Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Ngorongoro Crater

So last weekend some friends and I decided to go on a safari.  We have a friend that lives in Karatu, and we were invited to his place for the weekend.  Karatu lies right next to one of the natural wonders of Tanzania-- the Ngorongoro Crater.  We figured that we should pay it a visit while we were in the neighborhood.  Instead of contracting a safari company, we drove our own vehicle in and went it alone.

View from the rim of the crater

The Ngorongoro Crater is the result of a massive volcanic eruption that occurred some 3 million years ago.  There used to be a mountain here that scientists put at a height of somewhere between 15,000 and 19,000 feet.  When it erupted, it collapsed in upon itself forming a massive caldera, that humans and animals have made their home for millions of years.  At 2,000 feet deep, the crater is one of the largest calderas in the world, with over 100 square miles of crater floor that is absolutely overflowing with wildlife and natural beauty.

Dropping down into the crater.

We entered the crater at about 8 am, driving into thick fog and mist that pretty much obscured everything except for what was right in front of us.  As we made our way around the rim of the crater, we picked up a guide that wanted a ride to the back road down into the crater.  Every car that enters the crater is supposed to have a guide with them.  We didn't want one, so we gave the guide a lift for about 30 minutes to his destination, then talked him into signing our entry papers for us.  Guide-less and unencumbered by an extra body in the vehicle, we made our way down into the crater, leaving the mist high above us as we descended.

Our driving path around the crater this fine day.

It was early in the morning and most of the animals where walking around, looking quite lazy and tired.  The Zebras were out grazing, and more often than not blocking the very road we were driving on.

They weren't even looking both ways before crossing!

The Zebras were so used to vehicles that you almost had to nudge them with the car to get them to leave the road.  When you passed them, they would give you the most nonchalant of looks, practically bored with your presence. 


When we entered the crater, we set off on a quest to see the "big five": rhinos, lions, African Elephants, Cape Buffalo, and leopard.  The big five is a term that was originally used to denote the five most difficult animals in Africa to hunt on foot, now it is mainly a term used to get people to go on safari and to sell silly t-shirts with animal picture montages on them.  

The first of the five we encountered was the majestic Cape Buffalo.  It was not long 'til we came across large herds of them gorging themselves on a nice breakfast of dry, brown grass.  Delicious.  Cape Buffalo are considered to be the second most dangerous animal in Africa.  They have been known to attack people for no reason,  and weighing in at several thousand pounds and sporting large horns, they are not an animal you want to tangle with.

This guy was right next to our vehicle and stared us down the whole time we passed him by.  Look at that face, he is not happy with us disturbing his breakfast.  He is probably just mad that he has a gigantic mustache on his head.

The second of the big five we ran into was the King of the Jungle himself, Simba.  The Ngorongoro Crater has the densest population of lions found anywhere in the world, with over 60 of cats calling the crater their home.  Unfortunately, due to the fact that they tend to stay in the crater, and a lack of outside lions being introduced to the local gene pool, they are also quite inbred.  You know, like Icelandic people.

Big cats are some of the most wonderful animals seen in the wild.  Beautiful, strong, and powerful, it is truly awe inspiring to watch them roam the land and hunt.  Unfortunately, they are pretty freakin' boring the rest of the time.  Lions like to make a kill, eat their fill, and then sleep for 12-18 hours straight.  Doing a lot of their hunting at nighttime, chances are that most safari-goers will only ever see lions doing what they do best, sleeping.

If you had as much sex as these guys, you would be tired too.
The lions that we came across were completely uninterested in the vehicles passing by them, not even opening their eyes to glance at the tourists feverishly snapping photos of them.  There were two males and one female, asleep and totally dead the world around them.

In fact, many of the animals we saw in the crater were either sleeping, or just hanging out.

Mr. Chillaxin' Cheetah

Mr. Hibernating Hyena
Mr. Bedtime Buffalo
Most of the animals were doing their utmost to be as boring as possible.  I was hoping for some National Geographic action, animals hunting other animals, fighting for mates, or performing amusing circus tricks.  I had no such luck.  

However, I did see a Rhino!

Black Rhinos are critically endangered and difficult to spot while on safari.  Poachers hunt and kill them for their horns, many of which make their way to Asia.  Interested in nothing but their phallic nose appendage, poachers will shoot a rhino, cut off the horn(s), and leave the carcass where it lies. Buyers believe that by ingesting the ground horn, they will become more virile and fertile.  These people are what I would classify as 'complete and total idiots.'  Ingesting Rhino horn will make them about as fertile as if they were to eat their own finger nails.  With any luck, their failed virility will lead to them not reproducing, bettering the human gene pool as a result.  

The Rhino we saw was about as far away from us as it could be, while still being recognizable as a Rhino.  Well done, Mr. Rhino.  It was grazing in total peace, far away from the prying eyes and cameras of the Crater's tourists.

If only the Rhino wasn't equipped with a horn the shape of a penis, there might be more of them in the world today.

Ecstatic that we were able to spot a Rhino, we crossed number three of five off our list.  We then set off in search of numbers 4 and 5, and in the meanwhile, were greeted by countless other animal that call the crater their home. 

Ostrich egg omelette, anyone?

This Kongoni was totally vibin' me.

Grant's Gazelle stretching.

I don't even know what this thing is, maybe a Reedbuck?  Fucked if I know.  It was beautiful and red, and goddamn I liked it.

See! Africa has fatties too!

Wildebeests are pretty much walking lion food. 
I am going to take a wild guess and say that Warthogs are probably delicious.  At least I hope so.

At this point in time, we went off on a search for our #4, the gigantic African Elephant.  At 10 - 13 feet tall and weighing in at 10,000 - 13,000 pounds, you would think it would be easy to spot an African Elephant.  It wasn't.  We drove around the whole dang crater, and twice through the forest, and didn't catch a glimpse all day long.  We eventually surmised that the elephants must have moved to another location to feed, and for the moment, we gave up looking for them.  We decided instead to leave the park and hope that we saw elephants up in the dense forest which is found on the crater rim.  On our way out, however, we were delightfully surprised to spot some elephants off in the distance.

They were either very far away or some sort of miniature elephants.
Although they were very far away, we were still glad to have seen them.  We triumphantly crossed number 4 off our list and headed up to the crater rim to search for leopards in the treetops. 

Leaving the crater involves climbing a steep, dirt road, that is frequented by many other vehicles and sometimes large passenger buses.  It is not a road that you want to run across a large animal, which is exactly what we did.  Slightly disappointed that we only saw elephants off in the distance, we were delighted and terrified to have one appear directly next to our vehicle while we were driving out of the crater.  With sheer drops not far away, the elephant was not a welcome companion on the road.  At several times the weight of our car, the elephant could easily toss our vehicle off the edge if it wanted to.We decided not to tarry long and passed the elephant at a relaxed, but determined pace.

I am standing with my body out the top of the vehicle, and this elephant is actually below me on the ridge, and it was still at a level to me.  These things are big and not to be trifled with.   I have decided that Disney is totally full of crap and that Dumbo could never have flown.

On our way out of the park, we came across three more elephants feeding not far from the road.  We must have been correct in thinking they had climbed the crater rim to feed.  

We then left the park gate and headed back to our friend's home in Karatu, stopping on the crater rim to take the scenic photos that the mist didn't allow us that morning.

I know what you're thinking, what about number five?  Where are the leopards?  We were not lucky enough to spot a leopard, which is not terribly surprising seeing that they are very stealthy and elusive creatures.  We were very lucky to have seen 4 out of the 5 in one day, and not to mention the countless other animals that we came across while on our journey.

In the end, we spent over 8 hours driving the roads criss-crossing Ngorongoro, driving over 150 kilometers inside the crater.  I am sure this is more ground than we would have covered if we had booked a safari company.  The professional safari vehicles looked awesome, and I am sure the guides were very knowledgable, but they tended to spend too much time parked, catering to the many different people they have along for the ride and their cameras.  I think that would get old really quickly.  Our safari was also much cheaper, consisting of a $200 vehicle fee and a $50 entrance fee per person, total.  Very cheap when split between several people. 

Simply beautiful.

I will actually be returning to the crater once again in a couple of weeks.  My girlfriend will be here to visit and I can't wait to personally show her this spectacular natural wonder.  

I also want to see a leopard, damnit!