Photo Safari in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater

No one complained about breakfast at 5:30 am, the Discover Corps group in Tanzania were headed to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area for the day (It’s usually referred to as the Ngorongoro Crater.) Ngorongoro is the world’s largest unflooded, intact volcanic caldera with the highest concentration of animals anywhere. We would arrive at sunrise and slowly drive around portions of the rim, then head down into the one-hundred square mile central plain.

Ngorongoro Crater Visitor Center
First stop on a photo safari – the Visitor Center

Entering Ngorongoro Crater

We stopped at the Visitor Center, taking advantage of the few bathrooms available, and studied a model of the region to get the correct perspective. The morning weather was chilly, damp and misty; the coldest I’d experienced in Africa. Made sense; we were at an elevation of 7,500 feet at sun-up. I was happy I had my Gore-Tex jacket.

Alan, the charismatic guide from the day before, was driving again and had his eye out for lions, known to hang around the rim in the morning. I glimpsed a few Maasai herding along the path but saw no other animals. As a matter of fact, the fog was so dense, those of us in the van didn’t see much of anything. Then, Alan slowed and stopped. “Shh,” he said. Hiding in the tall grass not far off the road was a lion. I would never have seen it, but Alan’s trained eye found the big cat.

Lion hides in the tall grass.
My guide spied this lion hiding in the grass.

We stared in disbelief. “Oh my gosh, I’m a few feet away from a lion,” I mumbled, “My first lion in the wild!!!” The cat crept out of the grass and onto the road. Everyone in the van was trying to get photos through the windows as we had not yet popped open the car’s top. Soon, a second lion appeared through the haze, and then another. I had goose-bumps of excitement: three lions were now strolling down the road as if they hadn’t a care in the world – and I was watching. I was beyond thrilled to see them. While thankful I captured a few photos, one quickly gets demanding. I didn’t want my only lion photos to be on a dirt road. Now, I wanted lions on the prowl.

Early morning sighting of a lion on the dirt path.
My first sighting of a lion in the wild.

Driving down into the Crater

Alan drove on, and the crater soon opened up, a 12- mile wide amphitheater of fields, hills and lakes that’s home to thousands of African species. First along the way were Cape buffalo. We hadn’t seen these in Tarangire National Park, and I marveled at their expressive faces and horns. (Made me think of Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble, too – remember them in Water Buffalo Lodge hats?)

The Cape Buffalo is a very large animal.
A Cape Buffalo in the Ngorongoro Crater.

Zebra came next, crossing the road in single file right in front of us; such remarkable creatures whose gorgeous black and white stripes almost look like surreal artwork. We paused across from a mama nursing her foal. How sweet.

A zebra nursing her young.
A Mama zebra nurses his young foal.

Hyenas were on the chase; now this was exciting. Not sure exactly sure what this guy was after, but this photo is one of my favorite action shots.

A laughing hyena on the chase.
Hyena on the chase. Is he laughing?

A small lake bubbling with hippos appeared around the bend. (Hooray,  I can check hippos off my list.) But wait, there were some lions stretched out watching the hippos, however, the hippos didn’t seem to like the lions being so close. They hobbled their big bellies out of the water using their short, squatty legs and with a show of force, the lions receded. (We drove to a better vantage point to continue watching.)

Close-up of a huge hippo swimming.
A close-up look at a hippo.

The trio of lions didn’t take the threat for long. They tousled their heads and slowly sauntered back and again lay on the banks near the pond, as if to say you hippos can’t bother us. We waited, but nothing more happened, so we moved on. (That seems to be how these photo safaris go.)

Portrait of a resting lion.
A close-up of a lion.
Two lions defending their territory.
Lions defending their territory.

“Look, ” someone in the van called: ostriches ahead; big and awkward birds.

“Watch carefully,” said Alan, ” These are going to mate. You’ll see one attracting the other, dancing a bit and ruffling its feathers. Soon, they may mate and then get up and go their separate ways.” Sure enough, that is precisely what happened.

Ostrich attracting a mate by ruffling its feathers.
An ostrich ruffling its feathers.
Crested Crane-1

We spied wildebeest, many more zebra, some interesting birds and a couple varieties of gazelles.

Wildebeest and zebras.
A Wildebeest on the prowl.

Then we noticed many vans parked along a section of the road. We joined them. In the far, far distance was a lone black rhino. (Again, I would never have noticed it on my own.) These rhinos are an endangered species, so it’s reassuring to know at least this one was safe from poachers. We couldn’t get close enough for a good photo, so I had to be content just knowing it was there.

Lone Black Rhino
Lone Black Rhino

We meandered along the route, stopping whenever something interesting caught our eye. We didn’t see elephants, but the guide said some of the elderly bulls might be down by the big lake at the bottom of the crater. He explained that they have trouble eating because they’ve lost teeth, so they get nutrients from the lake. We did spot a few elephants in the distance as we passed by, but nothing like the herds we saw in Tarangire National Park.

The Bottom of the Crater and Lunch

By lunchtime, we arrived at the picnic grounds (and bathrooms!) but were told we must eat inside the vans. Big birds were hovering above, waiting to swoop down and snatch some food.

An elephant with a broken tusk.
Here comes an elephant.

We noticed a ginormous elephant coming toward the car park. We got out and took some photos. He came closer and closer…and closer. Finally, all the guides called their passengers back into the vans. The majestic elephant marched on, in front of the line-up of vehicles, never bothering with any of us, and then started walking up the hill.

Seeing an elephant in close range.
Watching the elephant parade by –until my guide called me back to the van.

We were going to head back that way, so we followed and got some fantastic shots with the incredible natural landscape as background. This photo was the highlight of my day.

An elephant in the lowest parts of the crater.
An elephant at the bottom of the crater.

Heading Back up the Crater Road

It was time to start our trek out of the park, but still stopping from time to time. We were delighted by some baboons and a large lion with a golden mane who was asleep under a tree. Of course, the song the Lion Sleeps Tonight rang in our heads! This King of the Crater seemed without any worries or cares. Hakuna Matata!

A lion sleeping under a tree.
The Lion Sleeps Tonight and during the day!

A one-way road back to the rim speeds up traffic in the park exiting the park. This new road is an engineering marvel, and I wished we could have lingered, or stopped during our ascent, but there are no pull-outs for scenic lookouts. We did stop when we reached the top.

Above Ngorongoro Crater looking out and down.
Looking down and across the magnificent Ngorongoro Crater.

The visit to the Ngorongoro Crater ranks as one of the best days of my life. As a photographer, I was challenged, yet pleased with some of my shots- at least what I could see on the back of my camera. The African conservation area and wildlife passionately spoke to me, telling the ongoing struggle of life, the beauty of a newborn, the grace of an elder. I felt in awe of these creatures, and thankful that there is a place where animals have rights. If only the hours could rewind and repeat like the movie Ground Hog Day.

A hippo going into the water.
The hippos in their little lake.