18 Dec 2013

Paradise Found

Tanzania: Ngorogoro Conservation Area, Ngorogoro Crater

We both had ideas of what the Ngorogoro Crater would look like, but nothing quite prepared us for what would become our favourite day of our trip so far. 

The classic vast plains of the Serengeti continue into the Ngorogoro Conversation Area, but after turning off the main road and heading down a little used road – just two ruts in the grass - we encountered many Maasai in their villages or tending their cattle, sheep and goats.  This felt like true Maasai country – and apart from this experience of seeing them in their true environment, the only tribesmen we encountered were trying to sell us something.  It is sad that such a beautiful tribe has become so commercialised that its priority seems to be to sell you a spear or jewellery and charge you $2 for a picture of their livestock or themselves.  Unfortunately this was a key factor in our decision not to visit a Maasai village.

At the end of the ruts we came across an interesting, and rather surreal, natural phenomenon – the shifting sands.  This is a shifting mass of volcanic ash that moves between 10 and 20 metres a year across the plains.  Its black dune-like formation was a strange sight in the middle of this orange/yellow landscape.  Most incredible is the fact that it seems to hoover up after itself, as it leaves no trail. Following this we headed on a short detour through the Olduvlai Gorge – another important archaeological site which has yielded amazingly intact skulls of Homo Habilis.

With Tonka's help we gradually ascended to the crater rim at over 2,000m and arrived at a viewpoint – this only furthered our excitement for entering the Ngorogoro Crater the next day.  

We agreed on a 5am start and entering the park at the specified 6am.  However, at the campsite (*Simba A*) an obstacle presented itself – we met a German couple who invited us for gluwein – they would provide the wine and us the cinnamon.  This seemed too good an opportunity to pass up, so we indulged.

We were the second car to enter at 6am and the weather was perfect.  Driving into the crater you see a vast space dotted with lakes and rivers and a beautifully ancient forest of yellow-fever trees.  It is a natural amphitheatre surrounded by 600m crater walls and it feels like you are entering a place untouched by time or man.  Another observation was that the animals seem quite unphased by any vehicles, so we were able to get much closer to the wildlife than we had in some other parks. 


A couple of our favourite moments were seeing an enormous elephant – a great tusker that we named Alfred because of his slow, purposeful plodding.  We watched him for a while and he was soon crossing the track just in front of us where you could really see his size against another car that was coming the other way.  

On the other end of the scale, we spent some time watching the small and delicate features of a newborn monkey

But by far the best moment was when we were watching some lionesses relaxing.  Out of the corner of our eye we saw a lion sitting calmly facing away from us. Clearly preoccupied by something near the water’s edge, he began to stride purposefully towards it.  Through our binoculars we could see what he was heading for – a bloated carcass of either a buffalo or a hippo (it was too covered in vultures to be recognisable) lay in the grass, and this buffet was drawing in predators from all directions.  As usual, the vultures and hyenas were first on the scene.  These latter scavengers were already making off with the swag – one of them had hit the jackpot and was escaping with an enormous length of entrails (always the take-away of choice.)  If his mouth hadn’t been so full, he would no doubt have been laughing.

As the lion approached, the mood changed.  Vultures scrambled to the air and hovered like drones, while the hyenas began to retreat chattering excitedly.  At this point the lion’s rear guard, the jackals, began to break rank and snatch leftovers from the ground.  As the lion began to feed, a game of grandmothers footsteps began with the hyenas.  Each time the lion turned towards the carcass the hyenas would sneak a few paces closer, stopping dead in their tracks whenever the lion looked up.  This continued for as long as we watched.

We spent 8 hours in total surveying this beautiful area and the wildlife within until we felt contented and saturated with experiences and then headed again up the crater’s edge and pointed Tonka East.

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