Breakfast at Maramboi is interrupted this morning by a family of warthogs coming through...
... a couple of birds visiting the dining area...
...and the sunrise.
This morning we get to pick the contents of our own lunch boxes – another thing we like about Maramboi.
There is quite a selection to choose from – something for everyone.
Including for Chris, who struggles with the weight of his over-full box!
Why have a healthy lunch when you can have cake?
We are off to pastures new this morning – another park, another lodge, another eventful day filled with exciting animal encounters.
In order to try and contain the elephants within Tarangire National Park, bee hives have been hung from the trees along the park boundaries – it has been found that those big, brave, huge animals are afraid of a tiny little bee! And I thought it was just mice that freaked elephants out, and then only in cartoons. Apparently not.
The old traditional style
And the more modern type
At Minjungu Village, Maasai women are busy setting up the weekly market.
Today we are heading for Ngorongoro.
We may not be in one of the national parks right now, but that doesn’t stop us seeing a plethora of wild animals along the way.
Ostrich, Zebra and Wildebeest
Chris spots some animals in the distance and excitedly exclaims: “zebra!” They turn out to be donkeys, but shall be forever known as ‘Chris’ Zebra’.
Maybe Chris has discovered a new species? A zonkey known as Debra?
Donkeys have extremely strong bones and in an impact with a car they can easily get up and walk away even if the car is a total wreck.
Maasai Manyatta (village)
In the far distance we can see a huge Maasai Manyatta (terrible photo, sorry), belonging to the local village chief and his 27 wives! With over 100 children between them, he has even built his own school; which, with the help of the government, has since expanded to allow other local children to attend. One of the richest men in the area, he built his empire to become the biggest supplier of milk in the region . (And he's been milking it ever since)
So it is true what they say about the milkman then!
I can’t remember seeing so many tuk tuks on our previous visits. These three wheeled auto rickshaw taxis are known as bajaji here in Tanzania. They are cheap and readily available, but probably not a good idea for a safari.
Mto Wa Mbu
The small town of Mto Wa Mbu is just beginning to come to life as we pass through this morning on our way to the highlands.
The town owes its fast increasing population to Medicine Men in Loliondo near Lake Natron, some 250 kilometres away. Offering to cure all incurable diseases, the witch doctors are extremely popular with believers who overnight here in Mto Wa Mbu before being taken to meet the doctors. The medicine dispensed is very reasonably priced at 500 shillings (ca. 22cents in US$) – the transport required to take you there, however, will set you back US$100. Sounds like a dreadful, but apparently successful, scam to me!
Hanging out of the window with my camera in hand, I practise my usual drive-by-shooting.
Meaning Mosquito River, Mto Wa Mbu is one of the few places around where you can find all Tanzania’s 120 ethnic tribes represented; mainly because of the lure of the tourist dollar and also the aforementioned racket involving greedy quacks.
Mto Wa Mbu is where you find the entrance to Lake Manyara National Park, so there are plenty of tourist stalls around. Also, all road traffic to Ngorongoro and Serengeti come through here.
Malisa stops the car and buys some little red bananas for us to try. They are sweeter than the normal yellow type, and Malisa explains how they will only grow successfully in volcanic soil – plant them anywhere else and the fruit turns green rather than red.
This area is a major breeding site for storks (Marabou, Yellow Billed and African Open Billed) as well as Pelicans.
Yellow Billed and Maribou Storks
Yellow Billed Storks
Yellow Billed Stork and Pink Backed Pelican
Pink Backed Pelican
Yellow Billed Stork
It also seems to be a favourite place for Olive Baboons to hang out – maybe they are after berries dropped by the birds, or it could be that tourists stopping to photograph the birds feed the baboons too…
As we start to climb onto the Ngorongoro Highlands, we can feel the temperature dropping. We are doing some serious climbing today – thankfully by car – from an altitude of 4,150 feet above sea level at Maramboi, to around 7,200 on the crater rim. That’s a difference of a whopping 3,000 feet!
Putting it into perspective, the peak of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in UK, sits at 4,416 feet.
We stop part way up to look at the view over Lake Manyara, from the shores of which we watched the sun rise this morning.
As with all places where tourists routinely stop, a number of salesmen hang around. We negotiate a good deal on some fun little necklaces with carved animals, and we all wear one, including David and Chris.
While sandals made from old tyres are quite a common sight all over sub-Saharan Africa, Malisa has a very much more upmarket version!
Especially commissioned and made from brand new motorcycle tyres, they are totally unique and even have a cool antenna at the front! I love them, I can’t imagine, however, going in to a Clark’s shop in Bristol and asking for a “size 180/55ZR-17 with a six inch pole and four beds please”.
That's the best grip I have ever seen on any sandal!
As we climb higher, large fields of sunflowers brighten up the scenery.
So far on this trip we have been extremely lucky with the weather – especially as we are here in the Green Season – but those clouds looming over the hills do not look very promising.
There’s a different look and feel to this town up here in the highlands than the atmosphere of Mto Wa Mbu in the lowlands.
And they have motorcycle taxis – known as pikipiki – instead of tuk tuks.
As the portal to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area as well as the Serengeti further along, each year more than 1.5 million people pass through this gate!
It is not just safari tourists who enter – goods and passengers come this way too as this is the main B144 highway travelling north-west from Arusha.
While Malisa completes the registration and pays the fee, we have time to inspect the small information centre with a cool 3D map depicting the dramatic ecology, ethnography and topography of the region.
There is also an even smaller shop.
At least the toilets here have improved drastically since our first visit in 2007, although that wouldn’t take much!
Malisa has our permit and we are ready to move on to the next part of our adventure.
Immediately after passing through the gate, the road goes from being a super highway (OK, that may be a slight exaggeration... but at least it is sealed and relatively smooth) to a simple dirt track. This is one of the things I like about Tanzania compared with places such as South Africa – you do feel that you are visiting a real African wilderness rather than a commercial safari park.
Over a distance of around six kilometres, we negotiate a number of switchbacks as we climb ever upwards. Here the vegetation is more like a tropical rainforest, and I am very surprised – disappointed even – that the usual heavy mist is absent from the densely forested slope of the outer crater wall today.
In the photo above, you can see the road we just came up at the back on the left
We even get some quick glimpses of the ‘lowlands’ below us.
Just as the road levels out, the mist finally appears.
Then the dense vegetation surrounding the road abruptly opens up into a clearing and we are greeted by the most breathtaking panoramic view from the crater rim, a vista beyond all imagination.
Chris’ reaction as he looks out from the viewpoint brings me to tears.
Throughout our trip so far, we have all being uttering exclamations of delight with “wow” being one of our favourite expressions.
Chris on the other hand, has been more level headed. “I am not a ‘wow’ kind of person” he has been saying, “I was prepared to be amazed, and I have been”. For him, therefore, to be calling out “wow” at this point is really stupendous.
I know how he feels, however. That first glimpse of the crater floor spread out below never fails to excite me as I gaze in awe at the small dark specks, trying to make out individual animals below through binoculars.
This is our first visit in the Green Season, and I am almost overwhelmed by how verdant the crater floor looks. It looks totally different to the dry season, like a completely different park! I love it!
As we continue on our way around the rim in a clockwise direction, the mist descends on us.
The Tomb of Michael Grzimek
HE GAVE ALL HE POSSESSED
INCLUDING HIS LIFE
FOR THE WILD ANIMALS OF AFRICA
The German film maker and passionate conservationist Michael Grzimek is best known for the film 'Serengeti Shall not Die', and his tireless work (and infinite generosity) on the survey of the annual migration in East Africa which resulted in the mapping and extending of the Serengeti National Park.
After his plane crashed following a collision with a vulture in 1957, he was buried here at the rim of Ngorongoro Crater. Later this memorial was erected in his honour.
I am totally blown away by the colours of the Ngorongoro Highlands in the Green Season. I didn’t notice the difference to the same extent down in Tarangire and surroundings, but up here the scenery is nothing short of breathtaking, with entire hillsides of the Malanja Depression covered in yellow flowers.
Zebra and Wildebeest
In fact the surroundings look so different this time of year I am beginning to think that I have never been here before. David agrees. Malisa assures us that we must have come this way last time (and the time before), as there is a one-way system in and out the crater, and the only descent route is further down this road. That makes sense, so I guess the greenery makes all the difference.
Maasai herders taking their livestock to softer grass
Despite its best efforts to hide in the tall grass, Malisa spots a Red Duiker – a small, shy antelope. Malisa never ceases to amaze me how he can pick these smallest of animals out while still concentrating on driving. And an excellent driver he is too!
Patience rewards us with a better view as the antelope forgets we are there and starts to move around, feeding.
I am particularly excited about being able to photograph this guy, as I have only even seen one very briefly once before, and that one was far too quick for me to be able to capture him on film.
He eventually decides he’s had enough and makes a run for it.
Unlike Tarangire – and the more famous Serengeti – Ngorongoro is a conservation area rather than a national park. What this means in reality (amongst other things) is that the Maasai are permitted to live and herd their cattle within the area.
Seneto Boma, a temporary Maasai settlement
Maasai cattle co-exist happily with wild zebra
The further we drive along the road which skims the rim of the crater, the more convinced David and I are that we have not come this way before. And the more insistent Malisa is that we MUST have done, as there is no other route. Because my memory is usually extremely good (as the tree in Tarangire proved), it bothers me. Greatly.
It plays on my mind and I keep trying to recall our journey from 20 months ago. I fail miserably, vowing to check blog from that trip when we get to the hotel – and Internet access – tonight to see if that helps to throw any light on this.
When we reach Seneto Entrance, I have to concede that I have a vague recollection of having been here before, but it seems a lot longer ago than two years. I am beginning to get seriously worried about my mental recall here.
The entrance area is full of flowers and plants.
African Pied Wagtail
Northern Anteater Chat
The Maasai are allowed to herd their cattle inside the crater, but they have to be out by nightfall. They don’t use the same access roads as tourists – here you can see their path leading in and out.
And this is our road.
Seneto Descent Road offers a different view over the crater – I love the way whole areas are shrouded in purple flowers!
The scene is quite surreal, like an impressionist painting.
By the time we get to the bottom of the road, I am still feeling perplexed as I look – unsuccessfully – for any familiar signs within the surroundings. Nothing. Total blank.
Never mind, I will just enjoy the crater floor and check on my photos / blog tonight.
Descending the 2000 feet high walls of this natural amphitheatre is like entering another world. We drove through a rainforest earlier, now we appear to be in the desert. It may only be just over ten miles across, but the flat-bottomed floor of the sunken caldera contains a wide range of eco-systems featuring the whole world of East African safari in miniature.
I really can’t remember seeing Maasai cattle mingle with wild animals on our previous visits to the crater. I drive everyone else mad with my constant doubts: “are you sure there is no other way down?”
Zebra with Maasai cattle in the background
“Is he dead?” We worry about a lifeless zebra on the grounds with two of his mates looking on.
You'll be pleased to know he is only taking it easy in the heat of the day.
Baby zebra are a delightful chocolate brown when they are young, gradually turning to black as they grow up.
Thomson's Gazelle is the second fastest land animal in Tanzania after the cheetah; which is why you only tend to find them on the menu for the cheetahs: they are too fast for any of the other predators.
Grey Crowned Crane
These are the first ungulates we’ve seen in any numbers, as they are not present in Tarangire at this time of year. During the dry season large herds of zebra, wildebeest and gazelles can been seen in all three parks, so this is a new experience for us.
Fischer's Sparrow Lark
There’s nothing like a dust bath on a dry and dusty day…
Wildebeest with Wattled Starling on its back
From the crater floor we can see the hotel we are staying in tonight, the Ngorongoro Serena, perched high on the rim overlooking the caldera.
A couple of spotted hyenas (with dirty bottoms) stroll by and appear to upset a lone elephant who disappears back into the woods with a loud trump.
Ngorongoro has much to boast about: it is a UNESCO Heritage Site; the world’s largest inactive, intact and unfilled volcanic caldera, it has the densest population of large carnivores and herbivores anywhere in the world (as in density, not lack of intelligence!), and it is arguably the most impressive geological feature in Africa – no wonder it is commonly referred to as the 8th wonder of the world. The crater delivers some of the best game viewing Africa has to offer, the Africa of wildlife documentaries.
An African White Backed Vulture flies overhead – I love watching the daily life in the Ngorongoro Crater.
When Malisa claims that the hyena is his favourite animal, I am not sure whether he is joking or not as I personally find the hyena quite sinister looking without any real redeeming features.
A very unhappy wildebeest alerts us to the presence of a male lion, mostly hidden in the grass.
Not that the lion appears to take any interest in the wildebeest, but I guess if you are considered a menu item you can’t be too careful.
Its name being Maasai for the tall, yellow barked acacia trees that grow here, Lerai was once a thick forest, but over the years elephant destruction has reduced this area to a mere woodland glade.
And, as if on cue, here are the elephants.
The big male is in musth and ready to mate. Apparently they pee down their own leg at this time – I will be eternally grateful humans don’t do the same!
This guy lost one of his tusks when trying to bring down a tree. I would say “serves him right”, but I guess it is what elephants do. When asked if park rangers ever replace the trees decimated by elephants, Malisa replies: “No. They just let nature take its course”
In order to exit Lerai Forest, we have to ford the Lairatati River. It looks like they’ve had some serious rain here!
Driving through the forest triggers a thought process in my brain, and I suddenly remember that last time we came, we descended into the crater through a host of flat-topped acacia trees. I mention this to Malisa, and he somewhat sheepishly admits: "yes, there is another road into the crater, right over the other side, and there were a few months in 2014 when Seneto descent Road was closed for resurfacing"
Eureka! I am not cracking up! We really didn't come down the same way last time. I breathe a huge sigh of relief.
It also follows that we used that other road the previous time too, as we were staying in the lodge you can see just to the right of the red arrow.
The mystery is solved and I can sleep soundly tonight!
We have company for our picnic.
Rufous Tailed Weaver
Ngorongoro Crater has to be one of the most iconic safari locations in Africa, and this incredible caldera is a haven for around 20,000 of Africa’s most cherished animals, virtually the whole range of East African wildlife including all three big cats but no giraffe (the trails along the crater walls are too steep for them to negotiate). We continue our journey in a quest to watch the dramatic unfolding of wilderness action. Malisa is on a mission to find a Rasta Lion.
Black Faced Vervet Monkeys
A barrel of monkeys (I have been checking out the various collective names of animals) hang around in the trees. This particular youngster is enjoying an afternoon nap.
I’ve never seen one sit like this before.
A deafening cacophony emanating from a tree draws our attention to a great number of wattled starlings.
Dozens of tiny hungry mouths beg to be fed. Every time one of the parent birds arrives in the tree, all the babies clamour for attention, not just the offspring of that particular adult. What a racket! No wonder the collective word for a group of starlings is chattering!
And when mum – and the food – flies past to feed their offspring, the other babies sulk.
Until the next mother arrives with food for another baby in a different nest.
It’s all too much for one little baby, who promptly falls asleep.
He wakes up just as mum arrives…. to feed his brother!
Once again he is left hungry as mum goes off in search of more grubs.
This one’s not for him either.
Much as we’d like to stay on to make sure ‘our’ little baby gets fed, we have places to go and animals to see.
Sacred Ibis at Gorigor Swamp
While we’re busy looking at the ibises, Malisa spots a mother and baby rhino way out there on the horizon. The rest of us struggle to locate them, even with binoculars. Eventually, after a lot of directions, we do pick them out through the heat and dust haze that always hangs heavily in Ngorongoro Crater.
Including this suckling baby.
Zebra - or horse in pyjamas as Lyn calls them. Or maybe we should call them 'Chris' Donkeys'?
Always on the lookout for predators, the zebra can smell danger.
The threat appears in the form of a spotted hyena.
Two more rhinos – another mother and baby – can be seen on the horizon. This time they are considerably nearer and we can make them out to be a little more than just two blurry blobs.
Seeing a couple of lions walking on the road in the distance, we rush off to join up with them.
This one appears to have a broken tail. I wonder how that happened? I'd like to imagine some heroic escape from the clutches of a predator - but as lions have no predators in the crater, perhaps an elephant stood on it?
These are two youngish brothers, and not the Rasta Lion Malisa was hoping to see.
Malisa gets word from a passing vehicle - one of the very few we have seen - that there is a lioness nursing her two babies further ahead, so we speed off to see for ourselves.
As we approach, they get up and start walking towards the road.
They come right up to the side of the road, just a few feet away from us, and settle down in the part shade of a small bridge. To our absolute delight, the babies start to suckle!
If ever there was such a thing as cuteness overload, this surely is it!
Having had their quota of mother’s milk, the babies are full of life and mischief. If I thought the feeding cubs were adorable, when they start to play, it is almost too much to bear and I feel sure my heart is going to burst!
Mum, however, is exhausted and all she wants to do is sleep.
After spending a few tender moments with her little ones, mum is not amused when the cubs start jumping on her and pulling her tail.
Eventually she loses her temper and lets out a frustrated snarl at her cubs: “will you guys leave me alone. Please!”
As so many other mothers all over the world have done before her, she gets up and walks away is sheer exasperation to try and find a place where she can have a few minutes of peace and quiet.
Time to smell the flowers
Much to the cub’s displeasure: “Where are you going mum?” “Mum??”
She crosses the road to lie down in the shade, leaving her offspring behind, hoping that a bit of rough-and-tumble will have them worn out by bedtime.
One of the cubs appears to have lost interested in playing.
At a mere three weeks old, these cubs are incredibly inquisitive and heart-stirringly adorable.
When I look into those deep eyes, I feel like I am very much part of a wildlife documentary, not just merely on holiday! I have to pinch myself that this really is happening. I feel exceptionally privileged to be here, witnessing this.
We spend fifty minutes with the lioness and her delightful cubs, during which time we see one other vehicle. They stop for just a few minutes, take some photos and move on. I don’t understand that mentality at all – observing the interactions between the family members is what differentiates this wilderness experience from a zoo, surely?
This year's experience is also in stark contrast to our last lion cub encounter in the Ngorongoro Crater, in September 2014 during the dry season, when we struggled to get anywhere near the cats!
As we bid our cats goodbye and head towards the exit, I rib Malisa: "These cubs are very cute and all that, but you promised me a Rasta Lion! Where is he? It’s just as well Malisa understands my twisted sense of humour.
We see our two young brothers again (the one with the broken tail), walking across the marsh, but no Rasta Lion. I think Malisa is making this up.
Further along, a couple more lions rest in the grass right by the side of the road (that’s the shadow of our car you can see in the photos). Did Lyn say before we left home that she was worried about not seeing any lions on the safari? How many is that so far? Twelve? And it’s only Day Two of the actual safari.
Finally, there he is – Malisa’s Rasta Lion, an eight years old king and a very powerful one.
Really? He looks more like a big pussycat to me.
Now, there’s a reason why I spent this afternoon teasing Malisa about his ‘Rasta Lion’ – we brought over a T shirt as a gift for him from Bristol Zoo, which coincidentally features… yes, you guessed it: a Rasta Lion! Although we had planned it as a parting gift, now seems to be the right moment.
We make it to the exit with seven minutes to spare until closing time – being late carries a $200 fine!
As he does every evening, Malisa asks us about today’s highlight. As if there is any doubt!?! Malisa, of course, claims seeing the hyena was his favourite moment. Really?
Ngorongoro Serena Hotel
As usual, we arrive at our accommodation for the night after dark. So do a lot of other people, so check in is not as quick and smooth as we are used to.
Our room seems to be down an awful lot of steps, and after a very quick shower, it’s time to climb back up them for a drink in the bar while we watch the Maasai dancing.
For such a big hotel (also part of a bigger chain), I find this evening’s set-up quite amateurish – there is no stage as such, just a small area of the bar, which has been cleared of furniture. A good view of the dancers is limited to those people in the front row only. The outfits are colourful, and the dancers fairly enthusiastic, but I find the whole scenario too commercialised and touristy for my liking. The main dance moves are rocking of the necklaces for the women and traditional jumping for the men. At least half of the performance is dedicated to ‘audience participation’. No thanks.
The hotel redeems itself over dinner. The restaurant is super, the staff friendly, the menu table d'hôte and the food tasty.
Nguru Wa Kupaka - king fish in exotic Swahili sauce
What a day! What can I say, apart from “How can we possibly top that?”
Thanks, yet again to Calabash Adventures – not forgetting our wonderful guide Malisa - for what is turning out to be a holiday of a lifetime!