Safari Day 2: Ngorongoro Crater

I woke up in Mosquito River without a single bite and went out the gate of the campground to talk with the locals. One old guy gave me his number in case I ever come back to Mto Wambu. I hope I will.

After Amisi’s lovely breakfast of eggs, crepes, and fruit, we loaded up the gear and drove to Ngorongoro crater through Mbulu land, where my night watchman Samwel is from. It’s a farming area with rich soil and beautiful fields leading up to the crater, which rises like a wall of jungle from the rolling hills.

We offloaded at Simba campsite and drove down the steep switchback roads to the bottom of the crater, where we were met with rain and more animals than I ever dreamed could live in one place. If Manyara is the best piece of pie you’ve ever eaten, Ngorongoro is the ultimate feast, for the senses and the soul.

Gabrieli told us on the way down that the name comes from the sound the bells make on the Maasai cattle. “Ngoro (high-pitched) ngoro (low-pitched).” Maasai used to live in the crater, but now they are confined to the rim and the outer slopes and the valleys. On the way down we saw them with their cows grazing among zebras and wildebeest.

During the first part of the afternoon we withstood intermittent showers while watching thousands of gazelles, zebras, wildebeest, and buffalo, with the occasional warthog, hyena, or colorful bird. The most beautiful for me were the crowned cranes, a miracle of natural selection so amazing you have to look twice. We saw a male bustard — four feet high — displaying like a grouse in spring. We saw hundreds of ibises, pools of hippos, and finally a pride of lions lazing about on the rocks. They were a mix of mature females and young ones — an adolescent male showing the big head that would someday be covered in a mane.

As we crossed the flat crater, we saw a few bull elephants in the distance — gigantic from afar, humongous as we approached. They were walking toward the road from two directions, four on one side and three on the other, and they converged on us like they wanted to give us a show. Up close they were immense, 12 feet high at the shoulder, so near we could see the veins in their ears, the dirt they’d thrown on their backs, and the mud on their tusks.

After a long time with ndovu, we kept driving, and Gabrieli spotted two black rhinos in the distance — among the most endangered mammals on earth. He was surprised to see two nuzzling up to each other, horn to horn.

We saw a gazelle and a jackal brush past each other (see photo), more gazelles play fighting, and an augur buzzard up close, tame as a pet. Gabrieli shared interesting facts about each animal, and he could identify every bird we saw, often with just a glimpse of its silhouette against the sky.

All that took four to five hours, and as we headed out to beat closing time, we passed another pool of hippos just as a big daddy rose out of the water with a yawn, showing teeth as long as my hand. In contrast, a baby rested its head on a mother’s face.

I had read about the density of creatures in the crater, but I still couldn’t believe we could see so many wild animals, and such a variety, and so close, and so tame.

If only my wildlife loving wife had been there. Once in the wilderness she surprised me by using the phrase, “I’m stoked.” Someday I’ll bring her there, and it’ll burn her eyes.

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