Memoirs of Tanzania, Part 7 – A morning at the Ngorongoro Crater

This post is a continuation of the series documenting my ten year old trip to Tanzania. This series has been an excellent distraction for me during these testing lockdown times. Travel is something that both me and the better half enjoy a lot, so at times like these when travel seems months or even a year away at least we have these great memories to look back upon from the decade gone by.

We had spent a great 3 days in the Serengeti National park ( I have used up all the superlatives that my limited English permits in the 6 posts describing the Serengeti, so I gave up!). It seemed like nothing could live up to the range and number of Wildlife in the Serengeti. We still had a day left in the Ngorongoro crater but we were just thinking of it as a little step down from the Serengeti before returning back home. We couldn’t have been more wrong!

We were based in the Serena Ngorongoro Lodge at the edge of the huge wildlife rich meteor crater that is the Ngorongoro. The lodge had been everything that we had come to expect from the Serena Safari lodges – comfortable, well located & with buffets that left us a kilo or two heavier at the end of it all!

After a great nights sleep we woke up early for our safari inside the crater. Hadji had suggested that we take a packed breakfast as we could get into the crater early before it got crowded with vehicles. We gladly agreed as we had learnt to trust his judgement in the few days that we had been with him. So with a hell lot of boxes & thermoses filled with breakfast and beverages we set out for our safari.

The ride down to the crater floor along a narrow road was bumpy but not as scary as we expected. Soon we were on the crater floor and looking forward to what this supposed garden of Eden held for us. The first sighting was a group of Elephants that were busy having their breakfast. These creatures didn’t seem as angsty as the ones we had seen previously in the Serengeti. This was inspite of the fact that among them was the smallest baby elephant that we had seen all trip! So it seemed that like humans even different individual elephants had different temperaments.

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A group of Elephants busy in feeding
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The smallest Baby Elephant seen in the entire trip

It was overcast that day and we were informed that a shower or two was anticipated. We had started the trip with an overcast day in Manyara (Memoirs of Tanzania, Part 1 – Lake Manyara National Park) and been lucky enough to have 3 fabulous rain free days in the Serengeti. So it was only fitting that the law of averages caught up with us and finally gave us a rainy day. But right now it was just cloudy with the sun peeking out every now and then. So we wanted to make the most of it till it actually started pouring.

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An overcast morning at the Ngorongoro crater

We had just left the herd of Elephants & were deliberating about the weather when Hadji stopped and pointed at the grass just on the side of the road. Amidst the huge pile of Elephant Dung were two dung beetles desperately working to clear it away & take it to their underground burrows. Without these janitors of the forest the world would be covered with dung.

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The hard working Dung Beetles

It had already rained here the night before so it meant that the mud roads near the centre of the crater would be dangerous territory and we would have to stay on the peripheral dry patches if we didn’t want to get stuck. That meant that we could only view the hippos that usually inhabited that part of the crater from afar. Having stood right above these dangerous creatures in Serengeti I didn’t feel that we had missed out on much!

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Hippos in the centre of the crater floor from a distance

The diversity of the crater wildlife soon became apparent when we got sightings of two animals that had eluded us so far. The beautiful Grant’s Gazelle had only been seen from a far once. So when we saw a pair at close quarters at the Ngorongoro I took photos enough to compensate for all the days gone by!

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The beautiful Grant’s Gazelle

The next sighting was the nocturnal and highly reclusive Serval. This slender and agile wild feline is known to pluck out low flying birds by camouflaging itself in the grasses. We were lucky enough to spot one early in the morning just as it must have been planning to retire for the day.

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The highly elusive Serval

We would have stayed with the Serval for some more time if Hadji hadn’t spotted something. He just said that we needed to rush off now. With the Serval still there it was a hard decision but then Hadji had always been right till now and we took a few more photos of the Serval and rushed off. The rush was so much that we waited just seconds in front of a sleeping male lion for a photo or two before zooming off!

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A sleeping male Lion

I had a sneaking suspicion of what had been spotted but I didn’t want to jinx it by asking. Finally Hadji slowed down and asked us to keep looking over a small ridge in the otherwise flat crater floor. Soon two horns made an appearance followed by a smaller set of two. It was a pair of Black Rhino! These highly endangered creatures are only seen in Northern Tanzania on the Ngorongoro crater floor. That too is never certain as any safari goer will tell you.

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Two Black Rhinos make an appearance in the Ngorongoro

We had been right to zoom ahead as soon there was a bevy of vehicles behind us. As word got around thanks to the Walkie talkies even more vehicles were approaching from the opposite side. Then Hadji called a vehicle from the approaching group and told them to stop at a safe distance as he thought that the Rhinos would cross the road. I have to sadly admit that if it was an Indian Park no one would have listened and continued to zoom ahead and scared off the Rhinos. There every one stopped and provided the rhinos with a comfortable passage way to cross over to the other side.

The male appraised the situation on both sides looking at the vehicles that had stopped. We were hoping that we would not be charged upon as Rhinos are known to do.

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The Rhino takes stock of the situation around

Thankfully Hadji’s quick thinking and even quicker driving had paid off. The Rhinos found the passage granted to them to be safe in their appraisal and crossed the road and we got unparalleled views of these angry looking giants.

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The Rhinos cross the road

They crossed the road and gently trotted off into the distance putting a smile on the face of every person in the vehicles that had gathered on both sides. Hadji announced that we had successfully seen the Big 5, the must see Big animals of Africa. Any list ticking was never on my mind but it had been a great sighting that had been made possible just because of our guide’s good vision and experience.

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The Rhinos trot off into the distance

With that sighting we thought that it would be a great time to have the packed breakfast. As if on cue the sun came out and Hadji said that we would have our breakfast on the banks of a small lake on the crater floor where it is allowed to disembark from our vehicles. Finally we would have our meal in the bush as promised!

Before we reached the lake we saw something standing in the middle of the road. It was a black backed jackal. It was crossing the road to have water collected in the tires tracks. We stopped so as not to spook it and waited till he crossed the road and started his drink. Then we slowly slinked ahead and crossed him leaving him to quench his thirst in peace.

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A black backed Jackal in the centre of the road
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A black backed Jackal having a drink

As it was a sunny morning after an overcast few hours all the animals seemed to be more active. We had just left the jackal behind when Hadji pointed at something. I assumed it was the Warthog that was standing regally in the sun displaying his tusks. Fortunately this one had no inclination of running off with his tail up in the air and I got some good photos.

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A Warthog poses regally in the sun

As we left the Warthog Hadji said its rare that Hyenas sleep in the open like that. And naturally I asked him what Hyena? He stopped immediately and reversed. Behind the Warthog sleeping on the open ground was a spotted Hyena. It had blended so well with the surroundings that I had totally missed it. As if to show me that it was really there, the Hyena lifted its head and took a look around before returning to its slumber.

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A Spotted Hyena sleeping in the open

We had a hearty laugh about the almost missed sighting as we finally reached the small lake which was to be our breakfast site. At one edge of it was a big flock of sacred Ibis and blacksmith plovers. We stopped for a minute for a quick photo or two and hoping that they would still be here when we completed our breakfast.

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A flock of Sacred Ibis at the edge of the lake
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A Flock of Blacksmith Plovers on the lake shore

Hadji couldn’t have chosen a more beautiful site to have our breakfast. As an added bonus there were birds all around. Couldn’t get any better!

There were the curious Superb Starlings who were anticipating the crumbs that we would leave behind providing them with an easy meal. This time I was ready for these curious birds getting close and got some pretty photos of a dazzlingly colourful bird.

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A Superb Starling shines in the sun
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Another Starling waits for us to drop crumbs

As Hadji was setting up breakfast on the bonnet of our land cruiser he pointed at a bird on the rock and told me to be quick or it would fly away. I scanned the area through the lens and it was a Tawny Eagle, sitting comfortably on a rock. Thankfully he didn’t fly away immediately and gave me some decent photos.

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A tawny eagle sits on a rock in the Ngorongoro

In the trees above there were African Masked weavers and it was very difficult for me to actually set the camera down and have breakfast with so many photogenic birds around.

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African Masked weaver

Finally I joined the better half who by now had climbed onto the bonnet and was having a cup of tea on a land cruiser in the middle of the Ngorongoro Crater. It doesn’t get any better than that!

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Having tea in the Ngorongoro crater

I gobbled down my breakfast and coffee before we walked to the lake shore and the better half found a relatively dry spot to sit. We spent a few minutes just appreciating our surroundings and being thankful for it all.

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On the lake shore at the Ngorongoro Crater

We then returned to the vehicle to find that our crumbs were now being devoured by a helmeted Guinea Fowl! I didn’t need any invitation to take a close up portrait of this awkward looking colourful bird who gladly posed before resuming his meal.

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A Helmeted Guinea fowl poses for the camera

In addition to the Guinea Fowl, the weavers had descended to the ground and were busy picking off crumbs. I got the relatively plain looking female to come really close and pose for a photo.

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A female Weaver looks for crumbs

Soon we bade the feeding birds goodbye and went back to the other end where we had hastily left the flocks of Ibis and Plovers behind. Thankfully they were still there and I got some good photos of these elegant birds just going about their business.

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A Sacred Ibis shines in the Sun
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A Blacksmith Plover on the Lake shore

In addition to these birds we had spotted earlier there were a couple of brilliantly green birds just flying around at frantic pace. These were the Cinnamon breasted Bee Eaters. We waited and hoped that one of them would settle down at least for a few seconds. One of them obliged and gave a striking pose for the camera before resuming its activity again.

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A Cinnamon Breasted Bee eater settles down for a few seconds

With that great sighting and a breakfast that I remember to this very day ended a very eventful morning. The breakfast was memorable not for the things I ate but where I ate it and in the company of all the beautiful birds.

We would continue this safari for a few hours more in what would be our last few hours on Safari in Tanzania. But that is the topic for another post, some other time some other day.

Till then,

Bye.

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