On Safari In Tanzania: A Morning In Ngorongoro Crater

Previous Post – An Afternoon In Tarangire National Park

We left Tarangire National Park shortly after 4 p.m., amazed at the number of animals we had seen.  As the map below shows, Tarangire is the southernmost of a sequence of parks and conservation areas that form the heart of Tanzania’s northern safari circuit –

  • Tarangire,
  • Lake Manyara,
  • the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, and
  • Serengeti National Park.

[Arusha National Park and Kilimanjaro National Park are nowhere close to these four when it comes to wildlife viewing. They do provide excellent volcano climbing possibilities!]

By 6 p.m. we had reached the newly-opened  Kizumba Camp located above Lake Manyara some 24 kilometers east of Karatu. We found a combination campsite (with the tents, each with cots to sleep on, provided and already up), as well as a dining hall.

The set-up was a perfectly acceptable budget solution for a good night’s sleep. The washroom area included showers for anyone keen to wash away the day’s dust before dinner or as a part of their morning wake-up ritual!

We were up at 5 a.m. the next morning, ready for part two of our safari adventure.  By 6 we were on the road to Karatu; an hour later we were at the Loduare Gate, the entrance to Ngorongoro Conservation Area, the 8300 square kilometer stretch of the Rift Valley escarpment which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Specifically, we were headed to the spot on the map above indicated by the black circle – Ngorongoro Crater. It is the most spectacular of the many calderas of extinct volcanoes characteristic of the area. The baboons were out on the road and our driver/guide slowed down as we observed the scene.


The road takes you up to the Loduare Gate pictured below.  We spent a few minutes here while Ali took care of the entrance fees and permits.  The park gate opens at 6:00 a.m. and visitors have to be out by 6:00 p.m.  As for the fees, they include $60. per person to enter the Conservation Area per 24 hours, a $10. for vehicle per 24 hours, and for those entering the crater, a $250. Crater Service fee for each vehicle per 24 hours.

Ngorongoro Crater – a satellite view from the south

For a Google Earth satellite view, click here! (Note: The file does not open in Apple Safari. You will need to use Google’s Chrome browser for access.)

Ngorongoro – “Basic Information and Rules” board

Attached to the entrance building is a small interpretative center with information boards on hominid fossil discoveries at Laetoli and Oldupai, as well as the following board illustrating the various animals to be seen in the conservation area.

I had heard the phrase “the Big Five” a few times and here it was illustrated! They were considered the big five not because of size but because of the difficulty of hunting them on foot. The phrase harkens back another century when hunting these animals was a way to prove one’s manhood. Most of us have moved beyond that rather dated concept and are content to marvel at their grace and beauty – and perhaps take some photos and videos!

And here is our safari crew at 7:20; we are at the crater rim viewpoint (2216 meter altitude) at the top of the road from the entrance gate.  The extinct Ngorongoro crater with its 260 sq. km. floor is the largest example of a caldera with a still completely intact wall.  Since the crater rim is about 2200 meters and the floor is at 1800, the wall is an impressive 400 to 600 meters of steep slope that creates a fairly closed environment.

Ngorongoro Crater – a group shot at the rim viewpoint

Montane forest on the slopes lead down to marshland, grassland, as well as some treed areas like Lerai Forest on the crater floor. The salt lake known as Lake Magadi sits a little to the west of the center. Rivers, waterholes,  and freshwater sources like Ngoitokitok Spring provide the inhabitants of this unique ecosystem with water to drink or to bathe in.

the Ngorongoro crater floor – 260 sq. km. of grassland, swamp, and forest

It took another half-hour to drive around the rim of the crater to the entrance gate and the Seneto Descent Road on the west side. (See the map above for details.) Along the way, the fine views we had were of Ngorongoro’s external slopes and of some Maasai villages in the distance. 

a view from the road along the external slope of Ngorongoro Crater

Until 2009 the Maasai had settlements and subsistence farms in the crater; after they were moved out of the crater by government order, some set up settlements outside the west slopes.  We drove by one of them on our way to the Descent Road, noting the characteristic round shape of their traditional huts.

a Maasai boy tending the animals on the west side of Ngorongoro Crater

While the Maasai were originally nomadic livestock herders, they have taken to subsistence farming over the past few generations.  In a country composed mostly of various Bantu-speaking peoples, the Maa-sai are a Nilotic people. [Maa is their name for their language; Maasai literally means “people who speak Maa”.]

The Maasai had moved into what is now northern Tanzania from further east in the 1800s.  In doing so, they drove out the previous inhabitants, the Datooga and the Mbulu peoples, the first of which are Nilotic people like them. (The Mbulu are  a Cushite-speaking people.)

Maasai settlements on the western slopes of Ngorongoro

the checkpoint and viewpoint at the top of the Seneto Descent Road

One last checkpoint at the top of  Seneto Road and we were on our way down to the crater floor.  As we descended, we stared into the rising sun and could see Lake Magadi.  An incredible day on safari was about to begin!

the Seneto Descent Road into the Ngorongoro Crater

The First Hour In the Crater:

Eland, Hyena, Elephant, Lions, Buffalo, Zebras…and more!

As we neared the floor of the crater,  our driver/guide spotted an eland in the shade of a lone tree. That is him in the image below!

a zoomed-in photo of the eland in the distance

Not too far away was a golden jackal scanning the scene, perhaps looking for an early lunch.

a lone golden jackal surveys the scene on the slopes of Ngorongoro

Always a clue that there was something special in the area was the large number of stationary Land Cruisers sitting in one spot on the road with everyone’s camera pointing in the same direction!  The radio signals which the various driver/guides send out when they spot something make it a common occurrence.

safari vehicles stopped for an animal sighting

In this case, it was our first lion sighting of the morning.  When it did not seem like he would be budging from his comfortable spot any time soon, we moved on. This time we would be rewarded for our impatience!

two Ngorongoro lions resting in the shade

Just down the road on the other side, we would get a clearer view of another lion also lounging in the morning shade, probably resting after having devoured his morning meal!

the bottom of the Ngorongoro Crater – vast grasslands for grazing species

The crater floor is mostly grassland and most of the animals you will see are grazers. How many are there?  I came across the following figures for some of the species – both grazers and predators.

  • 10000 wildebeest,
  • 5000 zebras,
  • 400 spotted hyenas,
  • 70 elephants, and
  • 55 lions.

Two species that are not in the crater are giraffes and impalas. While the former are thought to be unable to deal with the steep slopes of the crater wall, the absence of impalas remains a mystery. Leopards and cheetahs have apparently been spotted.

Thomson’s Gazelle with a couple of zebras

young Ngorongoro zebra with her mother

spotted hyena in Ngorongoro Crater

Hamerkop on the edge of a Ngorongoro marsh

Ngorongoro Crater – herbivores sharing the grasslands

It was interesting to see how the grazers seem to co-exist peacefully on the grassland. In the image above, a Thomson’s gazelle, a rhino, wildebeests, and zebras can be seen.

a slice of life Ngorongoro style – Thomson’s gazelle, rhino, zebra, and wildebeest in the same lunchroom!

the rhino  – a handheld shot at maximum zoom – the limits of my camera lens exposed!

a dozen Ngorongoro Land Cruisers all in a line for a nearby attraction

Ngorongoro pass-by – rhinos walk right by the wildebeest

In this case, the line-up of vehicles was for the rhinos.  First, we watched as a wildebeest strolled by. Neither seemed to be threatened by the walk-by. Then we watched a hyena pass by nonchalantly.  He seemed to have his eye on the gazelle, who also had his eye on the hyena.

While I am sure that some visitors relish the possibility of seeing a predator – a hyena or two or perhaps some lions – take down a herbivore and rip it apart for lunch, I am glad we were spared the spectacle. It has all the allure of going to the Colosseum in Rome 2000 years ago to watch the blood sport unfold.

a hyena walks by one of the rhinos – a gazelle and zebra in the distance

By now there were another half-dozen vehicles all in the same spot watching the goings-on.  It was shortly before 10 as we headed to the Mandusi Swamp for a possible hippopotamus sighting. Along the way, we did pass a few elephants. While there are some at Ngorongoro, they are not in the numbers we saw at Tarangire the previous afternoon. (Tarangire has an elephant population of about 2500.)

a Ngorongoro elephant grazes in the company of zebras and wildebeest

We were in luck when we got to Mandusi Swamp. The hippos were there! However, they remained almost fully submerged for the fifteen minutes we spent waiting for one or two of them to pop out of the water and head for shore.

the hippos under water at Ngorongoro’s Mandusi Swamp

 

In the grass on the marsh edge, we saw a grey crowned crane (the grey refers to the upper body with the crown a straw-yellow). I would learn from our guide that it is Uganda’s national bird.

Grey Crowned Crane in the grass on the shore of Mandusi Swamp

The previous afternoon in Tarangire we had seen some warthogs; now we saw a few more, this time including infants.

Ngorongoro warthogs with zebra, gazelle and pelicans in the background

young warthog at Ngorongoro Crater

young warthog at Ngorongoro Crater

Birders will love Ngorongoro thanks to the chance of seeing a large number of bird species.  This is where having a good telephoto on a larger sensor camera is a must.

Ngorongoro birds - the sacred egret in the foreground with the African open-billed stork and the black winged stilt

Ngorongoro birds – the sacred egret in the foreground with the African open-billed stork and the black winged stilt

Ngorogoro marsh life - birds and wallowing hippos

Ngorongoro marsh life – birds and wallowing hippos in the background

some of the many bird species at Ngorongoro Crater

some of the many bird species at Ngorongoro Crater

on the move on one of Ngorongoro Crater's many jeep tracks

Ngorongoro waterhole - Egyptian goose?

Ngorongoro waterhole – Egyptian goose?

Ngorongoro Crater - black-bellied bustard?

Ngorongoro Crater – black-bellied bustard?

down an Ngorongoro road to see the buffalo

down a Ngorongoro road to see the buffalo

Ngorongoro African buffalo in the mud

Ngorongoro African buffalo in the mud

Ngorongoro buffalo up close

Ngorongoro buffalo up close

Ngorongoro buffalo

a line of elephants in the distance at Ngorongoro Crater

wildebeest and zebras in Ngorongoro Crater

wildebeest and zebras in Ngorongoro Crater

Ngorongoro wildebeest at ease in the grass

wildebeest female with young one

wildebeest female with young one

 

Thomson's gazelles in Ngorongoro Crater

Thomson’s gazelles in Ngorongoro Crater

zebras, gazelles and wildebeest in Ngorongoro Crater

Ngorongoro waterhole - and toilet stop

Ngorongoro waterhole – and toilet stop

Ngorongoro zebras all bunched together

Ngorongoro zebras all bunched together

Ngorongoro zebras - heads

Ngorongoro zebras – heads

Ngorongoro bird -

Ngorongoro bird – any idea what kind?

Ngorongoro pelicans and other birds

Ngorongoro pelicans and other birds

Ngorongoro Crater - saddle billed stork

Ngorongoro Crater – saddle billed stork

The two following images were taken with the same camera. The first one was shot at 24 mm, the camera lens’ widest angle and greatest field of view. The second was shot with the lens at 720mm.  While a current smart phone with its typical 27mm field of view will get  you some decent shots, you will miss the ability to zoom in on more distant subjects.

a stork in the distance -a typical smartphone 27mm field of view

Marabou stork – Ngorongoro – at 720 mm – the sensor’s limits are clearly visible!

I took most of the images and video in this post and the one on Tarangire with my newly acquired Sony HX80, which I bought used from Henry’s in Toronto for $160. CDN.  I also had my Sony RX100 III with its better (but not APS-C sized) sensor for shots and videos in the 24 to 70 mm. range.

I found the combination to be acceptable. While  I did miss my Sony A77 and my Sony A6000 cameras, I did not miss having to change lenses or lugging around camera gear that weighed from five to ten times more than the two tiny point and shoots I took to Tanzania.

the start of the ascent road out of Ngorongoro Crater

The ride back to the rim of the crater was steeper and longer than our ride down Seneto Road at the start of the day. It was also less bumpy, given the bricks that made up the roadbed.  Check out the following video clip for a sample of that ride.

 

We stopped at the same spot where the Land Cruiser before us had stopped and quickly took a few last photos of the remarkable ecosystem that is the Ngorongoro Crater. We had wondered at the start of the day how we could top our previous day’s visit to Tarangire. Now none of us could say which of the two was the better!  We were just glad to have been able to do both of them.

a last shot of the Ngorongoro crater floor as we went up the ascent road

For a two-day safari that I had booked the day before I went, things had turned out remarkably well. I was glad that I had passed up on some of the $1500.+ package deals that I had been offered for a similar safari.

From the crater, we returned to the campground where a vehicle and driver were waiting to take four of us back to Arusha, and me onwards to the Kilimanjaro International Airport. Twenty-four hours after descending the Seneto Road into the crater,  I was sitting in Amsterdam at Schiphol Airport waiting for my connecting flight to Toronto.  Crazy world, eh!

 

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