Friday – September 3, 2010 –
After we awoke about 5:30 a.m. this morning, we ate continental breakfast at our lodge. Before departing at 6:30 a.m. for our tour of Ngorongoro Crater, we gave fellow traveler John our tips. John added our tips to two envelopes that we would present to our guide Emil, and driver, Joseph. We then embarked on a half-day crater tour.
The 5,150-square-mile Ngorongoro Conservation Area is named after its central feature, the Ngorongoro Crater, the world’s largest intact volcanic caldera. Ngorongoro Crater has often been described as one of the wonders of the world, not only because of its inherent geological significance, but also because it serves as an extraordinary natural sanctuary for some of Africa’s most dense population of large mammals. The Ngorongoro was part of the original Serengeti National Park proclaimed in 1951, but it was made a separate conservation area in 1956 so that the Masai could graze their cattle there. The Ngorongoro Crater became a World Heritage Site in 1978.
Land in the conservation area is unique to Tanzania as it provides protection for the wildlife while allowing human habitation. The landscape is a blend of volcanoes, grasslands, waterfalls and mountain forests. The southern and eastern boundaries are defined by the rim of the Great Rift Valley, which also prevents animal migration in these directions. The annual ungulate migration passes through the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, with wildebeest and zebra moving south into the area in December and moving north in June.
The descent into the crater on the very steep and rough gravel road was very steep and bumpy, and my stomach didn’t feel great today sitting in the back of Land Cruiser. However, when we arrived at the bottom, I started feeling better. As we approached the bottom, Emil channeled his inner Jedi and his eagle eyes to locate a mother lack rhino with its children in the distance. We had now seen the Big Five! They were very hard to spot, but my 85-300 mm zoom lens allowed me to get close enough for a shot. A huge traffic jam ensued around us and we were then surrounded by vehicles when we tried to leave 45 minutes later.
We then had a happy stop (bathroom break) at the crater floor where we could see the lodge at the top. It was truly amazing how big the crater was … 300 square kilometers. A volcanic eruption created the fertile Serengeti from this area!
The rich pasture and permanent water of the Crater floor supports a resident population of more than 20,000 to 25,000 large mammals. They are not confined by the crater walls, and can leave freely. They stay because conditions are favorable to their feeding. Since most of the crater floor is grassland, grazing animals dominate: zebra, gazelles, buffalo, eland and warthogs. The swamp and forest provide additional resources for hippos, Tanzania’s last remaining black rhinos, giant-tusked elephants, waterbucks, reedbucks and bushbucks, baboons and vervet monkeys. All these animals in turn support large predators such as the lion and leopard, and scavengers such as hyenas and jackals.
We saw plenty of hyenas, elephants, hippos and lionesses. The most impressive thing we saw on the floor was an ambush of a lioness towards a wildebeest herd on the floor. We waited about 45 minutes (several other vehicles came and went) and then it happened so fast. The solitary lioness made her kill from high grasslands, only to have a pack of hyenas back her away from her prey. Emil said we were very luck to see such a strange occurrence, and it was a shame for the lioness. We also saw a very large lion as we left looking for prey.
After a long ascent out, we stopped at the visitor center again. This was where on the first day we stopped and Emil explained Ngorongoro and the Serengeti on the interactive map. While there, I mailed a postcard to Mom and Dad.
After this fabulous experience within the crater, we left the wildlife behind us to visit an authentic Masai village en route back to Arusha. Along the way, we stopped to eat our final box lunch at a rest stop at the side of the road. We dropped by a bank in Arusha where Elaine, Jeff and I withdrew some more Tanzanian schillings.
We then headed back towards the Arusha Safari Lodge past some wild traffic. We saw some amazing things such as a mountain bike with a two cc motor on the downtube and another chain on the left side of the bike. These people are so industrious!
Upon arrival at the lodge, we checked back into the same room we had previously, picked up our luggage, and packed up for Kenya. Emil joined us for the four-course $30 dinner at the lodge. We talked about how wonderful the trip was. Altogether, we covered 125 miles on our 4-hour drive today. I will never forget this safari experience. It was everything that I hoped for and more.