Ngorongoro Crater: Africa’s Natural Zoo.

He looks no different than your average pet dog at home. But this guy is a lot lazier and loves to wallow like this all day. At night when the lioness hunt and make a kill he simply bullies them all and walks away with the proverbial lion's share. (sanjay austa austa)

Ngorongoro Lion stretches out, Tanzania. 


(The travelogue first appeared in Mumbai Mirror ,  feb 2014)

Standing on the crater’s rim you get a sense  of immense distance. From this height, the crater out below, looks quite small and insignificant. And even when you squint into the binoculars you spot no animals.

There are only   shadows of the cumulus  clouds on the green crater floor making  interesting patchworks, which change if you stare long enough.

We were driving along the crater’s rim on our onwards journey to Serengeti when Musa our driver cum safari guide lets us slip off the Toyota Landcruiser to take in the view of the Ngorongoro crater.

We saw no wildlife  but this stopover fuelled our expectations. The idea of  wild animals  (25000 of them) living in close proximity  in a  natural enclosure was just too surreal.   But Ngorongoro is not just a wildlife attraction in Tanzania. It is also a geological marvel. Two to three million years ago a volcano collapsed on itself forming this deep caldera- one of the biggest in the world.  I wondered if the splendors of the Serengeti would make us  indifferent to Ngorongoro.

The ostrich is hardly on the menu of the predators as it is very fast for most of them. However the cheetah with they are in a group are known to attach and bring down the ostrich. (sanjay austa austa)

The ostriches with the pink flamingos in the soda lake in the background,  Ngorongoro

But they  didn’t.  After a two day Serengeti trip we were eager and expectant at  Ngorongoro.  We had pushed a late- rising  Musa to be the first  at the Ngorongoro check-post for the morning safari.   As he went through the bureaucracy we stood on the rim to view the crater again.  Today it  was an  overcast sky   and I rejoiced that  unlike in Serengeti -where I faced the full brunt of the sun,  I wouldn’t  have to worry about hard shadows in my photos.

A long line of safari jeeps queued up behind us. But when they  signaled us to move, our jeep spluttered,  shook  and spluttered some more. As jeep after jeep of binoculars-and -camera armed tourists whizzed past us,  I wondered if the view from the rim would be  all I’d  take  home.

One of the lessons from my African safari was – choose your safari jeep well.  If the vehicle breaks down, it can put paid to all your plans and joy can quickly turn to irritation.  I was now sharing the rundown Landcruiser   with an aggressive Brazilian man, a shouting  Italian girl , a  cursing  American guy and   one cranky girlfriend.

And we almost never made it to Ngorongoro. They  tried to push -start the jeep on the sloping crater road but to no avail. They shoved us down into the crater alright but the jeep was dead.

The Rhinoceros has a very poor eyesight. It can only make out other mammals from a very close distance. We stood almost two kilometers away but he did not know what to make of us. From that distance the safari vehicle we were in could look like another Rhino to him. (sanjay austa austa)

The rare Black Rhino in  Ngoronogo, Tanzania

As we waited for a replacement vehicle,  I felt hemmed in.  We were stranded near the crater wall, which rose to about 650 meters. Standing here deep below in the caldera with  zebra and wildebeests herds  just a gallop away, we got the real sense of being in the African bush.

From here , unlike at the rim, the crater seemed like a vast endless plain,  much like Serengeti itself. But it’s actually only between 16- 19 kilometers across– with a total area of 264 square kilometers. The crater walls are steep but the ungulates- the wildebeests, the zebras and the buffalo migrate into and from the crater annually.   Many wildebeests,  zebras and elephant  herds make their way out of the crater in the wet season even as the cape buffalos make their way in. The giraffes however are conspicuous by their absence. The steep walls of the crater are too much of an obstacle for them. Besides the crater does not have their favorite acacia trees whose leaves they feed on.

The crater lions, have unfortunately  remained cooped up in the caldera for generations, leading to inbreeding.   There are many reason for this. The main reason is of course man.  The crater’s rim is littered with human habitation. This includes both the burgeoning tourist lodges and the Maasai dwellings.  The crater lions also chase away any marauding lions that might  slip in. With no new blood the lions have poor immunity and become easily susceptible to diseases-including the deadly canine distemper. Their population now stands at less than 65.

Zebras love to cuddle against each other. I saw loads of zebras standing and nuzzling each other like this (sanjay austa austa)



But when our replacement jeep finally arrived and we were taken on a whistle stop tour of the crater, we were lucky to chance upon three lions in quick succession. One lay sleeping near a safari track, occasionally turning on his back with the cuteness of a pet dog.  We came across two other male lions  in the woodlands near their zebra kill. They had had their fill and were now resting.

We were too immersed with the lions that it took us a while  to notice that the zebra had been pregnant. It had been disemboweled and the tiny dead zebra foal lay by its mother. The other prized sighting here is of the black rhino. Their population is down to a mere 26 . We saw one at a distance and as we closed in on him, he  became skittish.Rhinos have a  very poor eye-sight and Musa told us the rhino had possibly mistaken our jeep for another rhino.

It was our cue to move on.  And  we drive  past Magadi – the soda lake (dotted pink with flamingoes) and past zebra , wildebeest and buffalo heads and climb the escarpment back to the crater’s rim with our perspective completely altered of this  great Natural Zoo.

The elephants i saw in the Ngorongoro crater were either solitary or were in pairs. I did not come across a herd here. Perhaps the crater cannot sustain a big elephant herd. (sanjay austa austa)

 The male elephants live away from the herds, Ngorongoro


The Ngorongoro lions are in serious trouble. They have been isolated in the crater from other lions since millennia leading to inbreeding and all the diseases it brings about. (sanjay austa austa)

The Ngorongoro Lion



A heard of wild buffalo rest but there is always one buffalo standing guard. The buffalo take turns guarding. (sanjay austa austa)

A heard of wild buffalo resting with one of them standing guard, Ngorongoro, Tanzania. 


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