Monday, 2 November 2009

Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater

It’s 6.30am and we stumble bleary-eyed into two 4x4s waiting to take us to the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater national park where we are to spend the next couple of nights.

As we drive through the gate into the Ngorongoro Crater national park I’m struck by the sudden change in vegetation. Behind us are the arid plains that characterize Tanzania but suddenly we’re faced with lush jungle. A thick canopy of trees towers above us. Lianas hang down, their thin tenticular arms brushing the ground. Interspersed among the thick green foliage are cacti-like trees called candelabras and short stumpy bushes full of purple flowers.

We begin to climb to the rim of the crater, our 4x4 straining at the additional effort required to climb the steep muddy road.. The Ngorongoro Crater was formed over thousands of years of volcanic eruptions. As we reach the rim the foliage thins and we catch our first glimpse of the crater. And what a fantastic sight to see: lush jungle drops down to the crater’s edge where it gives way to a vast flat, grassy plain interspersed with soda lakes and oases. Wildlife is free to enter and leave the crater but many animals choose to stay in the crater all year round due to the favourable environment to be found here.

As we follow the road around the rim of the crater, the vegetation that surrounds us, changes again. The earth becomes drier, the grass is no longer green and soon we’re surrounded by the dusty, grassy savannah that is recognized instantaiously as the southern part of the Serengeti national park. Further north the grassy savannah gives way to acacia savannah (grassy plains dotted with acacia trees) and further north still and the Sernegeti transforms again into thicker bush-like scrub.

Entering the Serengeti we are greeted with almost clear, blue skies that stretch across the vast plains of golden grasses. The light is rich and bright, forcing you to squint behind sunglasses as you scan the horizons for signs of life. An acacia tree sets down the slightest bit of shade; a cheetah lays beneath, just inches from the track we’re following. It stretches out in the shade, desperately trying to stay cool.

We head towards the purple-tinged mountains that rise up boldly from the horizon. Here we watch, straining our eyes, as a leopard drags the mangled carcass of a wart hog higher into the branches of tree in which it resides. Shortly after, we’re met with the stomach churning sight of a lioness and her cub tearing away the meat from the hind flank of a zebra. The zebra was pregnant so the flaccid head of the foal is clearly visible, covered in the entrails torn cleanly from the zebra’s body.

Pastal pinks and blues and yellows appear as the light diminishes and dusk begins to fall across the plains. Rays of light break through the thickening clouds and the mountains take on a darker shade of purple.

We head to the campsite where we set up tents and dine. In the evening, casting our torches across the bush, we see the green eyes of hyenas circling as they wait to raid the area for food scraps. As night falls, we go to sleep to the sounds of the witch-like cackle of hyenas as they prowl about our tents.

6.30am the following morning and we head out for a morning game drive just as the sun raises its head over the horizon. The morning air is crisp and cool so we wrap up warm as we begin our search for wildlife. It’s prime hunting time for cats and Simba, (the guide in the other 4x4) is quick to spot a cheetah concealed among the tall grasses.

It’s on high alert, its head twitching as it searches for a flicker of movement or the scent of a dik dik or other small gazelle. Over the horizon come a herd of hartebeest. These would make a formidable opponent to the cheetah but amongst the herd the cheetah spots a young hartebeest, only a few months old. Oblivious to the cheetah’s presence they’re relaxed, grazing happily. The cheetah bows its head, shoulders hunched it crouches closer to the ground and it begins to stalk the herd. Somehow the hartebeest sense the cheetah’s movement. Suddenly, it’s a stand off and both parties stand taught and still as statues staring each other down. They stay like that for what feels like hours, then, suddenly, the large male hartebeest makes a move for it and the others follow, galloping comicly through the grasses. The cheetah barely moves a muscle. Again, the hartebeest stop to stare in the direction of the cheetah. The cheetah starts to move but the hartebeests know exactly where he is. The cheetah doesn’t stand a chance; five minutes later and the hartebeest have negotiated safe passage behind a cluster of rocks, well out of reach of the cheetah. The cheetah sits, defeated.

An hour or so later and we see the magnificent attempt of a lioness as she stalked and then chased a huge herd of Thompson gazelle as they made their way down to a watering hole to drink. She too failed to make a kill and sat looking crest fallen, panting to get her breath back after the sudden exertion.

On our way back to camp we come across a massive herd of elephants. Twenty to thirty elephants surrounded our vehicle as the grazed. We watch as their trunks masterfully remove tender leaves from within the impentrable clusters of thorns and spikes that adorn the trees and bushes.

The sun is high in the sky and the animals retreat into the few shaded spots they can find. We make our way back to the Ngorongoro crater rim where we camp, surrounded by grazing zebra, wart hogs and hyenas.

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