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Sunday, September 28, 2014

Tanzania: The Serengeti (Part II)

(This is the ninth installment in a series about our self-drive safari in Tanzania. Click here to start at the beginning.)
After checking to see if the coast was clear animal-wise, we climbed down the ladder and set up the breakfast table. It was our first morning in the Serengeti and it was nice not to be in such a rush for once. We sat and drank our coffee watching the gazelle graze in the field behind camp, such a stereotypical African experience we had to giggle to ourselves.

Thompson gazelle watch as we eat our cereal.
Our first stop was right across the road; the Grumeti River was over there and we were on a mission to see some crocodiles. We sat and stared at the muddy river for a long time, daring each other to get out and take a closer look. Neither of us would leave the car so, sans bait, the crocs stayed hidden. Damn.

The Grumeti River. Somewhere in there a crocodile waits for one of us to get out of our car.
We traveled up the road, taking every game drive side loop we saw. There were animals everywhere we turned, mostly small herds of gazelle and baboon with a giraffe or two thrown in and some unfamiliar animals we had to look up in our wildlife book. It was fun to putt around with no exact itinerary in mind.

Kirk's Dik-dik
Baboon digs for lunch.
We took a road out onto a broad plain and came across a lone giraffe standing beneath a huge acacia tree. He eyeballed us as we slowly drove closer, obviously leery yet he never budged. It's amazing to realize just how huge these animals are; we couldn't get over the fact that the car was level with his knees. We left him in his patch of shade and continued on our game drive.

A lone giraffe stands stock-still under a huge acacia tree.
A closer look, complete with his bird friends.

We found a promising looking road that skirted a rocky hill; it looked as if not long ago it had been very muddy, judging from the deep ruts in the dried dirt. It meandered along a scrubby route, winding in and out of the trees. We came across the remnants of an old camp and stopped to check it out.

Immediately we were sorry we had done that.

For those who haven't had the pleasure of the acquaintance, here's a description of a tsetse fly: take your common house fly, stretch it out so it's long and skinny and make it a lighter grayish black color. Take away the heavy footedness of that house fly so you can't feel it when it lands on you, and take away it's natural skittish tendency to fly away when you wave a hand over it. Then add in the last, yet most crucial, difference:

It bites.

Not just a "shoot, it bit me" kind of bite, either. More of a "M#$^&r F&#$%*r! GET IT OFF ME!" kind of bite. We were both wearing shorts and t-shirts with long sleeve shirts that were treated with insecticide. We figured during our trip we might have to dab some bug juice on our legs and faces, but we hadn't had any insect trouble up to this point. It was far too late for that now.

The flies were pouring in through our open windows, so we rolled them up. This only served to trap them in so they could dine without the pesky wind to ruffle their wings. These were a hardy bunch; unlike a mosquito, they never seemed to get their fill. Clothing didn't slow them down either; they were able to drill right through two layers of shirt and the heavy canvas material of our shorts. I swear one bit me through the mesh of my shoe and sock. And painful! Each bite was like a tiny bee sting, a hot needle drilling into your skin. To get them off you had to scrape at them; they wouldn't fly away until you touched them.

We ended up using an Alaskan trick helpful when the truck cab would fill with mosquitoes: roll down the windows and drive like hell until the little bastards blow out. This worked for all but the most tenacious ones. Never in my life have I felt as satisfied as when I killed the last two flies in the car with the swatter Shaw had thoughtfully stuck in the dash.

A shy Leopard Tortoise.

After that excitement, we decided to make our way back to camp and enjoy a little quiet time. We looked for our cheetah friends in the creek bed on the way into camp, but they must have found a better hangout because there was no sign of them. We parked in our spot and set up the tent, putting our chairs in it's shade and enjoying a cold coke from the cooler. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, tastes as good as an icy cold coke after driving an un-air conditioned Land Rover on hot dusty roads (with the windows rolled up) all afternoon.

We relaxed, did some reading and caught up on our housekeeping. We did a load of socks and underwear in our washbasin and hung them up on a clothesline in the back of the car. Did we look like hillbillies? You betcha. But we would have some clean undies to wear tomorrow!

Another African sunset. Just beautiful.

That night just after we went to bed we heard some scuffling outside. It was pitch black, so Mark pulled out the high powered flashlight he had purchased just for this trip. Right below us, two huge porcupine were scruffing through the dirt, nosing around for crumbs we had dropped during dinner. I've never seen a porcupine so close, and had no idea they got so big. Judging from the long spines on them (at least a foot and a half long), they didn't have to worry about predators.

Mark was having fun playing with his flashlight and decided to check out the rest of the camp. It was such a warm night we had all the windows open so it made it easy to shine the light, sweeping the camp in a large circle. A hundred sets of eyes glowed back from every direction, some surprisingly close in. He turned it off quickly and pulled the covers up to his neck. Some things are better left in the dark.

The next day we were scheduled to move to another campground, but first we had to get more fuel and try again to find some food and water. We drove back to Seronara, stopping in to get diesel before heading back to the visitor's center. The help desk was unmanned when we got there, so we went over to the little gift store to do some shopping.

We poked around while the owner sat at his desk, counting up huge stacks of cash. It amazed us how nonchalant storekeepers were with their money here; at home, the cash drawers are quickly whisked away to be counted behind a locked door. Here the guy was sorting out both U.S. dollars and Tanzanian shillings, stacking the bills into piles by denomination. The fan was blowing them around his desk, forcing him to put wooden figurines on them to keep them in place. Friends of his would wander in and say hello, distracting him just enough so he kept having to re-count the stacks. There must have been at least 2000 U.S. dollars there. It's hard to estimate how many shillings he had; I never did get used to the immense numbers on the notes so I'm sure it wasn't nearly as much as it appeared.

A young baboon looks into the camera lens.
We liked some of the gift items, but it seemed the prices were hiked up for the fancy safari crowd so we passed. Something we didn't notice the first day, however, was that below all the cokes in the cooler, there was a line of 1 liter bottles of water. Thank goodness! We were down to our last liter and had another day and half until the next town. We bought five more bottles, figuring that would get us through to the next stop. We asked about food, but with some translation difficulty were told we might get prepared food at the lodges (probably a boxed lunch or a sit down dinner.) There didn't seem to be any grocery-type stores in the park. After looking longingly at the chocolate bars, Mark dragged me out of the store with just the water.

Ok, so the food box was getting a bit lighter but there were still quite a few things in there, we'd just have to get more creative.

Back up the same road, we crossed over the river just outside Seronara and out of the corner of my eye I spotted it: a crocodile! Big signs on the road warned drivers it was illegal to stop on the bridge, so Mark had to keep driving. By the time we got turned around and I got the camera out, the croc had submerged. Darn it! At least we got to see one.

A herd of wildebeest on the hazy plains. This is one of my favorite photos, the heat waves and smoke from a recent fire making it look like a watercolor.
We were driving up to Klein's Gate and the Lobo Hills campground, the northern-most area of the park. As we traveled, the countryside subtly changed from dry grassy plains to green rolling, rocky hills. The road got rougher as well; corrugation turned to bumpy embedded boulders, forcing us to slow down even further. Good thing we didn't have as far to travel today. We passed a large flatbed tow truck as it slowly picked it's way through the rocks on the narrow road. Man, wouldn't want to be that guy. Wonder where he's going?

We got our answer soon enough. We pulled into the Lobo Hills campground to find a brand new Mercedes SUV, the body settled down on it's wheels. The owner, a big blustery guy from South Africa, had driven it all the way up to the Serengeti where he had blown out the air suspension on the road. "In all my life, I have never driven such bad roads! I will never come here again! They need to fix these roads! It's ridiculous!"

Mercedes SUV on the back of the tow truck, unhappy owner in the foreground.

We nodded in agreement, but had to turn away before he saw us smile. What was he thinking? Not only was he driving this cushy, city vehicle but he was pulling a huge camping trailer equipped with tent, full kitchen, and all sorts of gear. The poor car had been put through hell. Frankly, we were surprised he got as far as he did.

The big tow truck motored in half an hour later and they quickly got the Mercedes loaded up. Before leaving, the South African told us to be sure to go up north towards Kenya. The migration was in full swing up there. "After all! That's what you came for right?! To see the migration!" (He was the kind of guy that spoke in exclamation points.)

Normally, the great migration would already be well into Kenya at this time of year, but Tanzania had some unusually late rains and the wildebeest had turned around and come back. No wonder it was greener up here. Climate change had done us a favor for once!

Since we had to drive that way the next morning anyway, we decided to hang around camp for the afternoon. The wind was screaming down off the kopjes (pronounced "Cop-yees" it means granite outcroppings) that backed up the camp, and baboons sat staring forlornly at us from the rocks. We were told by another camper that the baboons were horrible pests the night before; they tried to steal the campers' food and everyone was forced to use the enclosed picnic area. Even in the safety of the hut, the baby baboons climbed up the sides and reached in through the mesh windows, screeching at the people inside.

This should be fun.

The view from Lobo Hills campground, still green from the late rains.
We set up camp and kept an eye on the baboons, not wanting to lose what little food we had. Around 3 o'clock they mysteriously disappeared and we never saw them again. I guess our meager options didn't impress them.

After a bit two Land Rovers pulled in and arranged themselves next to us, four people piling out from each. We watched them set up, two rooftop tents per vehicle. Out came an elaborate table (with white tablecloth) and chairs, followed by a cooler that disgorged an impressive spread of cheese and meats, along with bread and of course, wine. It was hard to believe their vehicles, which were the same make and model as ours, could hold all this stuff. We sat in our little camp chairs nibbling on our broken crackers and the last of our nuts, contemplating our dinner; we had two more hot dogs left and some canned peas. We Americans sure know how to live.
Our camp at Lobo Hills.

As we cooked up our hot dogs (boiling them in the pot with the peas to save water) the woman from next door walked over and asked if we had any luck getting our dinner heated. The wind was still at gale force and she was having trouble getting her stove to stay lit. We showed her how to set up the stove using the back door as a shield and she thanked us, laughing that it had taken her an hour to make coffee that morning.

After dinner, the patriarch of the family came over and introduced himself, bringing a "glass" (a dixie cup) of wine for each of us. He and his family were from Switzerland and were doing the same safari tour we were, just in the opposite direction. They had just come from Lake Natron, our next stop, and were headed to the Ngorongoro Crater after camping here for a few days. He warned us about the Maasai kids along the road: they had traveled through a village the day before when some boys came out begging for money. When he refused to give them anything one of the boys threw a rock, smashing his back window. He complained at the next checkpoint ("oh by the way," he told us, "there are three checkpoints and they'll charge anywhere from $10 to $20 per person to go through") and the guards said they would take care of it.

Tanzania depends on tourism—it's their main source of income—and all they need is to have a bad reputation like that. I'm sure those boys were very sorry for their behavior not long after the complaint was lodged.

We enjoyed visiting with them that evening. They spoke excellent English, especially their daughter who had spent some time in college in the U.S. They told us they loved Africa so much they had been doing these self-drive safaris every two years, and they had enjoyed Tanzania the most of any of the countries they had visited so far. It was great to swap stories with one of the few other groups that, like us, were traveling without benefit of a guide.

If anything, the wind picked up that night making it hard to sleep as the rain fly slapped against the sides of the tent. Just as we would drift off to sleep another gust would lift the tent up and the fabric would strain against the stays. It got so bad Mark worried it might rip the grommets out, so he climbed out in the middle of the night and took the stays down, tucking them under the tent for the night. If there were any animals around they must have gotten an eyeful, Mark clambering around in the wind in his boxers.

Wildebeest at one of the temporary watering holes created by the late rains.

The next morning, still battered by the wind, we packed up and headed towards Klein's Gate on our way to Lake Natron. Just a few kilometers from the campground we found what the South African had told us about: great herds of wildebeest were roaming as far as the eye could see. It was an incredible sight, one that couldn't be captured by our camera, but we tried anyway:

The Serengeti had been everything we'd hoped. It had rewarded us with a leopard sighting, cheetahs, a crocodile, some interesting camp mates and the crowning glory, a little piece of the great migration, straight out of the National Geographic specials we had watched as kids. We couldn't have asked for a better experience.

Well, except for those #$&^ing flies.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Tanzania: The Serengeti (Part I)

(This is the eighth installment in a series of posts about our self-drive safari to Tanzania.)

As a kid I pictured Africa as a giant island, with pyramids sticking out of the sand at the top, a city at the bottom tip and the Serengeti taking up the whole space in between. Every nature show about animals seemed to be filmed in the Serengeti and I thought it must be the only park in Africa. Terrified gazelle zig zagging across the plains with a cheetah in hot pursuit; a lion biting into the haunches of a zebra whose luck had just run out; termite mounds sticking up out of nowhere that never seemed to have termites, just a mongoose or a few birds resting on top: These were the pictures that were stuck in my head after years of viewing those National Geographic specials. And here we were driving beneath the archway, the crooked metal sign squeaking in the wind announcing the entrance to Serengeti National Park.

The entrance to Serengeti National Park. Not sure what the little pyramid signified.

The drive from Ngorongoro had started that morning at 6:00 am; we wanted to get out of the crater zone before the crazy safari traffic started to flow. Down the mountainside bumping our way into the Great Rift valley we passed the entrance to the Olduvai Gorge, famous for the discovery of early hominid remains that date back two million years. We were a bit disappointed we didn't have time to stop there.

We wound our way down through the mountains, passing Maasai villages, the children running out to the road with their hands outstretched as we drove by. The little ones waved and smiled, but the older ones yelled out for money and candy. It's an unfortunate reality that some visitors stop and hand out treats to the kids. I'm sure the tourists think they're doing them a favor, giving the kids something they might not get ordinarily, but the begging got increasingly insistent as we got closer to the iconic park. What started as cute soon became outright hostility when the little beggars realized they weren't getting a handout from us. We could see them in the rearview mirror, kicking the dust and smacking their walking sticks into the ground in frustration as we drove away.

The road into the Serengeti is long, long, long and straight. And did I mention corrugated? We saw several safari tour vehicles broken down on the side of the road, one with the entire front wheel assembly broken off. The roads here were probably the roughest of all the parks we toured.
We entered the park through the Naabi Hill gate, a rocky outcropping on the otherwise flat plain. This is where the Ngorongoro Conservation Area ends and the Serengeti park begins. We had to make sure to check out of the Ngorongoro area by 12:15pm, exactly 48 hours from the time we had checked in, as we had sincerely promised the official in Karatu two days before. We got there with an hour to spare, our mothers' graves safe for the time being.

Blossoms on a tree atop Naabi Hill.

The road stretches across the plains of the Serengeti, as seen from the top of Naabi Hills.
A Red-headed Rock Agama poses on granite, Naabi Hills

After some confusion involving the various office locations (a process we had come to expect), we finally got all six Log Books signed and entrance fees paid, stopping to hike to the top of Naabi Hill before we proceeded down the rutted road of the Serengeti.

We were doubly excited about this park; not only was it the famous place we had seen so often on TV, but we had a special campsite reserved for us for the next two nights. No public campground for us, no sir! We were going to our own little spot on the plains.

We made our way into the hub of the park, Seronara. It's the closest thing to a town the park has and the site of the visitor's center, a fuel station, coffee and gift shop, and a few lodges. We were looking for a place to buy some food and water, and maybe get some help pointing the way to our campsite.

We pulled into the dirt parking lot, nestling into a spot in the long line of safari tour vehicles. A large number of lodge tourists were milling around, signaling their posh accommodations with clean clothes and the faint scent of aftershave drifting in their wake. We, on the other hand, hadn't had anything more than a wipe with a damp washcloth for five days and it was beginning to show. We stopped in at the restroom and were so happy to find a regular western-style flush toilet with paper and a sink to wash our hands we didn't even notice the dust and bugs in the corners (unlike the fancy white jeans-wearing teenager that marched out and declared there was no way she was using THAT restroom! And the large gentleman that walked out of the men's room yelling "There's no paper in here! NO PAPER!")

Ah yes. We must be in the Luxury Safari Zone.

We looked around the visitor's center, which had some nice displays and a video that played every 30 minutes. The help desk was manned by a young guy playing with his cell phone. When we brought our map to him and asked where the Mareu special campsite was he had to run out front to the line of safari drivers lounging in the shade in plastic chairs, working his way down the row until he found a driver who had heard of it. "Yes, yes, Mareu. It's that way." one of the drivers gestured vaguely off towards the south.

Rock Hyrax hang out on the Visitor's Center patio, Seronara.
We stopped in at the gift shop and found it full of some pretty cool carved animals and handcrafts but no food, with the exception of chocolate bars and cokes. (It should be noted here that chocolate bars and cokes would have been an acceptable meal for me at this point, but Mark insisted on something more substantial. Alas, we didn't make a purchase.) We still had quite a bit left in the food box that Shaw provided for us, plus a few things we had purchased in Arusha so we felt we'd be ok until we got to our next stop. The only thing worrying us was water; we had four liters left but it would only last a few days.

After getting diesel, we left Seronara to find our campsite. Within the first kilometer we saw a safari vehicle pulled over to the side of the road, the guests all pointing their cameras up towards a tree. We had enough experience at this point to know that meant something interesting was going on so we pulled in behind them. Sure enough, in a tree right next to the road, a huge leopard was lounging in the branches. Excellent!

A leopard seems comfortable in his tree top lair. Look closely in the branches to the left above his head: there is a gazelle carcass hanging there ready for his dinner.
A giraffe crosses in front of us.
We passed several giraffe, a few elephant and of course a ton of the ever present zebra and baboon. There were scrubby acacia trees and dry grasses lining the dusty road and we kept our eyes peeled for more leopards in the trees. It was early afternoon and large dark clouds were gathering off in the distance. If we were home we would have sworn it was an afternoon thunderstorm building up, but we weren't exactly sure what to expect here. After an hour or so of tooth jarring washboard road we found our campsite. Hallelujah, we found it on our own!

We drove down the road, which was really just a set of tire tracks that led out onto the savannah. We came through a stand of trees and in a dry creek bed to our left there they were: two cheetah, lounging in the sun, not a care in the world. I was so excited I was bouncing up and down, pounding Mark on the arm whispering "Cheetah! Cheetah! Cheetah!" We had to be quiet, since our windows were rolled down and we didn't want to scare them.
Cheetah laze in a dry creek bed.
Cheetah seem so fragile; they are much more delicate looking than the chuffy lions we had seen the day before.

They didn't seem too bothered by us and we sat watching them for a good fifteen minutes until they decided to move along. Wow! What luck!

We drove to what seemed like the end of the road and found a clear spot in the grass. It's hard to figure out exactly where these special campsites are—we had heard they move them periodically to keep the area from getting too trampled. We chose the most likely spot and as Mark climbed up on top of the car to pop open the tent, the first raindrops started coming down.

A thunderstorm gathers over camp.
It was nice to feel water on our skin; five days of dusty roads had filled every crevice of both our car and ourselves with a pile of red dirt. Reach up to scratch an ear and your semi-filthy fingernail would come back completely packed with dirt. The crevice in the bend of our arms? A red-tinted line of filth. A little rain was a refreshing change.

Mark was standing on top of the car, arms outstretched and head bent back enjoying the drops as they plunked down on his face. A huge flash of lightning struck just behind him, followed closely by a crack of thunder. "How awesome! I love thunderstorms!" He turned to watch the huge black cloud building up overhead.

"Uh, Mark? You might want to get down. You're standing on top of a hunk of metal and you're the tallest thing around."

Like in a cartoon, by the time I finished that sentence he was on the ground standing next to me. "Didn't think of that..."

We watched for a few minutes as a couple more bolts of lightning flashed and the thunder rolled around us. We didn't bother to get out of the rain since it was still very warm and it felt so good to have the sweat and dust washing off. The storm ended as quickly as it had begun as we finished setting up camp.

Our campsite on the plains: Mareu for two.
If it's not a universal rule, it should be: by day 5 of a camping trip it's time for a bath. We filled our hand pump shower, stripped down and took turns standing in the wash basin, washing at least a half pound of dust and grit out of our hair and off our feet. Dirt was not the only thing we washed off that day; a build up of five stressful days filled with rough roads, unfamiliar customs, language barriers and vehicle worries were all eased with the simple application of a little soap. It's amazing what good hygiene can do for your mood.

Suddenly it felt like we could handle anything. Sure, we were out in the middle of nowhere with two cheetah just down the road, surrounded by a herd of grazing cape buffalo, warthogs and who knows what else that had the potential to hurt us. But dammit, we were clean and we had hot dogs ready to cook up for dinner with a can of corn.

Life doesn't get much better than that.
The sun sets and all is well, Serengeti National Park.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Tanzania: Into the Ngorongoro Crater

(This is the seventh post in a series about our self-drive safari to Tanzania. Next up: Serengeti.)
Our alarm sounded at 5:00am, although we were already awake. It was still very dark outside the tent and when we unzipped the rain fly we found ourselves surrounded by thick fog. We could hear a few other campers stirring, but for the most part it was dark and quiet. Now to figure out how to get the tent packed up, get to the restroom and find our guide Wilson without breaking the number one rule: don't walk around in the dark.

We had no choice, so being as quiet and careful as possible we packed up the tent, a miserable job in the cold mist. Everything was wet (it had rained during the night) and we tried not to disturb our neighboring campers while we fought with the slippery tent cover. The fog was so thick we couldn't see across the campground, our headlamps only lit up a small area in front of our faces. We held onto our bladders as long as we could but finally had to make our way across the grass the quarter mile to the restrooms. We could hear zebra snorting around us but couldn't see them until we were almost on top of them. Our biggest fear was stumbling over a cape buffalo; those guys are known to be really grumpy, especially the bachelors that we knew were nearby.

Back at the car, we silently apologized to our neighbors and started up the noisy diesel engine. We had to turn the lights on for the first time during the trip as we made our way out the campground road to the entrance where we were to meet Wilson. He appeared out of the mist near the entry shack. "We're a little early, but we can leave now if you want." He got in the passenger seat, and I crammed myself into the back. We had to rearrange the car the night before; there was a space just big enough for me and the camera equipment back there.

Out on the road it was even more foggy, if that was possible. Between the dirty windshield and the heavy mist we couldn't see more than a few feet in front of the car. We were among the first vehicles out so there wasn't any oncoming traffic, thank goodness, but once in a while we'd come around a corner to find a bus stopped in the road, picking up the morning commuters from the villages. Ngorongoro roads were destined to be challenging for us no matter what time of day.

Ngorongoro Crater in the early morning light.
We got to the crater entrance road and Wilson hopped out with our paperwork, checking us in at the guard shack. Thankfully the entrance road was one way because it was narrow, very steep and rough as it zig zagged down the crater wall. The sun was just starting to come up, and as we reached the crater floor the fog broke, revealing a huge grassy plain.

Finally, we were in.

Driving along the dusty roads in Ngorongoro Crater, Wilson pointing the way.
Wilson pointed out a herd of cape buffalo almost hidden by the tall grass near the road. He told us that the older males without a herd of their own tend to hang out together for protection. These bachelors always seemed to be in this area, munching on the tall grass with their backs to the crater walls, watchful of the lions that might be prowling around.

Cape Buffalo with his trusty sidekick riding on top, a Yellow Billed Ox-picker eating insects off the buffalo's back.
It was just past 6:00am, and we had followed four other safari vehicles down the access road. Wilson guided us toward the hippo ponds first; he said once the sun came up there would be many more cars coming in and the ponds would be very crowded later. So off we went.

A pile of hippos in the Hippo Pond.
A hippo keeps an eye on our noisy yellow car.

Ngorongoro Crater is loaded with game. Everywhere we went there was an amazing sight: the hippo pond was chock full of hippos, the trees had huge cranes squawking in them, ostriches ran across the grassy plain. We came across a pack of hyena, adults lounging in the sun and the cubs wrestling with each other. Herds of gnus and zebra were everywhere often blocking the roads and staring at the vehicles as if to say "why must you be here so early?"

Cranes hang out in the treetops.
A female ostrich struts her stuff.

The Secretary Bird. This guy stomps on lizards and eats them for lunch.
A bustard peeks though the grass. You heard it right. Bustard. With a U.
Crested Crane, searching out a meal.

Hartebeest, surrounded by wildebeest.
Gazelle in the early morning light.
A resting gnu (wildebeest, same thing)
Guinea fowl
Gazelle, Cape Buffalo wandering around in the background.
Black-backed Jackal
Mama hyena keeping a watchful eye on the young'uns.
Even baby hyenas are kind of cute.

We were slowly cruising across the plains when Wilson told us to stop. He had to point it out for us, but a huge male lion was laying just to the side of the road, his mane blending so perfectly with the grasses it was hard to make him out. It turned out there was a female there with him as well, and they began to get friendly as we sat watching. If only we had remembered that Barry White cd...

Exactly why you shouldn't wander around in the crater: a male lion is almost indistinguishable from the grass.

"Hey baby. Come here often?"
Life's tough when you're the king of the plains.

We spotted two black rhino way off in the distance. Even a kilometer away we could tell just how powerful and enormous they were. A ranger vehicle was off to one side keeping a close eye on them; Wilson told us the rangers keep them in view 24 hrs a day trying to protect them from poachers. So sad that it has come to this. We didn't feel so bad about the high park fees after hearing about their efforts, knowing our money was helping to keep the rhinos safe.

Black Rhino. The ranger vehicle was just to the left, keeping a close watch on them. (Sorry for the photo quality; our camera was zoomed all the way, and I cropped this photo so you could make out the rhinos. They were pretty far out there.)
After a few more hours in the crater we started to have trouble seeing game. It wasn't because there were fewer animals, it was the massive quantity of safari vehicles that were clogging up the roads. You could always tell where the lions were by the pileup of cars at a particular spot. We came across a lioness and her two cubs, parking our car a bit away from them to give them space. Before we could get our camera focused five vehicles sped over and parked within inches of the cats, jostling with each other to get the closest. We ended up getting a few photos by idling by the parked cars, getting our shots from in between the bumpers of the other cars. We were very glad we had gotten up as early as we did and had a few hours in relative peace that morning.

A lioness and her cub, as seen between two safari vehicles.
We stopped in at the picnic area and had a belated breakfast. There were restrooms and picnic tables set up around a spring fed lake, which happened to be full of hippos. We were allowed out of the car here, which made us scratch our heads. Hippos are supposed to be very dangerous, and here we were sitting within twenty feet of them. Africa is amazing and contradictory sometimes.

The picnic area, the clouds still gathered over the crater rim behind.
Hippos lurk in the spring-fed lake,
picnic area.
Me in front of the lake, hippos lurking in the background.

Wilson, our intrepid guide/campground host.
Hippo grazing alongside the picnic area lake.
Huge elephant were grazing in the tall grasses next to the lake.
We came across two female lions stalking a group of wildebeest. It looked like a practice run; even the wildebeest didn't seem to take them too seriously. They didn't seem to mind the audience of safari vehicles that were parked within 100 feet of them. In fact, they crossed the road right between the bumpers of two of the cars.
We watched as these two lionesses half-heartedly stalked some wildebeest. They gave up quickly and wandered across the road right between safari vehicles.

The lions using the pedestrian crossing between vehicles.
An example of the traffic in the crater. Every time there was any sort of action, safari vehicles 
would pile up like flies on elephant dung.
After a few more hours we decided to head back up the rim. The roads were now clogged with so many vehicles it was hard to get a good view of anything; besides we felt we had seen some pretty amazing things in the five hours we spent there. On the way out Wilson led us through the Lerai forest, where elephants were busy tearing limbs off trees and stuffing the branches into their mouths.

Elephant in the Lerai Forest. Check out the thorns on those tree branches! Elephants must have some tough mouths.

We came back up the one way* Lerai Road, astoundingly paved with bricks the entire way. I can't imagine how long that must have taken, with each brick having to be placed by hand.

The "one way" Lerai Ascent Road, paved with gray bricks.
(*I had to chuckle to myself about the "ascent only" signs. After we got back to camp I saw the fine print on the map: "Please be aware the Lerai Road is ASCENT ONLY. Please watch for the occasional descending traffic.")

Back at camp we said goodbye to Wilson. He had to get back to his campground host duties and we were exhausted and hungry after our early morning departure. It had been a fun action-packed day in the Ngorongoro Crater: Where else in the world can you see lions mating while stuck in a traffic jam?

Looking back out across the crater from Lerai Road.