At approximately 20km wide, Ngorongoro crater is the World's largest intact volcanic caldera and one of Tanzania's most visited destinations primarily due to the fact it is one of Africa's best-known wildlife-viewing areas. Despite the steepness of the walls, there is an ever-present abundance of wildlife due to the permanent existence of Lake Magadi, the soda lake at the base of the crater.
The popularity means that everyone and their dog wants to visit and so the earlier a start one can get the better. This for me meant a 5am wake up and on the road by 7am to be on the floor of the crater preferably before everyone else. Thankfully the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority (NCAA) has restricted the number of vehicles around any particular animal to five although because we went down so early it was not an issue for most of our time during our morning visit there.
The crater is believed to support a population of about 25000 large mammals alone. They are not, however, confined by the crater walls and can leave freely but of course due to the conditions most choose to stay. Grazing animals dominate the landscape then there are hippos, giant-tusked elephants, waterbucks, reedbucks, bushbucks, baboons and monkeys. All these animals in turn support the large predators and the scavengers.
But Ngorongoro crater is also where most people come with the hope to see one of Tanzania's last remaining black rhinos. There are said to only be 25 remaining in the crater (not sure of the numbers elsewhere) and they are critically endangered. In fact the Western black rhino was declared extinct only last month. The species as a whole has been pushed to the brink of extinction by illegal poaching for their horn, and to a lesser extent by loss of habitat. Although the rhino is referred to as black, it is actually more of a grey/brown/white colour in appearance.
We were so busy scanning the horizon for the rhino that this perhaps explains why it took a moment or two for what was right in front of our eyes to register. She didn't care that we were there either... she was too busy eyeing up a gazelle in the distance. I had died and gone to heaven as we pulled up right next to a cheetah!!! Even more devastatingly beautiful close up and yet the power oozed from her. Was I about to be dazzled by such an amazing sight of nature at its best and worst? All I could do was wait. I could have waited until next Christmas, I didn't care. Just watching her as she plotted a potential attack was thrilling to watch. It was as though we weren't there or that she was using the 4x4 as camouflage. My camera was going nuts especially when she stood and began walking slowly forwards. But she appeared to grow bored with putting on a show and decided that she was no longer hungry, she knew she had done enough to enchant us. And with that she lay down in a patch of flowers and went to sleep. The gazelle oblivious walked off into the horizon.
I think Lady Luck worked her magic big time today and then some! The sighting of the first black rhino came relatively quickly, thanks of course to Fil and his binocular eyes. Then a family of 3, a single rhino followed by a huge rhino which looked really black with massive horns basking in the sun. Even though they were all at some distance there was no mistaking what they were. They look like they mean business even from a far and those horns look sharp & dangerous. I was very happy with my photos: the new telephoto had been a fantastic investment.
Finally the Big 5 was complete. With a few more lion sightings, a serval and a warthog standoff against two hyenas to protect his family, it was sadly time to leave the wildlife behind and head back to Arusha to ring in the New Year with my travel companions. On our way back we stopped off at an orphanage to drop off some goodies. It wasn't a pretty sight but the kids were loved by the staff and seemed happy. Most had lost their parents to HIV and/or AIDS. Things like that certainly make you stop and think. I gave out the packet of biscuits that had been in my lunchbox. Not much but the looks on the kid's faces couldn't help but make you smile.
As the clock ticks down to midnight, what a fantastic end to a wonderful series of adventures and an absolutely fantastic way to end 2011.
Happy New Year! May 2012 provide you with much wanderlust for your itchy feet.....