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One of the things that we did in planning for three weeks of safaris was to alternate tent camping with lodge accommodations, so that we would stay in a lodge at least once a week. And while we have greatly enjoyed the experience (and challenges) of tent camping in Africa, we are very grateful to be in lodges for awhile. We have gained a new appreciation for simply having a roof over our heads.
Another thing that we did in our planning was to pace the various safari parks. Friends had recommended that we not visit the Ngorongoro Crater too soon, or we would be overwhelmed by the vast amount of wildlife there. Instead, they recommended that we observe and learn about the various animals at smaller parks, so that we would be familiar with them by the time we reached Ngorongoro. Fortunately, Sandi and Tom designed our itinerary exactly that way.
On October 25th, we left Karatu for the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. We had not slept especially well at Kudu Campsite -- dogs seemed to bark and howl all night long; and by the time they stopped, the roosters started crowing. Nevertheless, we bid goodbye to Chris (whom we will not see again until the Serengeti) and Mr. So (whom we will not see again until our return to Panorama Safari Camp), and set of with Tom and a new carton of bottled water for the one-and-a-half hour drive to Ngorongoro.
The Ngorongoro Conservation Area encompasses some 8,292 square kilometres of preserved land, where even the Maasai are restricted in where they can go. The main feature of the conservation area is Ngorongoro Crater -- actually a caldera, and the largest unflooded or unbroken one in the world -- which spans 19.2 kilometres in diameter and covers 304 square kilometres. The floor of the crater covers 261 square kilometres, where vast numbers of different animals live around a large soda lake. ("Ngorongoro" is Swahili for "big saucepan." Russell asked Tom what one "ngoro" means, but Tom only gave him a funny look and said it that doesn't mean anything.)
We took some time to settle into our room at the Ngorongoro Wildlife Lodge. We were upgraded to a suite (our original room only had three beds), where the boys could sleep downstairs and the parents could sleep upstairs. Gail promptly set to work washing (and scrubbing) a week's worth of camping laundry by hand. Fortunately, the room had a bathtub, so Gail had some space in which to work. Unfortunately, the electricity is only turned on in the mornings and evenings, so Gail had to work in the dark. Even more unfortunately, the hot water is only turned on in the evenings, so Gail had to scrub everything in cold water (she discovered this when she turned on the hot water tap and nothing came out). The boys tried playing on the life-sized giant chess board out on the patio, but they gave up when they couldn't get the hand-carved wooden pieces to stand up.
In the early afternoon, we rejoined Tom and drove to a nearby bluff, where we enjoyed one of Chris' picnic lunches before descending into the crater itself for a half-day game drive. Ngorongoro Crater descends 610 metres (about 2,000 feet) from the rim into the basin; there is a one-way road specifically for descending and another one specifically for ascending. Only four-wheel-drive vehicles are allowed. (Tom told us that in the rainy season, the steep switchbacked roads become almost impassable. Some vehicles are unable to ascend back out of the crater, and must stay at the bottom until the rangers can come and transport the passengers out. A few seasons ago, two trucks slipped back down the ascending road and rolled off of the side of the cliff. Gail -- already terrified of the edges -- was not amused.)
Arriving in the basin of the crater was like entering an incredible wildlife documentary. Massive herds of zebras and wildebeests ambled about, completely comfortable with the various safari trucks that barreled through. We recognized many familiar animals and saw many new ones, including hyenas, golden jackals, Thomson's gazelles, Grant's gazelles, Coke's hartebeests (Kongoni), water buffalos, crowned cranes, kori bustards, and secretary birds. We saw first-hand that warthogs travel in threes, and that flamingos buzz like a beehive when they are gathered together.
Posing with the wildebeest herds
Our incredible game drive was dampened -- literally -- by our return to the lodge. We had inadvertently left the hot water tap on (it was dry when we left it), and came back to discover that not only was the hot water now flowing, but the entire bathroom floor and part of the entryway were completely flooded. Housekeeping assured us that this happens all the time, and some poor worker was sent over to mop things up. We had dinner at the lodge restaurant (it was so-so -- certainly nowhere near the quality of Chris' cooking), and watched an evening performance of the Bantu Acrobats from Arusha. This group of young men contorted themselves, juggled, ate fire, and had Cameron and Joss on the edges of their seats.
On October 26th we returned to the crater for a full-day game drive. The morning started out very foggy and misty -- at times we couldn't even see the crater -- but by late morning everything was bright and sunny. Cameron came up with the idea that he and Joss would use their journals as "field logs," and they excitedly took real-time notes every time they saw an animal.
Safari tourists always aspire to see the "Big Five" safari animals: giraffe, elephant, hippopotamus, lion, and rhinoceros. And though we are fascinated by every animal we see, we too have been keeping a mental list of the "Big Five." We saw no giraffes in the Crater, but we had seen many at previous parks. We did see several elephants both yesterday and today, but nowhere near as closely as we had at Lake Manyara. On the other hand, our only hippopotamus sighting until now had been a small dot on the horizon at Arusha National Park. Here, vast herds of them were bathing in the watering holes -- including Ngokokitok Springs picnic site, where we had lunch -- although we only saw their ears and backs sticking out of the water.
Photographing hippo heads
(At Ngokokkok Springs, there were also lots of black kites trying to steal peoples' lunches. Tom warned us to eat in the truck. Russell thought he was safe eating right next to the truck -- until a kite swooped down trying to steal his chicken, and actually cut Russell's finger with its talon.)
Our first two sightings of the rare rhinoceros were also small dots on the horizon, too small even to take a meaningful picture of. But after Tom drove us up to the vista point atop Engitati Hill, we spied a pair back down in the valley. We rushed over there, and after waiting patiently for half an hour at a fair distance, we got to see them cross the road directly in front of us.
Watching the rhino cross the road
But our most exciting encounter of the day was with a group of lions. We saw them lounging in the middle of the road, and parked our truck at a safe distance near a bunch of other trucks. One of the lionesses got up, strolled directly over to us, and parked herself in the shade of our truck's rear bumper! After a few moments, her mate strolled over and joined her. Very exciting!
The lion under the bumper
Back at the lodge, tonight's dinner was better than last night's, and included topi (large antelope) and warthog. (As Gail remarked, after baboon she could eat anything!) At the lodge shop, Russell picked up a book on basic Swahili, and Gail picked up several kangas (colorful African skirt wraps). We will leave Ngorongoro with great reluctance tomorrow, but fortunately the biggest safari treasure of Tanzania still awaits us... the Serengeti.
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