Into the crater…
The Ngorongoro crater stretched out below us as we began our descent into its bowl in smaller four-wheel drive vehicles; far more suited than the truck for the steep drop down through the heavily forested rim to the crater floor. The statistics of the crater are as staggering as the views: up to 12 miles across(19km) with a surface area of 102 square miles (264 km) and an elevation of 7,500 feet (2286m). It was formed over 2.5 million years ago when the cone of a large active volcano collapsed inward after a major eruption creating a unique ecosystem. The crater was incorporated into the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in 1959 and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978.Mind blowing statistics aside, it was the cold that was getting all our attention this morning as for the first time in Africa we were shivering.
As the track began to level out and the trees to thin we were joined by a crater welcoming party of a lioness and her three cubs, who ran alongside our vehicle for over twenty minutes before leaving us to fade away into the undergrowth in search of brunch. The lioness seemed stressed by her young, as much like her human counterpart she constantly appeared to head count the cubs and then stop for the one falling behind or distracted. Her one cub shared her frustration and worry at the renegade (there’s always one), who appeared to do his own thing, and I guess always had done and always would. The lioness was clearly hungry, and feeling the pressure of finding something to eat with three much loved but amateur hunters in tow.
From the vehicle we spotted a caracal in the grass directly in the path of the approaching lions. The caracal is a rare safari spot and there was a collective intake of breath as we waited for this “big cat” encounter. It is a contradiction within the safari experience that you want both the animals you see to survive but also to kill. Maybe her stress levels were too high, or hunger had focused her mind, as the lioness never broke her stride as she passed seemingly oblivious to the caracal crouched down in the grass just metres away.
The caracal is a medium sized cat that stands about 20 inches (50cm) to the shoulder, and is slenderer in appearance and longer legged than the lynx. It is distinguishable by its elongated ears finished with long black tufts that it uses to locate prey. In fact, its name comes from the Turkish “karakulak” which means black ears. Surprisingly it is a fussy eater for a big cat; rejecting some internal organs on its kill and preferring its meat minus the fur. Caracal party tricks are an ability to go long periods of time without water by relying on the bodily fluids of its kills, and a willingness to be tamed which has resulted in its use as a hunting cat in India and Iran.
As we left the lioness, her cubs and the relieved caracal, we passed a male lion fast asleep in the weak morning sun his mouth dropped open and relaxed. A variation on the idiom “let sleeping dogs lie” seemed appropriate, as although asleep the huge muscular body and just visible teeth clearly said leave me alone and don’t even think about instigating any trouble. It must be wonderful to have such effect even when you are fast asleep.
The crater floor emerged, and from our vehicle a busy eat or be eaten world appeared before us. Along with other parks and reserves in Tanzania and Kenya, there has been a progressive change in how the Ngorongoro crater is managed, and several of our fellow travellers who had visited before testified to this. It is no longer possible to camp inside the Crater, and with opening times limited it is only possible to purchase a six-hour permit for your visit. Vehicles must also keep strictly to the tracks and can only stop in the designated areas.
It is estimated that there are over 30,000 animals within the crater, including rhino, leopard, lion, gazelle, zebra, wildebeest, hyena, jackal, hippo, warthog, elephant and flamingo, but no impala or giraffe which maybe due to the crater’s inaccessibility and lack of suitable vegetation. We were arriving early morning, so the hyenas were busily crunching on the remains of their kill, while the jackals hovered close by making occasional dashes for scraps only to back off in the face of hyenas’ aggression. Further on a macabre sight met our eyes as jackals licked away at a sea of blood stained grass; driving on we speculated on just how clean they would get it.
Although the crater gets busy with vehicles the wildlife completely disregards them, often hunting within yards of you or even collapsing exhausted into the shade the vehicles can provide. This provides many wonderful photographic opportunities: the endangered black crowned crane stood proud but did not treat us to any of the nuptial dances they are famous for, and the ostrich crossed backwards and forwards in front of the vehicle showing its luxuriant plumage to its best advantage.
The ostrich is Africa’s largest bird; sprinting up to a top speed of 43mph and maintaining 31mph over a distance. As it passed close to the vehicle you could appreciate the power in its legs with their 16-foot stride, and a kick that can kill a human or a potential predator like a lion. In the shimmering distance you could just discern the delicate pink of the flamingos with their matching line of reflections along the edge of the soda Lake Magadi.
There are many hippos in the Ngorongoro Crater, living in groups of between 10 and 30 that dot the pool surfaces like large smooth stepping stones or lurk U-boat like below. They can weigh up to 8000 pounds, and leave the water at night to feed on the short grass. Hippos are incredibly dangerous and unpredictable animals whose powerful jaws and long sharp teeth can crush a crocodile or split a boat in two. For some reason this was our first thought when we stopped for lunch by a large hippo- eyed dotted lake and were told we could leave the vehicle.
After lunch we began our long climb out of the crater with our permitted six hours nearly over. It seems that at the end of every game drive there is always a last treat like icing on a cake, and this time was spectacularly no exception. As the ground became more overgrown, we came upon a group of elephants feeding on the side of the road. Seemingly oblivious to our proximity they carried on regardless; the matriarch’s trunk slowly winding its way to the top of the acacia trees to accompanying “wows” from the vehicle, while below the smallest of calves wrestled with each other in the dust, or attempted haphazardly to copy their elders and loosen roots with their feet. We could have stopped there all day, and no one would have complained, but time and permits wait for no man or elephant, so with heavy hearts we waved them and the crater goodbye.
Read this African Adventure from the start:
Read the conclusion of the adventure: A Relaxing End to an African Adventure-Zanzibar
Share your comments and thoughts.
Other travel pieces on the timetraveller.blog you may enjoy:
This holiday is the Kenya and Tanzania Adventure with Exodus Travels