Published: November 28th 2006November 19th 2006
After the wide open spaces of the Serengeti, we journeyed to the world famous Ngorongoro crater. In case you didn't already know, the crater is an ancient volcano that eventually collapsed in on itself, leaving the approximately 20km diameter crater that is there now. The crater rim is at approximately 2300m above sea level and completely encloses the floor, that is several hundred meters lower, with steep sided walls. The floor is mostly flat, with a few gentle undulations, a natural spring and a salt pan that only has water in it during the wet season. The floor of the crater has grassy plains, similar to those of the Serengeti, while the top of the rim has dense rain forest clinging to the steep slopes.
Ngorongoro is unique in that the animal population is largely 'trapped' within the crater and very rarely moves outside it. This has led to a very high concentration of animals for the land area, and, therefore, a very good chance of spotting them. Also, because of the large amounts of tourists that visit there you can have the experience of one or two animals being surrounded by 10 safari vehicles all cramming in for the
best view. Fantastic.
The day we drove from Serengeti we stayed at the SOPA lodge on the eastern edge of the rim. This was so we were prepared to drive down into the crater as soon as the gates opened in the morning, ready for a full day of game viewing. This worked out very well and after a great nights sleep we found ourselves descending the road down the crater rim at 8am.
We were immediately met with the site of wildebeest and cape buffalo scattered around and a hyena trotting along. That was great but we were really after some lions. The crater is known to have several large prides, and we knew we had a good chance of getting up nice and close to them.
It wasn't long until we spotted some. We were making our way towards a group of about 8 safari vehicles (a good bet that something interesting was going down) when we spotted a lion lying about 10 metres off the left of the road. A quick look around revealed 2 more, also lying further away on that side, and 3 more on the right side lying down as well.
The ones on the right, 2 females and a male, were lying in a line parrallel to the road and about 20 metres from it. Our guide excitedly pointed to the first lion and said 'Look! Look! It's hunting! See how it's head is on the ground!' We looked and could see that as well as lying down, the lion had it's head on the ground, between it's paws, to stay out of sight, and was watching intently an approaching group of about 12 buffalo. Our guide quickly informed us that the buffalo are very short sighted and could reach very close to the lion before seeing it. We already had our heads out of the hatch in the roof and were making sure that our cameras were ready.
We were incredibly excited and could barely stay still as the buffalo continued towards the camoflaged lion. We were sure that the lion was going to get a delicious meal of fresh buffalo neatly delivered to it and couldn't wait to see our first 'kill'! Unbelievably, the buffalo continued right up until only metres from the lion. Finally the buffalo saw the lion. But instead of acting scared and running
Eyeballing a Lion
I couldn't remember - is it bad to make eye contact?
away, allowing the lion to sink it's claws into juicy buffalo rump, the buffalo turned towards the lion and charged AT it! Sensibly the lion retreated in the face of several tonne of charging, horned buffalo. However, then there was the next lion in line, and when she jumped up as well the buffalo faltered. One lion circled around towards the road, and the buffalo took off after it, running around in a long circle until they were heading away from the road. However, the other two lions were now chasing after them! Surely now is when they would make their kill! They were closing fast! Within pouncing distance of the last buffalo in the herd! Now! Now! Pounce on the buffalo! What were they doing!?!
Unfortuneately it turned out that the lions were part of a pride that had already made a kill that night, and so were already full. This would have been an opportunistic catch if it had turned out there was a weak buffalo that was left behind by the running herd. Instead the chasing lions soon gave up the pursuit and looked after the retreating buffalo, before slowly sauntering back towards the road, confident
in their position at the top of the food chain.
Karen and I looked at each other and realised we were shaking with the excitement of it all. Fantastic. What a start to the day.
The rest of the day yielded many more amazing moments. There were many, many zebra, buffalo and wildebeest grazing all over the crater, and we were able to get very close to them. There was also a lot of warthogs trotting around and burrowing in the mud, a flock of flamingos on the edge of the water in the saltpan, an elephant grazing in the swamp, and a flock of dive bombing kites at the designated picnic area. They would leave you alone as you walked to the toilet block, but sit outside on the grass with your lunch and look out! Their long talons could snatch the sandwich from your fingers. Or just leave a nice gouge on your arm.
However there were a few other highlights:
A pair of cheetahs lying 20 metres from the road, and who eventually stood up and stretched before lying back down again. They had also eaten earlier.
Seeing a Black Rhino, although it was a fair way off the road.
Countless numbers of lions, but the particular highlight was seeing two pairs of lions 10 metres from the side of the road, lying down facing away from us. Karen made the comment, "Why do they always have to face AWAY from the road?" and 20 seconds later one pair stood up and walked over to the road and started lapping from a puddle just behind our vehicle. Then they walked right alongside us and lay down. They were very relaxed and occasionally looked over at us, as if wondering what all the fuss was about. They were so close you could hear them breathing! Still not finished, they then got back up and wandered along the road. The female from the other pair had meanwhile wandered over and was lapping from a puddle. As the pair approached her, she expressed her displeasure at the male taking an interest in her and jumped around, growling and clawing at him! The male sauntered off unperturbed. While this was going on, however, the other male had also wandered over to the road and also lapped from a puddle, but not before preening and posing in right in front of us and then 'marking it's territory'. Seeing all these lions up so close was amazing. You could see every detail of them, from the wrinkles in the fur on their face, to the massive size of their paws and front teeth. Watching them move was also interesting as they really do slink along very gracefully, but with obviously a lot of strength hiding in there as well.
A very full hippo pool with 20-30 hippos lounging around, some of whom would occasionally roll right over, sticking their little legs into the sky. Very funny.
Two male buffalo going head-to-head, fighting it out over who should get to roll in the mud hole first.
Check the photos of these to see how close we were.
As the sun drew close to the western rim we knew that the time to leave had come. It was with a bit of sadness that we drove back up the wall of the crater towards the lodge. It had been an amazing day, but we knew that this was to be our last day of 'game viewing' and we knew we were going to miss the lovable antics of
all these wonderful creatures. Awwwwww.
There are more photos below