Seronera & the South

Visiting or staying in Seronera, in the heart of the park and readily accessed from both Arusha and Mwanza, involves something of a trade-off. On the one hand, this is wildlife central, with sightings of lions (around 300 live in the park's south alone), leopards and cheetahs almost guaranteed. On the other, such abundance comes at a price: you may find yourself among a pack of 20 vehicles jostling in unlovely fashion to look at a single lion.

Southeast of Seronera is a prime base for wildlife watching during the December–April wet season, when it’s full of wildebeest. This corner of the Serengeti also has year-round water and a good mix of habitats. Most Seronera safaris concentrate on the Seronera River and with good reason: the trees along the riverbank are home to one of the world's densest concentrations of leopards, while lion sightings are common. Lion sightings are also probable around the Maasai Kopjes, Simba Kopjes, Moru Kopjes, Gol Kopjes and Barafu Kopjes, and around Makoma Hill. The vast plains south of the Seronera River, often known simply as the Serengeti Plains, are particularly good for cheetahs. The plains that rise towards the Kamuyo Hills west of the Seronera River (draw a line west of the Seronera Wildlife Lodge) are particularly good for elephants, spotted hyenas and cheetahs.

Grumeti & the West

The herd migration usually passes through the Serengeti's Western Corridor, and the contiguous Grumeti Game Reserve, sometime between late May and early July. The crossing of the Grumeti River may not rival that of the Mara River further north – there are few vantage points and the river is much narrower and easy to cross here – but it's still one of the migration's great spectacles.

During the rest of the year, lions and leopards are prevalent along the forest-fringed Grumeti River, which also has hippos and giant crocodiles. North of the river, try the Kitunge Hills, Ruana Plain and just about anywhere in the Grumeti Game Reserve, while south of the river concentrate on the Ndabaka Plains, Simiti Hills, Dutwa Plains, Varicho Hills and down to the Mbalageti River.

These western reaches of the Serengeti are most easily reached from Mwanza. If driving from the Ndabaka gate, count on at least half a day to reach Seronera, at the centre of the park, and more if you stop along the way.

Central Plains

Except when the herd migration passes through (usually in November and December), this is not the Serengeti's most prolific corner when it comes to wildlife. Its mix of light woodland, acacia thorn and open plains can also be dispiriting during the heat of the day, which, given the lack of lodges in the area, is when most people pass through as they travel between the north and south of the Serengeti. This is also one area of the park experiencing a growing problem with local communities encroaching into the park, with a concomitant effect on wildlife numbers. In other words, you're more likely to visit here on your way elsewhere, rather than for its own sake.

Even so, there are some fine vistas along this north–south route through the park, not to mention a blissfully remote feel to much of the countryside around here. If nothing else, the park's central area is worth passing through to gain a deeper appreciation of just how vast the Serengeti's ecosystem really is.

Mara River & the North

Compared with Seronera and the south, the Serengeti's north receives relatively few visitors. It begins with acacia woodlands, where elephants congregate in the dry season, then north of Lobo stretches into vast open plains. The herd migration usually passes through the western side during August and September and comes down the eastern flank in November.

North of the Grumeti River, the Bologonya Hills, Bologonya River, Nyamalumbwa Hills and Mara River are all outstanding. If you're driving from the Mara River to Seronera, allow the best part of a day.

Outside the park, the little-visited Ikorongo Game Reserve, which shadows the northwestern boundary of the park, is wild and worth visiting. Away to the east, the Loliondo Game Controlled Area, just outside the Serengeti’s northeastern boundary, offers the chance for Maasai cultural activities, walking safaris, night drives and off-road drives. A loop east across Loliondo and then down through to Lake Natron and the Crater Highlands or Ngorongoro is a wonderfully remote alternative to driving back down through the park.

The Great Migration

It’s here on the vast plains of the Serengeti that one of the world’s most impressive natural cycles has played out for aeons as hundreds of thousands of hoofed animals, driven by primeval rhythms of survival, move constantly in search of fresh grasslands. The most famous, and numerous, are the wildebeest (of which there are some 1.5 million), and their annual migration is the Serengeti’s calling card. There are also resident wildebeest populations in the park, and you’ll see these smaller but still impressive herds year-round. In February more than 8000 wildebeest calves are born each day, although about 40% of these will die before reaching four months old.

Worth a Trip: Serengeti to Lake Natron

If you're in the northern Serengeti, to really get off the beaten track – not to mention avoid the long and expensive route back through the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Conservation Area – it's possible to drive from Klein's gate all the way to Lake Natron in around five hours. Although the road is unpaved all the way, it's generally in good condition and passable in most vehicles, except after rain.

After leaving Klein's gate, drive 13km to Ololosokwan, where you should stop to buy honey from Maasai Honey. The road roughly shadows the Kenyan border and passes through the barren, stony country that forms part of the Loliondo Game Controlled Area. After 10km, you'll reach Soitsambu; at the time of research, the roads at the western approach to Soitsambu were some of the worst along the whole route. From Soitsambu, the road continues southeast and then south to the large town of Waso. Some 17km south of Waso, take the road branch that heads left (southeast); if you take the right branch, you'll reach the town of Loliondo and, eventually, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, close to Oldupai (Olduvai) Gorge.

After the road branches, you begin the long, slow descent from the Rift Valley Escarpment to the valley floor. Watch for views of Gelai (2941m) and, later, Lake Natron and Ol Doinyo Lengai (2962m) before you make the final descent. It's 81km from the turn-off to the village of Engaresero, the town with most of the tourist infrastructure near Lake Natron's southern shore, with the last 20km or so along the Rift Valley floor and the lakeshore.