After two quick flights from Nairobi the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge (NCL) staff met us at Lake Manyara airport. We had a 90 minutes drive ahead of us, partially paved. They packed a nice box lunch for us to snack on during the ride.
The Ngorongoro Crater is the largest caldera in the world, located just south of where the Serengeti begins in northern Tanzania. The crater has roughly 25,000 animals within 160 square miles. It is about 7000 ft above sea level and provides a very good chance to see the "Big Five" in a day. Many travelers start at the Ngorongoro Crater and work their way north following the wildebeest migration to Kenya. We were told wildebeests have over 40,000 babies in the crater per year before their migrations begins. Baby wildebeests are up and walking in under one minute of birth.
We had the chance to chat up a couple from London who we ended up riding with for safari over the next two days...
Upon arrival of the NCL we were greeted with cool soaked towellettes and mixed juice drinks. This was quite a change from the travel in Uganda. Our butler, Makoi (McCoy) was introduced and we checked in. We are both excited to be staying in one spot for the next eight days (first time since we left the States).
It ran through the grape vine that we were staying 8 days here. The staff would literally say "oh you're the ones staying eight days". It was pretty funny after a while. Most people use CC Africa as their tour operator and bounce around two or three days at each camp over the course of eight to ten days. This helps maximize the animals you see and mixes up the scenery.
NCL is divided into three different areas North, South & Tree camp. Each camp has it's own lobby and dining area. We stayed in South camp where all the rooms are on or very close to the crater edge providing sweeping landscape views. Although it looks like you should be able to spot wildlife on the crater floor the rim is about 1000 feet above. Elephants were the size of a quarter if you could find them.
After we settled in it was time for dinner. As we entered the lounge area we looked around and could not find a person under fifty in the room. These folks were all dressed to the "nines" in safari gear (very funny). We made a break for the dining room. After dinner we met our ranger who would be taking us to the crater floor throughout our stay. His name is Mohamed "Mudy" Nuru. He has been a ranger for six years with CC Africa and worked for a hunting safari company before. Mudy is an incredibly interesting guy with some great stories and eyes like an eagle.
The next morning we had a wake up "knock" from Makoi at 5:30. He brought us tea with biscuits to get warmed up and kick start the day. We got ourselves bundled up. It was really cold (upper 40's low 50's). We may have both grown up in cold parts of the US, but we try to avoid any thing below 70 degree. I know we are wimps.
The ride to the crater floor takes about an hour along some tough dirt roads. I am reminded of 4x4 excursions in Arizona. Along the way Mudy started asking us what we had or had not seen, who we are, and what we are all about. We all agreed to try and see rhino, lion, and elephants today. The animals you want to see dictate a different route on the crater floor.
Once we were down on the floor we popped the roof on our Toyota Land Cruiser and there was viewing action right away. We spotted two Rhinos that were far off and going the wrong way to see any better. We then spotted a pride of lions off in the woods 200 meters away. There were five or six females lounging near a watering hole. While the lions lounged a pack of spotted hyenas were getting close to start trouble. The lions quickly put an end to the trouble making. We spent probably half an hour watching this interaction. We headed off to the forest, which encompasses the southeastern floor. This a great area for rhinoceros, elephant, water buffalo, and just about anything else you can think of in Africa. Numerous herds of Thomson gazelles and water buffalo grazed this area. One animal I had not expected to see was the ostrich. They are everywhere. A few elephants made an appearance. We finally headed off to breakfast thirty or so minutes away. The picnic ground is around a watering hole that stays full into the summer drought. Hippopotamus are scattered in the water. Mudy breaks out a picnic table, tablecloth, and proceeds to spread a feast out for us. As we are eating he warns us not to be too open with the food. There are some problems with wildlife. The Kite birds have learned to dive bomb for food on plates and take things directly out of your hands. Monkeys will also try to raid your food if you aren't looking. We are alert and ready for any attempt on the food.
So we head out after lunch and are on the prowl for cheetah, lion and leopard. We spent the day seeing more lions (no cheetah today). Just as we were heading up the exit road we came upon a group of cars. Someone spotted a leopard about 50 meters in the woods laying on a tree limb. That made the big five on our first day. Totally spoiled!!!
The next day we hunted cheetah in the grass plains. We enjoyed watching one walk across the road near our car. It looked as though it may hunt, but went to lie down to take a nap. The cheetah needs to be within sixty meters of a suitable prey to sprint for a kill. We did not see "a kill" today or throughout the safari.
The next few days were spent on similar game drives. We enjoyed two days of relaxation and lounging.
One of the non-game drive options that we participated in was a drive out to Olduvai Gorge. Many people may remember from biology class this was the site where Dr. Leaky found the bones of what is believed to be the first human like skeleton. There is a lot to debate on the topic. We'll haggle it out when we get back. Another note about the gorge is that the name is actually Oldupai, not Olduvai. When the first westerners came to find the area they translated it incorrectly.
Near the gorge is a site called shifting sands. This anomaly is a pile of black sand (maybe 120 ft across) shaped like a half moon. It was found in 1969. Since they have been tracking the sand it has been moving in a straight line (w/ the prevailing winds). There are pillars marking years when the sand was at a location. It has moved several hundred meters, if not several thousand in the last 30+ years. The shape and density remains the same as it moves. It is one of the coolest unexplainable things that we have seen.
Did I mention that the crater is 7000 ft above sea level, yeah it gets cold up there. We didn't really plan on this factor...
We spent some time with very interesting people at the lodge after our first night of blue hairs. We may have the opportunity to meet up with several of them in our travels. We shall see.
The final full day of our safari adventure we had a great surprise. Since we had taken two days off it enabled us to ride solo with our guide. We hadn't seen a rhino up close or since day one. This was the obvious goal. Rhino's are Jen's favorite animal. On our game drive we spotted several cars pulled over looking at two animals off in the distance. Bingo!! Two Rhino (mother & calf) were heading in the direction of a watering hole. Mudy positioned us a little farther away from the cars so we could be maneuverable. As the rhinos came closer to the road they were scared and blocked by cars in the front of us. They passed within 30 feet of our truck. Beautiful animals. They can really move too when they need to. Check out the pictures, we have some video too.
I forgot to tell you while we were headed to the hippo picnic area earlier in the day we came across three elephants. These guys passed within 15 feet of the car. We had to be very quiet and motionless. Elephants can be aggressive when the get stressed.
One other thing I didn't mention... The NCL has security escorts after the sun goes down. This is due to the animals that come graze the area. Our first night I could hear rustling below our room. We looked out and two water buffalo were staring up at me. The next few days/nights we saw zebra, waterbuck, an elephant, and more water buffalo just roaming around the lodge. The Masaii security guard also mentioned lions often come up use the area to hunt.
So much to tell.
We are off to Cape Town, South Africa.