Ngorongoro Crater

After our very first day of safari, in Tarangire National Park, I thought to myself that if that had been the ONLY day I had been able to spend in Africa, it would have been worth all the expense, all the planning, all the flying, all the everything. It was THAT incredible. And then the second day was even better. And THEN we went to Ngorongoro Crater.

Ngorongoro Crater was created 2 to 3 million years ago when a volcano collapsed, forming the largest intact caldera on the planet. “Ngorongoro” is pronounced just as it’s spelled and according to our guide was named after the sound the bells around the necks of the Maasai’s cattle made as they walked down the crater walls. Driving from Tarangire, we stopped at a village for a cultural visit (where Mark decided he was moving to Africa to teach children) and some banana beer and banana wine, and then at an art shop, and finally at the crater rim.

I had never taken a panorama photo before but you really kind of have to; the crater is simply immense. This is 3 or 4 photos stitched together and if you click on it, you can see the bigger, better version.

One of the highest concentrations of wildlife in the entire world lives in this crater.

After spending a lot of time taking in the impressive view from the crater rim, we made our way to the lodge. There were random marabou storks roaming around the courtyard at all times at the lodge. Those things are HUGE. And kind of weird! “Yeah, I’m just walking to dinner and there’s a marabou stork 10 feet away; that’s totally normal.”

The next morning we descended to the crater floor. The drive down was beautiful – fog completely envelopes the crater.

Lots of ungulates in the crater. This is a Thompson’s gazelle, which you can identify by the black stripe on his side.

These are grand gazelles:

We saw two wildebeests fighting – very close to our car.

It’s probably an easy life for vultures in the crater!

I told you I loved it when ostriches cross roads; they seem to do it often:

Cape buffalo, with a bird flying by:

Hyena:

Hippos lounging:

Hippos sleeping in water with bird friends:

Another crazy African bird, the bustard:

But what was my favorite animal of the crater, you ask??? Need you really ask?

The lion population of the crater is actually pretty inbred because their numbers are dwindling, so I’m kind of concerned for their future. We saw some lionesses eating a gazelle or some other kill, then they collected their cubs, who were situated away from the kill, and led them to a stream.

They had to cross the road we were parked on to get to the stream; this they did RIGHT in front of us.

The cubs didn’t want to get their paws wet….sooooooo adorable!

After drinking for a bit, they crossed the road again to get back to their original spot. If I had thought it wise, I could have reached out of the car and scooped this cub up AND BELIEVE ME I THOUGHT ABOUT DOING IT.

(PS LOOK AT THOSE SPOTS!)

But I would have had to contend with a very angry mother.

And finally, the only thing we DIDN’T get a good opportunity to see on safari was a rhino. Sadly this is the only rhino we saw and he was VERY far away, so far away he’s little more than a rhino-shaped blob in this photo, and this was taken with a 600mm lens on a crop sensor camera. In a way, I guess it’s kind of poignant because it’s very likely that these animals will be extinct in our lifetime. One day soon all we may have of rhinos will be hazy memories. I wish I could express to you how much I hate poachers. It physically hurts me to have so much hatred inside me, but poaching is nothing short of pure evil.

I don’t want to leave you on a depressing note; it would be inappropriate because except for the times when I was contemplating my intense hatred of poachers, I loved EVERY SINGLE SECOND of this entire trip. So let’s end with more lion cubs, which are the cutest things on the planet and therefore the exact opposite of poachers.

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Tarangire National Park, Tanzania

I’ve been asked quite a few times why I wanted to go to Africa. I thought it was self-evident but I have since learned that not EVERYONE wants to go to Africa. I actually thought that was a universal desire. Why did I want to go to Africa? It’s very simple: wildlife. I should probably rename this blog “I love wildlife” since I’ve posted more about wildlife this year than I have food. Although – no, BECAUSE – I love wildlife, I do not like zoos. I can’t stand to see animals in cages; it seriously upsets me. I don’t like and don’t support zoos. But I also love wildlife photography. What’s a girl to do? The answer is obvious: go to the place with the highest concentration of wildlife, which pretty much seems to be Tanzania. So the answer is I went to Africa to take pictures of animals that were not in zoos.

Our entire trip was planned by a small business safari company – I’ll do a post with all the details about planning the trip because I found blog posts invaluable myself – and together we decided that we’d visit Tarangire National Park, Ngorongoro Crater, and the Serengeti, doing private safaris through each. Everything was planned for me, so all I had to do was book our international airfare.

We arrived at Mount Kilimanjaro airport from Amsterdam well after dark. Shortly after we cleared Customs, Smucky and his girlfriend Olivia – whom Mark and I had not yet met – arrived on their long, long flight from Australia. We made fast friends with Olivia and the four of us hopped into our guide, Muba’s, Land Cruiser. I was beside myself with excitement at being in Africa for the first time, and a little annoyed that it was dark out so I could see very little as we traveled down a very straight, very flat, very dusty road through the dark. Eventually Muba turned off the open road onto a narrow, rutted, dirt road through heavy vegetation. We had reached AruMeru River Lodge and on the driveway we saw our first glimpse of African wildlife, a tiny ungulate traipsing in front of the car. We shrieked in delight and asked Muba what it was: it was a dik dik, the world’s smallest antelope!

Because dik-diks were the first African wildlife I saw, they have a special place in my heart. Which doesn’t preclude me from sharing this undignified picture of one peeing:

After downing a beer at the bar, we crashed for the night. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to sleep because I was so excited, but after chasing dik-diks around and staring at the southern constellations for a while, I fell fast asleep. Muba met us bright and early the next morning to drive us to Tarangire National Park for our first safari.

Tarangire is well known for having a large number of elephants:

Look how close we were to the elephants!

LOOK HOW AWESOME ELEPHANTS ARE:

See a jackal:

And giraffes!

I really do love all animals, even those that most people find ugly or gross (yes, I like opossums and snakes!), but I must confess I am a BIT partial. I can’t help it, I’m a cat person through and through. The big cats were totally my favorite animals. I think I nearly fainted from excitement the first time we saw a lion.

Come on, how can you NOT admire this animal?

I embarked on this trip knowing the big cats would be my favorite. My undying love of them was confirmed when we’d see a lion and I’d be taking a million pictures of it and then someone would say, “look, there’s an elephant!” or “look, there’s a giraffe!” or “look, there’s something-that’s-not-a-lion!” and I would say, “Who cares??? THERE’S A LION!” I couldn’t take my eyes off them. But no surprise there. What did take me by surprise, though, was how INCREDIBLY CUTE baby baboons are! I don’t know if I’d call an adult baboon exactly “cute”, but the babies were adorable! I LOVED watching them!

Ostriches have long amused me. They are just very silly animals, right? You know how this ostrich feels about me calling it silly?

What amuses me MOST is when ostriches walk across roads. I have no idea why that hilariates* me.

* I know “hilariates” is not a word, but I saw it in an Amazon review once and have adopted it because it hilariates me.

It must have been ostrich mating season because we witnessed two mating dances, only one of which was successful:

Zebras are another crazy animal! By the end of the trip I was pronouncing “zebra” like an Australian (short “e” instead of the American long “e”). At first we were all ooohing and aaahing over every zeh-bra we saw, but it didn’t take long for us to become so accustomed to seeing them we would pass them by and say, “oh, zehbras, whatever”. I never thought the day would come when I would be 15 feet from a zebra and be blasé about it. (Note: I never became blasé about lions!! Also, I saw some lions eating an unfortunate zehbra, which I wasn’t too blasé about.)

It’s become clear to me that I’d better break this post up even further into three parts, one for each park we visited. I originally titled it “Tanzanian National Parks” but I’ve changed it to “Tarangire National Park” and I’ll be back soon with “Ngorongoro Crater” and “Serengeti” posts! Then Zanzibar. And also a post on planning a trip like this, camera gear I used, and yes, what I ate (being vegan was absolutely no problem!).

For those that can’t wait for the next post or that want to see even MORE pictures, you are welcome to see all of my pictures here: http://ineluctable.org/Tanzania/Tanzania/album/index.html

I’m not sure I’ll have time to post again before Thursday, so to my American friends, I hope you have a happy Thanksgiving! We are expecting snow here in Northern Virginia tomorrow – safe travels to all, especially those also affected by winter weather.

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Africa

Going to Africa ruined my life. Mark’s too.

I’ve discussed my journey towards learning to love Virginia here in the past. We came here pretty much for the jobs and in fact for a while I lamented the fact that I liked my job so much that it made it difficult for me to consider leaving Virginia, which it took me a long time to warm up to. But eventually our fabulous regional, state, and national parks and wildlife refuges and abundant wildlife – including my foray into wildlife rehab – won me over and I found that I was able to set aside some of my hatred of the traffic, McMansions, terrible drivers, and annoying people to make room for love of our natural resources. I’ve felt an increasing sense of inner peace in the last few years, a true happiness in life. Little did I realize how tenuous that transformation was, because going to Africa ruined it.

We went to Shenandoah National Park yesterday. There were no lions, elephants, giraffes, or zebras. It was depressing. It didn’t help that it was FREEZING and gray and we missed pretty much all of autumn while we were gone, but even if it had been the most splendid day imaginable, it wouldn’t have been the Serengeti. There’d still have been no lions. At one point on safari I realized that once I got home, my beloved wildlife refuge, where I revel in seeing a bald eagle or a glimpse of a fox, was going to seem extremely small and unexciting. How am I going to recapture the joy I’ve always felt there when I’ve been ten feet away from AN ENTIRE LION PRIDE?

I’ve heard a lot of people say that going to Africa changed their life. In a way, it didn’t really change mine because before I even left I told my travel agent that after this trip I wanted to return and work with cheetahs, because he’s involved in cheetah conservation and said he’d help me do so. And sure enough, I’ve returned from our trip and I want to return to work with cheetahs, so am I a different person?

Yes and no. I’m even more interested in doing hands-on work in wildlife conservation than I was before, but that’s a path I was going headlong down anyway. I realized that I think I could kill a poacher and feel no remorse, which is an uncomfortable position for a pacifist, but I really, really, really, really hate poachers. (And many of them have no more compunction about murdering humans than they do wildlife.) I think what’s changed in me is Africa has become real, and with that, the possibility of doing something different with my life – at least for a while – is staring at me. Africa never seemed real before. I’d watch the occasional nature documentary, and I look at a lot of wildlife photography, much of it taken in Africa, but it always seemed very far away and very, very different than my life. And it is both of those things, but it’s also suddenly become accessible because I’ve BEEN there and I can so easily imagine myself going back. Fairfax, Virginia suddenly seems so small to me. Too small. And so full of people who care only about themselves.

Although I rather anticipated all of this and as I said, I fully expected to want to return to Africa after our first trip to work with wildlife, our trip had an even more profound effect on Mark. Whereas I’ve been positively giddy about the trip for the better part of a year, Mark didn’t allow himself to get as worked up in anticipation as I did. I spent months preparing for, reading about, and basically obsessing over the trip, but although he’s the one that had been saving up for the trip for a couple of years as a surprise for me, it wasn’t until we GOT to Africa that he seemed super-excited about it. But he loved it. Really loved it. Much more than he has ever loved anywhere we’ve gone. And what he loved the most was a bit surprising to me because Mark is NOT a people-person by any stretch of the imagination, but what Mark loves about Africa are the people. We went on a cultural visit to the village of Mto wa Mbu near the Ngorongoro crater rim, where children ran up to us. Most of them wanted their picture taken, which they then wanted to see on the camera’s LED:

But even if you didn’t have a camera, which Mark did not, they just grabbed your hand and walked with you. Mark was overwhelmed by the inherent trust they had. In fact, Mark was so moved by it that he wants to return to that village or another and teach children. Which wasn’t quite the reaction I was expecting from him, although in a way it makes sense because he really is good with children and he’s quite awesome at teaching chess to children here at home.

It wasn’t just the children Mark liked; he was shocked by the friendliness of everyone. Everyone you meet in Tanzania offers a friendly “Jambo!” (“hello”) and “Karibu!” (“welcome”); it’s totally unlike Washington DC. They are a very welcoming folk! People stop to help you in Tanzania just because they want to help; no ulterior motives. I’ve experienced that occasionally here at home, but it’s always been such a rare and beautiful thing because it’s so unusual. But it’s just how people are in Tanzania. Mark once asked a man in Stone Town why he was helping him and what he wanted in return and the man looked at him like he was crazy for thinking he’d want something in return for his help.

So that’s that: Mark and I both plan to return to Africa for some sort of extended stay, Mark to teach children and me to do wildlife conservation. I’m not sure when this will happen, but Mark’s teaching himself Swahili and I’m contacting various people about cheetahs.

I’ll talk a little more specifically about our trip, including some thoughts on being vegan in Tanzania, but it will probably take me a couple of posts. We did national park safaris for the first week and then spent a week in Zanzibar, so I’ll likely break it up into at least two posts.

Sunset in Tarangire National Park:

I’m often annoyed at home that buildings are obscuring my view of the sunset. This was definitely NOT a problem I encountered in Tanzania. And African sunrises and sunsets are just amazing. So amazing that even Mark, no more a morning person than he is a people person, was happy to wake up to watch the sun rise every morning.

Sunset over the Rift Valley:

Next up: my love affair with African wildlife.

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