Monday, May 5, 2008

Ngorongoro Crater

After spending a few nights in Dar es Salaam holed up in our hotel suite, complete with kitchenette and wifi, Chris and I finally got our act together and booked a four night safari to Ngorongoro Crater, the Serengeti and Lake Manyara. Safaris in Tanzania are a huge business, with most departing from the towns of Arusha and Moshi. The concentration of wildlife in the numerous parks accessible from these two cities is some of the highest in the world. We hopped on a plane from Dar to Arusha to start our adventure.

We booked our trip with a company recommended by Chris’s friends from Portland – Bushbuck Ltd. Their motto: it’s rough…it’s dusty…but it’s an adventure. Sounds good to us! We left Arusha after lunch to drive to our first destination, the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area. Ngorongoro Crater is a collapsed volcano, a caldera similar to Yellowstone National Park, but there are no crazy hot springs or geysers here, only animals galore and Maasai. The Maasai live in the conservation area raising cattle and goats.

In this part of Tanzania, the rainy season is just about at its end. The result is a lush countryside that is completely green with patches of bright yellow wildflowers and fields of corn and coffee. The two hour drive was beautiful. We arrived at our lodge on the crater rim just about at sunset. The clouds were settling in along the walls of the crater, but our first view was amazing. Check out the panorama in our Picassa album. I’m not sure what either of us was expecting; definitely not the expanse of open plains surrounded by the steep crater walls of dense vegetation we saw before us. Even from the top of the crater rim we could see tiny specs of wildebeest, buffalo and zebras.

Eager to start we were both awake for breakfast long before our scheduled 8 am departure. Climbing into our trusty Land Cruiser, specially outfitted with a pop-up roof and elevated floor to allow for optimal wildlife viewing, we descended into the crater through forests of acacia trees. Once on the crater floor we found ourselves driving among the wildflowers searching the horizon for movement and signs of life. There were animals everywhere! Throughout the whole afternoon it was difficult to drive for five minutes without seeing something. Groups of water buffalo mixed with herds of wildebeest and dotted with zebras.

We spent the entire day driving around the crater. We saw: elephants, black rhinos, wildebeest, zebras, spotted hyenas, flamingos, ostriches, warthogs, crown cranes, a cheetah, a lion, jackals, monkeys, hippos, gazelle, storks, doves, Egyptian geese, and lots more birds. As we soon found out, the season also means lots of babies!

The elephants are huge beasts. Zebras look totally out of place with their wacky stripes and short stubby legs. We both loved watching the warthogs running with their tails held vertical – like little flags, you might not be able to see the body in the tall grass but you could still see its tail. We saw one baby wildebeest with a chunk of skin ripped off its side; it will most likely end up somebody’s dinner soon. The hyenas look almost like small bears and they are butt ugly. We saw two black rhinos, which are extremely rare due to poaching of their huge horn. We saw a female lion just walking along the road through a herd of wildebeest like she owned the place, which she does, totally unconcerned about the animals around her. They, on the other hand, were extremely wary and gave her a wide berth.

But the highlight was definitely the cheetah. She was beautiful. We watched her explore the tall grass and hang out near one of the small streams. We were watching as she jumped across the water and made her way towards us, eventually coming within 50 ft. Awesome. It’s hard to describe the beauty of watching these animals so close, knowing they could destroy you in a matter of minutes, and marveling at their power, speed, and grace. You have to stop and remind yourself that these animals of wild and living in the wild. The crater provides such a unique viewing experience, it’s a natural zoo.

Exhausted after a full day of adventures, we left Ngorongoro extremely satisfied to drive to the Serengeti. The steep road out of the crater had some hair-raising twists and drop-offs, not to mention slick mud and no guardrail. But we were not even ten minutes outside of the crater when we saw more herds of zebra and a bunch of giraffes! The scenery is spectacular. We could see the flat endless plains of the Serengeti in the distance as we passed through the arid foothills below the crater rim. The countryside is dotted with Maasai villages, consisting of half a dozen to twenty mud huts. It’s somewhat startling is round a corner and see people walking through the grass literally in the middle of nowhere. Their red and purple clothing provides vibrant dots of color to the landscape.


Polly said...

Every blog and set of pictures seems more amazing than the last! The photos are breath-taking!

Charles said...

Emma, I love your writing. It is very interesting and I felt like I was there a couple of times. Kilimanjaro is one of my lifelong dreams and I hope to someday stand at its summit and look down over Tanzania