Ngorongoro Crater is one of the premier sites in the world to view a diversity of wildlife in its natural habitat. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is also considered one of the eight natural wonders of the world. Ngorongoro Crater is actually a caldera, formed by the collapse of a giant volcano that is believed to have occurred over 2.5 million years ago and is the largest dry caldera in the world. There are also two smaller craters of a similar nature that exist in the highlands, one of which, Empakai, is easily accessible to hike into which I have done several times and is a smaller version of its larger sibling, having a lake that occupies most of the floor unlike Ngorongoro which is all grassland.
The crater itself is over 10 miles in diameter with a complete circular rim that is 2000 feet above the crater floor which nearly all grasslands other than an alkaline lake that occupies a small portion of the center and varies in size depending on the season. The crater rim ranges from about 7500 feet elevation to over 8000 feet and can become quite cold when camping on the rim as I remember that we had very welcoming hot water bottles placed in our beds back in 2009 when we there in August. The Crater sits inside the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, which focuses on dual use with both wildlife conservation and the pastoralist Maasai communities that reside here. No one lives within the Crater itself nor are the Maasai supposed to graze their cattle inside the Crater, though merely having their herds near the rim places them in danger of poaching from the resident lions as Ngorongoro has one of the highest densities of lion prides anywhere. Without going into any detail as this is not the place, there is current and ongoing controversary here dealing with the relocation of the Ngorongoro Maasai due to overcrowding and conflicts with the conservation mission of the NCA. How this eventually resolves remains to be seen.
For those of you who have read my blog for some time will be aware of the fact that I have had several Maasai friends whose homes have been in the conservation area. Sokoine, who used to be our outreach coordinator here at FAME for several years, was raised in a boma on the road to Empakai Crater, while Kitashu, our current coordinator, was raised just off the rim on the Endulen road. We have visited both of their bomas and families on several occasions over the years and it has always been one of the highlights of everyone’s time here for the visits have always been ones of true friendship and bonding rather than as tourists. It is one of the benefits of coming here to volunteer and provide medical assistance as you are immediately accepted as someone who is interested in helping and giving of yourself rather than just taking and being introduced to this is one of the main purposes of this rotation from my standpoint. Having residents become a part of this amazing project and seeing how much you can change the lives of others without making it all about yourself.
Meanwhile, back to our day in the Crater. Just to give everyone a point of reference and an idea of how isolated things are here, the paved road from Arusha that travels west towards Karatu and ends just beyond town is essentially the ONLY road that takes you through the Conservation Area and on to the Serengeti. From Arusha, it is a tiny two lane highway that then becomes a dirt road once you reach the Loduare Gate entering the NCA and it remains unpaved across the entire NCA and Serengeti National Park until you reach the towns of the Lake Victoria region in the northwest corner of the country. At one time, there was a proposal to pave this road so that transport could reach the other side of the country more efficiently as there are really no adequate railways here, but it was felt that the effect on the Great Migration would be devastating from an environmental standpoint and the project was defeated by environmental groups and public opinion. So, it remains that any vehicle, whether it be a Land Rover, a private vehicle or a semi-tractor trailer, wishing to travel to the Crater, to the Serengeti, or beyond, must pass through the Loduare Gate and up to the crater rim on the same road we would be traveling this morning.
With the gate opening up at 6 am, it was agreed that we would leave very early for our day with the animals. I am always asked by the residents, or anyone else we are traveling with, “how early do we need to leave?” My answer is always the same and just bit rhetorical. “Well, just what are you hoping to see?” The fact of the matter is that the earlier you get on the road and into a park, the more likely it is for you see the things you want to see. The animals are most active in the mornings and evenings and least active during the middle of the day when the heat is the greatest and the sun is directly overhead. Lions hunt mostly, though not exclusively, at night and are sleeping throughout the day with little in the way of signs of life. I am happy to get up whenever and begin our drive and after everyone has heard the options, we are typically on the road bright and early and off for an enjoyable day with the animals.
We left the house in the dark, contributed to not only by the early hour and the fact that sun was not up yet, but also because the clouds had descended on Karatu and it was very foggy. Karatu itself wasn’t too bad too be honest, though as we approached the gate to begin our ascent, the low clouds soon became pea soup that we were driving through giving everything an incredibly eerie feeling as we climbed higher and higher. Checking in below at the gate and making payment was perhaps the easiest it has ever been which was clearly a good omen for the incredible day we were all about to have. After waiting several minutes for other guides and truck drivers to take care of their paperwork, I had paid, had all the official paperwork, were through the gate and on our way.
The drive from the Loduare Gate to the crater rim is perhaps one of my all-time favorite drives in the world which is saying something given the hundreds of thousands of miles I’ve driven throughout the US and the thousands of kilometers I’ve driven throughout Europe, Croatia and Tanzania. It is not only the beauty of the drive, but it is the entire package as it takes one back in time as you ascend through a primordial forest, going up and up and, in the case of today’s drive, literally into the clouds. In no time at all, we had traveled from the present day at the gate to thousands, or perhaps millions, of years in the past. As we reached the rim and the fantastic overlook where one can normally view the entire crater laid out in front of you like a painting, it became clear that there would be no view this morning for we were now in the midst of the thickest of clouds with extremely poor visibility not only to peer into the crater, but even for trying to drive the windy and bumpy rim road.
The visibility remained this poor until we had travelled nearly a quarter of the way around the crater until we finally reached the Endulen where the skies seemed to lighten up and the visibility improved 100%, Unfortunately, as we made our way onto the backside where the road forks to either continue on to the Serengeti or begin your descent into the Crater, we encountered the clouds once again and were back into the thickest of pea soup. There are three roads into and out of the Crater – one is the descent road which we were now approaching, one is the ascent road that we had passed on our way and the other is the two way road that is on the opposite side of the rim. The ascent road has been paved for several years now, preventing the troubles that used to occur trying to get out in the rain, but the descent road had remained unpaved until recently and had been closed for the last several years while under construction (during which the ascent road became a two-way road). The original two-way road on the other side of the rim that leads up to the tented camps and the Sopa Lodge remains unpaved and is a wonderful slip and slide experience in the rainy season.
Descending into the Crater is the experience of a lifetime as the tiny dots you see from the top slowly come into focus and realize that everyone represents one of the many types of wildlife that reside here year round. There are large herds of wildebeest, Cape buffalo, zebra, Thompson gazelle, and Grant’s gazelle, that populate the Crater floor and do not migrate as there is food year round here. Elephants reside in the wetter regions and the swamps of the Crater floor. The endangered black rhino, that has made a comeback here through the amazing efforts for the government rangers and conservationists, are not always seen depending on the weather as they rely heavily on their hearing for protection and become incredibly anxious when it’s windy or particularly cold. Lastly, there are the lions, which, as I’ve mentioned before, are the most numerous here as anywhere in Africa due to the amount of prey available to them throughout the Crater and year-round. Cheetahs have been far less numerous here over the recent years and the leopard, seen only in the Lerai Forest, is very, very difficult to find here. Smaller cats, such as the serval and caracal, can also be found here from time to time. Oh yes, lest we not forget the hyena and jackals that roam the floor looking to scavenge on whatever they can find.
The clouds lifted during our descent and upon reaching the floor, we had the loveliest weather for the remainder of the day with few clouds and a cool temperature despite the overhead sun. There were more vehicles than I have ever seen here, clearly a result of the last two years of the pandemic having delayed everyone’s bucket list vacations and the flood gates have opened up in June with the beginning of the high season here. Fortunately, the Crater floor is a big place that can handle the volume, but still, it does not have the feel of the incredible isolation one has in the Serengeti where the distances are magnitudes greater than they are here. Still, we were able to navigate without concern and managed to see everything that we had hoped to see.
Early on, we found a rhino far off in the distance in one of the swamps with clear views through our binoculars and less so with our long camera lenses, though it was still a success as very often in can be impossible to find them. After the rhino, we ran across a sleeping pride of lion in the distance and shortly after that we came upon three females that initially looked like they were sleeping, though as a small group of two Cape buffalos and trailing baby that didn’t look well began to come into view, the three took immediate notice and were clearly in the mood for a hunt. We were sitting above and there was a slight rise blocking our complete view, but the residents were easily able to keep tabs on the action. As the lions moved closer, one the adult Cape buffalo began charging and trying to gore them which was pretty exciting to watch.
This went on for some time until it became somewhat difficult for us to see them as they had dropped further below the rise at which point we decided to drive to the other side of the river and find a better vantage point. There were a number of vehicles watching from the other side, but we were eventually able to get ourselves situated to watch the continuing action between the lions and buffalos. At some point, with the continued persistence of the lions and despite the ongoing resistance of the buffalos, the little baby buffalo finally succumbed to the attack and the lionesses prevailed. Even after the kill, though, one of the buffalos continued to attack though they were able to briefly move them away from their kill, they were eventually left to themselves to enjoy their midday meal mostly hidden from our view in a small depression on the hillside.
We enjoyed our own midday meal at the main lunch spot that sits next a beautiful blue lake and there were a large number of hippos there for some entertainment. I don’t think I’ve seen so many vehicles there before, but given that this is the main place to stop, that was pretty consistent with what I would have imagined based on the numbers that we had seen that morning on the road. The dive bombing kites, a rather large bird that soars above with incredible eyesight and can spot a sandwich or piece of chicken about to be eaten by someone from high up in the air and quickly snatch it from them without their knowing what just happened, were present, but in small numbers and were leaving unsuspecting tourists alone. More significantly, a huge Marabou Stork decided to visit the neighborhood and promptly ransacked a picnicking tourist’s lunch before they even knew what had happened.
After lunch we visited the hippo pool, much to Moira’s joy as they are her favorite animal, and had it all to ourselves as I think the road may have been closed, but the sign had fallen down (no, we did not knock it over). Then, as we were heading along the lake shore on our way to the Lerai forest, we luckily ran across a gorgeous serval cat who was not shy in the least and seemed to really enjoy posing for us. The serval cat is one of the small cats here that hunts rodents and insects in the tall grasses and can be seen leaping and pouncing at will. We then drove the Lerai forest as it was approaching the time for us to depart the Crater. There we finally saw some elephants for Alana and some cute vervet monkeys before finally departing the floor and making our steep ascent out of the Crater after an amazing day of game viewing.
Before leaving the NCA, though, we had an invitation from a friend to visit the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge for a tour and coffee. I have mentioned my friend, Ladislaus, before who is one of the camp managers at the Crater Lodge and has been nice enough to have us stop by for a visit follow our days in the Crater. Ladislaus is a wonderful person with a huge heart who has graciously offered host us for these visits because of what we are doing here for the people of Tanzania. It’s always an amazing experience for everyone to visit the Lodge as it’s a truly spectacular, one of a kind place that most of us will never be able to experience, but can at least enjoy a relaxing coffee and a tour of this remarkable place. Today, Ladislaus was unable to be there, so one of his colleagues, Albin, an equally lovely person who has worked at the Crater Lodge for many years, entertained us. We departed with enough time to enjoy the overlook, now with a beautiful view of the entire Crater, and make it to the gate with 15 minutes to spare, ensuring that we would avoid spending the night there as once the gate closes, no one leaves without an act of God, or the president.