Book ID 346
Marks, Guy Five out of five for this lush slice of Africa, 1999
Extract Author: Guy Marks
Extract Date: 1999 September 4
Guy Marks finds a wildlife wonderland in the vast basin of Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania
The crater looked dark and mysterious in the early morning light. Grey clouds blotted the sky, but as they shifted, shafts of sun broke through and illuminated the shimmering surface of Lake Magadi on the crater floor. I was watching from the balcony of my room in the Serena Lodge, right on the edge of the crater rim.
This was the Ngorongoro Crater in northern Tanzania. It is a haven, a hidden paradise protected within a volcanic caldera. It is a vast lush basin, 23km (15 miles) across, walled in by the steep slopes of the crater rim.
The grazing there is rich and the wildlife within this natural enclosure must know that it is on to a good thing. Unlike the migratory herds in other parks, here most stay all year round taking advantage of the constant water and food supplies. There is a resident population of 20,000 large animals in this relatively small space, making it one of the highest game densities anywhere in Africa. And that is the big attraction of the Ngorongoro, the certain knowledge that a day's game viewing will be rewarded. I only had a morning to spend here but, as it turned out, that was enough.
The sky was clearing and the day brightening as we descended the tortuous track, 600 metres down into the crater. The park is completely wild and natural and yet you do not have to go far in search of game. The plains animals, the grazing gazelle, zebra and wildebeest, were out in force.
Freddie, our guide, commented that we might even see the big five. This odd collection of elephant, rhino, lion, buffalo and leopard dates from a time when trophy hunting was the norm in colonial Africa and these were the trophies that were best prized. Thankfully most visitors nowadays only want to shoot with their cameras but the challenge of seeing the big five is as exciting as it ever was.
Within moments of entering the crater we saw several buffalo standing in the lush grass. They were shaking the flies from their heads and glaring at passers-by, barely tolerating the intrusion of Land Rovers.
We drove on past the lakes and waterholes where hippos wallowed in the mud and a plethora of flamingos and other birdlife was fishing in the shallows. We were heading for an area of woodland known as the Lerai forest, named after the Masai word for the yellow acacia, which is the dominant tree. We skirted the forest for a while, admiring these elegant trees and keeping a look out for leopards that might be resting in the branches. An elephant appeared from nowhere out of the shadows, and walked purposefully off across the grassland. He seemed to be on a mission, moving gracefully but steadily, disregarding the watchful gaze of onlookers.
It was mid-morning and the heat of the day was building. The cloud had cleared from above the crater floor but hung on the rim. The sky above us was blue and yet, in every direction, we were encircled by a dramatic backdrop of cloud-bathed peaks.
We followed the elephant where the track allowed us, but he was soon beyond our reach. It did not matter though, because as one subject went out of view another was guaranteed to be just around the corner. Sure enough we came across some zebra by a stream and sat and watched as they jumped the watery obstacle in single file or stopped to take a drink. They seemed a little nervous, perhaps wary of lurking lions.
Wherever there is prey there are predators and the Ngorongoro lions are never far away. They tend to hunt at night or in the early hours of the morning and then spend most of their days basking in the sun and posing for photographs. We got a radio call from another car directing us to the bearded one. That is what the guides call the lions so as not to spoil the surprise for the guests. By the time we got to the spot there were five Land Rovers vying for position to view three old males. One lay on his back, legs outstretched, exposing his crown jewels to the world, as our guide put it.
Well, that was three out of the big five and now, in this little meeting around the lions, the drivers were swapping stories of what they had seen and where. We were given a lead to the horned one, and continued our quest.
The grass was tall and in spite of the rhino's size, it was remarkably difficult to see. We could see something large and grey in the distance, though. We strained our eyes and could just make out that it was a group of three rhinos, two adults with a calf. It wasn't a good close-up sighting, but as we headed back to the lodge for lunch, I found it almost unbelievable that we had seen four out of five in just a morning.
There is so much to see in such a small area that the Ngorongoro runs the risk of spoiling your trip. If you came here first you might think that game was always this easy to see and then be disappointed with the other parks where there is a sense of excitement every time a big cat or a buffalo is spotted.
This extraordinary crater still had one last surprise for us. We left the lodge and headed towards the park gate at the boundary of the conservation area. We were on the main road, the dirt track that passes through the park on the slopes that form the outside of the crater. Suddenly the occupants who clung to the back of a matatu, a local bush-taxi, waved frantically at us as we followed them. We had no idea what was going on at first, but they shouted that they had seen the spotted one sitting in a tree as they passed.
Freddie clunked the Land Rover into reverse and we raced backwards around a corner. We were just in time to see the leopard jump from his tree and saunter up the road before he disappeared into the bushes. As safari venues go, I'd have to give the Ngorongoro Crater five out of five.
* Getting there: SA Alliance Air (0181-944 5012) flies from London to Dar es Salaam on Thursdays and Sundays. There are no direct flights from the US. Return prices from £425 low season to £707 high. Precisionair connects Dar es Salaam with Arusha airport where the safaris usually begin.
* The Safari: Guy Marks's trip was arranged by Hoopoe Adventure Tours Tanzania on +255 577011, which is represented in the UK by a specialist tour operators including: Art of Travel (0171-738 2038), Tribes Travel(01728-685971) and Wildlife Worldwide (0181-667 9158). In the US, call Explorers World Travel Inc on 847-295 7770 or e-mail: email@example.com