The journey from Lake Manyara to Ngorogoro Crater was like driving from one planet to another. The dry savannah of the Arusha region transformed into rolling hills and bustling towns and then into lush tropical cloud forests as we climbed 5500 feet from the lake district toward the top of the crater rim. Up there it was as if we had driven into The Jungle Book. We were maybe half a kilometer past the gate to Ngorogoro Conservation Area when we ran into our first African traffic jam. An elephant couldn’t quite remember where he was going and kept crisscrossing the road in front of us. (John Golden once told me a story about a similar situation that I really hope makes it into the movie or novel he should be writing right now.)
Arriving at the crater rim and gazing down into the ancient caldera below we were completely blown away by the scope and scale of the landscape we were taking in. The crater floor covers over 100 square miles, and it’s nearly impossible to realize what that means until you see it. For those of you who have stood at the rim of Kilauea on the Big Island of Hawaii, you know what I mean. We found our campsite, got the lay of the land, checked out a couple of crazy ass birds called Marabou Storks and immediately headed off to the crater floor to see what we could see.
As we descended from the rim, it started to pour down rain. Full on epic, biblical rain. It’s a long, winding drive down into the crater, and it seemed that as we were on our way down, every single professional safari driver in Tanzania was on their way up. This could not be a good sign. I’d suggest that there must have been something they knew that we didn’t know, but I assume the list of “things they know that we don’t” is pages long. James started to wonder if we were making a significant strategic error. I offered up that the animals had nowhere to go and hide, and besides, they would probably enjoy a good rinse after a few long days in the dusty heat of Africa. We also noted that many of the other safari vehicles have seating exposed to the elements while we were comfortable and dry in our kick-ass truck. Chalk up another win for the self-drive!
The floor of this ancient volcanic crater is a completely different world from the mountain that surrounds it. This wide, dry plain has none of the lush tropical vegetation we were just enveloped in. You can see FOR EH VER down there. It’s just wide and flat and full of wildlife. We saw hippos, ostriches, impalas, springbuck, wildebeests, giraffes, elephants, warthogs, storks, flamingos, cape buffalo, zebras and even a couple rhinos waaaay off in the distance. Oh – and lions. Did I mention the lions? Yeah. From our car. Lions. Right there. Freaking lions. I assume they had spent the morning doing cool lion things like chasing and eating a wildebeest, because they were pretty exhausted when we saw them. Fortunately, lion yawns look a lot like roars on film, so as far as you know from our photos they were terrifying and threatening as hell.
After a while the safari drivers were back and we fell into a nice rhythm of pulling over, exchanging pleasantries, telling them where we were from, and passing off info regarding what we’d seen, where we’d seen it, and getting the same from them. It was pretty cool having actual good intel to pass along since we had been just about the only truck down there for most of the afternoon.
As night began to fall, we made our way back to camp which had filled in with a couple of groups of European high school or college students and a few other self drive folks. As the last glow of sunlight faded on us, we heard a bit of commotion when the kids nearby scattered as an elephant came walking straight through the middle of the camp area, just a couple dozen meters away from where we were set up. It was soon joined by a cape buffalo at the edge of camp. They hung out for a few minutes until darkness fell before wandering into the bush, but continued to make their presence known for a while as they crashed around a bit and occasionally trumpeted as we made dinner and lit the fire. This was one of the nights when we slept more soundly, comfortable in the fact that since our tents were on the roof, it would be much more difficult to be stepped on by an elephant in the middle of the night.