Sunday, May 6, 2007

10 February: Ngorongoro

We were awakened by a “wake-up knock” at 6:15 this morning and saw an impressive White-necked Raven on our way to the main lodge for breakfast – the usual buffet of sausage, bacon, cold cuts, fresh fruit, rolls and breads, and eggs made-to-order. It was quite cool out and I wore my fleece-lined windbreaker for the first time.

We departed on our game drive at 8 am. It took us about half an hour to descend into the crater on a reasonably well-maintained red-dirt road. Umbrella acacias arched over the road, forming a dense green canopy above our heads. The acacias slowly gave way to stunted shrubs and finally lush grasses as we approached the crater floor. En route we spotted a Hildebrand’s Francolin, an Auger Buzzard, a Nubian Vulture, and the first of many Abdim’s Storks. We passed a small herd of grazing zebra as the vast expanse of the crater came into view before us, the sun shimmering across the lake in the distance. A few sparse clouds hung beneath the rim of the crater and the slopes on the far side (eleven miles away, as I recall) melded into hazy shades of green. Two spotted hyenas trotted into view, and then a good-sized herd of wildebeest appeared on the slope ahead of us. Within minutes we spotted our first lion – a lone lioness striding away from us, heading up a steep hill several hundred yards away. She disappeared behind a rock; a small herd of Cape Buffalo browsing on the crest of the hill seemed oblivious to her presence.

We continued onwards, approaching a much larger herd of wildebeest, many of which had newborn babies at their sides. We found ourselves in the midst of a veritable wildebeest nursery. The females all seemed to be giving birth on the right side of the road, nudging their young onto their feet within minutes and chasing them around for a bit to get them used to their wobbly legs. Then, once the babies were able to keep up, they headed across the road to the wildebeest kindergarten on the other side. Waiting in the wings (for the afterbirths and perhaps any newborns that didn’t make it) were two Rüppell’s Griffon Vultures and two African White-backed Vultures.

We enjoyed watching the wildebeest for several minutes, but then Rodgers reported that there was “something to see” and we abruptly turned around and went tearing back to the hill where we’d seen the lioness. Now there were two more lionesses, about twenty yards from the road. One of them sauntered towards us, and I had the unforgettable experience of staring directly into two golden lion eyes for the very first time in my life. This moment will be etched in my memory as long as I live – it is impossible for me to describe the brutal power, uncanny intelligence, and total wildness in that mesmerizing yellow gaze. She walked past our truck, sat down in the middle of the road for a few minutes, yawned, then got up and walked underneath my window. She was so close that I couldn’t focus on her with my zoom lens so I just put my camera down and stared. I was half-kneeling in my seat, my face practically out the window, and when the lioness paused to stare up at me again from less than four feet away, I pulled away in a totally spontaneous reflex – as if some ancient instinctive mechanism buried in my psyche was telling me that one should not stare directly into the eyes of a fierce predator! As we watched, the two lions lost interest in our trucks and headed slowly but purposefully up the hill in the same direction as the first lioness, and we all decided that they must be setting up for a hunt. They disappeared from view and we moved on, returning to spend some more time among the wildebeest.

We drove slowly through the wildebeest nursery and then struck out again across the plain. From a distance, we saw two Elands (the largest antelope species in Africa), and then we had the wonderful experience of watching a wildebeest giving birth. She was far enough away that we had to use binoculars, but we could see a great deal. The whole process took a matter of minutes – first two hooves appeared, while the female continued grazing nonchalantly, then she lay down and got up several times in rapid succession, as a few more inches of gangly legs came into view. Finally she went down for good and we couldn’t see what was happening for a few minutes. Then she stood up again, nuzzling at a small dark brown lump at her feet. It took several agonizing tries, but the little one finally scrambled to its feet and took its first few tottering steps on impossibly long, skinny legs. We all breathed a communal sigh of relief – wildebeest will abandon their newborns if they are not up and walking after ten minutes!

A few minutes later we approached two more lionesses from a second pride. This time they were lying in the grass just a few feet from the road, and as the safari trucks gathered, they both got up and laid down in the shade of the trucks. By this point I had gotten over the initial shock of seeing lions at such close range and I just stood and snapped away with my camera as these two gorgeous animals lay panting in the shade, seemingly oblivious to the curious crowd of onlookers gathered around them. As we watched, first one female and then the other came over and stretched out full-length alongside our truck. We could see the flies buzzing around their heads and the bloody wounds of battle on their golden coats. I could have counted the whiskers on their chins if I wanted to. Someone had reported seeing cubs here only a few minutes before we arrived, but the pride had apparently hustled them into hiding in a cluster of trees along the river when all the vehicles started approaching.

After getting our fill of the lionesses, we headed for our picnic spot, as it was now approaching noon. We spotted a Rosy-breasted Longclaw, a Martial Eagle (Africa’s largest eagle) and three waterbuck along the way. We drove through the herd of wildebeest again, which was now intermixed with a number of zebras and gazelles, and stopped to watch two old male Cape Buffalos wallowing in a mud puddle. They have the most forlorn expressions – it is hard to believe they are so dangerous. We also saw a couple of ostriches, a beautiful Crowned Crane stretching its wings, and an Abdim’s Stork sunning itself. We forded a small stream and arrived at the picnic spot next to a marsh-rimmed lake teeming with hippos. We stopped to use the restroom (a “five-star facility”) and thought we were going to eat lunch, but Rodgers reported that he had received some “interesting information” so we all piled back into the trucks and headed back the way we had come.

The drivers and guides all speak Swahili to each other so we never know what we are going to see next. This time it was a cheetah – our first of the safari! She was several hundred yards away, stalking a few lone gazelles, but we couldn’t find a good vantage point for viewing or pictures and Rodgers told us it would probably be quite a while before anything happened, so we continued on to “something else.” En route we saw two warthogs trotting along with tails held high.

The “something else” turned out to be the third of Ngorongoro’s resident lion prides (as I recall there are five prides in the crater). This time it was the pride with two male lions (a fairly unusual social arrangement). One of the males was lying in the shade of a truck when we arrived and the other was lounging regally on a low rise, a few feet away from a beautiful lioness who was taking a snooze on a warm rock. After a few minutes the female lifted her head and yawned. Rodgers told us, “That means she’s ready,” but we thought he was only kidding! Sure enough, the male yawned, the female got up and approached the male, and they mated right there in front of us, about thirty feet away. There was some grunting and yowling and then it was over. Rodgers informed us that the lions will mate every fifteen minutes or so over the course of several days. The male walked away and the female rolled over onto her back, then returned to her snoozing spot. The male lay down and yawned again, showing us a marvelous view of his impressive fangs.

On the way back to the picnic site we saw the cheetah again – apparently her hunt had been unsuccessful, as she was now stopping to take a drink at a small pond. It was after 2:00 when we finally stopped for lunch. Renny and the drivers set up a white-clothed table and laid out a feast of roast chicken, steak, samosas, vegetable quiche, salads, bread, cookies, and chocolate bars. Renny advised that we eat in the truck because a White-shouldered Kite was hovering over our heads, waiting for an opportune moment to snatch a bite – and maybe a finger or two. We were also joined by several cannibalistic Helmeted Guinea Fowl who fought over a chicken breast that Renny tossed to them. A Speke’s Weaverbird and several Superb Starlings fluttered nearby, hoping for a handout. As we ate we admired the view over the lake, which is bordered by a large marshy area known to be an elephant graveyard. We could hear occasional grunts, snorts, honks, and splashes coming from the hippos in the lake, but they stayed mostly submerged.

Renny told us that normally we would have driven out to the large lake on the far side of the crater at this point, but the road was nearly impassable from the recent rains, so unfortunately we missed seeing the flamingos. By this time it was close to 3:00 and threatening to rain, so we decided to call it an early day. We did drive out far enough to spot a black rhino way off in the marsh, so at least we can say we’ve seen a wild black rhino. There are now 26 rhinos in Ngorongoro, all under twenty-four hour surveillance by park rangers. Back in the 1990s a rhino left the crater and walked over 200 kilometers to the Serengeti, where he found some lady friends and mated. No one is sure quite what drove him to do this! He was closely guarded by rangers all along his journey and is still living happily in the Serengeti. Renny told us that rhino poachers can now be shot on sight or face seven years in prison and a $2,500 fine if they are caught with rhino trophies.

On our way back we spotted a golden jackal (our second of the day). We thought we were going to get to see some zebras mating, but the male couldn’t quite get his act together – I guess he was a bit shyer than the lion. We returned to the lodge around 4:00 and showered, then enjoyed drinks on the balcony again as we watched the sun set over the crater. It was a little hazy this evening but we still were treated to a spectacular tangerine sunset.

The lodge manager had greeted us last night and asked us if we had any special meal requests; R suggested pizza and tonight they delivered! It was topped with cheddar cheese, tomato, and onion, and was quite tasty. The rest of the meal was excellent – starting with curried potato and spinach soup and followed by an incredible buffet of African meat stews, fish, and various salads, with “banana pie” (basically bananas smothered in chocolate sauce) and rice pudding for dessert.

We fell into bed completely exhilarated and exhausted by our day in Ngorongoro. Tomorrow we head to the Serengeti via Olduvai Gorge – sure to be another day of amazing sights and sounds!

Thursday, May 3, 2007

9 February: Tarangire to Ngorongoro

We’ve started to become accustomed to 6 am wake-up calls – somehow it is easier to get up in the morning when you have a game drive to look forward to! We saw another Rock Hyrax perched on the roof en route to the main lodge, where we enjoyed the ample breakfast buffet. At 8 am we gathered in front of the lodge, where we met our new drivers, Rodgers and Bernard. We had our eyes peeled for leopards all morning, but despite scanning every tree in sight, we saw no predators. (R, J&H skipped this morning’s game drive and slept in, which was probably a smart move given that it was a slow morning in terms of wildlife, and the lodge had a very enticing pool!)

Birds, on the other hand, were plentiful. My sighting list continued to grow, including: Crested Francolin, Von der Decken’s Hornbill, Yellow-collared Lovebird (so cute!), Red-necked Spurfowl, Bare-faced Go-Away Bird, White-browed Coucal, Magpie Shrike, Pin-tailed Whydah (I spotted this one myself, fluttering alongside the truck, and identified it later), Namaqua Dove (the smallest dove in Africa), Tawny Eagle, Fiscal Shrike, White-bellied Go-Away Bird, and Southern Ground Hornbill (a large black bird with bright red markings on its face, which DH spotted sitting in the crook of a tree - despite its name!). We got a good look at an African Fish Eagle, which resembles a Bald Eagle, perched high in a sausage tree overlooking the muddy, boiling waters of the Tarangire River. We also disturbed a flock of Helmeted Guinea Fowl, which raced along in front of the truck before alighting in a dead tree, where they proceeded to shriek at us in protest.

This morning’s mammal sightings included a tiny black mongoose running across the road, a family of banded mongooses playing on a termite mound (DH spotted these too!), a few giraffes, a few elephants (which are much warier than the ones at Amboseli), three waterbuck, and a harem of perhaps 60 impala with one male trying to keep track of them all. Rodgers informed us that such males usually only last about three months because their job is so exhausting – then another younger, stronger male moves in. We stopped for a bathroom break at a nice picnic area with a view of an expansive swamp and took a great group photo in front of one of the trucks. We didn’t see much after 10 am and headed back to the lodge a little after 11.

After lunch (fried fish, potatoes, mixed salad), we left for Ngorongoro, bumping back along the road to the Tarangire park entrance. En route we came across a small group of elephants crossing the road. These elephants were much darker in color than the Amboseli elephants. They were not very happy with us as we stopped to watch, particularly a “teenager” who seemed very protective of the single baby in the group. He (or she) stood in the middle of the road in a very agitated stance until the little one got across, then stamped the ground for good measure. We stopped again to watch a large troupe of baboons that were playing in the trees on both sides of the road. One large male was visibly wounded, probably from fighting with his own kind.

Once we left Tarangire, we were relieved to get on the smooth, pothole-free “Japanese road” (which had the first painted lines we’d seen in a while) towards Ngorongoro. We stopped at a roadside curio shop to “support the local economy”; DH & I spent a lot more money than we should have on two Maasai spears (they break down into three pieces to fit in your luggage) and two carved ebony candlesticks. We could have used a lesson in bargaining – we might have paid half of what we did. (Note to others: ALWAYS bargain!) It was an interesting transaction because all we had were Euros and Kenyan shillings. We were a little surprised when the girl who was waiting for us came down a bit on the price but suggested that we slip her a little something on the side. We ended up giving her 1000 shillings - we figured she could use it more than us.

A little further along, we passed through a small town near the base of a range of velvety green hills. Rodgers stopped briefly and bought a huge bunch of bananas from two women selling fruit by the roadside. I’m not a big banana fan but I heard they were quite tasty – and they were the fattest bananas I’ve ever seen! Our next stop was the entrance gate for Ngorongoro Conservation Area, where Renny gave us a brief overview of the crater and its relationship to the Serengeti. Then we made our way up a mountain road, winding our way through lush rainforest with magnificent views out over Lake Manyara. The road turned to dirt – a rich, red-orange clay – and was threatened by washouts in places. We caught our first glimpses into the crater as we bumped along the ridge to the lodge. We saw an elephant browsing by the side of the road and spotted our first umbrella acacias – gorgeous trees whose spreading branches have peculiar flat tops, making them look very much like umbrellas.

We arrived at Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge around 6 pm, so the drive from Tarangire took a leisurely four hours in total. The lodge has spacious main buildings that take advantage of the magnificent panoramic view of the crater. Renny checked us in and then we all got to pick out a bottle of wine to be delivered to our room or served with our dinner. (We wondered whether this was Micato’s way of apologizing for yesterday’s long drive). Then we followed our bags to our rooms, located in a long row of round buildings resembling Maasai huts (yes, there is a trend in the architectural style here!). Our room was vast, with two double beds (the elevation is high enough here that mosquito nets are not needed), two comfortable rocking chairs set in front of a floor-to-ceiling window, and a nice tiled bathroom that looked recently renovated, but there was no place to hang anything – not a closet or hook in sight! We ended up laying our wet laundry on the rocking chairs in the sun, where it dried fairly quickly.

We enjoyed cocktails (courtesy of Micato again) and snacks on a private balcony in the main lodge building. There was no sunset, as the far side of the crater was engulfed in billowing storm clouds, but as night fell we watched lightning bounce between the clouds off in the distance. The cavernous dining room was packed compared to Amboseli and Tarangire. (I later determined that there are only three or four lodges along the rim of the crater, so the density of guests is naturally higher here.) Dinner was quite good – mozzarella, tomato, and onion tart followed by lentil soup with ginger; I had spinach and mushroom lasagna with blue cheese, DH had the “African fusion” dish of spiced chicken with mixed vegetables and rice, and dessert was something involving chocolate and pineapple. This was by far the best dinner of the trip so far. We had an escort back to our room afterwards – he carried a flashlight and a long stick, and I wondered just how well he could fend off an attack with these basic implements! We went to bed full of anticipation for tomorrow’s all-day game drive in the crater.