I’ve really been looking forward to this day when we descend 600m (2000 ft.) to the floor of the largest intact caldera in the world. Ngorongoro Crater is home to about 25,000 animals in an area of about 260 sq. Km (100 sq mi.)
The steep switchback road was the first paved road we’d been on in any park and a joy for our bums, but as soon as we reached the bottom we were back to rutted and washboard tracks again.
At the bottom we encountered a stand of beautiful yellow fever trees. As promised by our safari company we’re experiencing different landscapes and ecosystems in each of the four parks on our itinerary.
The lakes and rivers in the crater guarantee easy sighting of the herds of zebras, wildebeests, and buffalo, and we saw our first jackals, flamingos, and ibises.
We never tire of watching hippos and there are plenty in the crater.
The Ngorongoro Crater is home to the densest concentration of lions anywhere in the world and the current population is somewhere between 40 and 60, depending on the source.
We were puzzled by this group of three lying in full sun in a dry creek bed.
“What are they doing there?” we asked Emanuel.
“Guarding a kill,” he said, but we couldn’t see anything nearby.
We drove a little further to find a lioness drowsing by a half-devoured buffalo. A couple of jackals circled closer and closer, hoping to sneak in for a quick bite, mostly ignored by the lion.
Before long two hyenas inched toward the kill, and at this point we chose to stop trying to photograph and just watch the drama unfold as Emanuel narrated the action.
Emanuel was puzzled that the hyenas didn’t signal for backup, but when they did eventually bark a small group answered the call and immediately chased the original two away. Emanuel said that was because the first two were from a different territory, interlopers on the range of the larger group.
The new group howled for reinforcements, and when the lion saw that a genuine threat was gathering she made a run at the hyenas and chased them back. The lion retreated to her guard post exhausted by the effort in the heat on a bloated stomach. More hyenas arrived in twos or threes until there were over a dozen. The jackals continued to flit around trying for scraps but the lion paid no attention to them.
A few times the lead hyena tried advancing toward the lion, but not enough of the pack followed. Emanuel said they were missing an opportunity, that there were plenty of them to overpower the lion and chase her off, but they were too timid, or the leader wasn’t assertive enough.
“Look over there,” said Emanuel, and he pointed back toward where we saw the original three lions in the creek bed. One by one they shuffled toward the guardian lion and the kill. The hyenas had no chance now, and they meekly dispersed.
The whole drama unfolded in slow motion over the course of about 30-40 minutes. We were fascinated with the ebb and flow of the power struggle. It’s a numbers game, a kind of Jets vs Sharks with so many hyenas equal to one lion but Emanuel said just look at their tails. If they’re vertical they are feeling brave. Tails down and they’ve given up.
Just as we were about to move on we heard a desperate howl and one of the hyenas ran right in front of our vehicle with a baby jackal in its teeth, chased by the howling mother jackal. It was hard to watch.
Our day in the crater was coming to an end when Emanuel heard over the radio that two black rhinos were spotted at the far end of the caldera. He drove like Lewis Hamilton to get us there as fast as possible, and when we got in the vicinity it was clear that the two rhinos were too far off the track for a good sighting.
There were four other Landcruisers, all trying to get a look at these hardest to spot animals. Our guides convinced a ranger to allow an overland jaunt to get closer, and we bounced and jangled off-road over the savannah, then lined up so everyone had a good view. It was still just beyond easy reach of our 200mm lens, but we got to see rhinos and that’s what matters. One of the hippos tried to upstage the rhinos, lumbering through the frame from left to right. I could hear Flight of the Cosmic Hippo in my head.
Seeing the rhinos was another peak experience but it almost made us miss our scheduled rim walk with a ranger. Emanuel called to make sure we could still make it in time, and it was goodbye to the caldera and a race to the ranger station to pick up our guard.
What a day so far! But there was more to come.