Ngorongoro Crater Part 1

As a follow-up to the story of the shilling, here is another excerpt from Coffee, Tea and Holy Water, where I was able to visit the “8th Wonder of the World” – Ngorongoro Crater, with TZ missionaries Danny and Nancy Smelser:


On Thursday, I am able to teach the story of Noah’s Ark at a Swahili primary school, as religion (in some form or fashion), is a mandatory course for elementary children.

This lesson seems strangely coincidental, as the following day we are going to Ngorongoro Crater, the “8th Wonder of the World,” and one of the premier safari destinations in Tanzania.

Originally a gigantic volcano, Ngorongoro Crater was formed when a volcano collapsed inward, creating a 10-12 mile crater. The crater is home to more than 30,000 animals. While migration outside the crater is possible, most species live year-round inside the crater, making it a natural fishbowl for safari-goers.

Early that morning, we sleepily pile into the jeep to begin the three-hour trek to Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Not knowing much about the animal world, I consult a trusty safari book, which oozes enthusiasm for our journey:

“As you embark on your safari, consider how lucky you are to be witnessing these rare species in their natural habitat. The element of excitement in a safari is ever present; part of it, perhaps is the potential for danger, but part is also the notion that you are on a voyage of discovery.”

It is still early, and as we drive along the main road, out of nowhere, Danny points out three giraffes grazing lazily 30 ft. from the road. The first up-close encounter with a safari animal! The giraffes seem to move in slow motion, adding a regal sense to their appearance. While we stop to watch these giraffes, another herd appears on the left side of the road, apparently deciding to join their buddies on the right. They meander slowly across the yellow and white-striped line.

This brings us to Safari Rule #1.

“Don’t get too close to the animals and don’t try to help them cross a perceived obstacle. You have no idea what it’s really trying to do or where it wants to go.”

After 20 minutes or so, Danny re-cranks the engine, and we resume our journey east toward the crater. Upon arrival, we slowly ascend the mountain, preparing to drive along the rim of the caldera. We stop at a plain brown building at the mouth of the park to redeem our tickets and pick up a guide. Nancy and I make use of the outhouses next to a gas station straight out of the 1950s. For Ngorongoro to be a natural wonder, the tide of commercialism that would have engulfed the area in the U.S. (think Grand Canyon) hasn’t caught on at all.

When I come out of the outhouse, I am surprised to see six zebras casually strolling through the station, as if they had come to help us pump gas. Seeing them at such short range reminds me of how little I actually know about zebras. How close is too close? Should I get in the car? I uneasily back toward the vehicle. The zebras pass so close to the jeep, I could have reached out to touch them, but I am afraid to make any sudden movements. I can feel the eyes of the gas attendants on me, and I know they are laughing at the girl from Alabama who is afraid of zebras.

Danny soon comes out of the crater offices with our paperwork, followed by 17-year-old Lucas, our mandatory guide, who is training to go into Tanzanian tourism. Crater expert now in hand, we embark on the dusty, bumpy road descending into the crater. “Bumpy” might actually be a bit of an understatement, as we are pitched and thrown like popcorn in a popper. I start to worry that the road descending into the crater will actually tear up our car.

The roads down inside the crater are poor, but at least they are flat. There are only three or four places down in the crater where visitors are allowed to get out of their vehicle, and as we arrive at the first stop, the liability of what we are about to do dawns on me for the first time. We are in the middle of a field of wild animals with nothing between us and the animals. All of a sudden, my common sense – which must have been dormant on the drive down – kicks in. “Bad idea. Haven’t these people seen Jurassic Park??” All of a sudden, what we are about to do seems both exciting and ridiculous at the same time. For some reason, I had always thought of a “safari” as men in pith helmets armed with rifles on the back of a double-decker vehicle, not three unarmed civilians in a white 4×4 jeep.

I briefly wondered how much it would take for the side of the car to be crushed by a charging rhino.

As our guide, Lucas is supposed to ensure that everyone stays inside the vehicle, but I can’t help but wonder, if all of the occupants decided to get out of the car at the same time, what could he really do to stop them? Only in Tanzania would the honor system and a walkie talkie be sufficient.

“Immersion in the African safari lands is a privilege,” the travel book admonishes. “Caution is your most trusted safety measure. Keep your distance, keep quiet, and keep your hands to yourself, and you should be fine.”

Three suspicious cape buffalo linger 50 or so yards from the vehicle – one in particular who seems to be annoyed at our presence.

Safari Rule #2: “Never try to get an animal to pose with you.”

I look at the lone, staring bull, horns curved upward like a mustache and try to imagine myself asking him, “Will you pose with me?” 

“Cape buffalo are perhaps the least glamorous, but most deadly of The Big Five,” reports the travel book, “as they generally kill more humans per year than lions, cheetahs, elephants or rhinos. You shouldn’t fear a herd, but do be on the lookout for lone old males. While seemingly lethargic, these old guys can turn on a dime and run like lightning.”

Next we come to a herd of zebra, 100 or so grazing in a field.

A herd of zebra is a psychedelic thing to behold. Vertical stripes on the head, neck and front part of the body gently slope to horizontal stripes on the rear and hindquarters like the curving stripes of a candy cane. Put 20 or more together at a close distance and it makes for an optical experience straight out of the 1960s.

A key prey of lions, a zebra’s stripes help camouflage them in grass or make a cluster of zebras appear as one large animal to the colorblind lion. Their foals are actually brown and white instead of black and white, making it even easier for them to go undetected in tall grass or branches. Zebras themselves have excellent eyesight, allowing them to quickly spot approaching threats.

A little further down, we meet an ostrich with a black-and-white tipped body, with a striking pink head and legs, all alone in a field.

Safari Rule #3 – “Approach animals cautiously and feel the response of the animals. Human presence along wild animals never goes unnoticed.”

This little guy is eager to let us observe him, striking more poses than a celebrity on the red carpet. He stops, turns his back to us and then swivels his head around dramatically, as if to say, “Check this out, primates!”

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

[To be Continued…]