The Ngorongoro Crater
Ngorongoro. So good they named it twice!
We left the campsite at the crack of dawn in order to arrive at the Ngorongoro Crater National Park early and get the most out of the mornings game drive.
We arrive at the Park entrance and whilst waiting for the formalities to be sorted we watch the resident baboons pilfer any vehicle who's owners have made the mistake of leaving it unattended and with the windows down.
Rather disappointingly when I inquired as to the meaning of ‘Ngorongoro’ I’m informed that it actually translates to ’Cattle Bells.’ Not what I expected for the world’s largest, unbroken, unflooded caldera.
It was created some 2-3 million years ago when a massive volcano exploded and collapsed in on itself. More recently in 1979 it joined the UNESCO World Heritage Site list.
Within the Crater is an eco system that is unrivalled by any other extinct volcano on the planet. Among numerous other animals the Crater is home to the Big 5. The Big 5 dates back to when game hunters would come to Africa to kill some of our world’s most magnificent animals and claim them as trophies......don't get me started on that one. But ’Big’ in this sense doesn’t mean largest which
The Ngorongoro Crater.
Ngorongoro..............so good they named it twice!!
is why giraffe and hippopotamus do not form part of this elite but small list. The ’Big 5’ instead, relates to those five animals that would pose most threat to man, and to that end are as follows:
Now anyone who knows their stuff would protest that hippo kill more people than almost any other animal on the list, but the hunters found little challenge in hunting hippo so didn’t, therefore the threat was to the hunter themselves.
In order to enter the Crater we first had to navigate some of the rim which at 610m (2001ft) above the Crater floor has a few ideally situated viewpoints to see into the Crater. However, on this morning they would serve no purpose as the low cloud meant that at times we couldn’t see any further than ten metres in front of us, let alone into the caldera itself. I was concerned at the time that we would miss the view altogether but we were reliably informed that the cloud normally lifts as the morning goes on and we would catch the view as we exited the Crater in the afternoon. In hindsight I wouldn’t
have changed a thing because the mist created by the low cloud only added to the mystique of the Crater, and that was no more personified when after making our way higher and higher along the rim, out of the gloom and virtually on top of us emerged a small herd of buffalo, our first glimpse of one of the Big 5. They looked brilliant through the mist and I felt like we were on the set of Jurassic Park. We caught glimpses of the steep drop on both sides as the cloud began to break up. On our right was the Crater and on our left were massive trees stretching up and draped in moss and lichen adding to that prehistoric feel.
The unsealed dirt track became extremely bumpy as we were unable to avoid the numerous potholes. As the cloud continued to lift we spotted zebra and gazelle grazing on some of the small fields that form part of the rim. We then reach the part of the track that descends into the extinct volcano and now well under the clouds we get our first decent view of the Ngorongoro Crater. I’ve seen nature documentaries and read a
The first animal we 'spotted' (excuse the pun) and identified within the Ngorongoro Crater.
little about this place but I still never really knew what to expect, but our introduction was pretty spectacular. The suns rays had pierced through several gaps in the clouds creating beams of bright light that seemed to search the plains as the clouds moved. We could see herds of grazing animals far below, but too distant to identify what they were. Note to self: next time bring as powerful a pair of binoculars as space will allow. As we descended further, almost to the level of the crater floor we saw a lone spotted hyena prowling the dusty plains, it was our first mammal positively identified in the Crater.
It’s impossible to miss the large salt lake that takes up quite a portion of the crater floor, and as we made our way towards it we stopped to take the roof off the 4x4 which allowed that authentic game drive feel as we proceeded to stand on our seats to get a 360 degree view of our surroundings. We kept to the dusty tracks that meander through the Crater, seeing more zebra, herds of Grant’s and Thompson’s gazelle and warthogs, we could also see something big by the waters
Within the Crater
With the sun out and the roof open, we were able to take advantage of our 360 degree elevated view.
edge which as we get closer turn out to be several hippo. We continue, as do the species. We see jackal, more hyena and a large eagle feeding on the ground. We then come to another waterhole that wasn’t very big and would have been hard to see from a distance if you were just stood on the ground, but it contained well over 40 hippo which are surprisingly uncommon in the surrounding area outside the Crarer. These hippos were the beginning of the ungulates as the hoofed herds increased dramatically with hundreds of zebra, buffalo and wildebeest.
The weather was improving all the time and with the place quickly drying in the ever increasing temperatures it soon became apparent just how dusty things could become within this natural cauldron, and I was a bit worried about the amount of dirt my new camera was collecting despite my best efforts to keep it clean.
With the cloud finally lifted we were now able to see the entire crater rim, and although this place is big enough to support approximately 25,000 of Africa’s largest animals it’s oval shape covering 102 square miles is still small enough to give it that very
Hippos in the Crater
Like the game 'Hungry Hippos' minus 1.
The dusty conditions didn’t stop Sam and I from standing the whole time, as we went in search for leopard. Our driver took us to known haunts where the most elusive of Africa’s big cats can be spotted. We drove parallel to a small stream that in places was tree lined; perfect for these superb camouflaged climbers. In this predators paradise the leopards managed to elude us but the lions would soon make an appearance as the radio crackled and the report of a sighting came in. Phil followed the tip off, and after a few hundred metres came to a halt and turned the key in the ignition, bringing the noise and vibration of the engine to a shuddering hault. The wind was now the only thing preventing complete silence.
We stared out across what looked to the untrained eye, an empty, sun scorched, grassy plain. Then we saw them. Two lioness and one male. They were almost the exact same colour as the waist high parched grass they were making their way through. They stopped a few times to sniff the air before continuing ever closer. This would be our first encounter with the big cats
1st of the 'Big 5'
of Africa and of course our second of the big 5.
The lions in the Ngorongoro Crater are reputedly the largest in the world, and it’s not hard to see why when you witness the habitat in which they live. With an almost captive food source, trees, rocky outcrops, trenches, and waist high grass for cover, hunting must be like shelling pees. In fact if you asked a lion to come up with the perfect playground for itself, this could well be it. However, it’s not all good news for the cats, due to the lack of new bloodlines coming into the Crater, inbreeding makes these lions susceptible to disease.
One of the lioness came right up to the track we were parked on and laid down, it looked to be an obvious show of her not being intimidated by our presence. We stayed and watched the lions for a while but it seemed like they were quite content to do the same with us.
Moving on, we saw ostrich, more lion, and the skull of an elephant, it was about this point when one of the vehicles managed to get stuck whilst the driver was attempting to turn the
A Zebra foal
jeep around. With safety in numbers a few of us were given the OK to get out of the vehicles to help. It looked like I probably wouldn’t be required but there was no way I was going to miss out on the chance to shed the safety of the 4x4 and have the opportunity to stand on the ground within the Ngorongoro Crater where the worlds largest lions roam. We were still surrounded by that lion-coloured grass and I couldn’t help but imagine that several pairs of eyes were watching and waiting for the right moment to pounce.
Back in the jeeps we headed for a wooded area for some lunch, and it was on our approach that we saw more lion, spotted hyena and notched up our third of the Big 5 with our first sighting of an elephant, and all within the space of a mornings drive.
We were given pack lunches when we reached the wooded area but were warned, before getting out of the jeeps, about the monkeys (black faced vervets) and the birds (brilliant starlings) that would both be looking to take very swift advantage of any unguarded morsels. Not everybody heeded that warning
and the monkeys have developed a taste for chocolate and have learnt to take this first and indeed did so.
After lunch we made our way via a different route out of the Crater that allowed us those views we missed earlier that morning; they were breathtaking and well worth the wait.
We were all covered in dust but sorry to leave as we reached the rim once again, and while looking back at the crater floor which once again was now over 600m below, both me and Sam realised at that point that we’d just experienced something very, very special. It may sound a bit pretentious but I now understand when people who travel say that a small part of them remains in a certain place. I could probably talk about this place continuously for a month and still not do it justice. We’re only in the first week of our trip but the Ngorongoro Crater will take some beating, and I for one could spend a whole month exploring and game driving here. Right now this is my most favourite place on planet earth; the challenge has been set!!
It was now full steam ahead for a visit
Alright mate! wind ya neck in!!
to an authentic Maasai camp, and on the way we are further treated to numerous sightings of an animal that cannot be found in the Crater; giraffe.
The roads were horrendous, but it didn’t stop Phil’s breakneck pace. I was hoping that my neck was going to hold up (due to previous injury) under the constant violent shaking and bumps. I was slouched in the back to avoid further head injury on the roof of the jeep which I’d collided with several times already. After an hour, we break down, and I was surprised it took that long. However, Phil fixes the problem within five minutes and before long the next stage of the rally continues.
We were welcomed at the Maasai camp with their traditional welcome dance, after which we enter and split into small groups. This allows us to view the Maasai huts and ask questions and learn a bit more about their way of life and traditions:
Brief introduction to the Maasai.
The Maasai are (along with the Zulu’s) one of the most famous of the African ethnic groups, and recognizable by their striking, blood red blankets that they wear, known as a shuka. Population estimates
Resting up after what looks to have been a good meal, judging on the size of its belly
range from 350,000 - 1million and they can be found both in Kenya and Northern Tanzania.
Maasai society is organized into male age-groups who’s members pass through initiations to become warriors and then elders. There are no chiefs, although each section has a spiritual leader at its head. Although more individuals are moving towards either a Muslim or Christian faith, traditionally the Maasai would worship one God Enkai (or Engai) who dwells in all things, but may manifest himself as either kindly (black god) or destructive (red god). Women’s role within the tribe includes the cooking, gathering of firewood and water, cleaning, and also the building the Inkaji or hut.This is made from mud, sticks, grass, ash, cow dung, and cow’s urine. There are often several huts that make up an Enkang or kraal. These are circular camps like a stockade enclosed by acacia branches who’s massive thorns prevent attacks on the cattle or children by predators. In fact a Maasai’s wealth is measured on the amount of children and cattle he has, although many of one and few of the other (no matter which) is considered poor. This is aided by the fact that the Maasai are involved in
Black-faced Vervet monkey cradles her baby
Meanwhile the others are looking to steel your pack lunch.
a polygamous society and also practice polyandry, where wives not only marry the husband but also his age group. Therefore, a man would give up his bed for a visiting age-mate guest, and it is then the females choice as to whether she joins the guest at night. Any child born to this practice however, belongs to the husband.
High infant mortality means that babies are not truly recognized until they reach the age of 3 moons (3 months). Death at any age is without ceremony and the dead are often left out for the scavengers.
The passage from boyhood to junior warrior involves a circumcision ceremony. The circumcision is performed without anaesthetic, and the boy must endure the operation in silence. Expressions of pain bring dishonour and leading up to the procedure the boys are taunted about this and warned not to resist the cutting. The healing process generally takes 3-4 months and the boys must remain in black clothes for a period of 4-8 months. The women also go through a right of passage ceremony of female circumcision also known as female genital cutting (FGC) or less frequently used but more apt female genital mutilation which has drawn
Maasai reception committee
During our visit to their camp
criticism from abroad as well as those who have undergone the ritual. FGC is actually illegal in both Kenya and Tanzania but almost traditionally necessary, as a Maasai man will often reject or offer a lower bride price for a woman who has not undergone the procedure, which is often a clitorectomy. Maybe the men of the Maasai took to removing this ‘holy grail’ rather than suffering the constant humiliation (that the modern western man now has to endure) of not being able to find it during foreplay fumberlings?………..just a thought?
During the transition to warriors the men spend up to eight years far away from their villages, finally returning to get married. Those years away from the village include a test of manhood in traditional Maasai culture involving the hunting and killing of a lion. However, due to falling numbers in the lion population (it would always be a lion that was hunted, never a lioness) this practice has been reduced from solo hunts to groups of up to ten warriors. Meaning that one lion is killed, rather than ten lions, and often this opportunity is born out of hunting a lion that has attacked their cattle. Although lion
hunting has been banned in East Africa the warrior who does make a kill can expect celebrity type status in the community. The warriors are away from the village for so long accumulating wealth, and this takes time and includes the raising, herding and previously, the steeling of cattle. Maasai myth relates that god gave them all the cattle on the earth. Therefore, rustling cattle from other tribes was simply a matter of taking back that, that was rightfully theirs. The warriors also have very ornate hair which is shaved as they pass into the next age grade.
Although many are giving up the nomadic way of life the Maasai traditionalists have resisted pressure from both Kenyan and Tanzanian governments to adopt a more sedentary lifestyle and they continue to defy and cross boundaries when moving their herds.
Unfortunately, the wildlife reserves, the very thing we’ve come to see are where the Maasai have lost most of their former land, these include some of the famous reserves such as Ngorongoro, Serengeti, Amboseli and the Samburu to name but a few.
After standing against slavery and living alongside Africa’s wildlife for so long the pressures of the modern world has become
Entrance to the Serengeti NP
The Serengeti......as seen on TV.
ever increasing on the Maasai and it’s not unusual to see cell phones in amongst the arts and crafts that are becoming a source of income as the tribes turn to the tourists and technology to overcome poverty.
We left the Maasai after purchasing some handmade crafts and continued on our bumpy way towards the Serengeti National Park. Unbelievably before reaching the park the roads would get even worse and one of the 4x4’s got a puncture and we ended up stopping to make sure they were able to get back on their way.
We parked up at the Serengeti entrance and while further formalities were being dealt with Sam and I made the short hike to a viewpoint.
Unlike the Ngorongoro Crater the plains of the Serengeti are vast and stretch out further than the eye can see. Staring out over these plains allowed us time to take a breath and then let the excitement build once more, we’d only done one but we were now firmly hooked on game driving and we were once again on the brink of going somewhere that to this point we’d only seen on those fantastic wildlife documentaries, all we were missing
Sign at our Serengeti Campsite.
No use of toilets after dark.................glad we brought those incontinence pads!!
was the therapeutic tones of David Attenborough.
The Serengeti covers an area of approximately 30,000 square kilometers, and plays host to the largest and longest overland migration. In October, almost 2 million herbivores travel from the northern hills to the southern plains, crossing the Mara River. The word Serengeti is derived from the Maasai word serengit meaning ‘endless plains’.
Now in the park the gravel tracks improved and once again the roof came off allowing us to stand on our seats. We were still going at quite a pace which was really exhilarating, but would have meant almost certain death if we’d crashed.
There were a few things to see on the way, and although we were running slightly late Lisa didn’t seem to mind when Phil stopped now and again to allow us to take some more pictures.
We came across a Thompson’s gazelle that had been hit by a vehicle and had already been discovered by a vulture and a jackal. With prior knowledge the drivers made a quick detour where we sat and watched some lion cubs in the long grass that had obviously been left while the mother was off hunting.
During this time I was
Sunset over the Serengeti.
Something on our 'wish to see list'
keeping a close eye on the clouds because one of the many things on our wish list for this trip was to see a sunset over the Serengeti, and as we were still a little way from the camp it looked like we would be viewing it from the open top of our 4x4.
As we neared the camp the plains had given way to rivers and water holes giving life to trees and bushes. The herds of Thompson’s gazelle, Grant’s gazelle and topi were now swapped for hippos, giraffe, baboons in the trees, hyena, warthog, purple heron and a Defassa water buck. Last but by no means least in the fading light of our Serengeti sunset Phil made a great spot and we watched as a serval made it’s way through the grass, stopping from time to time to cast an untrusting glance back at its audience.
We arrived at the campsite where dinner was already underway and the campfire already lit. As warned, the toilets, (if you could call them that) were only open for the last remaining light before being off limits after dark. We set up our tent on the outer limits of the campsite in
But then you probably guessed that!
the hope of getting maximum exposure to any animals wandering into the perimeter, which seemed like a good idea at the time.
The only light once night fell was that of the campfire, and the many head torches people were wearing.
Choosing to sit outside of the circle of stools around the fire with the rest of the group we shared our spaghetti bolognese with a mouse that would take what we left and then return for some more.
It had been a truly brilliant day, we’d seen some fantastic animals from the largest lions in the world to the tiny cubs in the grass. We’d seen hippos, hyenas, and herds of herbivores. Warthog and wildebeest and the good old elephant and the mouse.
We’d seen our sunset, but it was now nighttime and time to enter our tent, preferably not to emerge until daylight. However, there was one thing nagging us both. Due to limiting our water intake on the truck, but sweating in the heat, neither of us had passed solids for four days and the toilets were now closed and I figured sod’s law would mean we’d get the urge this night of all nights. If we
Elephant and calf.
Or the elephant equivalent of Neil and Sam. And 2nd of the 'Big 5'
needed to go we would (under strict instructions) have to take one step out of the tent and two to the left, under no circumstances could we wander into the bush for cover as there’s a chance we would not return, instead possibly becoming a meal for a large carnivore. Trying to put all that to the back of my mind, I was really excited about what the night would hold, and as I lay back on my makeshift pillow, I was also a little nervous………..
Awoke to a beautiful sunrise this morning after very little sleep. However, although tired my lack of kip in the night allowed me to listen to the sounds of the Serengeti after dark, and it was amazing. I heard the unmistakable sound of zebra, and lion amidst a whole host of other noises. The one notable, and slightly scary came from what I can only think must have been a baboon. It was very loud, very aggressive, and sounded like some sort of rallying cry. It was frequent and getting closer and whatever it was, it certainly wasn’t afraid to give away it’s location to any predators. I let my imagination run wild
King of the Jungle
3rd of the 'Big 5'
and thought that the camp might be overrun with apes in a matter of minutes in a frenzied attack, and became so convinced as the noise became ever louder that I actually lifted the blade out of my knife, the result of watching Planet of the Apes as a kid I guess. The thought of leaving the tent to relive myself at that moment was completely out of the question, but thankfully the urge I’d dreaded never came. When I told Sam about what ‘d heard, she was a little disappointed that I hadn’t woke her, she slept through the whole thing. I figured it better that she slept, that way I could get a head start if the attack came. You can never underestimate self preservation.
The early start saw us out of the camp by 7am for a game drive through the Serengeti with the usual crowd of Me, Sam, Lisa, Jo, Dennis and of course our driver Phil.
Early animal sightings included lots of zebra, Thompson’s gazelle, and giraffe which are truly beautiful animals to watch with their strange combination of awkwardness and grace. At the other end of the beauty scale we saw a whole family
of hyena. In fact we stopped for a short time to watch a hyena eye up a herd of zebra and Grant’s gazelle that were moving in single file formation as they made their way through the short grass adjacent to our jeep. The hyena made a pretty lame attempt at a zebra foul it had picked out, but thought better of it when the infant was promptly protected by at least 4 adults which saw the young foul past the danger, at least for now.
We then spent quite a while searching the large granite outcroppings known as koppes that dot these plains. These places are home to porcupines, snakes, and owls, the latter of which we caught a glimpse of thanks to the eagle eyes of Phil. But we were there for a bigger prize but try as we might we couldn’t get a glimpse of that ever elusive leopard, which uses these outcrops as lookouts and the ideal place for an ambush.
All the jeeps out in the park are in constant contact with one another and when one spots something the others are informed, and this is exactly what happened when one of the other guides
found a herd of elephants. Sure enough Phil drove us from the koppes’s to the herd of 19 elephants ranging from large adults to a small calf.
After staying to watch for a while, we then resumed our hunt for a leopard, still one of two of the Big 5 we hadn’t seen yet, the other of course being rhino.
With no leopard, we followed a river that gave us a look at a Nile crocodile, and a real close look at a magnificent male lion. Coming away from the river we got a distant glimpse of a cheetah, and then on the way to our lunch stop we came across more buffalo, zebra, gazelle and elephant.
The time had gone so quick and our lunch was supposed to be the official end to our game drives, except perhaps any opportunities that may arise when leaving the park. However, there were a couple of suprises left that would make the day even more memorable.
A call came over the radio and Phil and Lisa rallied us up and we were soon hurtling down a gravel track once again. We wondered what it was we were going to see as we
A family of Spotted Hyena on the plains of the Serengeti
After humans, hyena live in one of the most violently aggressive social groups, where females are dominant. That says it all!!
passed a couple of lion prides and more grazing herds. We got to our destination where several 4x4’s were jostling for position, and yet again to the untrained eye they all seemed to be looking in the direction empty trees and bushes. A closer inspection revealed the prize that I thought we were destined to miss out on and our forth of the Big 5. Having searched most of the day for a leopard at the last moment we had been rewarded. It looked to be relaxing in the shade, up off the ground in a tree, oblivious to the commotion whilst laying on a large horizontal branch and it looked to have made a kill, although it was hard to see what it’s prey had been.
On the way out of the park we dared to think that we might even see a rhino and complete the 5 but it wasn’t to be. However, we wouldn’t leave even remotely disappointed and when we came across four lioness prowling along the roadside with a herd of gazelle not far away we parked up, turned the engines off and watched as the drama unfolded in front of us.
Three of the
Rubbish at 'Hide n Seek'
lioness stayed on the road hidden behind a mound, two right by the side of us and another about 30m behind. The forth was making her way through the long grass in order to get herself around the back of the herd. It looked to us like the forth once in position would spring upon the herd sending them towards the other three. Phil had already told us that in a straight race these gazelle would win easily, therefore the lioness needed to plan and set a trap, and the two nearest us had fallen into a trance like state as they became completely fixated on their sisters movement and that of the herd. This went on for about twenty minutes and now and again we would lose sight of the lioness stalking the gazelle, and then we’d spot her in our binoculars a little closer to her target. The suspense was palpable. Without warning suddenly the chase was on as the lioness now only 20 metres from the herd made her move with an explosive sprint. It proved to be premature and as the herd scattered none of them headed our way, leaving the three lioness on the road
With huge canines, they can take on a leopard. As well as a bark that kept me awake at night.
redundant and hungry. The hunt had failed this time but it had been absolutely riveting to watch.
That was the end of the excitement for the day and we now had several hours drive ahead of us in order to get back to the campsite in Arusha.
I was disappointed to find that the Tanzanian authorities hadn’t seen fit to tarmac the roads within the last 24 hours for our return journey. So the head bashing continued as Phil once again went for the off road land speed record. On the way back we stopped once again at the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater and I’d managed to avoid concussion for one last look at that view.
Arriving back in Arusha we were sad to come to the end of the game drives, they had been fantastic, and far better than our expectations. With our first week over we’d already seen some memorable things. Unfortunately we came away having only seen four of the Big 5, missing out on a rhino, but we knew we’d been very lucky to see a leopard and to that end were satisfied. We’d undoubtedly be coming back sometime in the future having been completely
A lone vulture
Arrives at the site of a gazelle killed by a passing vehicle
captured by Africa’s wild side.
We now had a few days traveling to get to the city and port of Dar es Salaam on the Tanzanian coast and the gateway to the spice island of Zanzibar………………
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