Wednesday, August 31, 2011


Flying into one of the dirt landing strips in Tanzania's Serengeti National Park is unforgettable, especially when the great wildebeest migration is there. As the aircraft banks around on it's final descent you can see great long strings of black shapes meandering towards the distant grey rainclouds and the promise of fresh green pasture. These herds, often in single file stretch for miles across the landscape, separating, joining up and then fanning out again like a river delta. There are forested areas, water holes, rounded hills and rocky kopjes amid the great grass plain. In the distance you'll most likely see the high mountains surrounding the famed Ngorongoro Crater. Clouds often cling to the peaks, lending it a mysterious, lost world appearance.

As the plane sinks towards the ground the pilot keeps a sharp lookout for vultures and you peer through the wind shield to try and pick out the runway. It's there. As the aircraft makes one final turn you see it. A tan gravel scar cut in the grass, the same colour as a lion. It seems so short, but the pilot knows what he's doing after a thousand bush strip landings and there's just a slight bump as you touch down you pull up in plenty of time before taxiing back to where your lodges transfer vehicle is waiting for you. Meanwhile in the trees nearby half a dozen giraffes are delicately nibbling at the upper branches and close to where the vehicle are parked there's a family of spotted hyenas lounging around outside their den. They take little notice as you disembark the plane and stride towards your vehicle with a cool breeze tugging at your hair. The air is thin and crisp, you're over five thousand feet above sea level. The empty sky is a milky blue and you've just been deposited on a vast plain filled with wild animals. Every moment here is special.

Flying out of the Serengeti is just as unforgettable. In a few days you've become familiar with the landmarks and the animals who inhabit this special place. Your lodge transfer vehicle does a quick sweep up the runway to make sure that it is clear of wildlife. There's a large male warthog at one end, he erects his tail and trots off into the trees. The only other animals around are the hyena family, still lolling in the dust outside their den. You wait with your driver, then you hear the drone of a distant aircraft. It's yours - a small, dark spot in the distance. It grows in size until it is recognisable. At last it touches down in a cloud of dust, thrown up by the wheels and it trundles over to where you wait. Ten minutes later you're rocketing down the airstrip, praying that an elephant doesn't decide to charge out of the trees. Then you're free of the earth again, above the Serengeti, and still the rivers of wildebeests are flowing slowly towards the distant rain.


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