I haven’t been able to find the right words to describe how I felt when I visited Ngorongoro Crater. I sized up things like ‘biblical’, ‘other worldly’ and ‘awestruck’ but none of them seemed to fit the bill. This was one of the most incredible experiences of my life yet I’m faced with the frustration of simply not having the right phrases or analogies to adequately describe it to other people.
It wasn’t that Ngorongoro had especially amazing game viewing. It also wasn’t that it changed my life or that I suddenly discovered the meaning of it. It was just an incredible feeling of being witness to something that would exist exactly as it does today even if humans never existed on this planet. Other places in the world can conjure up similar feelings such as being in the middle of the forest miles from anywhere, on top of a mountain or in the middle of a vast desert or ocean. Somehow the absence of humanity and civilisation leaves our own lives feeling less crucial because it is suddenly obvious that the planet went about its business long before us and probably will long after us. It is a humbling feeling but for me it is a good one because all the little and big things that bother me just don’t seem like such a big deal anymore.
The difference between those other places and Ngorongoro Crater is that you can see the whole thing in one glance and for some reason I don’t entirely understand that makes the concept that Earth easily exists without us humans all the more powerful. The crater is not even a crater but an extinct volcanic caldera formed two to three million years ago from a massive eruption. It is referred to as a crater simply because at 610m deep it looks so much like one with a steep mountain range forming an almost perfect circle around a fairly flat floor covering around 260 square kilometres. The steep gradient of this mountain range has cut the crater off from the outside world for over two million years thus allowing thousands of animals to exist for generations without ever needing to leave and even preventing some species from arriving in the first place. For example, giraffe and crocodile are not found there simply because they can’t navigate a way in with the former finding the hillsides too precarious to climb due to their long gangling legs.
My journey to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area began the previous afternoon when Green Bee Eater Safaris picked six of us plus our tour leader up from our campsite just North of Arusha. The two-night/three-day safari included a cook and guide so we left our own cook and driver behind then set off for a campsite in the Highlands town of Karatu where we would overnight before heading for the crater early the next morning.
First we crossed a dry dusty plain and stopped at a local Maasai village for a short tour. We were the only tourists there and disembarked to a warm welcome. First we were dressed in Maasai clothing and I remember how warm it felt on a chilly afternoon along with the delicious smell of wood smoke that permeated the fabric. Although we were a world away from Scotland and Ireland we all noted the use of checked/plaid patterns along with a preference for primary colors like red and blue.
First we danced with them at their invitation then they danced for us, an incredible spectacle where after a lifetime of seeing Maasai on African documentaries I got to see with my own eyes just how incredibly high they can jump. Whilst the man pictured below was especially good at it the women also jump in these dances and encouraged us to join in which was embarrassing to say the least because I could barely get an inch off the ground. After that they explained to us how Maasai had survived in the bush alongside the animals of Africa. This culminated with one of the group showing how to light a fire by rubbing two sticks together and they made Bear Grylls look like a boy scout.
We then split into pairs to visit houses in their village, tiny and circular yet well-engineered structures of sticks and mud, each of which included a cooking fire sans chimney so they were a little smokey. But that is no criticism because they were well constructed and could easily withstand most temperatures and weather variations. After they explained day-to-day life to us we were taken to a surprisingly elaborate market that was clearly there for tourists and we were encouraged to buy the beautiful jewellery and other trinkets on display. Then we were taken to the schoolhouse where an obviously photo-staged lesson was taking place but it was the regular schoolhouse nonetheless so it was still interesting.
After leaving our lovely Maasai friends behind we started the drive up the Manyara Escarpment. Shortly after beginning the steep climb we pulled over next a huge baobab tree and took in the incredible view over Lake Manyara and the huge plain that spread out before us. The steep drive continued and when we crested one particular ridge it suddenly seemed like we were in a different country that was lush, wet and tropical versus the semi-arid landscape we had just left behind.
We left at dawn the next morning to start an even steeper climb higher into the mountains. There was a heavy mist so we couldn’t see much but occasionally we were able to glimpse thick rain forest. We bypassed a lookout that we were told gave incredible views of the crater but there was no point in stopping in the mist. Soon after we were entering Ngorongoro Conservation Area where we foolishly left a window open whilst our guide went to pay our entry fee so soon found ourselves fighting off a baboon trying to get through the window to steal something off the dashboard.
With the baboon still scowling at us as we pulled away we began the drive down into the crater that became so steep that the brakes started smoking even though we were crawling along at a slow pace. We eventually broke through the mist and finally the crater revealed itself, a vista that was incredible despite the gloomy light. Before long we were spotting the first of many animals we would see when we passed some warthogs shortly followed by a secretary bird then an ostrich.
Once we reached the crater floor our guide set about finding us some animals to see. We had been told that Ngorongoro Crater is a great substitute for seeing the famous African animal migration and that proved to be correct. There were massive herds of zebra, wildebeest and buffalo and although they spent most of their lives criss-crossing this small area they all seemed to be on a mission and whilst we saw isolated herds we also saw great masses of animals of numerous different species traveling or grazing together.
Perhaps the most memorable game viewing experience was witnessing hyena doing something other than stealing someone else’s food. These huge carnivores are mostly known for their laughing call and for being scavengers. Here we saw them chilling out and napping but also got to witness the fairly rare sight of them making their own kill when normally they wait for a leopard or lion to do that then try to take the kill from them. I’m afraid I’ve forgotten what species of antelope it was that they took down and also regret not having photos but it happened very quickly. Seeing a kill in the wild is always thrilling and if you’ve ever seen one on a wildlife documentary you are probably familiar with your feelings veering between wanting the animal being chased to get away and wanting the predator to get a meal. Our guide pointed out that unlike lions and leopards who make sure their prey is dead before they begin eating it, hyena just tuck right in whilst it is still alive. Once I knew that I was firmly on the side of the antelope but he or she wasn’t lucky that day and I was shocked by how quickly the hyenas tore it apart, not even waiting for it to hit the ground. Once again Africa put my own problems into perspective.
As we drove around the crater floor we saw lions mating, a huge flock of flamingo, had a stare down with some buffalo and continued to marvel at the huge herds of animals. Within an hour or so of arriving the mist had burned off to reveal just how beautiful and colorful the crater was. I loved the variety of vegetation in such a small area. In one direction you were looking at an arid landscape, in another was green grassland and in yet another it was tropical. The variety of creatures was also hard to take in considering how small the crater floor was. Again words fail me as do my photos that will never be as dynamic as taking all of this in with your own eyes.
The final stop before lunch was probably my favorite. We were in the green grassy part of the crater and were driving over a few fast-flowing streams when we saw a lone hippo walking out of the water, a relatively rare sight during the day. We then noticed a fairly foul smell and soon came across a small shallow pond that was jam-packed with wallowing hippos. I’ve seen numerous hippos before on safari but I’d never come across what I would accurately term to be an actual ‘hippo hollow’ yet now I’d found one. Hippos have extremely sensitive skin that offers very little protection against the sun which is why they tend to stay mostly covered in water and mud all day then graze at night. These particular hippos had flocked to a pond that was a little too shallow for their large girths so they had to periodically flip over in order to shield their skin from the sun. This led to some amazing views of their ungainly pink underbellies and short stubby legs poking out of the water. And if that wasn’t enough suddenly a tiny calf bobbed up from under the water and played with her mother.
I could have sat there all day but we had to get to Serengeti National Park that afternoon so we made our way to a beautiful designated picnic site where people are allowed to leave the vehicles to use a public restroom and to stretch their legs. Our cook handed out packed lunches and we were warned to eat inside the vehicle because of eagles who would soar high up out of sight then quickly dive bomb your lunch and that could lead to serious injury. Almost every group has ‘that one person’ who thinks they are above the rules and we were no exception. Our person decided to eat their lunch outside the vehicle and it was less than a minute before we witnessed them getting dive bombed at lightning speed by a vicious eagle who did in fact steal their sandwich whilst nearby tourists screamed and scattered. To be completely honest, once I realised nobody got hurt I did enjoy the karma and quietly cheered the eagle.
The crater road is one-way so that you don’t meet any oncoming traffic either on your way in or out. When you see the road that makes total sense as it is incredibly narrow with a steep drop on one side and a steep cliff on the other. I’d heard that elephants use the road and saw evidence of that in various huge piles of elephant dung that dotted the pavement. I can’t imagine what happens when elephants are encountered as there is no way around them, often no way for them to move off the road and so steep that if you don’t keep momentum a vehicle can slide backwards. I guess it just takes a really long time to make the trip. It is so steep that we could smell burning again but this time it seemed to be coming from the gears and not the brakes. If that all sounds scary remember that you can look out the window to enjoy some absolutely wonderful views of the crater that looks ever smaller as you climb into the rain forest and to the tops of the mountains.
That afternoon we continued to Serengeti National Park where I got to experience some of the most wonderful game viewing of my life that I’ll no doubt be gushing about in my next post. On the way back from there we stopped at the lookout we had to bypass on our way to Ngorongoro Crater. By then all of my camera batteries were flat from taking far too many photos of the Serengeti animals but I did manage to snap these panorama shots on my phone that I hope gives some idea as to just how incredible the crater is.