Tanzanian Safari: NgoroNgoro and Tarangire
Following the Serengeti, we moved through the NgoroNgoro Crater and Tarangire National Park. We followed the dusty highway south for hours, passing through the dry Olduvai Gorge and the vast Maasai-dominated plains of the NgoroNgoro Conservation Area onto the lip of the green-forested crater itself. I woke up one morning before dawn, perched on the edge of a vast basin filled with a blue fog. On the path below our lodge, a lonely Maasai drove his herd up the damp red-clayed paths and again out of site, the herd's clanging bells finally absorbed by the mist.
The crater is famous for the density and diversity of its wildlife. In its lakes and marshes wallowed hippos and flocks of flamingos, through its acacia forests paraded elephants 40-members deep, and along its plains run the herds of wildebeest and zebra, and the elusive Black Rhino. The Rhino was our main target for the crater, a species so difficult to find. Not a month before we were there, a mother and baby had been killed up in the Serengeti, reducing even further the species that only exists in double-digit numbers. We only saw the rhinos from so afar that they were not much more than a spec even with binocular. But you could tell the size of the horns that are so prized, proportionately much bigger than I expected, narrowing into an impossibly tiny pinprick point at the tip.
Our second camp was in the plains south of Serengeti, in Tarangire. We slept and ate near to but not within sight of a lake, and by day we made our way through the spotted thickets of acacia, trunks broken off by foraging elephants. The drying pools of alkaline water, spotted with birds and marked by footprints, were also marked by the carcass of a young giraffe that had found itself trapped in the mud, and later by a herd of lions. Grass clustered on sand dunes near the water, the perfect hiding or napping spot for a predator. The lake was the center of everything, which we drove by many times a day, our path pitted by ravines carved by the moving water.
The zebra are feisty animals, honking like donkeys in the dusk near our tents, and fighting with one another using their big, creepy teeth. Fun fact: the lady zebras congregate in "Harems" with their babies, and maybe a male or two to help produce more of them.
The impala move around in packs with their tiny, stick-thin little legs — moving together and jumping like spring-loaded slinkies. They've been known to jump up to nine feet.
On our way to a camp we came across a wildebeest giving birth. Because their best self-defense is safety in numbers, a wildebeest can pause part way through birth. This mama was walking around with four legs and a head sticking out of her, but she seemed
perturbed by our presence so we moved on to let her birth in peace. Another pregnant mom gave birth in front of us, the calf and placenta sliding out of her in a certainly eerie sort of way. The calf was up on its feet and able to walk within five minutes, drunkenly stumbling over its own legs. If the little guy couldn't keep up with the herd almost immediately, he would have to be left behind.
The most common fact we heard about the Cape Buffalo was about their temperament. Huge cow-looking creatures, they stare at you and barely move, but in their glare you can see something distinctly frightening. They're dangerous, and easy-to-rile.
ELEPHANT (TEMBO in swahili)
We spent a ton of our time with the elephants, coming across them anywhere we stayed. One
of the best experiences was in the NgoroNgoro Crater, when we came across a herd of maybe 40 elephants, mothers and their babies in various stages of growth. We stopped and let them cross all around us, grazing on the bushes and yellow-barked trees. They were no more than ten feet away from us at times and we could see their distinguishing marks, like the grooves set in their tusks by using them as a lever to pull plants from the ground.
The lions were a bit difficult to observe. Because their bodies require so much energy to function, and because we were centrally out during daylight hours, we pretty much just saw them siesta-ing. The one interesting experience we had was a sort of half-hearted hunt, where we tracked a young female as she spent 20 minutes inching her way toward a herd of wildebeest, though not close enough to the ground to successfully evade their detection.
Tarangire was all about the cheetah for us. We would go searching for them every day, waking up sometimes before sunrise to hope and see a local mom teaching her three cubs to hunt. It's that family pictured in the image you can see above here.
The cheetah were certainly worth the passion our guide showed for them. Their movements are so smooth and sleek, while their baby-faces are expressive, with those huge eyes. There were times when we would park the cars and the cheetah would come right up to us, chasing one another around the vehicles and trying to climb to the top of them. The craziest thing about them though, is their chirp. To communicate, they open their mouths all the way, and a teeny tiny noise comes out — hard to distinguish from a bird chirp.
Cheetahs are the most well-known in this ecosystem for their run, but each animal has their own distinct and fascinating gait. Hyenas look like a stiff dog, their hind legs too short to propel them far at a time. Giraffes look like they’re in slow motion, long limbs and necks swaying in rhythm. The wildebeeste are like a seesaw on four spindles, their bodies and legs seeming to move independently. The zebra with their short legs have a big bellied gallop. The lions are big and awkward, running in a loping jog showing grace more when they stalk prey, their shoulder blades moving up and down as they go. The cheetah are low to the ground, but fast and smooth as streaming water.
There's not much I learned about the flamingo, as the flocks congregate in the middle of the shallow lakes, far from our view. It's beautiful to think about, these terribly awkward birds gathering together to turn into a vivid pink cloud, beautifully clustering along the top of a body of water.
I loved watching the jackals play, chasing one another around. This is one of my favorite pictures I took on the trip, I picture them as a pair of siblings picking on one another.
The vultures are deliciously creepy, their long necks swaying with their head, biting at
one another as they pick apart a carcass. They look completely evil, with their fluffy white collars stained with blood, moving all around together to bully other scavengers off of prey.
We woke up before dawn to catch sight of the hyenas, a personal request of mine — I love the strange and feared members of the animal kingdom (bats are my favorite). As we drove through the morning fog I kept picturing the ghostly hyenas coming from the mist, cackling. They look like the byproduct of a bear and a dog, a strange but powerful gate propelling them in packs to their dens with the rising sun.
These are some of the most beautiful birds, bright green and red and yellow. They're
known to remain in mating pairs through their lives. I believe in Tanzania these are Fischer's Lovebird, named after a German explorer of Africa in the 1800s. The species doesn't show sexual dimorphism, meaning that you can't tell male from female by plumage alone, which I love since generally the female bird of a species doesn't get as much flash to show off.
There are hundreds and hundreds of different birds in this ecosystem, and these are some of the strangest-looking. Their name is thought to derive from the feathers protruding out of the backs of their heads, I've heard either because their hairstyle emulates some famous crazy-haired secretary from TV, or because the spines look like a pen a secretary puts behind her ear.