From Sun Jan 12 11:26:28 PST 1997

Visited Ngorongoro Crater 12-28 and 12-29

Ngorongoro Crater is a spectacular sight, a caldera formed by the collapse of an ancient volcano's cone. The caldera seems vast, measuring 260 sq km, but it makes up only a small part of the 8300 sq km of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA). Ngorongoro is not part of the Tanzanian National Parks system, but rather is a separate entity administered by an independent body, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority. One of the unique aspects of the NCA is that it is shared by both animals and people. The Maasai are the main residents of the NCA and they heard cattle, goats and do some limited farming. The Maasai are not allowed to live in any of Tanzania's other parks, therefore the sight of Maasai cattle grazing near gnu and zebra is unique to the NCA.

In addition to Ngorongoro Crater, the NCA has two other, smaller crater ecosystems, Olmoti and Empakaai. The northern area of NCA is made up of the Serengeti and Salei plains while Oldupai Gorge lies west of the crater. (OLDUPAI is the correct spelling, taken from the Maasai name of the plant which grows in the area - Olduvai is the modern convention based on an early European mis-spelling.)

There is a single road on the crater's rim, running around the southern half of the crater. One lodge (SOPA) is located on the eastern rim, while the other lodges and campgrounds are on the western side. There is a one-way descent road on the west side, a one-way ascent road on the south-west, and a two-way road on the east near Sopa Lodge. The trip down to the crater floor takes about 30 minutes.

Most of the crater is open grassland surrounding a lake near the center of the caldera. A large swamp lies south of the lake and the thickest forest in the crater is to the southwest. Vegetation was sparse in most areas due to the poor rains, but areas near permanent water were lush and green. Off road driving is prohibited due to the small area and high traffic. (One of the criticisms of Ngorongoro is the large number of safari vehicles which you will likely encounter.)

Ngorongoro boasts on the highest concentrations of wildlife in East Africa and game viewing can be excellent. Between 20,000 and 25,000 large animals make their home in the crater, supported by the availability of water year-round. The walls of the crater are 600m high, but do not stop animals from moving in or out of the caldera. Only the giraffe and impala are not found in the crater. During our day and a half in the crater, we were able to observe most all of the major animals including lion, rhino, elephant, hippo and cape buffalo. Gazelle, gnu and zebra were plentiful as well. In all, we counted more than 25 specicies of animals - and we weren't looking hard! Birds were also abundant and in great variety. The crater floor isn't the only place to see animals - the forest area is full of surpises.

After leaving the crater, you may wish to visit Oldupai Gorge which has a museum documenting the extensive archeological work which has been done there since the first discovery in 1911. The guides are very knowledgeable and present a very informative program from the observation area overlooking the gorge.

I would heartily recommend a visit to the crater for anyone on safari in East Africa. Everyone should see it once. I also recommend picking up the Ngorongoro Conservation Area guidebook by Jeannette Hanby and David Bygott. Published first in 1989, it contains a wealth of information about the region, its history, geology and the inhabitants (animal and people).

The Serengeti

From Tue Jan 14 09:28:59 PST 1997

And now, for the continuing saga of my Tanzania safari: The Serengeti! We visited Serengeti National Park on 30/31 December, staying at the SOPA Lodge which is located in the central region of the park. The trip from Ngorongoro to Serengeti is really one long game drive because there is plenty of wildlife to be seen along the way.

Serengeti National Park (SNP) is IMMENSE - aptly named from the Maasai word "siringet" - "wide open space/endless plain". The scope of the park is almost beyond belief, covering an area the size of Northern Ireland. Bordered on the east by Ngorongoro Conservation Area, it stretches north to the Kenya/Tanzania border and west almost to Lake Victoria. The "roads" in SNP were pretty good for the most part, although river crossings were a bit interesting. (This can be a real challenge in the rainy season due to flooding.) One advantage in SNP over NCA is that you are able to drive off road in many areas - this gives you the chance to really get out in the bush in search of animals or that "perfect" camera angle. The Serengeti also offers very diverse terrain. There are vast areas of flat, open plains and other areas of rocky foothills; dry regions and patches of lush vegetation around rivers and streams. The southern and eastern areas are also dotted with kopjes - islands of rock formations which rise suddenly from the plains.

Game viewing in SNP can be challenging, due to the wide open spaces. Sometimes you may drive a long time and see only a few gazelle. But for me, that is part of the attraction of the Serengeti - it still feels wild - and you can get away from other safari vans. And inspite of the openness, you can still get close to an animal if you're lucky (and patient). We came upon a lioness on a river bank and watched her from about 30 feet away - then she walked down TO our van and stretched out in the sand, less than 10 feet from us! And we had a similar encounter with a herd of 18 elephants. We heard reports from another group that they had very bad game viewing, but that may have been due in part to the fact that their driver got lost! In all, we counted more than 20 species of animals including elephant, giraffe, lion, buffalo (Cape or African, Syncerus caffer), hyena, gnu, zebra, gazelle and hippo. Among those that we saw in SNP which we had not seen in Ngorongoro were: impala, leopard, cheetah, dikdik, waterbuck, mongoose, bat-eared fox and topi.

The migration was still in progress and we encountered long lines of gnu on their march south, although the great herds had pretty much moved through already. Even so, it was an awesome sight.

The Serengeti has several lodges to choose from and they are all quite uniqe. They are pretty well spread out, so the terrain, scenery and game viewing can vary a great deal from lodge to lodge. Another unique feature of SNP is the early morning champagne balloon safari run out of the Seronera Lodge area. This is rather expensive ($300 per person) but many people raved about it. The balloon company services all the lodges so it doesn't take long to get booked up - if you want to go, sign up early. Better yet, tell your tour company and have it included in your itinerary. Ballooning was not offered in Ngorongoro or Lake Manyara NP, and the only other place I heard that it is available is the Maasai Mara (Kenya).

An interesting and informative reference source is the "Serengeti National Park Wet Season/Dry Season" map. Very well drawn, it shows the habit areas and terrain - wet season on one side, dry season on the other It has good drawings of the plants as they appear in each season, along with examples of animal tracks. I especially liked the month-by-month depiction of the migration routes through the Serengeti ecosystem. The map was readily available at gift shoppes in the park and in Arusha.