It started the same as all my road trips – an impromptu idea and immediate decision to travel the next weekend. This time it was to visit Ngorongoro Crater for the 3rd time! I didn’t argue. I knew a trip to the same place evokes a different experience and this visit proved to be no different.
The crater is in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) which is part of the Serengeti Ecosystem in Northern Tanzania. It is 190kms from Arusha and about 400Km from Nairobi.
Like many other parts of the Great Rift Valley this area has many craters, lakes, plains, depressions, gorges, wildlife, livestock and pastoralists.
It’s for the sense of harmony between man and nature that I cannot tire of visiting this place over again! A place that evokes tranquillity – with layered valleys framing this largest unbroken caldera in the world.
A kilometre deep sunken sanctuary for usual suspects & others
I held my breath going down the crater at the Seneto gate anticipating which wildlife I would encounter this time. I was not sure whether to be happy or not when it started raining. It was the start of the rainy season. In the end the rain was a blessing in disguise and a key highlight of my experience this time.
Not surprisingly the first animal to see was one of the usual suspects in Eastern Africa Savannah – gnu (Wildebeest). Sometimes people are not too kind calling them ‘zero brain’ which needless to say isn’t true. I find them rather handsome. Though I am never sure what their staring gaze means, might you?
As I got deeper into the park, I was curious to see how the animals would behave when caught by rain in an open grassland – this time with no umbrella trees in sight. It was my first experience with rain in a park. Well, the gnu and antelopes just stood motionless and let the water run down their backs.
These two buffaloes continued to graze taking no notice of the rain for some reason – an impenetrable thick or oily hide, I wondered?
At the hippo pool, the occupants were doing what would be expected in an afternoon, dozing.
However at the other corner of the pool, I could not decide at the onset whether it was a case of strange bedfellows or something else going on? But with no politicians in sight I had no option but imagine it was a siesta with left overs!
Are you like me? Guilty of taking Zebras for granted? Well, this time I could not help myself but snap this cute foal and its mother. Why would they be grazing alone? Wasn’t it too dangerous with lions around, I wondered? I learnt later that foal and mummy take time away from the rest so that the foal can quickly learn mummy’s specific scent. Thereafter it can easily trace her in the harem. Zebras graze in groups of many females under the ‘management’of one male – hence a harem.
It was my first time to see the Kori Bustard – the heaviest flying bird in Africa. At the time I did not know which bird it was. But later with a good picture and reference to Veronica Roodt’s field guide for the area, it was easy to nail it. I learned that ‘Kori hens’ like it when the ‘Kori cocks’ show off those fluffy white feathers around the neck. Unfortunately they also quickly get to find out that these ‘males’, unlike many other birds, are not very keen with baby sitting and house-keeping.
Stunning scenery and landscapes – outside and inside the crater
There are many ‘postcard’ worthy sceneries on the way to Ngorongoro, its outer slopes and needless to say inside the crater. On the outskirts of the crater, the first mandatory stop is at a view-point on a sharp slope of the Gregory Rift Escarpment. This is close to Kambi ya Mbu (mosquito) Village. From here you can see Lake Manyara clearly or partially far below, depending on time of day and weather.
The vegetation around the crater varies from thick forest, to woodlands and open grasslands. There are several Maasai homesteads dotting the open areas around the crater rim. Acacia Lahai (red thorn tree) is a common sight with Makarot and Satiman highlands visible in the background.
Most Acacias here are home to big masses of lichens, can you spot them looking like white wet beards?
The elephants below were grazing about 100meters from the homesteads above. Alas! The boys taking care of livestock nearby were not flustered at all. I was amazed at how the elephants and the humans were minding their own business. I envied the boys knowing how terribly weary of elephants I am and was thankful for the valley between us.
Some parts of the grasslands outside and inside the park looked over grazed but it could have been due to the dry season, I wasn’t sure. I wondered whether the unpalatable tussock grass, picture below, growing conspicuously in many parts of the outer slopes, was rightfully there or was an invasion from elsewhere.
A large number of guinea fowl just after Kimba Village presented a colourful sight. What’s a group of these called, anyone know? Note the herds of livestock in the scenic Malanja depression below. The road to Serengeti is visible in the right hand corner winding round a hill.
Further down the road, as I approached Seneto gate for the decent into the crater, I was waved down by this friendly team of five. I decided to have a chat with them. Both they and I struggled to communicate with our broken Kiswahili. Somehow we managed to exchange a few pleasantries, with the boy in the middle playing the role of a skilled spokesman.
Scenery inside the park is stunning both in the rainy and wet seasons. Ngoitokitok Springs at the foot of Gorgigor Swamp area is a popular spot for picnics. It is one of the few places in the park you are allowed to get out for a stretch and use the bathroom. When you visit the park, you don’t want to skip this spot for anything.
But don’t get carried away and take your eyes off the water – someone may be watching you!
What is special about Ngorongoro?
The NCA is a world heritage site, meaning it’s of outstanding international importance deserving special protection. It’s also classified by the UN’s Organization for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO) as an International Biosphere Reserve. Such reserves represent an environment that portrays a balanced relationship between people and nature. In this case it’s the Maasai that graze their livestock in and outside the crater in perfect harmony with wildlife. Unlike during my other two visits this time I did not see Maasai in the crater – it could have been just the wrong time of day.
During my road trips in Kenya, I have come across stone structures such as the one above. Always they mark a burial site of a significant person. In this case Professor Bernhard from Germany and his son Michael who dedicated their lives to conservation efforts in this and other parts of Tanzania. I imagine that in their day, early 50’s, they achieved what Kenya’s Professor Wangari Mathai did – bringing the importance of conservation into mainstream politics and public awareness.
Many others, including Tanzanian nationals, died in the line of duty protecting this ecosystem. True patriotism. Bravo to them!
You need a day at the crater to do it and yourself justice
If you visit the crater, plan to spend a whole day in order to see as many attractions and wildlife as possible – my five hours were not enough. I would have liked to visit the remnants of farm buildings that belonged to two German brothers who had taken over the crater nearly a hundred years ago. Spend more time at Lake Makat (salt lake in Maasai) where a flock of flamingos was busy filtering its food. And laze at the Olerai Forest a nicely wooded and shaded area.
I was glad to see many animals including hyenas, ostrich, golden and side striped jackals, black rhino and a variety of birds. As usual the lions blended excellently with the golden grass, but still I managed to spot two prides. As an afterthought I noted there were no baboons in sight – where could they have been? Surely there must have been some in the forested area.
Other famous attractions to visit next time
Besides the Ngorongoro Crater there are many other famous attractions in this ecosystem. Serengeti National Park from which thousands of wildebeest migrate annually into the Maasai Mara in Kenya creating a natural spectacle. Do you remember the story of nutcracker, handle and upright men some million years ago? It is also here, in the Olduvai Gorge, that Mary and Louis Leakey made their world renowned discoveries of early human evolution. To the east Oldonyo Lengai towers majestically. It is considered an active volcano, said to produce a unique lava from all other volcanoes in the world. Unfortunately it was too hazy to take a good photo of this near perfect cone shaped mountain.
Finally Kenyans, may remember Loliondo which is in the neighbourhood. Many people from East Africa flock here with the hope of a miracle cure from an indigenous tree, Carissa edulis (bush plum), administered by a local medicine man.
Final word on this crater wonderland – matters geology
Talking of craters! There are nine craters in the NCA. Of these Ngorongoro, Empakaai, and Olmoti were at one time true craters that collapsed inwards forming what is known as a Caldera. So even though these three are called craters in every day speak, they are not. Ngorongoro stands out for having a near perfect circular shape and sheer size – a km deep in some places, 16 km wide, 19 km long, making it the largest unbroken caldera in the world.
I took the picture above from a poster at the main gate to the park. I thought it gives a good impression of the landscapes in the NCA area. One can see the Gregory Escarpment, Lakes Manyara and Natron, and the nine volcanoes. Ngorongoro crater is shaded blue giving a false impression that it’s filled with water. Maybe this was the case once a upon a time but today, as in the picture below, only a small section of the crater floor is occupied by Lake Makat. This now calm and beautiful landscape was formed when two plates of our earth’s outer crust, African and Somali plates, rifted apart some millions of years ago. On the way out of this great caldera a random thought crossed my mind – to what extent is the rifting going on? Might you know?
How I did it on a shoestring budget – upcoming blog
I hope you have enjoyed seeing the sights at Ngorongoro Conservation Area and have been inspired to visit this great ecosystem. In my next blog I will share with you how I made this road trip on a shoestring budget.