My Tanzanian bush pilot lets the passengers off at Seronera Airstrip, the main safari hub in the central Serengeti, then sweeps me north and solo towards the Kenyan border and the Mara River. Beneath us unfolds an emerald expanse, plains of rain-fed, grass clipped golf-course short by a million and a half wildebeest migrating south towards Lake Ndutu and their calving grounds in the shadow of the Ngorongoro Crater.
It's mid-November, and most of the great herd has already crossed the Mara, followed south by predators, as well as mobile fly camps and their safari vehicles. And that's exactly why I'm travelling in an empty plane during the off-season that will last from now until the end of June. The main characters have exited the Northern stage, but there's still lots of resident game in this region's spectacular theatre of rolling hills, tree lined water courses, and Kopje boulders.
By not following the human herd, I'll have one of Tanzania's most beautiful landscapes to myself.
Without honking ungulates raising huge clouds of flies and dust, or safari vehicles competing for an angle, it's possible to focus both eye and camera lens on subtle experiences.
On the drive from Kogatende airstrip to the newly opened Lamai Serengeti lodge where I'm staying, guide Ally Kea spots a pair of klipspringers, a small antelope and Serengeti version of a mountain goat, chasing each other across a hill of house-sized volcanic boulders. Their agile ability to turn on a dime, which helps them escape the leopards, comes from the fact that they run on tippy toe, Ally tells me. And indeed I see one of the exquisite creatures standing on the edges of its tiny black hoofs, balanced like a ballerina on pointe shoes.
The rutting season is not far off, and on the rolling grass plain beneath the Kopje we watch a male ostrich, it's thighs bright red with building testosterone, dancing and preening in front of a dull brown female, fanning its feathers like a courtier at Versailles.
In the 1990s, when I first visited this part of the park, on the southern bank of the Mara, to photograph wildebeest crossing the river, the only accommodation option was a tent. Back then the Tanzanian government considered the north too remote for investment, and only gave safari operators permits for seasonal tented camps, assuming few visitors would want to go outside the migration period.
But after observing the year round tourist revenue generated by Kenya's Masai Mara Game Reserve on the northern bank of the river, the Tanzanian government has begun giving permission to a handful of responsible safari companies to build permanent camps, the kind with few beds and high thread counts and nightly rates that maximise income while minimising human impact.
An anti-poaching programme has helped sustain the general game population, and has been so successful that the Frankfurt Zoological Society relocated five rare black rhinos to the region in an attempt to reestablish the species.
New luxury lodges, meanwhile, are betting that affluent nature lovers will pay a premium to avoid the congestion of Kenya's Masai Mara Reserve—part of the same ecosystem but at 560 square miles less than a tenth the Serengeti's size. Where the northern Serengeti now has just two permanent safari camps, the Masai Mara, by contrast, has more than 25 and receives up to 290,000 annual visitors. In the July to October high season, guests at Kenya's smallest Mara camps still risk encountering traffic jams of 70 mini buses at the most popular viewing points.
Lamai Serengeti, which opened last July, is operated by Nomad Tanzania Safaris, a long-established company which pioneered luxury mobile camping in Tanzania. Its Serengeti fly camp still moves as many as five times during the year, following the wildebeest herds on their 2,897km migration cycle.
On a planet now crisscrossed by roads and human infrastructure, it's miraculous that up to two million animals, including the wildebeest and hundreds of thousands of zebra and gazelle, remain able to follow their ancient instincts. As part of their evolutionary survival strategy, the wildebeest calve en masse between December and March on the plains around Lake Ndutu; the predators kill many newborns, which are able to stand and run at adult speed within minutes of birth. But the herd is so large, that far more survive. As the southern plains dry up, the herds start moving north in April, splitting into sub groups that meet again in mid July, headed for the banks on either side of the Mara River, where the grasslands have recovered after a year of rest and the May rainy season. In November, the start of short rains back in the southern Serengeti signals the return south.
The wildebeest walk south in long single file lines, seemingly drawn by the signpost of rain clouds looming on the horizon. A harassing army of lions, leopards, cheetah and hyena shadow the herds, feasting on vulnerable, off the very old or very young, the lame, the sick and any unfortunate stragglers. Some wildebeest, including herds and solitary males, mysteriously choose to remain up north year round along with general game whose density is remarkable.
Lamai, my base for three days, consists of twelve thatched chalets, two swimming pools, and two dining lodges all set nearly invisibly amid the giant boulders of Kogakuria Kopje, a volcanic outcropping used as a lookout by leopards and lion prides surveying the surrounding plain for topi, impala, oribi, giraffe, buffalo and other herbivores.
My huge stilted chalet, a combination of canvas walls and a plaster, wood beam and thatched roof, has a huge bedroom, bath, outdoor decks, and Zanzibar style day beds, all hidden down a path between the boulders, creating a feeling of total privacy.
The next morning, I sip a dawn coffee on my deck and look across an acacia studded plain towards the river. (My bed also has a fabulous view thanks zippered, transparent black screens that keep insects and animals out while permitting a spectacular view in daytime or by moonlight.) For breakfast I walk between the boulders to the communal dining lounge that designer Jo Cooke has given a contemporary ambience with plush white couches, a few tasteful African artefacts, and a raised dining table overlooking the pool. It almost feels Californian, except for the constant presence of armed askariz from the and Masai and Kokaescort tribes who escort guests at dawn or dusk and after dark. "We have a higher than usual guard to guest ratio," explains Nomad Tanzania manager Matt Rogan, "because of all the big cats that like to use thask pjs as their relaxation place. We've had lions relaxing on some of the tent decks."
With its two pools and pools and two lounges, the lodge is designed to offer clients the chance to appreciate nature without ever leaving the grounds. But I have come for game drives. The LandCruiser that my game guide Ally Kea drives is thoughtfully outfitted for photo buffs with chargers for camera batteries and a pop up roof with padded rests for telescopic lenses. I also note with relief that it has cans of bug repellent and Masai beaded tsetse fly whisks made out of wildebeest tail hairs.
We set off, hooking around the Kopje base looking for leopards, then head for the Mara river where Ally parks behind some bushes. On the Kenyan side of the river a herd of about 300 wildebeest - Ally describes this big group as "just a remnant"- are walking in a single file toward the bank. Witnessing a Mara river crossing—wildebeest thrashing and swimming for their lives through crocodile infested water—is one of Africa's iconic wildlife experiences. These guys put their heads down to graze. A few move tentatively down the sandy bank. They stare at the water, seemingly waiting for a signal. The they turn and walk back into Kenya.
I spy a vulture's wing feather on the ground. Just as I'm about to ask whether it's safe to get put of the car to collect it, a huge lioness with a sagging belly staggers out of a bush. Her hanging belly and the mask of blood flies on her face testify to a recent wildebeest feast. Perhaps this is why the wildebeest are so hesitant. Lions and leopards haunt the tree line, and the first wildebeest to beat the crocodiles and reach the far bank still risks sacrificing its life for the herd; crossing the river is like playing a potentially fatal game of Red Rover Come on Over. "I was just thinking about getting that feather for you, and I decided I'd better back the car up first to get closer," Ali gasps. As the lioness walks past, we're able to laugh about the advantages of obeying herd instinct.
Rather than patiently wait for the wildebeest kettle to boil, we follow the river around a bend and witness a crossing—by an elephant family. Unlike the wildebeest who give birth starting in December, the elephants, topi, giraffe and gazelle are already trailing youngsters.
On a vast open plain with few lonely acacia trees we keep a respectful distance from a mother elephant standing over a tiny baby, perhaps less than a month old, lying on its side to nap. The mother is tuskless, and Ali tells me the gene pool for big tusked elephants has shrunk because of hunting and poaching over the last century and a half.
On the Lamai Wedge, a triangle of Tanzania on the north bank of the Mara, we pass the bones and skulls of wildebeest skulls, as white and as plentiful as the morning glories blooming against the green grass.
The feast for predators is still so plentiful that many wildebeest carcasses are left to mummify with their skins and limbs intact: The abundance of prey reduces the need to scavenge, and picky predators feast on soft wildebeest underbellies. I spy an entire wildebeest handing in a tree, abandoned by a wasteful leopard. Judging by the condition and full bellies of the lions we find sleeping in the shade under another acacia, there's plenty of food still around.
Driving back towards camp, between boulders two stories high, we come across a fresh kill: a big male baboon chewing on a baby gazelle carcass. I head heard that baboons, like chimps, sometimes hunt meat, but I had never seen it. Driving back to the camp we have another stroke of luck as Ally finds three of the five black rhino relocated in 2010 from South Africa, the descendants of East African black rhinos originally captured in Kenya as part of a conservation programme undertaken during a poaching epidemic in the 1960s. Finding three of Africa's rarest animals (just 700 of the East African sub species remain) seems like finding a needle in a haystack, but Ally says they like browsing the bushes near the river, and that the Lamai and guides share sighting details with Sayari, the only other permanent camp in the northern region.
The privilege of exploring such a remote and beautiful environment with the chief luxury of solitude may be fleeting. More camps are planned. And the Tanzanian government has an again off again proposal to put a 53 kilometre gravel road (some proponents would like it paved) across the northern Serengeti to link isolated towns on Lake Victoria to Arusha and the East Indian port of Tanga. The government says the road through the park would be limited to safari vehicles. But the government is also diversifying the economy, and environmental needs are being weighed against commercial truck traffic and the exploitation of world's second largest gold mine to the west of the park, a proposed soda ash mine on Lake Natron, as well as minerals such as the coltran, used in cell phones, that could be exported from Kampala through northern Tanzania.
That night, under a full moon, I listen to the hyenas hoot like calls and a male lion's deep, asthmatic roaring. At least for now, the safari crowds and the industrial human world remain at bay.
If You Go
The flight Emirates (www.emirates.com) flies from Dubai to Nairobi, Kenya, from Dh2,310, including taxes. Precision Air (www.precisionairtz.com) flies from Nairobi to Kilamanjaro Airport (US$298; Dh1,095 round trip), where Nomad Tanzania, or your chosen tour operator, will pick you up for the 90- minute road transfer to the main safari camp hub airport at Arusha. Regional Air flies scheduled charters in small aircraft between Arusha and Kogatende ($530; Dh1,947 round trip)
The camp A five-night migration safari with two nights mobile camping and three nights at Lamai Serengeti costs from $4,700 (Dh17,264) per person. Visit www.nomad-tanzania.com to book
When to go Mid-July to mid-October offer the best chance to see wildebeest herds crossing the Mara River, but game is good year round