Ngorongoro Crater

The drive up to the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater was definitely one to remember. The views were breathtaking as we drove through the pastoral lands that the Maasai herdsmen called home. Our jeep climbed a steep, winding road through the increasingly dense forest, and the road was barely wide enough to accommodate passing vehicles. My knuckles were white from gripping the seat as I peered hesitantly over the seemingly-encroaching cliff edges.

The temperature on the crater rim was drastically cooler than the lower elevation grasslands, and the surrounding forest was thick and lush. Upon arriving at the Rhino Lodge, we were unexpectedly greeted by a mustering of marabou storks, patrolling the driveway like sentries. The birds were massive, standing about 5 feet tall, and were unphased as we stood nearby snapping photos. This species is often called the “undertaker bird,” from its somewhat unfortunate appearance. The feathers of the wings and body are completely black from behind, while the feathers around its neck are contrastingly fluffy and white, as if it were dressed in a plush bathrobe. Interestingly, the stork’s neck and face are completely devoid of feathers – the neck is a wrinkled flesh-color, while its face is mottled with shades of black and red, and looks almost as if it has been badly burned. Francis informs us that the bird is one of Africa’s Ugly Five, quite different from the esteemed Big Five. For those curious, the Ugly Five include: the marabou stork, warthog, vulture, wildebeest, and hyena. But really, how can you not find the poor birds endearing, even if they are a little homely?

After the storks allowed us to pass, we were shown to our room which, like our accommodations at the other lodges, was clean and charming but very basic. At the front of the room, a large window was covered by curtains, and a door led out to a small, private patio area. The porter threw open the door and declared, “and this is your view!” Our mouths dropped open. Standing only 10 feet from us, at the forest’s edge, was an enormous Cape buffalo chomping a mouthful of grass. We watched him for a few minutes before retreating inside. I’m pretty sure he was trying to tell us that that was, in fact, his little patio…

Early the next morning we headed for a safari in the crater. The Ngorongoro Crater is the result of a volcanic eruption that collapsed inward roughly 2.5 million years ago. One of the largest unbroken and unflooded calderas in the world, the crater is approximately 14 miles in diameter and 2,000 feet deep. Several distinct habitats exist within the crater; the rim and highlands are primarily montane forest, with scrubby heath along the slopes, while the crater floor is largely open grasslands, with a small area of acacia woodland and a more barren, desert-like area. Several freshwater springs and swamps pepper the crater, and pink flamingos gather at Lake Magadi, a large, shallow mineral lake. The crater is home to more than 25,000 animals – mainly wildebeest, zebra, and gazelle – including ~26 black rhinoceros.

The drive through the crater was just stunning! It was a much different landscape than the Serengeti and, although less diverse, wildlife still abounded everywhere we turned. Scores of wildebeest plodded slowly through the summer heat, ostriches strutted assertively through the tall grass, and languid Cape buffalo lounged calmly near small pools. We also spotted an absolutely massive bull elephant with an enormous, flawless, left tusk. He gingerly grazed on lush, green reeds near a small swamp, as we watched in amazement. When he turned slightly, we noticed that his right tusk was severely worn, only about half the length as its curved counterpart. Francis informed us that elephants are “right- or left-tusked,” much like humans are right- or left-handed, and the dominant tusk typically becomes worn from constant use. This suggested that this particular elephant was right-tusked. Unlike at Serengeti, we didn’t see herds of elephant wandering throughout the crater. Rather only lone, older, male elephants inhabit the crater floor, while females and family groups remain in the highland forests.

As we drove around, tall dust devils would form from the swirling winds, and zip around the terrain before dissipating. Wildebeest, zebra, and large wading birds congregated at Lake Magadi’s shores for a cool drink. The briny water was dotted with African spoonbills and lesser flamingos. Clades of vibrantly-marked gray-crowned cranes diligently hunted for a meal on the marshy shoreline.

We observed a couple of new bird species here that we had not previously encountered at Serengeti – the hamerkop and kori bustard. The hamerkop was a hilariously peculiar-looking bird, with its head shaped distinctly like a hammer. Interestingly, although the birds are fairly small (about 22 inches and weighing not much more than 1 pound), they construct gigantic nests – the largest of any bird relative to their size. The nests are built over the course of several weeks from as many as 10,000 sticks, and the finished products can reach six feet (2 meters) in diameter. Amazingly, the nests can weigh up to 110 lbs (50 kg), and are often sturdy enough to support a human. Hamperkops are also known to engage in “false mating,” where one bird will mount another, but not necessarily for breeding. While we initially thought we had intruded on an intimate moment between an amorous pair, we may very well have witnessed this unique behavior.

The kori bustard is the largest bird capable of flight, standing roughly 3 feet tall and weighing 15–40 pounds. Small songbirds, such as bee eaters, will frequently ride on the kori bustard’s backs. As the large birds run through the grass, they unwittingly stir up insects for their hungry passengers.

Midway through the day we stopped for a picnic lunch beside Ngoitokitok Spring, a freshwater marsh. Black kites circled overhead, hoping for the opportunity to snag a sandwich, and helmeted guineafowl scurried about the scorched grass.

As we continued our drive around the crater, we came upon a pack of five hyenas that were stalking a warthog through the tall grass. Realizing he was being pursued, the warthog trotted along in an effort to escape the outwardly offensive bunch. Francis informed us that hyenas are principally scavengers, but they will hunt a prey that appears either sick or weak. Another safari vehicle soon pulled up beside us, keen to watch the battle unfold. I believe I was the only one vehemently cheering for the poor warthog to evade the eager opportunists. As we gazed with anticipation (I, with terror), the warthog scampered to a grassy knoll, found a small hollow, and sat down in it, pointing his curled tusks matter-of-factly at the hyenas. Knowing they had been outsmarted, and not wanting to risk the repercussions of the “pointy end” of the warthog, the hyenas woefully retreated. I returned to my seat, wiped the sweat from my brow, and smiled contently that my chubby little friend was victorious.

A bit later in the afternoon, Francis answered a call on our CB radio – another guide believed he had spotted a black rhinoceros! And we were off! With the location of the other vehicle, we hurried ahead to see if we would be able to catch a glimpse of the elusive creature. While maneuvering quickly, Francis told us that rhinos are pretty much the hardest animals to see – they are extremely endangered, solitary, and reclusive. There aren’t many, they don’t travel in big enough groups to spot, and they (understandably) don’t go near the roads. Up ahead we saw that several other jeeps had now stopped and congregated near the sight. We pulled alongside them, scanned the grass, and saw nothing. Other groups were pointing to the left with uncertainty. Francis asked one of the other guides if it was still there; he thought that it was. A couple of the vehicles gave up and drove off, but we weren’t missing this opportunity. Our patience was rewarded minutes later as we watched the rhino stand up from his resting place in the tall grass. Although he was quite a ways off in the distance, Stephan was thrilled to see his rhino.

As the day came to a close, we leisurely made our way along the dirt road that would take us back up the crater slopes. As we absorbed our last views of the magnificent landscape, we saw that great herds of wildlife had assembled in front of us. Hundreds of zebra and wildebeest grazed peacefully alongside the road, warmed by the light of the late afternoon sun. It was as if they were wishing us a fond farewell from their homeland. As we wove carefully through the sea of animals in the setting sun, I had to fight back tears, as this marked the end of our journey through the indescribable beauty of Tanzania.