of its soul.
Settling of the dust
The rains were late and the wildebeest were caught between heading south in the hope of rain and milling around in the northern regions as the grass diminished. With isolated pockets of rain the herds were eventually able to find their way south.
I still catch myself predicting the natural cycle of things despite the lessons of the Serengeti.By Leigh Kemp