Thursday, November 10, 2016

Ngorongoro Crater: Day 8

Our first view of the crater was actually yesterday, as we drove to our campsite.  We stopped at a view point above the crater and looked out at the huge depression in the earth.  You could see the white of the salt lakes (currently dry) where the flamingos feed.  We knew it was teeming with animals, but none were visible from this far up.  However, when we looked really closely, we could see dozens of tiny black dots – wildebeest herds.

Crater from above

This morning, we woke at 4:30am.  It was still pitch black outside the tent.  I peeked out and did my 180 degree scan with the headlamp.  About 2 metres behind our tents were a handful of zebras, grazing.  The scene was surreal – a dark sky full of thousands of stars, and quiet zebras calmly eating grass behind our tents, their black-and-white stripes accented by the light of my headlamp.  It was going to be a magical day.

We got our things packed up, the tent taken down and put back in the truck, lunches packed for later, and breakfast eaten as the sun slowly rose.  By the time we left (6:15am) there was a spectacular sunrise blossoming in the sky.  We couldn't help but take a moment and let it fully sink in.  Here we are, on the rim of an ancient crater, watching the sun rise while zebras share our campsite.

We hop in the trucks – we split up into smaller 4x4's to go into the crater today, as our large truck can't handle the roads down into the crater.  The road is very steep, and extremely bump.  We hold on tight as we rumble over rocks and ditches, sometimes our entire bodies swinging from side to side.  Dust wafts in through the truck.  They call it the “African Massage”.  We've gotten used to this sort of terrain over the past few days, but the roads into Ngorongoro are another thing entirely.

We descend further into the crater.  The swaths of pastel-coloured landscape slowly take form and become grasses, shrubs, and the outlines of the mountains on all sides of the crater.  The animals here are trapped here – they can't leave the crater.  The crater is a micro example of the Serengeti.  There are not very many trees, so there are no giraffes.  No cheetahs or leopards, either.  But almost everything else is here.

It feels strange to be here.  Even though the Maasai have been bringing their cows down into the crater to drink from the salt lake for generations (a treacherous journey for the cows, with only 90% surviving the way back up), it somehow feels as if we are entering a place where humans have never touched – an alien landscape, if you will.

Finally, we reach the crater floor.  The first thing we see is a lone ostrich, stark black against the
magnificent backdrop of the crater mountains and plains.  Here and there, another lone animal – antelope, stork.  As we drive, we start to see larger groups of animals.  The zebras and wildebeasts are plentiful, as in the Serengeti.  A baby zebra walks by with its mother, its stripes adorably fuzzy and brown.  We stop the truck and lift the roof, standing up and peering out with our cameras at it. 

A sleeping jackal, curled up like a small puppy in the open plains.

A solitary elephant in the distance, slowly walking across the plains.  What on earth does it eat here?  And where are its herd?  We watch it for a while, fascinated by how tiny this giant creature looks against the backdrop of the crater.  Are you lonely, elephant?  How did you get here?  Did you walk from the top of the crater, somehow make it down the steep walls, and find yourself here, now unable to leave?  Or have you always been here?

I like this elephant.  At the risk of anthropomorphizing it, I dare to say that he seems content to walk his slow walk from one end of the crater to another.  Sure of himself and his steps, he gives no mind to any other creature that he passes, just continues his amble across the plains until he is finally out of sight.

We continue onwards.

We see a few warthogs very close up, and have a chance to get some really good photos.  When I first saw these creatures they appeared very ugly to me; now, I find beauty in their little faces and the way they were constructed.  Evolutionary design is fantastic.  I don't know why the pumba looks the way it does, but I admire it, despite its apparently low intelligence – our guide told us that when they are being chased by a lion or cheetah, they will run for only a few minutes and then suddenly stop, as they will have forgotten why they are running.  Short term memory.

Later on, we see another one on its knees, sniffing around at the ground and eating.  Our driver and guide pulls to a stop and explains that this is normal – the design of the creature means that it has a very short neck that can't reach the ground, so it bends its front knees in order to get at food.  Curious!

We see baboons digging in the dirt and eating insects, skillfully uncovering them and quickly using their hands to put them in their mouths.  The dusty ground is covered in these grey, fluffy baboons.  Some of them are cuddled together, grooming each other.  A baby one reaches up for its mother.  A pair of them even copulate briefly.  Something about their interactions with each other and the way they behave looks eerily human.  We're all related.

Posting photos with my words is a necessary crutch.  Photography is only a recent development in human story-telling.  When we see incredible, indescribable things in the world, we no longer have to rely on the power of our words and gestures alone.

But even so, there is power in a photograph that comes from someone you know.  My hope is that through writing and sharing my experiences along with the photos, that the lions and zebras and giraffe images are no longer abstract, far away creatures.  Accompanied by my words, the images take on life as others see the Serengeti through my eyes.  The Serengeti is no longer just my experience; the Serengeti is yours, too.  You carry a little bit of it with you now.  When you go out into the world and encounter shadow versions of these animals – zebras in a zoo, cartoon lions, plastic toy giraffes – maybe you will remember the soft brown fuzz of a baby zebra's stripes; the majesty yet skittishness of a giraffe, and the warm and cozy scene of lion cubs lying together under a tree.

I write for myself, yes – to capture my memories for the future.  But I also write for you.  To bring you somewhere you might not otherwise ever be able to go.  Call it a compulsion, or a duty, or a calling – I don't know.  Whether I ever fully accomplish it, I never truly know, either.  But here I am.
So let me bring you back into the crater.

We pull up to the first source of water we've seen down here.  The bright blue pool reflects the sky like a mirror, but the image is broken up by hippos.  Grey and round backs submerged in the pool are everywhere.  The hills around the pool are vivid green, another colour that has been almost completely absent from the crater.  The grasses and shrubs are lush from the water source, and the hippos and water buffalos are hanging out on the hills together, serenely eating the abundance of greens.  We are lucky in that we get to see a hippo fully out of the water as it eats on the hill.  It moves from one patch of grass to the other impossibly slowly – a footstep every minute?  All movement seems so laborious for hippos.

Can you see the baby?
We all stand up in our vehicles and just watch them for a long time.  We haven't had a good chance to view hippos for more than a minute at a time, so this is a treat.  A few of them slowly roll over.  One of the larger ones decides someone else is crowding its space, and it nudges him.  When that doesn't work, he opens his enormous jaws a few times.  Yikes!  Hippos are actually one of the most dangerous animals around here.  You don't want to ever go near a hippo pool.  The other one scuttles out of the way through the water.

Then, we see a small movement alongside one of them – a baby hippo!  It swims around its mother, coming to rest at her side for a while, then continues on to her backside and rests its head on her back.  Apparently, hippo babies even suckle their mother's milk under the water.  Fascinating creatures.

The entire scene felt very pre-historic.  The silence that surrounded us as we watched the buffalos and hippos peaceful co-existing in this small pocket of an oasis at the depths of a long-inactive crater was soul-soothing.  A buffalo munches grass.  A hippo rolls over.  Another one take a lumbering step further down the hill.  A buffalo and hippo stare at each other, then look away.  And us, doing nothing but watching.

Hyena eating a wildebeast skull
Life is far from peaceful in the crater, though.  As we reluctantly drove away from the hippos, we encountered more wildebeasts.  All of a sudden, we see a hyena speeding across the plains.  It is chasing two of them! We watch in awe as the chase happens in the distance, using our binoculars or zoom-lenses to see a little better.  The second wildebeast is slightly smaller than the first, but it is doing a good job of keeping up with the other one.  They hyena does not relent.  Legs pounding the ground, it keeps going at full speed.  The wildebeasts make a little headway.  They turn a different way.  It seems as if they're going to make it.  But the hyena does not give up.  It gains speed, dust flying up.  The distance between the smaller wildebeast and it is getting smaller.  And then – it's down!

And they're gone, out of sight.

Both terrifying and fascinating to watch, it's how life happens.  Knowing it is one thing, but seeing it is something else entirely.

The hippo pool
Eventually, it was time to come out of the crater – we spent over four hours there.  We reluctantly closed up our windows, pulled the roof down, and settled in for the “African massage” of the rocky steep roads all the way back up.  We climbed the winding roads and made the sharp turns at sometimes terrifying speeds – how we didn't swerve off those cliffs is beyond me.

But we emerged, weary and exhilarated.  We stopped at a viewpoint of the crater from above on the way out.  Like explorers returned from another planet, we stared out at the paths of pastel colours, now knowing what rich life they teemed with.