The morning was very overcast and cold as we left in the near darkness of 6:15 AM. The gate to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) opens at 6:30 and I had hoped to be there shortly after they opened so that we would be in the crater itself as early as possible. As much as the gates for the National Parks are guarded, it is even more so with the NCA and the Crater (they are a separate administration from the parks) such that getting in or out of the NCA, and, even more so the Crater, requires that all of your paperwork is in perfect order and even then, it may require an act of God. I have had countless delays sitting at the entrance gate at Ngorongoro waiting not only to be cleared to enter, but also at times waiting to get out.
This morning, we must have had someone looking down upon us from afar as we were through the gate in record time and on our way up the crater rim heading towards the overlook which is the first glimpse of the crater one sees when entering the park. Unfortunately, and as is often the case, the clouds had completely engulfed the higher altitudes of the crater rim to the degree that there was almost zero visibility. As we rose higher and higher, winding our way towards the rim road, the clouds became more and more dense. As we reached the overlook, it was readily apparent that there was absolutely no way that we were going to see anything of the crater for some time to come, and for that matter, we were not going to see anything of the road, as well. I’ve driven here a number of times in similar weather, but it was becoming very difficult to even see the road in front of us, let alone the fabulous views that normally make this a spectacular drive. The windshield misted up several times which created a muddy mess with the dust being kicked up from other cars that were a long distance in front of us, causing us on two occasions to stop and pour water on the windscreen to wash it. Had I been able to stop more, I would have, but it was even difficult to see a turnoff until you were completely upon it.
We eventually made it to the backside of the crater rim road overlooking the Serengeti in the distance and the clouds seemed to lift along with the visibility. The views on the backside are just spectacular and even with the clouds in the distance it was still amazing. I wasn’t worried that they would be missed by the others, though, as they would all be back here in a week on our way to the Serengeti and it would be midday. All except for Ray, that is, as he would be flying home on Tuesday as scheduled. He will just have to come back another time to see these views and hopefully he will do that.
Access to the crater is via three roads – a single one-way descent road, which we would be taking, a single one-way ascent road, and a single two-way road. As we exited the main road and turned onto the access to the descent road, the full view of the crater lay before us in all its stunning glory and it was the first glimpse that everyone had of this very deserving UNESCO World Heritage Site which is the largest dry volcanic caldera in the world. The crater is over ten miles in diameter with sides that are 2000 feet all around and enclosing a complete ecological zone in which the animals remain year round and do not migrate. It is also home to numerous lion prides and the endangered black rhino that has been making a comeback with the help of a very aggressive antipoaching program. As I was checking in at the ranger kiosk, the others popped the tops on the Land Rover and we were ready to begin our descent into the crater and what truly seems to be another world altogether. The road is incredibly steep and thankfully one way as we wind our way down to the crater floor alongside precipitous drops and the candelabra trees rising up about the edge of the road from time to time. Groups of black specks down below represent the many herds of wildebeest, zebra and Cape buffalo that occupy this vast ecosystem.
Once on the floor and crossing alongside Lake Magadi (which means “soda” in Swahili) with all of the wildebeest and zebra on both sides of the road, we immediately spotted two lions tracking parallel alongside the dry lake shore. All of the wildebeest and zebra were lined up watching them incredibly intent, though it was quite unlikely that they would have anything to worry about considering the lions had lost any chance of surprise which is what they really need for a hunt as they are very short sprinters and tire quite quickly if they have to run any distance at all. There were also two ostriches that seemed almost unaware of the lions on the lakebed, but again, it was quite unlikely that they had anything to worry about either as lions rarely attack ostriches due to their sharp claws and very, very strong kicks from their legs that could easily injure them. The lions merely continued their journey across the dry lakebed seemingly unaffected by anyone who was watching them, man or beast.
Driving in the crater is actually rather easy as all the landmarks are fully visible and it is nearly impossible to become lost anywhere on the floor. The roads within the crater crisscross the area and are diverted only by Lake Magadi, several large marshes and a river that meanders close the crater wall near the two-way road. It was very dry in most of the crater, yet there was plenty of wildlife to be see throughout. Unfortunately, the one animal most hope to see in the crater, the black rhino, was nowhere to be found today for two reasons. First, there was little vegetation for them to eat in the center of the crater nearer the lake where they are normally seen meaning that they were keeping very close to crater wall where there was plenty of food for them and where none of the roads run on that side. The other reason has to do with the rhino’s poor eyesight . The rhinos rely entirely on their hearing to detect threats (yes, rhinos are nervous nellies) and today was a rather windy day for its entirety. When it is windy, the rhinos tend to stay on the wall in the denser vegetation where they are safe. It took me several trips to Ngorongoro before I finally saw one and even then, it was at a far distance. They remain one of the more elusive of the animals to see here and the most elusive of the big five – elephant, Cape buffalo, lion, leopard and, last but not least, the rhino.
It was fairly crowded with vehicles today and at one point, we came upon a group of female lions in the grass that were being watched by no less than a dozen of vehicles. The trail where they were was passable by only one vehicle and with drivers coming from both sides, it created a considerable traffic jam that required maneuvering off the trail which was easier said than done given how sunken the tire ruts were from use. This meant that negotiating my vehicle out of the ruts required a major effort and some excitement for the passengers when tipping precariously sideways even though we far from reaching our limits. Vehicles were maneuvering to either side of the road and in either direction so, needless to say, there was a bit of mayhem. Everyone, though, was quite polite and there were no tempers flaring. Each driver is trying to give their guests the best possible experience on the game drive as this will be reflected in the tip the guide will receive at the end of their tour. I would never want to interfere in another driver’s opportunity to improve his lot in this manner.
We had lunch at our typical lunch spot and, as usual, it was simply gorgeous there alongside the small lake with the marshes in the distance. There were many hippos here, but only two that were separated from the main herd and were wallowing in the shallower water near the shore adjacent to the bathrooms. We ate in the vehicle which is the standard here as there are black shouldered kites that are very adept at spotting a sandwich or piece of chicken in someone’s hand from thousands of feet above and then swooping in silently to snatch whatever it is that they’ve targeted, all without touching their victim, but scaring the hell out of whoever is on the receiving end of high speed heist. Every once in a while, some unsuspecting person will completely neglect the instructions they were given by their guide and ventures outside to eat, only to be bombarded from the sky by these rather effective bandits.
I had this happen to me once before when we were traveling back from the Serengeti and stopped for lunch at a picnic site high up on the rim. We were all sitting on wooden logs eating our lunch while keeping our eyes on two very creepy looking marabou storks that were definitely stalking our food and just waiting for a chance to steal something. We had some very nice lunch boxes that had been supplied to us by the camp in the Serengeti when we departed. I was just in the process of taking a bite of my grilled chicken with the piece several inches from my face, when suddenly this big dark shape appeared in my peripheral vision and before I knew it, my chicken was long gone, lodged in the talons of a huge black shouldered kite who had just found their lunch. I turned to Neena Cherayil, who was sitting beside me and witnessed the entire encounter, and calmly said, “that bird just took my chicken.” Having been long accustomed to their practice in the crater, I hadn’t suspected that they were also on the rim performing the same antics, but I learned my lesson well and went just a little bit hungry having lost the favorite part of my lunchbox.
We had had a wonderful day in the crater, albeit without having sighted the elusive rhino, but we had seen a dozen or more lions, lots and lots of wildebeest, zebra and Cape buffalos, numerous hyenas including a large family den, jackals, and much more. I think everyone felt as though they had seen quite a bit and we were all exhausted. It was time to make our way up the ascent road and out of the crater proper. We had plans to visit a friend at the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge who had invited us for a tour and coffee. This is probably the most expensive and most exclusive lodge in the Ngorongoro region if not all of Northern Tanzania and we were all looking forward to a visit there.
Ladislaus is the sommelier at the lodge and I have known him for several years. He is a wonderful individual and had been looking forward to showing us the lodge for some time. We parked the Land Rover and then walked down to the main lodge building of the North Camp. The lodge has only 30 rooms that are distributed among three camps – North, South, and Tree camp, with the latter being the smallest with only six rooms and a distance down the crater wall from the others. We first had coffee and hot chocolate with homemade chocolate chip cookies at the main lodge of the north camp before hopping on two golf carts to go down to the tree camp. This lodge was also gorgeous, though less formal than the other, with a live tree in the center traveling up through the entire building. There is an unobstructed view of the entire crater from both inside and on the veranda and we took lots of photos from there. Full length windows in each room adorn the bedroom and bathroom opposite the bath so the views of the crater are constantly present. Ladislaus offered us some drinks and we sat there enjoying the glorious views to the crater floor, some of us with beer, some with wine and me with my Stoney Tangawizi (I had to drive us back home and this is merely a strong ginger ale made by Coca-Cola here.
It was so incredibly relaxing, sitting there in the lodge with the wonderful views, amazing company, and enjoying our drinks, though each of us knew that it would be highly unlikely that any of us would ever be able to stay here due to the cost. For what you get here, though – each room has their own personal butler, unlimited wine and alcohol, and, essentially, a fully tailored experience – the cost seems appropriate whether we’re able to attain it or not. Still, it was a wonderful opportunity for us to see this historic lodge that has been here since the country had gained its independence.
Upon leaving the lodge and getting back onto the main road, who did we bump into but Kitashu, who was waiting at the bus stop to catch a ride home after spending time over the weekend with his brother who got married. We had him hop in the vehicle for a ride down to town, stopping at the overlook on our way as it had been totally fogged in earlier in the day. We were all starving and decided to have dinner at Happy Day along with Kitashu. It had been a very long day and relaxing before dinner with some drinks was what we had all needed. Any restaurant here takes a minimum of 45 minutes to get your food, so there’s plenty of time to relax and share stories with friends, which is what we did and all very much enjoyed the evening.