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.
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
"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
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
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.)
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.