Thursday, March 02, 2017

A Day in Ngorongoro Crater - Africa's Garden of Eden

July 14, 2016
Ngorongoro Crater

Just southeast of Serengeti National Park in Tanzania lies what our guide, Ansi, described as "Africa's Garden of Eden" - Ngorongoro Crater.  The huge caldera, surrounded by the steep 2,000 foot-high hills of an ancient volcano, includes several distinct terrains - from dry grassy plains to verdant forests to marshy lakes. Because of these various environments, the crater includes an astonishing variety of African animals within a relatively small region.  I had seen National Geographic specials and other documentaries highlighting this unique region, so I was very excited as we left our Serengeti camp for this new adventure.
Looking down into Ngorongoro Crater

Our little tour group left early on this chilly morning for the two-hour drive to the Crater.  On our way out of the Serengeti, we were delighted to get our first sighting of the elusive serval cat, which obligingly came out of the tall grass and posed for photos on the road!
Our first sighting of a serval cat.

This serval cat very kindly came out of the grass to pose for us.

We also were joined by a jackal who ran directly in front of our van and refused to turn into the plains for a couple of miles.  Poor thing...I was getting quite worried about his getting completely worn out, but he finally veered off and we were able to continue on to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, a World Heritage site which adjoins Serengeti National Park.
The jackal who wouldn't give up

This land is inhabited by the Maasai people who named it El-Nkoronkoro, or "Gift of Life."  They moved into the area in the 1800s and continue to farm and herd cattle and goats here.  The national parks do not allow hunting, herding, and farming within their boundaries, so Ngorongoro Conservation Area was established to allow the Maasai to continue their traditional life here - herding their goats side-by-side with the wildebeests and zebras!
Large Maasai boma outside of Ngorongoro Crater

Maasai donkeys grazing outside the boma

Maasai herder with his cattle and goats grazing alongside the zebras inside Ngorongoro Crater.

By mid-morning, we arrived at one of the few entries into the crater and stopped for views of the 100 square mile caldera before driving down the steep winding road to the floor of the basin.
View of the crater floor

The majority of the crater floor is flat, wide, grassy plain.  Ansi explained that the drought we had heard about throughout our trip had badly affected the crater.  Instead of lush tall grasses, the plains were dusty and bare in many areas.  The lake that supports a huge flock of flamingos is drying up and invasive species of flowers are taking over some of the indigenous grasslands.

We learned that the wildebeest population has declined dramatically since the 1980s.  But in spite of the drought, we saw several large herds.  As in the Masai Mara, they galloped across the road in front of us in long lines.  They were often joined by zebras and warthogs, and we also spotted hyenas and golden jackals in the grass.  One animal we had not yet spotted was the rhino.  In fact, our quest for the rhino had been going on since our arrival almost two weeks before!  Today was our very last chance to see the last of the "Big Five," so we were on the lookout all day.

March of the Wildebeests

Nursing wildebeest

Resting herd of wildebeests

The warthogs of the Serengeti usually ran away when we stopped, so I appreciated this one posting for us.

Warthog whiskers are impressive!

Golden jackal
We left the grassy plains to explore the Lerai Forest, a small wooded area tucked against the hills of the crater.  Vine draped and gnarled fig trees filled the green woods and hidden in the forest we spotted bush bucks with their graceful curved horns and a family of elephants.
The Lerai Forest

Another new animal for us - the bush buck

Elephants in the forest

We came of of the forest past a small lake where a lazy hippo snoozed near some Thompson gazelles and African spoonbills. The lake also provided water for a small herd of Cape buffaloes.  We also got a good long look at a kori bustard, the largest flying bird of Africa.
Sleeping hippo and Thompson gazelles

African spoonbills

Cape buffalo

Kori Bustard - Africa's largest flying bird

Further along the road, the landscape turned green and marshy.  From our perch above the wetlands, we watched a large bull elephant make his way through the tall reeds, accompanied by some egrets who found his wide back to be a comfortable perch.  Several lions crouched in the grass above him, keeping watch for a possible lunch.  Once again I was struck by how well camouflaged the lions are.  There are only about 60 lions living within the crater walls and they have become quite inbred because of their isolation from other populations.  When a new male lion does happen along, the indigenous lions often chase him away.
The marshlands attract many birds and mammals

Bull elephant

Egrets use him for a handy perch

Lions watch the herds below

Lions in the grass

Speaking of lunch, it was time for ours, so we joined several other tour groups by the banks of Ngoitokitok Spring, an inviting spot for a break.  Our guides provided us with sandwiches and drinks, but warned us to eat all of our food before getting out of the vehicles.  The trees around the small lake were filled with black kites.  These bold birds have been known to swoop down without warning and snatch food right out of tourists' hands, sometimes tearing flesh with their sharp claws.  Happily, we didn't see any vicious attacks today, but enjoyed seeing the kites dancing in the winds above us.  Several other more docile birds, a pied crow and the rufous-tailed weaver, enjoyed our crumbs without posing any danger.
Ngoitokitok Spring

A favorite tourist stop 

Black kites swooped over the safari vehicles watching for unwary picnickers.

Rob enjoys a stretch by the banks of the spring fed lake.

Selfies by the spring.

Pied crow

Rufous-tailed weavers
 After lunch, we drove past another part of the pool that held several hippos, including the smallest baby hippo I had seen yet on this trip.   Then we returned to the grasslands where we enjoyed the dance of several gorgeous grey crowned cranes, with their wild feathered topknots and flashy red tails.
Hippo grazing in the grass

Red-billed ox peckers pluck little parasites off of the hippo

Hippos enjoy the cool pool

Mama and baby hippo


The beautiful crowned crane

Dance of the crowned cranes

All through the day, Ansi had been on the radio talking to other guides about animal sightings.  He would never say exactly what they had been saying (although I had learned enough Swahili to recognize a few of the animal names - like ngiri for warthog).  I think he didn't want us to be disappointed if we didn't find the rare black rhino.  But suddenly, late in the afternoon, he floored the Land Cruiser and we went bouncing over the dirt roads.  As we approached a large open area, we saw a couple of dozen other vehicles parked along the side of the road and lots of visitors standing in the vehicles with their binoculars aimed across the field.  Finally, finally, on our very last afternoon on safari, there - waaay out there at the far side of the plain - a tiny grey lump was just barely visible in the grass.  It was so far away that even my usually reliable 30x zoom lens could not really capture the creature, but it WAS a rhino, making our quest for the Big Five complete.
Finally - our first rhinoceros on the last day of our safari

Honest - that IS a rhino!

Feeling quite satisfied, we drove past the largest lake of the caldera, Lake Magadi, a salt lake that supports a large flock of flamingos.  Then we climbed up the opposite side of the crater to the jungle landscape above.  After stopping for one more view of the caldera, we continued the short distance back to the luxurious Ngorongoro Farmhouse Lodge where we had stayed before our Serengeti adventure.  The day ended with a view of a golden sunset from the porch of our "Simba Room."
The flamingos of Lake Magadi


Climbing out of Ngorongoro Crater

Looking back into the crater from the jungle above.

Joan and Rob at the end of another great day

Sunset from the Ngorongoro Farmhouse Lodge

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

African Adventure - Part 10: Exploring the Serengeti

Last Full Day in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
July 13, 2016

The hardest part of blogging about an African Safari may be deciding on which of the literally thousands of photos to include!  Yes, many of the photos are the "same old" animals seen on every day of the safari, but each animal sighting is as thrilling as the first time.  Although I sometimes joked, "Ho hum... another leopard," believe me, I never felt ho hum about it!

We woke this morning to the sight of hot air balloons in the distance.  The three youngest members of our little safari group had awakened very early and been driven to their balloon excursion.  The rest of us followed our usual routine of an early departure for the morning safari drive.
Hot air balloons over the endless plains of Serengeti National Park
Each drive took us to a new area of the park...and today that led to some interesting new adventures.  Our first stop was atop a hill overlooking the wide Seronera Valley.  The valley is the transition zone between the plains in the southern part of the Serengeti and the woodlands to the north.  A sign by the parking lot explained that the distant hills around us us were sedimentary rock laid down 600 million year ago when area was at the bottom of the sea.  Also in the parking lot were several trees filled with the beautiful nests of the Buffalo Weaver and several adorable, fluffy little fledglings.
It's obvious why the bird who constructed this massive nest is called a weaver!  What artwork!
Fledgling Buffalo Weaver

The Buffalo Weavers were seen frequently during our safari.
As we drove on, guide Cosmas taught us more about the animals around us.  Elephants live in large social groups, but a lone elephant is a "bachelor," kicked out of the herd to prevent in-breeding.  When the herd encounters a bachelor, the females who are in estrus may hang back for a while to breed, then rejoin their family group.
"Bachelor elephant"
 Monkeys are always fun, so I was happy when we came across a troop of black-faced vervet monkeys.  They were quite unconcerned about our presence and went about their usual activities, eating, playing in the trees, and grooming one another.  One fellow was so brave that he climbed right up onto our Land Cruiser and sat there for several minutes, hoping for a hand-out from us tourists.  (He was disappointed, as we knew better than to feed him.)
Troop of black-faced vervet monkeys

What a solemn little face!

Two youngsters play in the treetops.


This cute little monkey practiced his climbing skills all over this tree.

Grooming time

Hoping for a hand-out!

The Seronera Valley is home to the Seronera River and several other rivers, so wildlife and birds are abundant here.  Some of the rivers are fed by streams, so we saw lots of the "usual" animals like hippos, Thompson gazelles, impalas, and lots of birds...but also the more rare sightings of hartebeests and leopards.
Hippo tracks in the road.  They come out to graze during the night.

A bloat of hippos in the Seronera River

Taking a snooze in the midday sun.

Zebras and topis graze on the tall grass.

This watering hole attracted a large herd of zebras

Zebras enjoy a dip in the pool

When they were finished, the whole herd galloped away.

The cape buffaloes and the hippos often were accompanied by the red or yellow-billed ox-peckers.

Ho hum...more graceful little Tommies

You can almost see where the myth of the unicorn comes from on this adult male Thompson gazelle

The bark on this acacia had been stripped off by elephants.

A herd of hartebeests

Once again, I was amazed by our guides' ability to spot leopards in far off trees.  Do you see it?

A nice comfy branch for a snooze.
Everyone in the Land Cruiser was thrilled by the sight of a large herd of elephants, including several calves and adolescents, coming toward us across a huge grassy field.  We watched them for a long time as they lumbered slowly toward us, grazing on the grass as they came.
Our travel partners watch the elephants approaching from the distance.

Part of the large family of elephants walking past us.

Having a meal on the go!

We saw lots of family groups of elephants, but this was probably the largest we saw.
And, as always, I loved our bird sightings.  The colors and variety of birds - not just here - but everywhere throughout the world is astounding.
The aptly named Silver Bird

Black-shouldered Kite

Ruppert's vulture on her nest

Secretary bird with an impressive set of quills

Lilac breasted roller

Purple (also called rufous-crowned) roller

Laughing dove (as opposed to a mourning dove?)

Grey-capped social weaver

Blue-capped Cordon Bleu
Yellow-billed storks

Yellow-collared love birds
Our last stop of the morning was at the Serengeti Visitors Center, which had a little museum and a walking path past a number of very informative signs describing everything from the geography of the region to a description of the great migration of the wildebeest to the shape of different birds' beaks.  We learned that global warming is having a dramatic effect on the ecosystem in the Serengeti.  The area is much dryer than in the past, so the annual great migration of the wildebeest now takes place much earlier than it used to.  The steady moderate rain that used to fall arrive in February and March has been replaced by short torrential bursts of rain, and other than a little rain in September and October, the years recently have seen a lot of drought.
Visitors Center

Display of bones outside the Visitors Center

Walking trail through the center

Map of the trail 

A description of the great migration.  All of the signs were in both English and Swahili

Candelabra trees line the walkway

The visitors center area was filled with dozens of fat, cuddly little rock hyraxes sunning themselves on the rocks and fences.  Several mommy hyraxes were nursing little ones.  Amazingly enough, these critters are more closely related to elephants than they are to rodents.
The little rock hyraxes were all over the grounds of the Visitors Center...on the rocks...

...and on the fences.

Youngsters find a comfortable spot for a nap on top of Mama

The hyraxes were not the only wildlife at the Visitors Center

Lizards also sunned themselves on the rocks

We returned to our tent camp for a fun tour of the camp kitchen and a nice nap, then set out again for our afternoon/evening drive back to the kopjes and Ngong Rock...naturally, spotting a number of animals and birds along the way.
Camp kitchen

Our group gets a kitchen tour
Ngong Rock was another of the most memorable stops of the trip.  We parked at the base of a large kopje surrounded by the beautiful candelabra trees with their upright blooming tips.  Our three guides, Cosmas, Richie, and Ansi went up the rock first to check for any lions who frequently use these rock hills for naps and lookout.
Rob plays Vanna White with our Overseas Adventure Travel Land Cruiser

Ngong Rock sits atop the kopje in front of the other massive boulders

The flaming tips of the blooming candelabra tree

After giving the "all clear," the guides led us up a path to the top of the mound where we enjoyed gorgeous views of the endless plains spreading out in every direction.

At the top of the mound are several large boulders...and one very different rock.  The white rock was pockmarked with dozens of round indentations and Cosmas explained that the mound had been the "conference center" of the ancient Masai who inhabited this region.  When hit with a small rock, Ngong Rock rang out with a metallic "GONG" that could be heard for miles and signaled the start of a Masai meeting.  The origin of the rock - which is apparently different from the others in the area - seems to be uncertain.  Some of the websites I explored speculate that it is a meteorite, although I have trouble imagining that a meteorite could have landed here without leaving a substantial crater.  We all took turns banging on the rock, sending loud metallic clangs out over the plains, and Cosmas, Ansi, and Richie sang away our troubles with their Hakuna Matata song.  The larger granite boulders were also marked with dents...left by the hundreds of tourists pounding away.
Cosmas demonstrates the sounds of Ngong Rock

Rob and Joan in front of marks left by more recent visitors.

Comas, Richie, and Anzi set out our afternoon snack
 Click the link for the sound of Ngong Rock:   Hakuna matata at Ngong Rock 

We enjoyed a welcome snack break on the top of the hill...and the somewhat less welcome appearance of a black mamba in a little crevice just below us.  While it was fascinating to see the creature, I admit to being happy that this was our only snake sighting of the entire trip!
The deadly black mamba is easy to miss when you are walking through the bush!

Our safari group clusters around to observe the black mamba...from a safe distance!
Returning to camp, we had one more tense moment.  We spotted this gorgeous leopard and her large cub lying in the grass enjoying the warm late-afternoon sun.  As we watched, a spotted hyena approached and noticed the pair.  He laid down for a while, then slowly moved toward the leopards again.  "Oh, no," I gasped quietly.  "Don't go after the baby!"  The leopards noticed the hyena and kept a close eye on him and I sighed in relief as he finally trotted past them...probably aware that he would be on the losing end of a battle.  The pair of leopards rose and trotted off in the glow of the late afternoon sun.
Mother leopard and cub

A nearby spotted hyena considers his next move

Mother and baby keep a close watch on the intruder

He was licking his chops...but decided that discretion was the better part of valor.

Mother and cub depart for their evening activities.

Our Serengeti adventure was coming to an end, but it had been another glorious day!