Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania


The full moon casts its glow over the plains of Tanzania and the highlands of the Ngorongoro Crater most of the night. My bed is perched just inside the glass domed viewing platform of our room on the crater rim. Half an hour before sunrise I wake to the periwinkle and salmon glow of the approaching dawn, peer outside at the Cape buffalo and roll over and go back to sleep.

Sylvester takes us further along the rim road to the entrance to the Ngorongoro National Park. We stop at the gate to register for our time slot, pass through the gate at the guard hut, and start down the road that leads into the crater.

There are rhinos here and I’m hopeful we will see one.

Although the crater looked huge from above, it seems even bigger from the interior. We follow a side trail down to a creek and find a small group of Cape buffalo nervously eyeing us while they stop for a drink. They don’t stay long, and keep moving quickly over the next hill. They seem agitated.

Sylvester drives a few miles up the main road before turning onto another trail. We wind our way to an interior slope and see a few Landcruisers parked along the trail ahead. Where there is a rig stopped there is usually something to see. I follow there gaze but can’t spot what the other people are watching. Sylvester points out a beige clump of movement in a draw about 400 yards out. I can see shadows moving but even with my binoculars cannot make out what kind of animal it is. But then the shadow moves and this battle for life reveals itself. A large group of lions, perhaps ten or more is taking down a Cape buffalo. They have him stopped and are hanging from it’s struggling giant body. It’s hard to watch, and I’m grateful that we aren’t close enough to really see it. We watch for several minutes before the mass disappears behind the low rise of the draw again. A few minutes later the lions all disperse. Each walks out to a separate flat spot and collapses from exhaustion. Sylvester explains that they have killed the buffalo and now must go catch their breath before they will eat. The lions have given everything they had to take down such a large animal.

Vehicles start moving away and we double back along the trail toward the main road but turn on another road to follow a creek. We watch baboons moving along the edge of the creek until they reach a tree filled with ripe figs where they stop to graze.

Sylvester points out a small group of three hippos immersed in the creek and grazing along its banks. He tells us that bushels and bushels of figs have fallen into the water and have fermented, making the hippos a little drunk.

We watch a female ostrich trying to attract a mate. He follows her for a few minutes until another female arrives and steals his focus.

Sylvester takes us to the west side of the crater floor where two dozen Landcruisers are parked along the side of the road. About 400 yards off the road two large animals are laying down, back to back to keep a careful watch. When I look through the binoculars I can clearly see the two giant gray beasts are rhinos. Their horns are unmistakable.

We sit and watch them snooze for several minutes before prying ourselves away to go watch more wildlife.

Our tour continues toward the lake to see the flamingoes. Along the way we watch an ostrich pair Shepard their dozen babies across the open plain. When we meet them again in the return from the lake we watch a hyena try to ambush them and steal a chick. The mother ostrich cuts him off and tears him apart with her giant claws. He turns to run as both parents chase him.

Our guide drives us to the spring where we can get out and stretch and use restrooms before having our picnic lunch. There are dozens of zebras around the spring, and they don’t seem to be bothered by the tourist. Hippos pop up in the lake at the spring to watch us.

Finally it’s time to go. We’ve been allowed a few hours to explore and we’ve made the most of it. We take the road that leads up and out of the crater toward the rim and will make our way back to Arusha.

What an incredible journey.

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