Wildlife-rich Serengeti is deservedly Tanzania’s most popular park, but with that celebrity comes a catch: crowds. Nearly 200,000 safari-goers pour in each year, cameras held high, their jeeps jockeying for position near anything with four legs.
Eastern Serengeti’s Soit Le Motonyi region, re-opened after a 20-year hiatus, is exactly the opposite: unspoiled, undriven, unphotographed and most definitely unpeopled. This land, where the short grasses of the plains meet the acacia woodlands, is virtually unknown to anyone save a handful of researchers, most of whom have been here studying cats. Big cats.
Since 1966, in one of the longest continuous field studies of the species, more than 200 individual lions from 12 prides have been identified in these eastern grasslands (and about 2,800 live in the whole south-eastern region). Cheetah studies ongoing since 1976 estimate that 50 to 80 adults roam Soit Le Motonyi and its surrounding areas. And the land is also home to leopards, servals, 30-strong packs of hyena and commonly-found grazers such as elephant, giraffe, zebra, waterbuck, steenbok and warthog.
But it’s because of those big cats that Soit Le Motonyi was closed for nearly 20 years. Experts identified the area as an environmentally fragile cheetah breeding ground, and a 1996 management plan aimed to protect the vulnerable species by banning jeep-led safaris, which could interrupt hunts or scare and separate families. Marking this region out of bounds for decades worked: cheetah – and all the big cats in Soit Le Motonyi – are now thriving, so much that the Tanzania National Parks Authority has opened the area to a limited number of visitors. As a result, Soit Le Motonyi is now one of the best – and least crowded – places to see cheetah in the Serengeti and perhaps the world.
“When I was young and first saw these plains, I imagined that if I could reach the end I could touch the sky,” murmured our guide Erasto Macha. Among the first to visit, we were in the middle of an hour-and-a-half drive from the busy Seronera airstrip to Soit Le Motonyi’s sole accommodation, a new mobile camp operated by Asilia Africa called Namiri Plains. The farther we went, the emptier the roads became; many were barely tire-marked.
The path wound past dramatic kopjes (granite outcrops) that are a favourite haunt for lion prides. We caught a flash of one dark-maned predator snoozing atop a jutting ledge, and watched another three lions chasing a foe and a lioness across the plains, intermittent roars thundering in the distance. Luckily, their pursuit took them far from the camp.
Designed to harmonize with its untouched surrounds, Namiri Plains comprises just six luxury canvas tents, camouflaged among tall acacia trees. There are no fences, and because the nearest camp is 70km away, no lights from other lodges flicker in the distance at night.
Animals waltz through the campground at all hours (guests are escorted by trained guards after dark). Namiri, Swahili for “big cat”, has already seen a number of big cats in its short stint on Soit Le Motonyi grounds. Assistant manager Blessed Mpofu said he’s seen two cheetahs stroll right past guests at breakfast, and he once watched a roaring lion lope between two tents. For a few tense minutes, Mpofu even found himself trapped in his own tent when another lion passed “so close by I could hear him breathing”, he recalled. What’s more, after the camp opened on 1 July, a sharp-eyed guest spotted a pangolin (a bizarre-looking scaly anteater) within the first week; more recently, two aardwolf were sighted nearby. (Of course, travellers are always protected within their tents, and staff are on high alert when animals are near.)
Read also: Akpabio-IMC’s Alleged N40Bn Mess: Why NASS Probe Must Be Sincere And Credible, By Onokpasa
On our last morning, we pushed open our tent doors to see three giraffes nibbling on nearby trees, the animals’ long necks weaving among the branches. Ten minutes after hopping into an open-air jeep for our morning game drive, we spotted a female lion lying in the grass, calling to her pride.
That afternoon, a sinuous golden shape – a cheetah – slid out of the plains. We drove parallel to it for about 15 minutes, watching it prowl through the grasses, alert to every sound. When it finally disappeared from sight, we let out a collective breath. This was clearly big cat country, and we had just spent a quarter of an hour with one of its star residents.
And other than the cheetah, there wasn’t another soul in sight.