Saturday 22 March 2014

#011 Ngorongoro Memories

On my African expeditions I have trekked, climbed and journeyed in many places of breathtaking beauty and spectacular grandeur. 

Sitting on the sand of the Skeleton Coast, with a myriad of stars splashed across the deep blue night sky, as the waves of the Benguela current rolled against the shore with hypnotic rhythm, was a very special moment. As was guiding clients to the summit of Kilimanjaro and the time walking through Kyambura Gorge in Uganda to track Chimpanzee accompanied by a national park ranger. 

Working alongside local experts brings a pleasure in itself, the sharing of knowledge and anecdotes enhances the experience creating a sense of camaraderie and connection with the whole team and the environment. It is perhaps no surprise that my most treasured memories have come from East Africa and in particular the Ngorongoro crater. A place which defies all superlatives and never fails to impress. 

For this blog I would like to share with you a story of my first two visits to the Ngorongoro. The local experts on these occasions were Tanzanian safari guides Beatus Ndanu and Arnold.


"In a hundred years’ time the political anxieties and hatreds for which men suffer (and die), will only have a printed existence in history books. But people will still consider it important that wildebeest should roam across the plains and leopards growl at night. It will matter all the more if human beings are increasingly condemned to live in soulless concrete cities."
                                                                             Dr. Bernhard Grzimek (zoological scientist)
from Serengeti Shall Not Die

I have seen a place where all life began, a vision of Eden, the crucible of creation.  Its affect upon me was so profoundly moving, it was as though time stood still and that the earth was at peace with itself.

With these strong and vivid memories of my first visit to the Ngorongoro Crater resonating in my mind, the Toyota Landcruiser continued upwards on the rutted and dusty track.  Dolores and I scanned the passing vegetation for leopard, a cat so secretive and well camouflaged that a sighting had eluded us.  My only reticence was the thought that the enchantment of the original experience would somehow be diminished by a second visit.  I need not have worried.  Soon after our vehicle crested the crater rim, the forest cover yielded to a breathtaking amphitheatre view and it was like seeing with fresh, innocent eyes.  

Feelings of homecoming made conversation impossible for a few moments as I looked out over Lake Magadi, the Lerai Forest and other familiar features among the pastel shades cast by the late afternoon sun.  I realised that I had left something of myself here and that it had been calling for me to return.  

This sense of place and oneness with nature must have been the reason why some early explorers returned to Africa many times, enduring incredible hardship and disease.  When David Livingstone died in 1873, his embalmed body was carried on a final journey from Chitambo village, near the shore of Lake Bangweulu, to be interned in Westminster Abbey.  But his heart was placed in a small tin box and buried in the African soil, the soul of this most well loved Scottish hero forever laid to rest in his adopted home.  A stone memorial pillar marks the place, standing alone in a grove of trees, it is simply inscribed: David Livingstone, born Blantyre, died Chitambo’s village.

Superlatives, and there are many, cannot capture the essence of what it is to experience the Ngorongoro Crater, known to many as the eighth wonder of the world.  At 20km in diameter it is the largest unbroken caldera on Earth and is home to an abundance of resident species, including several thousand mammals.  Such is the richness and quality of pasture contained within its steep 600 metre high walls that many of the wildebeest and other antelope have foregone the rigours of migration endured by their cousins in the Serengeti and Masai Mara ecosystem.

The Landcruiser followed the unmade road clockwise around the crater rim.  With the windows wound shut to keep out the dust, our view to the right alternated between the overhanging boughs of croton trees and fleeting glimpses across the crater.  After bumping along for another ten kilometres our vehicle turned into the narrow entrance of the Ngorongoro Wildlife Lodge. 

The view from the rear car park gave little indication of what lay beyond on the other side of the building, its façade dominated by a large sloping roof.  From the clerks’ check in desk, a wide flight of steps led down into the lounge bar.  The interior looked like an ski lodge with pine wood beams adding a cosy atmosphere.  Plate glass had been installed along the whole length of the side facing the crater making an impressive panorama window.

My attention was distracted by a large widescreen television situated in one corner on a slightly lower level.  In front of it, two or three people were sat on a sofa, absolutely riveted to a game of football.  They looked so completely out of place.  Surely the main event was happening at that very moment, just outside beyond the glass.  Each to his own, I thought, but I had to stifle a school boy urge to run up to them, point excitedly out of the window and say “Look!”

A few months earlier, our arrival at the Serena Lodge, a further half hour drive away had been an experience of visual delight.  Passing through the lobby and onto an open sided walkway, suspended on large tree trunk poles with a log roof, our porter led the way.

All the buildings and features were constructed from materials which blended sympathetically with the location.  The main dining and bar area looked like the great hall of an esteemed tribal chieftain, decked in highly polished wood with a rich dark grain and furnished in heavy fabrics, with simple bold patterns in earthy colours.  In the centre of the room was a large fireplace shaped like a brick kiln.  Logs were stacked alongside to provide warmth on the cool evenings of the crater highlands.  Full height glazed sliding doors ran along the frontage of the lounge, never allowing the sitter to forget the spectacle which was just outside, or to become tired of the mesmerising view.

We were escorted down a passageway, on the left hand side the numbers on the doors indicated that these were the bedrooms. The opposite side was open to a sheer rocky slope with vegetation clinging to its surface.  The porter stopped and unlocked our room.  It was gloomy inside.  He purposefully strode over to the shut curtains and flung them aside with a dramatic flourish of his arm, like an artist unveiling his finished canvas for the first time.  The theatrics were wholly justified, our eyes widened and we took a sharp intake of breath.  After thanking the porter, we opened the glazed doors and stood out on the balcony, perched over the edge of the crater. 

The scene was of such epic magnificence it rendered us speech less, it was beyond anything imaginable. All along the row of rooms, we could hear gasps of delight as the other arriving guests also ventured out onto their balconies. The scale was so immense that I did not know in which direction to look first.  It was almost too big, too overpowering to comprehend.  There was nothing subtle about the Ngorongoro Crater, this was big nature delivering its biggest gesture.

That night was like waiting for presents on Christmas morning.  The anticipation was unbearable and I awoke several times, not wanting to miss watching the sun rise over the crater rim from our room.  Breakfast could not be over quick enough.  I could have ordered one of several delicious specially prepared dishes, washed down with sparkling wine.  Instead, I opted for the self service continental with a strong coffee.  Dolores reminded me that we need not rush, there was plenty of time to spare before we were scheduled to meet Beatus at the Land Rover.  Never the less we were still a couple of minutes early.

With our fellow travellers on board and cameras loaded, we rejoined the track around the crater rim and headed towards Windy Gap and the Seneto descent road.  We wore fleece jackets as the morning temperature was still cool, not having yet been warmed by the rising sun. Alongside the road, Masai villagers were about their daily routine, most still choosing to wear their traditional costume of red linen robes.  Women, decorated with colourful bangles and bead necklaces, carried containers of water and produce, as children ran past them on the way to school.

The Crater Highlands are a string of volcanoes, between 2500 and 3500 metres above sea level, rising steeply from the side of the Rift Valley in northern Tanzania.  The oldest volcanoes, Oldeani and Mount Lemakarot, at the southern end of the 80km range, are very eroded.  To the north east the Olmoti Crater is the source of the Munge river which flows into Ngorongoro, feeding Lake Magadi and the Mandusi Swamp.  The Ngorongoro caldera was formed 2.5 million years ago when the volcano erupted for the last time, its top sinking back into the crater after the magma reservoir had been expelled.  At the northern most end of the range lies the almost perfect cone of Ol Doinyo Lengai, 2879 metres high, overlooking the shores of Lake Natron, on the Kenyan border.

Ol Doinyo Lengai is the Masai sacred mountain, its name literally meaning The Mountain Of God.  It is also the only known active carbonatite lava volcano in the world.  From a distance, what looks like snow on its peak is actually cooled sodium carbonate lava residue, similar in chemical composition to soap scum.  Its steep sides rise to a flat topped peak where there are hot steam vents and growing ash cones.

We stopped at a barrier, manned by rangers who checked our permit before waving us through and onto the descent road.  We had met our guide, Beatus, at the Ranger Safari’s vehicle compound in Arusha a couple of days previously.  In his early thirties, Beatus Ndanu was lean of build and had an excellent command of the English language.  His natural enthusiasm was accompanied by a deep knowledge gained from his studies of wildlife and game park management. 

To me, this way of earning a living had to rank well up there in the ‘best job in the world’ category, but I was also interested to hear if there was a downside or less pleasant aspects to it.  Beatus told us that the long distances of driving on unmade roads is not healthy for the internal organs so he is allocated a set amount of leave after each trip to allow for a proper rest. This gave him time to be with his wife and children for a few days before the next tour.  

Beatus had also been a driver and spotter on a couple of occasions for wildlife filming production companies.  We all perked up with interest to hear more about this. Beatus smiled and nodded, “Ah, you think it is so glamourous.  I tell you, we spend hours every day just waiting to catch one minute of film. Some days we got nothing.  The film company, they were here for a whole month.”  He shrugged his shoulders almost apologetically, “Sometimes it was just boring.”  Even so, I thought, I’d rather be bored here, than one of millions tied to a desk in a stuffy office with little natural light.

Beatus, drove slowly down the narrow descent road.  The Land Rover was an extended wheelbase type, with large windows in its high sides, ideal for photography.  The roof had been converted so that a hatch lid could be removed above each of the three pairs of seats behind the driver, allowing everyone to stand up, tank commander style, to get a better view. The vehicle slowed whilst Beatus pointed out a candelabra tree.  This was a type of euphorbia like we had growing in our conservatory back home, except here it stood ten feet high.  I could see other examples on the slopes above us which looked even bigger.

Edging down towards the crater floor I spotted several zebra on the nearest pasture.  Further along at the bottom of crater wall I could just make out a young Masai amongst his herd of cows.  We rounded the base of a rocky outcrop and were faced with a brown carpet of rough grass teeming with hundreds, if not thousands, of wildebeest.  When we returned the following February their numbers had swelled still further by recently calved young, still tottering around on spindly legs as they followed alongside their mothers.  The air was filled with lowing and grunting calls of  communication.  When zebra were added to this hoofed melee, the effect of their stripes mingling with the wildebeest created a shape shifting distortion aimed at confusing predators. 

A light mist rose from the soda lake as it was warmed by the morning sun.  The shoreline had retreated, leaving a white salty residue, but in the centre where there was still shallow water, a faint sheen of pink indicated the presence of flamingos.  At the side of the track, a cory bustard, the heaviest flying bird in the world, conserving his energy on this occasion by walking.

As we drove onwards we had our first encounter with the king of beasts.  A male and female lion had separated themselves from their pride and lay opposite each other, paws touching, on a patch of dried grey earth. Judging by the male’s attentive behaviour they were probably a mating pair. When on heat, a female will be receptive for only four days.  Therefore the male will monopolise his partner, coupling on average twice an hour during this time.  If successful, the female would give birth in three and a half months to a litter of between one and four cubs. 

However, as a rule, half would be dead by the end of their first year, having succumbed to starvation, disease or opportunistic predation by spotted hyena.  During a pride take over, the new dominant male will often kill all cubs under a year old.  Whilst abhorrent to human sensibilities, infanticide is a vital part of the lion’s reproductive strategy, prompting lionesses to re-enter oestrus and ensuring that only the progeny of the strongest males carry genes forward to the next generation. 

The lioness slowly rose to her feet and walked forward a couple of paces towards our Land Rover.  Oblivious of our presence, she then squatted down an relieved herself of a large poo. The male then sauntered over and inhaled the scent, eyes closed, his upper lip curling in a flehmen face, exposing his long, yellowed, canine incisors and pink tongue.  He sported an impressive dark full mane, almost black in places, typical of lion within the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.  Never had we imagined we would encounter this most handsome of cats at such close quarters, or be treated to such displays of behaviour.  As the pair ambled away into the grass, I noticed that the male had an open wound on his off-side hind quarters, probably inflicted by the horn of a wildebeest or cape buffalo in a recent hunt.

This was not the end of our Ngorongoro lion story.  Whilst traversing the central plain, near the Munge river, during our second visit, Arnold reacted briskly to a call on the vehicle radio.  While he drove, we scanned ahead to see what we were heading towards.  Out of the heat haze, appeared a pair of lion.  As we got closer I could see it was a lioness with a male following closely behind.  I looked at Dolores, my spine tingling with expectation. “It can’t be,” I muttered “that would just be too good.”

Yet there on the male’s rump was the scar, the flesh wound now granulated and closed, but still apparent by the way the skin folded upwards.  This gave us a wonderful sense of continuity and narrative, which must be intensely satisfying to the naturalists and film makers who document the family histories and life adventures of particular individuals. 

The pair looked like they were heading towards Ngoitokitok springs, where we would later see a crèche of several older cubs and young adults along with a lioness babysitting.  In their path stood a herd of twenty or so zebra. They remained in a tight group, as the stallion advanced a few paces towards the lions.  His muscles taught, head held high and ears pricked in alert posture.  He stamped down with both front hooves and emitted a loud ‘i-hah, i-hah, i-hah’ alarm snort.  Everything about him advertised the fact that he was fit, he could run fast and that he had a good set of hooves for kicking. Disinterested in chasing prey, our lions continued onwards, but did not deviate from their course.  The zebra edged away to the side, maintaining a safe distance.

Having slowly passed a group of very flighty Thompson’s gazelle, Beatus circumnavigated the shore of Lake Magadi and into the Lerai picnic site for a comfort break.  It was too early for lunch, but we were allowed out of the vehicle to stretch our legs.  I looked up into the nearby trees and saw vervet monkey leaping from branch to branch.  I thought nothing more of them until Karen let out a yell.  We rushed back to the Land Rover to see her snatch back what was left of Beatus’ tuck box as the monkey scampered out of the roof hatch and off with a round of sandwiches. Although still wild animals, these primates certainly knew the value of a free lunch.

Our route continued deeper into the Lerai forest, the most heavily wooded area on the crater floor.  Large acacia and broad leaved croton trees offered a little shade and dots of dappled light danced on the ground, as a mild breeze disturbed the hot air.  The forest was fed by the Endeani, Oluvera & Laratati run off channels from the crater wall which terminated to form the Gorigor Swamp where elephant chewed on the lush, green vegetation.  There was every chance that there would be a leopard lazing on a horizontal bough, high enough not to be disturbed by lion or hyena, whist it digested its meal from the previous night.  But, we saw no hint of one, despite the fact that leopard are thought to be just as numerous as lion.

A troupe of baboon made us jump as they rushed across the track loudly squabbling and screeching as two of them roughed up a subordinate for some transgression of hierarchy or etiquette.  A few of the adult females carried very young on their backs, riding in the jockey position, or slung underneath, clinging to the fur on their body.  The wide eyed infants looked at their surroundings with a permanently surprised expression.

On the far side of the forest a collection of rocky mounds sat between the west bank of Magadi and the crater wall.  On the Serengeti and Masai Mara cheetah would use features like these, known as kjope rocks, as look out points, both for spotting prey and identifying any closing threat from competing predators.  Apart from a few distant wildebeest, there were no animals to be seen so we continued north towards Goose Ponds, crossing the track on which we had entered the crater floor.

A black backed jackal broke cover and trotted away from the track. His mate also appeared from out of the grass and followed, stopping and turning momentarily, legs bent in anticipation of flight, to see if we were pursuing. Three Cape Buffalo stood at the side of the track on the northern plains.  These were the first we had seen in the crater, with the exception of the bleached horn and skulls of those unlucky enough to be taken down by lion, their only major predator, apart from man.  The nearest held its ground with an unreadable fixed stare.  This bulky and formidable African bovid looked unpredictable and dangerous and we were grateful that we were inside the  Land Rover.  In herds of buffalo a mobbing response is an effective anti-predator tactic.  It has been known for lions to have retreated up trees and be kept there for hours by buffalo marauding below.  No quarter is given between these species and Buffalo will also stamp and kill any lion cub it happens upon.

Further ahead, two vehicles had halted, the passengers had their binoculars and camera lenses fixed on an area of prairie about fifty metres away.  Beatus drove up behind the other vehicles and switched off the engine.  I leaned forwards, trying to pick out what was perfectly camouflaged in the tall straw yellow grass.  A cheetah popped its head up.  I was thrilled.  This was my favourite of all the big cats, its body and physique developed though evolution into the world’s fastest land animal. The small head with its beautiful teardrop black markings looked back towards me.  I had not come on safari with a tick list of expectations, I was happy to experience and photograph whatever animals were there, but seeing cheetah was wonderful.

From that moment my day just got better and better.  Another cheetah raised up on its front legs and then two more appeared.  Judging from their relative sizes, in all likelihood here was a mother with three offspring on the verge of becoming independent.  If this was correct, the mother had done well to raise them all to adulthood.  The littermates are abandoned sometime after they reach fifteen months old, but may stay together to form a coalition in order to gain an advantage when stalking prey and also when making a claim to territory and defending it against other males.  The mother then reverts to a solitary existence until she briefly meets another suitor to mate with.  Any young females drop out of the coalition before they are two years old, presumably at the onset of oestrus.  With sleek elegance, the four cats walked off across the flat plain and into the heat haze.  Now I could see their toned shoulder muscles, low slunk back spotted on top, white belly and long stripy rudder tail.  One of them made a casual show of stalking a zebra, but it was too far away and far bigger than a cheetah’s normal prey.  The zebra bolted off in a cloud of dust before anything more came of the display.

We continued in a loop around Madusi Swamp and then followed the course of the Munge River to the east.  An male ostrich stood a short distance away, its plumage ruffled in the hot dry wind blowing over the crater floor.  I had not previously appreciated just how tall this most unusual of birds was, or how thick its pink legs were, held taught by hawser like tendons.  Nearby a secretary bird strutted through the stubble looking for snakes to eat. In contrast to the ostrich, the secretary bird’s legs were covered half way down to the hocks. The featherless lower leg extended to a fearsome set of talons, used to hold snakes away from its body until it had battered them to death.

Heading due south, along side the Oljoro Nyokie River, actually little more than a stream with greener grass and reeds along its banks, we passed between the twin cones of Endoinyo Osilale and Endoinyo Rumbe. These volcanoes in miniature were probably the last gasp of lava activity within the Ngorongoro, before the geological forces moved on to form newer eruptions outside of the crater.

Beatus turned left onto the track leading to the Ngoitokitok Springs picnic site.  In a pool of black, sloppy mud, a hyena struggled to reach a pack of vultures fighting over the carcass of a baby hippopotamus.  It had not been dead long, possibly it had met its demise sometime during the night, as the vultures had only just penetrated its tough skin to access the soft tissues within its abdomen.  The birds did not seem perturbed by the approaching hyena, which was now up to its shoulders, labouring in the stinking quagmire of rotted swamp vegetation.  Panting heavily, it gave up and turned around.  The meal was not worth the effort on this occasion. 

I had expected to see packs of hyena, stealing carrion and harassing lion, however, Beatus informed me that they are normally nocturnal hunters.  Undoubtedly, the hyena suffers from an image problem, lacking the sleek lines of a big cat, the loveable playfulness of wild dogs or the shining stripy coat of a zebra.  With stubbly brown hair on its sloping back and limping gait the hyena is more closely related to the mongoose family. Never the less, the spotted hyena, commonly found over most savannah in sub Saharan Africa, is a highly social animal within a clan of twenty to fifty individuals, led by an alpha female.  Its highly developed sense of smell can detect carcasses several miles away.  Hyena are also formidable hunters in their own right catching and killing sixty percent of their prey themselves.  They usually target the sick or injured, thus ensuring that the main stock of wild animals is a strong and healthy breeding population.

Beatus parked up our Land Rover beside a large pond.  In the centre were several hippo mostly submerged in the water with just their heads and back visible from the bank.  As another surfaced it blew out through its nostrils spraying its sedentary neighbours.  Hippo are very susceptible to dehydration, especially during the midday temperatures, so they seldom venture too far away from water and when they do it is usually at night to forage for food.

Beatus handed out our lunch boxes, but had very little left for himself after the monkey had stolen it earlier in the Lerai forest.  Despite his insistence that he would be fine, we all divided our lunch boxes so we each had an equal share, there was plenty to go around. Whist doing this Beatus warned us of the red kites we could see circling over the picnic area.  These were magnificent raptors with a huge wingspan and ruddy brown feathers. Their ever alert eyes were tuned into identifying unguarded food or leftovers and would swoop down at terrific speed, snatching the item with fearsomely sharp bright yellow talons.  Beatus relayed the story of a client who had not heeded the warning to beware of the kites.  The client had put an apple on top of his head to see if the bird would take it. Seeing the opportunity for an easy meal the kite dived down and took the apple. Unfortunately its talons also took a portion of the man’s scalp which bled profusely and obviously ruined the rest of his day.  We looked outside the Land Rover and could see some people looking nervously upwards so we elected to eat lunch in the car and take a walk outside afterwards.

We stayed at Ngoitokitok for half an hour, sitting on the carpet of green grass.  The blades were wide and rough to the touch.  At the shore of the lake superb starlings hopped around, cleaning up the crumbs of food too small for the kites.  Slightly larger than European starlings, these African cousins sported an iridescent sheen of blue green wings, burnt orange undercarriage, with a tuft of white just below the tail.  We watched, fascinated by how they seemed untroubled by the close proximity of humans.

After lunch, we drove across the central plain towards Hippo Pool in the north west.  In a remote area away from the vehicle tracks Beatus stopped suddenly to point out a rhinoceros laying down, almost obscured in the grasses.  I added a doubler to my telephoto lens, but even with this extra magnification I could not achieve anywhere near frame filling shot. There was no way to get closer as off road driving is prohibited in the Ngorongoro in order to discourage harassment of vulnerable species.  A few minutes later, the rhino got up and walked into an area of short stubble. Following behind gambolled a young calf, which was only a couple of months old.  

Hunted to the brink of extinction for its horn and still critically endangered, here was a wonderful symbol of a bright future for wild rhino in Africa.  Fortunately, the popularity of the Ngorongoro meant that any poachers would be quickly identified and caught by the armed park authorities.  Sadly, this was not always a deterrent.  One night, poachers had infiltrated a sanctuary in Kenya, murdered all the rangers as they slept, then slaughtered seven rhinoceros.  The horn was destined for Chinese medicine or to be made into ceremonial daggers for cultures with more money than sense, or accountability for how their actions encouraged people far poorer and desperate than themselves to behave.

On our second visit, Dolores and I were most concerned to see if we could spot the female and her calf.  The morning had gone well when we saw a male rhino in the vicinity of the Ndoinyo Olkaria Hills, just beyond the Munge River near the crater wall.  Our relief was heart felt when we found our female, with calf having grown slightly larger in the intervening four months, walking in the direction of Gorigor Swamp.  Although still keeping their distance from the tracks, they were closer than last time and clear of vegetation cover, allowing me to improve on my previous photographs. 

At Hippo Pool we counted over thirty of the river horse wallowing in the water.  All around this oasis were hundreds of white egrets strutting through the shallows on their long legs. Our afternoon continued with another circuit of Lake Magadi, revisiting the wildebeest herd.  Unfortunately many of the predators had gone to ground, resting up during the hottest part of the day. 

On our final crossing of the central plain we had a vision which could be described as a most iconic image of Africa.  Through the intense shifting heat haze two large adult male elephants steadily crossed the parched earth, their forms slowly taking on gigantic proportions as they walked directly towards us in an ethereal timelessness.  From their jaws protruded the longest ivory tusks, dazzlingly bright under the intense rays of the sun. I was curious to know where the elephant had come from and where they were going, as they moved with purpose and intent. 

All around, the towering blue crater walls enclosed us in the biosphere.  I put my camera down and reflected upon what I had just witnessed.  Sometimes it is better to step away from the lens and let the power and beauty of the world directly into your soul.  In a theatre who’s cast played to the relentless laws of nature, I felt humble.  Man the inventor, the innovator, the moderniser, could never hope to equal the creative forces of evolution.  

On this day, I had watched the greatest show on earth. 

Stu Westfield
Ranger Expeditions