Saturday, March 24, 2012

Day 2 - Ngorongoro Crater

We were up early, to try to get into the crater as early as possible, taking a different entrance road this time, and this time Mike and I rode with Margaret and Debra, with Martin as our guide.  Another glitch in the vehicle, a flat tire at the entrance gate, caused a delay for a bit, but after a quick change, we were off again, to the crater floor.
I would have to refer to my images to be completely accurate with my list of the many animals we saw, but I know that it included lions right off the bat; a pair of males, (brothers, Martin told us) and a female.  One of the males was sleepily protecting what appeared to be last night's kill, a warthog, from the hungry jackals and vultures.  The other male was snuggling, literally, with the female and eventually they got up and moved across the road in search of shade.
One of the highlights of the day came next, a huge, old elephant.  We could see him from quite far away, lumbering, very deliberately across an open field.  Martin positioned our vehicle right in his path and he never lost a step, but came right across the road in front of us, majestically.  It was hot by then and the dry heat was rising off the land as he paced himself toward a patch of green.  He was pretty cool.  Almost as soon as he got to the green grasses a lioness popped her head up to see who had disturbed her nap!  It was truly another one of those "we are in Africa moments"...especially to see the animals living together in the crater.
We headed towards a group of lions who were stalking, or at least staking out, a herd of buffalo...the drivers from all the different companies talk to each other on walkie-talkies and in passing, so they always have a pretty good idea of what's going on and where.  It was pretty hot and I had been sitting up in the front seat with no shade and I began to feel a little sick at that we watched the lions for just a bit, but then headed towards a pond for some shade and a chance to get out and stretch our legs.  A rainstorm rolled in while we were watching a few hippos in the pond and it cooled everything, including me, down nicely so we were off again! 
Martin had heard that the two black rhinos we had seen from a distance yesterday were now closer to the road so we headed off in that direction.  At first, we saw them from a distance again, but Martin predicted they would be crossing a perpendicular road so he took us in that direction...and sure enough, they came...right towards us!  Ancient looking, huge animals!  Really amazing to see up close...a female (the larger one) and a young male, maybe 2 or 3 years old, Martin guessed.  We were all standing up clicking away with our cameras, along with a row of other vehicles, and they began to pace sort of anxiously, trying to find a spot to cross the road.  Martin told us that they have very keen hearing but very poor eyesight and suggested that we stop taking pictures for a minute to see what they would do, and sure enough, they hesitated to listen and then came right towards our quiet vehicle!  So cool!  There are only about 20 black rhinos in the crater, and only 4,000 or so in the world...they are considered a critically endangered species, threatened to be was pretty amazing to see them, particularly so close.

Between the big elephant and the black rhinos, it was a pretty great day, again!  And, we weren't late getting out of the crater, so the drive out wasn't nearly as harrowing!  We got to the hotel, the Serena Safari Lodge, an older, larger place, with rooms spread out along the rim of the crater.  All of the rooms had amazing, panoramic views of the crater with nice little decks....and a nice long shower felt really good!  Mike headed to dinner with the group, but I was kind of beat so I elected to stay behind and get a little extra rest!  I charged some batteries and downloaded some of our memory cards and fell asleep midway through trying to be productive!  
Mike came back with some exciting news...Lyle & Sue's daughter, Chelsea, had her baby!!!  They were able to talk with her, and even Facetimed with them, and they were so relieved to know that everyone was fine and healthy!!!   Welcome to the world, Makenzie!  Your Bibi and Babu love you so much!
A wildebeest momma and baby!

...reminded me a little of Yellowstone.

The crater walls...pretty steep!


Trying out his little legs!!!

My favorites...momma and baby zebra!

A heron...all fluffed up!


Hyena pups!  Two different litters...the one in the hole was much smaller than the other.

Little guy!

Gnawing on a piece of bone.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Day one of our safari.

The first, of what proved to be many, vehicle glitches, a dead battery, slowed us down a bit, so we weren't able to make the entry gates at sunrise, as planned...but we made it, into the Ngorongoro Crater in the early morning hours, a beautiful morning with cool, fresh air and clear skies.
The first animal we spotted were elephants, a herd of them, crossing the dirt road near the top of the crater.  Our vehicle; Mike and I, Lyle and Sue, with Godfrey as our guide, was second to come upon them so we only got a glimpse of them, but it certainly got us excited - and the binoculars came out!  For me, it was the first of many, "oh my gosh, we are in Africa" moments!
We spotted some colorful birds next, and a black-faced monkey...and then, as we dropped into the crater a little farther, a herd of water buffalo!  Not the most attractive animal, with their George Washington wigs and big curled horns, but certainly a unique "Africa" moment!
And then, not far off the road, tucked into the weeds, napping - a cheetah!  Godfrey had just told us that is was very rare to see a cheetah in the crater, and then, there it was!  A beautiful cat, laying in the warm sun!  Amazing!

The day blazed on, getting hotter and hotter, seeing more and more animals: jackals, zebras, warthogs, monkeys, and more! While the crater is tremendous in size (100 sq. miles), the walls surrounding the crater floor are pretty steep (a caldera, with a 2000 ft. drop in elevation), so most of the animals (with the exception of a couple of species) live year-round, contained in it's rich ecosystem (about 25,000 animals).
Herds of zebras, with their babies, were among my very favorite. I know, they are so similar to horses and mules that it shouldn't be that exciting to see them, but I loved their patterns...and all the cute brownish babies! 
This little baby is challenging his boundaries and his little legs!!
 At one point along the road we came across a small pride of lions, seeking shade under and around the vehicles! That was an incredible rush, to see a wild, huge, beautiful lion walk past you at about 10 feet out! We had the top of our vehicle popped up, throughout the whole safari, and I kept wondering how quickly we could drop it if one of them jumped up on our car! Godfrey assured us that "all they want right now is our shade", but also said if we got out of the vehicle, we would be immediately seen as easy prey!
We watched them move from car to car, stretch their feet against tires and occasionally rub up against each other in a playful way...and then, from across a field, a big, beautiful maned male lion came lumbering by... He was really cool, sauntering along, with the heat of the land rising up around him!
Lovin' the shade!

Sniffing the air.

A hot walk across the field to check on his ladies.

Handsome guy.
 I'll have to consult my camera's captures to accurately report what else we saw and in what order - Grant's gazelles, Thomson's gazelles, hyenas, birds of every size and color, elephants (mostly from a distance), and huge hippopotamuses rolling in a "hippo pond", and wildebeests (which are unexpectedly kind of interesting looking)...and many more! 
The three little pigs!
Warthog, a.k.a. Pumba!

Wildebeest, aren't they kinda cool looking?


Napping kitties.

One of our vehicles!


Elephant, zebra in the distance.

Oh, those two creatures on the rhinos!  Stay tuned!


Did I mention the zebra babies were my favorite?!

Zebra baby!

The hippo pond!

Thomson's Gazelle. 

Can't tell if he's helping him up, or keeping him down?!  Just monkeying around, I guess?!

Black-faced monkey.
And then we began a harrowingly fast climb out of the crater!  We drove through an area near the bottom rim of the crater that Sue aptly nicknamed "the nursery" - filled with babies of all kinds!  Warthogs (their babies are so funny and cute!), zebras, gazelles, wildebeests - tons of babies and mommas hanging out together.  So fun!  But, Godfrey only slowed momentarily and continued on up the windy road.  Not far from there we went past a herd of elephants hanging out near the road in the trees and we spotted at least two little babies amongst them, but again, Godfrey drove right past them, ignoring our squeals!  Up and through curves on an impossibly bumpy road we continued, passing a group of baboons really close to the road...and again we continued by them at our fast pace!  It was kind of hair-raising!  Dust flying, bumps and ruts that would scare off the Sportsmobile and we were taking it all at about 80 kmh!
 Unbeknown to us, as we reached the first gate out of the crater, we were late!  The crater, we then learned, closes at 6 p.m. (they monitor vehicles to prevent poaching) and we had arrived at the 1st gate (15 minutes or so from the main gate) at about 5 minutes 'til six!  We could've been fined, or banned even, but the Maasai guards let us through and we careened on to make the last gate as quickly as possible!  We had gone so fast up the crater and then down the other side that when we finally arrived back at our lodge, as Godfrey pulled into our parking spot, the brakes failed and sent us up and over the curb and about 15 feet into the bushes!  What a dramatic ending to an exciting day!
Hot and covered with dust, we showered quickly and then met on the deck for dinner with the group.  We enjoyed a yummy dinner and "Safari" beer as we all compared stories and sightings, and laughed about the unexpected twists to our day.  We wiped down our gear and re-packed our bags for day two of the Ngorongoro safari...and it got even better!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Africa - Headed to the Crater

More from my journal...
We met the gang of fellow travelers in the courtyard in the morning.  They had all arrived a day or two early, so they seemed refreshed and ready to go, while we, it felt, were still trying to figure out where we were and how we got here?!  Henry, of course; Gene, a very sweet, vital young guy from Boston; Lyle and Sue, a really nice couple from Southern California, who also spend some time in Island Park (which is close to our backyard); Margaret, a British-Arizonian with a great sense of humor; and Debra, a soft-spoken, kind-hearted, charming Louisianan. 
And, after a nice breakfast, which for me included a couple of cups of coffee, we were off!  In two safari vehicles, with Martin and Godfrey, our guides for the safari, loaded down with lots of luggage and even more camera gear - we headed out towards the Ngorongoro Crater.
We stopped at a couple of Maasai galleries to look at trinkets and such, and we tried our hand at negotiating a bit for a zebra mask that we hope to find again towards the end of the trip as it would've been pretty cumbersome to carry.  As the day and the kilometers passed it got hotter and the roads became bumpier!  The landscape was pretty sparse, for the most part, as we passed through a few small villages and then lots of open spaces with small herds of cattle or goats and young Maasai boys tending the herds in arid fields.
We were riding with Lyle & Sue and quickly found our shared interests, among them - photography, yes...animals, Yellowstone...and grandchildren!  They, too, were expecting their first granddaughter (which was their 1st grandchild too) and they had discovered, through the wonderful world wide web, that their daughter had begun her labor, a couple of weeks earlier than expected!  So, Sue and I talked about daughters and babies, making Lyle and Mike, I am sure, want to jump ship because neither of them came to Africa to talk about babies (though clearly they were both enamored at the thought of having granddaughters)!  That shared place in life helped us "bond" with them and the conversations were easy and fun.
We arrived at the lodge near dusk, weary but excited.  This lodge was brand new and really amazing.  The "rooms" were actually large individual cabins laid out along one hillside, overlooking a tree filled valley and an adjacent treed slope.  The cabins themselves were enormous and really lovely; meticulously decorated, with large living areas, a pass-through fireplace into the enormous bedroom and bathroom, with a fabulous deck overlooking a hillside covered in those sweeping trees you imagine when you dream of Africa (Acacia).  It was a pretty incredible place!
We met on the lobby deck for a yummy dinner, a limited, but delicious, chef-specialty kind of offering.  After dinner, we headed to our rooms to sort out our camera gear and ready ourselves for the descent into the crater early the next morning.  It was hard to sleep, we were so excited!
Some of the trinkets...made of Acacia wood.


A herd of Maasai cows.

A Maasai village.

Amazing what and how much they can carry on a bike...?!

I would surely tip over with this load!  This takes talent!

The Exploreans Lodge entrance gate.

Our amazing room.

Our amazing balcony!

One of the rows of cabins...all with incredible views.

The entrance to our little "room"!

The view from the deck.  You could occassionally hear monkeys and something munching on trees, presumably elephants!

I know, I know...where are the animal pictures you are dying to see...?!!!  They are coming, I promise!  And you won't be disappointed!