Lake Manyara and Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

Drained from the Kilimanjaro hike, I spent a couple days relaxing in Moshi while I lined up a safari to the parks in northern Tanzania.  The travel agency at my hotel found a group I could join on a four-day camping tour of Lake Manyara, the Ngorongoro Crater, and Serengeti National Park.  The tour was leaving from the nearby town of Arusha, so at 6:30 the next morning I hopped on a bus and arrived at the departure point with time to spare.

In Arusha I met the four other guys in my group, all in their early 20s.  “My name is Mikko,” said a stolid, expressionless Finn I initially mistook for a Russian.

“I am also Mikko,” said his shorter and equally expressionless friend.

The other two guys, Niv and Shahaf, were friendly and talkative.  They’d recently finished their military service in Israel and were traveling through Africa before starting university.  The five of us joined China, our guide, and Hussein, our cook, in a safari-ized Toyota Land Cruiser and began the drive to Lake Manyara National Park.

We stopped first at our campsite, located high on a ridge overlooking the lake, and ate lunch before heading into the park.  “Are there leopards here?” I asked, determined to see the only member of the Big Five I’d missed in Kenya.

“Yes, but we will probably not find them,” said China.  He was right.  We also didn’t see the park’s tree-climbing lions or any other big cats.  It’s always fun to drive around an African nature reserve, but Lake Manyara underwhelmed us.


Baboon Baby


Yellow-billed Stork Flying


Impala Harem


“There is a topi,” said China, pointing to a lone animal about 25 yards away.

“Are you sure that’s not a hartebeest?” I asked.

“No, it is a topi,” China confirmed.

“Don’t topi usually travel in herds?”

“No.  They are always alone.”

Whenever I meet someone new I always start out assuming they know what they’re talking about.  So I believed China.  I could have sworn that the animal was a hartebeest, and in Kenya we only saw topi in herds, but I deferred to the expertise of a Tanzanian wilderness guide who had 10 years of experience.

Back at our campsite that night I asked China about his name.  “It is just a nickname,” he told us.  “Because of Tae Kwon Do.”  China said he’d won a silver medal in Tae Kwon Do at the East African Games.


Sunrise Near Lake Manyara


The next morning we loaded up our gear and drove to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.  When we arrived at the entrance gate, China told us we needed to wait about an hour before going in.  The explanation he gave us didn’t make sense, but we finally figured out the situation.  Every tourist entering the park has to pay a fee.  If a tourist stays in the park longer than 24 hours, that fee had to be paid again.  The price of our safari included park entrance fees, so China wanted to save money by getting us into and out of Ngorongoro within 24 hours, and he was worried that if we entered too early we wouldn’t make it out in time the next morning.  Needless to say, Niv, Shahaf, the Mikkos and I found it frustrating to sit around when we could have been watching animals.

Ngorongoro was worth the wait.  We stopped on the rim of the park’s volcanic cone to take in the incredible view of the crater floor below us.  Even from that height we could see big herds of wildebeest and zebra, black dots in a sea of green and brown.  Densely populated with a diverse range of animals, the Ngorongoro fishbowl was a microcosm of Tanzanian wildlife.


Ngorongoro Crater Panorama


“The animals are much better here than Manyara,” said China as we drove down from the rim.  “It is a crater, so the animals cannot migrate.  They never leave.”  Hmm…  I’d just read in my guidebook that animals regularly migrate in and out of the Ngorongoro crater.


Baby Zebra


Warthog Roughhousing


Soon after driving down into the crater we spotted two Black Rhinoceros, an adult with a child.  “Very lucky to see them,” said China.  Black Rhinos are critically endangered, with only about 2,500 left in the world.


Black Rhinos in Ngorongoro


Black Rhinos Crossing the Road


“Do lions eat rhinos?” asked Shahaf.

“No, nothing eats rhinos,” China told us.  “Predators never eat bigger animals, only smaller animals.”

Huh?  I had to jump in.  “A guide in Kenya told me that lions sometimes attack giraffe, and giraffe are much bigger than lions.”

“No,” China said confidently.  “Your guide lied to you.”

OK, that was enough.  Half the statements coming out of China’s mouth were totally inaccurate.  I picked up China’s own wilderness guidebook and read him a passage saying that lions sometimes prey on giraffe.  China didn’t respond.

A bigger person wouldn’t have needed to challenge every one of China’s subsequent errors, but I couldn’t help myself.  He kept saying that hartebeest were topi and vice-versa.  He told us a Thompson’s gazelle was a waterbuck (maybe because the gazelle was drinking water at the time?).  He didn’t know there are different kinds of giraffes.  And whenever he saw a bird with blue feathers he identified it as a bee-eater, leading me to utter a sentence I’d never thought I’d hear myself say:  “How can you tell us that’s a bee-eater when it’s clearly a lilac-breasted roller?”  By the end of the trip China wanted to feed me to the lions (although I wasn’t sure he could identify those, either).


Zebras Grazing


Striped Jackal on the Move


Augur Buzzard


We stopped to eat our sack lunches by the side of a small lake.  At first we sat out on the open grass, but birds China identified – probably even correctly – as Black Kites swooped down on our food so aggressively that I took shelter under a tree and the rest of the group retreated back into the car.


Superb Starling


Black Kite Lunch Raider


China and Shahaf in Ngorongoro


Woodland Kingfisher


Kori Bustard Puffed Up for the Ladies


Two Jackals


Jackal Cubs


Elephant in Ngorongoro


African Buffalo in Ngorongoro


In the late afternoon we found our first lions.  A female lion slept in the grass with two of her cubs, and two more cubs played together on the other side of the road.


Lion Cubs with Mom


Lion Cub Sitting


Lion Cub in the Grass


Two Lion Cubs


Two Lion Cubs in the Grass


Sleeping Lion Mom with Cub


We camped that night on the crater rim.  Just before sunset I walked to the bathroom and found myself face-to-face with a large elephant, not 20 feet away.  We’d been told that wild animals lurked around the periphery of the campsite, but wow – right there!  I pulled out my iPhone to capture it on video.


Elephant by Our Campsite (Video)


“That is a wild animal!” another group’s guide shouted at me.

“I understand.”

“Yeah?  Is that the way you do things?” asked the guide.  “You think that’s safe?”

“Are you saying this is too close, right here?”

“What do you think?”

I thought I was just fine, obviously, or I wouldn’t have been there.  The elephant looked relaxed.  I stood right next to a concrete outhouse, and if the elephant approached me I could have easily darted inside.  Later I saw other tourists just as close.  When did I become such a trouble-maker?  I didn’t seem to be doing a very good job of making friends on this safari.


Elephant at Ngorongoro Campsite


Ngorongoro Campsite

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