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!

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