(most photos courtesy of Jill Voshell)
The rainstorm last night was intense, but thankfully did not persist into the new day and the skies were clear as we all awakened early for our trip to Ngorongoro Crater, a world heritage site and one of the crown jewels of the safari circuit, not only in Tanzania, but in all of Africa. The Crater, which I have described numerous times on this website, is actually a caldera, or a collapsed volcano, and happens to be the largest dry caldera in the world, remnants of a mountain the size of Kilimanjaro that imploded some 2-3 million years ago. The crater itself is about ten miles across at the widest and its walls are 2000 feet tall and very steep. There are only three roads that traverse the sheer cliffs of the inner rim wall – the descent road, the ascent road, and the two-way road, with the two former roads now being paved to prevent issues in the rain getting into or out of the crater. I have climbed out of the crater on the two-way road in heavy rains and challenging is putting it mildly.
Inside the crater exists one of the greatest populations of animals that are unlike most in this region who migrate every year. Those wildebeest and zebra who live in the crater do not migrate as they have everything they need here and are able to exist year round without the need to be constantly following the grasses as they do in the Serengeti. In addition to these two species of mammals, the crater also contains virtually every other species of large mammal that resides in Tanzania other than the giraffe, as the walls of the crater are too steep for them to navigate. The other animal that is missing here is the Nile crocodile as there are no running rivers within the crater, though there is a large alkaline lake in the middle and a river that runs in one corner, but it not sufficient to fully sustain these huge reptiles. The crater also contains one of the densest concentrations of lions in Africa, mostly due to the numbers of non-migrating animals that exist here.
Another very unique feature about the crater is its association with the highly endangered black rhino, which in the past had been widespread throughout Tanzania, but is now limited to a few protected areas where they have made a huge comeback and are now thriving though still at risk. Though I’m not sure of the exact number of them in the crater, there are now close to thirty of them and the number is increasing every year thanks to the firm protection of the government and the rangers of Ngorongoro Crater. The black rhino is very near-sighted and relies almost entirely on its hearing, which is why they are very difficult to find at times given the frequent windy conditions in the crater. The rhinos spend the night in the protected foothills of the steep inside crater rim walls. It taken me three trips to the crater before I was ever able to see one the rhinos. Thankfully, I have seen many in the years since, both here in the crater as well as the Serengeti.
Whenever I am asked by the residents what time we should leave for a day of game driving, my answer is always the same. “So, just what would you like to see?” Animals are always the most active in the early morning and the late evening hours and if one hopes to see as much as possible, getting there bright and early is always a must. The Loduare Gate, which is the entrance to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area that is the most accessible and, from which, one can immediately access the crater by way of the long, winding, uphill road to the rim and the overlook and one of the most incredible sights anywhere in the world. It’s also important to realize that this little two-lane dirt road that ascends over 2000 feet in a very short distance is the main highway that crosses this country from east to west along the northern sectors. Buses, trucks, and local traffic ply this road that passes through the gate, around the crater and then across the Serengeti. It is a long a dusty trip that has remained the same for years. Several years ago, there was a proposal to pave this highway across the Serengeti, which would have completely disrupted the migration, but it was thankfully defeated by several environmental groups.
So, with a departure time of 6 am from our house that was surprisingly accomplished within several minutes of the actual time (have I ever mentioned about herding cats here), we were all happily on the road with lots of excitement for the residents and Jill, none of whom had ever been on a game drive in the past. We were the first to arrive and after only a few minutes in the office to make payment for a day in the crater, we were off and quickly heading up to the crater rim along the very windy and narrow road with lots of very tight harpin turns often barely passable at times for two vehicles. On most of the tight turns, the cliff has been gouged out by elephants who come at night to eat the soil which is rich in trace minerals they need to stay healthy. Up and up we went until we finally reached the crater rim at the overlook, a point on the rim with the best overview of the entire crater with its intact rim. Turn right and you will head in the direction of the Sopa Lodge before leaving the rim en route to Empakai Crater, a smaller version of Ngorongoro where you hike to the bottom, though this requires a Maasai guide for protection from animals. Instead, we turn left and in the direction of the Serengeti, though today we’ll only be traveling far enough around the rim until we reach the decent road into the crater.
The weather was gorgeous with a few low-lying clouds that quickly dissipated and, on arrival to the descent road, the view was crisp and clear as we began our journey back in time and to the bottom of this magnificent natural resource. Once on the bottom of the crater, we began our drive with a quick sighting of a small pride of lions that were a bit off the road, but easily visible to us. Of course, they were either sleeping or not very active as is usually the case with lions during the daylight hours. Lions, who typically hunt at night or in the early morning, sleep all day as opposed to the cheetah, who hunt during the daylight hours. Cheetah, though, have been very difficult to spot in the crater over the last several years for various reasons and, as expected, we didn’t see any today. We did see large herds of Cape buffalo, wildebeest, and zebra, along with the other usual characters that included Thompson gazelles, Grant’s gazelles, eland, Cooke’s hartebeest, hyenas, jackals, warthogs, ostrich and many, many other birds. We spend time at the hippo pool before lunch and saw elephants from afar. We actually spotted a total of six rhinos and, even though they were all from afar, you could still easily make them out with our binoculars or the long lenses we had on our cameras.
One of the funnier sights of the day was the number of unfortunate guests who were led astray by their safari guides and allowed to sit outside eating lunch while being dive-bombed by black shouldered kites who are notorious for being able to steal even the smallest morsel of food right out of the hand of an unsuspecting victim as they’re in the process of putting it into their month. Now, mind you, these are not small birds in any sense and having suffered the consequences of this years ago when having a picnic lunch up on the rim, I can tell you firsthand about their accuracy and the surprise one gets when a bird of this size deftly swoops in front of your face. In addition to the kites annoying several groups of guests today, there were two large marabou storks strolling through the picnic site looking for handouts and being very aggressive if they sensed there was anything edible to be had. It was definitely some very good entertainment while we all sat in Turtle eating our sandwiches and semi hardboiled eggs (there had been a malfunction in the preparation of these though I refuse to throw anyone under the bus for this). The lunch site in the crater is a lovely setting with a large lake of the deepest blue surrounded by marshes on the far side and just as pleasant as can be. Having now visited the crater dozens of times, this is a picturesque spot that never becomes old or stale.
After lunch we had more game viewing including flocks of flamingos on the alkaline lake and a rare hippo out of the water during daylight sighting. We drove around the lake in the direction of the descent road where we had started our day and then turned towards the Lerai Forest where we would find the single ascent road heading back to the rim.
We had planned to visit my friend Ladislaus at the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge as we usually do for coffee and to relax before heading home. The lodge is one of the finest in Tanzania and it’s an incredible treat for everyone to stop there and be taken care of even if it is just for a visit and not to stay. Ladislaus was on his holiday, so instead, one of the other camp managers, Joachim, helped to host us and was a delight. There is never a dull moment when it comes to these visits and the group gets a tour of one of their rooms, each of which has an unobstructed view into the crater, not only from the bedroom, but also from the bathtub!
One hard and fast rule in the Conservation Area is that the gate closes at 6 pm sharp and there are very few exceptions. Arriving late pretty much ensures that you’ll either be spending the night in your car or trying to find on the spot lodging at one of the very expensive lodges (there is no such thing as Motel 6 here) surrounding the crater. We left the Crater Lodge at about 5:30 pm with no time to spare, jumped in the vehicle, said some quick goodbyes, and hit the road as it was going to be very, very tight to get to the gate in time for us to get through. Turtle is not a race car, or anything close for that matter, and her engine is in dire need of a rebuild anytime soon. Summing that all up, we drove a behemoth vehicle with an ailing engine like a race car and made it down to the gate with a whole three minutes to spare.
It had been a fantastic day and a wonderful game drive for everyone’s first. We were now on our way home and decided to go to the downtown Lilac Café, which has a bit of a larger menu (maybe one or two more items) and would be something of a change. We waited the commensurate amount of time for our dinners to be served, but they were delicious just the same and much appreciated by all. By the time we were finished, it had been an incredibly long day and I was exhausted having been driving for over twelve hours to the crater and back.