Awakening in the predawn darkness here in Africa is far different than back home for so many reasons, but the obvious one can best be summed up by a question. Just how dark is dark? Both because we are so close to the equator, where the sun both rises and sets very quickly and completely, and there is far less ambient light here in Northern Tanzania by magnitudes of difference from most anywhere on the East Coast of the US. We were scheduled today to once again travel back in time to a place that has changed little in the several million years since it was first formed.
Ngorongoro Crater, which is actually a caldera, or the remnant of a collapsed volcano, is actually the largest dry caldera in the world and is a remarkable geographic landmark that is considered one of the eight natural wonders of the world and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is unique among most parks in Tanzania as the animals are resident and do not migrate with the other herds that are so famous for their other wonder of the world, the Great Migration of the wildebeest and zebra. The crater contains all the animals of the other nearby parks except for the giraffe, as it is too steep for them to descend from the crater rim, and the Nile crocodile, as there are no flowing rivers within the crater itself. The one animal that is best known here within the crater are the black rhinos that now number somewhere around 30 and are heavily protected as they had been hunted to near extinction. There are also black rhinos in the Serengeti in such places as the Moru Kopjes, the Western Corridor and the Northern region near the Mara river and Kenya.
We had planned to leave the house at around 5:50 am so we would arrive to the gate shortly after it opened at 6 am. We had also invited Amos, a clinical officer student who has been volunteering and working with us for the last month. He is a terrific translator and is going to make a great clinician and has never been on a game drive in the past to any of the parks which is quite common for most of the Tanzanians here. Though the entrance into the parks is negligible for East Africans, the cost of a vehicle and driver, the limiting factor, is not. He was waiting for us at the junction of the FAME road and the tarmac and was there early as I suspected he would be given the incredibly prompt and respectful person he is. The residents had made lunch for him as well, so we were all set for what would hopefully be a wonderful day in the crater.
The Loduare Gate, the entrance to begin the drive up to the rim, is also the only way to get into the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and on to the Serengeti and then to the west side of Tanzania, so not only is it the only way for every safari vehicle to get in, it is also the only way for the trucks plying this route to get in and travel to Mwanza and other cities to the west. Two weeks ago, there had been over fifty safari vehicles here, but that was later in the morning and, thankfully, most tourists like to have their breakfasts before traveling. We had beaten nearly every safari vehicle to the gate, but I still had to wait in line for the truck drivers that were at the registration window waiting to do their paperwork and pay their fees for entrance and transit. I finally reached the window and again found the process to work perfectly smoothly like it had when I was here three weeks ago – we had our paperwork in hand and were ready to begin one of my favorite drives in the world.
Driving up the crater rim is an experience like no other. You ascend about 2000 feet in a very short distance up a very windy dirt road with hairpin turn after turn and a sharp drop off to the one side. Primordial trees and vines line the road on both sides and at the exposed cliffs on the uphill side, the elephants have left their marks where, using their tusks, they mine for minerals in the soil that they then eat for their nutritional value. Occasionally, you may run into elephants or some stray Cape buffalos crossing the road in front of you on their morning constitutional. On a rare occasions, you can come across a leopard using the road for transit as we have several times. I’ll never forget when Jess Weinstein, one of my former residents, slept through a leopard sighting on the road, though then again, she slept through much of our safari that weekend.
It was a pretty overcast morning so I was suspecting that we would be in the clouds on the rim, and, sure enough, we were in the incredibly dense cloud cover even before reaching the rim road such that the overlook for the crater looked like you were standing on the edge of an ocean. Worse yet, we were driving through pea soup thick fog or clouds once we started our way around and it was very difficult to see anything through both the moisture and the dust that was being kicked up by the vehicles. There was a safari vehicle in front of me that was helpful as I could see his brake lights in the distance, but there was a sweet spot for the distance behind him between the clouds and the dust that I had to manage in addition to not being able to see much of the road with its ruts and bumps, not to mention that there were vehicles also heading in the other direction. Thankfully, we encountered some blue sky peeking through on the far side of the crater and, by the time we were overlooking the road heading off to the Serengeti and the lovely valley that exists there, there was open sky above us. The one-way descent road was just in front of us with its gate to check in to the crater for there is a separate fee that is paid to visit it, which we had taken care of at the main gate, and after a bathroom break and popping the tops, we were ready to descend to the floor far below.
As I had mentioned before, the herds of animals here are resident animals, meaning that they do not migrate in or out of the crater, but will remain here their entire lives. As we had seen previously, there were huge herds of zebra, wildebeest and Cape buffalo all throughout the crater floor and, given that it was morning, most were slowly heading out of the surrounding hills and towards the sources of water at the center of the crater. Lake Magadi is the large lake at the center, but there are also large sources of water in many other areas making it impossible to drive in many places due to the swamps that are created by the water sources there. The other common animals that are seen on the floor include Thompson gazelles, Grant gazelles, hyenas, jackals, elephants, eland, hippos, and, of course, the many cats that include lions, cheetahs, serval, caracal and leopards. The cheetahs have been difficult to see here for the last several years and I have never seen a leopard on the crater floor, only the rim. I apologize in advance to the hundreds of bird species here that are truly spectacular, but are far too many to name. The elusive rhino (it took until my third visit here to see one) is what most people are here to see, do not like to come out on windy days as they rely tremendously on their hearing for defense as they have incredibly poor eyesight.
By lunch time, we had seen all of the more common animals, but we hadn’t seen a lion or rhino yet. We were using our short wave radio to listen for any spottings by the other drivers which is all in Swahili, but, as Taha reminded me, we had Amos in the car who could listen and translate for me. After a nice lunch that included ice cream from the snack truck that sits there every day, we took off in search of the things we hadn’t seen so far. I had spoken with a guide when we were at lunch, and he had not yet seen a rhino or lion either, so it didn’t look hopeful. Suddenly on the radio, there was mention of both animals and in a location that was not too distant as nothing really is in the crater.d
The lion turned out to be a solitary cat sleeping under a bush in some distance, but at least they could see it through their binoculars. The rhino was even more distant, though that is not at all unusual given their elusiveness, and the line of vehicles was entirely commensurate with the sighting. With binoculars, the shape of the rhino was easily evident and, as it moved through the high grass and brush, one could make out its distinctive horns, the unfortunate feature that led to its near extinction over the last century. Thanks to the conservation efforts of the Tanzanian government, though, with near militaristic enforcement and protection of the animals, they are once again thriving despite their rather slow reproductive rate. They are an incredibly awkward looking animal that is beyond shy and, despite this, they still manage to strike fear for their sometimes aggressive behavior when forced to protect themselves or when there is a calf somewhere around. When hunted, though, these large and unwieldy animals can use their large horns quite effectively when defending themselves and there are plenty of stories of hunters who have succumbed to their attacks. This is why they are one of the Big Five animals along with the lion, elephant, leopard and Cape buffalo, all of who are equally dangerous when being hunted. Thankfully, they are not threatened by our long camera lenses.
Now that we had seen the lion and the rhino, and with no further radio traffic regarding other sightings, it was time to drive by the hippo pool and then the Lerai Forest on our way out of the crater. I had spoken with my friend, Ladislaus, at the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge about having us stop by for a tour and some coffee or drinks before departing the crater and the NCA. He is always so gracious and was happy to have us come by which is always such a treat for everyone, given the fact that it is one of the most luxurious lodges not only in Tanzania, but probably in all of Africa.
Arriving to the lodge in Turtle, so incredibly dusty adlong with the rest of us, I always seem to feel a bit self-conscious walking into a main house for one of the three villages there as everything is so very clean and immaculate. It’s easy to forget that we’re in Africa, though considering the views of the crater from every single window, the sight quickly reminds you of where you are. Ladislaus has great stories that he tells us of the history of the lodge and his journey to get there and become one of the village managers for the camp. There are also some resident animals at the lodge and, as we arrived, zebra were wondering around the lodge in small groups. There was also an older Cape buffalo, normally a very feared animal, snacking on some of the bushes outside of one of the rooms that didn’t seem to mind our presence, even though Taha seemed to get just a little closer than Ladislaus wanted when trying to get his own photo with the beast. Thankfully, he survived the encounter. After using the restroom, Ankita came running out to tell us that there was an elephant outside. Sure enough, an elephant was crossing the grounds directly in front and was the closest view of these great animals that we had all day.
They took us to a few rooms to check them out, one in the Tree Village that was a bit smaller and let luxurious, and the other at South Village that was much larger and far more luxurious. All of the rooms have incredible views of the crater not only from their deck, but also from their toilets, bathtubs and bedroom. Once finished with our tours, it was time for us to depart as I had to be back to FAME by 6 pm for a meeting with two members of a company that aligns philanthropic clients with non-profits looking for funding. We rushed around the rim and then back down the main road descending to the Loduare Gate and then on to Karatu for my meeting at FAME. We arrived at 6 on the nose, and I had to run in, jump in the shower to clean all the filth and dust off of me from the day and then run next door to Joyce’s house where we were having our meeting.
Afterwards, Susan invited me to accompany the two advisors who I had met with earlier, she and Mary Ann for dinner at the Lilac Café in town. With everyone pretty hungry and me exhausted from an entire day of driving in the crater, it took well over an hour to get our food, but, then again, this is Africa! Too my incredible pleasure, though, while waiting for our dinners, in strolled, or, more accurately, waddled, one of the cutest animals in all of Africa right at our feet – a hedgehog, who had come in from the street probably looking for warmth. He seemed to be heading towards the kitchen, though there would be no food for it there considering their diet consists mainly of insects and occasional small reptiles. I followed him in and one of the kitchen workers picked him up and handed him to me. He squealed and twitched about a bit, but was as cute as advertised. I set him back down on the floor at which point he promptly waddled away seemingly quite happy and in search of some juicy bugs. Thus, I happily added yet another animal to my list for day and my long list of animals seen over the last thirteen years. Life is good….