Ngorongoro Crater

31 10 2008

Posted by: Laura

Travel dates: 9.05.08-9.07.08

Our campsite was perched on the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater. The crater was once an impressive volcano thought to be higher than Kilimanjaro. Due to an intense explosion a bazillion years ago, the volcano imploded creating a crater 2,000 feet deep with an area of 102 square miles. Today the crater is one of the best places to see zebras, wildebeests, hippos, buffaloes, gazelles, and of course, lions. From our campsite, you could look down at the valley and see the black dots of grazing animals.

We had just eaten breakfast and I went back to our tent because, of course, I wasn’t finished packing. Chris saw the elephant before I did. He had just brushed his teeth and was walking out of the bathroom when the elephant walked out of the trees and towards the tents. Yelling is the last thing you want to do when a wild elephant is standing thirty meters from you, so he just watched it.

I was in packing mode, so I didn’t see the elephant until he was in front of the tent next to ours, about 20 meters away. I only remember looking up at huge tusks. According to Chris, I looked around in panic, then stood up and ran Napoleon Dynamite style with my hands straight down. Once I was a safe enough distance away, I watched the elephant walk through the rest of our campsite.

I shouldn’t have been too surprised. The night before an elephant had walked into our campsite, walked over to the water spigot that supplied the campsite with water, and used his trunk to turn the faucet on. He drank until he was full, the walked off…and left the water running. Running away from an elephant is the equivalent of drinking ten cups of coffee. I was wide awake and quickly finished packing. We piled in our car to drive into the crater.

When we signed up for our safari, we were put in a group with two other girls, both living in New York. Megan, originally from California, is also on an around the world trip (see Mr. Louis other people do this too). Amanda had taken a few weeks off from work to visit Megan while they toured Tanzania. The four of us instantly hit it off. We spent the dead hours in the car comparing travel notes with Megan and cracking up at Amanda’s off-the-wall comments.

We descended into the crater down a steep dirt road. Within five minutes of entering the park we found ourselves surrounded by a herd of grazing wildebeests. The animals were accustomed to the car. A few glanced our way, but most of them just kept munching grass. I had never seen a wildebeest before, not even in a zoo. They are hilarious looking creatures because they all have beards, even the baby ones and the females. The zebras and wildebeests generally graze together, so our next stop was a herd of zebras. Megan and Amanda had been on safari for five days, so they waited patiently while we marveled at the fact that each zebra has a different set of stripes. Chris was snapping pictures like crazy, while Anwar, our guide, kept repositioning the car so Chris could get the perfect shot.

The Ngorongoro crater has one of the highest densities of predatory animals (aka lions). We drove up a small hill, which the lions often use as a lookout to stalk prey. We saw a group of jeeps near the bottom of the hill and figured someone had spotted something. Three lionesses and four cubs were sitting together. As we drove up, two of the lionesses and the older cubs started off to hunt. The others remained behind. We watched the lionesses walk across the grassy plain while the cubs bounded after them. As our expert guide backed the car up and drove down the dirt road to follow the hunting party, Amanda chanted excitedly, “Kill, kill, kill! I want to see a kill!” This cute, energetic girl was cheering for blood. I thought to myself that watching wild animals in the Savannah just brings out the best in people.

The “Big Five” is the name given to a checklist of animals that every safari goer hopes to see. The list includes lion, rhino, leopard, elephant, and buffalo. First of all, I find this list silly. It doesn’t include giraffes or zebras (maybe zebras aren’t large enough). After seeing both leopards and cheetahs, I like cheetahs better. When I first heard this list, I wondered how buffaloes made it into the safari royalty.  Then I watched two lionesses (and two cubs) walk about fifty meters from a buffalo. The sheer size of the buffalo came into context. The hunting pack eyed the buffalo, and the buffalo continued chewing and stared back as if saying, “Wanna rumble?” The lions decided to walk on. I decided that any animal that a lion chooses not to attack deserves recognition. The lions made a half hearted attempt at a small herd of antelope, then walked to a section of the park with no roads, so we were unable to follow them.

Our next stop was the hippo pool, where we watched these giant creatures sitting in the water trying to escape the unrelenting heat. Poor Chris was stuck in the car with three other girls who would cheer each time the hippos yawned and laugh hysterically when they rolled over to cool their backs and showed their pink stomachs. I had asked Anwar to find a baby hippo. When we pulled up to the pool a cute little hippo was floating around.

We ate lunch near a different lake, where we could see hippos in the distance. Chris mentioned that he knew most of the animals because they were hanging on the wall at his family’s farm. After seeing the horrified expressions on Megan and Amanda’s faces, he quickly explained that his grandfather and uncles had gone on a hunting trip in the 70’s (when it was legal). He attempted to explain the hunting culture of the South. They are now both excited to come visit us when we get back to the States.

After lunch we saw another pride of lions taking an afternoon nap, more zebras, wildebeests, elephants, and a hyena before our jeep climbed back up the dirt road and back to our campsite. The sheer number of animals you can see in the crater in a matter of a few hours is amazing, and the scenery is fantastic.

I found out that Amanda was a runner as well, so the two of us went on a run before dinner. Our guide instructed us to stay in the campsite, so we ran around the perimeter. I didn’t mind running in circles because I was so thrilled to have a running buddy. We spotted an elephant at the edge of the camping area and made a detour to avoid getting too close to it each time we passed it. I have dodged puddles, bikers, cars, other runners, the occasional deer, but this was my first elephant dodging experience.

Chris’ mom had sent us Uno cards in a care package, so Megan, Amanda, Chris and I broke open a bottle of wine. After reminding ourselves of the rules, we played a vicious game of Uno. Chris won the game within a few minutes. Megan, Amanda, and I battled it out for second place. Megan fiercely threatened to rip apart anyone who dared to challenge her for second place. She had to settle for third place after I got second.

While safaris are one of the most expensive activities on our trip, it was an amazing experience. We used Arunga Expeditions (www.aruexpedition.com). Our guide Anwar Abdallah was fantastic. Please request him if you go on a safari. He was informative and answered all our questions. He would definitely win Mario Cart because he was able to maneuver between other safari cars and get us great views without blocking anyone else’s view.

Due to technical difficulties, we will have a delay in posting our Ngorongoro pictures. These pictures are amazing, so please check back for updates.

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