Wednesday, March 30, 2011

NGORONGORO CRATER ................the holy grail

If you whisper Ngorongoro softly it conjures up mystical images of secret places hidden in the depths of the Rift Valley in a far off land. A place so remote, that one has to endure hardship and endless months of travel, to see. Almost as remote as Middle Earth. The reality however is completely different. Today if your bank balance can tolerate it then to see the Ngorongoro Crater is within your reach. And it is worth it!
At the entrance to the Park there is the mandatory office and entrance where money changes hands so that you can enter. Luckily, if you have hired a guide like we did, this is not a problem and you can sit back and relax while waiting – and perhaps visit the public convenience that is certainly amongst the cleanest that I have seen in Africa north of the Limpopo. Then the steady climb up the side of the crater amidst the dust, and in the rain, I should imagine, it would be an exciting slippery drive. Finally, at the summit, amidst the many other vehicles, you can stop and view the full extent of the crater. It is a spellbinding vista spoiled only by the fact that you have to jostle your way forward to the viewpoint between all the other tourists doing the same thing you are.
I am posting a photo of the vista with apologies to all those landscape fundis out there. Yes, it was the middle of the day and even the grad filters didn’t want to do it justice but it was the time we arrived and we were to depart again on the same day. So, here it is, for what it’s worth. Hopefully it can reflect just a little bit of the awe inspiring emotion of the moment.

Then the drive down into the crater, done at the same (breakneck) speed of the journey to the gates of the crater. Suddenly we descend along a perilous dirt road (track) into the crater. By this time, unfortunately, the sun is high and the clock is all wrong for photography. However, we will soldier on, this is a rare opportunity to see a rare jewel of Africa and no sun in the sky is going to ruin the experience.
The animals of the crater are completely oblivious to the vehicles moving backwards and forwards criss-crossing the floor of the crater. The soda lake in the bottom of the crater is a mere puddle as the annual rains have not yet come. On our descent there is a traffic jam of vehicles on the road all watching three cheetahs who are hiding out under a bush. All one can view is a couple of spots and nothing else. So, we move the traffic jam forward a little and head off towards the pink spotted soda lake.
Our very first views are of zebra quietly grazing in the blazing sun and hidden in the grass a Rosy Throated Longclaw that manages to fly off before my lens can focus. Next we come across four gorgeous Crested Cranes that very conveniently move towards us until they are almost right next to the vehicle. It is very apparent that these animals are not threatened at all by the vehicles and the years of protection and conservation shows in their behaviour.

Our progression through the crater reveals more and more birds and animals quietly going about the business of filling their bellies. Abdim Storks and egrets abound and the buffalo hardly even lift an eyelid as you drive by. However, this is a National Park and no vehicle may leave the roads which of course places quite a lot of the wildlife beyond the reach of the lens. Far off, I am told, by our keen eyed Godwin, there is a Black Rhino. However, I have to clear things up here with Godwin, and we have a keen discussion about what can be referred to as a sighting and what not. Most definitely, if I need a telescope to see the animal – then this is not a sighting.

As we make our way around the crater to the eastern side (if my compass is working properly) we come across a badger scurrying over the road. He turns tail and heads back for the river the moment we stop. It’s my first encounter with a badger and I am surprised by his speed. Once again, very frustratingly my camera is NOT ready. Damn, another missed opportunity as I catch the back end of something I have been waiting for, for a long time.

As we turn around Godwin spots a serval very busy at searching for its midday snack. Only two shots before it too disappears into the river bed. This is the disadvantage of a National Park. We can’t follow and we have to move on.

Our next sighting is of the lions. I have long been watching documentaries about the super-pride of the Ngorongoro Crater and also listening to the dire warnings of the gene pool being so restrictive due to the human encroachment on the outside of the crater. And, sadly, it has now come to pass. Besides the limited gene pool determining the procreation of a much weaker strain of lions there apparently was a blight of Rinderpest a number of years ago that wiped out the lions. Rinderpest? I thought that Rinderpest had been completely wiped out in Africa!
We have our lunch at a site on the western side of the Park high up on the side of the crater wall. We enjoy the view and can see the huge bull elephants moving amongst the wooded area of the crater. Sadly, they too are way beyond the reach of the lens and we have to take our photographs with our eyes and store these memories in the bank of those never to be forgotten and never to be shared because they reside only in our own memory.
Back down to the floor for another turn around the crater. Buffalo, wildebeest, a golden jackal, more birds than I can remember, zebra and the ever present antelopes of various species abound in the crater. We see a potential lion chase that fizzles into nothing and then, some more excitement. The Honeybadger makes its appearance once again. But so fast! Lightning quick it moves amongst all the vehicles, decides to try to attack one of the vehicles. As he faces off against the vehicle the driver revs the engine and he backs off. I make a mad scramble for a camera but as it runs I find it impossible to lock onto the animal for some kind of focus and next minute – poof – gone again.
Further down the road we spy two cheetahs lying lazily on a slight rise. To the one side a mother warthog with her four offspring are snuffling on the ground looking for something to chew on. Suddenly, without even a crouch to warn us, the one cheetah jumps up and starts chasing the warthog. The mother warthog flies off taking the attention away from her piglets. This time my camera is almost certainly ready. But, once again, the settings are all wrong but I decide to shoot anyway. Then, the unexpected! The warthog comes to a screaming halt in a cloud of dust and turns towards the cheetah. Now the cheetah is being pursued. She chases the cheetah far out of the reach of her young and once she feels the perimeter of danger is big enough she backs off and returns to the piglets prancing in triumph. The day has been filled with sudden unexpected action as I have never witnessed before and my trigger finger was hopelessly inadequate.
This is our last bit of excitement for the day, if you exclude the journey towards Ndutu. As we leave the crater I know that I have to return. I need to get there early in the morning and late in the evening so that the light is right and hopefully my new bit of engineering excellence called the Canon MkIII will be more co-operative. This has certainly been a day of missed opportunities. The more I see of Africa the more I want to see and I can certainly see why someone like Karen Blixen would have fallen so in love with its allure. There is a spirit of Africa that calls to my soul and I feel I have found the holy grail.

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