“HOLD ONTO YOUR HAT” someone yelled, as our 4WD took us down-down-down the steep, winding track. I’d been looking forward to this for ages, and kept thinking: “Pinch me – I’m dreaming!” But here we were, in the largest zoo on earth: the Ngorongoro Crater. And awaiting us was a wildlife population so used to humans that you could almost “reach out and touch …”
Ngorongoro – a huge, intact volcanic caldera – encases one of the most picturesque settings I’d seen on our African safari. We had spent the night high up on the rim that surrounds the crater. And now, as the mist cleared, we found ourselves on the crater floor, surrounded by forests and swamps, grasslands and salt-pans.
On our bumpy route down, we’d been stopped by a large bull elephant – just standing in the middle of the track, sucking dust up his trunk and blowing it all over himself. Then someone spotted a lonely black-maned lion who appeared to have an urgent appointment somewhere.
Over the next few hours they just kept coming: gazelles … hyenas … warthogs … buffalos … baboons … ever-present zebras and wildebeests …
And you should have seen the birds: a crowned crane, looking like she’d just stepped out of a hair-salon … a stunning malachite kingfisher, only centimetres long … a pair of bee-eaters, stretching colourfully in the morning sun …
Then suddenly, ahead of us, a rhino, grazing head-down in the grass!
With his battering-ram body, armour-plate skin, tiny swivelling ears, and twin horns, he looked utterly prehistoric. And when he glared at us with his beady little eyes, he looked quite threatening.
But the threat, sadly, goes the other way …
Rhinos once roamed Africa in large numbers, but trophy-hunters and poachers almost wiped them out. Powdered rhino-horn is prized as an aphrodisiac – despite the fact that rhino horn, made of hair and keratin, is about as useful a sex-aid as chewing your fingernails.
For all that, these endangered monsters can charge you at 50 kph, poke large holes in you, and stomp you into a watery pulp. And while their eyesight may be lousy, they can hear you loud-and-clear!
Which is why we kept our distance …
Later, in some far-flung swampy corner, our driver parked the 4WD on a hilly look-out. We stood on the edge and looked down, speechless – and breathless!
In the river below us were hundreds of hippos. Except it wasn’t a river. Okay, it used to be – but in the absence of rain it had stopped flowing, and become a soupy, stinky hippo-toilet!
And the hippos obviously LOVED IT!
They were pushing and shoving, roaring and grunting – the noise was unreal. And the toxic pong … well, use your imagination.
There were fat poppa-hippos fighting for space – bellowing loudly and slashing at each other with massive wide-open jaws.
There were fat mamma-hippos doing sideways-rolls in the soup – churning up the river-weeds and baring their blushing-pink bellies.
There were fat baby-hippos floating happily in all this gunge – little ears twitching and little red-rimmed eyes peering out just above the surface.
And, everywhere we looked, there were hippos POOPING like only hippos can – twirling their stumpy tails like propellers and spraying hippo-poop all over their lucky neighbours!
According to African legend, hippos were thrown together from leftover parts. And the poor hippo – embarrassed by its bloated body – asked the Creator if it could hide in the water by day and come out only at night.
I can’t vouch for that legend, but I do know that hippos are the bad guys of African wildlife: they kill more people than all the lions, buffalos and crocodiles put together!
Which may explain why there’s not a big demand for hippos as pets …
“All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small …” That’s Africa for you! And as the sun went down over Ngorongoro Crater, we watched a family of elephants ambling off for a rest amongst the distant trees …