Northern Tanzania Feb 20—Mar 08, 2006

Posted by Peter Roberts


Peter Roberts

Peter Roberts is based in Britain and lives on the island of Islay in the west of Scotland. He has been a keen naturalist since childhood in London. While birds remain his ...

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I had arrived early in Tanzania, and found a parched country that had not had the usual "short rains" in November. Dust swirled everywhere, and the usual migration route of a million wildebeest was disrupted, the vast herds wandering in smaller groups all over the Serengeti, far west of their normal path. As our group arrived, the welcome rains began! The showers often came at night in short, spectacular storms, and the land greened up instantly. The wonderful smell of new rain on dry ground was evocative to us all?it must have driven the wildebeest into ecstasies! Their response was stunning and perfectly timed: as we arrived in the traditional short-grass plains of the Ndutu area of Serengeti, so did the vast herds, already with their calves in tow. This was classic stuff that the best African wildlife film footage shows?endless trails of those strange, stupid-looking, yet stoic and determined animals trailing eastwards, grunting and cavorting in long lines, sometimes single file in mad canters, sometimes stopping in thick groups to graze. They relentlessly pushed on as we slithered through their midst in the dust-turned-mud, safe in our sturdy 4×4s.

All else came to life at the same time; it is remarkable how much of the natural world here?from flowers to birds and elephants?suddenly emerges in almost instant response to the vital stimulus of the seasonal rains. Where dust and dry tussocks had been, beautiful bright Ipomeas suddenly carpeted the savannah. The birds had been elusive in non-breeding, drab feathers. Now, "from out of nowhere," the sunbirds, weavers, bishops, widowbirds, whydahs, and cuckoos appeared more prominently and sported proper, full nuptial plumages of bright iridescent colors. Low water levels on Lake Victoria at the start of the tour had been wonderful for finding masses of shorebirds, egrets, herons, storks, and rare and localized species. Now the lake beds at Ndutu and beyond at Manyara suddenly began to fill, prompting the corpulent hippos to wander about feeding on the new green flush in the cooler damp weather of the middle of the day. Thousands of absurdly pink Greater and Lesser flamingos returned from who knows where they'd gone in the drought, performing stunning, florid, aerobatic, balletic maneuvers in dramatic skies.

The rivers suddenly swelled into torrents as they coped with the sudden surge of floodwater?everything from brilliant kingfishers to sinister huge Nile crocodiles having a bonanza as the water washed food their way. What the many large predators?lions, leopards, cheetahs, and hyenas that we saw almost daily?made of it, I'm not sure. The game was no longer dependent on traveling to a few isolated waterholes where ambushes were more likely; they had lush wet all across the savannah. But that unforgettable sight of tens of thousands of wildebeest and zebra grazing their way unstoppably eastwards must have been mouthwatering indeed for the lucky lion prides and hyena packs on their route: food aplenty at last!

By the time our journey came to an end we had truly experienced the effects of one of the most important primal elements governing the Serengeti ecosystem?the seasonal rains. We'd witnessed nature's speedy responses to weather, and the vital and strong links between the big game and over 400 species of birds, and such a simple thing as a few drops of water. Absolute magic?and we didn't get mired in mud, or soaked in rain, or have to abandon our activities once!