Sunday, September 19 – A day in the Crater…

Driving Turtle in Ngorongoro

Ngorongoro Crater, or just The Crater, is perhaps one of the most unique sites in the world, let alone Africa, for a number of reasons. It is a World Heritage Site, along with the Serengeti, and between the two, are arguably the top game viewing locations in Africa for many reasons. Ngorongoro Crater is the world’s largest completely intact and unbroken dry caldera meaning that it was formed by the collapse of a massive mountain following its eruption and is believed to have occurred approximately 2.5 million years ago. It is a giant bowl that is between 10 and 12 miles in diameter and over 2000 feet deep with very steep walls that are accessed by three only three roads, one ascent, one descent and one two way. The crater is filled with animals that do not migrate with the others and it contains virtually every animal other than giraffe, as it is too steep for them to climb down, and crocodiles, as there are no flowing rivers in the crater. There is a very large alkaline lake in the center that changes in size throughout the year with the wet and dry seasons. Of the animals in the crater, the most notable is its population of the rare black rhino that remains endangered, but is growing in number with the strong protection of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority and the Tanzanian government.

A bateleur – a small African eagle
Possibly an augur buzzard?

So, it is with this introduction that we all arose on a Sunday morning, with Paul and Kelley having finally arrived, to travel to this truly remarkable place. The weather was the best we had seen for a morning since we’d been here with totally clear skies and the sun just beginning to peak out from over the trees and surrounding mountains. We had our binoculars, our cameras and enough reference books to have done a research study had we chosen to do so. We had also packed a lunch of sandwiches and snacks and I suspect that the residents were already eyeing them anticipation as we pulled away from the volunteer house at around 6:15 AM as the gate would be opening at 6:30.

Caracal in Ngorongoro Crater
East African caracal

The drive to Lodoare Gate took only about 20 minutes and there were few vehicles and no baboons on are arrival. The baboon troop here are notoriously aggressive given the number of tourists that come through each day, all with lunch boxes in their vehicles that are ripe for a heist if one were to leave their window open even a crack. They can spot a lunch box from a mile away and be in and out of a car within seconds before anyone knew what happened. I recall one such occasion a number of years ago with Danielle Becker when we had left the window open enough for the baboon to squeeze through and suddenly we had a screaming monkey in the front seat with a lunch box in its hands. I threatened him with my camera that had been in my hands at the time and even though photographic evidence of the scene would have been wonderful, I chose instead to keep the of us from being mauled and left the thief to exit with his reward. We were both a bit shaken, though no worse for the wear and we continued on in our trip, minus one lunch box that was now being enjoyed greatly by a baboon family.

East African caracal
Caracal approaching the two jackals in search of it’s prey

Though the highway from Arusha that travels through Karatu is paved, that luxury ends here at the Lodoare Gate when entering the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. What many don’t realize, though, is that this is still the main, and only, highway that travels into the Serengeti and across Northern Tanzania on its way to Mwanza on the shores of Lake Victoria. Large trucks filled with cargo pass through this gate every day, making their way up to the crater rim and on to the Serengeti with destinations far to the west. The road up the rim, some 2000 feet above us, snakes up the mountainside as it hugs close to the slope with sharp turns and exposed walls frequented by elephants who carve out the dirt looking for iron and other minerals to ingest. It is a primordial forest that we’re traveling through with trees reaching for the sky from the depths far below us down the mountainside. Up and up we travel further until we finally level off and approach the edge of the crater at the overlook with its unobstructed view of one of the most amazing sights in the world – The Crater. It is a similar view as looking into the Grand Canyon, though here there are structures to interrupt the openness that has been created the massive caldera. All of the features of the crater floor can be easily identified and herds of animals can be seen with the naked eye.

The jackal with the caracal’s rabbit
East African caracal

As we leave the overlook and begin to head around the rim on the crater road with glimpses of the caldera through the overgrowth from time to time prior to our arrival of the ascent road. They are working on the descent road at the moment and it is closed, so the ascent road is open in the mornings instead for one way traffic down to the crater floor. There is certainly a sense of traveling back in time as you descend and the anticipation of reaching the floor with all its wildlife grows with every switchback we take. It was a bit confusing for me as I have never come approached the crater floor from this direction, having always arrived on the descent road during my dozens of visits having driven here before. We first entered the Lerai Forest where there are frequently many elephants and, I have been told, a leopard or two, but I have yet to spot one here.

Phillip on safari
Binocular shot of zebra

We eventually wound our way around to where the descent road first reaches the floor, enabling me to get back on track with my normal routine as I began to drive around the periphery of the crater where there were huge herds of wildebeest, Cape buffalo, Thomson and Grant gazelle and zebra. I looped back towards the lake road that had been blocked by some rocks indicating that it must have been flooded up ahead, but there were several vehicles that had already gone through and were in front of us so it was clearly safe. We quickly spotted a jackal running with something in its mouth that turned out to be a rabbit on closer inspection and it was closely followed by another jackal that was hoping to share in their prize. As we sat watching the two jackals dancing across the landscape with their prey, we saw what we initially thought to be a third jackal when we suddenly realized, much to our surprise, that it was actually a caracal!

The tree at the lunch spot
The gang at the lunch spot

The caracal is a fairly rare cat that is typically never seen because it is primarily nocturnal in its activities. It is described as a either a big small cat or a small big cat (or perhaps a medium cat), but it fits in somewhere between the cheetah and the serval with its prey consisting of small mammals, birds and rodents. In my many dozens of trips to the crater and the Serengeti, I have seen only one. Here was a caracal in the morning hours chasing after two jackal with a rabbit. What didn’t make real sense was seeing the caracal chasing after the jackals, as it should have been the other way around, until I realized that the jackal had most likely stolen the rabbit from the caracal who was now trying to recover what was rightfully his to begin with. We had an amazing and lengthy view of the caracal during this struggle, never having recovered its meal, and it eventually gave up, but continued walking parallel to the road and in plain sight for us. It is a beautiful cat with its tufted ears and sleek coat of light tan and watching it run across the shore of the lakebed was truly an experience to remember. I made certain to let everyone know just how lucky they were to have seen such a rare animal on their first visit to the crater.

The tree at the lunch spot
The residents at the lunch spot in the Crater

We next made our way across the floor of the crater to one of the highest points in the crater itself, Engitati Hill, where the view from high up is spectacular and looking down at the marshy area in from of us, where scores of animals including many elephants, though we were mostly wishing to see a rhino. It was unfortunately, rather breezy on the floor of the crater today and, because of that, the rhinos were in hiding as their eyesight is so extremely poor and they are totally reliant on hearing for their protection and defense. So, we made our way down off the hilltop and slowly proceeded to the lunch spot by way of the Munge River, looking all the way for lions, which in the absence of the rhino, was what everyone wanted to see despite my reminding everyone of just how lucky they were to have seen the caracal.

Hippos in the lake at the lunch spot

We reached the lunch spot at Ngoitokitok Springs just in time to get a good spot as it does get pretty crowded here at lunchtime. There is a small lake with a number of hippos and, most importantly, bathroom facilities. The setting is absolutely gorgeous and everyone is free to get out of the vehicle and walk around, though there are times that lions like to visit the lunch spot which does create a bit of a commotion. They typically don’t approach any of the vehicles, though when Sean was here several weeks ago, there was a single lion who was wondering a bit close to those eating their lunches necessitating a ranger to lure him away with chunks of meat. Likewise, the hippos all remain in the water without any interest in the tourists along the lakeside or frequenting the large and beautiful tree that serves as a great photo spot.

Me having a juice outside at the Crater Lodge

The most threatening animal in the crater, at least for humans, is the black-shouldered kite, a small raptor bird that inhabits the crater and with a wingspan of up to a meter, soars on the high thermals in search of their prey. Their prey consists of rodents, large insects and reptiles, unless, of course, they reside in the crater where they have adapted their behavior to prey upon unsuspecting tourists whose guides have failed to caution them against eating outside in full view of these incredibly accurate dive bombers. It almost never fails that at least one tour party will fall prey to these hunters and today was no different than other times I’ve been here. Towards the end of our stay, sure enough, a couple with their guide sat comfortably on the rocks overlooking the lake and the big tree with their lunch boxes and once they were fully engrossed in this idyllic setting with their lunches in hand, the kites struck. There were three of them who swooped down in succession, stealing everything possible in almost no time at all while the guests scattered over the rocks trying to evade the diving birds.

Having drinks in the main house at the Crater Lodge

Perhaps the strangest thing I saw at the lunch spot, though, was the zebra-covered ice cream truck that I’d never seen there before serving ice cream popsicles. I’ll have to admit that it did detract somewhat from the rugged image of being on safari in the crater, but it was also fantastic to be eating a salted caramel chocolate-covered ice cream popsicle after a long morning of driving. They had to be eaten quickly, though, as they seemed to begin melting almost immediately and even before you unwrapped them.

A panorama from the Crater Lodge
Ladislaus and the gang with a view of the crater beyond

After lunch, we drove to the hippo pool which had unfortunately changed drastically changed its topography and we were unable to get close to the hippos, though there plenty of water birds to watch that were pretty close. We did see one small group of lions very far off in the distance who were sleeping which is the typical state that lions are found in during the day. We drove back through the Lerai forest one last time before turning around and heading up the ascent road on our way out of the crater. The visit had been wonderful and given it was everyone’s first visit to the crater, it was an incredibly successful day.

Walking down to the main house of the tree village at the Crater Lodge
Dining table at the Crater Lodge

We had one last visit to make along the crater rim and that was to the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, perhaps the most expense and fanciest lodge in all of Northern Tanzania. The Crater Lodge first existed years ago as a hunting camp and was eventually converted into a high end resort that caters to the most elite visitors who are quite often very famous. I have a very good friend there who I have known for several years and is now one of the managers, and he usually has us visit for coffee or a drink to show his thanks for the work we do here. Last year, I brought a carful of Tanzanians from FAME for a visit and it was really wonderful for them to have the opportunity to see such place as none of them had ever done so, nor would it be something they could have ever imagined. We all sat together in one of the large main houses where the guests would normally eat, but because of the pandemic, they were still closed. Our neuro team felt the same way perhaps about visiting such a resort, as few of us would ever have the opportunity to stay there, though, it was still very special to visit and enjoy a beer, a glass of wine, or simply a Stoney Tangawizi.

Paul and Kelley at the Crater Lodge overlooking Ngorongoro Craater
Paul and Kelley at the Crater Lodge

We left the Crater Lodge with just enough time to get through the Lodoare Gate, as it closes at 6 PM and, if you do not make it in time, you are stuck in the Conservation Area for the night. We arrived to the gate with about 10 minutes to spare, far more time than we’ve had in the past on several occasions. It had been a wonderful day in the crater and a total success. We drove into town after sunset and, as we’re on our own for dinners over the weekend, needed to find some food. Meals here take a minimum of an hour once you order, so you can usually plan to spend nearly two hours when you head out for dinner and we were all absolutely worn out from the day considering we had been on the go for the last twelve hours. We ended up at Patamu once again after the first place we went to seemed deserted including the staff, which wasn’t a good sign. The cold beer did hit the spot, but we were all starving so the hour or more wait for food was torture. We were finally served and the food was delicious so at least that was a consolation. It was back to the Raynes House and a bit of relaxation before bed. We were all excited as tomorrow we would be leaving at 7 AM on our first mobile clinic to Mang’ola.

A heavy lift

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