Ngorongoro Crater and Highlands

We left the Northern Serengeti for the second and final stop of our Tanzanian Safari experience–the animal-filled Ngorongoro Crater.

Exploring the Southern Serengeti—By Air

To get here, we flew from Kogatende to Lake Manyara. The flight took us over the totally different Southern Serengeti and the Crater itself. The southern section of the park, over which we flew (but did not stop other than during a couple stops made by our plane en route) is a vast, extraordinarily flat, grassy plain, spotted with trees, bushes, rocks, a few game camps and occasional sightings of small groupings of animals–along with one huge wildebeest herd stretched in along line across the plain.

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It was cross-crossed with occasional, very long dirt roads and every so often, an intersection, including one somewhat incongruous five way intersection entered via a large traffic circle. Then, as we approached the crater rim, we saw dried riverbeds, modestly forested expanses and mountains–until that is, the we were directly over the crater and the relatively baron center of the caldera, where the largely evaporated lake was surrounded by a ring of minerals and salt. Crossing over the other rim, we found a heavily forested section of the highlands and the farms and town of Lake Manyara. After a 30+-minute drive, we reached the Gibbs Farm, the lodge at which we stayed.

Gibbs Farm Resort

Although it is possible to stay right on the crater’s rim, our African Odyssey travel agent strongly recommended that we instead stay at Gibbs Farm, in the Ngorongoro Highlands. Since the area is covered with rich volcanic soil, it is very fertile farm. But, since the area is a rurally dry and receives rain only from March through May, rainy season, it can support only one growing season per year. The crops are primarily corn and beans, with coffee as a cash crop.

Gibbs is a large working farm that grows its own produce, raises some of its own meat and even grows and roasts its own coffee. Situated on the side of a mountain, the main building and the rooms all offer great views, either over the valley or, as our room, the farm. The lodge is spacious, nicely appointed and has lovely outdoor space overflowing with flowers and framed by a great purple blossomed jacaranda tree. The main building has a sifting area, a lovely sitting area, a lounge and two-tier dining area.

Gibbs Farms viewGibbs Farms outside dining areaGibbs farms jacaranda tree

 

Our room itself was huge, with a sitting area, table, two queen beds, soaking tub for two, indoor and outdoor shower and a deck with seats and table overlooking the lovely gardens.

Gibbs Farm bedroomGibbs Farms bathroom  Gibbs Farms deck in our room

The farm grows virtually all types of vegetables, has banana, mango and avocado trees and serves them all with its meals. Everything is organic, all work (including the picking and the shelling of coffee beans is done by hand and gardens are watered with gray water from the lodge. They offer tours of the gardens and coffee plantation and those who wish can participate in milking cows, harvesting vegetables and roasting coffee beans.

And for those looking for a bit more activity, they offer a two-to-three hour guided hike to Elephant Cave (which were further hollowed out by elephants (using their tusks to scrape mineral salts off the walls) to supplement their mineral intake, and then by a range of other animals, as well as to the top of a two-tier 50 meter waterfall (little more than a small stream now, but a significant fall during rainy season). Our guide also pointed out and explained Masai (a tribe of Africans) uses of various plants and the ways in which Safari ants effectively end up killing elephants (by entering through their trunks, through their nasal cavities and into their heads, where the biting effectively causes the elephants to go mad and damage their tusks and heads in an effort to alleviate the continual pain and irritation).

We also participated in one of the lodge’s nightly sunset gatherings in which they have local educational programs. The evening we went, one of the lodge’s employees from the Masai tribe gave a presentation and answered questions on his tribe–its history (starting from Egypt and moving gradually south to Kenya and Tanzania), its continuing nomad lifestyle and mud houses, its rights of passage into adulthood, marriage customs and continued practice of polygamy, the relative rolls of men and women, the selection process and roles of tribal elders and leaders and many other related areas. Very interesting and well done, although Joyce condemned the genetic mutilation they still practiced on teenage boys and girls (worse for girls from what she has read, and unbelievable that they still do it).

Then, before dinner we watched the evening tradition of putting fruit out for a resident wild bushbaby, a tiny primate with a body like a possum, face like a cat and Iimbs and fingers like a monkey. Very cute.

Gibbs Farms Meals

And then there were the meals. Judging from our two days of meals, the food is delicious: not just the homegrown food: everything. For our first day’s lunch buffet, for example, Tom couldn’t get enough of the mixed greens, beet salad or green bean salad. The homemade macaroni and salmon casserole was as good as the fresh vegetables. And dinner was even better: mixed greens salad and cauliflower puree tart with roasted tomato sauce appetizers, delicious linguini with a subtle mushroom sauce and roast Gibbs Farm pork loin with a complex and delicious mustard tarragon sauce main courses; and fresh fruit plate and homemade rhubarb ice cream with strawberry sauce desserts. Although service (which employs locals, some of whom had never seen, much less eaten at or served in a real restaurant—but what they lacked in experience, they more than made up in enthusiasm) was a bit unpolished, the food was wonderful.

Second day meals.

Our first two meals were somewhat sparse:

  • A box breakfast to eat in the crater, of which we had primarily fruit, multiple types of rolls and a hard-boiled egg; and
  • A light lunch from the buffet after a late breakfast. Quite good, but somewhat watery peppermint zucchini soup, mixed green and tomato salad, garbanzo bean and zucchini salad and a little charcuterie.

Dinner was another four course affair. Tom stuck with garden green salad and Joyce had a vegetable spring roll for appetizers. These were followed by roasted eggplant, cumin and peanut soup and entrees of grilled beef tenderloin with with roasted root vegetables and a red wine sauce. Joyce’s linguini was so good the previous night that she went with the pasta with tomato sauce and Parmesan. While it was good, it paled in comparison to the previous night’s pasta. Dessert consisted of date and pecan pudding with orange custard and a Tanzanzian vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce. While the dishes were generally good, we didn’t see them as being at the same level as the previous night’s.

Our second breakfast, the only one we at at the lodge, began with another buffet, with a range of home-pressed juices and loaded with homegrown fruit, plus many types of cereals, muffins, charcuterie and cheese–and accompanied by coffee that was roasted, dried and ground in front of the restaurant for all to see, or participate in. Only after we returned to the table with what we thought was our full breakfast did our server ask for our breakfast order: a choice of breakfast entrees and sides. No risk of anybody leaving for their safari on an empty stomach.

And, oh yes, for Tom’s birthday (we always seem to manage to travel around his birthday), the staff came out and sang happy birthday in Swahili and gave us a delicious birthday cake.

I am not sure how any other hotel could have topped our stay at Gibbs Farms. The people, the food, the atmosphere…..all first class and a must place to stay.

Ngorongogo Crater

As good as Gibbs Farms was, we came here for the Ngorongogo Crater. Our day began with a drive up to the crater perimeter, around it and then 2,000 feet down the crater wall into the 2 million year old, 265 sq km caldera. Our wildlife experience began with a baboon experience at the front gate when, as Joyce and our driver/guide went in for the ticket, Tom left the door to our vehicle open while he stepped outside to take a picture. As he turned back around, a large baboon jumped into the car. Luckily, at the risk of great trauma and bodily injury, <s> Tom managed to shoo him out before he did any damage or stole anything, such as our camera or, worse yet, Joyce’s purse, which contained our passports.

Still in tact from the baboon attack :-), we moved inside the park to explored a number of different ecosystems. These included:

  • The rim, which is heavily forested, including with a very large number of lovely acacia trees. Although we saw a number of birds and a few larger animals (especially buffalo), most were hidden in the brush. Besides, we were too busy staring at the stunning views down and across the crater to pay that much attention to the roadside;
  • The crater floor, most of which consists of rock-strewn expanses of brown grasses, ranging from less than an inch to a couple feet (on which grazing animals dine and in which prowling cats can lie in wait for unsuspecting prey).
  • The streams, swamps and ponds, which is home to green grass, bushes, and much of the water that all animals drink and in which some, especially hippos, spend their days keeping cool;
  • Lake Manyara and its surrounding salt flats, which, during the dry season, is bleak, dry, dusty and home to very different wildlife, especially flamingo; and
  • Lerai Forest which, being close to the base of the rim, has deeper soil and somewhat more moisture, and therefore, thicker grass, bushes and trees. It tends to have more elephant, waterbuck and baboons than in the center.

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Leaving the entrance station and driving up to the crater rim, we passed a few beautifully iridescent guinea fowl and Cape Buffalo surrounded by many beautiful acacia trees and then, of course, the were the incredible views into and across the crater. The views were even more dramatic on the way back up,

Joyce and Top at top of crater bird 02

The Grazers of Ngorongoro

While the rim is densely forested, the caldera has a much thinner layer of less fertile, ashy soil. The trees, therefore, are largely absent, replaced by long stretches of grass. Here we began to see grazers, especially zebra and all types of grazing antelope. In fact, about the only animals not represented in the crater are impala (which browse on bushes as well as graze on grass) and giraffe (which browse on trees).

elephant and baby 02 buffalo in crater 01 wilderbeast in crater 01 zebra in crater 02

There is, however, a very big difference between these animals. And those we saw in the more open Serengeti. The crater’s animals are so accustomed to vehicles that they treat them as part of the scenery. They will, as discussed below, come right up to parked vehicle. Even one with camera clicking tourists, and sit in its shade. And if they are crossing the road,they have no doubt the car will slow down or or stop. Even the relative handful of hyper-skittish wildebeest in the park aren’t spooked by cars. In fact, we had an Ngorongoro version of a wildebeest crossing, with a small herd stopping traffic so they could cross. In this park, even individual wildebeest will cross right in front of cars.

Wildebeest and zebra are by far the most numerous animal species, the about two wildebeest for every zebra. The next largest number is probably gazelle, which are less than half the number of zebra. There are also fewer elephants than in other areas, since there is generally less and less varied food in the crater and since it is difficult for such large animals to climb up and down the crater.

Big game

However, the Crater is home to some large, less mobile animals. Many of those elephants that are on the crater floor are among and near the trees of the Lerai Forest. Although those that we saw were a few hundred yards away, some of their remnants were very close, such as the trunk of a deeply scarred acacia tree.

elephant and baby 02  trees damaged by elephants

Hippos, meanwhile, concentrate near and in the few fresh water ponds. And since these year-round ponds are so scarce, the hippos tend to concentrate. We found about eight of these three-ton behemoths in a row, with others standing alone. In another spot, we found about a dozen clustered closely together. When a pack of hyena ventured a bit to close to the water, one hippo began to bellow, and others followed in a general warning to the others, even though hyenas are of no threat to adult hippo (although they may possibly pose some threat to babies), especially in the water.

Hippos crowded together in water Hippos in water 03     

Our guide, Ammy, said there are also a few—very few—rhino, although we didn’t see them.

Ngorongoro by Air

Birds were also around—albeit in nowhere near the concentration in areas with more water. Of course we saw vultures, although we didn’t see many. Far more numerous were the crowned crane, which we saw not only individually, but in groups of several dozens. Guinea hen were also in evidence, as well as several ostrich, black kite and Koribustard, which at up to 18 kg, is the largest flying bird in Africa.

bird 07 Bird 01 ostridge

A number of birds also volunteered to share our breakfasts. These included guinea fowl and two types of weaver, including a brilliantly-colored yellow weaver. Most colorful of all were the suberb sterlings.

Several water birds, meanwhile, took full advantage of the freshwater ponds. These included African spoonbill, pelican and ibis. Flamingoes, however, were by far the most numerous of all crater birds we saw. Thousands were wading and feeding in the highly alkaline salt pools that remained of the largely evaporated Lake Manyara. They were feeding in the tiny pinkish shrimp that thrive in these waters and turn the feathers of the flamingo from their natural white to a beautiful pink. Unfortunately, the lake and the flamingos were quite a distance from the road.

 flamingos 02 storks

Predators of the Crater

Although all these animals are interesting, we were particularly interested in the predators. These include predators/scavengers, such as jackal (of which we saw a few) and hyena (of which we saw many. Although we have seen many lone hyena, this is the first time we saw a pack traveling together, probably about ten in total. We then saw saw a pack of nine giving half-hearted chase to a small herd of wildebeest, zebra and gazelle, probably more for their amusement than any hope of actually catching one.

Hyenas on the hunt 03Jackel

We were, however, most interested in cats. Although we didn’t see any leopards or cheetah (which we saw in the Serengeti), we did see one that we had not previously seen in the wild–a single serval, one of the smallest of the hunting cats. It is also one that we could normally expect to see in the morning, since it is primarily nocturnal.

Serval cat on the hunt 01  Serval cat on the hunt 03

And then there were lions. Boy, were there lions. We saw many lionesses and a few cubs (roughly three to four months of age.

 Lioness on the hunt 05 Lioness stocking zebras 02  

Spotting lionesses is relatively easy. It is typically much more difficult to find males. We saw about one male, compared with perhaps 20 females in our four days in the Northern Serengti. One big reason is that females far outnumber males, by about four to one. This is not due to different birth rates, but to different death rates. While females have an average life expectancy of about 15 years, males often live to only about five. This is cultural,rather than genetic. When a lioness ages, she can no longer effectively hunt for herself. She, therefore, often remains in the den to care for others cubs, while the successful hunters kill the food in which she can partake. Males are a different story. First, they are less effective hunters than lionesses and when they are in a pride, either as a youngster or the dominant male, and lionesses help fed them. They are also more likely to get in fights with other males, either to obtain or protect their dominance or to protect their pride from hostile interlopers. They can often get injured, which further diminishes their ability to hunt. Just as importantly, once a dominant male is overthrown, he is typically on his own. Given their limited hunting capabilities and the greater difficulty in hunting alone, they may not long survived.

We were, therefore, happy to see one male in the crater. Then we saw another; and another, and then one more, four all together. Image our surprise, not only in seeing so many, but also in seeing adult males getting along so well. (Our guide Ammy surmised they are probably brothers). But if we were surprised at the number, we were amazed when the first got up, began walking slowly toward the three assembled Land Cruisers and then, selecting the one, plopped down right next to it, in the shade. Shortly after another, and then another lion rose, walked toward and between the vehicles and began walking slowly down the dirt road. One, not being able to find a bush to protect his modesty, defecated at the side of the road, and he didn’t even pick up after himself.

 

Male lions relaxingMale lion pooping Male lion coming at our jeep for the shade Male lion finds shade anywhere it can get it Male lion not afraid of humans at all

We then saw the the closest to a hunt we ever saw, or are likely to see. One of the two lionesses with the cubs left her family to stake out some potential prey: A group of zebra perhaps half a kilometer away. It walked about half way, and just waited to see whether the zebra, or some other potential prey might come close enough to even consider stalking. During the 15 minutes we waited, there was no discernible movement.

Lioness on the hunt 04

Since Ammy said it could take hours for any substantial movement (if there was ever to be any, it was likely to take hours), we reluctantly decided to leave since we had only covered about a quarter of the crater floor and had three hour in which to do so (visitors have to exit the park within six hours of when they enter).

We certainly can’t consider what we saw to be a hunt, or even a stalk. It was more like a stake out. But, if it ever were to evolve into a full -scale stalk, the sister, still back with the cubs, would watch intently. If the hunter should ever get a hold of prey, her sister would rush to the scene to help bring it down.

Not exactly what we were hoping to see, but this was closer that we had come on any of our previous game drives, or may ever come in the future. So for now, it will have to do.

 

Non-Wild Wildlife

There are, believe it or not, also some domestic sheep and cattle in the crater–those belonging to Masai villagers who are permitted to graze their animals in the park during the day. These animals, despite their seeming vulnerability to attack, are in little danger since the Masai are permitted to and will kill those threatening their livestock.

herding animals 01 herding animals 02

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