The Ngorongoro (ph. Korong-goro) Crater is a magical land where a plethora of wildlife coexist inside a spectacular natural enclosure. It is like a massive real-life snow globe, minus the snow. From the top of the steep jungled-walls you can see the entire circular play pen below. The crater is now over 2 million years old, formed after the walls of a dormant volcano fell in on themselves. It’s a unique ecosystem of flora and fauna and somewhere that’s been very high on my ‘must-see’ list for a long while.
Our journey started in Arusha, which is the jumping off point for most of the major Tanzanian parks, including the Crater and the Serengetti. We opted not to visit the Serengetti because we would only have one night to spend in the Serengetti and the Great Migration was too far north for us to visit within our given timeframe, plus one night came with a whopping price tag of $250pp. We’ve been so lucky with our wildlife sightings thus far, and with the Crater to look forward to, we weren’t overly disappointed. Gives us reason to return some day and climb Kilimanjaro at the same time.
Loaded into rugged Toyota 4x4s, we were off. It was a nice change from the truck to be inside a smaller vehicle, facing forwards. It felt surprisingly smooth. Our driver, Victor, was a local Maasai and we had some fascinating conversation with him about the Maasai culture before we reached our first stop, Lake Manyara National Park. On our way we stopped for some Lake Manyara red bananas. The best bananas on earth! Their flesh is succulent and sweeter than a good yellow banana. Mmmmmm.
Lake Manyara Park is quite small, roughly 200 km sq, bordered by the lake on one side and rift (of The Great Rift Valley) on the other. It’s quite heavily forested, which makes for exciting game driving — you never know what’s going to poke it’s head out of the woods. Our highlight was coming across a family of elephants crossing the narrow road, surrounding our tiny vehicle. A massive bull elephant crossed so close to the rear of our truck that Helen could have elbowed the elephant. She didn’t, of course, for fear of angering him. We saw hippos wallowing in the muddy waters, as hippos do, but every now and then, they would throw in a somersault and hang out floating on their backs, plump bellies and stubby legs sticking up in the air. Happy Hippos. After a few good hours in the park, we made camp in the nearby town of Karatu, eagerly anticipating our next day in the Crater.
We awoke well before the crack of dawn so we could arrive in the Crater at sunrise. The sky was dark and there was a heavy fog covering everything — adding to the allure and anticipation of the day. Slowly, as the sun began to rise and our 4×4 crept down the steep slopes, the sky cleared and the Crater started to reveal itself. Our first glimpse gave us goosebumps, which may have been partially caused by the icy cold air with the Crater at quite a high altitude. There was wildlife everywhere. Because the sides of the Crater are so steep, once an animal is inside, it has little reason to leave. Water is available year-round, which for most animals, makes migration unnecessary.
The floor of the Crater is perfectly flat and wide open, making spotting game easy peasy. The animals themselves made it even easier with the lions stealing the show. We saw 5 lions sprawled out right beside the road, one was lying directly on the road. They had killed and dismembered a large Zebra and were sleeping beside its mangled corpse. There are so many safari vehicles in the Crater now that the lions are totally unfazed by our presence. Further from the road we saw a handsome male lion, with a full dark mane, mating with a willing female; several times. We were amused, especially Hiro, to learn that a male lion will separate from the pride with his lady for a week and mate with her up to 65 times a day!
The Crater is an ornithologists dream. My favourite bird spotting was the Crowned Crane and the long-tailed Wydah. There were also hippo, rhino, buffalo, wildebeest, zebra, hyena, you name it. The only animal not found within the Crater walls are giraffes because the climb down is too steep for them. The sheer quantities of these animals is what amazed me most. We’ve seen all these animals in the other parks, but not like this. There were so many. The herds were much larger and the animals themselves were larger, especially the elephants. Because the Crater has been a protected area for over 50 years, it has helped to save some of the larger elephants who might otherwise have been killed or poached. The tusks on these guys were massive, verging on ridiculous — by far the biggest we’ve seen yet.
Another aspect of the Crater which boggles my mind is the record of our own human history found there. Ash from the volcano helped preserve some of the oldest traces of our early ancestors yet discovered: footprints from a homo erectus, dating back to over 3 million years ago. This fact, combined with the incredible wildlife encounters we had, only reinforced the wonder I already felt for this place. I was somewhat overcome, and had one of those “wow” moments. The combination of natural beauty, abundant wild animals, and evolutionary significance make the Ngorongoro one of the most incredible places we’ve visited yet.