The sun rises over a land forgotten by time. This is Ngorongoro Crater.
This will be another photo-heavy post. Ngorongoro Crater is a national conservation area in Tanzania, located in the highlands between Arusha and the Serengeti. It is a unique place, the secret to which is given away in its name. Ngorongoro is a nearly perfect circular caldera from an ancient volcano. It is one of the largest intact calderas in the world, and that setting provides a natural wonderland of a habitat that has been largely and miraculously undisturbed by humans.
The sunrise over the crater wall was spectacular, especially so as it revealed the landscape around us dotted with so many large mammals.
The crater is home to many familiar species featured over the past few posts on East Africa. You'll also notice those caldera walls in every backdrop. Those are the borders of this wonderland, closing it off on all sides.
There were plenty of babies around too, which is always a nice thing to see. Life goes on.
Wildebeest and zebras migrate into and out of the crater throughout the year.
This was the most amount of eland we saw at one time on the whole safari.
The enormous eland dwarfed the zebras and wildebeest walking around them.
Roads in the park are few and just simple but very well maintained dirt tracks like this one. Our prime goal for the day was to drive around the crater floor looking in particular for one animal: rhinoceros. Every big speck on the landscape brought a glimmer of hope that we might catch a glimpse of the last on our list of the "Big 5".
Most often though, those big blips on the horizon were just buffalo or elephants, both of which boast healthy populations in the crater.
As we learned again and again on the safari, this isn't some peaceful Garden of Eden. The usual cycle of life and death is ever at play in Ngorongoro, and there are signs of that everywhere.
Shortly after sunrise, our driver spotted these two ominous shapes moving calmly and confidently through the short grass.
Ngorongoro has a high density of Masai lions despite a sharp decline in the population in the early 2000s due to an outbreak of disease.
These animals are purely awesome, devastatingly powerful, and command respect from almost every creature that encounters them.
This pair was beautifully backlit by the rising sun as well. We were very lucky to capture views of the lions as these pictures show, with their golden hair glowing in an aura around their enormous and powerful shapes.
The prey species nearby all went immediately to high alert when they spotted the killer pair moving so close, and they clearly remained tense and on edge while the lions were within eyesight.
The pair moved right behind us across the road. We were lucky to have that other safari vehicle behind us to allow me a shot like this one.
The pair were clearly not interested in hunting; they were apparently just simply out for an early morning stroll across the crater.
The access road down into the crater is impressive; the crater walls rise up over 600 m (2000 ft) from the caldera floor below. The richness of the crater's habitat is thanks in large part to its inaccessibility and ease of patrolling by rangers. Thanks to the unique geography, poaching is practically nonexistent in Ngorongoro.
Looking down into the crater from the walls above really showcase how it is a world within itself, a full ecosystem largely closed off from the outside world. This view shows some of the woodlands, plains, and Lake Magadi.
Ngorongoro has a rich and diverse range of terrains within it, from plains to forests to lakes, streams, and wetlands.
In this section of forest, we encountered this troop of baboons.
We were also treated to this spectacular light.
Two of the "Big 5" side-by-side in Ngorongoro's woodland.
Ngoitokitok Spring, a large pool and wetlands area near the craters eastern wall.
There is a very healthy population of hippos at the spring. Interestingly, there are no crocodiles in the crater; they are physically incapable of getting up over the rim walls and down into the crater's watering holes.
Sometimes, it really is hard to believe that these are the most dangerous animal in Africa.
That's no boulder in the water there...
There were hippos in some of the other smaller pools around the crater floor too.
Back onto the plains, we found this little jackal along the side of the road.
He was just lounging in the hot sun.
This other jackal was busy fending off an eagle and multiple vultures from something it was scavenging on. He was not having as leisurely a time as the previous one we saw. That eagle is about as big as the jackal... that little guy was feisty and fierce.
This picture and the one below shows the jackal charging in amongst the vultures.
The tough little jackal is in the middle here, attacking the vultures with raised wings toward the right of the group. As soon as the jackal was in amongst them though, most of the birds swooped in without hesitation on the unguarded carcass to steal what they could while they got the chance.
We also saw the serval seen in the background here. These shadow cats are common in the crater but elusive to spot. We got lucky again with this one!
And then there was this guy. That big dark mound in the foreground is an enormous male lion with a very big, dark mane. There are two more cubs on the right of the picture.
After a few minutes, this female got up and started marching off. She was followed closely by those two cubs.
We saw several more lions around the crater, but nothing as close as we got in Serengeti.
And the elephants... one of my favorite animals.
The elephants moved around the crater floor like gods around the landscape. They clearly feared nothing and went wherever they wanted to.
This big male with the broken tusk came over to our vehicle and spent some time near us.
It was incredible to watch the dexterity he displayed with that trunk. I can't imagine he can sustain himself and that behemoth bulk by grazing completely on that short grass though.
Some of the shots here in Ngorongoro must have set the record for the highest number of different species I was able to capture in one frame.
Elephant bones. An adult elephant has no natural predators; they die when their molar teeth are ground down by decades of use, rendering them incapable of chewing the food an elephant needs to survive. At that point in its life, an elderly elephant will leave the heard and wander off to find a place to lay down and die. The bones will end up scattered by scavengers, as an elephant carcass provides a feast for every scavenging species. The most interesting thing about this though is that surviving elephants are known to repeatably return to the bones of their family members... it is as if they are paying their respects and/or remembering the dead in some ritualistic manner.
Ostriches and other birds are also in great abundance in the crater.
Finally... we spotted one, a black rhino! We had spent 5 days in natural lands and these were the first rhinos we saw. In 1970, it is estimated that there were 65,000 black rhinos (like those here) in Africa. Vast herds of them used to roam the savannas. Now, the number of black rhinos is less than 6,000. Their population has literally been decimated. The eradication of this population of mega-fauna is entirely the fault of humanity. There is international demand for rhino horn, which is used for traditional dagger handles in the Arabian Peninsula and Horn of Africa and for "medicines" used in China and other parts of Asia. That demand has combined with a growing number of wealthy elites and middle class in those regions to concoct a potentially deadly recipe for extinction of these incredible animals. Ngorongoro is a special safe place for rhinos, due to its high defendability against poaching. Private game reserves - those same ones that appallingly allow hunters to shoot and kill rhinos - are also last resort havens due to their private security forces and fences and special interest in keeping healthy herds for big game hunters to cull. However, to save the rhino, more education and pressure needs to be put on the sources of the market demand: heirloom daggers in the Middle East and quack medicine in China.
We were pleasantly surprised to find multiple in a group!
Like elephants, rhinos stood out amongst the surrounding hordes of other species.
Rhinos really are like nature's tank; they are tremendously formidable creatures. It would be terrifying to get charged down by one, whether in a safari vehicle or not.
I loved these shots with the golden crested storks...
Two of the "Big 5" in the same shot again.
I loved these shots with the warthogs... the two animals remind me of one another, but the size differential is hilarious. Seeing the two stare each other down like this was really amusing.
Is there hope? Here at least, it seems there is for now. Ngorongoro is truly a magical place. It is rare to find a self-contained ecosystem so entirely cut off from humanity. I hope the people of Tanzania continue to protect it as well as they have so far.