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Lamai Serengeti: The Safari Story

This article originally appeared in When Is Now.

I remember returning home from my second safari and immediately longing to be in the African bush again. That second safari was supposed to be it; it was supposed to fulfill whatever desires I had following the first safari. It didn’t. It left me feeling the exact same way I felt following the first. In fact, I missed it more. These feelings prompted me to research what it was about Africa and those “African footprints on the heart” that pulled me and so many others back. There are a lot of explanations, but what resonates with me the most is that it is the feeling of coming home. Where else but home can you feel so happy, at peace, whole. There is also something special about completely disconnecting in a remote and wild place. And, waking up bright and early each morning with no idea of how your day will unfold.

As mentioned in the previous Lamai Serengeti post, this was my fourth safari and my second trip to the northern Serengeti. As much as I love the bush, I am particularly drawn to this area. I love the landscape, the topography, the bright blue skies, with fluffy white clouds, and how quickly and dramatically that sky can change when an afternoon storm rolls in.

I love the ancient kopjes that dot the landscape, the people and the lack of crowds. My only hope with this photo essay is that the following words and photos portray how truly special this piece of the world is.

Day 1: Laz the Wish Granter

When Lazaro picked us up from the airstrip, he gave us an introduction to Lamai, the Serengeti and how game drives work. Then, he looked at us very seriously and asked, “What do you want to see while you are here?” We tried to explain to him that we are not “big five” people (people who need to see the entire big five within a two day period) and that we really just love the safari experience and taking time to sit with the animals. Lazaro was not remotely satisfied by that answer:

Laz: Okay. But what do you really want to see?

Me: Elephants (always).

Ten minutes later:

So, there we sat with a big herd of beautiful eles, watching them gracefully move, pull the grass and bushes from the ground with their powerful trunks and listening to their low rumble. And, almost immediately, we were entertained by a young bull letting us know that we were in HIS space by showing us his persuasive mock charge.

As we left them, we saw this beauty having a snack.

We drove along the Mara River on our way to the lodge and got a peek at the top of the head and tiny ears of this hippo. Don’t be fooled by their cuteness, they are one of the most dangerous animals in Africa.

We worked our way back to the lodge, where we would meet the rest of the Lamai crew and get ready for the full days of safari to follow. Sunsets in the bush are an event in and of themselves and we enjoyed a beautiful one right from the expansive deck of our room. Have you read our review of Lamai Serengeti, yet?

Day 2: Cats, Cats and More Cats

Our wake-up call came right before sunrise and we witnessed the beauty of the sun rising over the Serengeti from our room, coffee in hand, before taking off on our drive.

The morning light and the way it casts a warm glow on the animals and the landscape in the Serengeti will take your breath away.

The first thing we did this morning was check out the kopje that had become home base for a mama leopard and her two very young cubs, AKA the “Leopard House”. There was some concern that only one of the two had been seen over the past couple of days. When we pulled up to the kopje, we saw mom sleeping, but no cubs. We sat with her for a moment and then moved on.

We saw a few lingering wildebeest, but the majority had followed the migration towards the rains. They are such strange looking animals.

As the morning hours passed, Laz (thankfully) reminded us that we should have breakfast. We pulled on to the cliffs overlooking the Mara River to a spot with a perfect view of a pod of hippos. Laz got out of the vehicle to inspect the surrounding area to make sure we were alone and safe. He returned a minute later with a big grin on his face. I thought that meant we were good to go, but Laz got into the vehicle, pulled it forward a few feet and said “look”.

This guy was already having breakfast in our spot.

We moved farther down the Mara, where Laz set up an entire breakfast spread. Oh how I love a bush breakfast, and this one was a game changer with delicious breakfast sandwiches, homemade granola and fresh, local coffee.

We hopped into the vehicle with full bellies and a solid caffeine buzz, and drove just a bit before we saw our first big cats: lions. River beds are a great place to find these beauties.

I love the sleek and confident walk of the big cats. There is such power, grace and purpose within each step.

And when you lock eyes with them, It is like they are staring into your soul. They do this right when they spot you and then carry on as if you were not even there.

Further down the riverbed, we saw two lions mating, which is a rare treat. And we saw it TWICE. It looks like such an aggressive ritual, but it is over within seconds. They will spend a week mating.

And then we had our first cub sighting.

We went back to the Lamai lodge for some lunch and some R&R before our evening game drive.

On our way out for our evening drive, we came across one of the five old buffaloes that hang out near the lodge. I once heard someone say that buffalo always look at you like you owe them money…

We lucked out on this drive and had Penda, who is in training, with us. Shortly after we started our drive, we came upon this herd of eles with two tiny babies.

They were the smallest baby elephants I have seen.

And still trying to figure out those body parts.

And just in case that sighting wasn’t fantastic enough, we received word that there was a leopard in a tree with a kill. This wasn’t the mama leopard we saw earlier, this one was a male. If we looked closely enough, on one of the other branches, we could see the warthog that became that leopard’s meal. The satiated leopard was comfortable and relaxed, and seemingly unaware of the looky-loos below him. Most likely exhausted from the hunt and then dragging his kill up into the tree.

While watching him sleep, we could see that we were in for one of those epic Serengeti sunsets, so we decided to seek out the perfect sundowner spot.

We found a spot that was a bit elevated and Penda and Laz set up a little bar on one of the rocks and made a G&T for Eddie and poured a chilled white wine for me. And then we enjoyed the most spectacular sunset I have ever witnessed in the most perfect spot. There is nothing like a sundowner in the bush. Nothing.

I could have spent at least another hour there, just watching the sunset unfold, but park rules require that all vehicles be back at camp by 7pm. Laz pushed it as long as he could, and then we raced back.

I climbed into our magnificent bed that night wondering how on earth any drive could be better than today’s.

We agreed with Laz that we would get an earlier start the next morning, so that we could travel a little farther out to where the Serengeti meets Kenya’s Masai Mara.

Day 3: The Best. Day. Ever.

We hopped in the vehicle, right as the sun was rising, and we were ready to hit the road. But, here’s the problem: it was a spectacular sunrise (again), so I had to stop for a few quick shots.

Okay, that was taken care of and we were on our way; zooming down the road for a longish drive to the edge of the park. We were ready. BUT, as soon as we made it down Lamai’s prized kopje, Laz slowed the car and said “look there.” As usual, I spotted nothing. We drove closer and he asked if I could see now. I saw rocks and mounds. We pulled closer. And there they were, right in the open savanna: Two magnificent male lions, and a lioness, with a pile of cubs in the center of them.

The cubs were curled into one another such that you could hardly tell there were three of them.

They looked cold and the mud on their little legs makes me think they spent the night in a protected river bed.

Laz said he knew them and that one wasn’t as healthy as the other two. As we watched them warm themselves in the sunlight, the lioness began to roar; to call.

We sat and watched and listened for a while. It was quite a way to start the morning.

Zebra are plentiful in the Serengeti and the majority of the time, they just stare at you for a second before running off. As we drove we stopped to check out a very young foal. This baby obviously hadn’t learned the skittish zebra ways and walked right up to the car. Something I have never seen before. You can see a very stressed mama in the background.

We crossed the Mara to the other side and drove along a river bed where we came across a large pride of lion. There were a few females with a lot of cubs that varied in age.

They were all around us, so we turned off the vehicle and just sat with them. Cubs are so much fun to watch. They are rambunctious and mischievous.

As cute as their wrestling and sneak attacks on each other are, they are practicing survival skills.

There is one element that can make or break your time in the bush: your guide. Your guide should be knowledgeable, considerate, energetic, and motivated, and do more than just drive you to the animals. They should understand animal behaviors, how to respect them while in their territory and how to make sure you’re positioned to get that shot for which you traveled thousands of miles. In the hierarchy of staff positions at a lodge, being a guide is one of the most valued. They go through an intensive initial training and maintain their knowledge through continued training and learning.

One of the ways that guides locate predators is by watching the behavior of the possible prey in the area. Which way are they looking? Are they communicating with each other? Are they comfortable or anxious?

We began to make our way back to the lodge and as we got closer to the river crossing, Laz stopped the car and told us to get our cameras ready. This particular corner was a popular (out of water) sunbathing spot for hippos, but they would quickly move into the water once we came around. He was right.

We pulled a little closer and watched them waddle, tumble, roll, and step on each other until they found a position in the water they liked.

On our way back to the lodge, we stopped by the Leopard House to check on the leopard cubs who had been in hiding. We looked around the kopje and drove up and down the river bed with no luck of a sighting. A manager from a nearby camp was doing the same thing. He reported that there was a sighting yesterday, but only of one of the cubs. That’s how this area works. Although there is minimal intervention, those who occupy the land, know and are concerned for their wild neighbors.

As we continued our drive back to the lodge, we spotted mama leopard.

We weren’t with her long before she got up and began hunting.

Lazaro asked if we were able to wait a bit for lunch, so we could see how her hunt played out. There is no way we could say no to that! So we watched her. We watched her scan her environment. And we watched her get up and move down the kopje. We watched how her beautiful coat shimmered in the sunlight. And we watched the sleekness in her movements.

And we followed her. She moved through the grass and from kopje to kopje and to any shady reprieve she could get from the hot sun.

She seemed to blend into each new environment into which she stepped foot, almost as if she were shape-shifting.

We followed her fruitless stalking for a while, knowing that she really needed to eat and hoping that she did. Every time I leave for the bush, I hope I won’t witness a kill. Every time I am in the bush, and I see a hungry animal hunt unsuccessfully for days, that all changes.

This evening was our final evening drive. We drove back to the Leopard House kopje to do our routine check on the cubs. Laz turned to us and said “let’s agree that you will not leave here until you see the leopard cubs.” Of course we agreed. I didn’t want to leave at all. I felt like suggesting to Laz we don’t leave until we see a polar bear, but with his skills, he’d probably come up with one!

Not 10 minutes later: “There!” Laz said looking up at the giant kopje.

Us: Where???

Laz: (handing us the binoculars and pointing at the massive kopje) “There!”

We still couldn’t see. Laz pulled closer and there they were. These two tiny bodies that blended perfectly with the rock. As we pulled around to the other side to get a better look, these two tiny heads peered over the edge at us.

They continued playing while keeping a watchful eye out for mom.

We sat below them until they ventured into the brush.

As the sun dropped lower, we decided to find a spot for sundowners. On our search, we found those two majestic male lions from our morning drive. The golden light hitting their red mane was so stunning, we had to stop and admire them.

Behind them, a storm was hitting the mountains of the Masai Mara and then a rainbow dropped behind the males. Sometimes, I swear there is a big production crew in the background: “Cue the lions! Cue the golden light! Cue the rainbow!”

As we focused our attention on them, the lioness came from behind us, greeted them and then turned to make sure the cubs were behind her. Two of them were and they picked up their pace and ran straight to the males, one of which gave a strong “no play” warning.

Laz made the excellent suggestion that we have our sundowners in the car while watching them. It was one my top safari experiences. In fact, the entire day was the best safari day I have ever had.

Day 4: Ugly Cry

The next morning, we had breakfast in the lodge. It was our last morning. We loaded our bags in the vehicle where we found picnic lunches, prepared by Lamai’s chef, for our long journey out of the bush and to the airstrip. We had a couple of hours for a game drive before heading to the airstrip. Initially, we didn’t see much, but it was still nice to do a farewell drive through the bush.

As we got closer to the airstrip, we found the male leopard from a couple of days before. Again, how Laz spotted him, is beyond me.

We watched him move and pause through the grass and became completely enthralled when Laz got the call over the radio and then turned to tell us: “your plane is here”. And my heart sank. I knew it was coming, but that didn’t make it any better. We made it to the airstrip and Helen and Clyde, the camp managers, were there waiting for their plane. We got to say bye to them one more time before boarding our plane.

Our plane moved to the end of the strip and as it did, I caught a glimpse of Laz waving goodbye and I lost it. Full on ugly cry.

As it broke my heart to leave, one thing I have accepted is that this is a place to which I will always return. It’s too special not to.

Thank you to Lazaro and Lamai Serengeti for an unforgettably perfect three days in the Northern Serengeti.

Until next time…
Breathe one last time
Your wild breath into me
That I may not forget you,
That I may remember who I am…
– Barbara Fairhead

Good to Know

  • Nomad Tanzania’s website is a great source of information on how you can pair Lamai with some of their other camps and ideal times to visit each one
  • Are you ready to book this once in a lifetime adventure? Contact the experts and Extraordinary Journeys and allow them to arrange all of the details and answer all of your questions
  • We were very lucky to have Laz and our vehicle to ourselves. It’s also fun to share a vehicle, but you can arrange for private drives
  • You can read more about what to expect on safari here
  • You can read more about planning a safari here

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Marcia Gordon