Bushfire and ash safari
The Grumeti Reserve lies North West of the Serengeti in Tanzania. Six years ago, it was a hunting concession, an unprotected area where wildlife often wandered into the gun sights and traps of poachers. The legendary hedge-fund manager Paul Tudor Jones leased this important wildebeest migratory route and turned it into a haven for wildlife. He hired conservationists and would-be poachers to look after the area, tied-up with the world class Singita lodges who put in three stunning camps, and created a well-managed 350,000 hectare sanctuary which is now frequented by safari buffs.
In late August, we settled into our camp, Faru Faru in the golden grasslands, by the bend of the Grumeti River. The bush never fails to surprise, and the unexpected is always expected. Taking an al fresco shower, I saw a troop of baboons worrying a reed buck into releasing a choice drinking spot, we wondered at an enormous, finely painted grasshopper that settled on the hubby’s arm. Stuart Levine, our guide, shook loose what seemed like a dead wildebeest calf stuck in the mud.
It tottered on legs that seemed broken. “I wish I had my firearm to put it out of its misery,” said Stewart, driving away. A few minutes later, back in the same spot, the calf jauntily skipped off into the grasslands.
A land ablaze
After a couple of nights at Faru Faru, we stayed at the elegant Sasakwa lodge that sits atop a hill, with the grass lands falling away in all directions like a bridal dress with an endless train. We marvelled at the extensive views, the herds of elephants and zebra drinking at the dam. A couple of plumes of smoke arose around us… bush fires are a common thing, set by villagers or rangers to burn the grass just before the rains to encourage green shoots to spring up and provide choice fodder for the grazers.
The next morning’s game drive was like nothing I’d seen before. The fires had caught hold, and were burning the flats speedily. Normally, they peter out at the edge of the criss-crossing roads, but the winds had propelled burning embers across the boundaries, igniting new pockets of grassland. I was seeing a colour I'd never seen in the bush before — bright orange. Entire blocks were charred black; the flames advanced, and smoke swirled skywards. Curious, we watched the wildebeests, zebra and ostrich calmly walking away from it, grazing all the while. Neither the heat nor the hiss and crackle seemed to faze them. Hares, mongoose and smaller rodents, however, shot out.
That afternoon, back at camp, we saw the flames creeping up the hill to our villa. While the staff fought the fire with counter-burns, our family was bustled to Sabora tented camp, several plains away. Later, friends were to joke, “The Jains went to see the migration. It turned out to be their own”.
The wildebeests, zebra and ostrich calmly walked away from the wall of fire, grazing all the while, but tortoises, cubs and calves would suffer and ostrich eggs would be scorched.
How to get there: Fly to Nairobi, connect to Kilimanjaro airport in Tanzania, and onwards to Sasakwa airstrip in the Grumeti Reserve.
When to go: Wildebeests migrate through the area in May and June.
Where to stay: Sasakwa, Faru Faru and Sabora tented camp, all exquisitely designed and run by Singita properties.
Animal watch: Large herds of animals roam the Serengeti Plains. An annual migration of gazelles, wildebeest and zebras, followed by their predators, is made to find water.
Geographically: The highest point in Tanzania (and Africa) is Mount Kilimanjaro, a volcano which reaches 5,895 metres. The Great Rift Valley, which runs through the middle of Tanzania, was formed 20 million years ago; it was created when the earth’s crust ripped apart.