When Nicholas dropped me off the day before, he asked me to report to the main building by 6AM sharp. He said that the earlier we arrive at the park, the better our chances will be of seeing game. I set my iphone for 5AM. I figured that would give me plenty of time to get ready, pack my gear, and slide out in time to enjoy a cup of tea before striking out.
When the alarm went off, I actually felt really refreshed and well rested. The bed, despite it’s
shabby rustic appearance, was extremely comfortable. I crawled out from the mosquito netting and piddled around the room, getting ready, and ensuring everything was packed up and ready to go. At 5:45AM I decided it was time to head down to the main building so I walked to the back of the room to grab one of my bags when suddenly I detected movement out of the corner of my eye. I turned around, my brain working overtime to process and deduce what I had seen. “What was that?”, I wondered. “An insect? A bird? A Somali pirate?”. Just then I saw it again! It was a BAT!!!!!! Now I like to pride myself on my fearlessness, especially when it comes to things people (particularly women) find terrifying. In nature bats don’t bother me. But somehow, seeing a GINORMOUS, pterodactyl size creature practicing flight maneuvers in my room turned me into a screaming girl. I should really consider joining Seal Team 6 because I doubt few people could hit the deck and low crawl faster than I did that morning.
As I inched my way towards the table where my camera sat, the bat engaged in strafing missions above my head. Suddenly I became very thankful that the staff probably didn’t comprehend English well enough to understand the shrieking curses that escaped my mouth. But much like the British during the Blitz, I refused to give in to terror from above so I steadied my nerves and continued my low crawl. Somehow I finally managed to rescue all my gear and made it to the door without contracting rabies or having a bat make a lovely nest in my hair. When I reached behind me and pulled the door closed, waves of relief washed across me. I was out! Now I just had to cross the dark, no man’s land that stood between my cottage/hut and the main building. I broke my running PR and later received reports that Usain Bolt was upset that I also broke his record.
Amazingly, the bat shenanigans only ate 5 minutes of my time and I still had 10 minutes to spare upon arriving at the main building. I went inside but the place was empty. However, the staff did have a pot of tea set out for me. They also prepared boxed breakfasts and lunches for Nicholas and I. Sweet! At 5:55 Nicholas arrived and seemed surprised that I was there. I laughed and said, “American time, not African time”. He got a kick out of that! I finished my tea and we headed to the Land Rover. As we pulled out of the parking lot Nicholas pointed to the clock which said 5:59AM and said, “American time!”.
The drive to Ngorongoro crater was dark. Yet, man and beast were already stirring. I saw large packs of feral dogs roaming the streets and occasionally saw people walking down the road, presumably heading to work. Nicholas gave me a lesson on the crater, including how it was created and which animals live there. He referred to it as the “Garden of Eden”. I couldn’t wait to see!
When we finally arrived at the park gate, Nicholas went in to handle the paperwork. There were TONS of truck drivers and a few dala dala drivers. Apparently some use the roads in and around the crater as a short cut. It took a very long time for him to get the necessary paperwork and by the time he returned to the Land Rover, the sun was coming up. Unfortunately, it was cold and foggy. Extremely foggy. Nicholas mentioned that the drive would be dangerous due to the fog. He said it wasn’t uncommon for buffalo or elephants to stand in the road. If we hit one, it could be disastrous. Thoroughly terrified I made sure my seat belt was on and said a few prayers. We saw lots of dung in the road but thankfully we never saw any animals. After miles and miles of foggy, dirt road driving we finally reached the bottom of the crater and the fog melted away. It was still very overcast and cold but Nicholas said this would work to our advantage. The cooler air would keep the animals active longer. Just a few minutes into the safari I saw my first animals: a spotted hyaena. It was a devilish looking thing. He (or she…I couldn’t tell) ran across the road in front of us and stopped to stare at me while I snapped off photos. It was pretty exciting to see such an amazing creature so early on but Nicholas simply giggled and said, “just wait”. Giggity!
We took a right onto a path and immediately Nicholas said, “Oh, I think this is going to be good”. I had no expectations about what it could be but after yesterday’s fairly tame day, I didn’t expect it to be anything too wild. Boy, was I wrong! We slowly approached another Land Rover which was parked. The passengers were standing up, staring out of the open roof. Nicholas suddenly became very animated. A lion! A lioness had killed a wildebeest and was eating it 15 feet from from me! After Nicholas killed the engine, I could hear her snapping the bones and making a strange, whining noise as she ate. I’ve had pet cats make a similar noise when they are extremely hungry as well as extremely happy to be eating. I watched in amazement as her breakfast was cut short. Hyaenas had moved in and were now circling her. The sound they made was terrifying! I’ve heard it on t.v. programs before but to hear it in the flesh, 15 feet away, sent shivers up my spine. It’s an eerie, frightening mix of a laugh and a whine. Had I not been in the Land Rover, safe and protected, I would have beat my PR that I set earlier in the morning when I tangled with the bat. The lioness held her ground when the first hyaena approached but it wasn’t long before four or five hyaenas started moving in. Sensing the danger, the lioness got up and started to slowly walk off. I was shocked that this massive cat seemed threatened by the hyaenas but Nicholas explained that one hyaena is no match for a lion but several hyaenas present a a threat. Personally, I think she was just pissed they were making all that racket while she was trying to enjoy her morning coffee. We followed her as she walked up the road. At one point she was three feet from me and actually looked me square in the eye. I desperately wanted to reach out and touch her but that feeling changed when she turned and walked directly toward me. Despite being in a land rover, my instinct took over and I cowered away from the window. My primal fear was intensified by the fact she still had wildebeest blood around her mouth. Then, just like a house cat, she lied down and started to groom herself. Cute! I watched her for a few more minutes before asking Nicholas to head back to the kill.
By now hyaenas were going to town on the poor creature. But other animals were also making their way on the scene. Adorable jackals were skulking about, trying to slip in unnoticed and grab a piece of food. Unfortunately, the hyaenas were selfish bastards and snapped and growled at the jackals every time they tried. Now and again a lucky lil’ jackal would manage to snatch some wildebeest meat, much to my delight! It was also really cool to watch the food chain/circle of life in progress. One wildebeest was providing food for a lion, a family of hyaenas, countless jackals and many vultures and eagles, who were now circling overhead and hopping closer and closer to the corpse. Though I felt sad for the poor wildebeest, it was hard not to feel excited and amazed by the entire process. On another note, does it make me strange that I ate my boxed breakfast while watching the hyaenas chow down on the wildebeest. I remember thinking, “Hmm, is this a little odd?” while eating a piece of bacon while they snapped bones and devoured organ meat. Two predators enjoying a meal together…lol.
After breakfast, we continued our game drive. I saw more zebras and wildebeest than I could shake a stick at. They were awesome but I didn’t feel the same intrigue for grazers as I did for the predators and scavengers. Don’t get me wrong. They were beautiful but you can only look at 100 head herds before you’re ready to see something different. Although, I will say that I never got sick of hearing the wildebeest grunting. Makes me think of National Geographic shows of the Great Migration. I’d like to see that one day but since I wasn’t heading to the Serengeti, I had to settle for grunting around the watering hole. Now and again we spotted buffalo as well. Did I mention how incredibly cold it was in the crater? I was shocked! I was a few degrees from the equator but I was turning into a Popsicle. Luckily I had a warm fleece but all Nicholas had was a red Maasai blanket which he wrapped up in. I felt terrible for him.
After driving around for an hour and seeing a lot of different animals including crown cranes, flamingos, ostrich, and even, far off in the distance, a HUGE elephant bull. Nicholas said he was going to die soon (the elephant, not Nicholas). I wondered how on earth he knew this but he said that the elephants separate themselves from their group and head to a swampy area when they are about to die. He said that when an elephant is very old all they can chew is the grass that grows there. When you see one hanging out there you can be fairly certain his time on earth is almost up. That broke my heart but I felt blessed to see that magnificent animal. He was the largest living thing I’d ever seen. Even larger than the ones I saw in Lake Manyara. Unfortunately the zoom on my camera wasn’t good enough to take his pic.
As we drove past the swamp area I spotted two lions hunting in the grass. We stopped and watched for awhile. Nicholas congratulated me once again on having a great eye for spotting game. He asked if I hunted and when I said no, he suggested I take it up since I was so good at spotting animals. I explained I preferred to just watch them. I digress…the lions stalked through the tall grass but unfortunately for them, the wildebeest caught wind of them and ran. We drove on. While rounding the corner past a pond I spotted my first hippo. Hippos scare the $%#! out of me. I guess I watched too many “When Hippos Attack” videos but if I had the choice between a lion or a hippo, I’d choose the lion. I guess I figure the lion might respond to a nice scratch behind the ears like a kitty cat but where on earth do you rub a hippo? Um…yeah. Where was I? Oh yeah…the hippos were just kind of bobbing up and down in the water but I did see a few standing in the mud. They didn’t really do much. Just flicked their tails, mostly. However, I wasn’t fooled by their sloth-like behavior. I’m pretty sure they were quietly pondering their next vicious attack on some poor human.
Keeping with the murderous hippo theme, Nicholas suggested it would be a good time to eat so we went over to ANOTHER pond that had a picnic area. There were hippos in this one as well. Unlike other areas of the park, tourists are allowed to get out of the vehicles to use the bathroom and eat at a table. I decided to get out and stretch my legs. Camera in hand, I walked a few feet to get a good photo of the hippos. While taking photos I heard a South African man (he sounded Souf Effrikin at least) yell out to some ladies that they should move away from the edge of the water. They didn’t listen and continued to slip closer and closer to the water. He was obviously concerned that one of the hippos might charge and attack/kill the women. They looked at him and rolled their eyes and when they spoke the reason for it all became clear. They were French. I turned to the SA man and said, “Dude, they’re French…let ’em stay.” He gave me a puzzled look and I headed back to the car, periodically turning around in the hope that I’d get to see hippos redeem themselves by taking out some French peeps. No such luck though.
I grew bored waiting for the French women to be devoured by chubby, aquatic animals so we left and headed closer to the crater wall and forest area. Without warning Nicholas became very animated and started going off in Swahili on the radio. Rhino! For those who aren’t up on their rhino knowledge, the black rhino is one of the most endangered animals in the world. They’re very rare and elusive. Yet, word was out that a rhino was on the move. Nicholas started slamming gears and quickly we made our way towards the supposed sighting. I knew something fantastic was going on when I saw 15 other land rovers lined up in a row along the road. I looked across the plain and saw a figure in the distance. I took out my binos and sure enough, it was a rhino! He crept closer and closer, grazing on the tall, brown grass and I suddenly felt very overwhelmed with emotion when it hit me that I was looking at an animal that had been nearly pushed to the point of extinction. He was gorgeous! I watched him move slowly around in circles. Nicholas said the rhino was wanting to cross the road but the land rovers were making him nervous. Not too long after that comment, the rhino started walking in the opposite direction so all of the land rovers started to move quickly in that direction. All the vehicles jammed in tightly and the half a dozen voices started speaking wildly on the radio. The rhino was going to pass in front of us! He was going to cross the road in front of us. I watched the rhino sprint in front of us but unfortunately there were too many vehicles in my way so I wasn’t able to get a good shot of it. Oh well, sometimes life isn’t about the picture. It’s about the experience. I felt satisfied. Nicholas turned around and congratulated me on being one of the few people who ever get to see a black rhino. He said he has had many clients who spend weeks on safari and never see one. In the few hours I had been in Ngorongoro, I’d seen a lion feast on her kill, watched lions hunt, and saw the rare black rhino! Not too shabby!
Nicholas said he wanted to go to the forest to look for elephants; so, we drove to the edge of the crater to an area that hardly constituted forest. It was more of a stand of trees and a few tall bushes. Along the way we noticed another land rover stopped along the road, observing something. We stared into the horizon for a few minutes before I realized that we were watching another lion hunt. This hunt was much more fascinating to watch because it was almost comical. The lion crouched down and hid very low as it stalked a wildebeest. When the wildebeest wasn’t looking, the lion was slink through the grass and as soon as the wildebeest would turn around, the cat would lie down and be very still. Occasionally, it would pop it’s head up to take a peek. Amazingly, the lion was approaching down wind so the wildebeest couldn’t smell it. Do they instinctively know how to do that or was that coincidence? I dunno. Nicholas explained that the wildebeest watch one another for signals. One wildebeest knew the lion was there and refused to look anywhere but towards the lion. But I guess that wasn’t a strong enough signal for the wildebeest the lion was stalking. This went on for 45 minutes or so. Nicholas said that it could continue for another hour or so as the lion closed the distance between them. We decided that, having seen the earlier kill, it wasn’t necessary to watch. I will say though, that when watching nature shows, I generally root for the prey because I hate watching things get hurt or killed. But in the crater, it was different. I found myself wanting the lion to win. It’s hard to explain but I guess it was because I realized just how difficult it is to hunt and kill. The hunting process takes HOURS and it’s a life or death situation for all involved. Earlier that morning when I watched the hyaenas, jackals, eagles, vultures, and lions eat and survive another day because of the dead wildebeest, I had a greater respect for how the whole system operates. When watching nature shows, the editing makes it appear as if the lion hunted for three minutes, spied a zebra, took it down then washed, rinsed, and repeated. But it’s NOT like that at all. It requires planning, skill, cunning, and a bit of luck. In short, I suppose the predator in me recognized all that and respected it.
We made it to the forest but we didn’t see any elephants. I felt okay about that since I saw so many the day before at Lake Manyara. I remember thinking that this “forest-area” seemed like a pretty safe place to be and leaned out the window a little. Just as soon as I did I looked down and saw two enormous lions curled up on their backs sleeping. Nicholas and I looked at one another and our eyes widened with a “Holy crap! This is awesome!” sort of look. I snapped off pics like paparazzi and watched as they snuggled with one another just as kittens do. They looked incredibly adorable and all I could think of was Sheldon singing “Soft kitty, sleepy kitty, little ball of fur….”. Too bad these soft, lil’ kitties could rip my face off like a man on bath salts.
Feeling really exhausted and knowing we had a long drive back to Arusha, we agreed it was time to start making our way out of the crater. As we made our exodus, I spotted more ostrich and a family of pumba aka warthogs. The Swahili name for them really is pumba just as simba really means lion. They looked cute as they darted about with their lil’ tails in the air but their tusks looked ferocious. I snapped off a few pics as we rolled by. A few minutes later Nicholas drove up a large hill which overlooked most of the crater. It was beautiful from that vantage point. The crater looked beautiful and just as Nicholas described, it reminded me of the Garden of Eden. We sat there quiet, listening to the sounds of life below us. It was hard for me to imagine that such a small place contained so many creatures engaged in a battle of life and death. Sitting there on top of the hill I became emotional about my African journey. It was coming to an end and I didn’t want it to. Nicholas said, “Wave goodbye to Ngorongoro” and I did…and with that we headed up and out of the crater.
When we arrived at the gate we stopped so that Nicholas could complete paperwork. While I waited outside I was entertained by the craziest baboon troop I’d seen on my journey. They were absolute lunatics and so human in their behavior. They walked around the parking lot in search of sandwich scraps left behind by tourists. Then they plopped down in the middle of the road, babies on their back. They chattered and squealed at one another. They were holding traffic up with their antics in the road and unfortunately, one got hit by a car. He took off running, screaming at the top of his lungs. This caused chaos within the troop and lots of baboons ran after the one that got hit, all of them screaming and screeching. The victim finally walked out of the bushes and sat down in the road. Then the most wonderful thing happened: five or six baboons ran up to him and I watched, completely fascinated and with tears in my eyes, as several stroked and comforted him while the others checked him out for injuries. They slowly turned him over and lifted his legs and arms. I assume they were looking for blood or to see if anything was broken. Watching them was a highlight of the trip because it demonstrated that as humans, we are not unique. Many other creatures of the world are capable of love and concern for their families. I think the hit and run victim was okay because he finally sat up and walked to a wall and sat on it. That made me happy!
Once Nicholas returned we started our trip back to Arusha. We talked endlessly about many, many things and I really enjoyed his sense of humor. He was a very funny guy and I laughed so much that my side hurt. We talked about his family and also about his job. During our conversation I mentioned that I wanted to buy a Maasai blanket so Nicholas was kind enough to stop at a shop which sold them. I went in and began negotiations on a blanket and some other items. As I mentioned before, I hate haggling. I’m American and I just want to pay a set price. But I played the game and felt like I worked out a fair deal for all (though I purposely stacked it in the shop’s favor). When I walked out of the shop Nicholas asked if I’d like to have a cup of tea with him. Of course! However, instead of tea I chose Coke. We sat for 20 minutes or so and talked about Americans. Nicholas said that Tanzanians love Americans because we’re open and eager to chat. He said that Americans have a good sense of humor and are interested in learning about the person with whom they speak. He said, “If you were from Europe, I never could have asked you to have tea with me…but you’re American and Americans are laid back. ” I really appreciated hearing this. It’s nice to know somewhere in the world people like us and it was similar to what other Tanzanians had said about Americans as well.
We finished our drinks and pushed on towards Arusha. I told Nicholas that I’d like to stop at the coffee shop we’d visited the day before with Clamian because I wanted to buy coffee for my parents. He said he thought it would be closed by the time we reached Arusha but he’d check with Clamian to see if someone could pick me up the following day and take me. I told him it wasn’t necessary since I could probably buy some coffee at the airport on my way home.
When we finally returned to my hotel, it was around 7PM and dark. We both agreed we were exhausted and happy to be back “home”. When I got out of the land rover Nicholas told me to hold on while he called Clamian. They talked for a few minutes before the phone was handed to me and I spoke to him. Clamian offered to come get me the next morning and take me into town. So sweet! I handed the phone back to Nicholas and began thanking him for a wonderful adventure. I told him I would tell Clamian about the terrific job he did and he told me he appreciated the kind words. We said our goodbyes and wished one another well. When I shook his hand, I placed a large tip into it. He deserved every penny.
After checking in, I bought a Coke and a bowl of chips. Then I watched the British equivalent of HGTV while I packed my gear for the final time. Tomorrow I would leave Tanzania and with that the greatest adventure of my life would come to an end. I felt depressed. I didn’t want it to end. I didn’t want to return to the hustle and bustle of American life. I didn’t want to rejoin the rat race. I just wanted to stay in Africa but it was not to be….
**one final Tanzania post left – The Last Day**