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
|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!
|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
|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
|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.
|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.
|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