“Hold onto your hat!” someone yelled, as our open-top Land Cruiser bounced down a dusty, zig-zaggy road to the crater floor 600 metres below. I’d been looking forward to this moment for ages, and I kept thinking: “Pinch me – I’m dreaming!”
Here we were, in the largest zoo on earth: Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater. And awaiting us in the early-morning mist was an animal population so used to humans that you can almost “reach out and touch …”
This remarkable place has been dubbed the Eighth Wonder of the World – the largest intact volcanic caldera on the planet. A zillion years ago a monster-mountain (higher than Kilimanjaro) exploded and collapsed in on itself. And the 26,000ha now encompassed by the sunken crater is one of the most picturesque settings I’d seen on our African safari.
We’d spent the night high up on the encircling ridge. And now, as the mist cleared, we found ourselves down on the crater-floor, surrounded by forests and swamps, vast grasslands and dry salt-pans, plus a mind-boggling variety of animal and bird life!
Our Mad Midlife Safari had begun in Kenya 10 days earlier, as we crossed the Equator on our way down into the Great Rift Valley. And day after day, game-drive after game-drive, we never knew where to point our cameras next: irritable cape buffalos, itching for a fight … powerful hyenas, skulking in the long grass … fat warthogs, tails up like antennae … screeching baboons, their babies hitching a ride … gentle-eyed giraffes, moving through trees like construction cranes … graceful gazelles, primed to run like the wind … handsome vervet monkeys, with their neon-blue testicles … and ever-present zebras and wildebeests … they just kept coming!
In no time at all we had ticked off the three Big Cats:
- A mamma cheetah perched atop an anthill, staring down a tasty antelope-lunch while her three cute cubs played hide-&-seek around the wheels of our 4WD.
- A beautiful male leopard, straddling a stout branch high in a big tree, its legs and tail hanging down, its eyes closing lazily in sleep.
- And, as for lions, the sightings came thick and fast – (i) a magnificent couple, resting in the shade after a night of energetic mating, the golden-maned male not bothered in the slightest by our close proximity, his lioness wandering over for an affectionate head-rub … (ii) four very young cubs, emerging from bushes where they’d been hidden, to play on the carcass of a freshly-killed wildebeest, while their mums watched on, yawning hugely … (iii) an 18-strong pride sharing a final gnaw on a zebra’s ribcage before sauntering off in search of a drink.
And the birds! You’ve gotta see East Africa’s birds: fluffed-up ostriches all in a flap … pink flamingos, their heads in the soup … saddle-billed storks sporting stripy red-and-yellow … ground hornbills with their scarlet, turkey-like necks … ugly marabou storks with pink airbags under their chins … oversized hornbills honking from the highest canopy … and crowned cranes, looking like they’d stepped out of a hair-salon.
Two amazing bird-sightings I’ll never forget: (i) pelicans, millions of them, bathing and breeding, flapping and feeding in the shallow, alkaline waters of Lake Manyara … and (ii) the tiny, beautifully-coloured malachite kingfisher, barely 10cm long, that I spotted clinging to a reed with a just-caught fish in its mouth.
Back up the track in Ngorongoro, we’d seen red-robed Masai herdsmen and their cattle on the move. Down on the flat, we dodged an armour-plated rhino, grazing head-down in the grass – and a lonely black-maned lion who appeared to have an urgent appointment somewhere off in the distance.
We were stopped at one point by a young bull elephant who was in no hurry – he just stood in the middle of the road, sucking dust up his trunk and blowing it all over himself.
East Africa is home to some of the few large elephant populations that haven’t been ravaged by poachers. And, throughout our safari, we enjoyed the spectacle of jumbo-sized families on the move: big mommas, their playful youngsters, and the occasional oversized bull – plodding patiently across the dusty plains, and feasting greedily on tasty salads while standing up to their haunches in muddy swamps.
On our last morning in Kenya we visited an elephant orphanage – home, at the time, for 26 bumbling, tumbling, cute-as baby elephants from all over the continent. Many of them were orphans, their parents killed by poachers wanting their tusks; others were found lost and hungry, separated from their parents by the inevitable man-versus-wildlife clashes that occur; still others were found down waterholes or caught in traps.
Here, in this sanctuary, they’re fed and cared for, allowed to play roly-poly with their friends in the red dust and mud-holes, then returned to the bush at the age of three and adopted into suitable wild herds.
Hard to think of a nicer, more lingering memory to take with us …