Late one afternoon at my travel companion was resting. He was sitting at the dining table reading a book when looked up for one second...
...straight into the eyes of an African bull elephant..
One of the animals had crept into camp in complete silence. He was making his way around the tow-truck to rifle for vegetables when he was spotted. The elephant sniffed with his trunk for a second then retreated to the nearby long grass. My travel companion breathed a sigh of relief and tried to stop his heart pounding – the animal was twelve feet at the shoulder.
But thats Ngorongoro for you. Not only do you have the chance to view some of the most compelling animals on earth – but they visit you as well. I have to say Ngorongoro surpassed expectations its a part of the trip that I woud gladly rewind and do all over again. So many pleasurable sights and to my mind it is linked to bull elephants. There was a touch of pathos to the crater as this was where they came to die. The legendary ‘Elephants Graveyard’ exists here in northern Tanzania.
Ngorongoro is a conservation area rather then a national park and it covers 8000 square kilometres. This part of Tanzania is covered in long extinct volcanic craters. This one is meant to be the biggest unflooded natural caldera in the world and because of its steeps sides there is natural rainwater runoff into the crater creating small rivers and lakes which means there is pasture all the year around – and where there are grazers there are predators. The animal life here is extraordinary and it moves between here and the Serengeti Plains. Wildebeest on their massive migration often make a small detour here and there are year round herds of them as well as zebra, Impala and grumpy buffalo. Of course this is matched by as many predators and you are almost guaranteed sightings of lions and hyena. This is also one of the best places in Africa to witness a kill.
Ngorongoro can be done without a tour but for single vehicles it can be expensive and you must have four wheel drive. But most people come on a tour fixed up in Arusha . The advantage of this is that everything is taken care of for you. Ngorongoro caters for the luxury end of the market as well as the budget. One word about tourism in the crater. Some commentators have said it can resemble "a zoo". What I think they mean by this is that tourist vehicles often amass around the more popular animals such as rhino, lion or leopard and the topography of the crater means that the safari vans were always on the horizon. Personally, this did not spoil my enjoyment of the crater but I could see how it could for some people.
To get there head west from Arusha, past the town of Mto wa Mbo and up into the crater highlands. Karatu is the nearest town and is a red-earthed speed bump covered outpost which relies on the tourist trade. We were lucky enough to pass through on their monthly market day and the hordes of people were indescribable. Then west and the acacia scrub dies out and rainforest begins. The western side of the outer crater attracts rain and to reach the rim you drive through pristine Afrcan rainforest with giant trees, lianas, scrub bush and wide leafed plants.
From heroes point on the rim you can see across the 11km diameter crater. The sheer sided rim is 1,969ft at its highest point and it is possible to see animals on the crater floor from this height. But it is the sheer scale of the crater which captures your attention. The opposite walls looked so far away they looked blue in the distance. The walls had long slopes which rolled down to the crater floor and became yellow grasslands. Rivers sprea d like veins across this yellow vista with lakes and forests visible. Far down below a herd of wildebeest looked like ants against the yellow grass.
There is one track down to the floor of the crater and one track back up to the rim. You must be out of the crater by six o’clock. But if you arrive late and have to wait until morning before game viewing dont worry – if you are at one of the rim campsites one thing I can guarantee is that the animals will be visiting you.