Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti

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We pulled up to the entrance of the Ngorongoro crater just as the sun was rising. Ngorongoro is the largest crater on earth, at 310 square kilometers and a depth of 760 meters. It also hosts one of the greatest biodiversity of wildlife in the world. Here you can spot tens of thousands of different species, and all of Africa’s big 5.
Africa’s “Big 5” are the 5 most difficult animals to hunt on foot, they are also among the most dangerous to humans. This is new to me…until recently, I had ignorantly just assumed they were the five largest animals unique to Africa (much hilarity ensued when I had suggested that giraffes were among the most dangerous big 5). So, for those of you as unlearned as myself, the big five consists of lions, leopards, the cape buffalo, the African elephant and the rhinoceros.
Our jeep absolutely lucked out the day we went! We managed to see ALL of the big five in a single day. Apparently this is incredibly rare. Not only that, but we came upon four prides of lions during our two day stay. Two of them, right next to our jeep, and one large pride with cubs ripping apart a water buffalo… The National Geographic gore you hope to see while on a safari tour!
Our little jeep held 6 of us: Kelsi and I, our token “woo girls” Mel, Cara and Sarah, and our friend til the end, Mallory! All of us were ecstatic about entering the conservation area. As we drove through the entrance we sang along to the Lion King’s “Circle of Life” and within seconds we ran across a herd of buffalo. First of the big five, check! The buffalo are apparently extremely aggressive animals and are the second most dangerous to humans (next to the hippopotamus). We snapped some shots of the small herd from within the truck and moved along to the crater rim.
The first glimpse of the crater literally gave me goosebumps. It was early morning light, slightly overcast with sunbeams shining down onto the sparkling lake below. Shadowed mountains framed the green grasslands below and dark coloured specks were signs of abundant wildlife. The scene was breathtaking!
The decsent into the crater took about an hour in the jeep and even before hitting the bottom, we were seeing all sorts of animals: weaver birds, jackals, zebras, wildebeest, gazelles, ostriches, and foxes, among many others. It wasn’t before long that we came across a couple large elephants cruising across the plains and away from the lake. The six of us were overly enthusiastic about each and every animal! Hyenas, hippos and warthogs were each met with an excited gasp and an occasional “woo!” from the jeep.
Before long, we came across our first pride of lions. A group of lionesses and one male all bathing in the morning sunlight after an early kill. Lions all hunt very early in the morning and only need to do so once every three or four days. Although we were so excited to see lions (especially up so close) I must admit, there’s only so many photos one can take of sleeping animals. Our guide told us this may be our only chance to see lions, and so, we stuck around for a while, just watching the sleeping beasts.
Amazingly, however, about two minutes down the road we ran into ANOTHER pride. These ones were slightly more alive, and they were actually lying on the road! Can’t get much closer than that.
By lunch that afternoon we had seen four of the big five. The rhinoceros was the only disappointment. There are only black rhinos in the Ngorongoro Crater, and they are very rare. In fact, there are only 20 of them in the whole area. We were fortunate enough to see three out of the 20, but they were so far away it was pointless trying to catch them on my sub par camera.
Lunch was a pre-packed meal that we ate by a small lake in the crater. We were warned by our driver to eat our meals inside the car. “There are many birds around that will eat your food! They will bite off your fingers if they get a chance” he said. But it was too nice of a day to sit inside the car, so Kelsi and I found a rock nearby to sit on and enjoy the sunshine. Before long everyone had joined us and I figured we would find safety in numbers and the circling scavengers above would ignore us.
We were still exploring the full contents of our little lunch box when the first bird struck. Poor Robbo was peacefully nibbling on a chicken thigh when a falcon swooped across the top of us, snatched the entire piece of chicken from his hands and caught a talon in the side of his nose. The damage was minimal; only a small mark and a single spot of blood was left on Robbo’s face… The chicken was never seen again. We all nearly choked on our meals we were laughing so hard. It happened so fast we weren’t quite sure what had gone wrong. But when the laughter died, we looked up to see a few dozen birds above us, just waiting for a similar chance… We ate the rest of lunch in the jeeps.
By that afternoon it was time to leave the crater and head to the Serengeti. Serengeti National Park is 14763 square kilometers of flat grassland. Moments into the park we got a flat tire. A very minor inconvenience when compared to other stories we’ve heard (a man we met in Zanzibar said his jeep did a full roll and he fell out the top). All we had to do was sit in the scorching heat for a quarter of an hour. A wonderful welcoming into the park.
The Serengeti hosts another array of animals to see. This is where we came across our first tower of giraffes (and yes, I learned that “tower” is the proper collective noun for a group of giraffes). The giraffes were one of my personal highlights of the day. It was so strange to see these tree-like beasts trekking across the plains like moving trunks. Their heads sway up and down as they move and it’s almost humorous watching them move along in a line of head bobbing beasts. Fun fact about
the giraffe: they are the only animal that doesn’t make a sound. Apparently all of their communication is done by body language.
Just before sunset, we came across a grove of sausage trees. Sausage trees (which have strange fruit that look just like hanging sausages) are a preferred relaxing place for leopards, and before we knew it, someone had spotted one in the trees. There was a mother leopard and a cub chilling out in one of the lower hanging branches. They had made a kill and were taking turns chewing away pieces of the animal in the crook of a tree branch. Once again, my 8megapixel iPhone fell short on the zoom. But we got out some small binoculars and spent a good half hour watching the two animals. The last of our big five!! I couldn’t believe we’d seen them all in a single day. What a feat!
As the sun set we headed to camp. We were spending the night out in the wilderness, with all sorts of animals just roaming around the area. Rules for that night were very strict. Don’t go to the bathroom at night unless it’s with 3 or 4 people. No flashlights in the tent, no sounds, no snoring, definitely no food, and good luck making it through the night alive! If you see an elephant, run the other direction, if you see a lion, walk calmly in the other direction… So many things to remember! So we all went to bed that evening thinking of wild animals. During the night a hyena scavenged around the tents, and strange sounds could be heard, but everyone was alive and well by our 5am wake up call (just in time for lions to start their morning hunt… Fantastic).
We did a final game drive that morning, had lunch, and then worked our way back to Snake Park for dinner time. Pretty amazing couple days if I say so myself!

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