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An Expert insight on Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

The first thing we noticed about the Ngorongoro Crater is the cold. Crater Lodge is perched on the top of the rim at a height of 2,200 metres (7,200 feet) and several layers of clothing are required at night. In the cold, clear air of the late afternoon you can see the opposite side of the crater, 13 miles away, looking much closer than the distance suggests. But the afternoon sunshine changes into night-time fog that holds the area in a frozen grasp until the sun battles its way through again during the late morning.

The Ngorongoro Crater was once a gigantic volcano, thought to be taller than Kilimanjaro, but, today, long after its eruption, it is one of the largest calderas (collapsed volcanoes) in the world. Within its walls is an astounding variety of animals and vegetation, including grasslands, swamps, forests, saltpans, a freshwater lake and rich birdlife. Despite the steepness of the crater’s walls, there is considerable movement of animals in and out, thanks to the permanent water and lush grassland on the crater floor. Wildlife shares the crater with 60,000 local Masai, who have grazing rights, and we often came across them tending their cattle.

The steep crater walls have the advantage of keeping out poachers who covet ivory and rhino horn because the chances of going undetected are minimal. As a result, some of the elephant have enormously long tusks. One particular old chap, the locals call him Babu, has tusks that must be 8 feet long. Or one of them is because the other is shorter. Apparently, it is possible to tell whether an elephant is right or left handed (or tusked) because it will use one tusk more than the other to search for food and the appropriate tusk will become worn or shorter.

One animal that is unique to the crater is the (male) black-maned lion. We came across three of them sunbathing on the edge of the saltpans fast asleep. They enjoyed lying on their backs, feet to the air, feeling the warmth of the sun on their tummies. They seemed more pussycat than King of Beasts. Another interesting variation in the crater is that, we are told, the hyena do most of the stalking and killing. The lazy lion then come along and steal the meal for themselves, supporting further the theory of the lions being pussycats.

There were two male cheetahs working together, hunting for a meal. They began stalking some gazelle who were wandering around about 100 yards from our vehicle. We began to get excited at the prospect of watching a ‘kill’ as one gazelle began walking toward the cheetah. It passed the two cats close enough to exchange morning pleasantries and continued its stroll unmolested. What a let down!

The crater dazzles with a plethora of safari life. Zebras graze gracefully: a troupe of baboon was busy having breakfast under a large plane tree: a black rhino and her youngster bulldozing their way across a circle of lush grassland in the centre of thick woodland: velvet monkeys hung around looking for the opportunity to jump inside and steal some tourist food or a pair of sunglasses: Flamingoes and stalks strode elegantly across the salt lake: Hippos immersing their bulk in the fresh water lakes, occasionally surfacing with large snorts as they came up for air.

As we breakfasted on the banks of a lake full of hippo our next ‘sighting’ was from above when a kite came from behind my left shoulder and stole a current bun from my hand! The Ngorongoro Crater is teaming with life.

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