Ngorongoro Conservation Area
The sky had turned from black to blue as we arrived at the entrance gate. As with the previous parks, we had to get permits checked before entry, so in the freezing cold we sat watching the colours of the sky change from the top of the crater. The blues progressively lightened, and a rim of yellow appeared, before pink and purple tinges popped up. There was a decent bit of light by the time we were waved through and as we began the descent down the crater side, the road quickly deteriorated into a pitted and crevassed mess which we bounced over and round. It made for relatively slow moving. But on reaching the bottom, we almost immediately found the road blocked by a few other safari jeeps in front of us and with no way of getting round them, we stopped. There was a good reason for them being there though, because off to our right was a lion. As we waited, he gradually moved closer before cutting through the line of traffic and finding a rest spot off to our left. Not long after, two more male lions appeared out of the forest, one of them sauntering towards and past us to join their brother whilst the other hung back. In the early morning light, with the sun’s rays just reaching over the crater edge, they glowed as they walked and they were stunning for it. Another male appeared and as he approached his brothers he started to call, a low guttural noise that sounded haunting. The roaring male greeted the first lion, and eventually the last lion, scarred and dirty and with the biggest mane, joined them. These male alliances seemed rather common, as we’d spotted several on our various safaris in Tanzania.
As the jeeps ahead pulled away, we spent a little more time with the couple of lions that remained in view, but as we drove through the vegetation that bounded the rim of the crater floor, we didn’t have to go far to find the full-maned lion who had settled down in a patch of grass not far from a herd of antelope. From here, the expanse of the crater floor opened up, and we could see herbivores off in the distance, the nearest ones eyeing up the resting lion as it glowed in the sun. From the crater rim viewpoints, the crater floor had looked devoid of life, but now that we were down here, the place looked huge and there was life visible everywhere we looked. In fact we barely had to drive far to find more carnivores, this time a couple of jackals out on the hunt. They camouflaged well against the dry grass, but they skipped about, noses to the ground, occasionally looking up to look around. A nearby eland, huge in comparison, gave them no regard whatsoever.
A hazy waterhole housed a plethora of flamingos. The road never went near enough to see them in focus, but the blur of pink bodies meant there was no shortage of them. In the grasslands around it, the grazers congregated, and we drove past zebra and gazelles and wildebeest. There were several small groups on the near side of the waterway but in the distance we could see herds, and as we skirted round the water we spotted not only some impala but also a couple of black rhinos. This was the last of the Big Five that I had to see. I had in fact spotted a rhino from the view point when we first drove past on the way to the Serengeti, but it had taken the full zoom of my camera to see it and even then it was only just discernible as a rhino. I wasn’t going to be satisfied enough with that, so now seeing them from ground level, I was much happier. That being said, they still were some way away, and they were ambling away from the road, meaning I was still reliant on zoom to see them well. We gradually followed the road, stopping every now and again to watch the rhinos further, but nearer us we were among the zebras and wildebeest and I was loving watching them just as much. It was hard to know where to look, with animals mulling around on both sides of us.
There was a noticeable amount of juvenile zebras here, just like in the Serengeti, and the herds milled around, crossing the road in front of and behind us. We were gradually moving towards the centre of the crater as we watched, and at one point when we stopped to look at something on our right, I noticed that there was a sleeping hyena immediately to our left that no-one had noticed. I don’t think we would have parked so close had we realised ahead of time that it was there, but after initially raising its head to eye us up, it simply plopped it back down again and closed its eyes. We clearly weren’t worth worrying about, nor was it interested in the Thomson gazelle nearby. Another hyena appeared and drank out of a puddle on the road, but clearly a hunt was not even on the agenda.
We found ourselves by a large wildebeest herd, and unlike in the Serengeti, there was a plethora of calves among them. As odd looking as the adults are, the calves were utterly cute and fun to watch. The driver knew we had a lot to see, so although he stopped often, we encouraged him to move on once we’d got our fill of photographs. The zebra and wildebeest appeared to be everywhere, small clusters spread out across the plains of the crater floor and at one point we found some ostriches wandering among them. Even a hyena den didn’t keep the grazers away and with much excitement, we spotted a couple of hyena pups pop up from the hole in the ground and hang out with the adults. It’s really difficult to know which hyenas are male and which are female because for some random evolutionary reason, the females have a pseudopenis. They live in matriarchal groups so presumably most of the ones we saw were male, but it was weird to see them wave their pseudopenis about and when its presence results in infant mortality during birth, you have to wonder what on earth is its evolutionary advantage.
A change in vegetation as we drove meant bigger congregations of both wildebeest and zebra. It almost looked like there was a wetland behind them and some large trees were evident behind that. As the road rose up a little and came around a corner, a lake came into view and as we parked up next to it, we were given the opportunity to get out and stretch our legs. It was a gorgeous spot and initially looked innocuous but on closer inspection we could see rings appearing in the water nearby and every now and again a pair of nostrils would break the surface. Further away a group of hippos were just visible, and we realised that just metres away, below the surface, was one of Africa’s most dangerous animals. We were apparently safe to mill around the water’s edge here, within a few metres of the jeeps, and it was a great photo opportunity. I wandered along the road a little towards the other end of the lake but I was called back hastily. You never knew what wild animal was lurking about, I was told, and it was safer in a group. It was too easy to get complacent. Not long after I returned to the vehicle, one of the hippos came out of the water and stood on the bank staring at us. It was a juvenile, but it was still a chunky animal. It stared us down for a bit before walking back to the water.
Back among the herds once more, we came across a wildebeest creche with multiple calves feeding simultaneously. The number of calves was incredible but as we moved our way through them, we soon realised we weren’t the only ones interested in them. Some hyenas appeared and at first they looked like they were just out on patrol, but as we stopped to watch them, we could see the moment they appeared to lock on a group within the herd and the next thing we knew, a hunt was on. The hyenas worked as a group, a pair taking one flank as another took a different approach. The herd began to scatter and the calves ran for their lives. The hunt moved away from us, making it harder to follow the action, but I was torn between wanting to see a successful hunt and not wanting to see them kill a calf. It was difficult to take my eyes off it though, and all too soon the hunt was over. The selected calf lived to see another day and the hyenas regrouped and retreated.
We stopped to watch a stunning tawny eagle in a tree, the nearby wildebeest having no idea about the chase that had happened further up the road. Here, the calves chilled out as if they had no care in the world. The eagle was constantly on the lookout, and this was the same species that had swooped on us for food up at the picnic spot on the crater rim, and potentially could have been one of the exact birds that did it. Unsurprisingly given the vast herds down here, there was no shortage of predators about. Not all of them were big enough to kill a grazer though, and I was excited to see another serval cat creeping through the grassland near a small pool of water where a hippo was hanging out. We even spotted a male lion walking out in the open too.
The hours had been ticking past and I could see as we drove that we were working our way back towards the crater edge to leave. As usual, some jeeps ahead signalled the presence of lions, and we found a beautiful male lion resting in the shade under a tree. It was panting, displaying it’s huge canine teeth, and like most lions, it bore a multitude of scars across its face. We spotted another serval cat not far away and nearby a female lion lay fully exposed on the open ground. Some grey cranes wandered near some buffalo, and I wondered whether either of the cat species was eyeing them up. Both the serval and the female lion moved away, constantly being watched by the nearby gazelle. The buffalo seemed less phased by their presence, munching away on the grass with barely a look in their direction. Looking at them in the daylight with their sheer bulk and the broad horns, it was hard not to think about the one that had used our tent as a scratching post in the middle of the night. It could have flattened us had it wanted to.
The lions were the last wildlife we were to spot on safari, and once past them, we began the ascent up the winding track through lush green vegetation back up to the crater rim. As we gained altitude, the crater floor once again looked sparse of animals and all that we had seen blended into the background, an entire ecosystem enveloped within the walls of the crater. We stopped at the same picnic site on the rim for lunch, as we had done on route to the Serengeti. With most people having learned from the last time and choosing to eat in the jeep, I was keen to stretch my legs and get some fresh air so once more sat on the same logs and ate my lunch rapidly as I watched the sky for circling eagles. The giant maribou stork paraded around looking for scraps, and after successfully eating my lunch without attack, I watched an eagle swoop down and grab food from someone else at the site as I moved off from my seat.
We had a long drive back to Arusha, the only break being the same tourist site we’d stopped at on the way out west. To make it worse, we hit rush hour, and the approach into Arusha was chaos, our driver trying to find a quieter route down backstreets, only to meet more traffic jams. We were shattered by the time we got back to the same hotel we’d stayed in previously. The group split up, some staying elsewhere, others due to leave in the darkness of night for the airport. I enjoyed a cold swim in the pool before dinner, but then our depleted group had a last meal together with some local beer. I’d shared my entire Tanzania trip with one of them, and I couldn’t believe I was heading home the next day after what had been the most incredible experience. I was on my own for the morning, sunbathing by the pool until it was my turn to head to the airport. When I arrived it was utter chaos, a queue of people streaming out the front door. It took so long to get into the airport building, and so long to get through the various baggage and customs queues, that I actually had little time to wait to board my plane. Before I knew it and with very little fanfare, my African adventure was over.