Ngorongoro Crater by Bonnie and Bill Neely

At Simba Public Campsite in Ngorongoro Crater we were staying in a tent and bush pigs sniff around looking for food at night and can eat through the tent to get anything that they smell. We had to place all our lotions, toothpaste, anything with slight odor into the car so that they would not be attracted to our tent. Once in the night Bonnie felt something pushing from outside the tent but our light could not see the outline of an animal. After some figuring we think it was the wind since the top of the tent was pushed in also.

After a hurried breakfast of boiled egg, toast, coffee, fruit at 6 a.m. in the chilly, humid, open dining area, we set off to drive the precarious, winding, two-lane, rocky road into the heart of the crater. Birds sing from deep below us, and we peer through the eerie fog as the sun climbs over the crater rim, too misty for photos.
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The Maasai villages surrounding the crater outside the rim were awakening. We saw a few adults, wrapped in their brilliant red plaid blankets, waiting beside the road for transportation. In villages of round clay houses with straw roofs we saw the herds locked into their brush and stick barricade corrals for the night and herders getting ready to take their flocks to pasture.

Cactus-like trees, euphobia candelabria, and yellow, tall grass mix with brown deciduous shrubs are beside the road and up the steep volcano sides, and acacia trees are below. We see a lake and winding stream deep in the heart of the crater where we are headed to see the animals.
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As we reach the bottom of the bowl of mountains it is dry-looking with short, sparse grass, grazed down during the long dry period. In the rainy season and for a few months afterwards this entire crater is teeming with literally millions of animals of various species. We find only stillness and total quiet, and we fear we will see nothing today, but Manase, our guide, knows there are thousands of permanent residents of the crater, which he will find for us.
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The crater floor 600 meters below the rim is flat with black lava soil in places and gray sand in others. Now near the end of the dry season it still has thousands of acres of short, thick grass across the nineteen kilometers of the diameter. Its 294 square kilometers are criss-crossed with animal tracks, which look like motor cycle paths. Man has intersected the peaceful crater with five roads, which wash away in the rainy season and must be regraded in the same place again.
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As we drove farther into the vastness we saw crown cranes, zebra, and antelope. Lake Magadi is a salt lake within, and the flamingos love it. Other animals drink only at the inlets where the fresh water flows into the lake from Munge River. The air feels and smells so fresh and pristine. At another place we watched steam rise from the hot waters and mud whose waters come from hot volcanic springs deep below. Here we saw a big secretary bird and a spotted serval cat with a tiny head prowling stealthily through the tall grass.
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Then we came upon huge herds of zebras, then wildebeests, then herds of both together stretching as far as we could see, going to the fresh water river to drink. Some hundreds waded in while the others waited, and suddenly all galloped back from something that threatened them near the water. Down-river right beside the road we saw a pride of female lions and one cub watching the drinking place, perhaps planning a kill.

On the other side of the road a male and female lion sat facing each other. Manase says they have paired off to mate but will sit together like this for six or seven days away from other lions before actually mating. A wedding ceremony!
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The picnic area was very nice with a clean bathroom (real, flush toilets and running water for sinks) and was by a lovely blue lake, edged with huge cattails and tropical vegetation. Hippos lolled about with noses, eyes and little piggy ears sticking out of the water. An elephant in the distance up the hillside started our way, and as we watched he sauntered into the picnic ground, past our car, and on through. I was not afraid to be out taking a picture, but the guide made me get into the car.
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We spent all morning looking for the elusive rhinoceros who live here, some white and some of the nearly extinct black ones, but we were so disappointed …the last of the Big Five for our safari, and they are usually here, but it seems we will miss them.
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We saw many other interesting sights including two male wildebeests fighting. We passed the hot volcanic waters steaming their mist past animals who came to drink for salt and minerals. We traversed the five roads in the crater with no rhino sightings, so we headed to the picnic area and bathrooms at Monkey Pond. Little vervet monkeys greeted us, and another guide told us he had found the rhinos! We drove straight to the traffic jam of eager tourists with binoculars and cameras and spent about 20 minutes trying to locate them. Finally Manase found one far across the field in a group of trees, and she and her baby walked out for our photo. We were so thrilled! The Big Five!!! Manase felt very happy and successful as a guide, completing his work to perfection and far exceeding our expectations.
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Our tent the men setup for us here at Simba Public Campground is the same as last camp and they have to load and reload it each time we move. It is really spacious. Last night was very cold, but we had plenty of warm layers and our own sleeping bags over the clean ones Abrojaley provided.
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Then Fulgence prepared a delicious meal of steak shish kabob and fried vegetable pies in crisp, handmade pastry, prepared all by lantern light and baked in foil beneath hot charcoals. For toast he devises a grill top with a fence wire of two-inch squares as the grill surface. For frying and boiling he uses a large propane burner inside a big basket! How does he do it? Our meals have all been totally fresh, varied, really delicious and healthful. Planning and packing for a week of camping must have been horrendous, but Abrojaley Africa Ajabu Tour Company can take groups up to 80 people, using a large staff and several vehicles and a truck for provisions. They have cheerfully provided for our every need, even ones we had not anticipated like ginger tea for stomach problems. Ours is the budget tour, the cheapest of any in Tanzania, but this is the most authentic way to see the natural setting and animals up close in early morning and late evening. Abrojaley Africa Ajabu Tours can also arrange middle priced or elaborate tent set-ups. In the public campgrounds we were in, the animals roam freely but seldom pose a danger. Abrojaley can also offer accommodations in the elaborate hotels and lodges near each park. However, those are removed, and the travel back and forth into the Parks makes the best viewing of animals, early morning and late afternoon, impossible. It is the choice of each travel group. For campers, the food, by Abrojaley’s private chefs, is all freshly prepared and can meet any dietary needs and preferences. In the lodges and hotels the food is more institution type, often from frozen foods.
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We were so glad we roughed it in the public campground and tents, but really who can call the excellent guide service, provisions, and wonderful private chef a way of “roughing it?” And had we not been in the campground we would not have had the aggravating thrill of running out of water during a shower, only to see an enormous elephant lift the top off the cistern with his trunk and drink the bath water supply dry!!! We were almost close enough to touch him as we took photos. We asked why the guides didn’t chase them away and the reply was, “The animals own our National Parks. We are the intruders here.” Wow! That’s wonderful Tanzania!!!
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Oral History Of Ngorongoro and Serengeti:

HOW THE MASAI DISCOVERED NGORONGORO (by Abdul Meena):
Masaai lived along the Nile valley with their livestock in Kenya at a place known today as the ‘’Maasai–Mara’’ area. At about 200 years ago, there was a heavy drought and no green pasture for their livestock. One day in the afternoon ,elders were resting under an acacia tree discussing issues about the drought that was going on and that they had to sacrifice a sheep and a goat for their God ‘’Engai’’to pray for rain as their cattle were seriously affected by the drought.

While deep in thoughts, one elder saw a weaver bird with a green leaf carried in its mouth for weaving a nest. This was arriving from south and heading North. This was really amazing to him and drew the attention of the other elders to observe that bird with a green leaf in its mouth. The bird disappeared to the north leaving the Masai elders in a surprise and with a question mark as to where did the bird get the green leaf?

The elders agreed to send the warriors to the south to survey for his country in the south with green grasses.The morning of the next day, summoned by the Laibon (Maasai chief),the elders decided that in the south there must be a country with rainf. After a long discussion, they all agreed to contribute one goat each as food for the warriors who were to go south for unknown days and months to discover this country.

Families sent their sons for this expedition and prayed for them not to fall into hands of their enemies. Expectation was to see them back alive with good information about that unknown country in the south. Before starting the journey to the south, they performed a comunual scarifie to their God ‘’Engai’’ seeking purity and guidance from him, for their warriors going south. The following day all the villagers gathered at their meeting ground to say farewell to the warriors. Prayers were said ,and after that they shook hands and they were warned of two things.:one, in the first two days they should not look back ;and secondly, in case one goat or sheep escaped and ran off, they should not run after it and bring back to the herd, as that is needed by God ‘’Engai.

The warriors started their journey quietly and silently without looking back. They had with them big herds of goats and sheep as they were the only means of food. Days turned into weeks and weeks into months. They counted a week by using red beads and black beads to represent months while white white bids represented days. For example, when you had put a side one black bead with two red beads mixed with fours white beads meant, one month, two weeks and four days. In this way they could know the number of months, weeks and days already traveled.

At one black bead, one red bead and three white beads, they arrived at Serengeti .It was an endless plain with a lot of game. They named it ‘’Siringit,’’ which in Maasai language means ‘’enormous endless plain’’ It was wet with still some semi-green grass, probably in May–June. They saw big herds of a wild black cows with beards and named it ‘’eng” (meaning a Plain cow which is always in motion.) The warriors continued south, arriving at Ndutu at ‘’one black bead, two red beads, and one white bead “… one month, two weeks and one day.

They were amazed for seeing a lake ‘’magat’’ and water in the plains. They thanked ‘’Engai for showing them this nice place and named it ‘’endut,’’ meaning a place with a lake with water in the plains. They did a sacrifice and continued south following a gorge which brought them to ‘’oldugai,’’ meaning a country with sisal plants. It was now ‘’one black bead, two red beads and three white beads’’. While grazing their decreasing herd of goats and sheep, to the south they saw a heavy cloud like a heavy smoke. They did not know what it was. They thought of a heavy bush fire but had no flames and the bottom of the cloud was black-greenish. They decided to follow that direction which, to their surprise, brought them to Ngorongoro highlands. As it was foggy and cloudy they could not see the volcano crater at their arrival. It was chilly and cold so they stayed in caves in the highland forests.

For them it was a miracle, a wonder that their God will to show them that cold ever-green country. They thanked their Engai for that great discovery which was the purpose of their journey south and did a sacrifice. The next day was a clear sunny day. They walked around in the forest and with a surprise they came into an open place and saw a flat country with white, dusty soil way below the deep walls around. This country at a distance looked barren with no living creatures. They then struggled to get a way leading down into this new country and later they found what looked like an animal track going down. They then followed this track and come to the floor of this new country. To their surprise, this was a flat country with no trees, except a small forest of yellow-fever acacia (acacia xanthophloea) which they named the ‘’Lerai.’’ They called the lake the ‘’magat lake,” which in maasai meant lake full of sodium bicarbonates. They surveyed the whole crater floor naming areas of interest by using Maasai names with life meanings. They named the whole area of ‘’Ngorongoro’’after their age group in Maasai language, which was the age group of “cow-bells.” They did this deliberately because of their great age group discovery of the area. It was now one black bead and three red beads exactly.

They were now tired after walking for one black bead and three red beads (one full month and three weeks) and needed a rest before starting a journey back home. They looked for a suitable place for that rest and only found a cave at the crater rim, which could accommodate sixteen people and not enough for the goat and sheep. They therefore built a boma (Kraal) for their animals outside the cave. They needed a cave as it was terribly cold, chilly and foggy. They rested for ten white beads which were equivalent to one red bead and three white beads meaning one week and three days. It was now about two black beads zero red beads and one white bead, meaning two months and a day since they left home. They then started their journey back, following the same route, which they had marked when coming. This time it was a slow journey as they were tired and exhausted. They had only five goats left as their means of food. They were around hilly naked rock outcrops, which they named Moru meaning old men, as they looked like bearded old men standing in the plains. They found a nice warm cave in which they stayed for a couple of days resting. They painted it as a sign of recognition on their way south with their herds of livestock. The rock paintings are still seen there to date at Moru Kopjes. They are now known as Maasai rock paintings. For them two black beads and one red bead had passed. They headed north for days, sheltering themselves in caves for nights until they reached home at two black beads, and four white beads. They were worn out. They needed a complete rest to recover from such a long journey on foot.

Before being allowed in they had feet washed out so to get rid of any disease carrying bacteria to affect their livestock. This is now a common custom with Maasai for strangers and people who have come from a safari. They were allowed a rest before telling a story about their journey and their findings. They told the elders about the great river that never dries, which they named Mara after their elders; about the endless plains in the south, which they named “Siringi;’’ about the wet highland forests, which they named Ngorongoro after their age group; and about the lowland with a lake surrounded by the wet forest, which they named ‘’engitati’’ after the wide waist belt worn by elders’ women. This lowland country was later called the ‘’crater.’’ A day of starting the long journey there was fixed, and each family was asked to prepare well for it. Donkeys were equipped to carry their possessions and the old people and the babies. Sacrifices were performed to ask for Engai’s guidance.

The organization was like this, half of the youths with spears to be ahead surveying and looking for enemies. A day’s interval after them followed herds of livestock driven by youths. Calves and some of the goats and lactating cows followed behind them, and these were under the control of the women children elders and whoever got tired or sick. As this journey to the south was very slow because of many stops to allow livestock to rest and graze, days became weeks and weeks turned into months until they finally arrived at the Ngorongoro highlands, where they settled and are there still, saying ‘’Engai is great for his guidance.”