A Moveable Feast: the Serengeti

The Maasai named them the Siringet, the Endless Plains. Speculated that a man might walk his whole life and never pass beyond them; might move his cows to the horizon without ever glimpsing their edge. In the Good Old Days, the Maasai did not cross from Tanzania to Kenya, and from Kenya to Tanzania, because there were no borders then, no boundaries or fences. They moved around the endless plains following the new grasses, spreading out after the rains and congregating in the dry season around life-sustaining water holes. These were the days of milk and honey – or rather, for the Maasai, milk and blood: this land was Maasailand; these cattle were Enkai’s gift to his chosen people; and life was lived as it was meant to be surrounded by the wild animals of the plains, and the birds of the air, and the insects of the ground. And then something happened . . . and everything changed. 


If you drive from Lake Lagarja to Lake Victoria, from the southern to the western gates of the Serengeti, you will journey for hundreds of kilometres across grass plains and wooded savannah. For many hours you can watch the landscape pass. You might start at dawn and still, with a few stops, be driving near dusk, have moved through a landscape of such exquisite beauty that it is akin to being mesmerised – hypnotised by shades of gold and fawn and cream and green and blue and sand. At some point, a great sense of peace enters the mind. For no matter how urban one’s workaday life, and no matter how superficially strange to be surrounded by wild animals, on some levels our bodies seem to recognise what is before us and to respond to this life of vistas and endless horizons and open lands. This, after all, is part of the Great Rift Valley, the place where humanity evolved, and perhaps its memory is hard wired into our DNA, and exists within us all.

The mind is soothed by the earth’s palate of colours, the heart calmed by the unobstructed horizon, and you feel that you might drive forever and abandon everything you left at home . . . only at that moment, you’ll see a gate, and as soon as you pass through it you’ll find yourself in a little village and then a town, and without warning there will be children and nuns and shopkeepers crossing the road, mamalishe cooking chapatis, women munching on cassava, men selling bolts of cloth: a maelstrom of human activity, an intensity, a density of pregnant women and teenagers and babies and old men, goats and domestic dogs, chickens and restaurants, tyres, coca cola signs, corrugated iron roofs and tarred roads . . . and you’ll suddenly remember how many people there are on our planet and your heart rate will speed up.

Few things illustrate as well as that junction, the pressure that the human population puts on the natural world. Here, crowding up to the perimeter fence of the Serengeti, living cheek-by-jowl with it, passing diseases to and from it, it becomes clear why a barrier has become necessary. For without it, expanding humankind would nibble away at the wild world inch by inch, until eventually not a metre of the endless plains would remain. “What we must face, all of us – poachers, tourists, farmers, conservationists and pastoralists – is the difficult truth that the land does not go on forever.”