Saturday, September 13, 2014

AFRICA: NGORONGORO CRATER, Part 2 - Lions, Lunch, and Lots More (TANZANIA)

Late in the morning we noticed a bit of a traffic jam in the Ngorongoro Crater. It was as if a magnetic force field had drawn every piece of metal from the entire caldera to this one spot:
When we finally made it to the party, we realized that the draw was two big simbas, the Kikuyu word for LIONS:
As mentioned in the previous post, the crater has one of the densest lion populations in the world. Seeing these two giants was a real thrill. I didn't realize the males sometimes hang out together. Lions are much more social than cheetahs and leopards, which we never saw in pairs or groups.
Their manes make them look about twice as big as they really are, which helps when they want "the lion's share" of the meat that the hard-working lionesses have killed while the males have been napping.
These two fellas didn't look like they were planning on doing any hunting--or anything else--anytime soon:
After a while, one of them finally decided to go for a stroll, but not in the direction of the potential lunch behind him. No, he came towards the road where lots of prey was sitting locked up in some vehicles.

I can understand why a male lion is considered the king of beasts. His rich golden mane surrounds his face like a halo or a crown, and his bearing his very majestic. He knows who he is.
This is how close they were to us:

One of the intriguing things about the Ngorongoro Crater is that there are five distinct habitats within the relatively small area of the crater, mirroring the 15,000 square mile Serengeti ecosystem next door. There are diverse climate zones as well, and depending on the area of the caldera, rainfall can vary from 16 to 47 inches of rain a year.

We spent most of our time in the short grass plains and the longer grasslands, but in the late morning we stopped for a short stretch break on the edge of the Lerai Forest, just southwest of Lake Magadi:
Luckily, the only animals we saw were human ones:
. . . with the exception of the remains of this one straight out of Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas, carefully positioned at the base of a knobby tree in order to provide the ultimate Kodak Moment (I'm talking about the skull here, not about Bob):
Here are all of the women of our group. As you can see, nothing scares us:
"Lerai" is the Maasai word for the yellow-barked acacias that dominate the forest. This area is supposed to be one of the best in Africa for leopard sightings, but such was not the case on the day we were there.
Moss hangs like a big cats' tails from the tree--maybe there is a leopard camouflaged in there somewhere.
Dozens of butterflies with diaphanous pale green wings congregate in an unlikely place--a patch of mud.
These beauties have the very unromantic name of Common Vagrant Butterfly.
These are males, which may explain the mud meeting place; the females are yellow. 
This gorgeous creature is a Hildebrandt's starling, cousin to the even more colorful superb starling that we had seen earlier near our room at Shaba Lodge in Kenya:
Photo by Bob
We didn't see any other wildlife in the Lerai Forest, which was a huge disappointment. I think we were there too late in the day. Certainly there should have been troops of monkeys, and I've read that even elephants like to forage there.

It was time for lunch, and our next destination was Ngoitokitok Spring, a freshwater drainage area that is a popular picnic spot for safari drives:
It seems that no body of water in Eastern Africa is hippo- and/or croc-free.
What? No odoriferous sludge covering the surface? No crusty slime all over the hippo's body? Lovely.
It was lunchtime, and I think just about every safari vehicle was at the spring. All things considered, there really weren't that many people:
It's hard to comprehend, but some people really like to safari in style:
Perhaps they came from this vehicle. The driver had set up a table and chairs and was setting out lunch on a tablecloth.

We, on the other hand, were eating our box lunch, a rather dull and thoroughly European (as opposed to African) meal:
However, if one must eat a box lunch, it is hard to find a more picturesque place in which to consume it:
Bob doing his best Ansel Adams imitation:
The fly in the ointment, or rather the menacing bird in the sky, was this yellow-billed kite, which kept threatening to take the bread right out of our hands. In fact, we know it did make off with someone's lunch because we saw it with food in its talons:

He certainly lacked the gracious good manners of this sacred ibis:
Perhaps that's why the ibis, not the kite, is the symbol for the Egyptian god Thoth:
While I'm on the subject of birds, here are a few others we saw in the crater, beginning with a white-backed vulture:

. . . a spur-winged goose:
. . . and a Kori bustard, the largest flying bird in the world. It can have a wingspan up to 9 feet and weigh 40 pounds:
Various areas of the crater were carpeted with yellow flowers, varying from a deep, golden hue
to a luminous sunshine yellow:
Swaths of color were splashed across the caldera walls:
Something about it made me want to leap from our Land Cruiser and run up the hill singing "The hills are alive with the sound of music."  Good thing we weren't allowed to leave our vehicle.

Does it get any more beautiful than this?
"Actually, yes, it does," says the zebra.
"Put me in the picture":

And if one is good, a whole zeal of zebras (yes, that's actually what a group is called) is better:
This just goes to show that a nice backdrop can make anyone look beautiful:

There was just something about this day that called to the music in me: "The road is long, With many a winding turn That leads us to who knows where, Who knows when . . . "

Ummm . . . wait a minute. What are you fellers doing in the road? You're interrupting my song!

Really? Right here? Right now?

The daylight was starting to wane, and this cackle of hyenas was taking a nap, storing up energy for the night's pillaging of other animals' kill:

When the monkeys start to go upstairs, it's time to turn in:
Our driver, who had been driving at breakneck speeds all day (How we missed St. Steven of Kenya!), suddenly slowed down to a crawl, even though we'd been told we had to be out of the crater by 4:00. Perhaps he was worried we hadn't seen enough animals, or that we'd be the first ones back. Actually, we got out around 5:00 and couldn't see anyone else left in the crater. It was a little bizarre.

As we finally ascended the steep caldera walls, the clouds that had been threatening off and on all day made up their minds to unleash their burden:
 We were happy to get back to the lodge and a roof over our heads.

Next: A Maasai Birthday Ceremony and Our Return to Kenya


  1. The scenery in this post is fabulous. Throw in a few exotic animals, and it's divine. I didn't know male lions hung out together, either.

  2. A fantastic place to spend a day. I really loved the hyenas. By far our best hyena sighting.

  3. Great day and such absolutely beautiful scenery! Loved seeing all the zebras (my favorite) along with everything else. You guys really got your money worth on this day (but what is it with your drivers?).