Wednesday, January 12

We pack up our tents - no more porters to do this for us - and eat breakfast. Email addresses are exchanged with Courtney and Julia, who we (wrongly) assume we will meet no more. Issa and the girls' driver are doing morning checkups on their Land Cruisers, running the (diesel) engines up to temperature, checking the coolant, cleaning the windows and so on. I notice the remarkably clean engine in the other group's vehicle and chat with the driver. Does each vehicle always get driven by the same person? Of course, he says. Otherwise nobody would take care of anything.

While the breakfast stuff is cleared away, I use the spare time I have to take a shower. I correctly assume that there will not be showers at the next two nights' campouts. Andrew, Pu, Vinh and I are in the land rover driven by Robinson, and we go ahead. In the town that the campground is in, the highway has, at perhaps 100m intervals, three sharp speed bumps, then a big one, then a crosswalk, then another big one and three sharp ones again. Robinson crosses these at 10km/h at most. This is the norm in every small town on the highways around here. I guess the cops don't have to bother much with speed limit enforcement.

Past the park, we go up the steep escarpment. Many people are seen pushing their single-speed bicycles up the hill. Seeing the curvy road with its perfect pavement, Andrew remarks that he could have some fun with his S2000 here. After a scenery stop at the top of the climb, we continue into higher ground around 5000 feet elevation. It is very fertile here. The reddish soil, the rolling hills and the active agriculture make the landscape very pretty. Even when there is a mix of pasture and crops, there are no fences anywhere, because each flock of animals is always watched by someone.

We stop for fuel in the town of Karatu. The price of Ksh 900 per litre of diesel is written on the pump housing in crayon; the actual tallying mechanism does not work. While we get fuel, an alarmingly pretty girl is trying to sell us handmade baskets. It is hard to watch her and not smile back, but of course doing so implies that you want to buy something. On the way through town, we note that there is an internet cafe here.

In the distance, high ground crowned by clouds is the rim of Ngorongoro Crater. The perfect road continues right up to the entrance station to the conservation area, where there is a construction zone and then only dirt road. At the entrance station, we go into the visitor centre and examine relief models of the crater while Robinson does paperwork. The other vehicle, driven by Issa and containing Peter, Caroline, Caroline, Yi and David the cook, catches up to us here. I watch some baboons but they are shy and disappear into the bushes if I get closer than 10m.

Formalities completed, we continue steeply uphill for quite some time, until the crater rim at about 8000 feet elevation, where we stop at a scenic overlook.

Ngorongoro Crater

We have to go along the rim for quite a distance before we reach the Simba campsite where we will spend the night. While the bags are unloaded and the trailer is unhitched, we watch some large Marabou storks. Then the safari roofs are opened up, and we continue around the crater rim to the descent road, where there is a steel gate and an armed ranger post and our paperwork is checked. I later see that at least one species of animal made nearly extinct by poachers (the white rhino) can roam in peace in this crater, perhaps because it is easy to keep the poachers out. The only way in and out is on the descent and ascent roads, respectively.

The descent road is bumpy and only one lane wide. There are fresh imprints of bulldozer treads where a landslide was cleared away. The bulldozer is parked by the road, down in the crater. We pass a Masai herdsman and his cattle. We are told that the Masai freely roam these conservation areas and don't interfere with the wild animals, and the lions don't interfere with their cows (having learned that the sharp end of a spear awaits them if they try anything - but at least the Masai teenagers don't hunt lions as part of their manhood rites any more).

On the crater floor, the first stop is the yellow acacia woods, where the elephants hang out. The woods have a slightly shopworn look to them for this reason, but are very beautiful nonetheless. We stop right by a very large bull elephant who ignores us.

Elephant spotting Very pretty elephant habitat
Other than birds, elephants and perhaps the rare white rhinos, of which we see one in the distance, the crater contains two kinds of animals: Herbivores, which can run very fast, and carnivores, which try to catch them. Even the gangly, awkward looking wildebeest (also known as the gnu, the mascot of the free software movement, which is anything but gangly and awkward) can outrun a lion, we are told (I later learn that in a pinch, a wildebeest can also fatally injure a lion with its horns). So the carnivores generally need to use some strategy to get food: Sneak up on your prey, hunt in packs, eat the leftovers after a larger carnivore is finished with its meal, or rob a smaller carnivore of its catch. One thing is for sure, every zebra, wildebeest or gazelle you see here is is in the prime of health. Anything that isn't tends to get eaten.

We make many stops to marvel at the animals seen in the following pictures.

Thomson's Gazelle Grant's Gazelle
Mature bull elephant White rhinoceros
Zebra Wildebeest (aka Gnu)
Marabou stork East African Crowned Crane
We then go to a pretty spot by a small lake to eat lunch. Robinson says to eat inside the vehicle to avoid getting one's food stolen by a bird called the "Black Kite". A group some distance away seems to be taking no such precaution, and indeed a bunch of birds are circling over their heads. We watch to see the entertainment but no bird attacks. While we eat lunch, a parade of feathered creatures comes near the cars, hoping for crumbs.

Guinea fowl Baglafetch Weaver
Rufous-tailed Weaver Superb Starling
After lunch, I wander off to try to get some telephoto pictures of white storks, egyptian geese and some type of heron, when we spot hippopotami in the water. The rest of the time is spent excitedly trying to photograph these, but the results are not worth showing compared to what we will see tomorrow.

Driving around again after lunch, we spy some giant "Eland" antelopes in the distance. Note the size compared to the zebras in the foreground!

Full-grown eland antelope Hartebeest
Then it gets interesting: Lions. First we see a mother lion and one of her cubs, about 50m from the road. She doesn't seem the least bothered by the cub getting up and wandering toward the vehicles. Three other cubs are here, and a pair ends up playing on each side of the road, less than 10m from the four safari vehicles jostling for position. Our own vehicle develops a fault and can't be restarted after a stop. Robinson gets out and fiddles under the hood, unfazed by the large carnivores close by. Watching the utter contentment of the latter, Vinh remarks "It's good to be at the top of the food chain". It occurs to me that this is true, so are we.

Two lion cubs Two more lion cubs
Hello kitty! This cat is not concerned about much.
As if that wasn't enough, the very next thing we find, some distance away, is an adult lion couple. Presumably they are between mating sessions; we are told that adult lions don't hang around as couples much otherwise.

Adult lion couple

Another reminder that these are only the best of hundreds of animal pictures on file here. Follow the "All pictures" link at the bottom of the page to see the rest of them. Also, the originals are 6 megapixel images suitable for printing up to 18x12" size. If you want one, let me know what for.

Wart hog Water buffalo
Ostrich (female) Jackal (photo by Andrew)
We spend some time driving around on ill-defined and muddy roads to get to a hippo pool, but there are no hippos. Also we had been hoping to get close to the pink flamingoes, but they are on the other side of the lake, and all we see is a pink line, as at Lake Manyara.

After hours of driving around, we are all happily content with the day's animal watching, and the safari vehicles all converge on the ascent road as the park gates will close soon. We stop for another brief look down into the crater.

Last look into Ngorongoro Crater from the ascent road

Then it is back to Simba campsite, which is the prettiest campground I've ever stayed in. A huge tree overshadows the meadow where tents are pitched, and you can see down into the crater. After dinner, we head to our tents in the dark, and I hear a munching noise and follow it. In the faint light of my headlamp, I see a huge bull bovine stop munching and stare back at me. Now, bull bovines are not known for their gentle tempers, and buffalo particularly not so, so I give up my investigation and prepare to go into my tent. Just then, Pu arrives, very agitated: "There's a big animal eating my tent! Pu had pitched his tent far from everyone else's for nighttime peace. Now what. We go into the cookhouse, and eventually come back with an armed ranger, our driver Robinson, and another guy. When they see what the trouble is, they have a good laugh. Apparently these particular buffaloes graze here all the time and never bother anyone. But Pu moves his (uneaten) tent to be with everyone else. In the night, I hear the buffaloes munching away between the tents anyway.

At this elevation, the climate is very nice and we sleep well.

All pictures for this day

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