After spending 10 days on game drives in Kenya half of our party returned to Nairobi for the long flight home. Only four of us continued the journey to Tanzania in a single jeep. Turns out that it took us some 12 hours on February 10th to drive over 500 kilometers from Nairobi to the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania. Along the way, we were very blessed to be able to see Mt. Kilimanjaro, which is often hidden by clouds before noon even on sunny days. It is the tallest mountain in Africa and the world’s highest free-standing mountain. It is composed of three extinct volcanoes, the tallest of which is Kibo Peak seen here at 19,340 feet.
At 1:30 p.m. that afternoon we arrived at Shanga Village where we stopped for lunch. I was very moved by the sign painted on the side of the workshop where they made beads and trinkets from recycled glass and recycled newsprint. All proceeds from the sale of these items go to support the blind and the deaf.
We arrived at the Ngorongoro Conservation Welcome Center at about 5:30 p.m. but it would take another hour and a half to drive some 2,500 vertical feet from the crater basin to our stone lodge built into the top rim of the crater at an elevation of 7546 feet above sea level. A rainforest created by clouds encircling the rim makes the area lush and green year round but it gets quite cool in the evenings at this higher elevation. We had radiant heaters in our rooms.
The Ngorongoro Crater is known as the eighth wonder of the world. According to author, Mark Nolting and his Africa Adventure Company website: “Ngorongoro Crater is the largest unflooded, intact caldera in the world”. The basin of the crater is 102 square miles and is home to “possibly the largest permanent concentration of wildlife in Africa, with an estimated average of 30,000 large mammals.” He explains further that the crater is but a small part portion of the 3,200 square-mile Ngorongoro Conservation Area… “that is characterized by a highland plateau with volcanic mountains as well as several craters, extensive savannah and forest …ranging in altitude from 4,430 feet to 11,800 feet”.
I was excited to see the Crater first-hand but equally glad that we only spent one day there. It is so popular with “point-and-shoot” tourists that I have almost as many photos of other safari jeeps as pictures of the wildlife. This type of atmosphere is not terribly conducive to bird-watching . However, the field guide on “Birds of East Africa” that I purchased at the Welcome Center has been an invaluable reference. Here then are the birds we saw in the Crater.
The wildest and most exciting part of our trip to East Africa was without a doubt living in the Ndutu tent camp on the Serengeti Plains for 5 days. Nothing we had experienced up to this point could have prepared me for the adventure that lay ahead.
According to the Encyclopedia of Earth website: “The name Serengeti is derived from the Maasai language, Maa; specifically, Serengit means endless plains.” They cover an area of some 12,000 square miles south of the equator in Eastern Africa. The Serengeti National Park in Tanzania stretches for 5,700 square miles. I highly recommend visiting the website at www.eoearth.org for a more in-depth study of this amazing part of our planet where “some of the earliest humanoid fossils have been discovered, and as a result is often called ‘the cradle of mankind’.”
As the glaciers atop Mt. Kilimanjaro disappear with each passing year so does the fresh water so vital to all life on the plains. According to our local African touring company executives, Serengeti has been experiencing more frequent and dramatic weather events, more severe rains and droughts, at unusual times of the year as a telltale sign of global climate change. Local farmers and tribes continue cutting down forests in order to create larger grazing areas for their livestock and illegally diverting water runoffs from the melting mountain snows for their crops and fields. This short-term solution is causing the situation to worsen exponentially and is seriously affecting wildlife and tourism in the national parks.
The drought was so severe while we were there that trucks like this would have to drill and pump for eight hours just to secure 10 gallons of water. The owners of our tent camp had to drive almost 80 miles round-trip every day to Ngorongoro for our water.
After a twelve-hour game drive each day, here then is how our day would end.
During migration season the Serengeti is teaming with more wildlife than you can ever imagine. We arrived to find some 1.3 million wildebeests, thousands of zebras and close to a half million gazelles gathered for the greatest large mammal migration left on earth. Neither words nor photos can do it justice. The circle of life is ever-present during the migration. We witnessed live births of wildebeests and gazelles and also watched as the big cats hunted with ease among the massive herds of prey.
There we drove for three days before seeing even one other tourist jeep. And the only time that we saw other photographers was when word spread via radio contact between guides that a lion pride was on the hunt. Even then, just seven jeeps met on top of a ridge at a safe viewing distance. I’ve always had a queasy stomach watching this sort of thing on television but somehow in real life it is much less disturbing. It is simply the way of nature and the brain processes it differently in real time. You can feel the heartbeat of the planet in Africa. It feels like the birthplace of Eternity.