My sister-in-law by marriage, Rolla, spent two years in Tanzania as a teacher. It was through Rolla, Sam and I were fortunate to be introduced to her friends, Onesmo Gabriel, a Maasai man and Director of East African Voyage, and his wife, Julie.
At six o’clock in the morning we headed off from Arusha on what was planned to be our final nature trip involving animals in Africa, an East African Voyage day tour to the World Heritage listed Ngorongoro Crater. Our car headed west through Maasai country, the roadside villages with their circular stick fences surrounding mud huts and cattle yards. Locals waited at bus stops in their traditional coloured robes; purples and blues as well as reds. After such an intense nature experience in Maasai Mara, I wondered whether we really needed to go on another safari, but apparently the crater itself was something to behold.
The steep rim, at 2,500 metres altitude and 600 metres above the floor of the caldera, was all that remained of a volcanic mountain that had reached higher than Kilimanjaro. It had erupted and collapsed in upon itself three million years ago; a blink of an eye in geological measures.
Fidelis, our guide organised by Onesmo’s company, drove us up through the misty and wild montane forest on the sides of the rim. We descended under the cloud line as we came down into the crater and the view opened up before us in a grand reveal.
The thirty kilometre wide giant cup was half filled with rich volcanic soil; flat and green, a billiard table with trees and animals. The still air inside the crater was aglow from light piercing the cloud cover hovering at the level of the rim, a giant roofed stadium. Lakes shimmered, with vapour rising off them as the waters warmed in the unfolding morning.
Thorn trees and umbrella acacia, their underside adorned with weaverbird nests hanging like ear-rings, gave way on the lower slopes to spiky sisal plants that dominated the crater floor. The usual suspects appeared; herds of wildebeest dotted with families of zebra, Thomson’s gazelle, great gazelle, Coke’s hartebeest, baboons, ostrich, warthog and buffalo. Hyenas trotted menacingly on the periphery of the herds, hippos rose and dipped in the rivulets and lakes, lone bull elephants grazed in the swamp lands. The giant kori bustard strutted in the grass, yellow-billed storks stood guard on the muddy banks and marabou storks and black kites spied from above. We had our first sighting of the magnificent crowned crane, the national bird of Uganda, their outrageous golden Mohawks dipping high and low as they watched for predators while grazing the fields.
As well as home to over a 100,000 animals, a quarter of them large mammals, the crater also contained 50,000 Maasai, who were allowed to continue to graze their cattle and goat herds among the bush fauna. Ngorongoro crater contained an ecosystem in which man had existed in harmony with the environment for millennia.
Actually, man and his relatives had been in this region for millions of years, rather than just millennia. In 1959, paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey made the first of many significant findings of the origins of man in nearby Oldevai Gorge. ‘Nutcracker Man’, (so called because of his large molars) was a skull of a Paranthropus boisi, a hominid species of east Africa roughly 2 to 4 million years ago.
As well as Nutcracker Man, many other specimens and evidence of human existence, including Homo habilis (considered the earliest human) and Homo erectus, have been found by paleoanthropologists in Oldevai Gorge. Humans and their precursors had been here for a very, very long time.
Half way through the drive Fidelis spied some lions under a tree. As we approached they sauntered towards us. Three older lionesses, thin and tired, they were indifferent to our presence. One plonked herself under our car, presumably for the warmth of the engine. Half visible as we carefully spied over the edge of the pop-top roof of the 4-wheel drive, her head rested on her paws near the tyre rim. How high can a lion reach? She didn’t look too menacing. Sam was excited, if a little nervous. After ten minutes our driver scared her off by starting the engine and gently moving the wheels.
I was enjoying the crater which had exceeded my expectations. Sam was too, and told me so. Another phenomenal place in Africa that I had only vaguely heard of prior to coming here.