Within the boundary of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area lies the crown jewel of the Tanzania, if not the entire African continent’s, wildlife parks. Ngorongoro Crater, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest intact dry caldera in the world, is the remnant of a giant volcano the size of Mt. Kilimanjaro that erupted several million years ago and a reminder of the tremendous volcanic activity that still exists in the Great Rift Valley here in East Africa. There are several other smaller craters that exist just north of Ngorongoro Crater, but neither provides the immense habitat for animals that Ngorongoro does. The crater is a massive enclosed wildlife zone that is 12 miles across at its widest point and the crater rim is a steep 2000 feet that must be descended to get to the floor. Within the crater lives every species of animal in the region other than the giraffe, who cannot descent the steep crater wall, and the crocodile, as there are no flowing rivers within the crater.
One of the most treasured of all the species of animal in Tanzania lives here which is the rare and endangered black rhino, hunted to near extinction, but now making a comeback thanks to a tremendous effort to prevent poaching throughout the country. The population of rhinos living in the crater have been growing over the last years under the protection of the rangers here who monitor the whereabouts of every animal here. The black rhino also live in the Western Corridor and northernmost regions of the Serengeti where they are also very protected and growing in number. Their eyesight is extremely poor and they rely primarily on hearing and smell for protection, so they are very difficult to find if there is any significant wind in crater as they will remain in the protection of the lower wooded slopes out of sight of any visitors. It took me several visits to the crater before I was finally able to see a rhino so it is a very good day when one is spotted and they are most often far in the distance.
Ngorongoro is by far my favorite park in which to drive and guide. Aside from the animals, the sheer beauty and magnificence of the place is simply breathtaking. At this time of year, everything is green and the alkaline lake at the center of the crater is full and flocks of flamingo abound. One could never be disappointed by a visit here and it is not to be missed for some many reasons. Though the NCA is a dual use area with many Maasai living within it, grazing their animals throughout, no one lives within the crater itself and no animals are grazed there. The entire expanse of the crater is reserved for wildlife and the volume of visitors is constantly monitored, though I don’t believe they have yet to place restrictions on the number of vehicles allowed at one time. Thankfully, as today is Sunday, there are far fewer visitors due to the normal schedule that the safari companies follow, most often finishing their trips on the weekend and starting on the first of the week.
To get to the crater from Karatu is simple. You drive the only paved road out of town that is the main thoroughfare through this region and the only road to the Serengeti and across Northern Tanzania to get to the city of Mwanza that lies in the northwest corner of the country on Lake Victoria. The Loduare Gate, less than 30 minutes away, opens at 6:30 am and it is always best to get an early start on a game drive, so we’ve set a departure time of 6:00 am, full knowing that it will be closer to 6:15 by the time we’re moving. There is an orange glow in the sky of the coming sunrise and it is quickly apparent that there is not a cloud in the sky meaning that it will be an excellent day in the crater with no rain. As the crater rim is 8000 feet in elevation, it will often sit up in the clouds for the entire morning meaning that we’ll be driving in pea soup fog until we descent, but thankfully that was not to be this morning. After quickly making it through the gate with all the necessary paperwork, and having avoided a run in with the overly aggressive baboons here that love to jump into any vehicle whose window has been left open even a crack, stealing a lunchbox in a flash, we were on our way to ascend up to the crater rim.
The tarmac ends at the gate and the narrow, winding road serves not only as the only route to the crater, but also for any trucks that are heading across the Serengeti. There are many hairpin turns that are barely passable with an incredibly steep drop off to one side, and though I’m sure one of the many huge trees here would likely break your fall, I’m quite thankful that I’ve never had to test that theory. The massive trees reach far to the sky for their tiny bit of sunshine in the high canopy and vines hang down from the heights to reach the ground below. This is the primordial forest of my dreams and it would not shock me in the least if a T. rex suddenly appeared, pocking its head out from the heavy undergrowth. There is a sense that we are traveling back in time as we continue to ascend until we finally reach the rim and the crater, in all its splendor lies before us from the overlook. With binoculars, you can see all the herds in the distance and the lone elephants, meandering through the swampier areas after having left the safety of the foothills where they spend their nights. Life here is as it has been for thousands and millions of years and their struggles for existence are the same. We are but visitors here, hoping for a glimpse of what has been forever before us.
Once to the overlook, the magnitude of the crater becomes readily apparent to all those fortunate enough to experience it. The crater floor spreads out before us, a vast expanse of just absolutely incredible splendor that everyone would soon be seeing up close. There are only three roads into the crater from the room. There is one descent road, one ascent road and one two-way road that is used to reach the tented camps. The descent road has been under repair for well over six months as it was out when I was here last, so at the present time everyone is using the ascent road to descend in the morning. As the crater wall is so incredibly steep, the ascent road was paved a few years ago to prevent vehicles from becoming hopelessly stuck on their way out making our way down today that much easier and, other than the grade, the numerous switchbacks and the repeated 180° hairpins, it was a slow, steady descent to the bottom.
On the crater floor, our first stop was the bathrooms that are next to the Lerai Forest. Normally this is our last stop before heading out of the crater, but we’ll start our game drive from here having come down the ascent road (I guess this would be the opposite of Up the Down Staircase for those movie aficionados reading this). Within several minutes, Whitley immediately spotted a small group of rhinos (remember, seeing any rhinos here is a chore, so seeing a small group of them is very close to a miracle) off in the distance that were easily seen with the naked eye and even better with our binoculars. I have seen the rhinos closer up on several occasions, though it is surely hit and miss and totally dependent on luck. They come out from the lower slopes of the crater wall in the morning to graze out in the open and hurry back in the late afternoon as long as the winds don’t kick up and send them back to hiding earlier. The black rhino is a magnificent animal, though quite odd in appearance as one can imagine. Despite their immense size, they are still only half the size of the white rhino of southern Africa, but are much fewer in numbers.
Having watched the rhinos for some time, it was off looking for other animals and, in particular, big cats. There were tremendous herds of cape buffalo, wildebeest and zebra as well as some unexpected number of Eland, the largest of the African antelope. There were also huge numbers of both Thompson and Grant’s gazelle as we traveled along. I decided to check out the hippo pool and, on the way, learned that there were some male lions on the way there, so we slowly drove in that direction and came upon the two male lions sleepy in the grass. We watched them for a bit, along with several other vehicles, moving slowly forward until we were about leave the area, when the two decided to seek the shade of one of the other vehicles. It was a bit of a maneuvering game and thankfully, we were in the best position for a completely unobstructed view of them probably ten or so feet away. After some time, though, the vehicle providing the shade decided to move away leaving the pair of brothers exposed to the intense sun once again and within a few minutes, they were once again on the move looking for the new shade of another vehicle. By this time, there were perhaps twelve vehicles slowly tracking these two brothers who were merely trying to get out of the hot sun. We eventually decided that we’d seen enough of the pair and made our way to the hippo pool.
Our plan had been to eventually make our way to Engitati Hill, a striking mesa that overlooks most of the crater floor, but more importantly, my friend Leonard Temba had been to the crater only days ago and spotted one of the lion prides there with a number of cubs. We drove along the shore of Lake Magadi, where there were many flamingoes feeding in the shallows along with a number of other water birds. We also spotted another hippo out of the water (we had seen one earlier in the day as well) which is always a sight as it’s just hard to believe how fast they can run and how deadly there are as hippos kill more people in Africa than any other animal on the continent. We eventually drove up Engitati Hill, but were never able to find the lion pride there, unfortunately, and decided to head to lunch afterwards at the normal lunch spot that is by a lovely lake which also contains its own family of hippos.
Lunch is eaten in the vehicle for one of the main sports is watching unsuspecting guests, who haven’t been warned by their guides, eating their lunches out in the open where they fall prey to the attacks by the black shouldered kites who divebomb with incredible accuracy, snatching whatever someone is eating as they are putting it into their mouth. The kites patrol the skies looking for careless safari goers and when they spot someone, the game is on. I made the mistake once while eating lunch up on the crater rim, not thinking that the kites were up there, but alas, one of these large birds divebombed me and grabbed a piece of chicken out of my hand only inches from my face without ever touching me. It was very impressive demonstration of marksmanship on the part of the kite and I’ve made sure to be more careful ever since.
After lunch, we headed back towards the area where we had first seen the rhinos earlier in the day, and, while on the way, spotted two pair of rhinos once again off in the distance. They were very likely to have been some of the rhinos that we had seen earlier, but it was still fantastic to see them again as they are just so amazing. We looked for the two male lions later and did find one of the pair, once again lounging in the tall grass and making sure to create as much of a traffic jam as possible even though there wasn’t very much to see other than the occasional paws in the air as he rolled over. We made our way around Lake Magadi to head through the Lerai forest on our way back to the ascent road and our departure from the crater floor. In the forest, though, we ran into a nice family of elephants that were making their way home to the well-protected crater wall where they spend their nights. There were dozens, if not hundreds, of elephants all making their way home that evening and we were watching as much of the elephant population here in the crater were heading home for the night.
We made it out of the crater by around 4pm or so which was quite a full day considering that we arrived so early and didn’t have to drive all the way around to the normal descent road, probably saving us around 30 minutes. We had made plans to visit my good friend of mine, Ladislaus, who is now one of the managers at the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge. The Crater Lodge is probably the most exclusive lodge in the NCA and perhaps all of northern Tanzania. Needless to say, I have never had the opportunity to stay there despite the fact that Ladislaus has continually offered for me to stay using one of his “company” nights for family. It’s just never been that convenient, but one of these days, I’m sure I’ll take him up on it. The Crater Lodge is on the site of a very old hunting lodge from the 1930s when hunting in the crater was still allowed. I’m sure that Hemingway must have stayed there during one of his African adventures, but hunting has not been allowed in the park since independence in 1961.
The views from the lodge are simply the best, but it is the lodging that is spectacular as there are three “villages” each consisting of only 6-12 little bungalows for each guest and one main house for each village where there are sitting lounges and a central dining room to accommodate all the guests staying at that village. They are very keen on privacy considering the type of guests that stay there as many celebrities and politicians come to be away from the public eye. Ladislaus started as a receptionist here, then became their sommelier and later their general manager. He still manages their wine cellar of approximately 1500 bottles of wine from all over the world, though he is a specialist on South African wine.
We had tea and coffee outside on the deck as Ladislaus told the others stories of his childhood and interesting stories about the lodge, though our time was short and by the time we departed, we had just enough time to get to the gate, which closes promptly at 6 pm, at which point you must find someplace to stay overnight in the NCA, most often your vehicle, before you can get out the following morning (and pay another fee for the day). Meredith sat up front with me and hadn’t realized why I was driving so fast until we made it to the gate at which point the others cheered as we had just three minutes to spare. I made sure she realized that I don’t always drive like a crazy person, though she did get a wild ride that I’m sure she’ll never forget.