Top of the list

I’ve seen a fair number of World Heritage Sites and natural wonders. The Ngorongoro Crater is both, and now that I’ve seen it, I have to rank it near the top of my personal rankings.

When we were on our descent into Moshi a week ago, I didn’t recognize the crater out my window. It looked like an extinct volcano, but a very old and eroded one. The strange part was the caldera, which instead of being rocky or filled with water, was verdant. Steve, sensibly, figured out what we were seeing. On Tuesday, after leaving behind the Hadza hunters, we returned to our lodge at Lake Eyasi, ate breakfast, and departed. After about 3 hours and various check-ins at the national park headquarters, we arrived at the road that would take us down for a close-up view.

I wondered if I would be disappointed. As you get closer and closer to it, the crater floor looks enormous. A large salty lake fills part of it, and a huge portion of the rest is grass which only a month or so after the rainy season was already turning yellow. Large patches of deeper green spread out in various spots, but even after we reached the bottom of the road, I saw no animals. At first.

Then it began. First we drove past a herd of zebras. Then waterbuck and wildebeest. Grants and Thompson’s gazelles. Elephants ambling along with the easy confidence that they, after all, were the kings and queens of the beasts. We saw lions, too, snoozing in the sun like house cats, paws in the air, bellies absorbing the warm rays. With the top of our Land Cruiser popped up, we stopped again and again to stand and take photos, gaping at the sight of a distant black rhino, hippos copulating in the lake, Cape Buffalos and warthogs and jackals and ostriches, grazing, moving through the grass. “It’s like the biggest wild animal park on the planet,” Steve commented. But it’s one where the lions and leopards feed themselves every night.

Drowsy lion with copulating hippos in the background

It’s spectacular, and the pleasure continued after we climbed back out of the crater with sunset approaching and checked into our hotel. Perched on the rim, our room had an enormous window that commanded the scene below. At almost 2000 feet above the floor, we couldn’t see any animals, but knowing they were there thrilled us. We slept with the curtains open, and I awoke well before dawn, in part because I wanted to see the magical vista slowly take shape outside our window again.

We got more of a taste of it Wednesday morning (June 19). Although originally scheduled to hike around the Empakai Crater, we rebelled at the prospect of another 6-hour drive (to and from it) over spine-jolting roads and instead opted to do a 2-hour hike on the Ngorongoro crater rim.

The short drive to that made us feel like we were in Scotland, not Africa. Temperatures on the rim range from cool to downright chilly, and a dense mist was swirling. We met our ranger/guide, who was armed with the ubiquitous AK-47, and as we set out on foot, we pumped him for info on what we should do if we ran into an elephant, a Cape Buffalo, a leopard. (Answers: a) run off the path down the hillside; b) lie flat in a trench, where the the curve of the buffalo’s horns would make it hard for him to stab you to death (apparently they do not stomp people); c) pray that the gunshots would scare the big cat away.)

We did see plenty of evidence that elephants were around: a place where one had dug into the dirt with its tusk for vital minerals, footprints, huge piles of elephant dung that the guide said had to have been deposited earlier that morning. Later in the hike, we found even fresher piles; they were all but steaming.

Fresh elephant dung (next to hiking pole tips)

It was a bit creepy. But the guide had his gun, and the only creatures we ran into were birds and cattle being herded by their Maasai masters. It struck me that this was our last walk of the trip in a dense and beautiful African forest. I’ll miss them; dream about them. But tomorrow morning, we set off for the great plains of the Serengeti.


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