We finally arrive at the place that I will probably never be able to write or pronounce without stumbling.
Ngorongoro is apparently the sound the Masai cowbells are making. Mmh, not the first sound that comes to mind when I think of cowbells...
Inside the crater, all we see are plains in pastel colours and a huge salt lake when we look down from the rim of the crater. Hard to believe that it is supposed to be teaming with life.
In contrast, the sides of the crater are covered in dense green forrest, with moss growing on trees as clouds frequently get caught in the hills.
While we are travelling into the crater, the clouds start spilling over the rim, looking like a waterfall frozen in midair.
A key feature of the conservation area are the Masai. They have argued for their right to stay after they had to leave the Serengeti. That’s why Ngronogoro is a conservation area and not a national park.
I feel they have a point. After all, they have been in the area for thousands of years. Us Europeans have only been in the area 130 years and already caused a lot more damage. (In the visitor’s centre they are pointing out our positive contribution to conservation, but then one has to keep the tourists happy...)
Even the Masai have been affected by the presence of white tourists. There is now a law that forbids taking photos of Masai kids for money at the crater rim because the kids are meant to be at school.
The only Massai we see are men. One herder runs after us. I think he wants money because he has seen me take a photo from a distance, but he wants to flog us his raised spear...
At first our hunt for wildlife is slow going: vast spaces, with the occasional herd of common animals like zebras. They are not bothered at all by jeeps. They virtually come within stroking distance.
They are pretty, but what I really want to see are lions. Finally our guide points across the savannah at a darkish speck: „A male lion“, he says. I can only take his word for it because even with my zoom lense all I can see is a vague shape of something. The view is a bit clearer with binoculars. I can just about make out that the guide is right.
Distances can easily be underestimated in this vast plain, so for all I know, this lion is a mile away – but I want a close-up.
There are some jeeps gathering in the distance, so there must be something to see there: „There is a Chitah at 10 o‘ clock.“ Oh, really? What does that mean, at 10 o‘ clock? Give me proper direction, guys and don’t talk in riddles to someone who is spatially challenged.
Finally, I see what everybody is pointing at. Correction: I see part of what everybody is pointing at. I see a bit of fur hidden in the undergrowth. For a split-second the head lifts, but this may have been wishful thinking on my part...
It looks like the most impacting scenes today will be the herds. I like the description of a gnu as a „spare-parts animal“ (head = ox, body = antelope, tail = horse).
Apparently, there is a saying in Africa that where there are gnus, there are lions – just not today.
We see great clouds of dust, but that’s usually other jeeps. However, I quickly learn that they should still not be ignored.
When we approach the next group of jeeps, we see a young male lion who is lying down for a midday nap about 5 metres away.
Not much to see at first, as he has turned his back to us, but suddenly he stirs and looks around. He seems to be investigating who has been disturbing his rest.
Soon he is walking towards the jeeps. What powerful muscles! Not the kind of lion I would have wanted to take for a walk. In fact, shouldn’t we better close the roof?
He passes by as if the jeeps are nothing more but boulders in the landscape.
I am still watching him, when someone says: „Look around.“ A second lion has appeared from a ditch and follows him.
When we drive on, we see another lion sleeping near a riverbed, but by now it has almost become old news... (Overall, we see 7 lions, with 3 in close up.)
I like to watch the interaction between the tourists and the animals. The careless tourist can easily become the victim of an animal prank.
There is the vervet monkey who climbs in through the roof of a jeep, while its owners are shouting into their mobiles outside. I wish that monkey had nicked those phones to teach them that the only busines to be conducted in Ngorongoro is wildlife watching.
At a popular lunch spot by a pool where hippos like to dose, there is the sign that says: „Do not feed the animals.“ We soon find out why. Here the animals like to help themselves.
A kite swoops down and tears the plastic bag out of AH’s hand, even though he is sitting right under a tree. The only thing that was left in the bag was a piece of cheese, so I guess the kite will have been pretty disappointed with its „prey“...
Our guide keeps telling us that we are seeing many highly unusual sights, even for a site that is famous for its wildlife: a group of female elephants with young (usually only male elephants are found in the crater), a black rhino in the savannah (they are usually found in the bush area) and two serval cats (they are usually found on their own).
To top it all, a huge leopard saunters across the road when we are already on our way out. We have just put the roof down, and no-one has their camera ready. So although there have been 7 photographers in the jeep, there is not a single photo!
Truly an eventful day in a fascinating landscape.
NB Here is a list of the animals we have seen today according to our group’s joined brainstorm: The big 5 (lion, leopard, rhino, hippo, elephant), lots of birds (bee-eater, kite, superb starling, secretary bird, ostrich, flamingo, egret, ibis, crown cane, kori bustard, guinea fowl, lilac-breasted roller, eagle, oxpecker bird, yellow-billed and saddle-billed stork), game (gnu/wildebeest, gazelle, zebra, cape buffalo), jackal, warthog, baboon, vervet monkey, chitah, serval and hyena – wonder how many species we still missed?