Ngorongoro Conservation Area
Northern Circuit, Tanzania
Leaving Serengeti behind, we make the drive to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA). For an eternity we stare out at flat, featureless plains and not much else. It's a beautiful day but the animals have hidden themselves well. Eventually we hit the bottom of the ancient Ngorongoro Volcano and begin our ascent towards the crater rim. The grasslands continue on the way up but at least there is variation in the terrain. The Maasai appear as we climb higher, herding large herds of cattle and goats.
Near the top we pull in at a lookout, which was completely obscured by cloud when we drove by three days ago. Today we see a vast, empty crater, which looks gigantic but is minuscule in comparison with the size of Serengeti. Between the lookout and our campsite we are treated to a mini-game drive, passing zebras, giraffe, elephants and yet more cattle.
The campsite is a spacious green field that is covered in animal poo - it’s like we are staying on a farm. There is only one other couple here, towing a camping trailer. As this is the only public campsite in the NCA, the site is usually so packed you can barely move. Again, we consider ourselves fortunate to be having a crowd-free experience. The site contains two kitchen halls, two dining halls, two bathroom blocks with hot water, and WiFi - it's almost luxurious. I have my first shower in three days (don’t judge me: Danny also takes a shower, his first since leaving Hong Kong six days ago) and it’s by far the best shower I’ve experienced in Tanzania.
There are two downsides to the campsite. Firstly, we are disappointed there isn’t much of a view of the crater floor. Secondly, being 2800m above sea level, the chilly air and howling winds create Arctic-like conditions. After scrubbing myself clean, I put on every item of clothing I have with me. Thankfully the dining hall is a completely enclosed cement building, and is multitudes of degrees warmer than outside.
Around sunset, we are awestruck to see a herd of zebra stroll right through the campsite, only metres from our tent. We rush out to gain a closer look, where we excitedly watch them undertake the mundane task of eating grass. They hang around for about an hour, during which time I’ve taken roughly 100 photos. At one point I am only five metres away from one; he isn’t fussed. Apparently elephants and giraffe also wander through sometimes. This is the best campsite ever.
Over dinner we discuss various topics with Richard to learn more about Tanzania. Here is a run down:
There are approximately 1800 safari guides in northern Tanzania, and only 10 are female. Women cannot be in a relationship if they want to be a guide. Husbands will not allow their wives to go away on a tour without them for days at a time, but it's perfectly acceptable for men to do so.
When two people get married in Tanzania, the man decides what occupation his wife will have. This is discussed before marriage, giving the woman the option to back out. I'm not sure how this would go down in Australia...
The Maasai are very self-sufficient. They raise goats or cattle to eat or trade, usually exchanging the animals for beans and maize to make ugali. The animal’s milk is used to make yoghurt, to eat with ugali. Animal blood is also consumed.
Money means nothing to the Maasai community; status is achieved by the quantity and quality of their livestock.
Modern transport and machinery is generally not used. They walk everywhere in their leather sandals, no matter how far away their destination is.
When they need fire for cooking, they produce it the old-fashioned way by rubbing two sticks together. They are also happy to eat raw meat.
It is government regulation that all children go to school. Money the Maasai receive (usually from village tours) is used to buy school supplies.
Polygamy is common, with men having many wives (women can only have one husband). Men often use jumping contests to prove their worth as a partner. I ask Richard how many wives he has. He says one is enough.
After dinner it’s straight to bed for us, where we wrap ourselves up tightly in our sleeping bags and listen to elephants calling to each other through the night.
I have a terrible night’s sleep, waking up at 2 a.m. and laying awake for hours. It's not cold, but the fierce wind constantly shakes the tent, rattling numerous zips. I don't feel too refreshed when the alarm blares at 5.30 a.m.
An hour later we set off, driving through fog so thick we can barely see a few metres ahead of us. When we arrive at the main gate we find it locked, but gratefully someone appears to open it for us. I guess we are the first to enter the crater today.
The views driving down the crater wall are incredible. As we descend we leave the fog behind, revealing the expansive lands below. The sun breaks through the dark clouds to form a spotlight, shining directly on the silvery crater lake. Fog sits on top of the crater walls like a protective blanket. Everything is still and peaceful. It feels surreal, as though I’m on a movie set.
Richard tells us to expect similar animals to Serengeti, although there aren't any giraffes or leopards due to the lack of or wrong type of trees. How it differs, though, is in its vegetation, the backdrop (the crater walls) and the concentration of animals, all living together in a contained ecosystem. As an added bonus, there is also the remote possibility of catching a glimpse of the elusive black rhino.
Upon reaching the crater floor we hit the plains, the lake shimmering in the background. Almost immediately we catch sight of impala, gazelles, ostriches, buffaloes, wildebeest, crowned cranes, zebras, jackals and hippos, all in close quarters. A whole pride of lions, including two females, four males and four cubs, sit only metres from us. None of the nearby herbivores seem to be concerned about the predators.
It's not long before we enter the Lerai Forest, a dense, green section that is wild and overgrown that contrasts sharply with the plains. Again, this would be a great place to film a movie. I would have been happy to come here just for the scenery; the animals are an added bonus.
The road ahead is suddenly blocked by a herd of elephants, who are in no hurry to move out the way. In amongst all the adults are two adorable three-month-old babies, stumbling along unsteadily. One face-plants into the ground, and I can’t help but laugh. The adults are happily munching on the short trees, despite the evil-looking four-inch thorns sticking out from its branches.
Leaving the forest we return to the flat grasslands, where the hunt for rhinos begins. Ngorongoro is the most likely place to spot these rare beasts in Tanzania, and Richard is keen to find one for us. The skies turn cloudy, fog builds up and a light rain starts to fall. Hundreds of zebras (two of whom are mating), gazelles, wildebeest and impala mill about, but the weather and backdrop are not photo-worthy.
Once the fog and rain disappear, so do the animals. We purposely drive through the quieter areas of the crater, as rhinos tend to live a solitary existence. There are warthogs, hyenas, a lion and flamingoes (our first for the trip - they are not as pink as I was expecting), but the sightings are few and far between. To lift my spirits, the sun makes an appearance and a rainbow forms across the sky. I spend the next 15 minutes taking photos of this, as there isn’t any wildlife to see.
Having no luck with rhinos out here, we turn back, where we immediately spot a bustard. At 20kg, it is the heaviest flying bird on the planet; they aren't that exciting to look at though. We then turn down a new road that takes us past the vibrantly green elephant graveyard, a marsh section where elephants reportedly come to die. They usually live 65-70 years with their family, but once they have lost their teeth and can no longer eat enough to survive, they wander out to this place all alone. Thankfully I can’t see any carcasses, but we do see a solitary elephant plodding his way towards the marsh. I am overcome with sorrow as I watch him possibly making his final journey.
The road brings us to a hippo pool, where a few grey bulges are bobbing in the water. We walk up close to the edge, but we don’t want to test our luck with the notoriously territorial and deadly creatures.
Back on the empty plains the rhino hunt continues. We speed around the park, stopping for every dark-coloured speck in the distance. Richard scans the horizon with his binoculars, but the specks turn out to be mostly buffalo, sometimes wildebeest and, once, an ostrich. With less than 40 rhinos now living here and their knack of hiding from everyone else, we knew our chances were pretty low. After hours of searching we surrender, and make our way towards the exit.
We complete a loop of the crater floor, cruising back through the animal paradise and the Lerai Forest. Just before the ascent, blue skies reappear and white clouds once again hug the rim of the crater. The scenery suddenly looks spectacular - I can see why people say this place is great for photos. The crater wall in the background creates a distinctive layer between the flatness of the terrain and the sky above, which differs to the thousands of photos I accumulated in the Serengeti that didn’t have this middle tier.
In a last-ditch effort, Richard continues searching for rhinos as we ascend the wall, hoping the aerial view will provide a better vantage point. It doesn’t. Incredibly, the vegetation growing on the steep incline is even greener and more dense than the forest, but it blocks our ability to see any more animals. However, we are afforded phenomenal views of the lake and the crater floor. It's disappointing not to see a rhino, but this doesn’t detract from the otherwise unforgettable experience.
Surprisingly, we didn’t see a single other tour group today, only rangers and park staff. Richard tells us the site is often crammed full of vehicles, with lines of cars waiting to move ahead or trying to gain the best vantage point. We were fortunate enough to stop and watch the elephants in the forest for 15-20 minutes, a luxury that isn't ordinarily possible. For the hundredth time, we count ourselves lucky.
We eat lunch back at the campsite, and once we are satiated we pack the car and start heading down to warmth. It is a completely different experience driving through the NCA today compared to four days ago. There’s no fog and we are surrounded by a bright green, dewy rainforest, which contrasts sharply with the reddish-brown muddy road. Hills roll along beside us, and wispy clouds drift past. It’s stunning, reminding us of holidays we’ve taken in Asia or Central America.
Before reaching our destination we stop in at the Lake Manyara Viewpoint, looking over the location of our final game drive. A bulging lake lined by forest stretches out before us, giving away no clues as to what we are in for tomorrow.