Noah’s ark

In Tanzania: A volcanic upset years ago forms a habitat, Ngorongoro Crater, where wildlife thrives.

Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania.

Ninth-standard geography was all about the Southern Hemisphere, the Great Rift Valley and the Ngorongoro Crater, and just a fortnight ago, I had a chance to recap all that I had imbibed in school.

And, Ngorongoro is incredible.

Driving down the steep blue-green slopes of the crater that changes dramatically every few feet gets you inside a magical world, a world with the highest density of wildlife including the ‘Big Five’ of Africa. This is Ngorongoro, located in northern Tanzania, one of Africa’s star attractions, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, also known as the Garden of Eden or the Cradle of Life. But I call it Noah’s Ark. Burning red was how I had imagined the caldera would be, and not a Noah’s Ark microcosm of East African wildlife, a mini Serengeti. Early July this year, with great excitement, we took a safari to Ngorongoro. We were going there from a massive Serengeti and Maasai Mara after spending six wonderful days filled with animal sightings, but were unlucky to have missed the annual ‘Great Migration of wildebeest and zebras’.

After the cave-in

The strange landscape of Ngorongoro takes us to around three-and-a-half million years ago, when it was a vast, high volcanic mountain. Ngorongoro lies on a major faultline running from southern Mozambique to Syria in the north, which is subject to a good lot of seismic activities. Over the centuries, violent eruptions have blown away its top inwards, in fact, collapsing on itself, and forming the largest unbroken, inactive volcanic caldera in the world. So much so that it has earned its name ‘Ngorongoro’, a big hole. The floor of the caldera is 260 sq km, with a diameter of 18 km, and its heavily forested rim rises to nearly 2,300 metres above sea level.

Our guide-driver stopped at the rim of the crater to obtain the entry permit and it gave us a chance to stretch our legs a bit and have our first look at the crater. It was windy and cold at the rim, but the view was breathtaking, a panorama of bluish-green and yellow. We continued our journey down the steep bumpy road, after ensuring that all of us are adequately strapped to our seats. Gradually, it became warmer and we drove into a mini Serengeti. Serengeti means a vast plain. 

Sounding bells

Over the last few 1,000 years, the population of hunter gatherers around the crater has been gradually replaced by pastoralists, and it is said that ‘ngoro ngoro’ is the sound of the bells of grazing cows on the slopes of the crater.

Over the years, trophy hunters have reduced the wildlife numbers dramatically. Post 1921, various ordinances have helped prevent the killing of lions and other wildlife, and more importantly, conserve the unique ecosystem of the crater, which has almost every species found in East Africa. Approximately 30,000 large animals live in this natural enclosure, including the endangered black rhinoceros, Cape buffalo, wildebeest, zebra, hyena, warthog, lion, hippo... The crater is home to some of the largest tusker elephants in Africa.

We were fortunate to see an entire pride of lions basking in the sun and another bunch of young adults mock-attacking a herd of hippos. Surprisingly, hippos are the most-feared animals on the African continent, and no animal ventures close to a hippo, let alone attack one. Lions are social and lively. We even saw a cub nudging and waking his father, the alpha male, who, for a second, was the aggressive alpha male and the next, a caring Mufasa: a real-life bond between Mufasa and Simba. A full-grown lion walked past our vehicle window, tempting me to pull his mane (never to be done). In fact, Ngorongoro has the highest density of lions in the world, and we saw them all.

Ngorongoro is teeming with zebras. Our guide-driver was well informed and kept the safari lively with tidbits on the animals; the zebra was his favourite topic. My favourite story itself was on the botfly, an obligate parasite that lays its eggs in the nose of the zebra, the environment ideal for its larva to incubate, irritating the zebra and forcing its way out when the poor creature sneezes. Thompson’s gazelles and eland dot the horizon throughout the crater.

Giraffe, impalas, topis are, however, absent because of the lack of woodlands preferred by these animals. The African leopard and cheetah are rarely seen.

Other than these few animals, Ngorongoro much wildlife and we, in the couple of hours of the safari, noted 24 different large species including the endangered black rhino.

It’s also home to troops of baboons seen clambering round the crater. Migratory pink flamingoes are known to cover the September-through-February sky and flamingo-watching is one of the highlights of a Ngorongoro safari. Of course, we were too early for the flamingo sky, but we carried endearing memories of Simba and his pride.

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Noah’s ark

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