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An African Safari in Ngorongoro

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Travel Features >> An African Safari in Ngorongoro

An African Safari in Ngorongoro

March 14, 2012

Vidastu, our driver had a long scar on his cheek signifying that he belonged to a particular tribe. In his African -accented English he entertained us with tales of safaris and we listened, fascinated. Every now and then, we would spot some masai, tall and handsome, with their spears, colourful beads adorning their hair and necks. We were travelling in our Land cruiser to the edge of the spectacular Ngorongoro Crater, North of Tanzania.

Tanzania has been called God’s own country. It’s easy to see why. All the way from Dar-Es-salaam to Arusha in Northern Tanzania and towards the Serengeti plains, we had witnessed the beauty of this country, changing from dusty and dry land to lush tropical rain forest. Outside the shambas in the villages, curious children would come and look expectantly at us “Jambo, habari gani.” they would call out in Swahili, their smooth brown bodies gleaming with sweat. But nothing had prepared us for the view that we were about to see. Almost without warning we arrived at the rim of the crater. It was an awesome sight. As far as the eye could see the land stretched out, the whole continent it seemed, mile after mile of it; until far in the distant horizon, it met the sky. And lying below us was the gigantic bowl that is the Ngorongoro Crater. The second largest extinct crater in the world, Ngorongoro was created as the result of a volcanic eruption hundreds of years ago. 113 sq. km.in area, this together with Serengeti, an immense game park north of Tanzania, is perhaps the most famous wildlife resort in the world. It lies to the Northeast of Mount Kilimanjaro and the Northern boundary of Serengeti adjoins the famed Masai- Mara game reserve. The greatest permanent concentration of wildlife in Africa is here and some 10,000 Masai live near Ngorongoro with their cattle.

The descent of 2000 ft. to the bottom of the crater takes about one hour. The drive is steep in parts, bordered with thorny scrub and eventually the Land cruiser reached the flat bottom of the crater. And there before us lay the vast expanse of grass and shrub dotted with acacia trees. Much to our astonishment, there was a complete absence of thick vegetation. We realized that it was this fact that made it an animal-watcher’s paradise. The volcano had completely altered the ecological pattern of the crater and now only shrub and bush grow there, along with wild date palms, African olive, Mahogany (Muna wood) and wild fig.

A lake exists at the base of the crater and driving towards the lake we were puzzled by what appeared to be a patch of pink. As we got closer, we realized that the patch was nothing but hundreds of flamingos resting by the side of the water. A swirl of pink and they flew away, the afternoon sun glinting on the deep rose and black of their feathers. We also saw ducks, plovers and geese among the reeds, totally undisturbed by our presence.

But the excitement was only just building up. Tickbirds had already given us an indication of the presence of rhinos and we were not disappointed as we found a mother and a calf half submerged in the shallow water of the lake. The rhino is a solitary animal with poor sight but a good sense of hearing and smell. It is also bad tempered and the mother was not at all pleased at the sight of so many humans invading her privacy. We beat a hasty retreat and changed direction. The crater is said to contain more than 25,000 animals. Lions, rhinos, giraffes, elands, hyenas, cheetahs, large herds of wildebeest, zebras, Thomson gazelles and colobus monkeys can be observed here. The lion has always been the symbol of power, and it is regarded in the same way here in East Africa as well. Lion claws are supposed to be a good omen and are worn around the neck by many Africans. The early morning visitor to Ngorongoro will probably see at least one lion and it’s mate tearing at a kill of wildebeest or zebra with the attendant scavengers-vultures, hyenas and jackals hovering nearby. As our vehicle moved slowly forward, we were able to observe a pack of seven lions lazing in the afternoon sun. The “Simba”(lion in Swahili) is found in open country throughout East Africa. It weighs about 400 to 500 lbs. and hunts at dusk, and only when hungry, say once in three or four days.

We saw zebras clustered in groups and herds of giraffes moving around gracefully on their long, slender legs. “Twiga”, the giraffe, is the tallest mammal in the world, growing to 18 ft and weighing approximately half a ton. Gazelles are a species of antelopes with slender legs and throughout the crater we saw gazelles of many kinds. Grant’s gazelles are pale buff in colour and have a chestnut streak down the centre of the face. Thompson’s gazelles, on the other hand, are more reddish in colour and have a distinctive black band running along their flank. Wildebeest, also known as gnu, are one of the commonest antelopes throughout East Africa. They have dark grey bodies, white beards, shaggy manes and a clumsy gait. The eland,”Mkunja” are the largest of the antelopes, beautiful to look at and they congregate in large herds, alongside zebra and giraffe. Throughout the safari, the beauty is being able to observe these animals in their natural surroundings and at such close quarters without them being conscious in any way about the intrusion.

Our guide explained that the famous migration track exists from here to Serengeti. The movement, usually in May or June, of wildebeest and zebra from the central plains to the waters of the western corridor is one of the most remarkable sights of East Africa. The animals travel six or seven abreast, sometimes in a stream several miles long, only to return again in November or December. Poaching is a constant problem and it is during those months that the park staff has to be most vigilant. Having driven around one of the most beautiful natural wonders of the world, we started our climb back to civilization. At the lodge on the lip of the crater, we were served ugali and cooked banana to the tune of “Toto unabela” blaring on the radio. The lodge keeper’s wife in a colourful khanga and turban cheerfully filled flasks of hot coffee for our journey back home.

And as we turned to have one last look at Ngorongoro, the land seemed to beckon to us and we knew we would have to come back one day.

- This article has been contributed by Poonam Surie




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