Africa Stories and Tips

Safari Day 22: A caldera of life, Ngorongoro

Ngorongoro crater Photo, Tanzania, Africa

I awoke to a blanket of cool mist cloaking everything around me and making the caldera below invisible. It was actually cold in this tropical place. We descended from the modern to the Pleistocene age at the floor of the caldera. The grasslands stretch, inches tall, across the floor surface. Walls of the caldera are steep and forested. A large white dot at the center of the caldera is actually soda with a small lake in the middle. Small, thin yellow acacia fringe the edges of the crater floor. A marsh, a dried, cracked pond, a beautiful pool that bubbles from the ground to begin its long journey to Lake Victoria and then through the Nile to the Mediterranean. What could live in place where cover is hard to find? Herds of zebra and wildebeest migrate from one end of this enclosed zoo to the other. Hippos bask in the mud. Buffalo coat themselves in the ashy, white mud. Lions and their scavenging leaches, the hyenas, roam very openly. The last vestiges of the black rhino lumber solemnly in the distance. Elephants trample down what trees there are. Ostriches strut their stuff crossing the road. A clan of warthogs, with their antennae-like tails, run passed us in a hurry. Lone jackals move stealthily near the hyenas, hoping for leftovers. The monkeys and baboons prefer the safety of the forest trees. A slight cool breeze blows the ash from a 3-million-year-old volcano across this unlikely refuge to so many mammals and birds. We exit this world, moving up, up into the cloud forest to, once again, look down upon this tiny ecosystem.

We were up and dressed by 9am. Richard said that anytime is a good time for viewing in Ngorongoro. The temp was in the high 50s F, with a very thick foggy mist wetting all it touched. We drove in such thick fog, there was no way of knowing whether there was oncoming traffic. Not much farther we came to the gate where our pass was checked. Tanzania has started a program to allow only 4 hours on the caldera floor. However, as they are in competition with Kenya for tourists and Kenya has not instituted such a program, they are not yet enforcing this rule, so we were free to stay all day. We moved down the one-lane dirt road, passing Maasai herding their cattle near the steep slopes. We dropped below the clouds and now could see the plains of the caldera floor. Very steep, lush walls, maximum diameter of the caldera is 16 miles. Animals here are perminant residents and do not migrate outside the caldera. We could now see that the black dots from our lodge were herds of wildebeest and plenty of zebra.

We took the road hugging one side of the caldera through a think yellow acacia forest. We saw amazing evidence of elephant strength, with entire large trees toppled. We saw a few baboons and velvet monkeys in the trees. A very distant black rhino. Upon exiting the forest, we encountered a mud flat with several hippos strolling and loafing. Farther down we saw a number of parked cars. In the distance were a couple of female lions, but the attraction was a pack of spotted hyenas fighting over the carcass of a dead baby wildebeest. The fighting and eating went on for awhile. The lead hyena emerged from the grass carrying a wildebeest head in her mouth trying to run from the pack. A small jackal appeared and tried to snatch the pieces of carcass while the hyenas were distracted, fighting amongst themselves for the head.

We drove on crisscrossing the caldera seeing lots of lions, wildebeest, zebra, ostrich, warthogs, and a few buffalo. We came to a mound with cave-like holes in the side. Richard said there are 500 hyenas in Ngorongoro, and that all were born in this mound.

We had lunch by a beautiful pond. We counted 75 vehicles parked here for picnic lunches. In the pond were a few small shy hippos occasionally raising their heads and snorting out water. For a change, the picnic lunches were good. The weather was cool and absolutely perfect! The sky was a brilliant blue. The caldera rim was decorated with white billowy clouds.

We drove on seeing scores of Crown cranes, an ostrich, and an occasional huge kori bustard. We stopped when Richard spotted a large black rhino in the distance. There are only about 25 rhino in the caldera. The rhino apparently did not like the cars, so he kept his distance. We encountered a pride of young lions lounging in the open. We saw so many lions today.

We exited the caldera at 4pm, rising up a steep one-way road with a couple of switchbacks. We passed a large herd of cows, mixed with some zebra, on the rim. At the lodge we rested, had a mediocre dinner, and then went to the room. Tomorrow is our last safari day. We have really seen everything we came to see and more. Today just confirmed that. That only thing we have yet to see is successful predator-prey kill. Chances of that happening tomorrow are unlikely.

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