Crater Surprise

Crater Surprise

It’s dryer than normal, and this is the driest time of the dry season. Normally, there would be around 4000 animals in the crater. Was I surprised!

The Cleveland Zoo safari went from the Serengeti to Ngorongoro, via Olduvai Gorge and Shifting Sands. We had two game drives in the crater, and they were absolutely fabulous.

I had been worried. In July the crater was already dustbowling, and we just didn’t see very much. When we flew into Ndutu for this safari, we flew right over the crater and from the sky it didn’t look promising.

Our first afternoon began at the bottom of the down road with our picnic in a lush swampy area with great birding, including grossbeak weavers and the somewhat rare crimson-rumped waxbill. We then hit the western lake track and immediately encountered quite a few wilde. I’d told the zoo director, Steve Taylor, not to expect more than 2,000 wilde. Fortunately there was a kiosk selling humble pie.

We found lion, hyaena, jackal and all the other usual suspects in numbers I hadn’t expected. But the constant numbers of wildebeest, which grew even greater the second day, was truly surprising. I studied these guys very hard and I hope I’m not just hedging my mistake, but I do think they’re 60-70 pounds underweight. What I wonder is if the crater, like Ndutu with its unseasonable although very light rains, staved the drought.

That would have kept the wilde there with the new grass. Then, as things truly did dry out completely, they would have met the real desert we saw around Olduvai Gorge, and that might have sent them back into the crater.

In any case, the highlight of the day came at the hippo pool. We were watching the big collection of hippo with relish when in the distance one of the crater’s famous tuskers could be seen in the horizon ambling towards us.

Years ago during the height of the poaching, some of the largest tusked elephant in Africa descended the crater and stayed there, despite the crater being a poor habitat for elephant. But it saved them from being poached, and today they represent some of the finest tusked elephants on the continent.

They’re very old now, of course, and dying quickly. But probably a dozen or two remain. So we watched the ele I call “Righty” come straight towards the hippo pool. He gets his name because while he sports two great tusks, the right one is much bigger.

It was a blast. Righty trounced into the pool scattering the hippo helter-skelter and starting a vocalization that was incredibly comic. When a hippo didn’t move, old Righty stuck him in the bun with his tusk. That’s all that was needed to clear a path to the delectable watercress Righty was headed for.

Gene Antonacci was in the closest vehicle, looking right over Righty. Multiple times he turned away from the incredible scene towards our vehicle, dropped his jaw and mouthed what was an unmistakable, “Wow!”

And the next morning Dave Koncal topped that! We were hardly a few minutes on the crater floor when we came upon a lion kill that had only recently been abandoned to the hyaena, jackals and vultures. We stayed long enough to watch several lionesses return, and Dave was filming it all. He has captured one of the most incredible videos I’ve ever seen on safari.

As the lionesses returned, the birds exploded off the carcass. Then, as shown on Dave’s video, one of the lioness leaped into the air. (There is great debate as to whether she leaped five feet or ten feet; I’ll say seven and a half.) She then literally wrapped the vulture under her belly and plummeted to the ground. Amazing!

All in all I figure there was around 8,000 wilde, and a total animal population approaching 10,000, or roughly half of when the crater is at its peak in March and April. That’s remarkable. Why it’s so much better now than it was hardly 8 weeks ago, I can only speculate must have something to do with erratic rains. I must have last visited the crater as many of the wilde had just left, and they’ve returned.

They don’t look so bad. They aren’t at their prime, but it’s a pretty good situation. And for us, it was remarkably wonderful!