Walking on the Moon…

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Okay, so this post isn’t really about walking on the moon. However, it is about spending some quality time in a crater. I’m of course talking about the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, which was the first official stop in our tour of Africa. After all the time spent in transit, it was finally time to get the trip underway in earnest. The first part of our itinerary had us getting in some quality Safari time. This meant a lot of time in a safari vehicle, and an awful lot of dusty roads. However, it also meant some truly amazing scenery and wildlife spotting. Imagine heading to the best zoo you could ever imagine, only take the cages away and let all the animals just roam free and do as they pleased. Yup, that’s a safari in Africa for you. If you’d like to check out pictures from our first day of safari, head on over to flickr and look at the set. Afterwards, click your little self back here and read about my thoughts and impressions of that day.

I can tell you this for starters, all of us were quite looking forward to finally experiencing some of the legendary wildlife of Africa. We’d all gone to sleep fairly early in the evening, in order to be fresh in the morning. We met back up for breakfast, and then headed to the lobby to meet with our guide for the next few days, Julius. He arrived in a beast of a vehicle. It was a custom Land Cruiser, with seats for 8 passengers and the driver. On top of that, the roof could actually be raised to provide for a mobile viewing platform, which I assure you came in very useful over the coming days.

We were now headed into the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. The main goal of the day was the crater, which is a huge protected wildlife area. I think the stats are somewhere around 20km across, but it is home to countless animals that live truly wild, with survival of the fittest in full effect. For full details about the crater itself, you might want to just read the article on wikipedia. The trip in the car to get to the crater was a few hours in a the safari vehicle. Along the way, we passed through several villages again, noting once more the humanity of Africa in the form of people, bikes, and little shops. We didn’t really stop on the way, as there wasn’t much to stop for. Although this area gets a fair number of tourists, there is no real development on that front save for a few shops along the way. Our only stop was actually to pick up some batteries for Sarah’s camera, which had already suffered battery death. She picked up some questionable batteries (which didn’t last long), and we made our way to the park entrance.

We soon learned that gaining entrance to any park in Africa is a matter of time and patience. We weren’t there terribly long, but every park requires detailed permits and paperwork, which luckily we didn’t have to deal with. To kill time, we had a little museum to go through, including a diorama of the areas we’d be passing through, as well as some story boards showing the various wildlife we’d see on our journey. We killed the time there quite handily, and before we knew it we were back in the vehicle heading to the actual crater lip at about 2600m above sea level. That was our first stop. Once through the gate, the road became just a dirt road. The guide pointed out to us where elephants would dig up minerals with their tusks and explained that at night, cars wouldn’t be caught out here at all, as the animals make these roads their own.

Before long, we found ourselves at the very impressive crater edge. Staring down at a vast open expanse, completely encircled by the actual walls of the crater. From this vantage point, it was hard to believe that the area below was teeming with life. Even with my binoculars, all I could really make out were more safari vehicles far below stalking their prey. To this point, I still had no concept of what was in store for us. All that would change starting with lunch, which was coming up soon. We’d already been on the road for a while, so it was time to bust out the boxed lunches we’d gotten at the hotel. Our guide drove us to ‘the picnic spot’. We ere the first ones there, so it was pretty deserted.

Well, deserted except for some very large birds who seemed to be waiting for us. Upon arrival, we were warned to be careful as we ate our lunches. I paid no heed. Big mistake. You’ll learn why soon. The picnic area itself was just a grassy patch with log stumps to sit on while we ate. We each took up station at a different log, and dug into our typical box lunch: “butter” sandwich, hard boiled egg, chips, sweets, bananas, and eggs. And for us non-vegetarians, a hunk of chicken. That was the death of me. Chicken.

Now, picture this: there are large birds on the ground waiting for scraps, but there are also bolder scavengers circling the sky around us, looking for food. I believe there was some sort of warning that they’d take the food from our hands. Must’ve missed that. So here I am, eating my chicken, minding my own. I start chatting with others, chicken in my left hand sort of to the side. Next thing I know, the guide is saying something about be careful. What? Swoooosh, flak, boom! Out of the sky, this freaking bird (a Black Kite) dive-bombs me and grabs my chicken right from my hand. It scared the shit out of me! Not literally mind you, but it was pretty friggin’ scary! I was incredibly fortunate that its’ talons didn’t totally shred my hand and wrist. I was more upset about losing my lunch than anything else. I only wish it had been caught on video, because it was truly ‘one of those moments’ that you carry with you for life….

Enough about that though, you’re probably wondering how the rest of the day went, non? Well, after lunch, we finally started making our way down the crater wall in to the actual wildlife are. I’d be lying if I said it was anything short of amazing! When we got to the crater floor, it soon came very apparent just how much wildlife was living down there. No sooner had we got back to flat land were we inundated by Zebras, wild Buffalo, and Antelopes. They were everywhere. And completely unafraid! We popped up our little roof, and for the next 5 or so hours made our way to all the remote corners of the crater observing the wildlife.
You name it, we pretty much saw it. Here’s a partial list of what we saw (I couldn’t say for sure what all the birds we saw were): Zebras, Buffalo, Antelope, Wildebeast, Warthogs, Hyenas, Elephants, Heart Beast, Ostrich, Storks, Flamingos, Monkeys, Lions, Hippos, Rhinos…

Oh yeah, all that stuff tough guy. Some were more prominent than others, but we did see them all. It’s hard to say which were most impressive. Hippos and Lions were really cool, but very passive in the hot son. In case you are wondering, the most deadly animal in Africa is the hippo. More people are killed by hippos each year than any other big animal in the country. Hot tip: Never, EVER, get between a hippo and water. Of course, when we were observing them, they were already in the water, so they could care less about us. Same with the lions. They were happy to just hang out, lazing in the grass mere meters from our vehicle. It was very surreal. It also made the countless hours spent inhaling dust and bumping along terrible roads worth it.

As the late afternoon light was finally fading, we had to make our way back out of the crater. I wasn’t sure how anything could possibly top the experiences we had in the crater, but this was only Day 1 of our safari adventures, so you’ll just have to read on to see if there were more amazing things in store 😉 Our final animal spotting on the way out were a huge family of Monkeys right on the side of the road on the crater exit road, preening and taking care of each other. For this night and the next, we were staying at Rhino Lodge, a place at the top of the crater. Still very much in the wild….

One of the warning we got was to not leave our rooms at night without the Masai Warriors escorting us. You see, at night, the animals would actually come right into our lodge area to munch on the tasty grass there. That night, we had a great meal, and once again enjoyed each other’s company and learned more about each other. We shared popcorn, wine, beer, and bread together. I started a little game to try and come up with a definitive list of all the animals we’d seen throughout the day. I believe we came up with almost 40 just that day alone. Nuts, isn’t it?

Hmm, it appears this post is running slightly long now, so I believe I shall retire to my beverage, and let you all dwell on the info I’ve written about here. As usual, questions are welcome, and fear not, there are far more stories to share. Thoughts for the day: There is a huge, amazing, diverse world out there. Surfing the net and watching shows on TV is no substitute for experiencing it. I’m not sure how long I can stay still before I need to experience more of it. But all that will have to wait for future posts. Take care of you and yours, and check back for more African adventures…

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