Tanzania - Round The World Tour 2003 Day 68

Seronera Lodge, Serengeti

Tuesday 20th May

(log entry from yesterday). I must have been so tired last night after attempting to sift through the thousands of photos that we’ve taken over the past few days that I completely forgot to write my nightly log entry and fell straight asleep. Hopefully, I can recount all the event of our first day in the Ngorongoro from memory.

The crater is an amazing place with something like a quarter of a million wild animals of nearly all description roaming around within it. With the exception of Giraffe, Impala and Topy (one of the many species of Antelope), every single animal is represented. Even the big 5 are all present in varying numbers.

There is only one way into the crater, down an extremely steep incline that winds back and forth as it descends the six hundred and ten meters down to the level of the crater floor. I call it a road somewhat laughingly as it is extremely uneven and barely passable in many places. Nothing less than an extremely sturdy four-by-four such as those used by all the safari companies would ever dare navigate the passage. The only road that is even worse than the descent road into the crater is the ascent road that you need to take to get back out again. It’s a different road out because both the ascent and descent passages are two narrow to allow more than one vehicle to pass at the same time.

Distances in the crater are extremely deceptive. One moment, we might be driving in a field of buffalo and ten minutes later, we are passing through a hillside full of Gazelle, yet the crater walls seem the same distance away all the time. There is also a very wide range of habitats on the crater floor. There is open grassland, rolling meadows, heath land, woodland, rocky outcropping and all sorts of other habitats. Different animals prefer different habitats and so there are concentrations of certain animals in certain areas. Some animals and birds, however, can be found just about anywhere.

Because the crater floor is relatively flat (with the odd exception of some hills here and there), looking in any one direction towards the crater wall gives the impression that there is only a small distance between where you are driving and the edge of the crater. It’s amazing to drive along without seeing anything until some extremely small dots start to appear on the horizon. The dots get slowly bigger until they become recognizable animal shapes and then suddenly become a herd of several thousand Gazelle or Zebra or Buffalo or whatever right before your very eyes.

There are several large lakes on the crater floor but you don’t know they are there until you are right upon them. The largest lake has a resident flock of several thousand Flamingos that you just don’t realise are there until you get relatively close to the edge of the water. The reflective haze on the crater floor together with the mirage effect really plays tricks on your eyes. Consequently, you end up driving around with your eyes wide open and fully alert at all times because you just don’t know what you are going to drive into.

After spending a very long day driving around the crater floor in awe, admiring the unique and self-contained ecosystem, we were still missing one particular animal that we have not yet seen in the wild anywhere in Africa. We still had not seen the Leopard. That isn’t entirely accurate as we photographed what we later learned was a Leopard from the air over the Okavango Delta but that doesn’t count as we didn’t really see it and I was unaware of what it was that I was photographing at the time. We have seen Leopards in captivity but that doesn’t really count either.

The one remaining habitat where the extremely elusive and difficult to spot leopard might be found was the woodland forest. Since Leopards favour trees, this was our last hope, as it has by far the highest concentration of trees in the entire crater. We passed by all the other trees in the crater during the day but were unsuccessful at spotting the animal anywhere.

Our driver took us slowly into the forest and we made two complete passes through it. From anywhere on the crater floor, the forest just looks like a line of trees and so we weren’t expecting much of a drive. It turned out to be a couple of miles wide and at least one mile thick, however, and it took us over an hour to make our two sweeps through it on the one road that was open to the public (the second road having been closed due to too much traffic stressing the few Black Rhino that the crater is home to). Alas, no Leopard was to be found, much to our extreme disappointment. We did spot and photograph quite a range of new birds in the forest, however, including several eagle species including the Crested Eagle.

Although we did not spot the Leopard, we did have a lot of success in the crater having seen a Cheetah marking its territory (bringing our total of Cheetahs spotted to seven altogether – the only Cheetahs we’ve seen in Africa have been here in Tanzania), a Hyena with two young cubs, a male and female Lion mating, two Zebras fighting (of the thousands that we saw) and two Wildebeest fighting (of the tens of thousands of those that we saw). In addition to that, we saw quite a few Silver Jackal, Corry Bustards, Buffalo (huge herds of them) Secretary Birds, Crowned Cranes, Blacksmith Plovers, Thompson Gazelle, Ground Gazelle, Hippo (both in and out of the water), Flamingos, Warthog and a wide range of other birds. Other animals that we saw but in much fewer numbers were Elephants, Black Rhino (we saw four of the seventeen that the crater houses altogether but only from a distance – too far to photograph – although that didn’t stop me) and Hyenas.

When it was time to leave the crater, we were all very tired and had started to pass through some areas for a second and even third time (the crater is not that big when given a whole day to drive around), we decided to make another pass through the forest to try to catch the Leopard. Alas, again, we were unsuccessful and departed the crater having had a wonderful day with lots of luck and success. Our good fortune was tempered, however, with the disappointment of not having seen the Leopard.

The Hati Lodge is very nice place and certainly much nicer that any place we’ve stayed in so far anywhere in Africa (that we’ve had to pay for). The rooms and beds are spacious and comfortable and the facilities are generally excellent. The electrical generator only runs from between five o’clock in the evening to midnight and then again from five o’clock in the morning. Additionally, there is no hot water until around seven o’clock in the evening but other than that, the place is pretty much the quality of a three to four star hotel. To crown the whole thing off, the lodge is built right on the very rim of the crater and the view out our window is breath-taking. We can see all the areas that we drove through and identify the various features that look much different from altitude compared to from the crater floor.

The participants of an overland truck tour (Absolute Africa) had arrived at the lodge from a day in the Serengeti the first night that we were here. They are doing the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater as an additional extra to their tour and are also with Fun Safaris, the same company that we are doing our safari with. We originally were offered the chance to join this group but we declined the offer favouring a personalised safari with just the two of us. It worked out to be more expensive but since it is only ourselves, the driver and the four-by-four, we are able to dictate where we go, for how long, when we stop and so on. Although it can be fun with a group of people, you have to go where the majority decision takes you and since we are particularly interested in birdlife, this is not always favoured by a group of people.

We exchanged stories with the overlanders with regards to what we respectfully saw during their day at the Serengeti and ours at the crater. I couldn’t believe it when they told us that they actually saw a Leopard on more than one occasion. As if that wasn’t ironic enough (since we left the Serengeti to come to the crater where we thought we would have better luck as spotting the predatory cat), they not only saw the Leopard but they also saw it in action chasing a Gazelle. It apparently missed the first attempt but chased another Gazelle shortly thereafter and actually caught and ate it. I would have given my hind teeth to see this and spent the rest of the evening wondering why we passed up on the opportunity to go with them on their safari.

It has to be said, however, that we’ve also had extremely good luck with what we’ve seen so far and so we really have no room to complain. Spotting a Leopard is extremely rare in itself and all the guides I’ve met (including ours and those of the overlanders safari) have all said that they’ve never ever seen a Leopard kill in the twenty plus years that they’ve been safari guides. You just have to be in the right place at the right time – as was the case with the Lion kill we saw in Kruger, the three Cheetahs we saw stalking a couple of Ground Gazelle in the Serengeti, the pride of Lions with nine cubs we saw in the Serengeti and the Hyena with two small cubs that we saw in the Ngorongoro crater. In actual fact, lady luck has been on our side quite disproportionately.

The rate at which we’ve been taking photos has gone up a notch since we arrived in the Serengeti and a few thousand photos that still need sorting out still await me. I’m hoping to get through most of them tonight.