Where the heck is it? That was my reaction when I first heard of Ndutu on a trip to Masai Mara. Ndutu, a part of the much larger Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) in northern Tanzania, lies southeast of the more famous Serengeti national park. It is a part of the Serengeti ecosystem and a very important stop over for the wildebeests during their annual migration. This is where mankind originated but more importantly, for me, this is where the Great Migration starts.
Over a million wildebeests and a few hundred thousand zebras and gazelles start a journey in Ndutu in search of richer grazing land – a journey that take them around the endless plains of the Serengeti ecosystem, a journey that never ends. Between January and March large herds of wildebeests arrive in Ndutu for the calving season and within a short time of a few weeks they give birth to nearly half a million calves in a brilliantly synchronized event. Very few calves are born before this event and most of them do not survive, as they are easy game for the thousands of resident predators. The calves that are born during the calving period have a fairly high survival rate, just because of their sheer numbers. How many can the predators possibly kill?
For a photographer Ndutu is really special. The cake consists of vast plains with short grasses and little cover that afford great sightings. The plains are broken up at places by open woodlands, swamps and large sally lakes, an all-together magical landscape. The icing on the cake is that every safari vehicle in Ndutu has off road permission. In other words, you can go wherever you vehicle takes you and there are few places where a Landcruiser cannot go. The calving period, Christmas time for the large numbers of resident predators, with off road permissions makes Ndutu one of the best places to photograph predators in action. Unlike, Serengeti and Masai Mara, there are very few vehicles here, which is another bonus for photographers. Besides, this place is very forgiving – if you missed capturing the action, do not worry, it is going to happen again very soon. A friend of mine finally got a leopard jumping down from a tree on his fourth attempt, within an hour. I know of no other place in the world where a leopard will jump up and don a tree four times within an hour for you to get your shot right.
I had booked my trip to Ndutu in August last year and had a lot of difficulty getting accommodation. Ndutu has one lodge and one permanent camp besides a few mobile camps that come up during the calving season. All these get sold out really fast. We flew into Killimanjaro airport at the base of Mount Killimanjaro and drove out to Tarangire national park in pouring rain. After paying our dues to Tarangire, Lake Manyara and the Ngorongoro crater we reached Ndutu – the highlight of our trip. We saw our first leopard, cheetah and a pride of lions before we reached our camp.
We were told that till a few days before we arrived there were hardly any wildebeests in Ndutu. By the time we reached the rains had drawn in about half a million of them from southern and central Serengeti. Most of the wildebeests had already given birth and we hardly got so see any calving. However young calves meant more predator action, which we did see repeatedly.
Our camp was located on woodlands adjacent to a seasonal river and swamps. Within a radius of a few kilometers there were three large prides of Lions, two different Cheetahs with cubs, a group of three male Cheetahs, a Striped Hyena with a young one (one of the rarest mammal in east Africa), two clans of Spotted Hyenas and a few leopards. Besides there was a raptor in every tree and I have never ever seen so many different varieties of Eagles, Kestrels and Harriers in one place. We did get some great raptors. Since we were so close to the action we never had to commute to work and were usually the first ones in the plains. On a typical day we would leave the camp at the crack of dawn and stay out till after noon. By noon most wildlife activity would come to a stand still and that’s when we would head back for lunch to leave again right after that. On overcast and rainy days we would not come back for lunch as wildlife would stay active right through the day.
Most of Ndutu is a feature less plain and it is easy to get lost. We often had to use our GPS to navigate back to the camp, even though our guides knew the place very well. We had to be very careful not to drift into Serengeti national park as the penalty for doing so, even accidently, are very stiff and it is easy to do it. It is important to have an old Ndutu hand as a guide or you would be lost most of the time. Besides you need a 4-Wheel drive without daily mileage restrictions and most safari vehicles in east Africa do have a mileage limitation, which the safari operators usually “forget” to tell you.
The Olduvai gorge, a dry steep sided ravine that is one of the most important prehistoric sites in the world, lies really close to Ndutu. This is considered to be the birthplace of humanity and the oldest specimen of human genus were found here. We made plans to go there every night but the cats of Ndutu did not allow us to do so. I think I will have to go back for that.
Soon after we left Ndutu the migration started once again and the herds moved towards northwest to the plains of southern Serengeti. Christmas in Ndutu was over for the predators. Once the calving season is over the resident animals tend to stay closer to the lakes and the vast plains appear to be almost devoid of wildlife. The residents have to tighten their belts and wait for the herds to return.