Tuesday, September 9, 2014


After a few very l-o-n-g drives on this trip, it was nice to have a shorter one--less than two-and-a-half hours of driving time from our Serengeti Lodge to the Ngorongoro Serena Lodge, with stops on the way at the Maasai Village and Oldupai Gorge.
The countryside was dotted with traditional round, thatch-roofed African homes. In contrast to the Maasai villages, these hamlets looked downright modern:

The Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) is over 3,000 square miles of protected land bordering the Serengeti. Two hundred years ago, the Maasai moved in, and approximately 42,000 still live there, most of them herders of cattle, goats, sheep, and donkeys.

The most famous feature of the NCA is the enormous Ngorongoro Crater, the world's largest intact volcanic caldera. The almost vertical walls are 2,000 feet tall, and the flat, almost perfectly circular crater floor covers 102 square miles. The original volcano, which erupted and collapsed two or three million years ago, could have been as tall as 19,000 feet--the size of Mt. Kilimanjaro. These days Ngorongoro Crater basks in the glory of being a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is listed in some places as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa.
Map from here
The local Maasai are allowed to graze and water their herds in the crater, but they may not live or grow crops there. In fact, they have to actually leave the crater at night.

Being in the crater is like being a microscopic amoeba in a petri dish; the surface is flat, the sides rise perpendicular to the floor, and the ground is teeming with life:
During our morning drive, whipped cream clouds sat ponderously on the caldera rim:
Later in the day, the clouds lifted, and we could see the smooth rim top, unchanging for almost the full 360 degree view.
With approximately 30,000 large animals, the crater has the highest density of big game in all of Africa, which is why it is called Africa's Garden of Eden. If there is a snake in this garden, we didn't see it during our day-long drive, but we saw just about every animal we had seen in other places, with the exception of topis, impalas, crocodiles, and giraffes, which for various reasons don't inhabit the crater.

I kept a list of what we saw, and it's pretty impressive:
     water buffaloes
     *crowned cranes
     brown plover
     Kori bustard
     white-backed vulture
     spur-winged goose
     *Hildebrandt's starling
     yellow-billed kite
     Speke's weaverbirds
     sacred ibis
     Grant's gazelles
     Thomson's gazelles
     vervet monkeys
* Only sighting on our trip

The Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority gives this estimate of some of the animal population:
     zebras: 4,000 (Albert, the lodge's game director, told us at dinner there are
          actually 20,000. The number probably varies greatly depending on the
     wildebeests: 7,000 (Albert said 30,000--again, a number that would vary
           with migration.)
     black rhinos: 26 (Albert said 33)
     eland: 3,000
     gazelles (Thomson's and Grant's): 3,000
     lions: 62 (one of the densest populations in the world; Albert said there are six
          distinct prides)
     bird species: 500
     elephants: 30
     buffaloes: 4,000
     hyenas: So many that Albert said they have had to trap some and release them in
          the Serengeti

If it seems like there is an overabundance of photos, consider the numbers above and know that what I have here is a fraction of the ones we actually took:
Mark and his camera
Yours truly
Pockets of water attract different kinds of animals--a nice exercise in community building:
There were zebras everywhere--stripes going every which way:
We were worried about this little zebra lying on the ground, which we watched for a while and didn't see move, but after a while the youngster got up from its nap and trotted off with its mother. Maybe it was a teenager:
I loved seeing the zebras wading in the water, their bloated tummies skimming the surface:
One of the big tourist draws at the Crater is another wading animal, the flamingo. Thousands fill Lake Magadi, a shallow lake that varies greatly in size by season. It is really  more of a giant salt water puddle than it is a lake. The safari vehicles do not get very close, perhaps so as not to startle the birds and cause a mass departure, or perhaps because of the quality of the ground surrounding the ever expanding and contracting circumference. My pictures are taken with a telephoto lens and then cropped.

A group of flamingoes is not called a "flock"; it is a "stand." A perfect moniker.

Next to the massive stand of flamingoes , the largest gathering of animals in the crater was the wildebeest herd. They were everywhere.
Good view of the caldera rim with mountains rising behind

I grew up calling this awkward, ungainly animal a "gnu," but that name seems to have been replaced by the Afrikaans name "wildebeest," which is so much more descriptive. They make me think of Maurice Sendak's creatures in his famous children's book Where the Wild Things Are:
. . . not that they look like one of the drawings, but because they have the same fantastic, mythical quality.

The wildebeests make a strange noise, somewhere between a cow's "moo" and a goose's "honk." Please pardon the poor quality of filming, but I included the video below so I could share the sound of the "moonking" wildebeests: 

"Caldera" and "cauldron" are related words, and it's easy to see Ngorongoro as a huge pot of animal soup, everything mixed together. We saw wildebeests, water buffalo, and zebras living in multi-cultural (or at least multi-specie) neighborhoods, getting along much better than human beings do in similar situations:

Photo by E. Tooke

This group was even putting up with a warthog.
I do love the water buffalo with their African version of the trendy 1960s-style flip hairdo:

Such a lovable face:

A few elephants were hanging around the other grazers:

This one was probably the biggest elephant we saw on the entire trip. It was huge.

Photo by J. Mirau
Even the ostriches were not too uppity to hang out with the wildebeests:

This shot includes a wildebeest, two ostriches, and a crowned crane:
A few more ostrich pictures for good measure:

A wildebeest and a warthog stroll through a gazelle herd:

Time to throw in a zebra for contrast:
Add two more warthogs for flavor:
Speaking of warthogs, they sure are ugly:

There are those in the cauldron caldera who would prefer not to mix with the likes of the warthogs, such as these rather snobby, I-know-I'm-beautiful crowned cranes:
Photo by J. Mirau
Photo by E. Tookie
 We had our first sighting of a hartebeest in Ngorongoro, and it also seemed to be a bit stand-offish:
It's horns are like giant pincers, or perhaps the bottom of a heart. Was the namer of this animal dyslexic? Did he/she really mean "heartbeest"?
On the other hand, some animals take the cauldron/soup metaphor a bit too literally. This jackal looked like he wanted to invite someone over for dinner, but I think what he really wanted was to invite someone over to BE dinner:

Next: Ngorongoro Crater Part 2 - Lions, Lunch, and Lots More


  1. I love the video of the grunting gnus (or wildebeest). I also grew up knowing them as gnus. I wonder when the terminology changed?

  2. Wildebeest is just a more interesting, exotic name for those crazy-looking beasts. I love the pictures of all of the varieties intermingling. What a unique experience to see such diversity of life.

  3. Thanks! I now I have a picture in my mind of Annette Funacello as a water buffalo!

  4. This is cool to see all these animals together. I like your descriptions as it really makes the place come alive. Did you hear other animal calls while you were there? Like a chorus? Or did the space keep the sounds subdued?

    1. We were surprised at the general stillness of the plains--no roaring lions, no laughing hyenas, no trumpeting elephants, and only a few squawking birds. All the beasts were satisfied and uncomplaining, which is why the wild noises of the wildebeests stood out so much.