Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Ngorongoro Crater Needs more Cowbell.

Throughout our tour, there was some debate as to whether we were heading in the right direction. Not that we were lost, it was more that some people, mainly our crew, thought it was preferable to begin the tour in Nairobi and travel southward (as opposed to our more northerly route). Their reasoning was that with the more commonly run itinerary, you begin with a dusty and sweaty safari, followed by a series of early mornings and countless hours on a bouncy truck. By the end, you are nice and tired and are thus more excited at the thought of leisurely sipping cocktails on the beaches of Zanzibar and Dar es Salaam.

I get what they're saying and I thought they were all really nice guys, therefore it pains me to be the one to point out how completely and utterly wrong they are on this one. The safari in the Ngorongoro Crater and Serengeti is, bar none, the highlight of this tour. This is simply a fact. Doing the safari first means your 14 day tour has already peaked by day 5. It is akin to watching the finale of a firework shows and then having to feign enthusiasm for a guy with a sparkler. It is like eating the best desert ever prepared and then having to content yourself with a lackluster salad. It is like bedding down Brad Pitt and then having a go with Timmy, the chubby guy that delivers your office mail and is really nice but smells of slightly of cabbage. Sure, there is nothing wrong with sparklers, salads or Timmy, but they just can not compete.
And nothing, but nothing, can compete with the Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti. I have been to Kruger National Park in S. Africa, to Chobe in Botswana, to Akagera in Rwanda- wonderful parks one and at all- and yet I don't think even they can compete with this place.

The Ngorongoro Crater, where we began our safari with a morning game drive, was once a part of the larger Serengeti National Park. It was only subdivided into an independent entity later on in order to give the Maasai land where they could graze their cattle, making it the only conservation area that permits human habitation. The name itself comes from the sound a cowbell makes (at least to Maasai ears, it could just as easily been called the Ding Dong Crater.)

It is easy to forget that the conservation areas are not actually enclosed in any way.  We spotted giraffes along the highway near our campsite, a good distance from the park entrance.

In order to navigate the dirt roads and improve our chances of seeing wildlife, we ditched our mega-truck and split into two six person open-top safari vehicles.  Our group, the self-dubbed "Team Leopard" and led by the ever-smiling Frederick was lucky right from the get-go.  While pulling into main entrance, where our tour leader had to pay the group's entrance fee, we began spotting baboon families right on the side of the road.

There was nothing so unusual about this.  The baboons seemed pretty comfortable in this area and I suspect this is a common hang-out for them, meaning everyone entering the park probably has a baboon sighting early on.  The question is: how many of them get to start the morning with some male-on-male baboon action?
Yup, this happened right next to our Jeep.

The crater is the result of a volcano that exploded and collapsed in on itself, leaving some species trapped in the caldera, while others (ie. zebra and wildebeests) make seasonal migrations in and out. After sorting out all the entry requirements and almost watching an episode of Man vs. Wild play out in the parking lot, when a member of Team Leopard opened a bag of chips, sparking the immediate interest of a junk-food fancying baboon, it was time for us to begin our descent.

Viewed from above, the crater appears entirely barren, a place for a very pretty and geologically interesting drive but not much else.

Those red and blue specks, in the background, are Maasai herders.  They are permitted to bring their cattle into the crater but must leave every evening before dark.

 The perception of emptiness would change soon enough.  It began to dissipate with the spotting of a herd of wildebeest off in the distance.

And then took an unexpected turn with a lake full of flamingos (seriously, who thinks of flamingos when they picture the African plains)...

and I believe those are hartebeests in the foreground.

...followed by our first big five, must-see animal of the safari- the Buffalo.

Team Leopard- who I will note, at this time, had yet to actually see a leopard but had made it clear to Frederick that this was to be on the agenda- was soon to have another park exclusive.  This time, we witnessed, from start to comically quick finish, a love story between two ostriches.

This young lady ostrich was happily minding her own business.
She appeared wholly unaware of this dude, who was throwing down all his best moves.
Undaunted, he decided to abandon the dance floor and be a bit more direct in his approach.
And what happened next was 30 action-packed seconds of ostrich loving.
You would think this would be hard to top, but as we continued, we were surrounded by wildlife at every turn. It was like nothing I'd ever experienced before.  We would see something amazing, drive a kilometer or two only to find something more amazing.

At one point we found a buffalo carcass that our guide estimated had been there for about 2 days. There were vultures picking and tearing at the remains, creating in the process, some of the most disturbing noises of ripping flesh and cracking bones imaginable.

I stood there horrified, but fascinated, trying to will away the stench when out of the corner of my eye, I saw a lioness strolling over towards the mayhem.  Big Five animal #2. I was so stunned that all I could manage was a very caveman-like "There! Cat!" No verbs, no adjectives, not even a specific animal name- just "There! Cat!". The vultures were onto her, too, and quickly scattered while she gave the carcass a cursory once over before returning to her spot in the shade.

We continued at this pace, one sighting after another, for all of the morning.  At one point, I thought of a question that I often get asked.  It is: 'What is your favorite place?'  I totally cheat with a standard response of 'The next one'.  It occurred to me, as I gaped in sheer awe at the diversity of wildlife present in this small space, that perhaps I now had a better answer ( or at least until the next favorite place came along).

This is known as the Secretary Bird due to its feathers looking like quills, but I prefer the name one of our group members gave it- the Lady Gaga bird.

The zebra on the right- that is not a banana in his pocket.
We stopped for lunch by a lake and caught up with the other half of our group to compare sightings.  They'd had a rhino and an elephant sighting that we'd missed but nothing worthy of an airing on  adult Animal Planet.  When we mentioned this discrepancy to Frederick, a guy who was impressing us more and more at every turn, he assured us that we, too, would be seeing an elephant before we left the crater.

And sure enough, as we were on our way out, there he was- Big Five animal #3, walking amongst the zebras and wildebeest in a scene that appeared straight out of Disney's Lion King.  I half expected them all to break out into song.

All in all, we were only in the crater for a period of 3-4 hours, which felt closer to 20-30 minutes, and it had easily topped every single day which had come before it.  Our group was breathless with an excitement that we had not shared at any other point so far.

We had all enjoyed the sparklers, the salad and even Timmy but this is what we were all going to talk about for years on end.  This was (the beginning of) the grandest of grand finales.

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