Thursday, December 31, 2015

Ngorongoro Crater - New Years Eve

The alarm to wake Emy and Eric didn’t go off so we got a slightly later start closer to 7am with Shange.  Getting down to the crater floor early was the best bet to see the most animals before they bedded down or went to shade in the warmer afternoon.  We made sure to pay our bar tab before leaving the lodge (Eric even got tracked down by someone who thought he was dining and dashing!).  After a great breakfast we were on the crater rim road and then headed down into the ancient caldera, with just a quick sign in at the entrance gate.  

It was a steep decent down into the crater with wonderful views going down of the large water body below.  Within 10 minutes of reaching the crater floor we had views of our first rare black rhino walking in the distance.  He was pretty far off but we managed to get some great footage of him/her.   Shortly after seeing the Rhino we came across a large group of safari vehicles looking at a large pack of lions crossing along the beach of the lake.  I counted 16 different lions in the pack!  We watched them for a while and got a kick out of the wildebeest and zebras that were headed in their direction only to stop short and wisely give them space.  

The crater floor was absolutely packed with wildlife.  It was crazy to think that all these animals had descended down into this area to graze, all the while following the wildebeest on their Great Migration.  The only big animals that we didn’t spot in the crater were giraffes and cheetahs… and of course the elusive leopards we never spotted.  We visited the famous hippo pool where saw about a dozen hippos chilling in the water and another grazing on land.  Shange told us that they were the only animals, besides maybe the rhinos too, that never left the crater floor.  They are also considered to be the most dangerous animal in Africa so we kept our distance.

As we were cruising around looking at ostriches, secretary birds and zebras playfully challenging each other a safari vehicle slowed going by us and mentioned to Shange that we had a flat tire!!  Uh oh… He decided to drive a little ways down the road to what looked like a very safe spot to pull over, free of big predators with only a lone ostrich nearby to change the tire.  Eric and I jumped out of the vehicle to give him a hand.  Within about 10 minutes we had the tire changed but when we lowered the truck down it ended up burying a shovel in the road that was pinned under the rear bumper so we had to pull forward a couple feet to free it up.  All three of us thought this was pretty funny.

We spotted some large white/gray objects in the distance that Shange said were more rhinos lying down so we took a drive up a hillside on the side of the crater to try to get a better view.  Unfortunately, they were too far away to get any clear images of them.  But… on the way down Eric spotted a different pack of lions descending from the crater rim towards some cape buffalo and zebra in a nearby stream.  

We were the only vehicle in site and all of us decided it would be best to give the hungry pack of lions some room and pulled up on the opposite side of the stream to give them complete freedom of space for their hunt.  Other vehicles soon spotted us looking at something and drove over to check it out.  At this point the pack had spread out in hunting positions and were clearly preparing to move in for the kill.  This is also the time that some jackass local (not a guide) with some tourists on board drove right by us and right up to the lions, completely blocking them off from their prey and effectively ending their hunt.  

We were livid.  Not for the fact that we missed a hunt, but because Shange said the lions looked very hungry and it would be hours, if not days before they got that opportunity to hunt again.  Once that one vehicle had stopped the hunt all the other vehicles began to swarm the poor lions.  At that point their prey had also moved on and I think they had given up.  We also drove over to see them.  For some reason, perhaps psychic or something, they all congregated in the shade beneath our vehicle!  Even though there were approaching a dozen other vehicles around by this point.  

This was quite the experience.  Leaning over the roof of our open canopy vehicle, 4 feet from the eyes of the fiercest predator in Africa.  It was chilling to see them gazing up at us, eye to eye.  One small jump and they literally could have been on our necks and in our vehicle.  It was their decision to let us keep taking photos of them.  Then, the unfortunate happened… 

There were about 5 lioness alongside our vehicle.  In Tanzania the driver is on the right side and they drive on the opposite side of the road as well (British style).  Because the lions were on the left side of the very tall vehicle Shange didn’t have a good view of them and when he saw a bunch walking away from the truck he started the engine and slowly rolled forward.  Unfortunately, there was one lioness still alongside the vehicle and the tip of her tail was just under the rear tire of the truck.  

When we rolled forward slowly we pinned the tip of her tail and she let out a roar I’ll never forget.  I quickly ushered Shange to reverse which he did and she was free.  I honestly don’t think it was too bad as it was just the tip of her tail but it must have been painful and she gave a quick little step towards the truck after she was free deciding whether or not to attack us for it.  

That was the only moment in the situation that gave my heart a jump.  Eric, Emy and Emily had all ducked back under the roof of the vehicle but I kept my arm out and GoPro running and caught the whole event on tape.   Shange felt truly terrible about it and it clearly was an accident as he thought they were all clear.  I don’t think the lion was injured as it was over grass, not gravel, but her pride had definitely been tarnished!  Frankly, I was pretty surprised she didn’t move away from us when the engine initially started.

Looking back at that whole experience I have some thoughts.  1.  Only registered guides (who know to respect animals and give them their needed space) should be allowed to go into the crater.  2.  There needs to be more restrictions on how many people are allowed in and for how long.  Perhaps they should close the entire crater to tourists at 1pm or open at 1pm, vice versa, to allow predators the freedom to hunt as they need to.  Ngorongoro isn’t like the Serengeti, it is an enclosed caldera and the animals need their space more than they currently have.  

We also spoke to Shange about poaching…. which unbelievably still happens in the crater as gate guards are easily bribed.  He also noted that poaching is nearly 100% fueled by the black, underground Asian Markets that think ivory, turtle eggs, etc are aphrodisiacs and can heal.  Those same markets are responsible for the butchering of whales and clipping of shark fins in our oceans as well.  We’d heard of these markets and know their influence of poaching and animal trade but to hear it told so fiercely and angrily by Shange it really hit home.  

He, and many other Tanzanians we met clearly had a dislike for Asian tourists.  And it just so happened that the private vehicle that stopped the hunt was filled with asian tourists with a local Tanzanian driver.  Perhaps they had urged him to get closer…  Now, I am not racist myself, and I have had many Asian friends but I also can see from Shange’s point of view.  It is a fact that those markets are the root cause of so many endangered species and overfishing of our planet.  It was refreshing to hear after we got home that China, after far too long, finally decided to completely ban the trade of Ivory within it’s borders, with steep fines and imprisonment if caught.  Now they need to also ban the sale of sea turtle eggs, bear feat, shark fins, whale meat, etc etc…

We drove around a bit longer seeing another Rhino, an elephant in the distance and plenty more zebra and wildebeest.  After stopping for a quick bathroom break we headed up the crater rim eating our lunches on the way.  After another harrowing drive down the crater rim road towards Lake Manyara we made it to our final safari accommodations at the amazing Isoitok Camp where we would have a closer look into Maasai Culture before ending our Tanzanian safari.  

Isoitok means “many rocks” which rang true as the camp had hundreds of rocks within its fenced walls, laid out in pathways and artistic designs.  The camp is situated in the Maasai area known as Esilalei on the soft rolling hills of Losimingori,12km away from the beautiful national park of Lake Manyara.  When we arrived in the early afternoon we were greeted by the camp manager who showed us the grounds, the bush tv (fire pit) and our wonderful tents.  

He, and the brochures in our tent, explained how the camp worked hand in hand with the local Maasai communities to both bring fresh drinking water to them on a regular basis as well as build a community center to help educate the children.   Nothing was “pushed” on the Maasai, it was clearly a mutual beneficial relationship and it was wonderful to see.

The camp was run completely on solar power so we needed to ask the staff to charge our camera batteries for us overnight.  They even had a “bush shower” set up in the middle of the camp which was the only place one could take a warm shower without requesting a bucket of boiling water to their tent, similar to Chaka Camp.  Everyone took turns enjoying the bush shower before we were treated to a sunset hill climb with a handsome young man named Andre.  It was New Years Eve and what better way to end the year than climbing a short hill and watching the sun set over Lake Manyara and the Great Rift Valley of Africa, said to be the birthplace of mankind.

Andre was super nice and even carried up some cold beers and cushions for us for the top.  He was half Tanzanian and half Swedish and had the most piercing blue eyes.  Emy was instantly in love.  The camp dog Raz also joined us for the sunset and for some wonderful belly rubs by me of course!  Definitely missing Leo a lot by that point.  Not only was the sunset beautiful but it helped to cool the air temp which had to have been pushing 100 degrees that day in camp… with no fans/ac… 

That night we enjoyed a nice New Years Eve dinner with other travelers.  Some were from Sweden/Scandanavia (Paul and Riccard) and another woman from Norway.  We all shared travel stories and talked about our various countries and possible future travel plans.  Dinner was fantastic.  An amazing sweet corn chowder was followed by chicken, potatoes, string beans and for desert there was chocolate coconut balls and mango with chocolate syrup.  I was exhausted and headed back to the room around 10:30pm with the other three staying up to chat with Paul and Riccard who eventually left to go hang out with the local Maasai.  

Emily came back to the room at 11:45 for bed so I got my New Years kiss as we listened to the tiniest fireworks ever coming from the Maasai community just down the road.  2 years ago on New Years we were at the southern tip of South America… now we were in the heart of Africa… not a bad life :)

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