Sunday, March 8, 2020 – It’s off to the Ngorongoro Crater…

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The descent road

Part of the “cultural immersion” here is also to experience the unique things that this wonderful country has to offer, and that includes perhaps the most amazing wildlife parks in the entire world. Tanzania has long been considered to be the top safari game park country in the world, and though I cannot attest to that from personal experience as I have not been on game drives in any other African countries, I can say that I have researched this question over the years and have consistently come to the same conclusion based on surveys of well-established travel companies who book these trips. Regardless of whether one can say this definitively or not, since having come to FAME first in 2009 on my initial visit to the country, I have continued to enjoy my trips to the parks to see the landscape and the animals. Even more so, I have enjoyed sharing these experiences with those who accompany me here as it is truly the experience of a lifetime and compliments the work we do at FAME. Each Sunday that we’re here, we travel to one of the nearby game parks and, on the last weekend of our visit, we travel for two nights to the Serengeti, probably the most famous of all game parks in the world.

A starling (not sure which)

For at least six years, if not more, I have driven my own game drives in the parks and have continued to do so each time we visit. For today, though, given the heavy rains that have been falling and the fact that a significant amount of the Crater floor is closed due to the shear amount of water, I’ve decided that it would be best to hire a guide to take us there just to be on the safe side as spending the night in there after getting stuck is not a good option given that the lion density is the highest in the world in the Crater. Vitalis, who has driven us on many an occasion in the past, was free and would be spending the night in Karatu so we could leave as early as possible and get to the gate when it opened. The Crater is my absolute favorite place to drive, so it would really be a loss for me in that regard, but it is always important to be safe here and that was my main consideration in the decision. The afternoon before, Carrie had decided that she would singlehandedly make everyone’s sandwiches for lunch – peanut butter with banana or pb&j – which was a real help so that we didn’t have to worry about it after coming home from Gibb’s the night before. We were to meet Vitalis down at the junction of the FAME road with the tarmac in town at 6 am, meaning that we would have to loaded and ready to depart at 5:45 am. We had bought water and snacks the evening before and were well-stocked between those groceries and the number of snacks that had been transported here in our duffel bags. Regardless of the situation, there was little chance of us starving.

Black-headed apalis

An unidentified raptor

Augur buzzard

It had rained a bit overnight, but the morning air felt still and cool as we drove off the FAME campus heading for town to pick up Vitalis. We had a packed car with the eight of us as Turtle can seat nine total using the middle seat in the rear row once we had picked him up. We arrived at 6 am sharp and Vitalis hopped in the driver’s seat as I climbed into the back and we were off. The gate was virtually empty as we drove up and that included the baboons that usually stalk the vehicles here, looking for windows open only a crack and in which they can climb in to steal whatever food may be unattended or, even if attended, that they can steal. They know exactly what lunch boxes look like inside a vehicle and they are like a heat seeking missile when one is in sight. I have seen them go through the narrowest of cracks in the window and they are relentless in their search and destroy mission that they have undertaken. Not having baboons at the entrance was one less thing to worry about this morning and Vitalis was in and out of the gate office in no time at all such that we were on our way up heading for the crater rim.

Auger buzzard in flight

Common eland, the largest of the antelopes

The drive up is through what I refer to as a primordial forest of tall trees rising out of the canyons far below, trying their best to reach for the sunlight amongst the thick canopy and tangled vines. We immediately encountered a lone Cape buffalo as we left the gate and spotted more as we drove along the crater rim. As we reached the rim road, the cloud cover became quite thick and it was impossible to see much down below in the crater itself, but the sky above was opening up to so that the sun begin to shine by the time we reached the descent road on the far side. There are three roads down to the crater floor; the descent road and the ascent road, each of which are one-way, and the two-way road on the opposite side of where we would be heading.

The business end of a male Cape buffalo

Cape buffalo

Before you arrive to the descent road, where you must again check in before entering the crater itself, you are driving along the backside of the crater with distant views onto the Serengeti Plain and Olduvai Gorge (or Oldupai, which is Maasai for the local sisal plants) far below. This road is also the one that continues and crosses the Serengeti, so all traffic must pass along it on their way to Mwanza and Lake Victoria. The descent road itself is quite steep, but Turtle handled it without breaking a sweat and, in no time at all, we were on the floor of the crater, but not before stopping several times to view the animals close by which included a number of birds that made Dan quite happy. The weather was absolutely gorgeous at this point and it was clear that we were going to have perfect weather for at the least the early part of the day which is always the most important as the animals are most active in the cooler early hours. As I had mentioned earlier, the floor of the crater was quite wet with significant amounts of water everywhere, but the roads were quite decent and we were never at risk for getting stuck in any of the locations where we drove.

Young zebra

Zebra colt and mom

There were large numbers of wildebeest, zebra, Thomson gazelle, Grant gazelle, eland, and Cape buffalo as well as smaller numbers of waterbuck, hyena, and jackal as we first drove around the perimeter of the crater before moving to the interior. From high on Engitati Hill, we could see far below into the swamps where there were numerous elephants roaming and decided to head in the direction of the hippo pool. As we neared the pool, though, there was one vehicle stopped looking off into the distance and, sure enough, there was a lone black rhino nestled among the elephants. It was quite dark in color and likely because it was covered in mud which is something the elephants also do to beat the heat on these sunny days. The rhino was a fair ways off, and though I have seen them much closer in the past, it is not uncommon to miss them entirely during a trip to the Crater. They are often quite hidden as they rely totally on their hearing to locate predators given their terrible myopia, and, if it’s even a little bit windy outside, it limits their sense of security and they become very nervous. Having a nervous and paranoid rhino on your hands is not something that would be a good thing regardless of the situation. The black rhino population in the crater have made an incredible comeback after becoming nearly extinct due to poaching through the efforts of the government and their strong anti-poaching campaign. All of the rhinos here are monitored on a constant basis by the rangers utilizing both electronic monitors and visual confirmation. There are also black rhinos in several areas of the Serengeti (the western corridor and the northern region), but really nowhere else. Also, for those of you who are curious, black rhinos are ½ the size of white rhinos, which, by the way, are not white, but rather have a “wide” lip and it was merely translated incorrectly from Dutch as “white.”

A rhino trailing the elephant

Hippos

After viewing the rhino and the elephants for some time, we turned our attention to the nearby water where, what appeared to be many large boulders along the shoreline, were actually many hippos resting out of the water. There were also many of them in the water and the ones on the shore did do some shuffling so everyone got to see them standing out of the water which is a sight. Hippos have to be very careful to avoid becoming sunburned, so will often go into the water and roll around to cover themselves with mud which protects their skin. Hippos do feed at nighttime and will roam for several miles to find food, returning to their home pool in the morning. Quite different than one might imagine, they are extremely fast both in and out of the water and can run down a human with little effort if threatened. Hippos kill more people in Africa every year than any other wild animal. Watching two bull hippos fight for territory should be enough evidence for anyone to do whatever possible to steer clear of these beasts no matter what.

Waddled starling. Photo by Dan Licht

Auger buzzard

From the hippo pool, we took a long route to the lunch spot as everyone was getting a bit “hangry” (actually, I don’t believe that now has to be in quotes as I just discovered that the word is actually in the new edition of the OED, which quite caught me by surprise.=) and it was after noontime. The lunch area was completely packed with vehicles, but Vitalis found a spot for us to park near the bathrooms as several of our group were in need of a pit stop. One of the women’s rooms had a long line extending out, but when Marin and Molly came back, after having just used the bathroom without the line, they calmly explained why it was that there was no line. Apparently, there was a lion nearby the entrance to the bathroom they had entered and that the rangers were directing travelers to the other one for safety reasons, but that somehow they hadn’t been warned and, given that they had no problem, were quite happy to have been able to relieve themselves and were equally thrilled that they hadn’t been eaten by a lion, as was I, when they found out the real reason for their speedy access. To be totally honest, it’s quite unlikely that a lion would have been interested in either Molly or Marin for lunch as on past visits to this lunch spot, there have been lions sitting on the rocks not far from where we’ve parked and walked around outside of our car and have paid little attention to us.

Alice and Carrie

Carrie, Alice, Angela and Molly at the lunch spot

A weaver visiting us for lunch

It is really not the lions or the hippos in the small lake that are most threatening to us, but rather the black-shouldered kites, who soar high above the picnic area using their amazing eyesight in the hope of spotting some unsuspecting tourist with a sandwich or piece of chicken in their hand. I have seen this happen numerous times and sometimes wonder whether the guides draw straws to decide which one of them will withhold this vital information from their clients, allowing them to eat outside of the vehicle and in range of these dive bombers with a three foot wingspan and deadly accuracy for anything that looks even halfway edible. I was once the victim of a kite while sitting on the crater rim having lunch on way back from the Serengeti. Neena Cherayil was sitting next to me on a log as I was about to take a bite of my chicken and suddenly noticed a very large shape swoop in from the side and with nary a warning other than the sense of a breeze that was created by its wings, my chicken suddenly vanished. I don’t think anyone would have believed me had it not been for Neena witnessing the entire event that had occurred in the blink of an eye. I am sure that the Marabou storks, who had been hanging around the lunch spot in hope of some scraps, were not particularly pleased by the action of their avian friends, but there was little we could do to help in the situation.

Lioness with her two newborns

Lioness and two newborns

Our lunch was eaten sitting inside Turtle to avoid any conflict with the kites, though we did seem to attract a number of smaller weavers inside the vehicle looking for crumbs that were far less imposing than the diving kites. After lunch there were dense storm clouds in the distance that were inside the crater and loud booms of thunder were heard in the distance. We knew that it wouldn’t be long before the storm overtook us and prepared to close the top if it began to rain heavily on us. Prior to that, though, we spotted a lone male lion lying in the grass that was visible as only a tan patch of fur that was barely visible above the grass. Eventually, the patch of fur decided to sit up, revealing itself, and gave reason to why the zebras in the vicinity seemed to all be in a tizzy, running back and forth and sounding the alarm.

Grey heron

Black-headed heron

Shortly thereafter, this became even more apparent as a lioness sat up in the distance followed by another male lion. They then began to mate and it was clear that this was a “honeymoon” couple, as they are called here when a pair will typically be on their own for several days. A honeymoon couple will mate every 30 minutes or so for 48 hours or more to ensure they are successful and you can almost check your watch on the interval. This pair were obviously not hunting at the moment and the other male in the grass looked equally tranquil, so the zebra seemed to have little to worry about from these three potential hunters, but there were very likely other lions scattered throughout the area that hadn’t yet revealed themselves and were continuing to sleep the day away as they so often do.

Yellow bishop. Photo by Dan Licht

Pied avocet

The rain finally came, but it wasn’t torrential and we were still able to do some viewing as we drove around the lake and into the Lerai Forest where you can see an occasional leopard, along with elephants, but today we only saw lots of baboons with many babies, many of them nursing, on the side of the road. The rain had stopped well before we reached the one-way ascent road and we slowly made our way up the steep and winding road that was paved about a year or so ago given the number of vehicles that were unable to get out of the crater in the wet season or during a hard rain. We stopped at the overlook since we were unable to do so earlier in the day given the cloud cover that was now gone other than the distant rain clouds that had contributed to the rain earlier. The true extent of the flooding on the crater floor could now be fully appreciated as there were many small “lakes” that could be seen scattered about and the volume of Lake Magadi, normally almost a dry lake bed, was now occupying a significant portion of what could be seen in the distance. Though the volume of water here did limit much of the navigable land for us, all of the animals remain as this is its own ecosystem meaning that the animals do not migrate from the crater as it is their home. The antelope that are born here, remain here for their lives. There are at least three large lion prides that have established their territories and continue to be the alpha predators here, while the cheetah have mostly been displaced by the ever increasing hyena population. In the past, I have seen numerous cheetah, as well as serval cats, but not in the last four or more years due to this shift in predators.

African spoonbill. Photo by Dan Licht

We arrived back in town at a decent hour, dropping Vitalis off at the bus station so that he could travel back to Arusha tonight, while the rest of us stopped in town for a few things to make dinner rather than going to Happy Day or the Lilac Café, both good choices, but with lengthy wait times for your food. Everyone had a very satisfying day at the crater and we looked forward to our coming week of clinic and then another safari on the following Sunday.

Our group at the crater overlook

 

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