Monday, 11 April 2016

Close Encounters of the Ngorongoro Kind: A Tanzanian Safari

The cloud on the western horizon turns tandoori red as our Toyota Landcruiser labours up a winding dusty road, through dense cloud forests of acacia garlanded with Spanish moss in the volcanic highlands of Tanzania.

Emmanuel, our driver and guide, stops the jeep and signals us to follow him. Shivering, we climb out. The dawn air is thin and cold at this altitude. It is strangely still and the lush vegetation drips with dew. My breath catches in my throat as I behold the scene before me. Six hundred metres below is a vast, 20 km green basin of grassland, forest and marsh. At its centre, a pale lake shimmers in the glassy glare of the rising sun. Roaming across this vast stage are tiny back dots: herds of zebra, buffalo, antelope and wildebeest and the lake edge is fringed with the pink of thousands of flamingos. Cloud pours like liquid down over the sides of the vast caldera which resembles the Biblical Garden of Eden. This is the mighty Ngorongoro Crater, formed during a cataclysmic volcanic eruption of around two million years ago, and we are about to witness one of the greatest natural shows on Earth.

Back in the jeep, we continue our journey along a rough track that climbs into the immense undulating savanna above the crater. The grasslands are broken by the odd Umbrella thorn (Vachellia tortilis) or African myrrh (Commiphora Africana), as well as Maasai boma, enclosures containing animal pens and circular huts with conical rush roofs, all of which are encircled by a palisade of wooden stakes that keeps the Maasai's livestock safe from predators. We pass a Maasai man striding effortlessly up the dusty road. His deep red plaid wraps him from shoulders to knees and he bears a stick in his left hand. More Maasai tribespeople - tall, slender, elegant, draped in red cloth and bedecked with strings of multicoloured beads and intricate earrings - appear by the side of the road, but we have no time to stop, for game watching is best done in the early morning when the animals are most active.

Water is scarce in the savanna highland in the dry season, so the Maasai are permitted to bring their livestock down to the crater for water and grazing, and we follow the road they use which descends steeply down over the crater wall to Seneto Springs. We make a quick stop to raise the roof of the jeep so we can stand up comfortably to view the game, before we begin our descent to a place that feels something like a lost world. Soft white cloud is reflected in the mirror-like Lake Magadi, its salt encrusted shore blushing pastel pink with thousands of flamingos feeding on algae and shrimp. Ahead, Massai tribesmen drive their cattle slowly across the grassy plain amid herds of zebra and wildebeest. The noise of waterfowl squawking at the waterholes fills the air. Two wildebeest lock horns and lower themselves onto their front knees and scuffle, kicking up volumes of dust; in the background a female ostrich ambles by.

Rust red game-viewing trails spread out in all directions and I can see the black dots of at least another dozen or so jeeps shimmering in the heat haze. We head north east past the Goose Ponds and Mandusi Swamp. Pink flamingos on impossibly slender legs congregate near the edges of brackish pools and we are delighted to see a pair of grey-crowned cranes, sporting golden head crests and bright red wattles. In the distance, large herds of Grant’s and Thompson’s gazelles are grazing.

The sun reflects off the rounded pink backs of over a dozen hippo wallowing in a pool. We are watching one ambling away when our attention is distracted by a pair of hyena who approach for a drink. They pass by close enough to the jeep for us to see the coarseness of their thick spotted coats, their long, muscular necks, massive skulls, and round, slightly pointed ears. Emmanuel tells us that besides hunting, they can also consume carrion in an advanced state of decomposition. Their powerful jaws, highly acidic stomach, and enlarged and powerful premolars enable them to crush and digest even the largest bones of their prey.


En route to Engitati Hill, we spot a large augur buzzard in the grass. This magnificent raptor has brown and white barbed wings and rust coloured tail feathers. Sensing our presence, it soars into the sky. Emmanuel then points out a large earth mound about 400 metres away, at the top of which a pair of cheetah recline in the morning sun. From this vantage point these magnificent predators scan the surrounding grassland looking for prey. I’m hugely impressed by his ability to see these spotted cats which are incredibly well camouflaged against the terrain.

The radio suddenly crackles into life and Emmanuel informs us that one of the other guides, with whom he is in constant radio contact, has located a lion kill. We immediately notice a number of vultures circling above a spot on the nearby hillside and a hyena running away at speed with what looks like a wildebeest leg dangling from its mouth. We soon join the end of a line of stationary jeeps, straining our necks to see. I’m glad that we have opted for a private safari as some of the other jeeps have 6-8 people crammed into them, leaving everyone jostling for space which presents problems when filming.

Eventually we get close enough to see a lioness hidden in some long dry grass. She is perfectly camouflaged and it's only the flick of her black-tipped tail that initially gives away her position. I then spy one of her cubs lying in the shade of a clump of grass just metres from the jeep. It is panting profusely in the heat. We don’t move along very far before we encounter another lioness. She is lying down and appears to be satiated. Perhaps she was one of the pride that brought down the wildebeest that morning? Ngorongoro has the greatest concentration of lions in Africa and you'd be very unfortunate indeed not to see any. 

We eventually move on, passing more hippos sunning themselves by the banks of a pool; small birds are perched on their backs feasting on the parasites embedded in their thick skin. The hippo are perfectly still apart from their tiny tails flicking away the flies. It's not long before we come face to face with yet another lion, this time a large male who has drawn the attention of several jeeps from which numerous camera lenses project. He is lying right in the middle of the dusty track and seems unperturbed by our presence.  Blinking into the fierce sunlight, he yawns, baring a set of ferocious looking canines. His nose bears the blackened scars of past battles and his coat is covered with flies which make him twitch constantly. He shakes his ragged mane, slowly rises to his feet and wanders straight towards our jeep, where he flops down in its shade. It’s an unbelievable moment. I can almost reach down to touch him and he’s so close, I can smell his pungent odour.

After our close encounter with the lion, we trundle along through a grassy plain spotting kori bustards, grey-breasted spur-fowl, guinea fowl and several male ostriches, before we encounter a family of warthogs: a boar, a sow and six piglets. The adults, rusty coloured wiry hair on their backs caked in dried mud, are busy foraging using their curved tusks to dig up roots, while their young dart about between them. The piglets, each with a ridge of rust red bristles down their back, are quite adorable and highly amusing to watch.


Suddenly Emmanuel lets out a low cry. He has spotted something moving out in the wide expanse of grassland. Martin grabs his binoculars and scans the terrain. The excitement is palpable. A large grey animal moves slowly in the shimmering heat haze. It has the unmistakable curved horn of a black rhino! One of the 'big five' and among the most endangered species on the planet, there are less than two dozen of these noble beasts left in Ngorongoro. We feel privileged to have seen this one which slowly moves off to become lost from sight in the grass and heat haze.

We move on across the vast open plain surrounding the eastern end of Lake Magadi. Borne on the warm breeze, is the sharp and unmistakable odour of fresh blood mingled with the pungent smell of spilled intestinal matter. A zebra lies on its side near a solitary acacia tree, stomach torn open, its body already beginning to putrefy in the African heat. It appears to have lain down in the shade of this tree to die this very morning. Amid a cloud of flies is a roiling wake of rapacious vultures - Ruppells griffon, white-backed and Egyptian - a surging, seething mass of black and brown feathers, of stabling beaks, lunging necks and flailing wings.

The carcass twitches violently as if still in its death throes as the birds attack it with gusto. The largest vultures, the lappetfaced, are preening themselves in the acacia tree, having had their fill. They were responsible for ripping open the zebra’s hide with their powerful beaks allowing the others to join the stinking smorgasbord. My stomach churns as a white-backed probes the zebra’s nostril while another thrusts its head deep into its anus; a pink gaping hole exists where once an eye had been. Attracted by the stench of death, more diners whirl above and swoop in one by one, cautiously sidling up to the foul feast, backs hunched and heads low. A fight breaks out as a Ruppell's griffon attempts to push its way in, causing a menacing chorus of hisses, cackles and caws. An Egyptian vulture hops off trailing a length of intestine, its head smeared in blood and faeces, while a Ruppell’s Griffon pauses to scan the area keenly, its white ruff wet with gore, and its vicious looking beak smeared with viscera. Emmanuel tells us that within an hour, this carcass will be stripped clean. Nature red in tooth and claw indeed.

The sight of zebra is by now ubiquitous, there are several thousand of them in the crater, and as we approach the Lerai Forest, Emmanuel is alerted by another guide that a leopard has been spotted in a tree. Having not seen a leopard on our last safari in South Africa, I can barely contain my excitement. We join a cluster of jeeps with cameras angled toward a tree some fifty metres away. At first I can see nothing, until the big cat, a female, shifts her position in the fork of the tree. She strides along one of the branches before crouching down, the black rosettes on her coat allowing her to become almost invisible against the bark and through the leaves and thorns of the tree. We watch her for well over twenty minutes as she occasionally moves amid the branches. She seems unsettled and Emmanuel senses that she will climb down. Indeed, our patience is finally rewarded when she scrambles down the trunk head first. Her sleek, spotted body slips quietly away through the long dry grass with barely a ripple.

Attention now turns to creatures of a smaller kind as we spot a variety of birds as we pass through the forest: the odd-looking red-billed hornbill, ground hornbill and black hornbill, the latter sporting a huge bony protuberance on its beak; red and yellow barbet; the parrot-like Fischer’s lovebird; white-headed buffalo-weaver; long-tailed fiscal shrike, multi coloured rollers and the Cape starling with its magnificent iridescent blue plumage.

In the shadow of an acacia tree we encounter another scene of carnage - a trail of mottled brown and white feathers – the victim, a hapless guinea fowl. The culprit, a large eagle, is hunched over the remnants of its carcass. It fixes us keenly with a piercing yellow eye. Most people are eager to see the 'Big Five', but for me creatures of the feathered variety simply steal the show. There is enough variety in Ngorongoro’s bird life to turn even the most dedicated big-mammal follower into a twitcher.

A large troop of baboons suddenly appear through the trees. They pause in a clearing and we are hypnotised by their almost human like antics. One scans the ground, jabbing its paws repeatedly into the grass for seeds, grubs and shoots; a female sits upright lazily scratching herself while she is attentively groomed for fleas by a younger female. A fight breaks out between two ‘teenage’ males over a large seed pod, which ends with one dispensing an almighty cuff to the head of the other, who departs shrieking loudly. A mother carries her tiny baby on her back as she strides across the clearing on all fours. She pauses to fix us knowingly with her brown eyes as our cameras snap away.

It’s now early afternoon and we make for the Ngaitokitok Springs, an idyllic green oasis in the middle of the parched grasslands with a popular picnic spot at the shore of a lake. Here it’s permissible to leave the jeep. Emmanuel tells us it’s best to eat our lunch inside the vehicle, as the area is plagued by yellow-billed kites that will try to steal our packed lunch. The only bother we get is from an inquisitive yellow and black lesser-masked weaver which perches on the edge of our jeep. However, some American tourists who have seemingly ignored their guide’s advice about not eating in the open, are attacked by a kite which deftly swipes a sandwich from a shrieking woman!

I sit on the lake shore under the shade of an acacia tree festooned with the spherical grass nests of a species of weaver bird. Every so often one of several hippos breaks the surface of the water, ears twitching, before ducking out of sight again. I can hear them grunting to each other as they bob up and down in the water. It’s hard to believe that these are one of Africa’s most dangerous animals, they look so docile! I’m loath to leave but there’s plenty more to see as we begin our route out of the crater.

As we drive away from the Springs, we see a couple of buffalo lying in the grass close to a white egret with another huge herd of wildebeest behind. Their gruesome looking horns means these monsters are not to be messed with and they are one of the ‘big five’, feared for their unpredictability by the trophy hunters of yesteryear. We have now spotted lions, a leopard, a black rhinoceros and the buffalo, four of the ‘big five’, leaving only elephant to see.

Elephant herds are noticeably absent from the crater floor because the cows and calves tend to prefer the forested highlands. They sometimes appear at the crater rim but only rarely venture down into the grasslands. However, Emmanuel informs us that this area is known as the ‘elephant’s graveyard’ and we are likely to spot aged bull elephants here. No sooner are the words out of his mouth than we spot the enormous bleached bones of an elephant’s skeleton. Elephants undergo six phases of dentition over their lifetime. When the last tooth is worn down, it becomes difficult for them to chew their food properly and they usually start to look around for softer vegetation, such as that which is growing here. In the end, however, old elephants are simply unable to sufficiently masticate their food and succumb to gradual starvation. They die in this swampy place and this is probably how the myth of such ‘elephant graveyards’ arose. At the margins of the lush grassland, we eventually spot the tell-tale frame of a huge bull elephant sporting an enormous pair of tusks. Every so often he flaps his large ears and his trunk dexterously hoovers the ground, sweeping tender grass shoots up into his mouth.

Emmanuel points out yet more lions as we begin our journey towards the ascent road out of the crater. Several are rolling around in the long grass a mere ten metres from us, and another is dozing beneath a thorn bush right by the track. Although we are ridiculously close to this young male with an impressive brown and black shaggy mane, he’s not the least bit interested in our presence. Lions are lazy creatures and spend most of the day sleeping like this one.

Vervet monkeys, many nursing young, chatter nosily in an acacia thicket as we pass by, and we see yet more antelope. The concentration of over 25,000 ungulates inside Ngorongoro Crater was a major reason for designating the Ngorongoro Conservation Area as a World Heritage Site in 1979. We spot eland, Coke's hartebeest, and more Grant’s and Thompson’s gazelles.  

Our jeep begins the steep climb up the crater wall. I wistfully look back down into the gaping hole formed by the cataclysmic volcanic eruption of around two million years ago, which has been transformed over the passage of time into an African version of Noah’s Ark. In this, the world's largest intact volcanic caldera, an incredible variety of animals, whose migration options are limited by the 600 metre high walls, thrive under the endless pale blue sky of east Africa. It has been a privilege to experience this place, if only for a few hours.

In Ngorongoro the extremes of abundance and scarcity, life and death, are laid bare and suffused with the olfactory, the audible and the visual: the odour of parched earth and dung; the whispering of the savanna grasses in the wind; the startled hooves of zebra; the black shadow of a circling vulture; the warning cry of a mother wildebeest; the knowing stare of a fellow primate; the swoosh of an eagle’s wings… All this and more awakens something primitive in one’s very soul, a feeling of freedom, of being at one with nature. Ngorongoro awakens the African that dwells deep within every homo sapiens.