Ngorongoro Crater Part 2

….[Continued from the previous post]

We roll on, and after a mile or so, suddenly we see three curious mounds in the grass – lions!

“There’s nothing quite like the feeling of first setting eyes on one of the Big Five – lion, buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion and rhino – in the African bush. Being just a few feet away from these majestic creatures is both terrifying and exhilarating, even for the most seasoned safari-goer.”

A sleepy male lion groggily lifts his head out of the grass, his autumn mane blowing in the breeze. He looks at our jeep disinterestedly before laying his head back on his paws. He looks like a large rock, fur molting slightly and eyes closed. A nearby lioness yawns, licking her teeth lazily. She squints her slanted eyes, as if agitated by the sunlight and dry grass.

“Lions will often lick each other, rub heads, and purr contentedly. But don’t be fooled by their charms. When a lion moves, it can do so with awesome speed and power – a charging lion can cover 330 feet in four seconds,” the travel guide informs us.

I gaze at the female in front of me, trying to imagine her pouncing on some unsuspecting prey. She unceremoniously raises her hind leg and scratches.

While we watch the inactive lumps in front of us, Lucas tells us more about lions. The word for lions in Swahili is “simba.” Much like most households, the women do all the work, gathering food for the entire pride, which usually consists of 6-8 females and 1-2 males. The males fight with other males and eat what the females catch, Lucas says.

The lionesses generally wait until after dark when temperatures are cooler and visibility is low to hunt. But while capable of running at violent speeds of up to 40 mph, lions can only sprint for a short time, making it necessary to sneak up very close to their prey before springing the attack. Lions have no natural predators in the wild, other than the occasional encounter with crocodiles, Lucas says. Their greatest danger is other lions and from human hunters like the Maasai.

We soon stop for lunch at the hippo pool – 50 or so hippos submerged in the glassy water with only their backsides, and the pink around their eyes and ears showing. This is one of the few places tourists are allowed out of the car. Visibility is good in all directions, but I still scan the horizon for any sign of approaching beasts.

Dead safari-goers tell no tales.

As we make our way to the outhouse buildings, bones as big around as my waist indicate the presence of elephants, as well as cape buffalo skulls. The jeep once again kicks up dust as we trundle toward the far side of the crater. Slowing to a crawl, we can see a speck on the horizon, which Lucas identifies as the elusive black rhino. There are only 25 or so in the entire crater, he says.

Weighing more than one ton each, rhinos have an herbivorous diet and are famous for their large horn, which is crushed into powder and used for traditional Chinese medicine.

Weaving our way through the crater fields, we pass thompson gazelle and greater kudu grazing idly. After driving for some time, we come across another pride of lions, one male and four females sleeping in the light rain. We drive along a nearly dried up lake with two lions lying in the mud of the lake.

We move on and without warning, about 200 yards from where we saw the lions, we pull up to a bare, two-seat outhouse, shaded by trees. Danny stops the jeep and Lucas informs us casually that this is the last rest stop before beginning the long, laborious trek out of the crater. I am shocked. An outhouse right here in the middle of lion territory? How do we know there aren’t lions in the tall grass, waiting to pounce on unsuspecting humans answering the call of nature?

I decide to make a run for it. Literally.

Climbing up the long, winding road out of the crater, our main concern is not sliding over the side of the muddy cliff to our right. The jeep fishtails enough to make Nancy and I exchange worried glances, as there is no barrier preventing vehicles from sliding off the muddy road.

Once we are back on the road to Arusha and the immediate threat of going over the side of the cliff is over, I am able to reflect on the overall magnificence of the crater.

There is something childlike about a day spent watching animals. Something about how when we are young we take in the world around us, but when we get older, we move beyond the animal world and our focus shifts to the troubles of the human world.

We plow through our day, barely noticing the wildlife around us – birds in trees, bugs on the sidewalk, squirrels on a park bench. When the Lord rebukes Job in the Bible, he brings up the animal kingdom as a gentle reminder of his majesty:

“Do you hunt prey for the lioness
and satisfy the hunger of the lions?
Who let the wild donkey [zebra] go free?
I gave him the wasteland as his home,
the salt flats as his habitat.
He laughs at the commotion in town,
he does not hear a driver’s shout.
Will the wild ox [cape buffalo] consent to serve you?
Will he stay by your manger at night?
The wings of the ostrich flap joyfully.
She lays her eggs on the ground
and lets them warm in the sand,
unmindful that a foot may crush them,
that some wild animal may trample them.
She treats her young harshly, as if they were not hers;
she cares not that her labor was in vain,
for God did not endow her with wisdom
or give her a share of good sense.

Yet when she spreads her feathers to run
she laughs at horse and rider.
Look at the [elephant] which I made along with you
and which feeds on grass like an ox.
What strength he has in his loins,
what power in the muscles of his belly!
His bones are like tubes of bronze,
his limbs like rods of iron.
He ranks first among the works of God,
yet his Maker can approach him with his sword.
The hills bring him their produce
and all the wild animals play nearby.”

When the apostle Paul later writes about gifts in the body of Christ, he uses the analogy of the human body, but after spending a day watching the Circle of Life, I think how easily he could have used the animal kingdom instead.

For example, lions are perhaps the most glamorous zoo animal, but they themselves are their own worst predator (along with humans), turning sometimes on their own pride. Only the lionesses hunt. They have limited vision and are unable to sprint for long periods of time.

And while it would seem that the other animals are visibly weaker, cape buffalo have their horns and the fierce protection of their herd. Zebras have sharp eyesight and stripes for colorblind camouflage. Giraffes have their mottled pattern for camouflage and powerful hind legs – one kick is enough to crush a predator’s skull. Cheetahs have their incredible speed and leopards the ability to climb trees. Hippos are highly aggressive and frequently found in pools with crocodiles, which often surprise the would-be predators with their presence. Impressive as all this is, it hardly scratches the surface of the capabilities and intricacies of each creature.

And because of the way the food chain is intertwined, if one species suffers, the entire savannah suffers with it, in the same way that if one part of the body suffers, the others suffer with it.

When playing zoo, most little children would probably want to be a lion – no one particularly wants to be a hyena or an anteater. I think about how foolishly we often throw away our own spiritual gifts trying to be the lion – someone we’re not. Call it the circle of life in the spirit, if you will. “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.” Are all athletes? Are all public speakers? Are all money managers, dreamers, risk takers or scholars?

Back at the house that night, I have to say, the strange noises outside my bedroom window don’t seem so scary anymore. I am starting to get used to the wild and beautiful shrieks of animals in the darkness.

They blur with the occasional shouts from the night watchmen and I eventually fall asleep, unable to tell if I am listening to the calls of animals or humans.