Sunday, March 17 – St. Patrick’s Day in the Crater with the rhinos….

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On the overlook at sunrise

Ngorongoro Crater is truly one of the wonders of the world. Its name is actually a misnomer as it is really not a crater, but a caldera formed by the collapse of a massive volcano some 2.5 million years ago. In fact, it is the largest dry caldera in the world, measuring  10-12 miles in diameter and two thousand feet deep, with a large lake in the middle and thousands upon thousands of animals that remain in the crater year-round and are not part of the Great Migration. Most every animal that is in the Serengeti can be found in the crater other than the Nile crocodile (there are no flowing rivers in the crater to sustain them) and the giraffe, as the crater walls are far too steep for its access. One animal that the crater has and is known for, though, is the endangered black rhino that was near extinction not long ago and thanks to the dedicated conservation efforts of many in Tanzania, it has been increasing in numbers. The rhinos in the crater are all monitored at every moment so that the rangers know were each one is at any given time which has led to an increase in their numbers. There are also black rhinos in the Serengeti, but the populations are quite separate. The rhinos have very poor eyesight and, therefore, depend primarily on their hearing for defense which means that they are rarely out when it is windy in the crater. When I first came to the crater, I did not see a rhino and it took me several other trips there until I had finally spotted one. I have seen many since, but never very close, at least not in the crater. Going into the crater today, in addition to seeing big cats, we were looking for rhinos.

The sunrise from the overlook

A Maasai boma looking south towards the Serengeti

The gate entering the Ngorongoro Conservation Area from Karata is about 16 km west of Karatu on the hardtop or tarmac. Here is where the last paved road heading west across the Serengeti ends until you reach Lake Victoria. The gate is an imposing structure and opens at 6:30 am, which is the earliest that you can check into the NCA. Trucks and buses traveling to Lake Victoria take the same road that we are taking, though today we will be heading into the crater and not the Serengeti. We had planned to leave at 6 am and made it pretty it on the road pretty close to that. I have had major delays in the past getting through the gate as it is heavily dependent on having all the correct paperwork and sometimes that can be a problem. I had come up to the gate several days ago just to get things taken care of and am glad that I did as everything went quite smoothly this morning. We were through the gate in probably 15 minutes or less and on our way into the NCA and eventually down into the crater. As we traveled through the gate, it reminded everyone of Jurassic Park which is actually not a bad comparison given the size of each which is quite large.

A road well-traveled

The road winds slowly up to the crater rim through what is literally a primordial forest with trees reaching to the sky from the bottom of the deep ravines or valleys that lay on one side of the road as we hug the mountainside on the other. It was an amazingly beautiful day with not a cloud in the sky and the normal clouds that sit on the crater rim early in the morning on most occasions are not present. As we reach the rim, the massive expanse of the caldera exposes itself for the first time and we stand on the overlook with the most incredible view one could ever imagine. Every detail of the crater lies in front of us. In the foreground of the crater, there are tiny bodies of water or small lakes from which extend small channels in various directions that immediately remind each of us of neurons with their numerous dendrites and axons. Leave it to nerdy neurologists to make that association. It was quite cold standing on the overlook and everyone was incredibly excited to get into the crater, so we began our drive to the opposite side of the rim where we would find the one-way descent road and make our way down to the floor.

Navigating the crater floor

A resting lion

As we travel around the crater, there are constantly views to the floor at various places, as well as tremendous views of the surrounding countryside which is all the conservation area and the home to very many Maasai living in their bomas. The purpose of the conservation area is that it is multiuse. The Maasai who live here graze their cattle throughout the area, often alongside herds of zebra and wildebeest. There are also Cape buffalo and elephant who trample their gardens or small plots of crops. Lions will also attack their cattle at night which is why the livestock are brought into the middle of the boma at night to protect them. As we reach the southern edge of the crater rim nearing the descent road, the view south looks towards the Southern Serengeti and Olduvai Gorge stretching far into the distance. There is a valley in front of us that contains numerous bomas and is lush and green at this time of year. A shallow lake occupies the center of the valley where the herds of livestock and wildlife mingle among themselves throughout the day.

Turtle with her crew on board

At the hippo pool

Lake Magadi full of flamingos

We’ve finally reached the top of the descent road where we stop to check in with our paperwork. The views from this spot are equally impressive as those from the overlook so prior to loading back into the vehicle, everyone has a chance to take photos. Most importantly, we finally raise the top on Turtle so we’re in full safari mode now and it only increases the excitement that’s been building, more so given the fact that no one on board, save me, has been to the crater before so it will all be new to them. The descent road is wickedly steep, rocky, narrow, and, thankfully, one way. Leaving the Land Rover in first gear to stay off the brake is best and it is a long way down to the floor. The candelabra trees, a unique succulent here rise up alongside the roadway as we descent. We get our first good glimpse of the wildlife as we approach the bottom, but when Marin first spotted what she thought was a “dead lion,” (no worries, it was only sleeping as most lions do throughout the day) it became clear to everyone that we were going to see much more than just antelope here. There was a total of five male lions here, two adults and three youngsters, the latter with shorter manes. They were all sleeping, but one of the older males stood up at one point to move into the shade where he promptly plopped down alongside one of the other males. That was about as much activity as we witnessed from this group of lions today.

A male Thompson gazelle resting

A seldom seen flock of grey crowned cranes

A pair of Cape buffalo scratching each other

Once down on the crater floor, your perspective of the topography completely changes as it is now a flat plain that you are sitting on surrounded completely by 2000 foot high cliffs in all directions. There are relatively easy landmarks by which to navigate and definite highlights such as the hippo pool, Ngoitokitok Picnic Area, the Lerai Forest, the Munge River and Lake Magadi. We initially drove around the periphery spotting many jackals and hyena along the way, but eventually made our way to the hippo pool where there were plenty of hippos cooling in the waters there. In the past, I’ve seen several serval cats here, but not today. As we made our way around in the direction of the picnic area where we planned to have lunch, we spotted two large black rhinos which everyone had hoped to see today. They were a fair distance away initially, but were moving laterally from us in the direction of one of the roads that they would eventually need to cross. We waited long enough to snaps hundreds more photos, but at the right moment, I began to move the vehicle in the direction of where they were heading.

A mob scene at the rhinos

Initially, there were probably half a dozen vehicles watching the two rhino, but as word got out on the two-way radios, over a dozen cars began to accumulate at the site so I hung towards the back of the pack so as not to interfere with the animals. The rhino are very skittish which became evident as they looked as though they wanted to cross the road, but their pathway was blocked by the many vehicles so they just continued to walk parallel with the road and eventually just changed direction. At one point, they were interacting with a small group of Cape buffalo, forcing the buffalo, a pretty feared animal in its own right, to the side with ease. The rhinos finally crossed the road in front of us, despite all the vehicles there, and made their way to a more secluded spot behind a bluff so that they couldn’t be seen as well by everyone. By this time, I think that everyone in our vehicle had had their fill of rhinos, at least for the moment, and were very interested in getting to the lunch site.

How do you move a Cape buffalo? With a rhino, of course

Rhinos up close and personal

The Ngoitokitok Picnic Area in the crater has to be one of the most beautiful sites in the world to sit an eat one’s lunch. Beside the fact that you’re sitting inside a massive caldera that is millions of years old with 2000 foot cliffs reaching up all around you, there is a lake with hippos floating in it and more birds than you would ever hope to count. Everyone is free to walk about here, though I have seen lions visiting this spot in the past. The most impressive birds here are the black kites that patrol the region from high above and have the remarkable eyesight typical for a bird of prey. They can spot a sandwich in someone’s hand from far above and then drop in a remarkable feet of acrobatics, divebombing the unsuspecting person and stealing their food just as they are about to put it into their mouth. And all of this without ever touching their victim and without any warning whatsoever. Since my first visit here, I was taught about the kites and the need to stay in your vehicle to eat or else suffer the consequences. There is usually one group who have either decided to disobey their guide or their guide had decided in advance not to tell them. Who knows? But for those of us watching, it can be a pretty crazy show and well worth the cost of admission. We did keep an eye on the kites throughout lunch as they were checking out every vehicle that had stopped for a meal. There are lots of weaver birds circulating here as well, and they’re brave enough to come into our vehicle, but do far less damage than a giant kite would do with its enormous wingspan. While on the crater rim having lunch one time, I hadn’t thought that the kites were there, but one located my piece of chicken that was inches from my mouth and promptly swooped in to grab it without having even grazed me in the process. That was a bit startling, to say the least, and had quickly gotten the attention of not only me, but also everyone else sitting in our little circle.

A lilac breasted roller

A tawny eagle

As we left the picnic area we decided to head towards the Munge River area looking for any cats, but unfortunately, did not see any today. Driving along the river, we did run onto large groups of Cape buffalo, who always look a little bit disturbed by our intrusion, to the degree that at times they look as they would love to charge the vehicle, but thankfully haven’t. We drove along the opposite side of the river for a long way, ending up sitting on the top of a large hill that has a great vantage point to see the entire crater floor. There had been clouds gathering and small ran showers in local areas that forced us to close the tops on the Land Rover on one occasion, but only temporarily. It was getting late and we had planned to pick up Kitashu at the junction of the road to Endulen around 4:30 pm.

Ngoitokitok Picnic Area

Ngoitokitok Picnic Area

Driving up the one-way, paved ascent road, winding up and up on continuous switchbacks, there are constant vistas of the crater, each one more beautiful than the next. A short backtrack to the junction and we met Kistashu, who piled into the vehicle and we were off on our way back home to Karatu. You must check out of the NCA by 6:30 pm, which is when the gate is locked and, without an official document, you end up having to spend the night there which can be a bit of an issue without having first arranged some form of accommodations. Sleeping in your vehicle can be a bit of a struggle while sleeping on the ground outside can be just a bit too dangerous. We made it to the gate with plenty of time to spare, unlike a few times in the past, checked in with the rangers and we were shortly on our way having had a wonderful day we had in the crater, one that everyone would certainly remember for years to come, and headed off to Karatu and Happy Day pub for dinner.

A brewing downpour in the distance

The Lerai Forest

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