This place is a large caldera, or crater, left behind geologically after what was a mountain blew itself out volcanically. It is the largest of its kind on earth that is still intact. After the game drive and visiting the Serengeti visitor’s center this morning, we ate lunch back at the mobile camp. I was happy to get another hot shower there before we left for the crater. Ngorongoro is a couple of hours away by car on unpaved but relatively flat roads.
On the way there is the Oldupai gorge where Dr. Mary Leakey and her husband discovered the world’s oldest-known traces of humanity. Not only did she find the skull of ancient man (1.75 million years old), but she later found intact footprints in ash that became compacted into cement. Those footprints are 3.6 million years old and are near the Oldupai gorge. Casts were taken of the prints and they were carefully re-covered with special materials from Germany to be preserved. The human remains of “Lucy”, found elsewhere in Africa, date back to 3.5 million years, around the same time period as the footprints. According to the museum at Oldupai, the footprints are known to be human because we are the only primate with a foot this size and shape and most of all, an in-line big toe. Other monkeys or gorillas have toes that don’t line up with the foot (there is a display at the museum). There were many other displays about how the excavation worked, about the many international organizations supporting the anthropology, and about the discoveries made there, including some prehistoric animal remains found (rhinos and hippos were there, for instance, in larger form).
At the gorge, another tour guide tried to chat me up. He asked if I was lonely like him. I told him I was lonely like married and he made his exit. I told my guide about this later, on the way to the airport, and I found out that many women alone end up marrying their guides and having families in Tanzania. He said it was not uncommon.
We moved on to the Ngorongoro Crater. This word, Ngorongoro, means “cow bell” in Maasai. This place was wild when the Germans came and made a sisal farm of it. After they left, the sisal was removed and the place reverted to its natural state and animals flourished. But in the 1960s there was a terrible disease that swept the cattle of the country and crossed species lines to the wildebeest. It wiped out a large part of the migrating animal population in the crater, and also in the Serengeti for that matter. After that, since the area was empty grassland, the Maasai grazed their cattle there in large numbers. All you could hear from one end to the other were the bells of their cattle, hence the name “cow bell” crater. Eventually, the beast population recovered and the people could no longer safely live in the crater, so they now only graze their cattle during the day. We passed a herd or two on the road on our way in. We drove up the edge of the crater and got to the lodge. Yes, a real room with walls and a bathtub. After check-in, I stood in that never-ending hot shower for at least 15 minutes.
I had to eat by myself, unfortunately, because this lodge will not allow the guides or cooks to eat with their guests. I met the fellows after dinner in the lounge, though, and we went through the photos of the day there. They were in a hurry to get to the world cup match because we’d been away from television for days and the Ivory Coast was playing that night against Brazil.
The next day we went into the crater, starting at 7:00. It was typically misty and foggy on the rim (where the lodge is), but as we went down into the crater, the mist stayed on top and did not follow us. We found several flamingoes far off on the edge of the soda lake, and we found a lot of wildebeest and zebras. Because there is an underground river flowing from Lake Victoria to the crater, there is enough grass year-round to feed them. They do not need to migrate. This means a lot of people take day trips from Arusha as their only safari and are able to see the animals. I saw the usual suspects: wildebeests, gazelles, cape buffalo, zebras, warthogs, hyenas, ostriches, crowned cranes, even lions, and hippos. The hippos here were pretty active by comparison to the ones in the late-afternoon Serengeti, and I got to watch them come out of the water to graze. They were doing a lot of rolling in the muddy pond bottom too. Behind the moving hippos, following right along, was a stork looking for disturbed fish. There were sacred ibises in the same neighborhood. If that were all there was to see, it was plenty for me. But Frank was on the hunt for more elusive game: the black rhino. This rhino is endangered and is known to live in the crater, eating the grass there and often hiding in the tall grass or grazing next to another herd of animals.
We did not see the rhino all morning and we finally went to eat lunch at one of the few allowed areas next to a small lake. There are large kites (scavenger birds bigger than crows) all along the lake who are also trying to eat lunch! Frank told me we had to eat in the car or we’d lose our food and maybe some skin to the kites. As we ate, he proceeded to narrate the floor show we had with the kites and the other, less informed picnickers. We saw the birds scouting, planning their approach and then deftly removing sandwiches and chicken wings from their previous owners. Then we’d see the people hurrying for cover. We went on the hunt for the rhino again after lunch, knowing we only had another hour or so in the crater before we had to leave, and remarkably, we found two of them. There was a mother and her older calf crossing the plain and they eventually ended up crossing the road not too far from us. What an incredible thing to see. Frank told me that the male has an even larger horn, which was hard to imagine, and that they don’t see very well. Sometimes they will charge a car or a person if it is in the path and appears threatening in some way, but since they don’t see well, it might be rather close before it decides to charge. Frank also told me the rhinos were usually 50 yards away in a field, and not moving, when he saw them, and that we were very lucky. I will always remember the rhinos – they were remarkable.
Sadly, we had to leave the crater and go to Arusha, and then the airport. We went to the Tropical Trails office to offload and run some errands in town. Nassoro said goodbye and headed for home, and Frank took me to the airport at Kilimanjaro. I did finally get to see the shy mountain before I left, and I photographed it from the car window by the side of the road. I was so sad to leave that I almost cried. I didn’t want to go. I would have rather stayed out in the wild, even with the cold showers and sleeping on the ground. It was so special, and worth every cent.