I first got the idea to travel on safari ten years earlier when I came across an amazing website chronicling a high school trip to Kenya. But what sold me was Ngorongoro Crater. The world's largest perfect caldera, created by the collapse of a volcano, it measures roughly 10 miles in diameter. Its 100 square miles is home to a wide variety of animals, and conditions are so favorable that they never migrate. I began to notice that nature shows about wildebeests and zebras and lions were often filmed in the crater. It was the reason I took this trip, to see this incredible crater. I was not disappointed.
The animals were so close it defied belief. Herds of zebra and wildebeest mingled by the lake, crossing between our vehicles without a care. A lazy hyena sat alone sleeping, peering over at the herds from time to time but paying us no mind. Pink flamingoes dotted the lake while warthogs foraged near the shore. We made our way to the hippo pond, where a large group lay in the shallow water splashing with their tails and rolling in muddy bottom to keep cool. There was very little movement apart from the small birds hopping from back to back. Eventually a baby came into view, a cute little sausage next to the immense adult hippos.
We continued on, seeing all manner of animals including massive Cape buffalo almost hidden in the tall grass and the largest herd I had seen yet, a mix of zebras, wildebeests and Grant's gazelles. As we prepared to leave the crater we got a rare treat - two black rhinos in the distance. Rhinos are so heavily poached that only six remain in the vast crater. Even at a great distance, it was exhilarating to catch a glimpse of these very endangered creatures.
All the accommodations on this trip were as spectacular as they were unique, each a treasure unlike any other. Ngorongoro Serena Lodge was remarkable in how it blended into the surroundings. From the road and the crater floor it could not be seen. Every room looked out onto the crater, the alkaline lake gleaming white as a snow-covered field.
After a safari drive, it's Kili time - time to meet in the hotel bar to enjoy our new favorite beer, Kilimanjaro Lager. The waiter brought us tray after tray of warm cashews and homemade potato chips fried in sunflower oil. Before dinner, a band played traditional music while a Maasai group performed. Males in their mid-twenties sang and leapt, then young girls from 9 to 13 sang an answering chant, their high voices wailing. At the end of the night, I returned to my room to find the beds turned down and a hot water bottle in the foot of the bed. Every day brought a new surprise.
I awoke find the lodge enveloped in a shroud cold fog - a typical morning on the crater rim. A hearty breakfast warmed us up as we walked through the dense wet mist to our vehicles. Every day we switched driving parties, so we all got a chance to know each other very well. One the big selling points of Thomson Safaris was the small ratio per vehicle - just four in each Land Rover, with everyone guaranteed a window seat. As our vehicles descended into the crater, we dipped below the fog and the crater opened up before us.
Not long after beginning our drive we turned a corner and suddenly I was staring at a sleeping male lion less than 20 feet away. He was huge but young, his mane lacking the black fringe of an older lion. His hindquarters were covered in scars, evidence of a battle fought over control of a pride. He must have been victorious, for a group of three females slept nearby. After a while he sat up, looking majestic atop his small hill. He stood up to stretch, then turned around and plopped right back down. A few of the females popped their heads above the grass to watch him, then returned to their own lazy slumber.
Before lunch we saw a few new animals, like a bat-eared fox and a large group of crested cranes displaying their mating dance. We had our picnic lunch on a grassy area beside a hippo pond. We were advised to eat in the vehicles, as the large black kites that flew overhead had been know to swoop in for a snack and injure picnickers. The fog had burned off and the sun warmed us as we relaxed. Back on the safari trails, we stopped to watch a large group of frisky wildebeest. Young males ran wildly among the herd, butting heads and chasing females. With their large numbers, wildebeests had seemed common and ordinary, but it was fascinating to pause for a bit a watch the scene. I came away with a fondness for these social creatures.
One of the saddest losses in Tanzania is the black rhino. Because their horns are thought to be aphrodisiacs in the Middle East and Asia, they fetch a high price and poachers have nearly killed them off. We were lucky enough to see another today, though at a very far distance. As we prepared to leave the crater floor, I had our closest encounter of the trip - a large male elephant standing between two trees, his face not more than 12 feet from my own. He nonchalantly chewed on acacia thorns and paid us no mind, but my heart was racing. >>