At 02:00 I wake in a mad panic with a feeling of being unable to breathe. My head is spinning, the floor is moving like ocean waves and my heart is beating so fast it feels like I have just run a marathon (not that I am ever likely to know what that feels like).
I walk to the bathroom, having to hold on to the furniture along the way so as not to stumble, and by the time I return to bed I feel exhausted. As soon as I lie back down again, I start coughing. Thanks David for giving me your cold. Having spent the first three months of the year being very ill / hospitalised with pneumonia, and having to cancel a holiday in February, I was so looking forward to this trip. I really don't want to be sick!
A large group of tourists are leaving the lodge at the same time as us this morning (06:00), but Malisa has conveniently placed himself in the car park rather than just outside the door, so we get away before they do, which means we enter the Crater as the very fist vehicle this morning.
Ngorongoro crater as seen from the rim
Like an African safari in miniature, the Ngorongoro Crater is an iconic soup bowl filled with animals and wrapped in superlatives. As the largest un-filled, un-broken caldera in the world, the crater boasts a number of 'records', including the densest animal population in Africa. No wonder it is dubbed as the 8th Wonder of the World. Created some three million years ago when a large volcano exploded, the caldera is ca 20 km across and 610 metres deep; and contains all the 'Big Five' as well as a number of other plains game. Only the giraffe is absent, as the caldera walls are too steep for them to climb.
Also absent these days is the Maasai cattle, having recently been banned from the caldera. When we first started coming to Tanzania some ten years ago, the cattle were only permitted on the caldera walls, but over the years they have been spreading themselves further and further down, and last year we were quite surprised to see them on the crater floor itself. No more. They are not permitted into the caldera at all now.
Instead of Maasai cattle, we see a number of Cape Buffalo on the crater walls this morning. Considered one of the Big Five, this is an aggressive and dangerous animal, responsible for a number of human deaths each year.
We spot our very first lions about half way down the descent road, and we follow the two females all the way to the bottom, where they move off the road in their continued quest for breakfast.
In the distance we – and the lionesses – have spotted a warthog. He too is very aware of the predators approaching.
What to do now? The clever hog finds himself a hole in the ground and goes into hiding by 'reversing' into the crevice.
We hold our breaths as the lionesses arrive in the area the warthog is lurking, looking in a few of the small ravines for the breakfast they know is hiding somewhere close by.
Unfortunately for the lionesses, but fortunately for the warthog, they never do discover his hiding place. Well played Mr Hogg, well played!
We follow the lionesses for a little while longer, hoping they might lead us to their babies.
No such luck, and we join the baboons in looking at the lions disappear into the forest.
When Malisa spots a lone lioness in the distance, we stay a while watching to see if the gazelles spot her before she spots them as potential breakfast.
Again nothing happens, another lion foregoes breakfast and we - and the gazelles - move on the pastures new.
Endemic to the open grasslands in sub-Saharan Africa, the Secretary Bird stands around four feet tall and is so named because of the quill-like crest on the backs of its heads that resemble 18th century clerks with pens tucked into their wigs.
Unlike most birds of prey, the Secretary Bird doesn't swoop down to catch its prey, rather he hunts on foot, jumping up and down to flush out his intended breakfast (snakes and lizards mainly) and then kills them with a force five times his own weight.
When we met up with Tillya yesterday, her told me I have to take some award-winning photos on this trip; and I asked him if there was anything in particular he had in mind. “Zebras fighting” was his reply.
Fortunately, these two very cooperative zebras do seem to have received the memo and put on an obliging display for me.
More zebras down by Lake Magadi.
As well as wildebeest and a hyena.
And a very cute baby Thomson's Gazelle.
The lake is also home to a number of Lesser Flamingos.
To say the weather is changeable today is an understatement; the lifting roof has come down and gone up more times than a hooker's undergarments this morning already. Each rain shower lasts only a few minutes and is not heavy, but the wind makes sure that everything inside the car gets soaked.
It does make for some dramatic skies though.
As Africa's heaviest flying birds, the Kori Bustard can weigh up to 19kg and stands at around 120cm tall. During courtship displays, the male inflates his neck and dances for the female, although this guy is obviously a little confused, as we cannot see any females around. Perhaps he is just practising.
On all our previous visits to Ngorongoro, we have only ever seen the rhino from a great distance, so when Malisa asked me about my wish list this year, seeing a rhino up close was mentioned.
And there he is!
Black rhino are on the Critically Endangered conservation status list, so I feel quite honoured to see one of the 30 or so rhinos that inhabit the caldera.
We see eight lions in the distance, mainly sleeping.
This old male of around 55-60 years old (it is mostly males who live in the crater) likes to stay close to the swamp as he has lost his last molars so favours the soft grass found here. Look at those impressive tusks though! I think they are the longest tusks I have ever seen!
Mum is accompanied by her baby, who is around 3½-4 months old.
May is considered part of the 'Green Season' (otherwise known as the 'Rainy Season', but obviously tour operators feel that 'Green' sounds better than 'Rainy'), and as such the prices are lower and there are fewer people around.
We love it. Not only do we often have the animal sightings completely to ourselves, we also enjoy all the flowers and lush vegetation around at this time of year.
This area beside a spring of the same name is popular with tourists, and we too stop here for breakfast.
It's times like these that I am glad we are travelling on a private safari.
We have company, eyeing up the leftover breakfast.
Rufous Tailed Weaver
Meaning “water coming from the ground”, the spring is favoured by hippos as well as tourists.
Warthogs have to be some of the ugliest animals around, but look at those legs: they look like an elegant lady's with stiletto heels!
The male puts on an impressive display for his intended female, with some elegant dance moves.
I love the way it looks as if these baboons are picking up the flowers to take in the wonderful aroma.
And everyone should have an elephant or two in their flower bed!
This one is even wearing flowers in his hair!
We encounter a large breeding herd of Cape Buffalo.
I do find their menacing stare somewhat intimidating.
Although some do look more like country yokels than inner city thugs.
But the babies are cute. As most babies are. This one is very young, just one or two days old.
Look at the flies!
The buffalo are joined by an elephant.
My camera seems to be malfunctioning at this stage, refusing to focus or fire and the viewfinder becoming very dark. I feel a growing sense of panic until I remove the battery grip and find it works fine again. Phew.
Wherever the buffalo go, the Yellow Billed Oxpeckers follow.
The birds enjoy a symbiotic relationship with the buffalo (as well as other animals here); where the animal provides a 'home' for the birds, while the oxpeckers assist the buffalo by removing the ticks and flies.
And in the trees, the Barn Swallows gather.
So called because they like to live in close proximity to each other, these small birds have filled this tree to beyond recognition with their elaborate nests!
This enormous bird stands around 1.5m (5 ft) tall and can weigh up to 19kg (42 lbs).
The pool doesn't just attract hippos, we also see a few birds here:
African Spoonbills hiding those beautiful beaks of theirs
This is one seriously big antelope, standing at around 180cm (6 feet) tall at the shoulders. It is also one of the most skittish of the plains game; mainly as a result of being extensively hunted for their delicious meat.
As a result they are therefore usually seen running away as soon as we approach, so it makes a very pleasant change to be able to photograph them actually standing still.
The older they get, the greyer they become (just like humans) and the larger the dewlap grows. This guy is a seriously old dude by the looks of it. Notice how all the youngsters stare at us while the old man carries on eating, totally oblivious.
We become a little concerned when we see a baby zebra lying in the middle of the road with no apparent urge to move as we get closer.
Mum soon arrives on the scene to 'rescue' her little darling...
... who promptly throws a tantrum. "I don't wanna move!"
But mum's having none of it and marches him out of harm's way.
Less than a week old, he is just too adorable!
In these pictures you can easily see the facial warts that have given this animal its name.
As we say goodbye to Ngorongoro Crater, I can easily appreciate why it is often dubbed the 8th Wonder of the World.
Once back up on the rim, I can yet again feel the effect of the altitude on my chest. I did have some temporary relief down in the crater, which is over 600m lower than the surrounding area.
Coughing madly and struggling to breathe, I curse David for bringing a cold with him on this trip.
We take one last look at the crater below before we make our way to our next destination and new adventures.
This amazing experience was made a reality by the wonderful staff at Calabash African Adventures.