Seeking big cats, Kelly Phillips Badal explores Tanzania’s untouched Soit Le Motonyi region—reopened after a 20-year hiatus—from Asilia Africa’s newest luxury camp. Read the full article below and in the current issue of Quest Magazine

With the sun sinking fast, I sit transfixed. Fifty feet away, a mature male lion is stalking a younger male, his muscular body parting the eastern Serengeti grasses. He’s mythical Aslan of Narnia brought to life—majestic, confident and proud—and suddenly he’s a golden bullet, racing forward, roaring thunderously. The younger male turns and flees. The chase is on. Their sounds attract two other brawny males, presumably the older male’s pack mates. Within seconds they’re at his heels, running off the competitor as a team. In the fading light their shapes dim quickly, though their deep roars still echo distantly. Elated, I let out a long breath as my guide from Asilia Africa, Ernesto Macha, turns our jeep toward Asilia’s newest seasonal lodge, Namiri Plains Camp. As we rumble along and my husband and I excitedly recount the scene, it hits me: No other tourists witnessed this electrifying encounter. No cameras blocked ours, no one stood or talked, no other jeeps cut off the action. For the first time ever, we were completely alone in the great Serengeti.

namiri plains mess tent
In a park that sees some 200,000 visitors each year, moments like these are few and far between. But in this section of the eastern Serengeti—Soit Le Motonyi—things are quite different. A secluded stretch of land where the short grasses of the plains meet the acacia woodlands, Soit Le Motonyi has been closed to tourism for almost two decades to protect a fragile environment that holds key cheetah breeding grounds. A rather visionary management plan designated this area as a “No Access Zone,” with the intent that it “only be affected by forces of nature with human’s imprint substantially unnoticed.” In the popular Serengeti, this is one of the few truly wild places left. The land is barely tire-tracked. Until recently, no one save a handful of cheetah and lion researchers has ever set eyes on this place, explains my guide. But as of July, the Tanzanian parks management re-opened Soit Le Motonyi to limited visitation and green-lit Asilia’s camp, Namiri Plains, as the area’s sole accommodation. The word is that cheetahs, lions, leopards and other resident animals here are thriving. Now, Soit Le Motonyi just might be the best place in the Serengeti—and perhaps in the world—to see big cats undisturbed.

For what little safari-goers have seen of it, Soit Le Motonyi is well documented. Since 1966, in one of the longest continuous field studies of the species, more than 200 individual lions from 12 different prides have been identified in these eastern grasslands (and about 2,800 live in the whole south eastern region). Wildlife biologist George Schaller’s well-known book, “The Serengeti Lions,” focuses on the area. Cheetah studies ongoing since 1976 estimate that the Soit Le Motonyi area and surrounds contains a high density of the speedy cat—50 to 80 adults call it home at any given time. Thirty-strong packs of hyena have been seen hunting here, too. In addition to the commonly found grazers such as elephant, giraffe, zebra, waterbuck, steenbok and warthog, the migrating wildebeest mega herds—the Serengeti’s most famous animals—stop by to feast on the fertile fields between November and April. In short, Soit Le Motonyi is big cat country with almost every other four-legged wild creature tossed in as a bonus. And I couldn’t wait to explore it from my base at Namiri Plains Camp.

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Even though I’m one of the first visitors to Namiri, a name meaning “big cat” in Swahili, the camp had already seen a fair share of feline encounters. Over dinner, assistant manager Blessed Mpofu tells me he’d seen two cheetahs walk right past guests seated at breakfast, watched a roaring lion lope between two tents, and was even trapped for a few tense minutes in his own tent by another lion, who passed “so close by I could hear him breathing,” he recalls.

To slow my rapid heart rate, he also tells me of a cheetah mother of three fluffy, weeks-old cubs spotted when initially scouting for the camp’s location. Still, as I zip my tent door shut in the dark, I feel a bit better knowing that flashlight-wielding guards keep watch over the grounds all night.

At daybreak the harmonious design of Namiri Plains Camp is revealed. Six luxury canvas tents sit camouflaged among tall acacia trees. Rocks mark out small paths, and a few simple couches and swings offer up quiet spots that overlook the nearby river or plains. No fences or barriers of any kind mar the view. Yet as understated and remote as Namiri is (the next closest camp is 70km away), its creature comforts run five star. The multi-room tents feature soft white beds, velvety armchairs, graphic rugs and hand-crafted jacaranda-pod chandeliers, all sourced from East African countries. An enclosed porch, beset with sling chairs, hugs the entrance and an attached bathroom with a flush toilet and generous bucket shower complete each suite. Coffee, tea and treats are delivered to your door when you wake; later on, wine, beer or cocktails round out gourmet meals. And due to its small size, even at full capacity the camp feels hushed. We chat and swap safari stories with other guests, then climb into our respective jeeps to set out across Soit Le Motonyi. Within minutes, everyone has disappeared from sight, without even dust plumes marking in their trails. Soit is just that big.

namiri plains guest tent
namiri plains dining area
“When I was young and first saw these plains, I imagined that if I could reach the end, I could touch the sky,” murmurs Macha, as we gaze across the waving yellow sea. My husband, a professional photographer, doesn’t even wait for animals to appear before pulling out his camera. He points his lens at the tawny plains, toward the scattered trees that punctuate them, and at dramatic kopjes (gigantic granite rock formations) that rise up as we wind our way through the region. The land is starkly beautiful, a live unveiling of the classic endless grasslands featured in numerous safari documentaries, postcard worthy from every angle. And though it looks empty at first glance, life is everywhere. A lion lazes atop one of the kopjes.

An elephant poses next to an acacia tree just as we draw near. We track a grey kite, spotted swooping low over the grasses to hunt for rodents, then watch it devour the small prey. Two bat-eared foxes look like small rocks until we move closer to see their oversized ears and liquid-black eyes fixated on our jeep. As the hours pass, my eyes constantly sweep the land in search of cheetah, but for today, the shy cats stay out of sight.

On the last morning, I push open my tent flap to see three giraffes nibbling on the acacia trees nearby, their necks weaving among the branches. I watch groups of zebra grazing in the distance during breakfast. Silverback jackals, a pair of hyena, waterbuck and warthog families highlight a peaceful morning game drive. And in the afternoon, it happens. A sinuous shape slides out of the long grasses. “It’s a cheetah,” whispers my guide, “a female on her own.” We drive parallel to her as she paces along, unhurried and unaware that she’s the star of Soit Le Motonyi. We watch her for a quarter hour; our camera shutters the only sounds, until she silently glides away. As I tear my eyes away from her, the realization hits me again: No one else witnessed these moments. Once more, this encounter—and it seems, this whole section of the Serengeti—is mine alone. And that’s a story I suddenly can’t wait to share.

namiri plains wildebeest migration
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