Ngorongoro Crater

Ngorongoro Crater: Lost Land of the Horned Beasts

The animals always grab the headlines when it comes to blogs about Tanzania. But let’s hear it for the astonishing landscape too! The jewel in the crown of Tanzania’s topography is the vast crater known as Ngorongoro. The 100 square mile crater formed when the volcano erupted and collapsed in on itself. The crater floor is at 5900 feet above sea level, surrounded by high walls that help protect the dense wildlife population. The palpable sense of otherworldliness or ‘out of time-ness’ was tangible.

Sunset from Ngorongo Sopa Lodge
View into the crater from Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge.

The Crater Rim

We drove up the eastern entrance road and stopped for a photo at an overlook on the rim. Brr! The crater rim is at 7,500 feet and the east side is exposed to damp trade winds coming in from the Indian Ocean. Misty montane forest covered the crater walls, making it feel even more like a lost world.

Umbrella acacias. Ngorongoro
Misty forest of umbrella acacias on the east side of the crater.


Group shot at a crater overlook.

We asked for lodges with swimming pools so that we could cool off after a hot day’s drive. Not today! The Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge on the crater rim was socked in with clouds and the pool was abandoned. Never mind, the lodge provided an evening entertainment program. Before dinner, Maasai people from a nearby village were rolled out to entertain the masses. It might surprise visitors that the Maasai migrated to the region about 200 years ago and pastured their cattle in the Ngorongoro crater. They were forced to move out of the crater when it became a conservation area. One of the morally gray tradeoffs of protecting wildlife habitat.

Maasai girls

Maasai performers at the Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge

The Maasai put on a lively performance with much chanting, jumping, and shaking of jewelry. I preferred to watch the tourists though. The fat mustachioed gentleman in awful baggy safari suit, manspread in full effect, nodding appreciably (but, obviously, out of time) to the Masai beat. The 47-year-old mom of three vile kids, doing the face-in-hands new-age gaze into the distance. The East Asian dude with selfie stick pulling his tubby kids into the performance space to get that all-important video of them hanging with the natives. I gleefully imagined the dancers going at them all with their sticks. No such luck! Not even a feisty cocktail could make this any better.

Off to the room, then, to read the guest services menu. There was some fine advice within (and, a bit of a hint to the average age and health of the average visitor). What to do if the electricity cuts out and you are hooked up to your breathing machine? Never walk between the room and restaurant after dark without a Maasai guard (lots of buffalo attacks, apparently). Lots of pointless services too.The artful folding of the ends of the toilet roll. The knock on your door by an employee to replace the towel that Laura used to dry her hair. What to do when you need help rolling on a condom? (I might have made that up). Mind you, there was one rubber in the bed I didn’t mind. The housekeepers went around at dinner time and put hot water bottles in the beds.

What’s a safari really like?

Safari cars at the hippo pool
Safari Land Cruisers in the Ngorongoro Crater.

Before we drive into the crater, let’s stop and talk about what it’s really like to be on safari, and the big question, why does it cost so much?

It’s the animals and the scenery that make for a great safari. The elephants don’t care whether you paid $300 or $5000 a day. The scenery is the same for everyone and your chances of seeing the coolest animals doing the coolest things comes down to luck. Well, almost! Every guide knows that tips come from satisfied customers, so they do all they can to make sure you see everything you came for. The constant chatter you hear on the car radios is the sound of drivers talking in code about where the animals are. It’s not surprising that when you happen upon a herd of T. Rex, within minutes there are five other vehicles there. The drivers are all buddies so if one of them wins they all win!

The guides use code names for animals so that they don’t get their clients’ hopes up in case the animal leaves by the time the vehicle arrives. But we had a secret weapon in the backseat: Kelsey. She studied abroad in Tanzania and speaks pretty good Swahili. By the end of the trip, she had figured out the code words for at least two animals. Out of respect for the safari guides’ profession, our lips are zipped!

Everyone travels in the same kind of Toyota Land Cruiser clad in armor from the same factory in Arusha. Some vehicles are in better shape than others. But who’s noticing the tatty seat when you are surrounded by a herd of gnu? Every car has a roof that can be raised up so that you can get clear view of the beasts. Flaps open up front and back, so no matter where you are in the car, everyone gets an uninterrupted view. Feel free to clamber up onto the seats, but it might be nice if you took off your shoes.

Another common feature of the safaris are the lunch boxes. Every morning, the safari lodge will give you a packed lunch or provide a buffet where you can pack your own. The lodges can cater for various diets, but don’t expect kale and quinoa salads. Expect a lot of packaged juice boxes and white bread sandwiches. Lunches come in cardboard boxes and generate a lot of garbage. We didn’t see any recycling facilities and the waste generated by the lunches bothered us. It would make a lot of sense for the lodges to work together to recycle lunch boxes.

Same with the bottled water. I don’t understand why the lodges don’t provide free water refills. Beach resorts in Indonesia all provide refills from huge water jugs and safari lodges in Tanzania should follow their lead. It wouldn’t be hard to carry a few of these in the back of the car instead of the boxes of 1-liter plastic bottles of water.

Toilets are hidden away across the parks. They’re in cute little fenced spots where you can stretch your legs and take a snack with little fear of becoming a snack yourself. If you find yourself desperate and between picnic areas, well, peeing is at your own risk. We had one long day where we had to jump out and ‘go’ behind the car. Eddie made sure the coast was clear but noticeably didn’t jump out for a pee himself!

So, why are safaris so goddamn expensive? The lodges. You spend very little time in them but they ain’t cheap. Any safari company can book you into any lodges, so the cost of a safari depends more on which lodges you choose than the safari company. Expect to pay at least $100-200 per person per night and sometimes much more for a lodge. We stayed in the mid-range but you can easily spend 3-4x what we did. Why you would need comfort more than we had, Lord knows, but apparently some people aren’t having fun unless they know they are paying more than everyone else!

Into the Crater

Road into the crater. Ngorongoro
The road into the crater.

Elephants on the crater plains
Elephants on the crater plains.

We rolled out early into the crater. You get a limited time in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and if you overstay your permit by minutes, the driver gets fined. So, no dilly-dallying!

Oh, and bring binoculars. We brought some fancy Nikons and they really made a difference on safari. Everyone in the car needs their own pair, and should get used to how they work before your first endangered species sighting.

Crested crane
untitled-363
Left: crested crane. Right: Gazelle.

There are vast amounts of animals in the crater. It gets pretty intense at times. We descended immediately into large herds of buffalo. They are pretty bad-tempered beasts by all accounts. But, as soon as you are getting engrossed in one form of large beast your eyes are distracted by others. They come thick and fast in Ngorongoro. Waterbuck, vultures, blue wildebeest, zebra, impala, Thompson’s gazelles, ostriches, Grant’s gazelles, enormous Corey bustards, elephants, cranes, and on and on. The only thing missing was David Attenborough’s mellifluous tones commentating on all before us.

It was time for a pee stop and what better place to relieve oneself than a hippo pool? Well, the restroom next to one. This is one of the great gathering spots for the Too-often Spotted Bulbous Safari-suited Animal Botherers. Small crews of rich people marveling at the fact that the grass feeding Hippopotamus breaks wind… underwater. We, of course, joined them and, ahem, guffawed at the Hippo guffs too!

Hippo pool
The hippopotamus pool.

Lioness on the road

There is a limit on the number of vehicles that can enter the crater in a day. However, don’t think that traffic jams only happen when Amazon HQ turfs out the nerds in downtown Seattle at 5.30pm. Where there are traffic jams in Ngorongoro, there are usually exciting animals to be seen. Thankfully, there are no game-playing, socially awkward dudes in Teslas. We headed for the traffic jam and saw a somewhat worse for wear lioness slinking between the vehicles. I don’t know what lionesses get up to on a long night out on the plains but this one had clearly overdone it. Mind you, the mating rituals of lionesses might give the game away here. Apparently, they mate every 15 minutes when in estrus!

Lion causing a traffic jam
Left: Lioness flopped out next to our car (photo by Kelsey). Right: lioness traffic jam.

She looked beat up, weary, and fly-ridden. Every few yards, she flopped down in the shade of one of the trucks. When she set off again, a couple of drivers tried to corral her off the road. But she wasn’t having it. Eventually, she plopped down the shade next to our Land Cruiser. I could have reached down and scratched her behind the ear. Her limbs stretched out underneath the vehicle, she closed her eyes, and started snoozing. All very sweet. Except, we had a limited permit goddamn you… and moving away with her stretched out under the car was a tricky maneuver. Finally, she got the message and loped off and we headed off at speed out into the outer reaches of the crater.

And, what joys there were to behold. More lions, ostrich, elephants galore, pelicans, yellow billed storks, eland, and zebra.

Black Rhinos

Elephant and rhino
Elephant and rhinoceros.

A rhino spotting was one that we most hoped for, but knew was not a guarantee. Black rhinoceros are a rare sighting today, with a remaining population of under 5,500. European hunters decimated the population in the early 20th century. Today, rhinoceros horn is prized in China and Vietnam as a (ineffective) cancer cure or just plain gross status symbol. Poachers are relentlessly killing the remaining rhinos in Africa, the horns destined to be sold at huge profit in Asia. The Ngorongoro Crater has a relatively dense population of about 40 rhinos. The steep walls, small area, and monitoring granted to the conservation area help protect the crater rhinos from poaching.

Some national parks and preserves in Africa have gone so far as to prohibit tourists from taking cell phone pictures of rhinos or posting the location of their photos on social media. This is because poacher gangs are known to scan social media to find out where the rhinos are. Ngorongoro has no such rule and it’s no secret that it’s a rhino hotspot. That being the case, we’re sharing our photos on our blog and Facebook. But, if we had seen a rhino anywhere else, we wouldn’t tell you where and we urge you to do the same.

We got lucky not long after entering the crater. As we were watching a herd of elephants silhouetted against the crater walls, Eddie shouted, “Rhino! There!” Lo and behold, we saw a rhino in profile, its horn curved long and sharp like a scimitar. It was at quite a distance away, but we could see every wrinkle in its armor through our binoculars. Photos don’t convey quite how bizarrely beautiful these creatures are, armored and jointed like giant insects.

We had another rhino sighting later in the afternoon. Eddie’s almost supernatural senses, and Superman-like vision, was quite something to behold. I genuinely have no idea how he could tell what animals were what at such distances. However, he screeched to a halt and yelled, ‘Two Rhinos, a mother and baby’. Uh, what? Where? He pointed, we looked (with our Nikon Supervision). And, eventually we locked on. Indeed, a mother and baby standing up munching away at the grass in the distance. Unmistakable. What a sight! The highlight of my trip. Ooosh, how to top that?

Rhino mother and calf
Rhino mother and baby. The baby is nursing, partly hidden in the tall grass

Baboons

Well, a vast troop of baboons tried their best. Eddie drove us through one of the wooded areas of the crater. We suddenly came upon ten, no twenty, jeez, no fifty, no, I lost count at well over a hundred baboons marching through the woodland. We were completely surrounded by them. What a rush! Of course, the gamboling ridiculous baby baboons stole the show. Even the three huge elephants nearby didn’t phase them. Strength in numbers, eh?

Baboons overtake the road
Departure of the baboons
Left: Baboons coming. Right: Baboons going.

The Land That Time Forgot? No, sadly, one of the last remaining spots on Earth where animals are in the absolute majority. Seemingly, for the majority of the world… the Land That Humans Stopped Caring About. It’s grotesque to think that the species in this park are endangered because humans want hard dicks, tacky ivory carvings, animal skin rugs, and other pointless gestures to suggest we are King of the Animals.

Lions chilling out
Lions lounging in the crater

We lingered as long as we could then Eddie put foot to the gas pedal, turned us around, and headed for the road out before permit expiration time. Even the road out was astonishing. The exit road goes out the arid western side in the rain shadow of the crater. We drove past Maasai villages, herds of giraffe (up to 20 strong), and, of course, the ubiquitous zebra.

A giraffe awfully close up
Giraffe on the west side of the crater

Ngorongoro crater rim
Leaving the Ngorongoro Crater

We passed near the Olduvai Gorge, where the Leakeys found evidence of the earliest hominids, our distant predecessors. There are probably a few lions out there wishing their ancestors had done a better job of keeping H. Erectus numbers under control.

Photos

View full size photos on Flickr

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