Sunday, March 23, 2014

Ngorongoro Crater

We actually got our first glimpse of the Ngorongoro Crater on our way to the Serengeti, a few days before we would get to explore the crater. The crater is a caldera, formed by a volcano that exploded and collapsed on itself, creating a sunken hole that stretches about 100 square miles. 
Lawrence, Erik and I with Ngorongoro Crater in the background
When entering back into the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, the first thing that struck me was how green the landscape looked. We passed many Maasai villages, where the men and boys (some who looked as young as 3 or 4 years old) herding cattle were often wearing red, causing them to stand out against the green pastures. I have no idea how the clothes of the Maasai stay so bright, as I would think the vibrant colors would be bleached by the strong African sun on a daily basis. 
A Maasai village with a group of Maasai people (in red) gathering next to the village.
The second thing that struck me was how many Maasai children were begging for food and water on the side of the road. They have learned to recognize that a safari truck typically carries white people who might like to give them leftover water or food. We were encouraged not to give anything to the kids even though we wanted to, as we were told it causes the children to become dependent on begging for food.

After passing groups of zebras, giraffes, and wildebeests, we arrived at our campsite on the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater. Immediately, I spotted a few elephants walking through our campsite! I was surprised because the campsite is at 2300 meters (almost 8000 feet), and I did not expect animals to be up that high. Later that night, around dinner time, a HUGE elephant came to drink from the water tank at camp. Jill and her safari crew were at our site that night as well, and she claimed there was a buffalo a few feet from her tent in the middle of the night!
Our campsite for the night. From the edge of the campsite you could look down into the crater.
Kind of a dangerous move, but a picture was in order!

Imagine seeing this on your way to the toilet!
We were up early to head into the crater. The morning was filled with a few dramas, one of which included learning that the cook for our Chicago friends had been arrested the night before for being rowdy at the campsite! Just after that, Erik "lost" his wedding ring, which we searched for in the area were we had eaten breakfast until we ultimately gave up. Fortunately he found his ring in the safari truck not long after the search!
Erik, Lawrence, and our truck, T888 ACE.
Starting the descent into the crater.
James cooking breakfast from inside the truck!
Not a bad spot for breakfast!
The crater itself is breathtaking. All of the animals are concentrated, so it makes for amazing game-watching. A few of the highlights from our time in the crater included seeing two endangered black rhinos (from far away...these guys are difficult to spot up close), a group of active hippos, several male lions, and a serval cat, which is apparently a rare animal to see. 
Buffaloes and jackals hanging out in the early morning hours.
This elephant is very old. You can tell by the length of his tusks.
The crown crane. I think these are such cool-looking birds!
Lots of activity in the hippo pool...
...this hippo had enough and decided to head to a different hippo pool!
A male lion on the hunt and he has many gazelles to choose from!

A female ostrich with wildebeests in the background
Our first rhino sighting. We could see slightly better with our binoculars when compared to this shot from the zoom lens of our camera, but he was far away!
This picture was taken by one of the people on Jill's safari, as they were in the crater on the same day. Either she had a much bigger/better lens, or they were able to get closer to a rhino than we were. The population of black rhinos in the crater is thought to be about 15.
Serval cat
Pumbaa, aka warthog!
We spent the allotted time in the crater (which is about 6 hours due to the fact that the government is trying to preserve the life that exists there) before driving out along the crater rim. The negative of Ngorongoro is that there are a lot of safari trucks in the crater. In the Serengeti, we could drive for hours without seeing another truck. In Ngorongoro Crater, it was easy to know when an animal had been spotted because a group of safari trucks was gathered in one spot. It actually started to rain on our way out of the crater, which was the first rain we had seen on the safari. Once we said farewell to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, we were thrilled to be on paved roads again! The bumpiness of safari trucks should not be underestimated!
James and I as we left Ngorongoro
From the crater we drove back through the same towns we had passed on the way out. First the landscape was lush and green with rolling hills, and I noticed that much of the soil looked like red dirt - similar to the island of Kauai. Towns were bustling with people. I noted that most buildings and stores were built from wood or mud, though some sophisticated places were made of cement. While passing through one of the towns, I watched a young boy, maybe 6 or 7 years old, playing with a bike tire and a stick. 

Once we arrived back in Mto wa Mbu, we asked Lawrence to take us to the market so that we could make a few purchases. Erik really wanted to have a matching pair of sandals to Lawrence, as they are made out of car tires. I picked up some jewelry while he tried on sandals and had them fitted to his feet.
The sandals. Notice the car tire tread on the bottom?!
We started making our way back to Arusha, noticing a big temperature change, as it became hot and dry. Unfortunately, we were really close to our accommodation in Arusha when the safari truck essentially started to break down. A mechanic at the closest petrol station had a look at the vehicle and tried to work out what was happening, and while that occurred, I made friends with some local girls. They kept asking me "how are you this morning?", and I would respond, but I don't think they understood much English, particularly since it was evening. I figure it must be a daily routine they say in school but otherwise learn mostly in Swahili, not English.
How adorable are these girls?
Eventually the truck was up and running again, so we made it back to L'Oasis, where we started our journey a few days earlier. We said goodbye to Lawrence and James with hugs and tips (which are essential on safari - as the wages are not great and the employees rely on tips). We were in a different room this time, and it resembled a tree house, which I thought was fantastic. That evening we did our laundry in the sink (our clothes were FILTHY with dust!) and then had dinner with our Chicago friends.
Our tree house
A good way to finish a safari!
In the morning, we dried our clothes in the courtyard and arranged for a late check out. We enjoyed a delicious breakfast, again chatting with our Chicago friends. Lawrence showed up around midday to take us to Moshi, where we would start our Kilimanjaro climb. Fortunately Lawrence is a good driver, because we had several brushes with death on the road from Arusha to Moshi, one by a local bus driver who pulled out right in front of us heading straight at us, essentially running us off the road, and another by a Dar Express bus (a coach bus that runs to Dar es Salaam,) who was passing cars without having enough room to actually pass cars. A few hours later, we arrived in Moshi, where we were reunited with Jill to begin the next part of our African adventure!
The gardener at L'Oasis found this chameleon for us...
...and then put his camouflage to test on the tree. So cool!

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