The Mbulu, or Iraqw as they call themselves, are thin-boned, Cushitic-language-speaking people who originally came from the Horn of Africa. They inhabit this high plateau beneath the Crater Highlands.
Once you have passed this Mbululand, cultivation stops and you are entering the magnificent forest of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area where you soon reach Lodware Gate, the entrance to Ngorongoro and the start of your Safari In Ngorongoro
After passing the gate, the road climbs up the southern flanks of the Ngorongoro volcano. The montane forest you are passing gets thicker and thicker. As you climb the mountain; the air gets cooler. Tall, silvery-trunked Pillar Wood, flat-topped Peacock Flower Acacias and broad-leafed Croton surround you as you pass through this tree filled area. On the road side you see the eye-striking yellow flowers of Crotolaria bushes, also called Lion’s claw. Your ride up the extinct Ngorongoro volcano is intoxicatingly beautiful.
In reaching the Ngorongoro crater rim, you’ll catch the first glimpse of the crater floor, one of the most famous wildlife sanctuaries; that is often described as the eighth wonder of the world. This huge bowl is the world’s largest unbroken, un-flooded, volcanic caldera – formed by a giant volcano exploding and collapsing onto itself around 2-3 million years ago. It covers an area of about 250sq.km, is about 20km across and the depth from the crater floor to the rim averages around about 610m on average. It is considered ‘a natural enclosure’ for a wide range of wildlife; due to the steep sides the animals do not migrate and leave the crater – meaning it’s an amazing place to see African wildlife all year round. From this viewpoint, you can imagine, the size and scale of how big the original volcano must have been, as you see the staggering size of the crater spanning off in a complete arc to either side of you.
As you look down you can see stretches of grass savannah, swamps, streams, forests, low hillocks and the soda lake, Lake Magadi. You will also definitely be able to make out herds of animals on the crater floor, although they are just tiny dots from above. But looking through your binoculars, you can see what they are: herds of buffalos, wildebeests, zebras and gazelles. Most of them could leave the crater at any time but they have everything they need inside – so why bother?
Shortly after this first view point you’ll reach the memorial stones of Professor Bernhard Grzimek and his son Michael. They were the makers of the film “Serengeti Shall Not Die” and published a book of the same name in 1959. They conducted surveys and censuses of the animals in the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro crater and were heavily involved in the fight against poachers. Tragically Michael was killed in an aeroplane accident over the Ngorongoro Crater in 1959 and his father returned to Germany where he set up the Frankfurt Zoological Society. He died in 1987 requesting in his will that he should be buried beside his son in Tanzania. Their memorials remain as a reminder of all the work they did to protect this part of Africa.
Leaving the memorial stones your driver will follow the road on the western edge of the caldera rim. Elephant and buffalo are often seen here in the forest but you might be even more excited at the prospect of seeing a leopard, as usual your guide’s intimate knowledge of the area and keen eyesight will make sure you miss nothing. Once you have passed Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, an expensive, lodge on the crater rim, the forest thins out into pastures of tussock grass.
Sprinkled among the meadows are gnarled Nuxia congesta trees, wrapped under heavy robes of gray-green moss. With this grassland come the Maasai and their herds; you’ll encounter small groups of Maasai women and children at the roadside, and Maasai men with their cattle herds.
Where the road down to the crater floor begins, you will stop at another viewpoint with a great vista over the crater floor and its pink-fringed soda lake. The road is a one-way route, which is narrow and rough. The track coils alarmingly among rocks and soon the dotted black stones you have been seeing from the top turn out to be herds of animals. Tall succulent trees, including Euphorbia candelabrum and Euphorbia bussei, line the roadside. When flowering (pink or white), they attract swarms of bees but the honey they produce irritates and burns the mouth, it’s inedible.
At the end of your descent, after about 20 minutes, you reach the Seneto Springs, where we stop for you to stretch your legs, you can have a few steps out of the vehicle to observe all sorts of wild animals and absorb the very special atmosphere. The rest of the day you spend cruising around the crater floor allowing you to take in the true beauty of the area and view large populations of wildlife. Your safari guide will raise the roof again (so you can stand up) and you are properly on safari again. You will see hundreds of wildebeest grazing peacefully side by side with gazelles and zebras. There is no other antelope like the wildebeest. It looks like it was assembled from spare parts – the forequarters could have come from and ox, the hindquarters from an antelope and the mane and tail from a horse. The antics of the territorial bulls during breeding season have earned them the name “clowns of the savannah.”
Zebra and Wildebeest are together and following each other as they eat different parts of the grass, therefore working in a great natural team. Hyenas and jackals are often seen hiding in the shade or in their mounds and dens, waiting for sick animals to prey on. Sometimes you see hyenas and jackals on the margins of Lake Magadi, where they try to catch flamingos. Clouds of pink and white feathers indicate the sites of these feasts.
There is so much to see on your Safari In Ngorongoro:
- A big buffalo herd is approaching from the hillside, emerging from a cloud of dust.
- In the swampy Lerai Forest you can see very old solitary elephant bulls (70 to 80 years old) and small bachelor groups debarking Acacia trees and breaking off big branches.
- A pair of cheetah patrols the lakeside; from time to time they shake the fine white soda dust off their paws, as they carry on hunting for prey.
It will not be long until you spot your first lions, which are normally quite easy to see as they are often just lying next to the road, almost posing for great pictures. They completely ignore you although they might be only 5m away; they are used to safari vehicles. You will find that lions act pretty much like big domestic cats, not doing much but sleeping and yawning occasionally. As cute as the baby lions are and as much as you want to cuddle one remember this is wild Africa. Male lions have large blackish manes in the crater and together with the females they spend most of their time sleeping in the shade under trees. Lions are actually nocturnal creatures and hunt in the dark with the pride – although the lionesses almost always do all the killing. If they have made a recent kill, maybe of a wildebeest, you’ll see its carcass nearby and they might still have blood on their faces. Lions are not bothered by humans, or indeed any animal. But when they see Maasai warriors approaching with their cattle (they are permitted to take their cows down into the crater for water and salt), the lions give way, because they know, that the Maasai are their sole enemies.
The crater is an extraordinary place, almost like an interactive zoo. Most of the animals never leave it and have no fear of humans so it is possible to have very special and up close sightings. It is a finite amount of territory and you do run into other vehicles, so you and your group will not be the only tourists on the crater floor.
Near Lerai Forest you might see a few black rhinos grazing on the open grasslands. As the result of being poached for their horns during the 1970s and 1980s, numbers have declined from some 100 individuals in the crater to a mere 13. Although numbers are still dangerously low, anti-poaching efforts have helped to stabilize the population. Most of the rhinos left in the country are in a southern reserve, the Selous. The only really plentiful rhinos left on the African continent are in Zimbabwe and South Africa and are a bigger, more placid species – the white rhino.
You won’t be able to spot giraffe and impala in the crater, because they are browsers and the food they need is not sufficiently available in the crater.
Now you are heading off to a place, where the Munge River divides the extensive grassland, supporting schools of hippos. The area is known again as Hippo Pool and is photogenic with numerous birds: geese, spoonbills, storks, plovers, ducks, ibises and other fowls parading on the banks. Again like in Lake Manyara National Park, most of the time you’ll see the hippos submerged in the muddy water. Their bodies can overheat easily and need to be cooled in water, which is why they spend most of the day submerged. Only at night will they leave the water and graze. Hippos breathe quite noisily and although still far away you hear them grunting distinctively. The baby hippo is hidden in clumps of reeds or tall grass at the water’s edge, that’s why when you leave the car at the viewpoint, you should avoid stepping beyond the rock line: It was put down by the national park authorities and it marks the territory of the hippos.
The crater area supports an astonishing diversity of bird life. The Augur Buzzard, searching for prey from a high vantage point or soaring above the forests, is one of the birds you are most likely to see. Helmeted and Crested Guinea fowls, hornbills and Hildebrandt’s Francolin are among the many different birds that can be spotted in these areas. In the grassland and bush you can see the Superb Starling, one of the most frequently photographed birds in East Africa. Other photogenic birds are the sunbirds, which often hover around the bushes and flowers. Also noticeable are the bigger grassland birds, which include the Maasai Ostrich and the Kori Bustard.
The ostrich is the only flightless bird indigenous to Africa and the largest bird in the world. The male is black and white with flesh-coloured neck and thighs. These parts of the body turn into a bright pink during the breeding season. Females and young are greyish brown. Territorial males fight for a harem of two to seven females and the females lay their eggs in one nest. The eggs are mainly incubated by the male, especially during the cold nights and the female incubates during the day. Ostriches are principally herbivores, but also eat large grasshoppers and lizards.
The Kori Bustard is the largest flying bird in Africa, males weigh around 12 kg. It strides across the plains looking for snakes. It can be distinguished by the thick looking grey neck. During mating it puts on spectacular displays, raising its distinctive white plumage on the neck and tail. The beautiful Crowned Crane, the national emblem of Uganda, is also to be found throughout the crater (mostly in pairs). Less beautiful but equally interesting, are the vultures, often found in the grasslands feeding from the predators’ kills. There bald heads allow them to put their heads into animal corpses and search for any available meat.
For your picnic lunch you are heading to a picnic area by a lake where you are allowed to get out of your safari vehicle. Sometimes an elephant comes wandering past. Black kites are perched in the trees around the lake and occasionally come swooping in on the search for food – so keep your hand gripped firmly on your packed lunch. You’ll also check out the hippos in the lake, not doing much but making a deep mooing noise. Again in this area they only move around at night to graze when the heat of the sun has gone, meaning now at lunch time you can only see the tops of their heads and backs. Sometimes you see a load of small but loud vervet monkeys, these playful monkeys are like amusing acrobats. White egrets and ox-peckers are riding on the back of buffalos feeding on ticks, horseflies and other external parasites that pester the game animals.
The ascending road out of the crater climbs the southern wall of and is also a one-way route. Looking back, there are dramatic views of the crater all the way up to the forested rim. Finally the driver reaches the rim road with you and looking down the seemingly empty caldera, you know you will remember this moment for ever. After your Ngorongoro adventure your driver takes you to Simba Campsite, (translated this means “Lion Campsite”), which is situated on the rim of Ngorongoro Crater, 2,400 meters above sea level. It is quite a beautiful camp, as you enjoy this incredible view into the crater caldera. Basically it is a grassy area with a magnificent Sausage Tree right in the middle. There are toilets and cooking blocks at each end. If it is your lucky day, you might see another herd of zebra grazing in the campsite. Some single elephants are roaming around as well in the undergrowth surrounding the place – a real adventure. You make out the silhouettes of these giants in the fading light. Sometimes a lone elephant comes quite close, drinking from the water tower only 20m from your tent. He comes here regularly and he knows exactly where he is going.
It is getting dark at around 6:30 pm and a little bit cool– do not forget Africa is not always warm and remember your jumper. As the elevation is so high, be prepared for a cold night to end your Safari In Ngorongoro