Reflections from the Serengeti & Ngorongoro Crater

Tuesday, July 18, 2006 | Ngorongoro, Tanzania

The frequency with which one sees incredible animals like these lionesses makes Serengeti unlike anywhere I have ever traveled.
At a minimum, there is at least one element of Serengeti National Park and the nearby Ngorongoro Crater which no number of IMAX and National Geographic documentaries can convey: the parks are bursting with animal life. Yes, the films show the incredible diversity of the wildlife which used to freely roam this entire region. However, it is only by visiting that one can really sense just how densely concentrated the animals really are, and how rich the environment which supports them is.

I estimated that in two days we would probably be able to see most of the large mammals which inhabit the parks, but not all, and not very frequently. These expectations were based upon the fact that it was the dry season, and on my only previous experience "on safari" in Africa—a day in Uganda's Murchison Falls National Park. However, the richer volcanic soil of the Serengeti and Ngorongoro, coupled with Tanzania's far less turbulent past in comparison to Uganda have allowed
the animals in these parks to flourish.

In our first few minutes in the park, we were surrounded by grazing wildebeest, zebra, impala and Thomson's gazelles. At the first watering hole we visited we saw several Nile crocodiles and hippos. More floated below us later on as we tip-toed across a rickety rope bridge spanning a river. The park also teemed with a wide variety of brightly colored small birds, not to mention several species of eagle and the ever-present vultures, floating patiently high above the plains.

Within an hour we had already seen our first cheetah, whose long, sleek form appeared even more lithe and aerodynamic in the flesh. That day we spotted several lion prides, one of which was in the process of slowly closing in on a pair of young male cheetahs who had invaded their territory, and who would likely be punished for doing so. Waterbuck, topi, hartebeest, and eland (four species of antelope), ostriches, warthogs, lumbering water buffalo, numerous giraffes and other creatures populated the plains as well. A young leopard was spotted in a tree, and babies of the usually elusive rock hyrax clambered all over a visitors' center. The experience was far more fascinating with Dino's tireless explanation of the animals and their behavior.

After a long day of animal watching and an evening of unparalleled star-gazing, we bedded down in our tents and sleeping bags in a campground in the center of the park. Around 3:00 AM, I heard a sleeping bag rustle and the tent zipper jingle. Thinking that my friend Todd, who slept next to the tent door, had gotten up to go to the bathroom, I ignored the rustling and footsteps outside the tent, whispering "It's just Todd" to Charlie before falling back asleep. Apparently I was already out by the time he replied, "Um, no, Todd's still in his sleeping bag." Unlike me, Charlie was awake enough to recognize the sound of a pack of hyenas rummaging around outside our tent in search of scraps. Their wide pawprints were all around the camp the next morning.

* * *

Passing more animals along the way, that morning we headed through the eastern Serengeti toward Ngorongoro, the semi-collapsed caldera of a massive extinct volcano, whose 100 square kilometer floor is a natural sanctuary for a variety of local species. On the way we stopped at Olduvai Gorge, site of the Leakey family's famous digs which revealed some of the earliest hominid skeletons ever found, and several series of footprints of our early ancestors dating back nearly 2 million years.

The crater, cooperatively managed by the Tanzanian National Park Authority and the local Maasai community, was a real-life Noah's Ark full of savannah wildlife. We saw more of nearly every animal we had seen in Serengeti (including wildebeest, zebra and hyenas), in addition to a rare black rhino, massive elephants, and crested cranes. Flamingos also inhabit the two soda lakes in the crater floor.

After the long, nearly vertical drive out of the crater, we headed to a local health clinic. One member of our group believed herself to be coming down with a (second) bout of malaria. We were all pleased to hear that she was malaria-free after sitting in the clinic's waiting room for half an hour, watching nurses wheel bodies by, sheetless, to the morgue next door.

That night we stayed in a hostel atop a mountain which bordered the crater, sleeping soundly in the cold air. We woke to a light pattering of early morning rain, and several of us walked a few minutes down the local dirt road with Dino, winding our way through the misty coffee fields in search of foraging elephants. (None found.) After breakfast, we drove through the alpine rainforest, back around the crater rim and down into the arid plains of the Serengeti en route back to Mwanza.

* * *

What?! No poverty? No HIV? No begging orphans? No prostitution? Not even slum towns? Nope, none at all. Not here. The "wild", "rugged", "authentic" part of Africa—safari—spares most tourists to Africa the truly harsh realities of life in Africa's centers of civilization. And I can't help but ask, If not for the animals, would anyone even come to Africa at all?

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