On Safari in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater

March 22, 2010 at 7:34 am | Posted in Africa, ecotourism, safaris, Tanzania | Leave a comment
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by Fyllis Hockman

Africa Tanzania Ngorongoro CraterFor people contemplating an Africa wildlife safari, the first place that comes to mind may well be Kenya. But many aficionados favor Tanzania, thanks to its vast Serengeti plains and a nearby volcanic caldera called Ngorongoro.

On my trip to this East African country not long ago, Ngorongoro was far and away the star. Occupying just 102 square miles (264 sq. km), this 2½-million-year-old collapsed volcano is a virtual microcosm of this region of the continent, home to some 30,000 examples of every conceivable species — a distinction that makes it unique in the world. And this means that unlike in some other game parks, here you can spot and snap the “Big Five” (lions, elephants, rhinos, leopards, Cape buffalos) and dozens of other species without high-powered binoculars or a huge telephoto lens.

Moreover, Ngorongoro’s creatures seem surprisingly tolerant of sharing space with each other as well as with humans. Hyenas, zebras, wildebeests, ostriches, elephants, lions, warthogs, hippos, baboons, cheetahs, and leopards all exist within view of each other. These days in Africa it’s not always easy to spot cheetahs and leopards, except for here.

Of course, such a concentration of fauna does have its consequences: With the number of visitors increasing each year, conservation and sustainability issues are becoming more and more a concern. Efforts are in the offing to either restrict access or increase entrance fees.

Wildlife Up Close

From hatch-roof jeeps 11 of us gawked, ooh-ed, ah-ed, and snapped picture after picture while the critters studiously ignored us. It’s hard to describe the wonder of being ten or so paces from an elephant that’s 12 feet (almost 4 meters) high at the shoulder, its tusks practically reaching the ground. Or a black-maned lion baring its teeth, or half-a-dozen adolescent zebras cavorting around a water hole.

Then, of course, there was the highlight: spotting the black rhino, of which there are only 4,000 left in all of Africa. For such a large (second only to the elephants) and dangerous animal, I found the rhino doesn’t seem to do much. This one just stood there, neither grazing nor charging, simply looking unimpressed with its surroundings—especially us.

The loping antelope, by contrast, are much more graceful and spirited. “Antelope” is actually a generic term covering a wide range of animals, from 11-pound (four-kilogram) dik diks to 2,000-pound (907-kilo) elands. In between are the springboks, riverbucks, hardebeests, wildebeests, impalas, topis, gazelles and others, with horns from curved to straight, twisted to rippled, rounded to wavy.

Leopards & Cheetahs

We got lucky. Not only did we see two leopards virtually indistinguishable from the tree branches they were wound around, but also a family of cheetahs frolicking nearby. Four cubs romped and rolled over each other, periodically returning to mom for grooming and reassurance.

Mama, though, was eyeing several gazelles about a quarter-mile away. They played a little cat-and-gazelle game, with the leopard debating whether or not to fetch some lunch. Prey and predator eyed each other, each evaluating its position. You could feel the tension, irrevocably caught up in the life-and-death dance that forms the essence of their existence. I was both relieved and disappointed when the cheetah decided against take-out.

And sometimes success — depending upon one’s perspective — is obvious. Case in point: the lion that was so close, I could see its whiskers tremble. The creature’s stomach was distended, clearly indicating how well it had feasted the night before. Observed our guide, Joseph Ndunguru, “Thirty to forty pounds of raw meat will satiate him for four or five days.”

One of the most intriguing photo ops was of a flock of flamingoes numbering in the thousands and occupying most of Lake Magadi, at the bottom of the crater. They resembled a feathery pink blanket stretched out along the shoreline.

Ndunguru could turn anyone into a solid amateur zoologist. Before long, members of the group were identifying a previously generic starling as a Ruppells long-tailed glossy and the ubiquitous antelope as a hardebeest or Grant’s gazelle. By the sixth day, it was, “Don’t bother getting up, it’s just another elephant.”

Luxury Safari

A travel story is often enhanced by the obstacles overcome, but this trip didn’t really present any, in good part thanks to the fact that I was traveling with luxury outfitter Abercrombie & Kent. The sun was brighter, the game lodges a mix of luxury and rustic décor, the flies relatively subdued, and the dust lighter than it might have been. I actually returned to my hotel with clothes still resembling the colors they’d started out with.

The roads were another story, a hardship that can’t be avoided unless you walk, which was definitely discouraged. Anyone with back problems — or allergies, for that matter — should think twice about this sort of trip.

Seated on the balcony at the Serengeti Sopa Lodge in Arusha the last morning, I listened to a concerto of birdcalls while two Thompson’s gazelles romped with a topi. A flock of guinea hens grazed within 50 yards, assiduously avoiding a passing warthog.

But what especially struck me was the presence of all the other animals, hidden in grass and shrubs, that I knew I was not seeing. Occupying those endless plains were millions of hoofed  creatures continually on the move in search of pasture, constantly watched and pursued by predators whose own survival depends upon feeding off them. For awhile, I watched for the slightest movement, as a hungry predator might do as it seeks its next meal. Then I reluctantly left for the airport, knowing (or certainly hoping) that this strange combination of imposing terrain, tenuous commingling of wildlife — and, yes,  inevitable brutal killings — will continue long after I’m gone.

For more on Africa wildlife excursions, see this blog’s Safaris 101.


Africa Safaris 101: The Game’s Afoot

November 16, 2009 at 11:49 am | Posted in Africa, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe | 2 Comments
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by Julian Harrison

pic-groups-africa-safaris-istock_000008212126xsmallSwahili for “journey,” the word “safari” originated when Arab slave and ivory traders ventured through wild country where the tribes were least sophisticated and most dangerous — and where the elephants and other trophy animals dwelled. Today, Africa’s most popular photo safari areas are its south and southeast, mainly due to wide-open ecosystems home to countless fauna and flora.

Most itineraries are organized around luxury lodges — some stone and thatch, others large tents akin to canvas suites, with several days at several lodges. For more remote destinations with few or no roads, like northern Botswana and southern Tanzania, fly-in safaris are more common, with small bush planes shuttling guests between lodges.

Many lodges offer walking as an option, but walking safaris have you on foot with an armed guard most or all of the time, sometimes walking each day from one pre-erected camp to another. Canoe trails  are conducted down some of Africa’s great rivers, such as the Zambezi between Zimbabwe and Zambia with small groups of up to eight paddling in two-person canoes from one pre erected camp to another (not recommended for first-timers). Finally, mobile safaris put you in Land Rovers or Toyota Land Cruisers fitted with extra seats, long-range fuel tanks, high canopies, and large windows. Most are self-sufficient camping affairs using a mix of public and private campsites, and sometimes booking into luxury lodges along the way.

Top destinations

Botswana is rainy from late November through February, while June-October is prime game-spotting season.  Mostly small, spread-out tented camps allow for low-density viewing; they’re either luxury tented camps or low-end, with visitors expected to put up their own tents and assist with chores.

One of Africa’s greatest remaining nature sanctuaries, accessed by light aircraft and four-wheel-drive vehicles, its Okavango Delta covers more than 6,000 square miles (almost 16,000  square km) of waterways, palm-filled islands, and lagoons and harbors the most animal and plant species in the southern hemisphere. Activities include game drives in open vehicles, guided island walks, and poling through shallow, reed-lined channels in makoros (dugout canoes).

In East Africa,  Kenya‘s and Tanzania‘s numerous national parks are known for their vast array of species and especially for their annual wildebeest migration. Following the Serengeti’s April/May rains, wildebeest move into its western corridor toward the Mara River, generally staying in Kenya’s Maasai Mara late July to early November before returning to the Serengeti. Rainy seasons are April through early June and November/early December.

National parks and reserves cover over eight percent of Kenya. The “Big Five” (elephant, lion, rhino, buffalo, leopard) can be seen in Masai Mara and Amboseli national parks, amongst others; remote Samburu holds unique species like Beisa oryx, reticulated giraffe, Somali ostrich, gerenuk, and Grevy’s zebra; viewing’s best July through September and January through March. Masai Mara’s undulating hills and rolling grasslands support huge animal populations, including elephants, cheetahs, leopards, Cape buffalos, giraffe, gazelles, Topi antelope, and Africa’s largest lion population; in the Mara River there are also hundreds of hippos and crocodiles.

Top among Tanzania’s extraordinary wildlife and grand landscapes are the year-round snow-capped peaks of majestic Mount Kilimanjaro; mighty, mystical Ngorongoro Crater; and the Serengeti National Park, with more than three million large animals spread across vast.

Semi-desert and one of Africa’s least populated countries, Namibia is all about unspoiled nature, rich wildlife, abundant sunshine, and striking beauty, with a short rainy season in November and the main rains in February and March.

Etosha National Park is mainly saline desert, savannah, and woodlands;  its main feature is the Etosha Pan, a shallow depression stretching some 6,133 square kilometers (about 2,400 square miles). This white “place of dry water” is very different from Africa’s other reserves; some days it’s a shimmering sheet of mirages on which the animals appear to be floating on air. Its more than 110 mammal species include rare endangered species such as black rhino and black-faced impala, the latter unique to northwestern Namibia and southwestern Angola.

In South Africa‘s top wildlife destination, Kruger National Park, annual rains fall late November through February; the rest of the year’s mostly dry. Game-spotting’s good almost year round, but July and August are considered low season, so fewer tourists come to the lodges and you can score some great deals. In actual fact, it’s still a superb time for game viewing.

Many luxury lodges line Kruger’s western boundary in three main areas: Sabi Sands, Timbivati, and Manyaleti. Sabi Sands is best for year-round game; a two- or three-night stay should yield “Big Five” sightings at the very least.

Uganda is where the East African savannah meets the West African jungle, and the only place in Africa where you can watch lions prowling the open plains in the morning, track wild chimpanzees through the rainforest in the afternoon, then the next day navigate tropical channels teeming with hippo and crocodiles before setting off into misty mountains to spend time with Uganda’s stars: its highly endangered mountain gorillas. Seeing these gentle giants up close is as humbling as it is thrilling, particularly when one realizes that there are a mere 700 or so left in the wild, found only in Bwindi National Park and the Virunga Mountains. Heavy rains come March through May, then lighter rains in October/November.

Bigger than Texas, Zambia has big, unspoiled national parks with tremendous game viewing, especially on walking safaris.  It’s rainy, though, so the season’s fairly short;  the best time is June through October, but April/May and November/December also offer decent wildlife spotting.

The 3,500-square-mile (9,000-square-kilometer) Luangwa Valley is one of Africa’s last unspoiled wilderness areas and one of its finest wildlife sanctuaries. The Luangwa River meanders through, and oxbow lagoons, woodlands, and plains harbor huge animal populations, including elephants, buffalos, lions, giraffes, and hippos; Luangwa’s especially well known for leopards.

Finally, Zimbabwe may be a disaster politically and economically, but it’s still top-notch and safe for game viewing, with unspoiled wilderness and outstanding variety of wildlife,  including endangered species which once roamed all Africa.  Dry except during for late November through February; game spotting is good for most of the year, and peak season runs June through October.

Hwange National Park includes vast open palm-fringed plains, acacia woodlands, and mopane forests with elephants, buffalos, sables, roans, giraffe, wildebeests, impalas, and sometimes oryx. It’s also tops for predators — lions, leopards, wild dog, and cheetah, along with the smaller African wildcats, serval, honey badger, civits, and hyenas.

More info: Tripatini’s Africa Safaris group.

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