Wednesday, 6/4. Ngorongoro crater.
Eggs and porridge for breakfast. We arrived last night at 6, just before sundown. It was cool, foggy when we pulled in to a large, grassy mound on the rim of the crater – a world apart from the dry Serengeti. The camp is throbbing from the chatter of a dozen tour groups. All the African cooks, each attached to a different safari, occupy a large cement hut where they fix dinner over open coals. They’re boisterous and informal.
The sun falls very quickly when you’re this close to the Equator, and it’s tricky pitching our tents at this hour – partly because the light is disappearing, mostly because the grass is spotted with piles and piles of zebra dung.
We’ve entered another world. A woman stands with a cigarette in one hand and a cell phone in the other – an absurdity in a place like this. Such a strange disconnect when Godwin’s cell phone goes off and the ring tone is the keening, high-pitched music of Bollywood. We were out of cell phone range in the Serengeti but not here.
We’re up early and as we descend the crater on a steep and curvy road, there’s substantial cloud cover. The crater is 19 to 21 kilometers across and Godwin says no one has ever measured its circumference. Can that be true?
This is the most glorious day we’ve had. The views are exquisite and the number and variety of animals amazing. Two cheetahs, six elephants, three buffalo herds, zebras everywhere. We finally see our first rhino, the last of the “Big Five” that animal watchers hope to see (lion, leopard, elephant and buffalo are the others). There’s a gorgeous hippo pond, where pelicans sit among the reeds and egrets perch atop the hippos. You don’t want to get too close: hippos stink. “Spicy” is Godwin’s word for their stench.
Far across the crater floor, fronting a long finger-shaped lake, there’s a fringe of pink on the horizon. It’s a huge flock of flamingos. An hour later we approach the lake shore – as close as the park allows us – and Godwin parks the jeep. Before us is the single most beautiful image in my African experience.
Looking through the binoculars, I can see the flamingos wading in the lake. Zebras are in the foreground. The air is scented and soft and framing the image is a large, blunt wall of green mountain. I start to cry, silently. The emotion that rushes through me is sparked by the perfection of this image and this moment. But it’s also my knowing that this is finite – that the natural world is shrinking rapidly, consumed by human greed and plunder.